Saturday 24 October 2015

Bario Changed Me. I Can't Believe It!

You know that feeling when you hear someone say something like “This changed my life!” after attending a two-hour seminar? You'd be like “Huh?!” and wonder how genuine that statement is, really. Because those words have become too cliché for our liking; it has lost its meaning. 

Indeed, very few things cause a major detour or change in the trajectory of our lives independently, but a series of small events do. My three-week Bario trip created, for me, those minion series of events that has led to a change of mindset and behaviour as a leader and a human being, and I can’t believe it. Nevertheless, it is what it is. One of the changes in my life, inspired by the “Land of the Wind” (Bario) and the Kelabits, is my commitment to green living. Yes, you read that correctly. I am now committing to a green lifestyle. Here’s why:

As we flew across that great span of earth occupied by jagged mountains covered with fresh green vegetation, some mountains as high as the elevation of the aircraft we were flying in, I looked around me and what I saw amazed me. Like C. S. Lewis describes, “It was something quite different from ordinary life, and even from ordinary pleasure. Something as they would now say ‘in another dimension’.”

Greenery is not alien to me. I grew up playing in the bush, sometimes catching butterflies with my hands. Just beyond the fence of the estate where I lived, was an undeveloped land. But this idea of green living, which gained momentum in recent years hasn’t appealed much to me. The idea was set up by the rage over the global warming phenomenon, which I thought was only a big political fuss. I gave the notion of living green a lick and a promise, until I returned from Bario.

I was inspired by the lives of the Kelabits. They live a much richer life than many of us living in major cities. They live longer than most people in the urban cities. They live in better health than many urban people. They enjoy non-chemicalised (natural) food and fruits. Most inspiring is how they nurture nature, and know the value and usefulness of specific naturally occurring plant species.

For example, my Tepuq (translated as “respected elder” in English language), and her husband (Mr. Daud) are above 50. Yet, these were some of the young looking and agile few in Bario. They feed on the organic produce from their rich land and as a result, age slower and are much stronger. In a conversation, I heard that very few Kelabits get cancer, and those who do are exposed to the urban lifestyle more compared to those who don't. Isn’t that a message?

How would you imagine meeting the aunty of Mr Daud? Yes, she is still alive and strong. She works ten hours a day or more, just as most of them do. They eat their breakfast, lunch and dinner harvested from their farms the jungle. During my stay, we often went into the jungle to pluck vegetables for lunch. My favorite was tengayan. Also, their naturally-ripen pineapples are the sweetest I have eaten! You can’t get that in the city where I live in.

Every morning, I woke up to the crowing of hens, and the barking of dogs. I woke up to a cold, fresh, windy, clean, and quiet atmosphere, except for my super awesome batch mates chattering around the dining table. There is no need of air-conditioning units. My Tepuq says, “We have natural air-conditioning here in Bario.” As I stepped outside, in a gentle walk to Tepuq’s house, I am greeted with the smell of fresh dewy leaves, beautiful sunrise, the sight of growing paddy fields (rice fields), the beautiful view of the mountains, and the bright colors of various edible fruits. Tepuq lives in a house outside of the longhouse where we stayed. Along the walk from the longhouse to Tepuq Bulan's house, there are crops like tomatoes, chilli, durian, mata kucing, and lots more. Well, that distance is about the same distance between two blocks where I stay in Kuala Lumpur. But between those two blocks are restaurants and car parks. The difference is clear.

Now, the question is, must we go to Bario before we realize the need to live richly and healthily? The answer is No. This richness of life can still be attained by us if we commit to green living. It begins with three commitments like I did.

I was privileged to meet Mr. Matthias Gelber, an avid environmentalist, green entrepreneur, speaker and author who was voted the “Greenest Man on the Planet”. He is the author of “The Greenman’s Guide to Green Living and Working.” We had a wonderful discussion one night and during our five-hour climb and descent from the Prayer Mountain (more than 3,000 feet above sea level). After our discussion, I decided that when I return to Kuala Lumpur, I will make efforts to live a richer and healthier life in the little way I can, and to lead a lifestyle with low environmental impact.

I state this publicly through this post for two reasons. Firstly, so that you can join us on this journey. And secondly, so that we can help one another live up to this commitment.

Here are three behaviors I wish to uphold from henceforth. The first is of personal benefit, the second is of collective benefit (low environmental impact), and the third is of communal benefit (encouraging others to live a richer life):

1.      Personal: Consume less junk food and eat more fresh food. Be more particular about what I eat.

2.      Collective: Reduce my electricity bill by using less air-conditioning. Use fan or natural air as often as possible.

3.      Communal: Learn more ways to live a greener lifestyle and incorporate it into my practice as an engineer and a youth speaker/trainer.

Won’t you join us?

You can make this simple commitment with me today. Comment below this post if you mean it like I do, and we will create means to support each other. 

In the words of the Greenest man on the planet “Together we are stronger!”

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Two Weeks Without Internet

If you play Clash of Clans on your smartphone, you will realise how much time and effort that goes into building your perfect clan fortress. An internet connection is a total necessity to make sure you collect those monies from your Gold and Elixir collector (Clash of Clans players, you know what I mean).

Now when I was in Bario for Project WHEE!, Internet connection is one thing you will not have. It is not a choice. When you realise you are without an Internet connection, you realise that your smartphone is practically useless aside from your Notepad app and Clock app.

So, before going to Bario I set my expectation to knowing that I will be without my frequent WhatsApp group chats or posting of Instagram photos. What I began to learn after setting aside my ever-realible smartphone, was one experience I never regret.

To be detached from something you come to be attached to isn't an easy thing to do, however in my opinion, necessary to learn to do so.

Normally, in the morning I would wake up to the sound of my smartphone's alarm going off. The next thing that I am sure most of us do either consciously or subconsciously is to go on our usual social media platform. Immediately switching ON to information that we missed out during your 8 hours of sleep, and switching OFF to realise what is really around you.

When in Bario, when I did not have an Internet connection, my first instinct in the morning was to get dressed and immediately look for the fireplace. On other days, we got together to gaze at the stars at night.

For two weeks, day in and day out, I came to learn that our definition of staying 'connected' has very much changed for what it truly means. We have come to be more disconnected to the people around us, even when we think that what we are trying to do is staying connected.

We live in a hyper-connected world, where the demand for information is crucial. We rarely give any opportunity or pardon for delays, as this is deemed as inefficient and limitation to economic growth. What I am saying is not a plea to everyone to stop using their smartphones or even shut down the Internet in order to stay more connected to one another. My wish is for us to realise that there is so much more to life than just learning how to make a fire from a YouTube video, or learning about another person's culture through a book.

Go out there and be vulnerable. Let your survival instincts tell you what to do.

Here are some pictures that captures how some people from Bario choose to use their cell phones:

Apui and his sister excited to be playing with Annamarie (bach mate)'s phone

A picture I secretly snapped from a father of four children. A simple digital art work of the names of his wife and four children.

Tours and Tourists

I got the chance to follow Tepuq Bulan on her “Walk With Me” trail three times. The first time I went there was with the rest of the Project WHEE! participants. Her trail starts from her house in Bario Asal and we would walk along the road surrounded by the lush greenery from the paddy fields. 

We walked for about half an hour before going off-road and walked on the allocated pathway through the paddy fields. Our walk was accompanied by Bario’s hornbill, Turo! She followed us while we walked on Tepuq’s trail as she loves being around people.

Turo the hornbill!
Tepuq has a seven acre paddy field which we would pass by, where she would explain to us that she engaged Ceria (a mechanized farming company) to help her plant on her field using machines. Ceria would then take 70% of the rice produced from her field while she only gets to keep 30%! No wonder she prefers to plant paddy herself.
Jacky, me, Tepuq Bulan, Tepuq Ribet, David and Shannon with Tepuq Bulan’s paddy field at the back.
Then she took us to her tapioca farm that was just next to her paddy field. In the tapioca farm she grows tapioca plants obviously, along with some pineapple plants and durian trees. 

Tepuq demonstrated to us how to uproot tapioca and she just made it look so easy! She uprooted quite a bit to bring home to cook her favourite tapioca dish. She also picked some ripped pineapples to bring home. She would put them in her “uyut” which is a woven bag made of rattan that she carries on her back. In the uyut was where she would also keep her water bottle and parang, which she used to cut the tapioca plants.

Tepuq picking pineapples from her tapioca farm with an "uyut" on her back
Going back, we used a different route from where we came from. We passed by more paddy fields before coming across a plane wreck.

The plane had crashed on the paddy field during the Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation in 1964. Tepuq was in school nearby when it happened so she told us all about it. Its really engaging to hear her stories of when she was younger because I get to hear how her life was like growing up in a simple place like Bario where a plane crash was probably the most dramatic incident that happened.

