Saturday 21 June 2014

Kitchen Duties 1 - Midin Madness Makes A Delicious Dish

If you're familiar with Sarawakian dishes then chances are, you would be familiar with Midin. For those of you who are less acquainted with this little fern-y plant, well it is indeed a type of edible fern. Mostly served as a stir-fry dish and simply tasty with just plain ol' garlic, and if you want to spice it up, add a little chilli and belacan (prawn paste) to go with it. Midin happens to be one of their staple vegetable as it being mostly abundant in the shrubs growing just at the opening of the jungle and not too deep in. The price for any hand-picked organic jungle vegetable costs about RM3 per bundle in Bario. They're usually harvested by the elderly ladies and Tepu's on a daily basis. Apparently, most of the younger generation Kelabits are losing the skill of identifying edible jungle vegetable. 

I've been pestering Tepu' to bring me jungle veggie picking for awhile now, and finally the weather was fair enough to do so. I was elated! I felt that as a vegetarian, that gave me a one up and it was sort of an achievement! It was a rather special day as well because we were joined by Tepu' Uloh, Felice, Jess and Jon on our little adventure. 

With our long sleeves and pants, wide brimmed hat, and uyuts (big rattan baskets used as backpacks) on our backs, we trudged our way into the forest in our wellies. It was about a 20 minute walk up and down little slippery slopes and hills, crossing tiny handmade bamboo bridges and wobbly logs, we arrived at a spot where our grandmothers decided there were enough vegetables for us to harvest.

Watch out, urbanites in the jungle! 

Tepu' Sinah Rang in the Bario version of leggings (waterproof) and carrying her uyut. 

Tepu' quickly gave us a crash course on the vegetable that can be picked and handed us samples of the correct vegetables. Looking all around, all I saw was a whole lot of green - it felt like I was standing in a huge salad bowl, however, they all looked the same to me. After locating a patch of ferns, I went straight in to plucking what seemed like the correct type of fern. Being rather clumsy, I had probably lost my balance many times on the uneven ground and mud, thank goodness for the 'tongkat' tepu had given me earlier that she efficiently hacked from one of the tree branches, I did not fall.

No sweat, I got it! How bout a picture! : Tepu' gracefully moving across the stream on a water pipe. 

Felice picking wild wild vegetables. 

Me, thinking that I've finally found the right midin.. but yeap, they were wrong. 

My one job for that hour was to pick midin and all I got was one bundle... apparently half of them were wrong. By that time, Tepu' has already collected a whole basket full of not just Midin, but Tengayan (a vegetable which grows exclusively in the Kelabit highlands) and mushrooms.

With our uyuts filled to the brim with vegetables, we tottered all the way back, passing the series of same bamboo bridges and muddy paths. As we walked along, both Tepu' Uloh and Tepu' Sinah Rang harvested more and more jungle veggies - More midin (different species) and bamboo shoots about 3 feet tall to be brought home. We also cut down an entire branch of a fruiting fig tree for Turu, the friendly neighbourhood hornbill to eat.

After we got back, I was still confused that I could not properly identify the right midin. So I put my wrong harvest with Tepu's correct ones. With Aunty Nicole's help, I made a video on comparing the lookalike ferns.

Tepu' Sinah Rang and Tepu' Uloh chopping a branch off a tree effortlessly. 

'Processing' the bamboo shoot with Aunty Nicole for dinner that night.
Bamboo shoots have to be soaked overnight to remove the 'bulu' on the stem. 

Tepu' teaching me how to properly prepare midin for dinner. 

Best stir fried vegetables, EVER. 

Midin has a slight crunch, comparable with heavily steamed broccoli. It's also a little slimy, just a fraction of what you'd get in okras. The aroma of the vegetable is a little sweet when fried and it doesn't have a very 'green' taste to it. I feel accomplished that I can probably walk into that patch of jungle and figure out which midin is edible or not. Perhaps I've only learned how to pick one type of vegetable this time, but maybe I'll learn more about it in my future visits. We picked a whole lot of it - enough for dinner and some for the next day. I'd fly back to Bario for this. 

As a thank you for reading/scrolling through my post, here's a BONUS VIDEO! 

Here's a clip of Tepu' Uloh cutting down a bamboo shoot with just two blows of a parang. 
What's cooler than this?!

