The Story Behind Tapioca

The Story Behind Tapioca

Tapioca. You might have tasted it before, but have you seen a tapioca plant before? Do you know that tapioca doesn’t grow like most fruits or vegetables? Instead, it is grown from the roots of a tapioca plant.
I was so glad to have the opportunity to follow my assigned lady, Tepuq Bulan, to visit her tapioca farm. To be honest, I had never before seen a tapioca plant until visiting Tepuq Bulan’s farm.
Tapioca farm
Tapioca is best harvested when the plant is about 9-12 months grown. Because of this, it is planted annually.
We can identify the maturity of a tapioca plant by looking at its branches. If there are fruits on the tapioca plant, it means the tapioca is ready to be harvested. 
Tepuq Bulan harvesting tapioca using a hoe
Harvesting tapioca is a backbreaking job, especially for a 6-foot tall guy like me. I had to bend down, continuously digging until I caught a glimpse of the tapioca. It was very challenging as you can’t dig too fast or exert too much strength when digging as you might damage the tapioca. Tepuq must have been watching with cold sweats while I was harvesting the tapioca as she was worried I might destroy her hard work. Luckily, there was only a small cut on one of the tapioca roots.
“Be gentle” ”Do it softly” These were the words of advice Tepuq gave me before she left to collect tapioca leaves. By the time she finished collecting one bag of tapioca leaves, I was still struggling to pull out tapioca from the same spot.
After harvesting, the stem cutting method was applied to plant a new tapioca plant, where the end of a stem is sharpened before inserted into the soil with a depth not exceeding 4-6cm. The stem was cut to about 15cm long for it to grow.
Fried tapioca cake
“It’s just an ordinary fried tapioca cake, nothing special about it” was my first impression of the dish pictured above. But after I experienced the process of harvesting and planting tapioca, I started to appreciate it as I realised so much blood, sweat and tears was involved in getting the tapioca that we take for granted. There are a lot of things we do not understand until we experience it. During my time in primary school, my teachers always reminded us not to waste rice as every grain of rice came from the hard work of a farmer. Now, I clearly understand that we should feel grateful and appreciate everything that we have even if it’s just a cup of water because we are living lives far more fortunate than many others.  
Tuesday With Tepuq

Tuesday With Tepuq

Nuba Laya [noo-ba la-ya]

Food. A main course made of rice wrapped in a leaf called Daun Isip (which is the malay word for leaf, I know.) and then steamed to look very much similar to the Chinese traditional rice dumpling; a staple during my lunches with Tepuq, and something I can never finish alone.

Makan. Habiskan.” (Eat it. Finish it.) Tepuq would always say to me in her sing-song voice. But Tepuq! I would always manja, I don’t eat a lot 🙁 I really don’t.

My favourite set of dishes: cherry tomatoes + catfish,
with my legs soaking in the paddy field.

Here’s a not-so secret: I’m always the last one to finish my food during lunch. Not only that, I also eat very slowly because I tend to get full easily – and Tepuq notices too! Eventually after many days of her observation (and me convincing that her food is really good! + it’s just me!), she came to accept that I’m a small eater and lets me give half of my nuba laya to Tok. Yay! I really appreciate little gestures like that, because God knows how seriously people in Bario take their food.

This happened on a slightly gloomy Tuesday with Tepuq.

I’m not sure why I was feeling both sad and stressed out that morning. Heck, finally being able to visit Tepuq’s sawah near Bario Asal for the first time was supposed to be an exciting adventure for me, but I couldn’t help it and secretly whined about the heat. I forgot to bring my gloves as well; another downer.

The beauty though.

Luckily for me, Tepuq was ever patient and loving. She wasn’t fazed by my slight moodiness, and served breakfast by the paddy field as usual. That day, she was more initiative in asking me questions, and practicing pronounciations with me. It always makes me super glad to see an eagerness in learning language – something that keeps me going.

What is XXX in English?” I especially love it when she asks me things in English itself!

