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: