My Volunteering Journey

My Volunteering Journey

Me and my assigned lady – Tepuq Ribed
lot of people threw me a question when I was back from Bario: “How does
Project WHEE! work? I thought you guys were teaching English over there, but why does it seem like you are all working in the paddy field?”
like the question. Before I decided to join Project WHEE!, I myself took some
time to figure out how this program worked. The main objective of Project WHEE!
is to empower Bario’s mountainous community generate an income
through eco-tourism. As such, we as participants are there to
teach the women English, so they are able to communicate with tourists more
effectively as community guides or home-stay hosts in the future. Besides, we
are there to facilitate the women’s development of eco-tourism activities for the
local community, guiding them to execute these activities, and helping them in preparation
of other sustainable projects.
sounds cool. Still, we are there to
teach the ladies English, so why do we work in the paddy field?
The main
reason is because Project WHEE! emphasises on teaching English by shadowing the
women. These women are not ordinary primary or secondary schools’ students.
They have their own schedule every day. It is hard for them to sit down for 6 –
7 hours in a classroom to learn English. For this reason, our classroom could be anywhere. In the morning, we would kick start our class in the lady’s house
over coffee and cookies. After that, we would have our lesson knee-deep in mud,
in the middle of the lady’s paddy field in the afternoon. It is quite exciting
and exhilarating when you think about it. Everywhere could be a live classroom
for them.
guess now most of you have a basic idea of how this program works and why most
of us are helping the ladies in the paddy field or in the farm. The idea of teaching
the women English by shadowing them sounds great. Nonetheless, everything has
pros and cons. There is a grey area of this project. A lot of people who don’t
have a basic idea how this project works tend to be bias. They perceived us,
the participants, are the budak bandar
(city kids) who travel there solely
to experience the lifestyle of the Kelabit’s people. I couldn’t say they were
wrong. We are there to teach the women English but the truth is we are there to
explore the way of life of the Kelabit too. This is when the participants play an
important role. As a participant, we have to prove to the locals we are not only
there to experience the lifestyle but we are there to teach as well. Besides
teaching English, we have to become the ambassadors of Project WHEE!, telling the
local folks and the tourists why we are there.
being a participant requires a lot of discipline and persistence, especially when we teach the
women English by shadowing them. We have
to keep reminding ourselves the reason we are there. I, myself faced a lot of
challenges when I was teaching English. The lady I was paired with is Tepuq Ribed. I was lucky, both of us clicked instantly when
we met. There weren’t a lot of awkward silences between us. She is very
passionate in learning. However, as she is illiterate, it took time for me to
build her confidence to open up and converse with others in English,
especially to the foreigners.
Other than that, she often couldn’t remember the things that she
had learnt. A lot of times, when I asked her: “What is this, tepuq?” She told me
she has forgotten the name of the item. I had to keep practising with her. It requires a lot of patience.  It was not as easy as I thought. There were plenty of times I felt my efforts put in seemed pointless. She just
couldn’t get it.
I felt like giving up, I always reminded myself, do the best and God will do the
rest. Rui Ci and Jed, our coordinators always reminded us not to demand the
outcome and to not be discouraged if we are not able to see the outcome
instantly. I fully agree with them in this case. 3 weeks is just too short to
get everything done. It requires long-term efforts from a lot of parties to
achieve the goal of the project. I am glad she could finally remember some simple words that I taught her when I gave her a call after returning from Bario. 😀 😀
Anyway, it was an amazing 3 weeks journey in Bario. The experiences I have undergone
are among those I would treasure for the rest of my life.
I hope this post gives you a basic idea of ProjectWHEE! and perhaps inspire you as well. 


Everything Else Can Wait

Everything Else Can Wait

When we are not working in the paddy field or farms, Tepuq Doh Ayu and I would usually chill at home. I love how life in Bario is rather slow-paced and laid-back. There is no need to be guilty for not being ‘productive’ enough if you decide to spend your day sitting by the fireplace and chill together. There is so much that we could do together in Bario.
Fireplace is like the backbone of a longhouse where most of the family activities take place here. The warmth radiated from the burning firewood is the best companion amidst the chilly weather in Bario. We would eat, drink, relax and talk around the fireplace.