 I taught her the word “picnic”.

My mood lightened up soon enough (before noon). Thank goodness.

We ended work later than usual that day as there was more to do, and I’d forgotten my phone so I couldn’t keep track of time anyway. Being so used to the fast-paced life here in the city, I relished in the luxury of a timeless atmosphere during my stay in Bario (after taking some time to get used to it); perhaps that is why I love the place so much.

I enjoy Tepuq and Tok’s company, the way they’d always bicker (lovingly) about paddy things and how Tok would just give me his best smile like he was amused by Tepuq’s words. Maybe he was, I’m not sure, I still don’t speak fluent Kelabit, haha.

A couple that took me as their own grandchild, they named me Cathrine – not exactly the most Kelabit name (in fact, it’s Christian) but I love it. They had given me their daughter’s name.

Interesting fact: Names for new family members are to be chosen from exisitng names in the family. I’m honoured to be part of this Kelabit culture. 🙂

# Xueh Wei Cathrine #


The last couple of years haven’t exactly been the best for
Malaysia. Politically, economically, socially. A question I constantly hear is
“Don’t you want to migrate? Find a job elsewhere and not look back?”
 While I do not fault those who live elsewhere for their decision, I think
that my experience in Bario is one of the reasons why I don’t think that leaving
this country is an option. Living with the Kelabits has made me realize that we
do have a responsibility to give back. Malaysia is home after all.
This blog post isn’t so
much about Bario. It is a plea to anyone reading this that we can learn so much
just by going out there and doing something new instead of just reading about
the negativity that we see everyday. When I first signed up for Project WHEE!, I
had been on the fence about my future, whether I should stay or consider ‘greener
pastures’ because I was tired of the way things were.
Having met Tepuq Sinah
Doh Ayu and all the other people that have touched the project participants’ lives in one way or another, I know for sure that there is no other place that
I’d rather serve than this country I call home. Why? Simply because of the
people. Learning about the Kelabit culture and way of life made me see them as
real living individuals. Sure, I knew of the Kadazans and the Ibans and a few
other communities, all of which we learnt about in our textbooks, but having
experienced Bario, I think that it is important as Malaysians to know that
these people are so much more than the pictures in our books of colourful
clothes and longhouses. 
It isn’t enough to just
read about something only to forget about it in the days or months or years to
come. I choose to believe that complaining about the way things
are and running away from it isn’t the best way to deal with it. Bario
showed me, that equipped only with the language I speak and the strength in my
back, I could make a small difference and for that, I will forever be grateful for
my time there.
There is so much to be
done and so much to learn just by taking a leap of faith and doing something
small to help out. Trust me when I say that the moment you start, it will not
seem like work at all. All it took for me to make up my mind to stay was this
tiny little town called Bario that we the participants can’t ever seem to stop
talking about and we have the Kelabits to thank for that. We consider them
family – not by blood but in all the other ways that matter. Malaysians, just like
ourselves. Part of the country we call home. 
Being An Inspiration

Being An Inspiration

In Project WHEE!, besides training and equipping the Bario women with skills and knowledge for ecotourism activities, we the volunteers also teach in SK and SMK Bario after school. We organize activities there to brush up the students’ English and hopefully, inspire them.
When Batch 5 was told by Daniel and Rhon, our project coordinators about this task, I was worried. How exactly will I be an inspiration to these students, when in reality, I’m not exactly the most inspirational person around? 
SK sessions went well for me and my partner, Abang KK. We were tasked with the Standard 6 class. The students were absolutely adorable. They greeted us very formally (Goooood eeevehneeng aahbaang KK aand kaakak Gaaneet) every time we entered the class. They listened to everything we said in class, and cooperated with us for all the activities. Needless to say, we adored them to bits. 
After a session in SK
SMK on the other hand, was a real challenge, for me at least. In SMK, I was tasked with Form 1B. The difference between the SMK and SK students were, even though the SMK students cooperated with me in our session, I could clearly see that they weren’t as enthusiastic as the SK students. Their faces showed what they really thought about my session – boring, not exactly helpful, uninteresting.
After my first session with SMK, I went back to the homestay feeling dispirited. I thought I had failed to be an inspiration for the students. 
That night during debrief, I shared my disheartening experience with the rest of the batch and wallowed in misery. I was upset for not being able to live up to the expectations I had set for myself. However, Rhon said something that made me look at the entire situation differently.

