Wednesday 30 September 2015

My Women of Bario

Bario is a beautiful quaint village hidden in the jungles of Sarawak. This lovely place was augmented only by the amazing women that brought me into their homes and worked their ways into my heart.
Every one of them showered me with love and took me in as one of their own despite the differences in our race and religion. These women to us may seem ordinary, but once you get to know them you see another side. With every leaf you turn, lies a hidden story about these amazing women. Unlike city women, every broken nail, wrinkle and scar is proof of the hardship they have endured this far.

Sina Sarina
Sina and her daughter, Supang

Sina Sarina, the person whom I called mum throughout my stay in Bario. Never once did she give me the opportunity to feel homesick. She filled my time there with laughter; every motorcycle ride back home was accompanied by a funny story from her life here in Bario. With open arms, she assimilated me into her family from the first day we met. Naming me as one of her own, that’s how “Abet” joined the family. To her, she gained a daughter and happily told anyone who would ask. She was the most loving woman. She never allowed me to work under the sun and would always give me light duties so that I would not be tired by the end of the day. I was pampered there in a sense that she cared about me so much that she refused to let me help her in the paddy fields so that my skin was spared from the scorching sun of Bario. During our tea breaks, she would even share her Cadbury chocolates with me, a very rare commodity here in Bario. This woman taught me to be strong and independent. Though we met for a brief period, she had snuck herself into small corner of my heart. Thank you, mum.

Tepuq Dayang

This lovely woman here is none other than my Tepuq (grandmother). She showed me the tips and tricks to manoeuvre myself through the wet and soggy paddy fields. This after I had so gracefully fallen on my butt in the paddy field 10 minutes after starting work. That incident had given her a good laugh as it reminded her of how the buffaloes walk in the paddy fields. I was happy to entertain them as the story of my buffalo-like grace had spread throughout the house. The morning I left she had traveled all the way to the airport just to send me off. She gave me one last gift before parting, a bottle of pineapple jam. To some it may seem like a mere bottle of jam, but to me I see the work and time she had taken to hand pick and hand make this amazing gift. Thank you Tepuq for allowing me to spread your sweetness back home.

Tepuq Sinah Rang

I have talked about how warm, kind and loving the previous two women have been to me, now it’s time to introduce to you the lady behind my happy tummy for the duration of my stay in Bario. This woman, the host of our longhouse homestay has been very gracious to all of us. Two of the many tantalising dishes that she made for us, were her fried tapioca and pineapple curry. The taste of these delicious delicacies still lingers on my tongue. The puzzling taste somehow captures you and leaves you wanting for more. Thank you Tepuq for your amazing food and warmth you have shown to all of us. I truly miss you and your cooking. 

These selfless women have showed me a different way of life; to be humble and thankful for everything that I have been given. This past 16 days living in Bario have made me realise all the small things that I have taken for granted in my life back home are things that they cherish here so dearly. I have learnt to appreciate everything and all the people around me. Everyone goes through trials in life, they have their own story to tell and I am happy to be a small part of theirs. 

Saturday 26 September 2015

First Time

There's always a first time for every thing. In Bario, I certainly had a lot of pleasant first time experiences!

First time having a hand-written aeroplane boarding pass

First time being on a MASwings 19-Seater Twin Otter

First time sitting at the back of a 4WD

Photo credit: David

 First time riding a motorbike

Photo Credit: David

First time being up-close with a Hornbill

Photo Credit: Hliang

First time working in a paddy field

First time planting my own pineapple

Photo Credit: Hliang

First time seeing a Pitcher Plant

First time climbing the same mountain two days in a row

First time giving someone else a massage...

Photo Credit: David

First time emceeing for an event

Photo Credit: David

First time being "adopted" into a Kelabit family and given a Kelabit name

And also... my first time forming such a special bond with a group of awesome friends. :) 

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Building Trust: The ABC of Community Impact

I recently read a 2014 report by the International Youth Foundation on “What Youths Want”. I was fascinated by the findings reported, and quite surprised because it was very much alike with the findings of a “2015 Millennial Survey” conducted by Deloitte. If I were to summarize these reports into the top three wants of young people today, they will be as follows:

  • Well-paying jobs
  • Opportunities to start their own businesses, and be their own boss
  • Opportunities to make a difference and leave a legacy in society.

Does that sound like something you want? If yes, then this article is for you. I shall focus on the third point.