I went on the trail again a few days later when Tepuq Bulan brought five tourists from KL on her Walk With Me trail.  Things didn’t go as expected because Tepuq Bulan’s husband insisted that she took the motorbike while I walked with the tourist to the tapioca farm. It was quite funny because for half of the Walk With Me trail with the tourists, “Me” wasn’t there. But thankfully, she joined us later to give the tourist the tour of her paddy field and her tapioca garden. I eventually had to sit down with her to point out how she can improve her trail and to suggested to her not to let her tourist walk without her. Although it was stressful for me at that time when she left the tourist to walk with me on her trail, Tepuq and I had a good laugh about it later.

 Tepuq taking the tourists from KL on her Walk With Me trail

To great relief, I later found out that she took in all my advice and suggestions on how she can improve as a community guide when she took two German tourists on her trail. She did almost everything right as a community guide this time around. I felt really proud of her when I watched her engaging with the tourist and explaining all the highlights along the trail clearly. 

Tepuq explaining to the tourist how she can tell when the pineapples are ripe
Another tour that Tepuq can do is the “Jungle Vegetable Collection”. She brought David and I on that tour twice and it was pretty fun. It was like going for a brief jungle trek and coming back with vegetables that we could cook for lunch! While walking towards the jungle, Tepuq taught us a Kelabit working song and we were singing it the whole journey and while plucking the vegetables.

Tepuq crossing a small river in the jungle

First, we collected Isip leaves that are used for Nuba Layaq, where sticky steamed rice is wrapped in Isip leaves. The leaves would then act as a plate to hold the rice and other side dishes.

David and Tepuq Bulan plucking Isip leaves
Besides Isip leaves, we also collected Tengayan leaves which makes a really delicious vegetable dish! While having fun plucking the leaves and singing the Kelabit song Tepuq taught us,  David and I got competitive and challenged each other on who could collect the most Tengayan leaves. We thought we were collecting a decent amount of leaves until we saw the handful of leaves that Tepuq collected. It was easily three times the amount of what we each collected! She really collects the leaves fast. It is probably because that was her version of grocery shopping for fresh vegetables. 

The leave packets in the picture are the Nuba Layaq wrapped in Isip leaves like the one we collected from the jungle and the green dish is made of Tengayan leaves that we also collected from the jungle.

For lunch, we had what we collected from the jungle in the morning. Knowing that we handpicked those vegetables straight from the jungle, it tasted a lot better. I was really blessed to be able to enjoy Tepuq’s cooking for lunch every weekday for three weeks straight. The Kelabit food generally would definitely be under my top five reasons of why I love and miss Bario. And I couldn’t have asked for a better Tepuq to cook me lunch.

Tepuq cooking for our last lunch together in her home.
Nurul Iman

Friday 16 October 2015

From Strangers to Family

Participating in Project WHEE! was a very last minute decision for me. I only found out about the project after they had held the first two sessions of the Training of Trainers for Batch 7 participants, hence my late application. To make matters worse, I wasn’t in town when they had their next two sessions so I had a separate training later on with just Shu Anne (one of our coordinators for Batch 7). So that meant that I had not met any of the other participants before the trip. Since most of the participants had already met up a few times before the trip and were already friends by then, I was a bit worried on how I would be welcomed to the group.

I flew to Bario one day later than the rest. So I finally met the group when they came to pick me up from Bario’s very small airport. I thought it would take some time to get close to them but we all got along really well, really fast. The day I arrived in Bario was a Sunday so it was a free and easy day for us.

My room for 21 nights
After I settled down and had lunch in the longhouse where we all stayed in, a bunch of us went to play Frisbee at the secondary school’s field, which was just a 10 minutes walk away. That was my first time walking around Bario and everything seemed so wonderfully simple. There were no high rise buildings around, no shopping malls, no highways and no traffic lights. Everything was within walking distance.

Bario's long straight road
Every morning we would be awakened by the sounds of the roosters crowing, dogs barking, and the sounds of the floorboards creaking caused by the footsteps of the early risers. I would finally drag myself out of bed at 7.30am to have breakfast with everyone. No one usually showers in the morning over there because no one would want to shower with cold water when the morning air is already quite cold.

My assigned lady - Tepuq Bulan - and I agreed to meet at her house at 8.30am every morning. It’s only a two minutes walk from our part of the longhouse to Tepuq’s house. I always take my time walking to her house so I can take in the beautiful surroundings and breathe in the  cold fresh morning air. Everything seems so much calmer in the morning. Within my short walk to tepuq’s house, I never failed to see chickens and their chicks crossing the road and dogs lying around. I would just admire the mountainous backdrop behind tepuq’s house as I walk towards it. The clouds would hover around the mountains early in the morning, which made the view even more breathtaking.

