Thursday 28 December 2017

One among the many, Bario was memorable

There were many people in Bario that had made this volunteering trip a memorable one, and Tepuq Do Ayu is definitely one of them!

She made me realize the little things in life.

Every morning from 8am to 12pm, two of my friends and I will walk through muddy roads to arrive to another village called Kampung Arur Dalan to spend a few hours helping our tepuqs with their paddy fields - removing seedlings from the nursery itself and planting them in a bigger sawah (aka paddy field).
Tjia Ern, I and Clovey from left to right

Upon my first day with Tepuq Do Ayu, I was already excited and in the move to communicate with her since the WHEE participants' main purpose was to collect data from our tepuqs by asking questions in an informal way.

I realized that every time I communicated with her, she never failed to look me in the eyes and replied me.
( Left: Tepuq was planting rice, Right: * started speaking and she looked up and smiled to the camera*)

Fast forward a few days on when my planting skills were getting a little bit more handy, I realized how painful it was to bend up after bending down for long minutes.

Here's tepuq Do Ayu and I-

After the first day of paddy planting, I was drenched in mud and she washed me up telling me to clean the corners of my pants that were not cleaned before even cleaning herself up.

Then, with wet pants and water dripping, I walked into her house not knowing what to do with the mess I could potentially be making, and without me requesting, Tepuq Do Ayu passed me a sarong to wear.

That really made me feel a whole lot more comfortable moving around the longhouse and sitting on the chair next to the famous 'window' in her house with the hot coffee she had made for both Rhon and I!
Rhon took this photo while sitting on a stool

The upcoming days were unexpected, all I knew was that we were going to have a performance over the weekend and only the following Monday, I will continue data collection again with Tepuq Do Ayu.

Our few hours together on the first day were sweet - we managed to finish everything before the rain started pouring, and her capacity to love was already showing.

Here's a photo of Tepuq Do Ayu and I after church!

My friend - Tjia Ern was actually the one that spotted the tepuqs from Kampung Arur Dalan leaving Sunday church and we rushed through the doors and onto the road to stop both of our tepuqs - hugging them and asking them how are they were going home.

By then, I have learned some simple Kelabit sayings such as " You look pretty ", so I said that to Tepuq Do Ayu which she replied with a smile, "Why didn't you sit with me in church just now?" (translated into English) , and that was tepuq's way of showing her love to me.

Day 2 was slightly different.
I got to rest in tepuq's farm after a few hours of rice planting and was generously served with coffee, biscuits and pineapple by Tepuq Do Ayu.

Within those moments, she also began telling me about her stories of how this shelter was built by her husband and how the doors behind us was to avoid dogs from entering etc.

This is tepuq laki ( how Tepuq Do Ayu calls her husband) and he helped bring our bucket of seedlings around from one end to another that day

Tepuq Do Ayu and Tepuq Laki have a special relationship that somehow made me smiled through their conversations that I could not understand.

All I knew was Tepuq Laki enjoys walking and Tepuq Do Ayu always laughed and smiled whenever I mentioned Tepuq Laki is walking 'again', haha :)

There was once when we were washing up, Tepuq Do Ayu actually shrugged me to a corner just so she could spray water at her husband to tease him.

The outcome was laughter and a little bit of Kelabit words that eventually represented seriousness.

At Tepuq Do Ayu's place, she never failed to ask her family to eat first before she starts eating too!

Everyday, ever since day 2 of working with Tepuq Do Ayu, she served me with home cooked food and always, with Nuba Laya - mashed rice wrapped in an Isip leaf.

The last day in the paddy field with Tepuq Do Ayu was special.
We were both very focused with our work and occasionally, she looked to me to see if I was planting my rice correctly and of course, to check my well-being.

She also brought me back to her house for a rest and served me more food -

That day, we finally finished her plot of sawa!

She also performed with her traditional 'toy' she used to play when she was younger! Tepuq Do Ayu is really talented when it comes to arts and music, and that was really cute to witness. 

(Tepuq and I were having this conversation about sports she used to play when she was younger - and she mentioned volleyball and this instrument!)

The last day was when I get to spend more time with Tepuq Do Ayu when we went around her pineapple farm to hunt for pineapples!

It was also that night where unexpected events happened such as tears and a performance together in front of everyone in the longhouse!

That was one day before we were to leave Bario. And I remembered Tepuq Do Ayu silently shrugging my shoulder while I stood next to her saying, "Senyum" , which means "Smile" while we took a group photo together!

Tepuq Do Ayu really taught me to love silently, without boast. Her little actions and her way of being had taught me a lot through these nine days in Bario, where I continued thinking of her even though it was my free day. Thank you Tepuq Do Ayu.

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Describe Wind: Tepuq Do' Ribed

Almost immediately after I went up the stairs leading to the longhouse, I was introduced to Tepuq Ngalinuh Karuh do' ribed (which means the beautiful Tepuq Ngalinuh Karuh). She, in all of her grandmotherly charm, commanded us to come to her. So like little kitties, we did so slowly, unsure of what to expect.
“Bila datang?”,
“Berapa lama?”
*A throaty chuckle and something in Kelabit that to this day I still cannot piece together. *

I left thinking, that wasn’t so bad. Soon it became an almost daily routine. Everyday she would call me or another WHEE member over, and coddle us as though we were one of her own grandchildren.

When she was not doing so, it became a past time for me to watch how much a part of the community she was even in her old age. She was still loved by the rest of the long house, serenaded to by Uncle Julian, picking vegetables with the rest of the women in view of cultural night, and being part of fire side talk. I think that definitely makes life worth living.

The aforementioned interactions, and a dozen hand gestures and “pu ayam”s (affectionate term grandparents call their grandchildren) later, I realised I could not love her any less than I loved my own grandmother. In her gentle, almost subtle way, she laid claim to my heart in ways no other elder could and tore it apart the day I left, silently telling me to come back again with tears in her eyes.

I hope to be able to still hear her sing as Uncle Julian plays the guitar for ger the next time I come back.

Tepuq Ngalinuh Karuh - Photo by Rhonwyn

Thursday 5 October 2017

Unforgettable memories in Bario – Valley of the Winds


Earlier this year, I heard about WHEE's Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project which aimed to explore the agricultural systems in Bario. It was my first time signing up for a volunteering project on highland agriculture and cultural exploration. After submitting a written application and undergoing an online interview in June, my application was accepted. Seven volunteers comprising of six Malaysians and one Singaporean were selected for the trip.

During the trip itself, we were joined by Emmanuel, a university student who was doing an internship in Bario, and some tourists from Austria, Italy, and German, who lived in the same homestay as us. The laughter, jokes, and adventures made the trip wonderful and memorable. The leech-filled jungle hikes, muddy frisbee matches, paddy planting, talk series, cultural performances and games are unforgettable memories.

Group photo - The August batch of WHEE's Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project, WHEE alumni, tourists and local villagers playing a game of frisbee in the paddy field
Bario is also known as Valley of the Winds. It is located in the Kelabit Highlands, where the minority indigenous group has been living in for centuries. The Adan rice grown in this region is famous for its smaller grain size, sweetness, and tenderness when bitten, thus earning it the name “Bario Rice”. Besides that, a unique variety of pineapple can also be found here. It is sweet, juicy, tender, and does not leave an 'itchy' aftertaste.  Furthermore, the salt harvested from salt spring is not only good for food preservation but is also beneficial to one's health. All of these are traits unique to this region and may not be seen in other places.

Tepuq Ribed (second from left, holding the heart-shaped balloon) was my assigned farmer throughout the project
In this project, I was assigned to a farmer, Tepuq Ribed, to collect agricultural data related to paddy planting while helping her in the fields. Tepuq Ribed is a member of possibly the last generation of Kelabits to practise traditional paddy farming. The ageing farming community and younger generation are not keen on continuing this labour-intensive practice, and this has resulted in many paddy fields being abandoned. It is saddening to see older members of the community, especially the women, having to work alone in the fields every day. Nevertheless, Tepuq Ribed and some other farmers practise 'gotong-royong', where they work together in each other's fields. They were excited and happy when we, the younger generation, helped out in the planting. There were also a few tourists who joined us in the field, which brought out laughter and fun. 

Some tourists from Kuala Lumpur, Austria and Italy had joined us to learn and experience the Kelabit culture and traditional paddy farming practices
The traditional paddy planting process involves germinating the seedling in the nursery and then transplanting them into the paddy fields. The farmers bend forward to transplant the seedlings and retreat slowly, as if respecting nature, letting it take its course instead of fighting against it. Such care culminates in the strength of the paddy, where it would bend with the breeze but never uproot. This is akin to the Kelabits keeping the core values of their culture and ancestral knowledge intact while adapting to the tide of development. That is the reason why the one-cycle-per-year practice for the planting of Bario rice remains. It allows more time for the paddy to mature and develop sufficient resistance against unfavourable growing conditions and pest problems naturally, thus giving it its unique fragrance and sweetness.

Special delicacy - Pattaya Friend Rice with locally grown pineapple, apple, and passion fruit
I was exposed to the Kelabit culture through interacting with older villagers, learning the Kelabit language, dishes, and cultural practices. There is no formal codification of the Kelabit history and language and everything is passed down verbally, where stories are told from the earlier generation to the next. 

