Start Blank, Then Stop, Look and Listen

Ever imagined stepping into a foreign environment and meeting new people? We have been there before, meeting great people and not-so-great people. Once in a while before experiencing another culture, we are briefed on that culture, its dos and don’ts. However, we get so immersed in the happenings and events that we forget about the rules and norms. Sometimes, our beliefs about something is inaccurate or worse, offensive towards others. Maybe it is time to just stop for a while……
Let’s start with the biggest group of outsiders in Bario at that time: us. Most of the team have been through ToT (Training of Trainers) workshops, learning about what we are going into, and knowing where is safe to tread around. Those countless hours of culture sensitivity and stuff were not all a waste, in fact it did prepare some to a certain extent. Nevertheless, there were always some incidents that occurred because people momentarily forgot about which buttons to not push, incidents that can be avoided if we just stop and look. I admit, all of us had some hard time trying to tread around the norms and common rules of others there. We are human, who commits mistakes, but don’t you think some common mistakes can be easily avoided? There were numerous cases where misunderstanding could be avoided if people took more time to understand the situation better.

Batch 3 Group Selfie (Credits to Alicia)
We had our misunderstandings within the team and as a team with others, sometimes due to miscommunication, others rash actions. In the end, we have this big argument and discord among others which takes days to be settled. In most cases, all the intentions were good, it just was conveyed in a not-so-perfect manner. My Aunty Tagung, the lady I was assigned to, told me once that she was uncomfortable with people because they just talk too much, and not giving her enough privacy at times. I assume that those people have good intentions and just wanted a friendly chat, but maybe there is a limit to everything. There were times where people did not understand the situation clearly and jump into rash conclusions, making the situation worse than ever. If only all of us did take our time and analyse it more, many incidents can be avoided.
During my time with Project WHEE! in Bario, we came across foreign tourists staying at the area. 
Most were actually very heart-warming people, people who wished you could have known them better. There were also people who already had their stereotyped mind-set on others, enforcing their own ideology to make conclusions of some things. When we step into a totally new environment, we have to enter it with a clean, blank mind, without any assumptions or preconceptions of the place. It makes a lot of difference not to assume things, and acting safe with others. The assumption of wrong ideas may cause some discomfort towards others, because the mind-set we have on them would subconsciously be translated into our actions, tone and words. We may not notice those changes, but many on the receiving end do detect them. Those heart-warming tourists were very courteous in nature and were very thoughtful in their actions and speech, I am glad to have met those rare sincere kindness of people. If only more people were like that, if only we could learn to be as such, the world would have been a much quiet, and kind place.

No doubt all of us will be experiencing a new culture or living in a new place soon, at the same time meeting new people too. Just bear in mind, before anything, if we just stop, look around and analyse the situation we are in, and listen to what the other person has to say before making any action, less conflicts will happen. Many misunderstandings can be easily avoided, if we all start on a blank page of mind, and just stop, look and listen.
Postcards from Bario

Postcards from Bario

If you mentioned the name ‘Bario’ to me 1
year ago, I would have asked you what Bario
is, and to be completely honest, I will have to admit that the word ‘Kelabit’
only ever registered to me as an ‘ethnic group’ in East Malaysia. Today, I
not only know where Bario is, but I
also have 16 days’ worth of priceless memories and experiences that come along
with it. 
Bario landscape- as green as meets the eye.
Undoubtedly, Bario is a very beautiful
place. An image of all those paddy fields, longhouses and pineapple plantations
tucked into the valleys of lush rolling hills make a pretty laptop wallpaper.
But Bario is so much more than a photo opportunity. This place is rich with
culture, has a great community and people who would take great measures to make
sure that their home feels a little bit like your home too.
I fondly remember the first day when the 9
of us Project WHEE participants arrived at Tepu’ Sinah Rang’s homestay (for
those who do not know, Tepu’ Sinah Rang is our homestay host). Upon seeing us,
her face lit up and she gave all of us huge hugs, calling us her ‘susuks’
(grandchildren in Kelabit). I felt extremely touched by this woman who didn’t
even know us but was so joyed by our presence; this woman who was so warm to us
strangers on our first day in a foreign environment. The hospitality amazed me
to no end and I felt honoured to be welcomed into her home.
Women dancing to a Kelabit song during church service. 

Having lived in the city the whole 20 years
of my life, I don’t think I have ever felt such a great sense of community and
care before. During church services and social events, you could see the camaraderie
shared and formed between members of the community through warm smiles and
engaging conversations. Watching the longhouse neighbours sit by the fireplace
one night, just talking and sharing with each other, it made me reflect on my
own life back in Kuala Lumpur. Most of us ‘budak bandar’ get so caught up in
our daily lives; school, Internet, shopping, watching the latest episode of
Game of Thrones, that we don’t take the time of day to get to know the people
who live literally beside us. Speaking of which, I didn’t even know the name of
my neighbours. Do you?

Here’s to everyone, and all the memories that follow.
moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience”- Oliver Wendall
Holmes. The 16 days spent in Bario consisted of many worthy moments that I will
carry with me for a long long time. I was blessed to have shared this amazing
experience with equally amazing people. The people that I have worked with and
met complemented our project goals and aims perfectly like salt and pepper. Living
together with 10 other people -people you have never met in your life- under
the same roof for 16 days could have driven anybody up the wall. But to have batch
mates (people whom I now proudly call my close friends) who share similar sentiments,
mind-set and project goals … now that’s what made the Project WHEE experience
and those insightful moments complete. And for that, I am thankful. 

Rachel Khoo

A Lesson On Independence

A Lesson On Independence

One morning in Bario, I woke up 15 minutes earlier than I normally do to wash my clothes (as I was running out of pairs to wear). As I was walking to the open air passage that connected the homes with the common hall, I witnessed our neighbor drying her clothes. Before I move on, I must highlight that this woman is almost a hundred years old. I remained under a shade as I watched her cheerfulness at doing a chore. She lifted her black pants from the red pail slowly without an ounce of complain. When her hand with the wet pants in it, reached the railing, she paused to look up and enjoy the cotton candy cloud filled sky.

There are two things I need to point out. One, I seldom do chores at home, besides looking after my own things. Most of the cooking and cleaning is done by my Superwoman mum. Secondly, my need for independence has always been a strong quality with me. However, until I came to Bario, I realized that independence is not only achieved with being allowed to do something on own but also to make decisions by ourselves.

Independence can be shaped by just the simple act of looking after our own self. This is a beautiful lesson that Bario taught me. This was highly amplified by the sense of independence that this woman had, even with her old age. In that very moment I watched her, I only wished that if I were to live to be her age, I would live life as cheerfully and independently as she did.

I emerged from the shade and walked up to her, greeting her with the common Kelabit greeting for Good Morning “Petabi leketang”. She flashed me a genuine smile and carried on looking at the blue sky above.
The blue sky view you get from that very spot we were that morning,
Jedida Ravi
While You Reap What You Sow, They Eat What They Reap.

While You Reap What You Sow, They Eat What They Reap.

I love the idea of doing a job that directly influences and impacts your life. In this case, the women that we worked with spent their days in the paddy field, farms and ponds, where their life’s work was basically their source of nourishment. I feel there is a great sense of satisfaction and achievement that births from this. For that simple reason, I feel that the Bario locals have a lifestyle that most of us urbanites will be envious of.

In contrast, here in the city, our daily jobs or studies revolve around indirectly influencing our future. We spend our days in the office, hacking away at the computer to collect a measure of currency that hopefully would be sufficient to put food on the table. Or, we burn the midnight oil, hoping to finish a last minute college assignment on time, so that one day, we would have a high paying job that would further improve our living conditions.

There is always that level of uncertainty at what our future offers us. However, with the simple life of the Bario women, comes a sense of fulfillment that one finds hard to come across in a fast paced, technology driven and hectic city setting. Sometimes, amidst this future driven schedule, we lose sight of today. Thus, we lack the luxury of living in the now.
The view from the longhouse, simple and beautiful.
As expressionist Hoffman said “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”. Being away from what you’re used to, most often times helps you recognize what you truly need to lead a good life. Living in Bario (even for a short time) has implored me to refocus my life and goals as to stay true myself and not lose it while on my journey into the future.

Jedida Ravi

Alone We Can Do So Little, Together We Can Do So Much

Alone We Can Do So Little, Together We Can Do So Much

Arriving at Bario, we were received with shaky and unpredictable electricity. At first thought, such an occurrence in a city setting would cease schedules from going on as planned. However, in Bario this was not the case. Electricity was but a slight downside to packed schedules that the local people had.

Nevertheless, Batch 2 was all set to clean out the hydrodam (that powered the electricity in Bario Asal), as to leave with having made a sustainable and positive change for the locals. After a busy first week of following our Sinah’s around and doing various community services, we settled for a full day at the dam on our first Saturday morning there.

At first glance, cleaning the dam seemed like a simple task that would be conveniently finished in a matter of hours. That my friends, was the naivety in all of us, speaking. We started off, digging up small chunks of dirt with shovels or even with our bare hands. A couple of hours passed and we started to congratulate each other on the progress we were making. “Woah! Guys, we did quite a lot ah?” I remember myself say. Little did we know that what we had done in those mere hours, was but a speck of what we would be doing later that day. We barely grazed the surface of that dirt clogged dam, that morning.

Us attempting to dig up the hydro dam with our bare hands!
We were accompanied by Agan (he conveniently lived just two doors away from Tepu Sinah Rang’s place), who I must say makes digging up 12 feet of dirt, look like a walk in a park. Just having Agan accompany and guide us that day was truly inspiring. With having spent only 7 days in Bario, I had noticed a strong lacking of young people in the premises. It was encouraging to see Agan’s sense of responsibility for his home, amplified through the simple task of cleaning the dam with us.

Agan starting us off by digging up the first pile of dirt.
After what seemed to be an already tiring few hours at the dam, we returned again, this time joined by the remaining two individuals that completed Batch 2. Anna and Andrew immediately stepped up to the task at hand and gelled together with the team in just a matter of moments. With the help of his friend, Agan managed to open up the gate that was restricting relevant progress from happening (we didn’t quite know that at the time). This time, water rushed out with great current and that’s when we began to get down and dirty.

The group shovelling the dirt from upward because of the strong current.

Fast forward a good 4 hours later, we took a moment to take in the work that we had just accomplished. It was alarming just recognizing the amount of shoveling, digging and rock maneuvering we had done in just a matter of hours. Helen Keller once said “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”. This was a quote that was certainly magnified that day. It got me appreciating the relevance and strength of teamwork. I guess you can only trust my word of mouth on this, but that hydro dam had to be one of the biggest cleaning projects I have ever experienced!

So many times, an individual could have said “I’ve got this!” and tried to do something by their own strength; like attempting to move a humongous rock that was limiting the current flow. But, it is safe to say that everyone humbled themselves for the better and asked each other for help. I can even remember the moments that strongly amplified teamwork in our group; like when various teammates offered to take over a certain tasks, when others began to feel the tiredness overwhelm them. In the end, the team slowly fell into a rhythm of some digging and some shoveling in order to speed up the process, without being asked to.

The group falling into a rhythm of things.
True to it’s nature, encouragement and basic teamwork was the key to a successful outcome. I can still clearly remember our coordinators Rhon and Daniel commending us on the progress we were slowly making, and further encouraging us to work harder even amidst our immensely tired state. As much as we just wanted to give up and call it a day, those basic words of encouragement implored us press on and finally finish the job. This paired with the great sense of humor and cheerful spirit that everyone had, was just the perfect recipe to a fruitful outcome.
Here’s a little snippet of the fun we had!

At a later glance, I related our initial naivety of the situation to the iceberg concept where only 10% (surface of the dam) of the iceberg is visible and the other 90% (that took forever to dig up) remains underwater. It was a good lesson to all of us to not judge a situation by how it looked outwardly. Nevertheless, even though the 90% was apparent, we successfully dug it all up with just one solution- teamwork! 

Happy and tired faces after a job well done!
Reassessing Happiness, Redefining Success

Reassessing Happiness, Redefining Success

To be completely honest, I felt to some extent, a
considerable amount of shame for feeling so foreign in a local Malaysian setting.
This made me realise the true degree of diversity that exists in Malaysia and
how much of it yet to be discovered.
For those who don’t know, the people in Bario are mostly Kelabit
but there are also a number of Penan people living there. Life in Bario was
fairly different for me – and it was a change that I thoroughly enjoyed and now,
miss. However, I have come to understand that this change is not always viewed
Sometimes, some people come into Bario and quickly assume
that the people there live difficult and unhappy lives. Difficult life might be
true to some extent, probably because the work in Bario is mostly laborious. Unhappy? This I will have to disagree.
It’s so fundamentally flawed to think that just because
someone doesn’t want, need or have the same things (tangible or intangible) that
you do, their sense of happiness is less
valid – because it is not.
Bario reminded me that different people can live life
differently – and that is okay. It
really is.

Another realisation I acquired in Bario was through my
teaching experience at SMK Bario. I went to SMK Bario twice to teach English
(teach = playing English games) to Form 1 and 2 students. I started by asking
the students what they wanted to become in the future.  Teacher and doctor were
frequent answers. But of course, there were some others such as astronaut,
policeman, fireman, and fisherman.
It is through this that I realised that there’s something
severely flawed with the way we (not everyone, but a lot of people) think of ambitions and aspirations. We often
encourage students to become doctors, engineers, scientists, among others – and
tell them that they are “on the right track”. We discourage those who want to
become policemen, farmers, fishermen, among others – and tell them to dream
higher to achieve “more”.
This needs to change. We need to encourage students to be successful
in whatever they want to become and whatever profession they choose to work. The
idea of being successful too, needs to be changed. Being successful should not
be about being able to make a lot of money – but being good at what you do, and
enjoying what you do.
Anyway, I don’t think the world
can survive if we all decided to become doctors, right?

Kan Wai Min
That Is Okay

That Is Okay

For those of you who do not
know, the main objective of Project WHEE! is to teach selected local Bario women
who are in one way or another, involved in tourism such as homestay hosts and
eco-tourism guides. To achieve this objective, every participant will be
assigned to a lady. We adopted the method of shadowing; teaching our respective
Tepu’ English while we were at it.
I was assigned to Tepu’ Sina
Rang, who is the homestay host for all the participants of Project WHEE!. This
meant that unlike most of the other participants, I was based where I stayed.
Sometimes, during our debriefing sessions (they were sessions for all of us to share what we did, accomplished and learnt that day)
which were held every night, I would feel myself getting frustrated for not
doing a good enough job (by the standards I have set for myself) and sometimes,
a wee bit jealous for not having the experiences that others were having.
This is when I realised that my personal experiences should not be compared with other people’s. I reminded myself of this constantly and now when I look
back, I am glad I did so. I learnt so
much from Tepu’ than I could have possibly taught her – I learnt immensely just
from the way she lived her life.
My “teaching” days usually
started with me asking Tepu’ what we were going to do for the day. Sometimes, she would tell me specifically
what we were going to do and sometimes, she would not give a specific answer.
The latter is because she does not usually have a set schedule and that some of what we do depended on the weather.
On my first day, it rained. I saw life pausing for a bit – a couple (neighbours) pulled some chairs,
sat by the window and watched the rain fall. It was beautiful.
Anyway, more about my Tepu’. She is older than me but she has more energy, stamina and strength than I
do. Once, when we were working to level a heap of ground, I
was so worn out but Tepu’ just kept going. There have been other times
when I asked Tepu’ to take a break just so I can catch my breath!
I guess what I enjoyed (and
miss) most were my conversations with Tepu’; about her life in Miri, her
children, her homestay, and her life in general. Tepu’ Sina Rang, in a few
words, is a very lovely and loving woman who loves to laugh and make others laugh – she lives her life simply with boundless joy and shares this joy with others.
Oftentimes, I would ask her if
there’s anything else to do or if something I did was done properly, she
would tell me, “That is okay.”
She said that often. The words
were simple, but the effect was powerful.
A timely reminder to live life
more slowly, more simply, and less seriously because really, that is okay.

Kan Wai Min
You Are What You Experience

You Are What You Experience

I have to admit, I definitely underestimated the amount and value of
learning I was going to gain through my 16-day Project WHEE! experience.
On and off electricity, limited internet connection, and very
cold showers.
Pre-WHEE!, I was that budak
(“city kid”) who would dread and be deterred by all of the above.
Post-WHEE!, I have a better grasp of needs, wants, the huge
difference between the two, and also,  I
have  realised how unhealthy and damaging
it is to mistake certain wants as needs.
Before sharing too much of my Project WHEE! experience, I
shall explain why I decided to be part of Project WHEE.
Primarily, I wanted to give back to the community and Project WHEE! provided
that opportunity with very appealing and unique circumstances. I was particularly
attracted to the idea of being placed in a different community in an unfamiliar
culture. This has been a part of Malaysia I have always wanted to discover.
Frankly, I did not know anything about Bario or the
Kelabit community before applying for this. But after this project, as cheesy as
this will sound, the Bario folk will always have a special place in my heart. 
I went to Bario as a participant/”teacher” to an assigned
lady, but I learnt so much more than I could have taught. In my next few blog
posts, I hope to share as much as possible about my experience and all that I
have learnt.
But if there’s one thing I can say for now is that the
vicarious experience is nothing like first-hand experience, which has led me to
this: You are what you experience. 

So, put yourself out there and experience.

As for all the experiences I’ve gained through Project WHEE! which have (hopefully) shaped me to become a better person, I have to thank the
wonderful Bario folk and of course, my fellow WHEE! comrades.
Kan Wai Min

The Days We Spent Walking

These days, I take a train to get anywhere. While watching KL rushing by from outside the window gives me this almost atavistic sense of belonging, there was a time in Bario when my feet could take me anywhere. All I had to do was grab a friend and walk down those familiar, creaky steps.
Photo: Stairs to work, Who's in Arur Dalan Team? :) #onlyinbario
On the first day itself, we had to walk from Bario airport to Bario Asal. Our little walking bus was pretty euphoric for people who had just gotten off a flying tin can of a plane. As we walked, we passed by sights that would eventually become more familiar to us than we expected. We walked and chatted with a noise that must have disturbed all the buffaloes we passed. Our tourist-ey “oohs” and “ahhhh”s would eventually die down in the following weeks but our awe and love for Bario only grew from there. I can assure you that my volume never died down. (I’ve been told you can hear my laughs from the other side of the longhouse, much to my dismay)
For a while, Tepu Uloh had gone off to Miri and I was left to float around with my friends and their ladies. After spending a day or two with some of the ladies in Bario Asal, I decided to join Jess with her lady for a bit.This lead me on my first walk to Arur Dalan. It’s a trail that I miss taking, though for the first day, I spent most of my time watching the muddy ground and keeping my balance. It’s a fifteen minute walk that immerses you in gorgeous scenery. We were chatting along when the Arur Dalan regulars suddenly told me to look up a hill.
“Look, Felice. That’s our friend!”
I couldn’t see anyone amongst that dense shrubbery. I was pretty perplexed.
“There!” They said. When I looked again, I realized they were pointing a tough, burly, grey buffalo.
Turns out, this buffalo would be there at the same spot, at the same time, every day.
“I’m gonna name him Bob!” I said.
“Why?” Dan had to ask.
“She names everything Bob.”  My classmates know me too well.
At the end of the day, Dan tells me that after talking to Aunty Dayang, he found out that the buffalo’s name really is Bob. Go figure!
Our weekly excursions to church are also pretty fun. It’s an early morning walk that leads you to a blue building with a cross on it. Mass is always upbeat and fun, with lots of singing. Once, we even got an awesome meal at the end.
With all the cheerfulness that you leave with, it’s not surprising to meet new people on the way back. On one of our trips, it started drizzling lightly. As Xara and I were sharing an umbrella on our way, we noticed this old lady in a beautiful Kelabit outfit walking in the drizzle. 
Knowing that we couldn’t let her walk in the drizzle like that, we offered to walk her home with her umbrella. She was extremely chatty and friendly, with a sweet, toothy smile. She asked us where we were from and what we were doing in Bario. She told us about her children in KL and how she also owns a pineapple farm. We chatted with her all the way back to her home.
It was really pleasant how we could just be walking and so easily meet new people on the way. A friendliness you wouldn’t find in KL!
That wasn’t the first time we had to walk in the rain though, and it certainly wasn’t our last. In fact, that was probably the only time I got to walk with an umbrella! 
Vio had the misfortune of always being caught in the rain after she washed her hair. This happened again when we were heading back home from Joe’s Cafe, our favourite (and only) spot to get ABC and noodles. Vio, being Vio, managed to convince us to pick up a piece of scrap metal to cover her with. It probably didn’t help that Dan accidentally stepped on the Daiso slippers everyone complimented her on and it definitely didn’t help that instead of rushing to help her, we all burst into laughter. 
That was probably one of the most entertaining sights to see….
….though, I have to say that Jon won most ridiculous alternative for an umbrella.

Of course, while all the walking is good and fun, it doesn’t stop us from cheating every once in a while! It seems that if you have a car in Bario, it has to be a four wheel drive with a convenient place to chuck all the hitch hikers you pick up. 
Like I said, the people of Bario are so welcoming, you can get a ride almost any time. At one point, while we were in the back of a truck, the guy who was sending us home shouted from his window in the driver seat “Are you people rushing back?”
Assuming that he had to pick up some stuff from somewhere else, we said no and that we wouldn’t mind following him. What he really ended up doing was taking us on the long way round where we got to see so much more than we would ever have seen otherwise. The view was so breathtaking, it made me really thankful that he did that for us because he really didn’t need to. It just shows the little bits of kindness the people of Bario are used to performing. 
Maybe it’s something in the air or the cheerfulness that spans throughout Bario, but I realize I was never tired from all that walking. If you set me on those familiar roads again, I think my feet could bring me anywhere.