Thursday 30 October 2014

Community Lifestyle

In Bario, I've come to realized that everything is different. A huge part of this observed difference was their lifestyle.
People in Bario mostly live in a longhouse together, only separated by walls that divide their rooms from one family to another.

Common Hall of the Longhouse

Many people in the longhouse are related to each other, by way of marriage or by birth. That would mean that your neighbor is also your cousin, or your long-distance related uncle, or simply put, a relative.

Thus, I often find ladies or Tepuqs (grandmothers in Kelabit) who would swing by the dining area to have a little chat or to just share some food with one another. Something you can barely find these days; neighbors sharing a simple meal or a laugh together.
It’s just a lovely sight to behold - being with loved ones around you. Their presence is more than words can describe.

To be honest, this community lifestyle is something I can only dream of while living the city life with all my extended family members scattered in different parts of this bustling town. We only meet during family events (and that’s less than the fingers we have).

Moreover, most residents in Bario are Christians. That speaks of the church bell that will be rung every morning at 5.15am.
From all the Tepuqs, I have noticed that every detail of their lives was pretty much known to one another.
For example, in Batch 3, one of our batch-mates had a swollen foot due to an infection he caught in Tioman Island. In no less than a day, many in the longhouse were informed about his condition. One night, the ladies came over after their prayer meeting in church, to pray for our friend.
I found that very touching, although I was not the one that they prayed for. This is because their lifestyle is such that they care for people around them, and because of their religious beliefs, they prayed for every matter they come to know of.  
Sometimes, I have to admit that when I tell my friends who need prayers that I would pray for them, memory will fail me and I will forget about praying for them. This incident reminded me of how I should be living out my prayer life.

That apart, churching in Bario is quite different too. One of the Sundays when we were in church, they called out different groups of people, for instance, fathers, mothers, young adults and youths. Each group had to go up to the stage and sing a song.
Then, the rest of the congregation would stretch out their hands to pray for those on stage.
What a pleasure to have people in church always praying for you! 

Through it all, a community lifestyle in Bario provides a strong spiritual base for its members to live their days in full meaning with worshiping God and sharing life with each other.

Truly, what a way to live! 

Thursday 2 October 2014

Heartwarming (the 'step' my foot took)

My journey to and in Bario didn’t went as planned nor as expected. It was completely different, well at least at for a certain period of time of the project.

31st July 2014

Taking off on a turbo propeller plane to Bario from Miri International Airport on a clear Thursday morning, my mind was filled with excitement and joy. I could hear my heart pounding on my chest from the anticipation of what lies ahead of me as the plane took from the tarmac and glided through the fresh uncontaminated Sarawak air.

The propeller plane made a rather smooth landing when given the size of the aircraft is relatively small thanks to both the pilots who were piloting our journey. Of course, being the gen-Y kids we had to pull out our cameras for quick shots upon arrival in Bario Airport. Walking through the airport arrival gate, we were greeted by a number of locals who were very friendly and even more welcoming to us. Rest of the day had been delightful with meeting people and chatting with them. It was also the day that I had one of the longest naps, could have been hours but I’m not sure.

1st August 2014

Woken up by the cold breeze of Bario air around 5.30am, I scuffled my blanket and wrapped my whole body into it creating a barrier from the cold to contain my body heat. I was never a fan of cold places but I thought, “This is not bad, I’ve gone through temperatures 18 degrees below freezing”. Barely an hour went past I could hear the footsteps of people walking around the house. The wooden frame and floors creeks and echoes the sound of steps whenever someone walks. The longhouse is waking up, I decided I should join them and get cleaned. I made the biggest mistake of my life, I took a handful of water running from the tap and splashed it on my face. Oh boy, let me tell you how shocked I was when the ice cold water hit my face, I was so shocked that I literally jumped a step back and shrieked.

All of Batch 3 prepared to go for a hike up Prayer Mountain located about 20 minutes brisk walk from Bario Asal. The climb up was amazing, especially when done with such a euphoric team where someone always cracks up jokes and everyone just laughs.

Oh, I forgot to mention one very important note; in fact it is the reason for this post. My right foot. A small bite I obtained from a diving trip in Tioman island had developed into a wound and got infected somewhere in the journey from Tioman to Bario, I’ve had slight pain ever since getting into Miri but I did not let that halt my excitement. Unfortunately, it kept getting severe and started to swell.

So, the journey back to the footsteps of Prayer Mountain was a bit painful and my feet was aching every step I took. I didn’t want to worry anyone, but the whole batch showed so much concern towards me. I told myself, “Pain is the weakness leaving the body” and kept continuing the journey.

Fate was not on my side that day, as soon as I reached the foot of the mountain, my right foot was swollen. A visit to the local clinic soon after that and I was attended by a friendly doctor who chatted throughout the diagnosis. I was advised to rest and take antibiotics for next 3 days and see the progress.

2nd August 2014

I had gone to bed all covered up with blanket and I woke up with the blanket lying effortlessly still on my body. Grabbed the tip of my blanket and moved it sideways to examine the condition of my foot and to my horror, my foot swell a lot bigger. The first steps I took on that morning became a daunting task as the pain was terrible in comparison to the days before. My day was never the same, I was forced to limit my movement and my activities. Although I was feeling disappointed with myself for not being a productive member, everyone of batch 3 showed so much compassion and gave endless care just to make me feel better. I was given priority to take the shower early, to have best seat and even to be the first person to take the food.

3rd August 2014

Waking up and examining my foot again to find no improvement, it was still as swollen as the day before. Same excruciating pain and limitation to my activities for the day.

Tepuq Sinah Rang who was our homestay host has been keeping a close eye on my condition and has been very worried. She said prayers before we had our dinner and included me in the prayer to have my foot recovered as soon as possible and so did everyone. I was already moved by the time and effort that everyone spared to have me recovered and feel healthy again.

What happened that night, really moved my heart. Tepuq Sinah Rang had few other tepuqs called in after dinner to have prayer just for me. “That is very thoughtful of everyone. Why would anyone spend their weekend night for someone who they only knew for 2 days?” But these people did, all the tepuqs came to have a get well soon prayer for me together with my beloved batch 3 mates. It was such a heartwarming moment for me, I nearly teared.



Adventures with Sina Sarina

Here is the star of my trip, the person my two weeks were centered around, Sina Sarina.

One thing I really like about Sina is that she is always smiling. She smiles when she's talking to someone, when she's shaking her head at my plant-watering skills, when the sun is hot, when one of the school doors is locked, when we were both tearing up when saying goodbye. And what a lovely smile it is, too.

Sina is a 37 year old woman who works at SMK Bario as a janitor. This meant that my time spent with her was divided between the school and anywhere else. A typical morning for us meant sweeping, dusting, watering the plants (...which I am not very good at - the watering cans are heavy, okay) and so on before it's time for a break, where Sina will then proceed to convince me into drinking coffee, Milo, and/or eating an entire pack of biscuits. She had long since stopped accepting the (true) fact that I'd had breakfast at home, so I'd try to joke it off, saying I'll get so fat the plane cannot carry my weight. Her response: "Baguslah tu, muk tinggal di Bario saja!

Sina Sarina is an incredibly capable person. One day when we were walking back to school, she suddenly moved to the side and started pulling out plants and fruits that are everyday food. Midin! Rebung! Paku pakis! She'd reach into the foliage and pull out a new plant for me, despite the fact that I might have eaten it some time. In the school, she did every task efficiently, from planting flowers to cleaning the school. Despite that some of the work was actually quite tiring, she never complained of any pain. The only time I ever heard about pain was when we held a beauty session for the ladies, and I asked her if she had any sore areas she wanted me to help massage, and she pointed out parts of her legs and arms.

Sina also has an great sense of humor. When it's time for lunch, we'd go and pick up Mujan from the kindergarten and slowly walk home. At some point, Uncle or someone from Arur Dalan would stop by on their motorbike, and we'd send Mujan off to home with them and continue our walk back home. (It soon transpired that she was hoping that our walks would make me hungry enough to eat loads.) Our conversation topics ranged from school gossip to the kids, or my family and life in Selangor. One day, we stopped by the sawah and waved frantically in attempt to catch my batchmates, Karthik and Tharunnia's attention. They did not notice us, and Sina said I should stop jumping up and down, "nanti orang ingat Ru gila". Another day, she heard that we'd been playing in the sawah, and the next day she greeted me with "semalam ada kerbau main di sawah!" - which, okay, is pretty funny and I'd use it as an excuse for whenever I messed something up, like "ya la saya ni kan kerbau, mana pandai buat kerja".

Another time, Sina drove us from home to school on Uncle's motorbike. If you have been to Arur Dalan you will know that the road is bumpy at best because of the rocks embedded into the road. This combined with the fact that motorbikes were a fairly new experience for me meant that I was quite terrified when I got on the bike behind Sina. I told her "tolong jalan slow sikit, saya takut lah Sina", so naturally she accelerated the motorbike. I exaggerated a little. Sina did not accelerate, but she did go very fast. I was practically hanging on for dear life, and the fact that Sina kept turning around to make sure I was alright didn't exactly assure me of our safety. At one point Sina noticed that I'd closed my eyes and said to me, "takut apa, ini adventure!" while laughing, presumably at the fact that I was genuinely scared. For the rest of our ride, Sina continued to offer little gems like "kalau accident pun tak sakit, tak ada darah" and "klinik pun dekat saja", and that's the story of how I taught Sina the words 'nightmare' and 'bad dream'.