As a leader who looks to create tremendous value and bring positive change to our society, learning how to work from grass-root level with civic communities, and collaborate with both companies and government to drive change is imperative. It is also a great 21st century skill to learn. This was the bottom line of my experience in Bario. 90 percent of what we did was building trust, and 10 percent was hitting our goals. From my interview with Daniel, the project coordinator, as well as from my personal experience, I am convinced that 90 percent of making an impact in any community is about building trust, and 10 percent is achieving your goal. Here’s my story:

The Community

Bario is a mountainous community. We presume it is sited on millennial old volcanic crater, and was covered with water probably thousands of years gone by. The people there are very lovely. Although a small ethnic group (Kelabit) of less than seven thousand people scattered across several small villages, they have big hearts.

Our project was primarily with two villages namely; Bario Asal and Arur Dalan. Both of these villages sum up to about 46 – 50 families. A very small population as you can imagine. Even smaller, because the youths are nowhere to be found in the village. For the same three “wants” that drive us, they have been driven to bigger towns and cities, leaving their parents and grandparents in the village. They desire better well-paying jobs. They want to succeed in the modern world. They want high quality relevant education. For these reasons, Bario Asal and Arur Dalan comprise of two age groups predominantly: the older Tepuqs (Boomers generation), and the grandchildren (Generation Z). From our perspective, these are the two demographics that need the most support from the Millennials and Baby Boomers. But where are they?

The Project

This has inspired the initiation of Project WHEE! in this community. Yet there is another issue to look at. It is the gender issue. What roles do the men and women play in contribution to their sustenance and socio-economic life?

The men are mostly contractors, and as you know contracts are not secure jobs. They are only temporal. The women work mainly in the paddy fields (rice fields). And sadly, like in many communities around the world, the women may struggle when their husbands spend their little earned bucks on leisure activities outside before returning home. Thus, the mission of Project WHEE! is to improve the socio-economic life of the women in the community. This is done by teaching them English Language to become better community guides for the increasing number of tourists visiting the village for its rich environmental and natural heritage.

My Role

As you can already decipher, my role in Bario for three weeks was to help certain Tepuqs learn and improve on their spoken English, and to document trail highlights for them. By this I mean, visiting all her farms and the villages tour sites e.g. the hydro dam, tapioca farm etc. During the long walk (usually between 45 minutes to 2 hours), I look carefully around me to spot highlights worth talking about. I document them and also extract more information about it from my Tepuq by asking her questions. After documenting these trail highlights, I shall then guide her on how to tell these stories to her tourists when they arrive.

Like you can begin to imagine, it is not easy to get into a community in one day, and begin to get some success with this task both for the project initiators and for volunteers as myself. How do you convince them that you’re there to help? How would you show them that you’re sincere and you care, and as a stranger why should they open their arms, farms and homes to you?

The answer is this: Build Trust! There’s no short cut to it. Don’t even try to look for any shortcut. You just have to master the ABCs of building trust:

  1. Accept Rejection as normal. In fact, welcome it!
  2. Build your ethos by leveraging from situations or people they are comfortable with.
  3. Cultivate that feeling of trust, and always repeat step 2.

My Rejection Story

My first Bario experience was a painful rejection. For the record, I was the second international volunteer on this project, and the first African. Here we were at the Meet and Greet, getting introduced to our Tepuqs and expecting a warm embrace, or at least a smile at first. But I didn’t get anything close to that. Rather, my beloved Tepuq looked at me, without the trace of any relaxed muscles on her face, and then she began to speak in Kelabit, pointing at me and pointing to the right.

The interpretation I perceived was “Why is this one with me? He should be with someone else.” I looked around me. Everyone was having a conversation with their Tepuqs, with smiles and butterflies in the air. But here I was, trying to say “Tepuq, how are you?” and she wouldn’t even listen. I almost gave up. Well, I think I did give up. I called on the project coordinators to handle the issue. Then I walked away.

As I took those steps away from her, that little fellow inside all of us (you know him, right? They call him Mr. Inspiration) began to speak to me. He said “David, persistence!” That’s all he said. And he simply repeated those words until I was fed up of hearing it. Then I said to myself “I must persist through this rejection”. I think that was the best decision I made throughout my trip. Immediately, I turned and said to my partner, Nurul Iman, we must persist. Iman, quite surprised by Tepuq's reaction, also garnered courage.