Thursday 19 June 2014

The Pudge-ly Duckling

Meet Pudge, the four day old duckling who waddled into the paddy field on a really cold morning. 

My first day on the job with Tepu' was a ducky rescue mission. With her adopted son, Parir, we went knee deep into the paddy field to herd the ducklings and mommy duck. Somehow, they managed to get into the paddy field. Herding ducks is no joke, especially if you're constantly losing balance on the slippery banks of the paddy field At the same time carrying a bucket to catch them in. 

The paddy plot was sort of squarish. Tepu' was standing at the other end of the bank yelling instructions over: 
"Renai, kamu berdiri di sana, jangan baginya masuk lagi". 
"Renai, stand there and don't let them go further in". 

With my waving and floundering around, I ended up scaring them further into the deeper end of the paddy field. Parir said to me: 
"Cakap saja sama mereka, panggil dia datang. Haiwan faham punya". 
"Talk to them, call them to you. Animals will understand". 

I'm not sure how, but uncle Parir managed to herd them back to my side of the paddy bank after some calling, cooing and getting almost waist deep into the deeper side of the water. 

Catching them was another story. That was when I almost planted my face into the ground. All 14 wet ducklings running around your feet, scrambling to get away from your grasp and getting caught in the grass. I managed to catch two. We brought them back to the little duck shed and put them back in there. Tepu ' noticed the smallest of them all, weak and shivering. We took her back to the long house and wrapped her in an old kitchen towel. Then I named it Pudge. For the rest of the day, I kept her under my wing and made sure to keep it dry and warm. 

By the end of the day, Pudge started walking and chirping again. Yay! 

An Openness and A Willingness To Learn

There was a time a few years back when I followed my grandmother into her little backdoor kebun. Bones crackling, she was holding a basket with as many vegetables in it as she had years in her life. Fast forward and I’m in Bario, seeing my assigned lady knee deep in sawah padi water. As we worked together, we chatted about random things. Sometimes, I would slip in some English words we had already learnt and we would repeat it together a few times.

One thing that never ceased to amaze me was how human and personal these people we were working with were. They could have simply shut us off but they instead chose to open up their lives to us. They were no longer just people from a distant land that I could have easily been detached from. They were people I truly came to care for. Faces as real as my own grandmothers’. Their culture and lives may have differed from ours but in the end, they were still people.

On the first day I spent with Tepu’ Uloh, my assigned lady, she brought me to sit with her below the longhouse to ‘buat kerja raut-raut’, which basically means doing something for the fun of it.  She poured out a bunch of rocks that she told me her ‘cucuk’ had collected from the hydroelectric dam. We proceeded to hammering them into tiny pieces. Sounds silly but it’s a pretty therapeutic activity. It’s definitely something to keep your hands busy over a conversation.

It being our first day, I figured that it would be better for us to speak in BM and get to know each other before actually teaching anything. To my surprise, she started teaching me Kelabit words and then asking me how to say things in English. I taught her ‘stone’ and joked that if you ever want to call anyone “kepala batu”, just point to their head and say “stone”. When we had the pleasant surprise of Dan joining us, I pointed to his head and asked “Tepu’, ini apa?”. He seemed understandably confused when we both burst into laughter after she answered “Stone! Stone!”.

That’s how our lessons often went from then on. I would tell her a word and make a joke about it. We’d laugh and repeat the words to each other. Sometimes, we’d even bring the joke back up days later to laugh at it again. To be honest, I was a poor learner compared to her. There were plenty of Kelabit words she taught me that I couldn’t get a grasp of.

Me, Tepu' Uloh and Jess in Bario Airport
That didn’t matter though. It didn’t matter that we sometimes forgot the words we learnt. It didn’t matter that we weren’t picking up all that many words a day. In the end, we wanted to learn. We wanted to share. We would remind each other and we would talk. That’s what I believe was the most important thing. That willingness to learn.

It wouldn’t have worked at all if I had assumed the role of the ‘teacher’ and only ever wanted to teach her English, as if English was any better than Kelabit. It wouldn’t have worked if she had refused to learn. 

Tepu Sinah Rang, Tepu Uloh and me

When we started out on this project, we came with a goal to teach but I’ve realized that can’t be all. Don’t just teach because that’s not all you have to offer. If you walk in with a ready set plan or a curriculum, you won’t get the best of it. I found out by pure coincidence that the best way to teach this woman was through humor and a light on life. From there, I was blessed with a relationship that grew so deep, she told me she would be more ‘senang hati’ knowing I went home with someone who ‘doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink and takes care of’ me. She really cared for me like her own granddaughter.

For the future batches, I know it seems like a ‘level up’ when you get your ‘Kelabit name’ or if you get loads of Kelabit jewellery. It was pretty cool when Tepu Uloh gave me her own name and I didn't want to let go of her after she gave me my first Kelabit bead necklace but really, it’s the bond between us that really matters.When she told me to sit and rest after seeing me coughing the whole day. When she asked me how to say "I Love You" in Mandarin so she could say it to me. When she playfully pulled me into a dance during cultural night. Those were the things that really stayed on with me. 


Me, Tepu Uloh and Jess on Cultural Night

Uncertainty Is Where Things Happen

Too many times, I’ve fallen into the trap of the future and all the uncertainty that comes with it. My friends used to tell me that I’m a worrier and worrying was exactly what I did on the morning we had to leave KL for this mysterious place I had never heard of up till this project-- Bario.

My mind was on a mad chase. I was worrying about all the things I was leaving behind (shampoo, assignments, debate, etc.) and the things I was about to face. (possible relationship breakdowns, arguments, failures etc.) I was clearly a lot more troubled by the coming adversities than I was of the past. There’s something quite terrifying and vaguely disconcerting about the unknown but in retrospect, that day I left was brimming with possibilities, not worries.

Forgive our city selfies and Starbucks cups, we're new here!

Maybe I should have remembered what I read a long time ago from Oliver Burkeman that uncertainty is where things happen. “It’s where the opportunities--for success, for happiness, for really living--are waiting”. From the moment we took off, we had the luck of being thrown from one great opportunity into another without ever really knowing what to expect. Uncertainty became a sort of driving force as we hurtled through the days.

It’s strange how we became so set in that time paradox of Bario. So many unexpected things could happen in a day despite it being as routine as the humungous wooden bell that wakes everyone in the longhouse up at 5 am sharp. The days always seemed so long and yet ended so fast. I would be hammering stones and chatting away with Tepu’ Uloh for hours on end and suddenly, the six o’clock sky would turn to dark night.

I can easily pick out an example that happened to me less than 24 hours into being in Bario. We all joked around saying that I had managed to “scare off” my Tepu all the way to Miri but it was a situation that left me a little depressed at first.
The night I met her, Tepu Uloh and I managed to hit it off relatively well. She’s a wonderful woman and we chatted so much, she was holding my hand by the end of the night. We talked about our families and life in the kampung compared to KL. She even showed me pictures of her and her grandchildren.

Holding hands 

Now, imagine me cheerfully walking up to her the next day to ask for a broom and she, with equal cheer, tells me “Okay.  Just make sure it’s there when I get back from Miri next week.”

Wait, what?

All of a sudden, I was left with completely no idea what to do but watch her walk off. She walks pretty fast for an old lady so when I came to my senses, I had to run barefoot to catch her. It was a scene worthy of a Bollywood drama. I said my goodbyes and gave her the present I had bought her from KL. She immediately pulled me in for a long hug and said goodbye. I swear, it was completely unscripted.

Slightly disheartened but ready to suck it up, I had to follow Xara with her assigned lady, Sina Tagung, the next day. It felt a bit like I was intruding and it never felt right, but I tried my best. At one point, we managed to lose Sina Tagung while we were busy washing dishes and had to walk around the longhouse calling out for her. Xara turned to me and says “Nobody likes you, ar? They all run away from you.”


It was an unexpected turn of events, but that was when I started to realize that life in Bario was so laid back, these kinds of things are pretty trivial. Take things as best as you can and eventually, it’ll turn out fine.

Call it a gift from the universe or an answer to a prayer but Tepu’ Uloh came back from Miri several days early. Why? Apparently, it was because she knew there was someone back home waiting for her. Pretty cool, huh?

Speaking of surprise gifts from the universe though, I realize there were plenty of them. It was always the slight (and sometimes, drastic) deviations from our plans that turned out to be the best of times. I remember Rhon spontaneously bringing me out of the longhouse to look at the stars and her saying “Now you know why I love Bario”. I remember jokingly saying to Tepu Uloh that the only word you need to know in any language is ‘discount’ and how that ended up being her favourite word. I remember Tepu’ Sinah Rang teaching us how to dance poco-poco after our Beauty Session. All these little things that were never planned out gave me a higher appreciation towards life in Bario. That it’s all okay. Do’ Ina. Tak apa.

Photo: Walking to pasar riah with Ganit & Kijan :) -Ruran- #kelabitnames
Uncertainty seems pretty insignificant when you've got mountains backing you up

Honestly, it was brilliant living in that time paradox where I was comfortable not knowing how things would be in the next minute. I started out constantly checking how high up the sun was but the the light in Bario lies. Time hardly mattered anymore. The mountains may have been crumbling but it was taking such a long time to us. Sometimes, we would sit quietly on Tepu Sina Rang’s veranda, eating kuachi and drinking tea. I just think that to those mountains that surrounded us, our days must seem like milliseconds. The same how, upon returning, we’ve changed a thousand times over but to KL and all the people in it, it was just another two weeks.

I guess time is just so relative and there are just too many ways to look at life. I’ve been so torn between mourning the past and worrying about the future, I let that uncertainty take over. In light of all that’s happened in Bario, I think I’m ready to take on whatever uncertainty lies ahead. I may be back in this strange place called KL, but I've got these Kelabit beads all the people I love have given me and that kind of anchors me. It reminds me that things always works out, somehow. That I've got a place I can call home somewhere out there. That I've got mountains behind me and the winds of destiny pushing me forward on my way.

-Felice Mujan-

MARIAM SPECIALS: Why I Love The Bario Mountains?

deep thoughts

If you see me when I'm at home at Tepu' Sinah Rang's place, I'm always chilling by the white verandah. It's either during the morning when the toilet gets crazy clogged (13 people brushing teeth & doing other morning rituals can take hours before the toilet clears), after breakfast before work, after work till lunch time, pre-dinner tea time, after dinner...

Yup, you can tell that my time in Bario is mostly spent on the white verandah. It's my little solace from the craziness of the day and also what made my trip feels more at home (our homestay host ,Tepu' Sinah Rang's delicious food sure helped too).

Day 1 & 2 of my arrival was such a culture shock for me. I went from commuting in my personal X-trail to walking everywhere. The luxury of a washing machine is now replaced with hand-washing my clothes. Hot water is "forbidden" because we were told that it was off limits -- cold water showers everyday.

I felt absolutely miserable for my first few days in Bario. My comfortable life is now super basic! Basic is not a bad thing (nor is it a good thing either), it's just a really simple lifestyle -- a lifestyle that I was not used to. Heck, I did not even know how to hand wash my clothes!

So, my seat by the white verandah was the escape from all this "basic" hell. It was a safe zone that I could run away from all the icy cold showers & hand-washing turmoils. It allowed me to just stare into the sky & mountains to get lost in it somehow. Munching on my Kuachi seems was also my form of escapism.

The kuachis were the only thing I knew of kampung living. Trust me, it was the sit-down-and-do-nothing that made me a little panicky. Also, seeing how others could cope wih the slower-paced life made me feel inferior, almost.

Yes, the kuachis I would eat even though I just had dinner. Perhaps it's the sweet sunflower seed or the crackling that made the white verandah more lovely.

It took me some time before I figured that a little hot water won't hurt anyone, and also found a detergent soap that really foamed like mad. So, all it takes is just a little perseverance (and a few packs of kuachi or two) to pull through.

I would say even on the flight back to KL, I was still adjusting to my life in Bario. All the bugs at night, the mud, the sometimes calm,  quiet corner of the house when other parts are buzzing with chatter.

For future WHEE participants (or even "city people" about to live a more basic lifestyle), it's okay to feel alien in a different culture. It's normal to have to adjust to the "new" norm of your home community. Sure, some people may adjust more than others (some become at home). But, remember that it's totally okay to take your time at it.

There's no point forcing yourself into a foreign culture, know what I mean? Just always be open & polite (about what you may find disturbing/ offensive, etc) when dealing with others.

Take it one day at a time, my friend. You'll be surprised at how much you'll receive when you're ready to open your heart.

When pen meets paper
(and when inspiration comes from after cutting grass)

Author's Note: "Why I  love the Bario Mountains" is Part 1 of a 3-part series of MARIAM SPECIALS. In case you're wondering "who's Mariam?", well, it's the author's Kelabit name! Fun fact: that's also her assigned lady's first name. #nameception