On the English side of things, Sina was quite proficient at holding a conversation in English. My favorite thing was when she would randomly use things we've discussed beforehand, like "Hello, chicken!" after we talked about greetings.

All jokes aside, I do miss her. I was so comfortable around her, and I hope she was, too. She made me laugh plenty of times and I do hope I've made her laugh, too. I miss Sina Sarina, who sent her daughter out in the rain to pick me up, who one day silently tied a kabuk she bought for me around my neck, who is lovely and funny and caring, who asked me to come stay with her if I ever came back. I could go on and on about the things we've shared. If I ever get a chance to go back to Bario, I know the first place I will visit.

Saying Goodbye

First I want to talk about the night before our last day in Bario, because this is something that means a lot to me. Sina Sarina, the woman I was assigned to for the duration of Project WHEE!, asked me to come over for a farewell dinner of sorts. Sina went to the trouble of cooking food with a little extra spice, which is something because chillies are not easy to come by, and made midin again for me. 

Sina's mother, joined us that night and we had dinner while watching a sappy Malay drama on the TV. Afterwards, Tepuq made me hot coffee while the girls, Supang and Mujan, painted my nails with glow in the dark pink polish that I haven't had the heart to remove yet. 

My days with Sina Sarina were spent mainly in the school where she worked. Each morning I would slowly make my way to the local high school, slowly because there was just so much of beauty to take in. My last day in Bario started off with another one of my precious walks, with the huge sawah on either sides of me, still waters reflecting the morning sky, and the mountains covered in mists and the air so fresh and cool. (I'm just going to squeeze in every picture of the sky I took okay)

At SMK Bario, I took some time to say goodbye to the people I've met there. As a university student on a temporary trip, I had no expectations of being treated in any special way. But the folk in SMK Bario did me good. The teachers, who took the time to talk to me and even invite me to their Hari Raya jamuan, and the school workers, who were always good to me and even included me in on their weekly meetings, where they graciously spoke in Bahasa Melayu instead of Kelabit for my benefit. I respect and appreciate those gestures a lot. So I said goodbye... and then joined my Sina and another teacher for tea and delicacies. (I told you guys, I get fed a lot.) 

Hilltop at SMK Bario
At 12 it was back to Sina's home for lunch, where she refused my offers of help and set about making lunch, so I decided to go hang out with Mujan. Mujan got a ton of homework that day, so we colored while waiting. 

Me      : Mujan, ada ke elephant warna orange?
Mujan : Elephant Mujan ada!

When it was time for me to go back, the kids and Sina walked me home. We stopped by Sina's sawah so I could say goodbye to Sina's father, which was also where Sina got four pineapples for me. While walking out of Arur Dalan, holding hands and talking, I took the opportunity to tease Dayang and Supang about their crushes, and then sagely offered some kakak wisdom about focusing on their education. At the longhouse, tears were shed and promises were made, lots of hugs happened. But it's not so bad. 

It's been one week since we came back from Bario. These days I get calls from Ee, Sina's older son and Supang will grab the phone to tell me she misses me. Ee never opens with 'hello', he starts off with 'buat apa kamu?' and Mujan laughs more than she talks on the phone, and Sina will text me 'good morning Lipang' - which is the Kelabit name she gave me.   

I've learned and been granted so much and truly, it has been a privilege, and thank you so much to the gracious people of Bario. From Tepuq Sinah Rang, who hosted us and took such good care of us, to our Bario Asal project coordinator, Aunty Nicole, to everyone who came to send us off at the airport. It's been a great 2 weeks. 

The Nature’s Watchful Eyes.

Land and nature, intertwined together to create a beautiful and almost mystical place called Bario, where the nature always has watchful eyes over you wherever you may be in this land. The Kelabits who are locals of this land named it Bario which gives the meaning ‘wind’. Geographically, Bario is an elevated land is considered to be a highland with the altitude of 1000m above sea level and it is located the east of Sarawak bordering Kalimantan.

Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter 
The journey to Bario itself is an adventure, you’ll be flying on a Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter plane into Bario from Miri. The twin turboprop engines produces a district roar rotating the propeller to slice through the air and move forward. The flight certainly won’t be smooth due to the light weight of the plane, often shifting from small gusts of wind. The flight time is about 50 minutes. If you’re a first timer flying on this plane, you’ll have a sense of relief when the aircraft makes the landing and the engine chokes as the pilot cuts off the fuel.

Walk from airport

Bario is located in a coulee; the horizons are covered with mountains and hills giving a surreal feeling when you just gaze upon the view that nature showers you with. Trees on the mountains and the long strands of grass on hills that dances to the rhythm of the wind is just mesmerizing.  Untapped jungle grows on those mountains and each tree, each animal, each insect, and each plant is part of the nature and very minimal human activity disrupts the balance of the nature. Isolation of this land from rest of the towns due to geographical barriers plays a major role in preserving the environment. The roads leading to Bario are not paved and mostly are logging roads, it takes about 12 hours of driving with a pickup from Miri.

My Tepuq (Tepuq Ribet) in her paddy field.
The misty morning, the sunny sky and the clear night is something that would go unnoticed by the Kelabits or by people who live in Bario, but for someone who comes over from the cities it’s completely a sight that you appreciate and admire. Unpolluted fresh air in Bario makes all of it possible. Every morning there will be cool breeze with mist gushing across your face as you walk, the sun casts its rays of joy and warmth every afternoon and the night sky opens up to deliver a spectacle show of stars planets, and moon.

As night falls, the stars start to fill up the night sky canvas while the moon illuminates the streets. Some parts in Bario gets limited amount of electricity because most of it is generated using a diesel powered generator; 7pm-12 midnight is when we receive electricity. It may seem like an inconvenience, but hey that’s when darkness binds Bario completely and free from any light pollution. As a stargazer, it was my paradise. All the stars are projected so brightly that you can easily recognize constellations that are visible on earth’s equator. Every hour you look upon the sky, a new presentation is put up due to the earth’s rotation, the sky shifts 15 degrees every hour and new sets of stars join.

Hiking is a must do activity in Bario, a twenty minutes’ walk from Bario Asal will lead you to Prayer Mountain. Hiking up Prayer Mountain will get you a step closer to the nature as you move through the jungle as the trees and plants line up on your path throughout the journey up to the peak. The hike up has a moderate difficulty and the steepness of the mountain could reach to 45 degrees as you move up closer to the peak.  The hike is about 1 hour 15 minutes at a slow pace but the view you have from the peak is totally worth the climb and all the exhaustion pays off.

Over the period of 10 days, my definition of Bario has changed from just being wind to the ‘nature’ itself because Bario has so much to offer but my time to receive was limited. I will travel back to this paradise of nature to live it all again.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

One afternoon at Joe's!

One stormy, wet evening marked the end of our experience at the paddy field with our tepuqs. Dearest Tepuq Ribet and Tepuq Uloh, both got drenched in that fun filled walk we did together running away from the storm. It was as if the rain was least of our concerns that evening, instead we just embraced that one last walk from the paddy to the long house sharing some delightful personal moments.

Walking back to the long house in the rain.

The next day the sun came shiny and bright, casting its first rays of the day, slicing through the morning mist while we walked to Tepuq Uloh’s paddy field. There, we had a short conversation with her husband and her while they did a little clearing up of the area. Once we confirmed our appointment, we continued our walk to Tepuq Ribet’s paddy field which was a little further. At a distance, through the fields of green we saw a glimpse of Tepuq Ribet in her big brown hat. We expressed our urge to step into the paddy but she insists we stay clean for the day. Here again, we had a short conversation, and reminded her about our appointment for later in the day.

Tepuq Uloh and her husband.

Tepuq Ribet
The clock striked 12PM and we were getting excited. We ran to Tepuq Uloh’s and saw that both she and her husband were all dressed and ready to go! It was so sweet to see Tepuq Uloh and her husband dressed extra nice for our appointment that afternoon. Our excitement was just building. We told them we will be right back. Both of us then proceeded to Tepuq Ribet’s to check on her, but to no avail. There were no signs of her at home and we did the fastest walk to her paddy to check if she was there. She was about to leave her paddy field when we reached, thus we did the walk together back to her house. Told her to take her time and here again came Tepuq dressed very sweetly for the day. She borrowed us her motorcycle for the appointment and off were to get back Tepuq Ulo and her husband. 

At 12.30PM, two motorcycles, five people, dressed a little extra nice, all excited and happy. Where do you think the appointment brought us to?

A lunch treat! :D

It was such a joyful ride to Joe’s that afternoon, catching up with Tepuq Uloh’s motorcycle which was going faster because it did not have two pillion riders like us! We arrived at Joe’s soon after and we managed to get one last round table available on that filled lunch hour. We made our orders and added three ABCs (Ais Batu Kacang) to the list as it was such a hot day and also because Tepuq Ribet has not had it in a long time.

While waiting for our meals, we all started recapping our whole journey together. It only then dawned to us that this was a farewell. As they mention their interest of coming over to the city to see us, both our Tepuqs facial expression had gone a little emotional. Tepuq Uloh had later secretly took out two kabuqs (Kelabit necklaces) under the table and told me (Ganit) to choose one. I hesitantly chose one and she laughed! To refresh the whole mood, our ABCs arrived and we shared some conversations about the old airport and a past plane crash incident that took place some time back.

When all our meals came, Tepuq Uloh’s husband recited prayers and we all held hands. It was during this very moment, we felt truly like a family. What started of as awkward and shy conversations 6-7 days back has now brought us to a family reunion lunch. Tepuq Uloh had a bad cough and we reminded both our Tepuqs to complete their prescription and head to the clinic for their appointments. In return, we received endless heartfelt blessings and really just continued having personal conversations even when we were done with our meal. Embracing that few moments left together. Towards the end, it got a little heartbreakingly sad; knowing once we lift ourselves from the seats, the journey has just come to an end.