It is no surprise that a friendly and warm lady like my Tepu, her fireplace has became a popular hangout spot among the neighbours and relatives. 
We would sit down and have some nice conversation over cups of tea and bites of biscuits. The ambience is very lovely and relaxing. They often include me in their conversations and make me feel accepted as a part of the family. The conversation topics usually range from family, weather to work. Sometimes, I would ask Tepuq Doh Ayu about her Kelabit culture and lifestyles. She would then happily take up the role of a teacher and show me the traditional Kelabit beads and musical instrument.

Traditional Kelabit musical instrument is a tube zither made entirely of a poring bamboo. Tepu Doh Ayu slides her fingers across the bamboo strings gracefully and a beautiful melody is heard across the longhouse. She does it so effortlessly and elegantly which in fact I spend so much time attempting to master it 😛
Tepu Doh Ayu demonstrating Kelabit beads work.

Despite the fact that I couldn’t get a grasp of their Kelabit conversation fully, I enjoy observing how the whole conversation takes place so naturally. They would pay full attention to the others when they are talking and would in turn to take on the responsibility of keeping the conversation rolling. Even when there’s silent moment when the conversations pause occasionally, it is perfectly comfortable and pleasant as the they would retrieve the momentum of resuming the conversation very quickly.

That puts me on a deep reflection of our long lost culture, connecting with people wholeheartedly on a personal level. I remember in the older days when we were still young and smart phones did not exist, people would meet each other in the eyes, throw a smile in their direction when they bump into each other on street; or they would spend some quality time talking and enjoying each other’s company when friends and family gather.

Now the next best thing you’ll bump into on the street is either a wall or lamp post because you’re too busy looking down at your phone. 
In London, bumpers have been places around light posts to prevent pedestrians from slamming into them 😛
It is sad to notice that the crowded lively restaurant atmosphere which was once brimmed with laughter, has now been replaced by the tapping and clicking sound of smart gadgets.

There’s an interesting article about a research done in the U.S. to study the dramatic increase in the amount of time it takes to be served in restaurants nowadays. The main reasons are that nowadays customers are too preoccupied with taking photos upon entering, telling the waiters they are having problems connecting to the WiFi, taking photos of their food once it’s delivered to them and bumping into other customers and waiters as they enter and exit the restaurant as a result of texting while walking. ( read more here )
This change in the trend of communication occurs subtly throughout our daily lives and without much attention, you and I are prone to being carried away by phone screen and paying less attention to the real world out there. Having spent some quality time bonding with Tepu Doh Ayu and her family on a face-to-face level has offered me the room to ponder over our diminishing attention span for the people in front of us.

In this rat race and paper chase world, time has becoming a rare and priceless commodity where we have became more and more careful or even stingy with the use of it. When is the last time you have a long nice chat with someone? Can you still recall when is the last time you spend time with your family, doing nothing but merely enjoying each other’s presence and feeling the exchange of breath in the same room?
We often think that we live a separate live from others, having so caught up in our own schedule leaves us very little time to interact with others. However, people in Bario have shown me otherwise, they would unselfishly allocate time for friends and family, give undivided attention to each other when they speak and gladly spend their time away watching rainfall from the window or sipping tea together by the fireplace.

Bario has taught me that the best and universal gift one could offer is time

I’ve learnt to pay full attention to my surroundings because every moment counts and what has been missed cannot be recovered.

Everything else can wait, including the notification buttons on your phone or some unimportant newsfeed on your social media. At the end of the day what matters most is the people around us. 
As each of us get a fixed and limited time in this world, giving your precious time away to someone just show how important they are and how much you do care for them.
NYC aka Ubung Ahchuan
p.s. The writer would like to express her utmost gratitude for your precious time spent reading this blog 🙂
Beading Bonding Sessions

Beading Bonding Sessions

In Tepuq Sinah Rang’s homestay,
there’s a handicraft shop located on the first floor. Tepuq beads, and sells her
wonderfully handmade products all in the confines of a small room. 
When I was asked to “cucuk
manik”, bead, I told myself that it’s gonna be easy, just be patient and
learn. (This was because it was my first time making something for sale, and it
has to be nice or decently acceptable, at least in my standards.)
I spent the first week with her
sitting down to bead. 
Most of the time, we would bead at her verandah. The view is simply breathtaking. 
It was interesting to see how she works on the
traditional Kelabit cap, pata, and patiently align every bead together
according to colors and sizes.

It was also fascintating to
witness what small colorful beads can turn into, with the skills of the
talented Tepuq.
Rhon, one of our project
coordinators, named these sessions “Beading Bonding Sessions” because essentially, you bond with the person you bead with. Besides, it is the most therapeutic
thing to do. 
Yes, I bonded with Tepuq as she sat next to me while we beaded. Her
presence, her skills, her coffee breaks in between, helps me know a little more
about her. Also, when my other teammates were free, they joined in to bead with
As a generous host, Tepuq gives
every guest a “kaboq”. 

Kabuk is a traditional Kelabit necklace which comes
in different sizes and colors. The buah rantai (middle part of the necklace), varies

The traditional one is in red or yellow, however, our batch received a
mix-colored buah rantai. It has a special meaning to it.

She spent few nights, barely
getting enough rest, to make them for the 13 of us in Batch 3 of this project. 
There were a couple of times where
Tepuq took small chat breaks in between and shared her interesting life story to
me, while sipping her favorite beverage, 3-in-1 coffee. I was truly privileged to be
her listener and at all times we were both teary-eyed.
She shared with me that since she was
born, her life wasn’t a bed of roses. She never knew who her father was, how he
looked like; through it all, she realized how her life was made meaningful through hardships
she faced, and how she’s really grateful for many things.
Tepuq, thank you for teaching me to
be grateful, to just be contented; to not complain with what I have. You were
always thankful for everything that has been given unto you. I’ve never heard
you complain about anything at any point of time. Yes, I am still learning to just be like you in this area of contentment. 
Fun fact: If you’re ever wondering
whether I was a total klutz in our beading sessions, yes I was. I accidentally
spilled a whole container of beads onto the ground. Thankfully, Tepuq wasn’t
there or I wouldn’t have known what her reaction could’ve been! Phew!


This project aims to help women
with their English that will in turn sustain their income through eco-tourism.
It functions on the basis of
shadowing your assigned lady and teaching them English for 10 days.
I was blessed to be assigned to
Project WHEE!’s homestay host, Tepuq Sinah Rang Lemulun.

When I
first met Tepuq, she gave me the warmest hug a grandmother would give to any
grandchild who finally came home after years of not coming home… Yes, like a
prodigal son.
On that
night, I remember her saying to us “I love you all very much!”
amazes me to hear such words from a grandmother I never knew, but heard very
much about. After all, you seldom hear these words when you meet people for the
first time.
As I go
about with her through her daily activities, I took the opportunity one night
to sit with her and just gaze into the sky. I can testify that it is the most
therapeutic thing to do at the verandah of her homestay. Here, you will be so
captivated by the scenery and the stars that shine.
chatted for awhile and I decided to ask this longing question inside me.
kalau ada sesuatu yang Tepuq hendak ajar orang muda hari ini, apakah itu?”
if there’s something you have to teach the young people of today, what will
that be?
immediately answered “LOVE!”
didn’t surprise me because the more time I spent with her, the more I saw what
she was living out.
As she
went on, she shared that with love, everything is simply more amazing.
example, in Bario, people come in and out of the rumah kadang, also known as
the longhouse, bringing their fresh produce and selling them. On a particular
day, a fishmonger came with his catch for the day.
Being a
lady filled with so much love to those around her, she offered him a cup of
coffee and some snacks; after purchasing his entire catch.
It hit me, because living in the city, we always claim we do not have enough
time to spend for those around us, what more, reaching out to strangers or people we come
a cup of coffee would not be offered to those we do not know.
Tepuq, you do not need constant reminders that she loves you. Whatever she does
each day, is completely out of love.
taught me that everything we do must be out of love. From the first time we
met, till when we said our temporary goodbyes, she showed so much love towards me
and those around her.

Thank you, Tepuq, for teaching me that life is made sweeter with love.