As the location of Bario is isolated from towns and cities, the Kelabits' lifestyle and diet are shaped by whatever is available to them through farming, hunting, and foraging. With the help of some external organisations, farming has been expanded to different vegetables, mushrooms, and even kelulut bees (stingless bees). Recently, Bario is experiencing rapid changes and development, such as  the introduction of 24-hour electricity supply via solar power and micro hydro, Internet access, better road and infrastructure, and the development of the ecotourism and agrotourism industries. All these are done in hopes of attracting the younger generation of Kelabits who have moved out to the cities to return to Bario.

Bario village viewed from top of Praying Mountain
The chilly weather, beautiful scenery, friendly community, and slow-paced lifestyle in Bario have made this experience unforgettable. I hope to return to Bario during the harvest season and contribute to the farming community. 

Author: Yap Tzuen Kiat @ Michael @ Giat (Kelabit name)
Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture, August 2017

Monday 18 September 2017

The warm embrace

I was on my way to resume life in Asia as I had just completed my studies up in Scotland. In my journey to find food, I found Bario, one much closer to home, Singapore. The jetlag that followed me through my travels into Bario quickly vanished as I was welcomed by the Twin Otter plane, with a sight I could never imagine… I could see the pilots! Also, the scenery through the window panel of dense forestry and countless hills, were beyond my wildest dream.

Boarding Twin Otter plane (15 seater)

The vast land of Borneo under our feet :)

During my time in Bario, I was tasked with carrying out data-collection of the cultivation of Bario rice under a collaborative project between WHEE and SEACON. It was a privilege to come close to the land and to work with a community. In a village that relies heavily on its rice income, where wet paddies filled the scenery far and beyond, it was indeed a refreshing sight.

There were some experiences that had made my stay special and I would like to mention some.

Hanging out with Malaysians, having a life time of fun
There are no borders in friendships and it is simple: have fun and enjoy the ride together. The laughters that filled the long house, the occasions when we braved through the storm especially during our first day when we trekked the Tree of Life trail and enjoying our little break times at the cafĂ© for some brain freeze. They were indeed special moments which forged a special bond and friendship throughout the trip and beyond. Although we may differ in background and ethnicity, everyone was genuine and supportive of one another. This made me ponder on the kind of society I hope to live in, one that enriches, invokes passion, supports, and embraces differences. I hope that this would steer towards elevating the community to be a better kind and a safe place to dream.

Frisbee session in the sawah, rice paddy field, thoroughly refreshing!

ABC (Bario Ice Kacang)

Time with Kelabit culture and attachment with Tepuq

I was assigned to Tepuq Bulan and Daud during my working days. My first encounter with them was filled with worry, that my little knowledge of Bahasa Melayu would restrict my communication. However, the worry dispelled after knowing that the language barrier wasn’t an issue and we broke into long conversations through the first night. They are great people and hearing their story on why they chose to retire in Bario because of their love for the land, amazed me. Furthermore, many other strong and resilient locals whom I met throughout the project, have special experiences with the land and still play active roles in caring and growing Bario.

On our final day, we celebrated the occasion with Cultural Night where the villagers were invited to a meal and while enjoying performances. As we did the Kelabit dance, we spurred one another with words of encouragement. The tepuqs' hands were always warm for an embrace and showered us with their love and care. Their warm receival of us, even though we are not related by any ties or relation, was precious. My heart felt so full that day I could hardly contain it all. It brings me back to a lesson from nature, that the land has always provided us with natural resources, yet it seems to be still in abundance afterwards. I was raised in a society which taught me to defend and accumulate things for a certain future. In that context, it is hard to see giving as a demonstration of strength. The amount of appreciation and effort that comes with giving become so apparent that they would last for eternity with a smile each day. This is a great empowerment for us and the community.

Wefie with Tepuq Bulan in the paddy field!

Cultural night in the long house

In closure, I would say that my WHEE experience ignited within me a new hope, that there is something to love and strive for. A better community through warm embrace and sincerity. Also, the preservation of cultural heritage (in this context, Kelabit) is important for us to remember valuable lessons from the past, to be wiser in our choices for the present and the future. Thank you Project WHEE for such a extra-ordinary experience in Malaysia, a country with vibrant diversity of many ethnics.

Signing off,
John Ng

Kau tau betapa ku sayang tepumu?

Walking behind my tepuq as we made our way slowly but surely towards the fields, through treacherous muddy buffalo trails with piles of poop and steep jungle tracks; all I could do was to try not to slip each time I took a step forward. It was undeniable that the locals here were super humans, taking these trails daily to the rice fields that provided for them year after year. However my heart sank each time I watched my 80 year old tepuq made that trip, and it sank a little more each time I walked away.

I never expected to bond with her as much as we did over the short five days that we had together. Our relationship started off like any new working partners, foreign and a little awkward. Neither of us were big talkers, that made day one in the fields silent with a tinge of apprehensiveness. I remember thinking “Data collection is going to be a bigger challenge than I thought, or any sort of communication even!”