We were about to get on our motorcycles, when I (Ganit) saw dearest and funniest Tepuq Uloh to tears. Told her not to worry and I’ll see her at home in few minutes! Started our journey back to the long house, running away from the dark clouds carrying a heavy downpour. Strong gushes of wind almost blew our hats away, when Tepuq Ribet suddenly gave us the tightest hug from behind while she leaned emotionally saying, ‘Rindu kamu dua, jangan pergi. ‘(Miss you two, don’t go). That was the moment that got us both. It was this moment that the storm did not bring giggles, but it brought tears. It hit us close to our hearts, we didn’t want to leave, and our time together was too short. We wished there were more time to spend together.

Daring riding the bike,while Tepuq Ribet held on to her hat with the dark clouds approaching.

For all the beautiful days that we were fed with home cooked food by the paddy fields, we thought this was a really nice idea to bring them out for a treat. Little did we know that we would be so emotionally impacted by a lunch date which we now look back as a family reunion lunch. There was a piece of element called comfort which is only able to be felt once two hearts accept each other’s presents. They were so welcoming and attached to us very quickly that it frightens us to know how sad they would have been once we left.

            ‘ Ganit dan Daring janji akan bawa Tepuk keluar makan bersama lagi! ‘

Ganit the lightning; Tharunnia,
Daring the thunder; Karthik.

Cultural Night

The evening of 14th August 2014 was a much anticipated day for both the volunteers and the tepuqs. It was the night specially allocated for our cultural night.

Preparations leading to the cultural night started days earlier, all of us were thinking of what to present to our tepuqs, we wanted something fun and exciting. Upon agreeing on a very interesting song which actually started as a joke. The song was ‘Why This Kolaveri?’ by Aniruth. We began our dance practice, and surprisingly I was told to lead together with Tharunnia, for someone who doesn’t know a thing about dance, like me, I knew mayhem was about to happen.

All of us prepared to get dressed up and some of us brought traditional cloths to wear for the night. I brought a long red jippa (Indian male clothing). Everyone looked extra good that night. We had our dinner earlier and there were little bit more variety of food because it was a special night.

After dinner, everyone gathered at the long house. To my surprise all the tepuqs were dressed in beautiful traditional kelabit attires. We took our seats and the ceremony started with a speech delivered by Rhonwyn, our cordinator followed by the presentation of kabuks (Kelabit necklace) to the volunteers of Project WHEE!. Kabuks are special necklaces, they are treated with honour and giving them as presents to us means lot. Tepuq Ribet has a special kabuk just for me and I received it proudly and was very thankful to her.

My team mates; Ai Jin and Yan Chuan.
When it was time for our dance performance, we walked into the side alley of the long house waiting to make a surprising entrance onto the stage. The song started with a slow tune that was our sign to move in gracefully with the beat. Only few seconds past, the song picked up its pace and we all started rocking in our traditional costumes. Everyone there seemed to enjoy it lot and were cheering for us too.

After our exciting performance, came the performance from the tepuqs. They started with an elegant hornbill dance performance by the women of the long house and followed by strong warrior dance performance by the men. Both the dances were unique and hold their cultural elements in them. All of us were given a change to try out the Kelabit traditional dance, for some it turned out well but for some it was an awkward moment.

Our bonding with our Tepuqs became stronger as we laughed and mingled. Unfortunately for us it was our last night together as one big family in the long house.

My tepuq (Tepuq Ribet) & I in our traditional outfits 

Because This is What Memories Are Made Of.

Missing Rhon! 
Hi everyone! This is a picture of Batch 3 of Project WHEE!.

Well, most of us met each other for the first time, only having seen pictures of each other through Facebook. But, throughout the whole 16 days, we became a family. Bario was a wonderful experience, and the best part of it overall was not only the Bario community but the family of 16 days that I came with.

The chance to meet others who have the same passion and interests to contribute back to society.

Bario has showed me that I have more to be grateful for than I could ever imagine.
Bario showed me that really sometimes, it's the simple things that can bring joy.
Whether it was to share fruits together
Or having a game of ball in the paddy field.
All these made me happy.

After dinner together - gether !

Sang songs at the common area where we hangout.

After our mudfight!
We're stuck with each other. WHEE FAMILY!
When it was time for us to part back to KL, it was really as if we were only there yesterday. I woke up in the morning, looking at every place, really taking it in that I'm actually leaving now. I know each of us will always remember the memories that we have built throughout our time in Bario.
Life is indeed so beautiful. There is so much to be excited about in life. There is so much to see and do.

Life is blissful.
As I'm writing this down, memories come flooding back.
Nenek Ros and me singing our favourite songs.
The cutie pies and lovely students in SK (primary) and SMK (secondary).
The time we have on weekends carrying out our community projects.
Moments when we went to the hydro dam for a shower when there was water rationing.
Having team talks and reflection in the dark with torchlights as electricity was out already for the day.

This experience has shown me what truly amazing people I have the chance to come across
 and I'm thankful for every single one of them.

I will be back. 

Signing off,

"Amoi, kamu rindu KL ke?"

"Hi kelas, minta maaf kerana Cikgu tidak boleh hadir hari ini. Tapi saya harap kamu semua menikmati masa yang kami telah berada di kelas…"
(Hi class, I apologise for not being present today. But I hope all of you have enjoyed the time we had together…)
This was the beginning of a speech I was writing to my class I taught at SMK Bario. And I was stuck there, unable to continue my draft.

The speech was meant for the last day we were to teach in the school and I wanted to motivate and encourage my students to work hard for their next exam. It’s not that I had nothing to say, in fact I had plenty to say, but I didn’t know how to say it in Bahasa Malaysia (BM). I found myself having to translate what I wanted to say from English to BM and elicited help from my friends when I couldn’t remember a particular word in BM. I realized some of them struggled to recall as well.

Such was the difficulty I encountered throughout my stay in Bario. The primary language of communication was BM and my capacity of speaking that language was embarrassingly limited to Bahasa pasar. I can’t seem to recall all the 1000 word karangan (essays) I wrote and countless peribahasa I memorised.

I remember one occasion when Aunty Dayang (the lady I was assigned to) had to bring a bunch of army men to put out a bush fire and they were all really curious who I was, why I was following Aunty Dayang and why a peninsular kid like me was doing in Bario. They started firing questions at me in BM and I struggled to understand them and my response to them was slow and short to say the least. I was interested in their army life too, but was too shy to expose my lousy BM speaking to ask too much. Much of the time I kept quiet and that kind of made them assume I missed home when the truth was far from it. So they kept asking me, "Amoi, kamu rindu KL ke?" I just smiled and said "tak." Never have I felt more like a foreigner in my own country. How do I tell these guys my embarrassing lack of proficiency in the national language?

Why don’t I ask in English, you say? Because I stubbornly wanted to prove that I am a trilingual Malaysian. I didn’t want to be excluded from the conversation or to make things awkward by making them speak English just to me. At the end of the day, they are a great bunch of guys who are doing a great job serving the army and my regret was not getting to know them better.

How childish was I for being so gleeful thinking I’ll never have to deal with BM after SPM when in actual fact Bahasa Malaysia is the one thing that ties me directly to my country and its people. It is the language we all know and it is the language that allows me to connect with anyone in this country. It is by speaking in a language two parties are comfortable with that we begin to understand each other. That story with the army guys shows how they misunderstood me for missing home due to my failure of communicating with them.

One thing's for sure, I don't ever want to feel like a foreigner in my own mother land again. Never.

I did finish my speech in the end. Maybe I should do another one in Mandarin and Tamil? ;p

Ai Jin 

Meet The Family

My favorite part of my days with Sina Sarina was going to her home for lunch at 12 p.m. I liked it because that's when the kids come back from school, Sina's husband comes back from work, and we'd all sit down and talk and eat.

Sina and Uncle
Sina's husband (whom I call Uncle) and I got along very well. If there's one thing Uncle liked to do, it was making jokes. And as the new girl with little to no knowledge of the in and outs of Bario, he liked joking around with me. For example, the first day he told me their cat's name was (something I don't remember), and I went on calling it that name, until one day Mujan looked at me in confusion and was like, "kakak Ru, nama kucing tu Miao." Apart from that, Uncle also liked teaching me Kelabit words with the wrong meanings. Soon I stopped taking his word for everything and would just refer to Dayang, Sina's eldest daughter for the truth. It was funny, except sometimes when Uncle would introduce me to people as Shah Rukh Khan's cousin, because you know, Charu, Shah Rukh. Yep. All in good fun! Anyway, speaking of Dayang:

Dayang, Supang, me and Mujan!
On the left is the bravest 13 year old girl I know, Dayang. Dayang will take out the motorbike to come pick me up in the rain. She tried teaching me how to play the guitar, not an easy feat. She has taught me so many Kelabit words. And the memory of drinking sweet tea after lunch while Dayang plays and sings a Malay song on the guitar will not leave me anytime soon. I'd like to think that during our talks I'd imparted some wisdom on her, but to be honest, we did more silly talk and giggling about boys than serious talk.

Next is Supang, who is 8 years old and incredibly feisty. Supang asks a lot of questions, has big dreams of becoming a police detective, and she likes playing in the mud and nuba laya (rice wrapped in big leaves.) Supang didn't warm up to me in the beginning. It took me quite some time before she would talk to me, and once she did it was all bubblegum blowing contests with her. One day, after I said goodbye and started walking out, I heard someone yell "Ru!", I turned around, and there was Supang running to me for a goodbye hug.

Lastly we have Mujan, who's 3 going on 4 years old this year. Mujan is cute and so adorable and she's quite famous among my other batchmates because of her immense cuteness. Mujan's incredibly shy and it takes quite some time before she will open up and talk around you. The first day I spent with her she barely spoke to me, she was so shy. We communicated in shy smiles and mainly me, talking away at her hoping for a response. The second day I taught her the word 'star', and from there we progressed.

I don't have a picture with Ee Ee, Sina's oldest son. My relationship with Ee was familiar in the sense that we did that bickering thing I always did with my brother. Sometimes when he gave me rides on the motorbike back to the homestay, Ee liked to scare me by purposely trying to hit chickens or dogs, or bring the motorbike dangerously close to the edge of the road. Anyway, he was playing with my phone one day and he took this selfie. In case you ever read this, sorry not sorry Ee.

The Kelabit name that I was given from them is Lipang. And I say from them because my Kelabit name was kind of a family decision, after much discussion over tea one day. But what's in a name? To my Sina, I am Ru or Lipang. To the kids, I am kakak or kakak Ru, and I suppose I will always be Shah Rukh Khan's cousin, or muk (meaning girl) to Uncle. To that family, in the beginning I was 'Ru dari project', and then 'anak angkat' (adopted daughter), and then a simple 'anak' (daughter). This is the family that took care of me for 10-ish days. Sometimes it got weird because I hear my batchmates' stories about their Tepuq's old age and so on, but I got to walk into a warm kitchen and a happy family, and watch Ee play cards, help Supang and Dayang do their homework at the table, and watch Uncle and Sina pretend to cut a live chicken for Mujan's amusement (and my horror). I miss them very much. It is true that each of us have a different Project WHEE! experience, and for mine I'm grateful.

To know that I am missed in one corner of Bario is a privilege. To know that I can pick up my phone and speak to these people all the way in Sarawak, is something that I cherish. And I will never forget my time there.


‘Penanam padi’ translated to English is paddy planter. That was who I was during most of my days in Bario, Sarawak.

Hard work describes the work best.

I would follow Tepuq Ribet to her ‘sawah’ to help her out planting paddy. The morning starts with collecting shoots to be transplanted into the field and gathering them by the side of the field. The planning begins, I didn’t take much time to learn planting. I would insert the root of a shoot into the soft muddy ground covered by half a feet of murky water by pushing them in with my thumb and index finger about an inch into ground. So much effort is taken just to plant one shoot. Shoot by shoot is planted to fill up the paddy field. It was a very long process, my mind would wander away often looking at the green shoots but sometimes dive into deep thoughts of the preciousness of rice.

It was an experience that I would cherish especially for the time I spent with my tepuq who took care of me as her own grandson and gave me a traditional Kelabit name, Daring.

Daring the Thunder
Karthik Muniandy

Nenek Ros + Me ---> JALAN JALAN

Today, Nenek Ros and I decided to take a walk to Tom Harrisson's monument. The monument is located up the tiny hill. The monument was built to commemorate the aid dropped from parachutes by the British and Australian commandos with the command of Major Tom Harrisson. The aid was to help the locals to fight the Japanese during the period of war at that moment.

Nenek is a good storyteller, while snacking and having the cool wind blowing our hair, she describes the war and how tough life was during that time.

Tapioca then became a staple food for most people at that time and family members have to be separated from each other without knowing when they will see each other again.

This was the view that we saw overlooking from the hill. From far ahead, we can see people working on the paddy fields, some children playing around after school and students riding bicycles going for their adventure of the day. The feeling of peace and serenity is very calming.

Nenek Ros always generous giving love unconditionally
In Bario, there is a lot opportunity to enjoy wonderful views of paddy fields, and the skies and sceneries.

Nenek and I walk when we have to go to the clinic or when we want to go to town to sell vegetables. I enjoy my walks with Nenek so much because it was also one of the things that bonded us more together.

Besides, I get to stay fit ! A few things that we saw when we jalan-jalan cari ABC (shaved ice) which is both Nenek and my favourite food.

Don't you find skies fascinating? I know I do! 
We saw pretty flowers like this along the sidewalk

A mother hen making sure all its chicks crosses the road. 
Nenek and me after jalan-jalan. 

There are so many memories that I have built with Nenek Ros that I will never forget.

Signing off,

Hope and approval.

It is less likely for a regular person who lives in the city to wonder what it would be like to live in a small town and live life on a day-to-day basis instead of literally sketching out plans for the future.

I for once, did not. Adding ignorance into the fact thinking that I anyway grew up in a small town. Bario was a pleasant surprise in so many aspects. But, if I had to choose one particular aspect that always had my heart touched and my mind wondering; it would be the endless blessings we received over our course of stay.

I remember that hot Saturday afternoon when I walked into the long house being the new member that was missing for the past 10 days. I questioned my acceptance into the residents of this home, I was anxious if the first impression I bring would be counted, I was engulfed in fear not knowing where I stand; not knowing if my presence was accepted. I was first greeted by the homestay host’s daughter, Aunty Su who very willingly gave me a warm hug even before knowing who I was. This hug made me feel a whole lot calmer. 

Aunty Su, the first person to welcome me into the long house.

However, the moment that really touched my inner self was when the homestay host, Tepuq Sinah Rang and all the other Tepuqs came over to the kitchen to welcome my other team member and I. Each and every one of them greeted me with so much warmth, hugs, wide smiles, and excitements. Besides all of that positive vibe I received at my first introduction, I was genuinely touched and moved at the fact how some of these lovely Tepuqs said, ‘Semoga Tuhan memberkati kamu. (May God bless you)' when they gave me a hug.  

I’m not sure what was it that got me, but there was a sense of genuineness and acceptance that I honestly have not felt anywhere else. At least not in the first hours of my presence in a new environment. This thought is often followed by the fact that I am nobody to them, literally nobody. I have just met them minutes ago, and at the next meal I am referred and accepted as someone’s grandchild.

I remember two days before flying home,  my team member and I who had both our Tepuqs ( Tepuq Uloh & Tepuq Ribet ) working together for that whole week decide to take them out for a meal. As they were emotional at the fact that the journey for all four of us together was coming to an end, they never forgot to give their blessings to us. With tears in their eyes, we were blessed with good health, to excel in our studies and to always remember that being humble and having a good heart will give life the meaning we need and a journey worth remembering.

There was a lot of hope and approval in their blessings. I am not sure if anyone else would have felt the same, but how often does one hug you and give you their blessings; so genuine and heartfelt? In a day and age where everyone seems to be a little self centered, voluntary well wishes like these should always be cherished and taken to heart.

Count your blessings. They don’t come by as often. 

My First And Final Sawah Experience

One day Aunty Dayang had to escort some important people to a village 6 hours away, so I was advised to follow another lady. I decided to follow Alicia and the lady she was paired with- Sina Mayda. They were going to her paddy field (Alicia conveniently calls it sawah) that day and I have not been, so it was a good opportunity I couldn't resist.

Alicia. Kelabit name: Ruran

Sina Mayda’s sawah is a little far off from Bario Asal and Arur Dalan and requires a small hike up before descending down into a secluded valley surrounded by mountains. Her sawah, has the most beautiful scenery and the fact that it was so secluded gave me this feeling of detachment from the already very detached village of Bario.

Not a soul in sight. 

What made this place feel like haven was the little charming pondok (hut) that Sina’s husband- Tamak built himself. It’s small, nothing fancy, and just wonderful. In fact, I love the pondok more than the scenery! The steps to the pondok is special itself, I almost feel like I’m climbing my way up to a tree house! I really give props to Tamak for the creativity or maybe I was too excited to fulfill my dream of having a tree house. I can’t help but feel certain exclusivity when climbing up the steps because I assume not everyone can climb up and not everyone is invited to go up.

Climbing up!

The very narrow steps up.

Inside the pondok, Alicia and I changed into sawah clothes and waited for her Sina while she fills me in on her and their English learning process. When Sina arrived, we did the usual introduction and then she brought us down to the sawah. I couldn’t contain my excitement; I left my shoes in the pondok and got into the sawah first. My feet were sinking but my excitement was soaring.

The pondok has a place for cooking inside.

Much excites, so mud, very sawah.

We spent the whole day weeding and let me tell you it’s a tough act balancing yourself in waist deep mud while throwing weeds to the side. I lost my balance a few times a nearly fell face first into the mud. I had a lot of fun though, happily wadding my way through, pulling out weeds while Alicia and I chatted with Sina. Alicia was so proud when Sina was using words she taught her when talking to me.

After showering, we had lunch in the lovely pondok while Tamak told us stories. 

It was there and then that I realised how precious this entire experience is and how much I’m going to miss it all. From building relationships with each of our Tepuq/ Sina and learning valuable life lessons from them to seeing everyone perform on Cultural Night. 

I definitely will miss the time we played Captain Ball/Rugby in the sawah and walked fully covered in mud to the hydrodam to wash off. 

I will even miss Turu the resident hornbill who took every opportunity to disturb us and hover over us. 

And I know no other place except Bario where everyone you pass by in the street waves at you as if you are an old friend.

I shall end this blog post with a picture of Turu because I don't want to get too soppy. Just know that Bario is a beautiful place with amazing people and I was genuinely happy for the whole 15 days I was there.

A protected species: Turu the hornbill
Ai Jin