Saturday 23 August 2014


Project WHEE! has definitely been one of the best experiences I have had.

I would have never thought that I would have the opportunity to have done the things that I did in Bario and of course meet the people that I have met.

A thing that really strikes me about Bario is the warmth of the people there. Even though we were just strangers or very new in town at best, the people of Bario accepted us with open arms and by the second week we were there, they were already calling us their cucus (grandchildren). Even when I was walking around Bario, people I have never met would smile and wave at me as I walked by - something a city boy like me was not used to. I would awkwardly wave back and smile.

When I was there, I was assigned to help a cheerful lady with her English as she manages a homestay. Her name is Tepuq Bulan. Although I felt that she was a bit distant from me initially, as the days passed she became more comfortable and started to tell me all about her family. She made it a point to be sure that I was always well fed, which I really enjoyed but at the same time was slightly reluctant! *pinches belly* Tepuq Bulan had a laugh and smile that could relieve any problem, and she was very generous with it. There was not one day that I can remember that she wasn't happy and laughing. There was one time where I was helping her clear the paddy field when suddenly a frog landed on my lap! It was none other than Tepuq Bulan who threw it at me. How mischievous! I still remember her saying "you scary of the frog?" and burst out into laughter.

Saying goodbye at the airport was quite difficult for all of us. Although it had only been 16 days, the people of Bario had already accepted us as family and even threw a big farewell party for us the night before. At the departure lounge, some cried, some sang and some danced but we were all sure that we will be meet again.

To Bario, I will return.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade. 
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings. 
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
- W.B Yeats

Tuesday 5 August 2014

A Dedication Of Love

I remember the day I returned to KL from Bario. We reached KL at 6pm and my mum and sister surprised me at the arrival hall. My mum had offered to send a few of my batchmates back and the car was filled with our voices, talking and laughing. By the time we sent everyone  home and my family started driving to a restaurant for dinner it was already 8pm. I remember the conversation in the car ceasing as I stared out of the window while the roads passed. I was extremely tired as we had been travelling from 8 in the morning and all I wanted to do was sleep. However, flashbacks of Bario kept replaying in my head. The night before,how we had all danced together ( they call it poco-poco)  to Beatles songs, our last debriefing session, the goodbye’s, the conversations, the jokes we had, wondering what my tepuq was doing. And I realised I felt scared that I would forget this wonderful experience once I returned to college and started my normal daily routine again.

Today, eventhough it has been 22 days since I returned, Bario is still in my heart. When I hear my dog crying at the gate when I get home , I remember the dogs in Bario crying when Agan returned( Our longhouse neighbour). When I bathe cold water, which I have been doing since I returned, I remember Bario and the super-cold morning water that could probably induce hypothermia if anyone dared to have a bath. When I walk home from the train station everyday after college, I remember walking together to the only ABC shop in Bario  when we were all tired, under the hot sun and the satisfaction when we reached. Whenever the lights automatically come on at night, I remember the many nights without electricity which we survived successfully and the feeling of awe when we would suddenly have electricity. When I am alone at home and my sister is at university studying extra hours and my mum is at work, I remember the longhouse, always full of people, noise and laughter.

Staying there for 16 days has taught me many things. The people there, the atmosphere, my tepuq , my friends,the experiences all have taught me something special. Some of these lessons can't even be put into words. Sometimes in life you meet a group of people who start of as friends or strangers from a new place who may seem so different. As time pass, they touch your life and you never realise how much you learnt from them until much later. We went there as teachers but returned as both a student and a teacher. I guess everywhere we go and in every interaction we have, we give and receive. This was just that. Just through one's actions, choice of words and expressions, another can learn a lot. Sitting in the plane 22 days ago, I had enough time to think and contemplate on the huge impact of Project WHEE! in my life.

Throughout my experience there, I spent most of my time with my tepuq and my batch mates. I never realised how much they taught me until I returned home.

And so I would like to thank all who were involved, all who touched me in different ways .

She taught me to be brave and strong.To be determined and committed and to chase my dreams and to not follow the norm. She led us with love.
Thanks Rhon.

He taught me to be comfortable being myself, to never think twice and live spontaneously. He taught me to be kind to others, to accept different people and that every person makes a difference.
Thanks Daniel.

She taught me to be comfortable and confident with my own life decisions. She taught me compassion with her true concern, connectedness and gentle genuine love for everything around her.
Thank you Rachel.

He taught me to see the deeper meaning of things/situations. He taught me that every moment of life is meant to be lived. He showed me the beauty of solitude and independence.
Thank you Wai Min.

She taught me not to take things personally and to love everyone. To be free of all inhibitions.
Thanks Jed.

He taught me that there's no such thing as enough laughter or happiness in ones life. Nothing could ever dampen his spirit and his enthusiasm.
Thank you Satesh.

He was always practical and taught me social responsibility. He was always on-the-go, helping others.
Thank you Adrian.

He taught me to not take anything in life personally and to be optimistic no matter what life throws at you.
Thanks Theebs.

He taught me to be open to others and to have patience. He was very concerned and loving. He taught me simplicity and to be real.
Thanks Andrew GorGor.

She taught me not to limit myself and to be spontaneous and unpredictable.
Thanks Anna.

And lastly, I taught myself that I don't and can't control everything in my life. I taught myself that anything is possible, and that life is just a canvas.To not let the norm restrict me because life is meant to be lived !
The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.
C. Joybell 

True Honesty

At that moment, I felt connected to every person in the hall. I could feel the energy vibrating within me. The emotions in the hall were high and it etched a huge smile upon my face. Everyone was moving and dancing to the beat, singing loudly with their eyes closed, not caring if they were out of tune. Love was in the air.

That was how I felt on Tuesday, during the first Kelabit church mass I attended.

At that moment, I didn’t care about anyone or anything else in the hall. I just closed my eyes and sang together with everyone else. I felt connected to all of them. It was amazing. Over and over again I was amazed at how much the Kelabits gave compared to how much they had.

Ever since we set foot in Bario, they have been pouring their love towards us. When we reached Bario, we were greeted with genuine warm hugs, which was so different from the ones we give others normally, meaningless. We were fed and served many dishes each day which my tepuq was sure to ask me to “tambah lagi (add on)“. We were approached by many friendly Kelabits who asked us where we were from and other questions about Project WHEE!. Some who do not have enough to support themselves, even welcomed us into their families.
Trying my hand at picking some "tengayan"
We got to share their homes, live their lives, hear their stories, receive their unconditional love, overeat their tasty food. We got it all.

But at that moment, I was really touched. I could see many of them giving everything they had in their prayer. Just being there and listening to them pray, I could see them singing their hearts out, all dressed up beautifully, every emotion carried in their voices. It was humbling. The way they sang was so honest. They surrendered everything they had to God. They surrendered the growth of their crops and even the simplest things like meeting each other to God. They surrendered their lives, whatever that happens, good or bad to God, and they will accept it as His will. And when they left church, they left without a second thought, without fear. That is true honesty, true bravery and true living.

It isn’t easy to surrender and let go especially when we are constantly planning, executing, preparing until we deceive ourselves that we are in control. When something doesn’t happen as planned, we break down and are unable to accept it. 

When we experience that feeling of loss and pain, we start to give less so if we ever lose again, we lose less. It's human nature, I guess. But in that, we teach ourselves to be less genuine, less from the heart. And so, we are less liberated due to this illusion of control we create for ourselves. If only we could learn from our dear tepuqs and fellow Kelabits, learn how to surrender so honestly and so truly that nothing ever can hurt us. Then we will become free! Bario-style…


Returning To My Other Home....

You know you have reached a pivotal moment in your life when you look around yourself and see things differently. Things that never stood out, are now important. Things that were important are now so mundane. You now fully understand things you always thought you did. Life is suddenly so much more than it was before. When you reach that moment, you will know, because suddenly you don’t recognize the person you were or are. And I treasure moments like this, because it reminds me that I'm constantly changing and evolving, expanding and growing.

It has been 3 days since I’ve returned from Bario. It's 9.07 am now and I’m sitting in the T634 bus which travels from Bangsar LRT station to HELP College where I study. Returning from Bario has certainly been that kind of moment for me. Only when I returned to KL and started to get into my routine again did I realise how much I have changed. This experience has given me a chance to meet different, inspiring people, blend with a new culture and travel. It helped me to open my eyes to see the world differently.

I have survived without electricity, technology, transport, and so many other things that I take for granted here in Kuala Lumpur. Things I realise I don’t actually need. When I returned home, the first thing which hit me was when I switched on the lights, they came on. There was electricity 24/7.It wasn’t something which made me happy, but rather, it hit me how we had adapted and actually grew to enjoy the darkness there. The lack of electricity had created many fun memories.

 I also could feel the emptiness of my house. After living in a longhouse and being constantly surrounded by lots of people all the time, it felt empty that there were only three of us in the house. Big houses, fancy cars, many things suddenly felt so unnecessary and unimportant. Suddenly all the pressure of what others think of me, peer pressure and society conditioning did not matter anymore. Only practicality and simplicity remained.