There is no doorbell on her door, so I would just knock or shout her name and she would open the door and greet me with a “Petabi Leketang” which means good morning in Kelabit. I would then spend time with her from morning till late afternoon either at the paddy field or her house.
By 4pm, all us participants would start returning to the longhouse after we were done with our work. We would exchange stories about what we did earlier during the day with our respective tepuqs. It is never dull to hear those stories as everyone’s day differs from each other. Before dinner, we would usually nap or hang out with each other, play cards or watch TV shows on a laptop. 

The living room where we would hang out at after work.
On some days, we would all workout together in the living room to make up for the amount of rice we consumed there. Then we would take turns to shower and get ready for dinner. One thing that I enjoyed surprisingly that I thought I wouldn’t was the cold showers. Granted, not all days at work were tiring for me as some days I got to stay in Tepuq’s house doing housework, I really appreciated the cold showers on the days that I did work in the paddy field under the blazing hot sun. Even though we had the option to boil water so our shower wouldn’t be so cold, I had no need to do that as I really enjoyed the refreshing cold showers. By the end of my stay in Bario, cold showers became a norm for my body.
I always enjoyed the food served for dinner. Tepuq Sina Rang, our homestay host would prepare us a variety of dishes, buffet style. We ate our dinners on a long table in the longhouse along with the tourists that were staying at Tepuq Sina Rang’s homestay as well. Every night after dinner, we’d stuff ourselves with Bario’s mouth watering pineapples. Bario has the sweetest pineapples that I’ve ever tasted. I had it everyday after lunch and dinner and even brought some back for my family.
The time we spent together in Bario flew by so quickly. Before I knew it, it was already time to pack up to fly home. Spending three weeks together can turn a bunch of strangers into family. I can now say that I have a family back in Bario that will be in my heart forever and a group of friends that I can call my famiWHEE!.

 My new famiWHEE!

Love for Bario

Bario, the “Land of a Thousand Handshakes” or "Land of Wind", was an amazing place to visit. I am grateful for this opportunity thanks to Project WHEE!. The journey to Bario started with a 45 minute flight via a MASWings Twin Otter plane from Miri. This adorably tiny plane had free seating and great view of the scenery along the journey and a direct view of the cockpit and the friendly pilots.

When we landed, I was shocked at the size of the airport. I entered, collected my bag and within 10 steps and I was already out the door.

The Bario Airport
Departure (Right Door) and Arrival (Left Door)

Standing at the back of the 4 wheel drive heading to the longhouse, gave me a good experience of the real Bario weather. For most tourists, this is a good chance to get a tan but for me as an Indian, it felt more like a sunburn than a suntan.

Ride to the longhouse
Despite the scorching sun in the afternoons, you fall in love with the cold nights. The best thing about the night in Bario is that, you can stargaze and get to warm yourself by the fireplace called "tetel". It was an interesting experience as even electricity there had a curfew which was at 10pm. Not forgetting, the famous hornbill, Turo.
Bario Hornbill "Turo"
It was a beautiful sight of greenery, miles of paddy fields and virgin mountains. With limited internet connection, we had more conversations with those around us; we learned to appreciate nature and its beauty.

Bario pineapples are divine. You will never understand that statement until you get your hands on them. There is nothing like it anywhere else in Malaysia. Truly an experience for your taste buds. Bario pineapples have ruined any other pineapples for me, I could not part with them hence I decided to bring home 8kg of pineapple to spread the love of this beautiful fruit at home.

Just as how the Bario pineapple captures your taste buds, the people of Bario steal your heart. The local people are true gems, I have never felt more comfortable in a foreign place. Every stranger offers a warm smile and every acquaintance gave me a memory to cherish. One of the moments that is close to my heart is about Tepuq Ribed. The night before my departure, Tepuq Ribed approached me in the longhouse with her ever loving sweet smile and gave me 2kg of authentic Bario rice. Although it was planting season and what little rice they have left comes from their reserves, she still gifted and hugged me and said “ Everyone had gotten their rice from their Tepuq and you did not, so here is something small from me to you.” I hugged her back and shed tears as I was touched by her kind gesture. I will forever hold this memory dearly in my heart. I never thought that in such a short stay, I would have forged such strong bonds with the people of Bario.

Tepuq Ribed's Nuba Laya Demonstration (cooked rice wrapped in Isip leaves)
If I were given an opportunity to return, I would accept it in a heartbeat. I believe that everyone who had the opportunity to experience Bario under Project WHEE! had some part of them opened up as how it opened my heart. I will always miss Bario for the amazing people, beautiful paddy fields and every strongly standing mountain.