Tuesday 28 February 2017

My Rural Trail

My rural trail started from Kampong Speu (Cambodia), and through to Dulan (Taiwan), Jerantut (Pahang), and Bario (Sarawak) up until now. This trail may have been by chance or could have also been actually scripted. Geographically, these places are far from each other. Yet, as I travel and gain new experiences, I keep noticing some similar relationships among these places. This is very interesting and I am always amazed with every trip I embark upon.

Bario, being another rural area in my trail, was a unique experience. This unique feeling can only be experienced when you participate and interact with the locals mentally and physically. One of my friends asked me, ‘Is there any difference between Bario and other rural areas?’ 

Yes, they are different. However, certain aspects of their lifestyles are similar. For instance, agriculture is extremely important for the residents in all these rural areas to sustain their lives.

Out of the four rural areas I have visited, Dulan and Bario are well known for their indigenous cultures. Interestingly, the Amis in Dulan and Kelabits in Bario share some of similarities. For example, their traditional attires are similar. Both wear plain black shirts decorated with colourful beads and necklaces. Regardless of whether both ethnicities are actually related or this similarity may just be coincidental, this is still an interesting brand new discovery for me.

Tepuqs in the traditional Kelabit attire during Cultural Night in Bario Asal
Another characteristic the people in these rural areas share is their simplicity and peacefulness. This is a significant reason why I love Bario so much. The locals were friendly to us; it was nice to be always greeted by the local Kelabits.

My assigned farmer, Tepuq Lun Anid lives next door to our homestay (Tepuq Sinah Rang’s Homestay). This was a benefit for me as I could spend more time with her family, something I really enjoyed. They accepted me like one of their family members and this feeling of inclusiveness in their family was priceless. 

Tepuq always introduced me as her ‘cucu’ (grandchild) to others and addressed me with my Kelabit name, Supang, when we met people on the way to her paddy field in the morning. There was also one Sunday morning before attending church service, Tepuq passed a Kelabit necklace to me and asked me to wear it to the church. When I saw everyone of their family had one on their neck, I felt really touched and grateful.

Tepuq Lun Anid’s family and I
Interacting with the locals and especially with Tepuq reminded me of my times in Jerantut when my group mate and I were in a focus group discussion and interview session with the locals. That experience actually improved my language and communication skills, and this was a great advantage for me when I was conducting my data collection task under the Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project in Bario. 

Somebody once said, 'For every step you take, some traces will remain,' Reflecting upon my accumulated experiences, I realise the truth of that statement, seeing how every trip and experience counts. 

Undoubtedly, I will continue with my rural trail as much as I can.

Thursday 23 February 2017

Rice: A Whole New Meaning

Today, I heard on the radio, “If you would like to travel in Malaysia, there are only two major questions that you need to ask: Where to go? What to eat?” This shows how important food is to us as Malaysians, because to us, FOOD IS LOVE. FOOD IS LIFE. FOOD IS ALL YOU NEED.  

Going to Bario under Project WHEE and as a General Electric (GE) volunteer was an eye opening experience. To begin with, there was a unique taste to Bario food. As a student who used to study in a boarding school, Kari Nanas (pineapple curry) was a dish that I used to enjoy and ate all the time in KL. To many of us, rice is just rice, no matter where we go, no matter how we cook it. It is still rice. Now that I am back from Bario, I am here to say that it is not the same.

General Electric, my sponsor for the trip, without whom all these would not be possible
Every meal that we had in Bario, we were intrigued and amazed by the different tastes of food. Food in Bario has this unique taste to it, it is truly something that I can never find in KL. Each meal came as a surprise, and each meal was tasty in its own way. The cooking style there is very different, where they use local flavoring and local produce. Besides, they produce and consume a lot of pineapples here. Back home, I usually do not eat pineapples due to certain past unpleasant experiences. However, as the local pineapples were served, I took a bite, and I fell in love. Every subsequent meal after that could not and would not be complete without pineapple. Pineapple in any form, be it sliced, made into jam, or even curry. Besides, the pineapple curry here was way sweeter and nicer than the one I used to have in KL. 