Our entire relationship was placed on fast-forward, including the warming up to each other. Tepuq was not a person of many words, but what she lacked in words she made up a hundred foe in her actions. She brought way too much food to the fields, ensuring that I was never hungry, even giving me snacks to take back with me even though she knew that I was going straight to lunch right after. She brought boiled eggs each day, and something told me that she doesn’t usually boil eggs because the first time she brought them mine was half boiled and exploded all over me. She was embarrassed and apologizing for her cooking saying ‘Tepuq tidak pandai masak ini’, but I just smiled and slurped the whatever egg I could salvage from the bits of shell I had. The egg boiling improved over time as each day the egg was a little more solid, and on my final day the egg was perfectly hard boiled! She kept giving and giving and all I could do was accept it with a grateful heart. She would stop me from working every so often only to say ‘minum!’ which meant ‘drink’. She would make little comments about how I was not covered up enough from the scorching sun that proved to be a lot closer to us than usual for we were in the highlands. She kept saying ‘nanti balik ibu bapa tanya kenapa tanam padi jadi hitam?’, worrying that my parents would wonder why I was burnt from my work in the fields.

She would often comment on how I wasn’t allowed to spend more time with her, a mere 5 hours a day in comparison to the 8 hours she had with participants of the previous batches. After explaining to her the first time that we were on a completely different program and schedule, I came to realize that she was saying it out of affection more than actual questioning. This added to my weighted heart as I made my slow, slippery hike back to the village each day.  

She mentioned to me that she had told her husband who was working in Miri how she acquired a new ‘grandchild’ a.k.a me, who was following her around in the rice fields helping her with the planting. This was such a random thing to tell me but it warmed my heart through and through, for it was recognition of sorts from my stoic tepuq.

It was strange and interesting to see everyone grow more protective of their tepuqs, and it became almost competitive in a subtle game of what I like to call “my tepuq is better than yours”. It was sweet to observe the different dynamics between the each ‘tepuq’ and their ‘cucu’. You’re not just accepted into the community there, but you gain a new family.

Bario surprised me with lots of tears, pineapple and rice. Saying goodbye to my tepuq was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, as I did not expect to develop an emotional attachment to that degree. My heart breaks a little every time I think of my tepuq all alone in the fields, working slowly each day in silence.

Thank you Bario for Tepuq Supang, and thank you Tepuq, for sharing your Bario with me.

With love, Sigang

The Ultimate Kampung Workout

Have you ever thought, “I would love to join WHEE as a batch member, but I’m going to lose all my gains and my workout routine will never see the light of day while I’m there!” Well worry no further for there is a solution for you! Yes you! That 5 times a week gym rat who admires himself/herself in the mirror whilst lifting free weights, and gives him/herself an imaginary pat on the back for benching that 120! I’m talking to you!

Introducing the ultimate kampung workout….*drumroll*


Run agility drills and full body HIIT workouts right in your neighbourhood sawah! The knee high mud adds resistance like you wouldn’t believe, and the sticky slippery mud forces core and quad engagement just to stand up straight without falling over. It is the perfect strength and conditioning program!

Here are a few suggested workout programs that are perfect for the sawah:
  • Sawah frisbee
  • Sawah sprints
  • Sawah squats
  • Sawah squat jumps
  • Sawah rugby
  • Sawah wrestling
  • Sawah captain ball

Here are a few suggested recovery workouts/light cardio:
  • Climb Prayer mountain (full body workout, and if you want a real challenge, climb it bare footed)
  • Go jungle trekking with Uncle Julian (quads engagement with slight upper body)

  • Plant rice with your tepuqs (excellent for strengthening the lower back and quad)

  • Discover buffalo trails and try not to slip (excellent balance and core training)

  • Playing ‘the floor is lava’ at the salt lick (agility training)

  • Pick pineapples (Bicep workout)

  • Chase/terrorize ducks and chickens (The more arm flapping you do, the more you engage your rotator cuffs and your scapula)

  • Ngarang (fantastic core and lower body workout)

  • Giving your tepus massages (works your extensors and flexors)

  • Carrying pineapples and rice (basically free weights, literally and figuratively)

The possibilities are endless! And if you are feeling brave? Challenge Uncle Julian to a wrestling match in the sawah.

Ask any fitness expert and they will tell you that stretching is THE MOST important part of every workout. Well while you're stretching out those sore muscles, it is the perfect time to tend leech and bloodsucker bites! Talk about multi-tasking!

Another secret to good fitness and to being happy and content with life is SLEEP!

If you try out any combination of workouts presented above, we guarantee you will sleep soundly. Exhibit A: