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