My first meal in the field: Nuba Tu'ah, Chicken curry, Crushed Daun Keladi and Buah Kabar

Our first meal in Tepuq Sina Rang's homestay: nuba' laya', wild boar, imported chicken, buah kabar and midin!

Food is amazing, but have you ever wondered how much goes into the process of getting food on our table? Along with the thrust of our batch that is “Growing food, sustaining culture” we managed to explore what really happens in the background, and why we should treasure food even more.

Throughout the project, I was paired with Tepuq Supang, who stayed in Arur Dalan village. She is very friendly and was very nice to me. She guided me through the process of harvesting rice, and allowed me to join her in doing it. The best part of my experience, is that she allowed me to try the full process of harvesting, from cutting the paddy with the Eyo (sickle), to threshing, winnowing, drying, as well as carrying the grains from the paddy field to her house. The experience was tiring, but totally worth it.

Throughout the day while we were in the farm, she would work quietly, without complaint and without much rest. She was really caring too, as she always asked if I had enough water out in the field, or if I was tired, knowing that we “city kids” do not usually do such intense work. Similar to the experience of Kylie with Tepuq Supang in the previous batch, I think I told her once about how much I liked the pineapples from her farm, and the pineapples kept coming in. While resting, she would quietly walk over to her pineapple farm behind the shack, and come back with pineapples for me to eat.

Me and Tepuq Supang, a true Survivor (pun intended!)

Truth be told, farming is not simple, and it is something that really requires passion, long hours under the sun, real perseverance, and it is really tiring. Tepuq has a huge farm, and she used to work on it on her own, just like a true survivor. 

As we worked on the farm and while I collected data for our research on traditional vs mechanised farming, she would tell me stories of her passion for farming, and the activities her family used to do in the paddy field. Thankfully, her son, Bobby and his wife Celia also joined in on harvesting, and they have also inherited the passion for farming.  
Me and Bobby working in the field
So now one may ask... what has this experience taught you? 

This is what the experience taught me: when your mama tells you to finish your rice so that your future girlfriend does not have pimples, it is not really about that. It is because some Tepuq (or farmer) out there has spent hours in the paddy fields to ensure that we get to enjoy rice. Every grain of it. 

The sweat, pain, and passion put into producing food is something that I never realized until now, I will cherish and enjoy my rice, knowing how much has been put into that small plate of rice. Through this project, I found the new meaning to rice, and why achieving the UN Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDG) of food security is so important.

Will I go back to plant or harvest paddy? Sure. Why wouldn't I?

The Bario Experience

My batch mates; the people I spent my everyday with. 

There are so many things that can be said about the Bario experience. But one of the things I'm immensely grateful for would be to have gone to Bario under/with Project WHEE.

While we were in Bario, we came across a couple of tourists who were there for a couple of days, and it was obvious that the only people the tourists interacted with were the people in their homestays and their guides. No doubt the villagers were immensely welcoming and friendly, but it simply wasn't the same being a tourist in Bario and being there with Project WHEE. Through Project WHEE, I was able to experience so much more of Bario, as opposed to only being able to experience it as a place. I got to experience its community, its people, and to truly understand what their daily life is like. To me, Bario is so much more than just a place.

I honestly believe that Bario wouldn't have been as amazing if it weren't for the activities we had. The talk series were really eye-opening and allowed me to broaden my understanding and get a glimpse into the issues faced by the Kelabits. It made me realize how little I truly know about the world, and how real the problems faced by traditional farmers were. The farming, trekking and hiking allowed me to challenge my own capabilities, and I learned more about myself as well. Activities such as beauty sessions and cultural night really brought the team together, and it was lovely seeing all the Tepuqs enjoying themselves. If it weren't for these activities, I don't think I would've been able to form the relationships I did or have such a deep appreciation for the Kelabit culture.

However, aside from forming close relationships with the Tepuqs and the people of Bario, I also formed close relationships with my batch mates. Experiencing Bario isn't something that can be put into words, and I'm grateful to have shared this life-changing experience with my batch mates; its comforting- to have people who understand. It was the simple things such as brushing our teeth together, saying prayers before meals, and having all our meals together that made me so fond of my batch mates. Who else would I compare insect bites with?

One of the things I found to be really surprising though - was how much I enjoyed not having any internet connection. Before going to Bario I braced myself for the frustration I'd endure with having little to no internet connection. Initially, it was pretty strange not having any internet connection. I'd reach for my phone out of sheer habit before realizing, there was nothing to check. However, as the days passed, I found it to be oddly peaceful and comforting. There was simply no need to check in with the world because for that ten days, Bario and its inhabitants were my world.

Not having any internet caused us to interact more with the people around us, and made us more proactive in looking for things to do. During our rest time, my batch mates and I would bond over things we wouldn't usually practice in the city, like jamming and just spending undiluted quality time together. It was refreshing, and it taught me the importance of giving my full attention to the people and things around me.

The Bario experience was a lovely one, and it simply wouldn't have been the same without Project WHEE and my fellow batch mates.

Friday 10 February 2017

The People, Always.

My Happy Tepuq Club; the people I worked with on the farm. 

What makes Bario so special, for me, would always be the people.

The Kelabits have a unique tradition of changing their names when they have their first child and first grand child. For me, the changing of names represents how one's life is transformed just by having another person in his/her life. The tepuqs i worked with gave me a Kelabit name just after a couple of days in Bario, and I believe that this is symbolic of how through this one encounter with the people of Bario, my life has changed.

I came to Bario expecting to grow - but i never imagined being able to build such strong relationships with the people around me, and I never expected that I'd end up being so attached to the tepuqs. On our first night in Bario, we had a meet and greet session which consisted of a series of ice breaking games that allowed for all the participants and tepuqs to introduce themselves. When it was Tepuq Sinah Rang's turn, she gave a mini-speech and said something along the lines of how she was immensely grateful for us, and how we were sent from up above to help them out. During her speech, I remember feeling a tad bit touched, but mostly,I felt surprised at how warm and loving she was - when she barely even knew us.

The people and community of Bario have this special way of emanating warmth. There was never a single second during my stay in Bario where I felt like an outsider, and for someone who has lived her whole life in the city, this was new, and strange, and lovely. Everywhere I went, people would wave or say hi, or smile at me, but it wasn't the kind of acknowledgment and attention that made you feel like you were a famous superstar. It was the kind of welcome that made you feel like you were coming home.

Aside from that, the people of Bario were extremely genuine in everything that they did. My mom has always taught me that things are never free in life, and that if people were to gift you gifts outside of special occasions, that one should always return the favour. However, in Bario, the tepuqs never had any ulterior motives and never wanted anything from me. They legitimately just wanted to give me things or help out, and this baffled me for a bit. But the people in Bario have the culture of sharing, and its something that's hard to come across in the city. I mean, it isn't even easy for me to give a nugget away despite having 20 pieces of nuggets, and these tepuqs are just giving their rice and pineapples away, left, right, and centre.

The people of Bario have left an impact on me, and I'll always hold in my heart the little things that I love so much about the people there. I'll always miss the way Tepuq Ulo whistles while we work in the field to call for the wind, the way Tepuq Sinah Ribed has the cutest way of saying "takpe lah" whenever something happens, and how Tepuq Maga came to the airport to see us before we flew, and so much more.

The contrast between how I felt when Tepuq Sinah Rang gave a speech on our first night versus how I felt when Tepuq Maga gave a speech during breakfast on our final day in Bario was immense, and if it weren't for the sudden attack of sneezes on my part, I probably would've bawled my eyes out.

I believe that its the people who make the place, and for me, the people of Bario have definitely made it one of the loveliest places to be.