The warmth of the relationships we formed in Bario, amongst ourselves and with our tepuqs and the other Kelabits also has made me rethink all my relationships I had with those who I love. Following and helping my tepuq (Tepuq Uloh) in her daily activities has taught me a lot. But I have learnt even more from just spending time with her. Her determination to learn no matter her age (she is above 80!). Her commitment to her paddy field, even though her body aches every time she returns from the field. Her understandingness and open heart.

Staying in Bario has definitely showed me a different lifestyle. One that I can now compare with and learn from.

The next day after returning from Bario I immediately started college. There was no break and I fell back into the same routine that I had been in for the last 6 months. Early mornings, public transport, college, public transport, home, cook, eat, study, and sleep. In the morning I automatically woke up at 6.20 am as I had been doing almost every day in Bario to just sit outside and stare at the beauty of the mornings there. However, I realised that there were no hills and mountains anymore. The beautiful scenery that could evoke many emotions was now gone but the memories of it remained in my heart.
 Bario will never be forgotten and I would definitely return there. Not as a teacher or a student, but as a ‘cucu’, who can’t wait to see her tepuq and kampong again!

The times that I miss , laughing and joking around together.

Home sweet home!

Capturing the explosions in my heart

Today is the fourth day of my stay in Bario, Sarawak. It’s the first time I’ve been away from home alone. Come to think of it 16 days is pretty long for a first timer. Somehow, time passes slower here and I feel like I've been here for a week already.

Its really mind-blowing the number of things you can pick up if you’re observant. Just living in Bario can teach you many lessons. Peace, gratitude, love, beauty, a sense of community, connectedness, teamwork.

Last night, when the electricity in the longhouse was cut and we were talking around the dinner table lit by candles, Rhonwyn asked us if we would like to come along to Aunty Nicole’s house to learn to make “Senapih” and to help prepare pineapples for some media who were coming the next day.

Tepu Uloh busy making senapih.

We walked to Aunty Nicole's house. That was the first time I saw the beauty of the night sky at Bario. It was also my first time seeing so many stars lighting up the sky. The view was amazing. Throughout my short life of 17 years I have never seen anything like it, and the beauty of it really took my breath away. We stopped and stared at the sky with many ‘oohhs’ and ‘ahhhs' while I just stared, in awe of its beauty. And there were little explosions in my heart.

From young, I had always been moved by nature. When adults asked me about my ambition when I was young I would always answer scientist, but in my heart I always pictured myself in the middle of a jungle. Although I didn't really have an idea what I was doing there, but I loved that picture. My love for nature has always driven me to join the mission to save Mother Earth. But you can't do anything passionately if you’re not inspired. And I think Bario was just the inspiration!
Here, the people live side-by-side with nature. Animals such as ducks, chickens, dogs and cats wander around peacefully. The hills and mountains surround the village in every direction you face. The huge hills and mountains, the stretch of paddy fields, they fill me with the peace and love that I treasure.

Nature is so precious and sometimes we don’t realise the extent of our actions that hurt mother earth. We continue to just take what we want from the earth without pausing to think of giving back to mother nature. We cut down trees for development, we dig the ground for minerals and we exploit earth of all its resources and enjoy its monetary blessings. But we don’t pause to think, when all the trees are cut down, all the animals are dead, the water poisoned, and the air unsafe to breathe, will money keep us alive?

Sometimes, I think it takes one to lose something before he or she can wake up to appreciate what he/she has. It may not be a bad thing that nature in Kuala Lumpur has been compromised with its rapid development. We can use it as a lesson. To move on; to start anew; to heal our country, the world and the environment. It is important that we realise the fate of the world and the environment lies in our hand. 

We are the change. What we do now determines how the rest of humanity live in the future. For a nation to develop, industrialization and construction might be necessary but there's always a better way. A third way: to live and evolve. So let us keep nature and the environment in our thoughts always as we progress!


The Fishing Tales

“Tepuq, apa nama ikan ini yang saya baru meluil?” (Tepuq, what is the name of the fish that I just caught?)
“Mana tahu, kamu yang pergi ke sekolah ya. Saya mana ada.” (How would I know? You were the one who went to school. Not me.)

And then a smile breaks out on her face. There's a pause for a while as I wrestle a fish off the hook into a pail. 

" Tepuk, kami memang pergi ke sekolah,tetapi apa kita belajar di sana?Kami tidak tahu mencari makanan sendiri, memancing, memasak, menanam.  Tetapi tengok tepu, macam satu dengan sekeliling. Saya ingat dari segi itu, tepu lebih baik lah.” (Indeed I went to school. But look at what I have learned. I can't look for food on my own, can't fish, cook or plant. But look at you, Tepuq. It is as if you are one with your surrounding. From my point of view, Tepuq, you are better off than me.)

And we sat on our stool, holding our self-crafted fishing rods and stared ahead at the spectacular view of the many hills surrounding us, lost in our thoughts.

Going fishing or 'meluil' in Kelabit, with my tepuq (Tepuq Uloh), I must say was one of my most memorable days in Bario. When each day started I would happily ask my tepuq, “Jadi hari ini kita pergi meluil ke tepuq? (Are we fishing today, tepuq?)” , and she would answer, “Taklah, masih ada ikan. Tak mahu lah kita meluil hingga habis semua ikan!(No. We don't want to fish until there aren't any fishes left!)" "Esok lah. (Perhaps tomorrow.)” But somehow tomorrow never came, and I realised that this was probably because this hobby of mine was sadly sabotaging her supply of fish. However, that didn’t stop me from bugging her about it. What are “cucu's” for anyway! 

I am a person who loves getting down and dirty and fishing was just that. We started with cangkul-ing (digging) the ground, by the edges of the paddy field. We each had a lump of mud in front of us which we dug our hands into, searching for some juicy earthworms to use as bait. Then, tepuq Uloh showed me her secret hiding place where she kept her only self-crafted fishing rod. We got a stool and then sat by her pond. She then showed me how I should push the hook through the earthworms body so it would be easier for the fish to get hooked on.

At first, I looked away because I could almost feel the pain of the earthworm and thought to myself that I would never be able to fish if I had to murder an earthworm like that. My love for earthworms. started at home when I was young. Until now, I would follow my mum to do some gardening and while she changes the sand in pots when replanting, I would go around saving all the earthworms. Collecting them in my hands and staring at them in wonder while watching their body move and wondering if that was my first ever real biology application occurring in my head!

But I really do enjoy it. When I am bored I will go to the garden to catch frogs , snails and tadpoles, basically anything that’s not poisonous and dangerous, with my bare hands. And I felt really connected to them. So, while I watched the guts of the earthworm spill out of its body, I just reminded myself of the circle of life to stop myself from feeling guilty.

Suprisingly, after cringing and saying sorry to the earthworm every time I hooked one on, I got used to it and started to really enjoy the fishing experience.Whenever our rods tugged, she would tell me to pull as hard as I can and flip the line towards myself. Unfortunately, being a first-timer, my fish kept flying off my hook into the bushes behind me, which earned me many laughs from my tepuq. Catching it and holding on to it was quite a different story as it would squiggle and squirm in my fingers causing its sharp fins to cut my hands. However, the satisfaction once a fish was caught was incredible.

What an experience!


Are you culturally (in)sensitive?

How would you feel if somebody stuck a camera in your face and took multiple photos of it without asking for your permission beforehand? Angry? Irritated? Is it a violation of your personal space?

Often times, many people -including me-, do certain things that might hurt somebody else's feelings, and we are unaware of the consequences of our actions. And sometimes, we simply do not realize that those actions could possibly offend other people. Now, although Bario is located in the same country as Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bharu and Kota Kinabalu, there are many distinct differences between them. The most obvious one being the environment, followed by food, and most importantly, culture. How does this relate to one another, you ask?

Some of the older generation of Kelabit women have tattoos on their bodies, and others have elongated earlobes, a tradition passed on from generation to generation. The tattoos symbolize strength, and this increases the 'value' of a woman when getting married, while women with long earlobes were perceived to be highly attractive.  I found this to be incredibly fascinating, and I wanted to know more. Today, many of the women have their earlobes surgically removed due to gawking and staring by other people who are not aware of this culture and tradition.

One incident that irritated me quite a bit was when a large group of tourists visited Bario. Two women with traditional tattoos and long earlobes were present at a welcoming ceremony for them. When they started shoving their multiple cameras and iPhones in their faces to capture an image of the infamous long earlobes, I was amazed at how insensitive these tourists were. These women were not zoo animals on display, and they were definitely not there for anybody's amusement. We are talking about humans- women; women who are already self- conscious about their appearance, and treating them like a photo opportunity does not help the situation.

Living in Bario for 16 days, I have had my fair share of moments where I just did not know if what I was doing was considered culturally insensitive or not. Living beside Tepu' Sinah Rang (our homestay host) is a woman with the said tattoos on her legs. While greeting her every morning, I have a debate with myself in my head: Should I ask her about her tattoos? What if she gets offended by the questions? Is there a taboo that prohibits others from asking about it?! And so, this internal debate went on for about 10 days... until one day curiosity took over and a few friends and I decided to ask our Bario Asal coordinator, Aunty Nicole about it.