Soon, it was tea time. Sited around the long table in the longhouse were my batch mates with their respective Tepuqs having a good time, chatting and laughing and exchanging presents. Where was my Tepuq? She was sitting with another group talking and laughing with them. This went on for a while, until that small fellow came to harass me again. He said “Do you build trust sitting here? Go and sit with and speak to her!” I obeyed. Again, I called Iman, and we squeezed ourselves to the small space around her. “Te-p-u-q…” we began a conversation. With the presence and help of another batch mate (Kylie), with whom she was previously speaking with, we managed to have some success; perhaps 1 gram of trust if it could be weighed. Yikes! Mr. Inspiration was right, you persist through rejection to build trust.

Building My Ethos

To end the night with joy, we offered to walk Tepuq back to her house. She resisted but later obliged. I invited Kylie to come with us. I figured she likes Kylie and was comfortable around her. My strategy was to maintain that comfortable atmosphere around her, and then capitalize on that to build my ethos. By “ethos” I mean the presentation of character as a person to be trusted. Like Aristotle believed, ethos must arise from speech than from preconceived ideas. Dressing is part of ethos. One of the first observations is respect. How respectful are you, what’s your response to anger, abuse, unkindness, misrepresentation etc. All these contribute to building ethos, and were my focus.

The three of us, Kylie, Iman and I dropped her at her house, gave her a casual hug (at least for me) with a smile, and walked back with a wide grin on our faces. “At last she is able to smile back at us!” Iman and I basked in joy. But that wasn’t the end of the journey. I must have to work on the other aspects of ethos on a daily basis.

Cultivating Trust

It was 7.55AM, Iman and I dashed off to Tepuq’s house. She had asked us to be there at 8AM. The culture in Bario is this: If you arrive late, you’ll have to find your own way to the paddy field. No hard feelings. It’s just the way it’s done. You do not want to be late, in that sense. You do not want to erode your ethos on your first day. Being there on time as part of reinforcing that 1 gram of trust we had built yesterday. Iman and I passed the test!

Although Tepuq wasn’t prepared for paddy yet, we waited for her. She exclaimed “You come so early!” and we went like, “Yes Tepuq, you had asked us to be here at 8AM,” and she laughed. I was glad because we were scoring more points. Every moment was crucial for me, especially during those first days. We brought more gifts for her. Thanks to the project coordinator who had informed us that she likes cookies. She was so excited to receive those cookies from us. Again, we scored more points!

At about 9AM, after she made us breakfast we set off for the paddy field. I rolled the wheelbarrow as we walked. Here’s the interesting part. After we got to her small farm hut, helped her spread out the rice grains, we expected to go with her to the field to work. But Tepuq told us not to come today. She said “stay here and watch the rice for birds”. At first we wondered why, but later came to understand that we hadn’t built trust enough for her to take us to work on her field. It was another day to reinforce on our ethos. We did just that, through sharing our stories with her, asking her questions, being kind to her, making her laugh and not being too careful about being stained with mud. All these helped in cultivating trust, and the next day, she took us to farm!


For the next 17 days, we had to repeat this process in different ways, until she began seeing us like her own grandchildren. This begins to happen when they begin to give you Kelabit names, they begin to wash your feet for you after working in the paddy field, they begin to initiate conversations with you. You feel that love arising. The Great Wall of China has been broken. Then, we chase the goal!

In the last few days, we went on several trails with her. Telling her that now we want to document her highlights for her. Because we have earned so much trust, she listened to us. In terms of meeting our goals, for the first 13 days, we were 2 percent. It was during those last days we shot to 100 percent. Why? – we mastered the ABC of making social impact. 

If you want to achieve the same results in your communities, you also need to master these simple ABCs. I look to hearing about your story as well.

Thursday 17 September 2015

Things to Do in Bario!

There are so many things you can do in Bario - the list is endless. Here are a few activities that me and my batchmates managed to squeeze into our busy 22-days schedule in Bario! 

A hand-drawn map of Bario village found in Dayang's homestay, Arur Dalan

Go on a Long House Tour

Common Area of Bario Asal Long House
Learn about the interesting histories of the oldest Long House in Bario Asal which currently houses 22 families with an experienced community guide!
Tetel (Fireplace) Area of Bario Asal Long House
The Kelabit long house is unique & different from the other indigenous long houses in Borneo. I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise so I'll stop elaborating here :P
Arur Dalan Long House

Nuba Layaq Demostration

Tepuq Do' Ayu preparing Nuba Layaq!
Nuba Layaq is a traditional Kelabit rice dish. It is basically rice wrapped in 'Daun Isip' , and it has a sticky and chewy texture like a 'ketupat' . The Nuba Layaq is a paddy field lunch staple as its dainty size makes it easy to carry around and the daun isip wrapping the rice can be used as your rice bowl.

The edges of the Daun Isip can be teared and folded to form a spoon, which saves a lot of effort washing dishes especially when you're in a paddy field situated far away from clean water source.

'Compressed Rice' is what I would call a Nuba Layaq - don't underestimate the size of a Nuba Layaq! It is actually really filling! One Nuba Layaq contains approximately 2-3 bowls of rice!

Indulge in mouth-watering Kelabit cuisine

Bario practices hand-to-mouth economy, where the locals eat whatever they hunt down or plant in their farm. All food on the table are fresh off the hook/stem/jungle!

Go on a Paddy Field Tour

Have an informative and in-depth tour conducted by the local community guide about the types of paddy planted at Bario. You might even stand a chance to get down and dirty and plant/harvest some paddy (depending on season)!

CERIA machine!
You can even learn about the differences between the yield and technicalities of hand-planted and machine-planted paddy!

Visit Tamu

Tamu, is a market held every Saturday morning in Bario town. It is basically a morning market where the locals would gather and set up their food and handicraft stalls. Take note that the 'town' in Bario is actually just a row of shops!

Mee Sedap / Instant Noodles with Fried Eggs RM5

Bario Laksa RM5

You can also buy handicraft items like hand-woven baskets, handmade bangles, local jungle vegetables, and groceries at Tamu.

Climb Prayer Mountain

The peak of Prayer Mountain in Arur Dalan, Bario has the most breathtaking view in the entire village. The trek up to the peak takes about 45 minutes to around an hour excluding breaks, depending on your stamina. The hike is short but strenuous due to its steep ascent.

Hike early and be mesmerized by the thick fog blanketing the villages below. Stay till the fog slowly disperse, and you'll have an amazing bird-eye view of Bario Asal and Arur Dalan villages.

Tips: Bring along some snacks to have a picnic with a breath-taking view at the peak! Don't forget to bring along a garbage bag to clean up after your mess, though.


No photos sorry as I didn't have any hi-tech DSLR with me in Bario. Free of light pollution, the night sky at Bario was amazing. You'll have to see it for yourself to believe it. We even saw a shooting star one night in Bario!

Go for a swim at the Hydrodam

Take a dip in the icy-cold hydrodam water on a hot afternoon. The water depth at the hydrodam can go as deep as 12m !

Play with a Daun Keladi (Taro Leaves)

Daun Keladi (Taro Leaves) are found almost everywhere in Bario. The locals feed the Daun Keladi to the pigs here. I am really fascinated by the Daun Keladi because of its waxy surface that repels water!

Fun Fact: You can use the Daun Keladi as a make-shift umbrella to keep your head dry when it is raining. 

Go on a Walk With Me Tour

Tepuq Do' Ayu showing the Si Ang flower to a tourist during her Walk With Me Trail

Tepuq Ribed unearthing a Tapioca during her Walk With Me trail
Get a hands-on experience of the daily life of the local ladies there!

Go on a Jungle Vegetable tour

A jungle vegetable used in cooking traditional vegetable porridge in Bario

Pick your own jungle vegetables and have it cooked for lunch!

Visit a Pineapple Farm

Go for a Jog

Jogging in Bario is definitely top on my list of things to-do in Bario as Bario has the freshest air around the region, and the scenery is so beautiful! My stamina was so much better when jogging in Bario compared to jogging back home in Kuala Lumpur. 

Last but not least:

Chill and relax

Our view from Sinah Rang Homestay's balcony. My favourite chill spot.
Enjoy the moment doing nothing. Enjoy the fresh cool air in Bario. Listen to the peaceful sound of wind blowing. Submerge yourself in the slow paced life of Bario. 

Of course, there's still so much more things to do at Bario! You can visit the Salt Springs, hike to other villages in Bario, hike to the waterfall and so on! Sadly, we did not have time to do these activities so this definitely calls for another visit to Bario in the future.