When I first found out that I was
assigned to Tepuq Sinah Rang, I was intimidated by the fact that I had to work
around the homestay… Which means I will be in the kitchen at some point of

Why was I intimidated? It is because I was born with butter fingers and perhaps wobbly legs,
and there’s no hiding that I am a total klutz.
I almost fell into a small pit, and spilled some tea on Tepuq’s couch. All these took place in a day, in the presence of Tepuq. 
The word “accidentally”
is my best friend when it comes to incidents like these.
Initially, she never wanted me
anywhere near the stove, fearing that I may get injured. 
After a few days of working in the
kitchen with her, she decided to rearrange the stove area and made her stove safer for
me to use. 
I found that really touching,
because she put so much effort into reorganizing things just to ensure that it is safe for me to be in the kitchen. 
Normally, she would instruct me with what to do whenever we prepare meals together.
Many times, I will be stacking up
plates, bowls, and cutleries for mealtimes.
I had to be really cautious in
handling the really fancy bowls and plates but not-Kit-May-friendly-things.
(Thankfully I didn’t break any
throughout this project!!)
However, one evening, I
accidentally let go of a wooden chopping board and it fell onto the ground. Tepuq immediately came to have a look at my feet – to see if there are any
marks on my feet. I told her that the chopping board didn’t land on my feet.
She told me that all she wanted from me, was to be
She went back into the kitchen shortly after, and the next thing she heard was “Bam!”

I accidentally let go of a plastic tray and it
landed on the ground.
Tepuq is really cute. Her reaction
this time around was:

Thank you, Tepuq, for making sure I am always safe and for allowing me to make mistakes. 

Adventures with Sina Sarina

Adventures with Sina Sarina

Here is the star of my trip, the person my two weeks were centered around, Sina Sarina.

thing I really like about Sina is that she is always smiling. She
smiles when she’s talking to someone, when she’s shaking her head at my
plant-watering skills, when the sun is hot, when one of the school doors is locked, when we were both tearing up when saying goodbye. And
what a lovely smile it is, too.
Sina is a 37 year old woman
who works at SMK Bario as a janitor. This meant that my time spent with
her was divided between the school and anywhere else. A typical morning
for us meant sweeping, dusting, watering the plants (…which I am not
very good at – the watering cans are heavy, okay) and so on
before it’s time for a break, where Sina will then proceed to convince
me into drinking coffee, Milo, and/or eating an entire pack of biscuits.
She had long since stopped accepting the (true) fact that I’d had
breakfast at home, so I’d try to joke it off, saying I’ll get so fat the
plane cannot carry my weight. Her response: “Baguslah tu, muk tinggal di Bario saja!” 

Sina Sarina is an incredibly capable person.
One day when we were walking back to school, she suddenly moved to the
side and started pulling out plants and fruits that are everyday food. Midin! Rebung! Paku pakis!
She’d reach into the foliage and pull out a new plant for me, despite
the fact that I might have eaten it some time. In the school, she did
every task efficiently, from planting flowers to cleaning the school.
Despite that some of the work was actually quite tiring, she never
complained of any pain. The only time I ever heard about pain was when
we held a beauty session for the ladies, and I asked her if she had any
sore areas she wanted me to help massage, and she pointed out parts of
her legs and arms.

Sina also
has an great sense of humor. When it’s time for lunch, we’d go and pick
up Mujan from the kindergarten and slowly walk home. At some point,
Uncle or someone from Arur Dalan would stop by on their motorbike, and
we’d send Mujan off to home with them and continue our walk back home. (It soon transpired that she was hoping that our walks would make me hungry enough to eat loads.) Our conversation topics ranged from school gossip to the kids, or my
family and life in Selangor. One day, we stopped by the sawah and waved
frantically in attempt to catch my batchmates, Karthik and Tharunnia’s
attention. They did not notice us, and Sina said I should stop jumping
up and down, “nanti orang ingat Ru gila“. Another day, she heard that we’d been playing in the sawah, and the next day she greeted me with “semalam ada kerbau main di sawah!” – which, okay, is pretty funny and I’d use it as an excuse for whenever I messed something up, like “ya la saya ni kan kerbau, mana pandai buat kerja”.
Another time, Sina drove us from home to school on Uncle’s motorbike. If you
have been to Arur Dalan you will know that the road is bumpy at best
because of the rocks embedded into the road. This combined with the fact
that motorbikes were a fairly new experience for me meant that I was
quite terrified when I got on the bike behind Sina. I told her “tolong jalan slow sikit, saya takut lah Sina“, so naturally she accelerated the motorbike. I exaggerated a little. Sina did not accelerate,
but she did go very fast. I was practically hanging on for dear life,
and the fact that Sina kept turning around to make sure I was alright
didn’t exactly assure me of our safety. At one point Sina noticed that
I’d closed my eyes and said to me, “takut apa, ini adventure!
while laughing, presumably at the fact that I was genuinely scared. For the
rest of our ride, Sina continued to offer little gems like “kalau accident pun tak sakit, tak ada darah” and “klinik pun dekat saja“, and that’s the story of how I taught Sina the words ‘nightmare’ and ‘bad dream’.
the English side of things, Sina was quite proficient at holding a
conversation in English. My
favorite thing was when she would randomly use things we’ve discussed
beforehand, like “Hello, chicken!” after we talked about greetings.
jokes aside, I do miss her. I was so comfortable around her, and I hope
she was, too. She made me laugh plenty of times and I do hope I’ve made
her laugh, too. I miss Sina Sarina, who sent her daughter out in the
rain to pick me up, who one day silently tied a kabuk she bought for me around my neck,
who is lovely and funny and caring, who asked me to come stay with her
if I ever came back. I could go on and on about the things we’ve shared.
If I ever get a chance to go back to Bario, I know the first place I
will visit.



A group of youths on a two-week trip to a secluded place sounds
like something with high potential to backfire, or at the very least the
introductory line to a cautionary horror movie. I’m very happy to say
that things did not backfire. Well I mean, apart
from some casualties every now and then (swollen foot, stung by bees,
gastric pain,
the usual) but we had fun together. We had a lot of fun together.
Between the 11 of us we have an entire afternoon at the
Tom Harrison Memorial Hill, chilling out at the white verandah, beading, and
selfies, selfies, selfies. 

My experience in Bario could not have been as awesome as it was if any one in my team had been different. I’m glad to have been given the opportunity to meet and know such strong, intelligent people, and it’s nice to know that although the project has ended, we will always have Bario.

(I don’t actually have a story here, just wanted to show off the picture I took of the beads.)
Moving on to something a bit more serious, after coming back from Bario, when I came back and told people about my trip and life in Bario, I found that most of them reacted with stuff like “wow paddy planting! What a tiring life.” and similar things. Now, I will admit that when I first came to Bario, I compared life in Bario to city life quite often, but these days, I don’t know. I guess the words are said with good intentions but I find myself getting somewhat defensive because it just sounds patronizing. Sure, maybe some people are genuine and maybe I am reading too much into it. Or maybe I just know a lot of terrible people, I don’t know. But there is always this undercurrent of oh my god how could people live like that
in the words that I’ve come to expect when I tell people about my trip. Because I walk into Sina’s mother’s kebun
and she is perfectly contented tending to her fish pond. I watch my Sina
and her family effortlessly adapt to water rationing without a struggle.
And even if there was, it doesn’t make city life any better. 
I’m actually doing a terrible job explaining my thoughts, but luckily my fellow Project WHEE! participant Kan Wai Min similarly blogged about it in a way that is far more eloquent than anything I could say, in his post, Reassessing Happiness, Redefining Success.

Wai Min says: “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.”

I probably sound like some spoiled person saying this but 2 weeks in Bario taught me that there is no rightful way to live. Just because someone spends their 9 – 5 planting paddy, it doesn’t mean that that value of life is any less compared to a 9 -5 in the office. Two weeks in Bario taught me to be open-minded when it came to new things. And not the kind of open-mindedness about accepting each other no matter our size or color (although that’s a very important things to be clear about so do keep your minds open!), but to really go in with a blank slate, watch and listen, learn and understand. 

Top 5 Manis List!

Top 5 Manis List!

A full batch at the church! Photo credit to Alicia.
Arriving in the arms of my
Not sure if I could have expected a better way to be welcomed into a new space, so new so foreign to me. Arriving a week later than my whole team meant I lost so much prior experiences, the adjustment phase and basically getting familiar with my surroundings and the people around me. However, I have had the best team (YAYY BATCH 3) mates I could have ever asked for. Starting from my surprise presence and all of their memorable screams and reactions to informing me bits of pieces of things I should know around the place made me feel at ease very quickly. I am so glad I pushed myself to recover fast and so thankful for being given a second chance. All of you deserved to know how it felt like to have a full team and I’m glad the last addition, the number 13 made it in time! To all of you Batch 3 members, thank you and I love all of you dearly.

Church bells!

was my first time stepping foot into a church. What a beautiful place to
experience a first time than in Bario. I loved the whole ambiance, the slow
building crowd and the sermon being read in Kelabit was quite therapeutic. I
very especially enjoyed the tambourine dance by the young local girls, clapping
and singing along to all the songs. It was a new feeling altogether. However,
the peak of this whole experience had to be the performance our whole batch did
in the church on a cloudy Sunday morning. We performed two songs and I
personally thought our group did a really good job despite only having
practiced a couple of times. But, it was fulfilling to see and know that people
who attended church that very morning sang and clapped along to our songs.

Ice cold water.

was warned by my team members the day I arrived that the bathing water would be
ice cold. And I went, ‘Oh I’m fine with cold water ‘and a team mate replied,
‘This is something else, trust me’. And, I recall my first bath just for the
first time wanting to get out of the shower as fast as possible. This coldness
has to be included with the dropping temperature in Bario. I wouldn’t say I
hated it, but it was very interesting how I never got used to this one routine.
I am reminded every day how shrinking cold the water is and the chills that run
down your spine will bring your mind back awake even if you have had a long
day. Cold like no other definitely!

Meals by the paddy field.

boy, what do I say about the afternoons I had lunch by the paddy fields? Tepuq Ribet and Tepuq Ulo are the awesomest! Together, they bring more than
enough meals thinking my team mate and I are monsters. Such tasty foods ranging
from chicken curry, mixed vegetables, pineapples, rice, fried chicken, juice
and even a can of Coke!! Yes, now tell me why I wouldn’t call them the awesome
duo! Hehehe. We would have lunch at about 12.30PM, under big tress or sometimes a wooden
hut; on hot sunny days sometimes cool breezy afternoons with food prayers being
led by Tepuq Ulo’s husband. My, the conversations we had over lunch are the
most remembered. The jokes the both of them crack can leave you laughing till
you feel tears in your eyes. It was on these days I have felt truly blessed and
very appreciative, to have shared and experienced a little of life with Tepuq Ulo and Tepuq Ribet. They have made me feel so comfortable and have gone all
out, all out, to make us happy.
Meals by a beautiful paddy.
Let’s play ball at the paddy

believe this was only the second day of my arrival in Bario, when everyone had
planned to play ball at the paddy field. It was a bright, cool Sunday afternoon
and everyone walked to a paddy field not far from the long house. The paddy was
wet and muddy which was great to play ball. The game was called Captainball and
the batch was split into two teams. Initially, the game was slow and clean, but
within 20 minutes everyone got competitive and also started to push ‘clean’
people into the mud fully! Highlight of the whole game day was when a few
children decided that they wanted to join the game. The more the merrier as we
would have expected! Overall, it was such a fun, carefree hour we had as a
complete team for the first time! Everyone did not miss getting down and dirty, not forgetting ending the match with mud face arts 🙂 Hoping for another Captainball match at the
paddy with the same team again!

Dressed to get down and dirty!
Rules of Aunty Tagung

Rules of Aunty Tagung

this is Luke Pang, Kelabit name: Tidan. I was assigned to Aunty Tagung for 14
days, shadowing her while teaching her English. In Project WHEE!, each
of us have been assigned to a lady which surprisingly suits our personality in a
way. Aunty Tagung is unique compared to the other Tepuqs and Sinas, as stated
in my previous blogs: Tough Love: Something Different and From KL to Cardiff to Bario. As many were curious about my Aunty and wondered how she treated WHEEans like me, this is a light-hearted post about the rules of Aunty Tagung
that I have learned during my 2 weeks with her.
1.      The
number of layers of clothes affects how hard you work
That was the first rule I
learnt on my first day working in her garden. She had a sweater on top of her
shirt, with long pants, gloves and arm sleeves while working in the garden. She
also wore a beanie beneath her hat and had Wellington Boots on her feet. Being
accustomed to cold climates, I have a low tolerance towards my home country’s
high temperatures and humidity.  Therefore,
I came into her garden with a T-shirt, shorts, hiking boots and a hat. At one
point, she was scared of my outfit because it was totally opposite of hers. She
quickly gave me arm sleeves, gloves, and asked me whether I have any long
pants. She even gave me another hat to wear on the other hat, which I had to
refuse because it was too small for my big head. She also complained that my boots
were too low compared to hers. As much as you would be laughing about this, she
did mean well. The high boots protect your ankles from being cut from the zinc
plates lying on her garden to prevent the growth of weeds, the extra layers
apparently keep you cooler due to evaporation of sweat close to your skin, and
the arm sleeves protect you from insect bites. The gloves also sped up the
weeding process I had to do while I was there. As absurd as that sounded, it
did well indeed, although I can never make myself wear more than a layer of
clothes here in Malaysia.
2.      The
more you eat, the harder you work
Towards the end of the first
week, I had a feeling she was fattening me us up for slaughter and meat. She
usually makes a vegetable dish and an egg or meat dish for lunch. However, the
amount of rice she makes is quite a bit, and she does not eat much. She would
take a few table spoons of rice and dump the whole container onto my plate
without asking, I could not object it because well it was on my plate. Same goes
with the dishes, as she never keeps leftovers. Being the ‘cleaner’ for most of
my life, I usually finish leftovers, but this was too much. I don’t eat much
rice, but the rice she puts on my plate looks like a miniature Mount Fuji, it
was that much rice. She always jokes about how I don’t work hard enough, maybe
it is due to no energy, so she stuffs me up with food for energy to conduct
more weeding for her.

Part of her long beans harvested from her garden.
These will be sold either to the long house residents or to the school.
Background: my flowery pants
3.      When
she wants her peace, she means it!
I did state in one of my
posts that we bonded due to our mutual understanding of space and quietness.
Well, it took time to get to that unspoken rule. Aunty Tagung has impaired hearing
and always wears a hearing aid on one side of her ear. So, one day, I had to
return a water bottle to her at 8pm after borrowing it in the garden (remember
she finish work at 6.30pm). I went to her place, opened the sliding door and
called her. She did not respond, even though we were about 50cm from each
other. I called her again, and only then I realise that she did not have her hearing
aid with her. She did respond to me and I quickly returned the water bottle to
her and left. Maybe that was her “Do Not Disturb” sign to others, to not
disturb her after her meals. She was once annoyed at some people who talked
non-stop towards her. She complained at how some were so “cakap banyak”
(talkative), and how they just would not keep quiet. So, there are times where
you can have conversations, but at other times, peace is wise.
4.      Listen,
Listen, Listen!
I could not emphasize this
last rule more than ever. Aunty Tagung has lived alone for quite a while
already, so she usually has nobody to talk to. When she meets someone new, she
will have lots of things to share. At first due to our language barrier, we may
not understand each other well. After a while, you will get used to her speech
and actually understand her well. Do not interrupt her while she is speaking,
she really appreciates you as company. Yes, we were tasked to teach others
English and that requires conversations, however she wants someone to sit down
with her and listen to her, and that would be the greatest gift to her. If you
are ever with her, it is nice to listen what she has to say, it can be food for
thought for you at times.
These are the 4 main rules of
Aunty Tagung, giving you a clearer picture of my beloved Aunty. For these 2
weeks, she has taken care of me well, with clothes and food alike. If we
maintain space for others and listen to others, it could mean the world to
many, not excluding Aunty Tagung. Thank you Aunty Tagung for everything you
have done to me, and if any of you is interested in visiting Bario, do come and
stay at her Dr Mattu’s homestay in Bario Asal. Any company is truly appreciated