Coming from a different cultural background, it is very easy to do or say something that might be considered disrespectful to another person who is of a different cultural upbringing. If there was one thing I learnt, it is that it is okay to make mistakes and to ask questions about something that you want to know more about. If we did not have the courage to ask the questions that were lingering in our minds, we would have never found out the meaning and symbolism behind the tradition of tattoos and long earlobes.

There is a lot more to the Kelabit culture than what I have mentioned above; tattoos and long earlobes are just the tip of the iceberg, really. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are unsure of what to do or say, don't panic! Being in a place where the local culture is so foreign to you, these incidences are bound to happen, and that is okay.

A little cultural sensitivity goes a long way, and if you are not one to stick your camera in another person's face without asking, you'll probably do quite alright.

Rachel Khoo

A Dying Culture: A Dire Concern

As time goes by, things around us change; they evolve or disappear, and often times the process is so slow that these changes go unnoticed. This applies to many things in our daily lives- friendships, money, your mobile data limit (hah), culture.

Coming into Bario, we were told that the younger generation of Kelabits were leaving Bario in search for education in the city. Often times, they remain in the city, leaving their 'kampungs' behind in search for a job and financial stability. The reality of this never truly hit me until I saw it for myself. The huge age gap of the Kelabit population in Bario was shocking- on one end of the spectrum were people who qualified to be my grandparents, and on the other, children so young they could pass of as my own children. And these children will also most likely one day leave Bario in the name of education. Should this trend continue, Bario will one day be left with only the older generation, and their beautiful culture might die along with them.

During a welcoming ceremony for some media representatives from all over Malaysia, the gravity of the problem that the Kelabits are facing was never so apparent. Except for a few middle aged women, 90% of the people who participated in the traditional Kelabit ceremony were my "grandmothers". I recall of this one woman who was the only living person who knew how to sing a very old song in ancient Kelabit language. This made me realise how things as small as a song play an important role in making up a culture, and how their absence affects a dying tradition.
Singing a traditional Kelabit song during the welcoming ceremony. 

Growing up, the lantern festival was a celebration that I looked forward to every year. Lighting lanterns and candles while savouring mooncakes was a family tradition, and that never failed to make my 8-year-old self happy. Chinese New Year was THE biggest event of the year, as my mother would ensure that my family got their brand new red clothes 5 months before the celebration. Over the past few years, the importance and value of the celebrations decreased. Today, I won't even be able to tell you when the mooncake/lantern festival is and brand new red clothes are a thing of the past during Chinese New Year.

In many ways, observing how the Kelabit culture is slowly losing bits and pieces of itself  has made me realise how important preserving one's culture is. Me not knowing how to use chopsticks the right way, I am very detached from my Chinese culture, and this is not something that I am proud of at all. I have never realised how important it is for us, Generation Y, to carry out our responsibility in ensuring that our cultures do not disappear over time, but now I do.

Your typical Tourism Malaysia poster

Malaysia prides itself in being a multiracial and multicultural country. Every Tourism Malaysia billboard you see has different people wearing their traditional outfits plastered all over them. Every culture is different and beautiful in its own way, and we should all play out part in ensuring that they don't become a thing of the past.

And for me, I will start by learning how to use chopsticks- the right way.

Rachel Khoo

Postcards from Bario

If you mentioned the name ‘Bario’ to me 1 year ago, I would have asked you what Bario is, and to be completely honest, I will have to admit that the word ‘Kelabit’ only ever registered to me as an ‘ethnic group’ in East Malaysia. Today, I not only know where Bario is, but I also have 16 days’ worth of priceless memories and experiences that come along with it. 

Bario landscape- as green as meets the eye.

Undoubtedly, Bario is a very beautiful place. An image of all those paddy fields, longhouses and pineapple plantations tucked into the valleys of lush rolling hills make a pretty laptop wallpaper. But Bario is so much more than a photo opportunity. This place is rich with culture, has a great community and people who would take great measures to make sure that their home feels a little bit like your home too.

I fondly remember the first day when the 9 of us Project WHEE participants arrived at Tepu’ Sinah Rang’s homestay (for those who do not know, Tepu’ Sinah Rang is our homestay host). Upon seeing us, her face lit up and she gave all of us huge hugs, calling us her ‘susuks’ (grandchildren in Kelabit). I felt extremely touched by this woman who didn’t even know us but was so joyed by our presence; this woman who was so warm to us strangers on our first day in a foreign environment. The hospitality amazed me to no end and I felt honoured to be welcomed into her home.

Women dancing to a Kelabit song during church service. 
Having lived in the city the whole 20 years of my life, I don’t think I have ever felt such a great sense of community and care before. During church services and social events, you could see the camaraderie shared and formed between members of the community through warm smiles and engaging conversations. Watching the longhouse neighbours sit by the fireplace one night, just talking and sharing with each other, it made me reflect on my own life back in Kuala Lumpur. Most of us ‘budak bandar’ get so caught up in our daily lives; school, Internet, shopping, watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones, that we don’t take the time of day to get to know the people who live literally beside us. Speaking of which, I didn’t even know the name of my neighbours. Do you?

Here's to everyone, and all the memories that follow.

 “A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience”- Oliver Wendall Holmes. The 16 days spent in Bario consisted of many worthy moments that I will carry with me for a long long time. I was blessed to have shared this amazing experience with equally amazing people. The people that I have worked with and met complemented our project goals and aims perfectly like salt and pepper. Living together with 10 other people -people you have never met in your life- under the same roof for 16 days could have driven anybody up the wall. But to have batch mates (people whom I now proudly call my close friends) who share similar sentiments, mind-set and project goals … now that’s what made the Project WHEE experience and those insightful moments complete. And for that, I am thankful. 

Rachel Khoo

A Lesson On Independence

One morning in Bario, I woke up 15 minutes earlier than I normally do to wash my clothes (as I was running out of pairs to wear). As I was walking to the open air passage that connected the homes with the common hall, I witnessed our neighbor drying her clothes. Before I move on, I must highlight that this woman is almost a hundred years old. I remained under a shade as I watched her cheerfulness at doing a chore. She lifted her black pants from the red pail slowly without an ounce of complain. When her hand with the wet pants in it, reached the railing, she paused to look up and enjoy the cotton candy cloud filled sky.

There are two things I need to point out. One, I seldom do chores at home, besides looking after my own things. Most of the cooking and cleaning is done by my Superwoman mum. Secondly, my need for independence has always been a strong quality with me. However, until I came to Bario, I realized that independence is not only achieved with being allowed to do something on own but also to make decisions by ourselves.

Independence can be shaped by just the simple act of looking after our own self. This is a beautiful lesson that Bario taught me. This was highly amplified by the sense of independence that this woman had, even with her old age. In that very moment I watched her, I only wished that if I were to live to be her age, I would live life as cheerfully and independently as she did.

I emerged from the shade and walked up to her, greeting her with the common Kelabit greeting for Good Morning "Petabi leketang". She flashed me a genuine smile and carried on looking at the blue sky above.

The blue sky view you get from that very spot we were that morning,
Jedida Ravi

While You Reap What You Sow, They Eat What They Reap.

I love the idea of doing a job that directly influences and impacts your life. In this case, the women that we worked with spent their days in the paddy field, farms and ponds, where their life’s work was basically their source of nourishment. There is a great sense of satisfaction and achievement that births from this. For that simple reason, I feel that the Bario locals have a lifestyle that most of us urbanites should be envious of.

In contrast, here in the city, our daily jobs or education revolve around indirectly influencing our future. We spend our days in the office, hacking away at the computer to collect a measure of currency that hopefully would be sufficient to put food on the table. Or, we burn the midnight oil, hoping to finish a last minute college assignment on time, so that one day, we would have a high paying job that would further improve our living conditions.

There is always that level of uncertainty at what our future offers us. However, with the simple life of the Bario women, comes a sense of fulfillment that one finds hard to come across in a fast paced, technology driven and hectic city setting. Sometimes, amidst this future driven schedule, we lose sight of today. Thus, we lack the luxury of living in the now.

The view from the longhouse, simple and beautiful.

As expressionist Hoffman said "The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.". Being away from what you’re used to, most often times helps you recognize what you truly need to lead a good life. Living in Bario (even for a short time) has implored me to refocus my life and goals as to stay true myself and not lose it while on my journey into the future.

Jedida Ravi

Alone We Can Do So Little, Together We Can Do So Much

Arriving at Bario, we were received with shaky and unpredictable electricity. At first thought, such an occurrence in a city setting would cease schedules from going on as planned. However, in Bario this was not the case. Electricity was but a slight downside to packed schedules that the local people had.

Nevertheless, Batch 2 was all set to clean out the hydrodam (that powered the electricity in Bario Asal), as to leave with having made a sustainable and positive change for the locals. After a busy first week of following our Sinah’s around and doing various community services, we settled for a full day at the dam on our first Saturday morning there.

At first glance, cleaning the dam seemed like a simple task that would be conveniently finished in a matter of hours. That my friends, was the naivety in all of us, speaking. We started off, digging up small chunks of dirt with shovels or even with our bare hands. A couple of hours passed and we started to congratulate each other on the progress we were making. “Woah! Guys, we did quite a lot ah?" I remember myself say. Little did we know that what we had done in those mere hours, was but a speck of what we would be doing later that day. We barely grazed the surface of that dirt clogged dam, that morning.

Us attempting to dig up the hydro dam with our bare hands!
We were accompanied by Agan (he conveniently lived just two doors away from Tepu Sinah Rang's place), who I must say makes digging up 12 feet of dirt, look like a walk in a park. Just having Agan accompany and guide us that day was truly inspiring. With having spent only 7 days in Bario, I had noticed a strong lacking of young people in the premises. It was encouraging to see Agan’s sense of responsibility for his home, amplified through the simple task of cleaning the dam with us.

Agan starting us off by digging up the first pile of dirt.
After what seemed to be an already tiring few hours at the dam, we returned again, this time joined by the remaining two individuals that completed Batch 2. Anna and Andrew immediately stepped up to the task at hand and gelled together with the team in just a matter of moments. With the help of his friend, Agan managed to open up the gate that was restricting relevant progress from happening (we didn’t quite know that at the time). This time, water rushed out with great current and that’s when we began to get down and dirty.

The group shovelling the dirt from upward because of the strong current.
Fast forward a good 4 hours later, we took a moment to take in the work that we had just accomplished. It was alarming just recognizing the amount of shoveling, digging and rock maneuvering we had done in just a matter of hours. Helen Keller once said "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.". This was a quote that was certainly magnified that day. It got me appreciating the relevance and strength of teamwork. I guess you can only trust my word of mouth on this, but that hydro dam had to be one of the biggest cleaning projects I have ever experienced!

So many times, an individual could have said "I've got this!" and tried to do something by their own strength; like attempting to move a humongous rock that was limiting the current flow. But, it is safe to say that everyone humbled themselves for the better and asked each other for help. I can even remember the moments that strongly amplified teamwork in our group; like when various teammates offered to take over a certain tasks, when others began to feel the tiredness overwhelm them. In the end, the team slowly fell into a rhythm of some digging and some shoveling in order to speed up the process, without being asked to.
The group falling into a rhythm of things.
True to it’s nature, encouragement and basic teamwork was the key to a successful outcome. I can still clearly remember our coordinators Rhon and Daniel commending us on the progress we were slowly making, and further encouraging us to work harder even amidst our immensely tired state. As much as we just wanted to give up and call it a day, those basic words of encouragement implored us press on and finally finish the job. This paired with the great sense of humor and cheerful spirit that everyone had, was just the perfect recipe to a fruitful outcome.

Here's a little snippet of the fun we had!

At a later glance, I related our initial naivety of the situation to the iceberg concept where only 10% (surface of the dam) of the iceberg is visible and the other 90% (that took forever to dig up) remains underwater. It was a good lesson to all of us to not judge a situation by how it looked outwardly. Nevertheless, even though the 90% was apparent, we successfully dug it all up with just one solution- teamwork! 

Happy and tired faces after a job well done!

Reassessing Happiness, Redefining Success

To be completely honest, I felt to some extent, a considerable amount of shame for feeling so foreign in a local Malaysian setting. This made me realise the true degree of diversity that exists in Malaysia and how much of it yet to be discovered.

For those who don’t know, the people in Bario are mostly Kelabit but there are also a number of Penan people living there. Life in Bario was fairly different for me – and it was a change that I thoroughly enjoyed and now, miss. However, I have come to understand that this change is not always viewed positively.

Sometimes, some people come into Bario and quickly assume that the people there live difficult and unhappy lives. Difficult life might be true to some extent, probably because the work in Bario is mostly laborious. Unhappy? This I will have to disagree.

It’s so fundamentally flawed to think that just because someone doesn’t want, need or have the same things (tangible or intangible) that you do, their sense of happiness is less valid - because it is not.

Bario reminded me that different people can live life differently – and that is okay. It really is.

Another realisation I acquired in Bario was through my teaching experience at SMK Bario. I went to SMK Bario twice to teach English (teach = playing English games) to Form 1 and 2 students. I started by asking the students what they wanted to become in the future.  Teacher and doctor were frequent answers. But of course, there were some others such as astronaut, policeman, fireman, and fisherman.

It is through this that I realised that there’s something severely flawed with the way we (not everyone, but a lot of people) think of ambitions and aspirations. We often encourage students to become doctors, engineers, scientists, among others – and tell them that they are “on the right track”. We discourage those who want to become policemen, farmers, fishermen, among others – and tell them to dream higher to achieve "more".

This needs to change. We need to encourage students to be successful in whatever they want to become and whatever profession they choose to work. The idea of being successful too, needs to be changed. Being successful should not be about being able to make a lot of money – but being good at what you do, and enjoying what you do.

Anyway, I don’t think the world can survive if we all decided to become doctors, right?

Kan Wai Min

Undo the Balan

Before leaving for Bario, I was told that to be given a Kelabit name is something special and that it has to be given without one asking for it. I was also told that when you have been given a name, you have to live up to it.

What I did not know was that the Kelabits do take their names very seriously. For those of you who do not know, Kelabits change their names twice in life; when they become parents and when they become grandparents.

Anyway, here’s the story of how I got my Kelabit name.

One afternoon, Daniel (one of the two project coordinators) and I were sitting at the dining table, chatting while waiting for lunch. One Tepu' walked towards us and started a conversation with Daniel. She saw me and asked him what my name was.

I introduced myself as Wai Min. She said it once, repeated it, and then said it again. Then she said, “Balan, saya bagi Balan.” (Balan, I’ll give you (the name) Balan)

Daniel and I looked at each other, not really sure what to do. Aunty Nicole (Bario Asal coordinator) who was sitting a few seats away from us heard the Kelabit name that I was given and immediately rushed into the kitchen to find the lady I was assigned to, Tepu' Sina Rang.  Within seconds, Tepu' Sina Rang was out of the kitchen. While buckling her waist pouch, she walked very quickly towards us.  It was an unfamiliar sight because Tepu' is usually "super chill".

Immediately, she undid the name Balan and named me ‘Lian’ instead, after her late husband. Aunty Nicole told me that I should accept and take the name given by Tepu' Sina Rang because she knows me better - and that I should not just accept and take the name given by a "passerby".

I was and still am so touched to have been given a name that means so much to my Tepu' and her family.

So here’s to you, Tepu' – thank you very much for giving me such a meaningful name. 

Lian will strive to live up to his name.

Kan Wai Min aka Lian

That Is Okay

For those of you who do not know, the main objective of Project WHEE! is to teach selected local Bario women who are in one way or another, involved in tourism such as homestay hosts and eco-tourism guides. To achieve this objective, every participant will be assigned to a lady. We adopted the method of shadowing; teaching our respective Tepu’ English while we were at it.

I was assigned to Tepu’ Sina Rang, who is the homestay host for all the participants of Project WHEE!. This meant that unlike most of the other participants, I was based where I stayed. Sometimes, during our debriefing sessions (they were sessions for all of us to share what we did, accomplished and learnt that day) which were held every night, I would feel myself getting frustrated for not doing a good enough job (by the standards I have set for myself) and sometimes, a wee bit jealous for not having the experiences that others were having.

This is when I realised that my personal experiences should not be compared with other people’s. I reminded myself of this constantly and now when I look back, I am glad I did so. I learnt so much from Tepu’ than I could have possibly taught her - I learnt immensely just from the way she lived her life.

My “teaching” days usually started with me asking Tepu’ what we were going to do for the day. Sometimes, she would tell me specifically what we were going to do and sometimes, she would not give a specific answer. The latter is because she does not usually have a set schedule and that some of what we do depended on the weather.

On my first day, it rained. I saw life pausing for a bit – a couple (neighbours) pulled some chairs, sat by the window and watched the rain fall. It was beautiful.

Anyway, more about my Tepu’. She is older than me but she has more energy, stamina and strength than I do. Once, when we were working to level a heap of ground, I was so worn out but Tepu’ just kept going. There have been other times when I asked Tepu’ to take a break just so I can catch my breath!

I guess what I enjoyed (and miss) most were my conversations with Tepu’; about her life in Miri, her children, her homestay, and her life in general. Tepu’ Sina Rang, in a few words, is a very lovely and loving woman who loves to laugh and make others laugh – she lives her life simply with boundless joy and shares this joy with others.

Oftentimes, I would ask her if there’s anything else to do or if something I did was done properly, she would tell me, “That is okay.”

She said that often. The words were simple, but the effect was powerful.

A timely reminder to live life more slowly, more simply, and less seriously because really, that is okay.

Kan Wai Min