Tough Love: Something Different

session, after a few days, everyone knows that the entertainment for tonight’s
briefing was coming up. Whether it was the usual weeding, the disappearing acts
or the mad chasing on the bicycle, it never cease to make them laugh. Most of
the time, it may be due to the initial perceived perception of her and her love
towards Project WHEE! participants under her care that triggers the laughter.
Well, one thing is for sure, not many would understand what we built for 2
weeks. She is Aunty Tagung, and this is our story.
our first night in Bario, I was assigned to a certain Aunty Tagung by the
coordinators. Their description of her given by them was cool actually, her
boldness and directness intrigued me. I was pretty excited with the challenge
of having someone different compared to other Tepuqs, but at the same time I
was scared and unsure of my approach towards her. 
first night meeting our Tepuqs was an amusing incident. There was a lady sitting alone
while the other Tepuqs have their to-be-susuk (cucu, grand kids) for company. I
ran into the adjacent boys’ room and asked Daniel and Rhon about the lady.
“Dude, who is that lady there?”
“Oh that is Aunty Tagung.”
“Aunty Tagung, the same Aunty Tagung for my next 2 weeks?”
“Yeah, why? Scared ah?”
“Kind of, how do I say her name?”
& Rhon: “Aunty Tagung, but you could try Tepuq and see what happens……”
was somewhat the conversation we had before I left and introduced myself to
her. After sheepishly introducing myself, her stance and first sentence made me
realise that these two weeks will be something interesting.
do you want to know about me?”

that, she literally gave me the whole story of her family and her life; her two
children, a lawyer and a doctor. She even talked about her siblings and how
everyone in the longhouse is somewhat related. The story caught me off-guard as
she rambled on and on, while I awkwardly sat there, bewildered by the
information overload. Some first impression indeed.

interesting fact was she has a nice garden to grow her own vegetables. Most of the time I spent with her was in her garden weeding.

usual schedule with her:
up                                  7am
meeting her in her garden
                                  8.30am –
break                                10am
– 11am
Weeding                                   11am – 1pm
and break                      1pm – 3pm
                                  3pm –
Done! It was typical, a rigid schedule for her. 
we did not talk much, most of the time we have our peaceful moments instead of
talking all the time. Sometimes, I felt that we do not communicate enough, but
at the same time it was nice to have some quiet time. Nobody wants a chatterbox
with them all the time. I felt that maybe we may not be close together, because
we rarely talk, that got me down a bit, after hearing my other friends’ joyful
experiences with their Tepuqs during debriefings.
she started paying more attention to me, remembering my name finally (she
thought my name was Luki at first, which was my nickname since then). She fed
me so much that once I guessed that I was her livestock to be fattened for
meat. She would take a container of rice, scoop her small share, then dump
everything on my plate without question, same goes with the other food. It was
just too much food, but since it was on my plate, I felt obligated to sit there
for an hour slowly cleaning my plate. Once during our weeding session, I was
squatting while pulling the weeds, and she gave me her stool to sit on, saying
that my flowery pants cannot be dirtied unlike her layered pants. I guess that
maybe respecting her private space and having some quiet time did bring some
understanding between us, which brought us closer.

Aunty Tagung dancing like a pro; and me, well dancing ain’t my strength…
Credits to Alicia
does not shower attention towards me unlike others with their cheery attitude
and constant cracking of jokes, but I know that she does care about me. I did
not realise how much she cared until she gave me my Kelabit name. I was one of
the last to get it, so I was anxious for it. She named me Tidan after her late
husband, because it was how much she really loved me. She also gave me a Kaboq with unique beads that even Rhon was jealous! I was so touched by her gesture, never
realising that I meant so much to her in 2 weeks, that we actually built a bond
that close.
a heavy heart, we parted ways at Bario Airport. I wished that I could have done
more for her after all that she gave to me. Her kindness, her love, her generosity,
I will never be able to repay her. Aunty Tagung, thank you for taking care of
Tidan, Luke. I am grateful for everything, hope to see you soon! Bario and you
will be part of my cherished memories. Your tough love is something different