”You may not think that you have been an inspiration to them, but just seeing Project WHEE! around in school is already an inspiration for the students. They don’t see many outsiders in school most of the time, and you don’t know this, but they are very excited to see us whenever we come to Bario. Just because you don’t feel like an inspiration does not mean you don’t leave an impact on them. You may not have inspired them to learn English, but you have inspired them on something else.” 

For me, what she said rang a bell. In my life, there have been many events that inspired me to do something that was not the original objective or goal of that event. One example would be a contest I participated back in secondary school. My team was the First Runner Up for this national level contest. It was about producing a professional magazine. Winning that spot did not inspire me to become a journalist, nor did it inspire me to pick up graphic designing. Instead, it inspired me to believe in myself – believe that I have the potential to achieve amazing things in life. I trust that the organizers of that contest had no clue or foresight that they  would motivate a participant to be more confident in herself, and yet they did.

”We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” – Stephen King, 11/22/63

My experience with the SMK students did not inspire me to become a teacher, but it did inspire me to understand the way teenagers think and learn. I sincerely hope that my session with the SMK students did spark some sort of inspiration in them, and I hope this story has inspired you with something! 🙂


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. 

How Bario Has Changed Me

Our stay in Bario was an
eye-opener to many of us in different ways. Subsequently, after having spent 16
days there, I have changed my attitude towards electricity, medical staff
availability, and food.


Bario’s major electricity
comes from their small hydro dam which is located about a half an hour walk
away from the longhouse in Bario Asal. So because it is such a small hydro dam,
it cannot generate a lot of power which means Bario is supplied with
electricity for about four hours a day only. They usually have power from about
7pm until 11pm. This made things like charging our phones or other chargeable
electronic equipment a bit challenging. And at night, we literally had to
lighten our ways by using our own torches – the lights didn’t work at nights.
So even though it wasn’t always very easy, it was still manageable. However,
this experience made me appreciate having constant electricity supply a lot
more; it has made me realize how important electrical power is and how much
convenience it offers. So after this experience, I have come to appreciate
things like lights (both in-house and outside) at night, fans and
air-conditioning during the day, my refrigerator, plugs that work 24/7 to
charge my phone and laptop, and my water heater in the morning a lot more.

Medical Staff Availability

In our last week, one of our
project members suffered from terrible stomach cramps and vomiting. It was quite
worrying because the pain was so bad that she was hardly responsive. As none of
us really knew what to do, I asked Dan to call the doctor at some point because
we simply didn’t know what was going on with our fellow WHEEtard. However, Dan
then informed us that the doctor was not available that very night which meant
we somehow had to take care of her on our own until the Bario Clinic would open
the next day at eight in the morning. It was about two o’clock in the morning
when we were informed about the doctor’s unavailability and that was a really,
really helpless and worrisome/scary moment. So one of us called her sister who
is a doctor to get her advice. So she told us to locate the pain in our fellow
WHEEtard’s stomach because if the pain happens to be from the right side, it
might very well be the appendix. And when this girl who was talking to her
sister on the phone mentioned the word “appendix”, there was a moment of
silence in that very room. We all knew that if that very stomach pain is caused
by her appendix then she needs immediate surgery. However, we also knew that
the next plane would only leave in about eight hours. So the looks we exchanged
in that very moment… Well you can imagine how worried we must have looked.
However, we did have some
medicine which we could give to her and we were advised to simply let her
sleep. So what we did was to take shifts – some people would always be up to
check whether she is doing fine. Then, in the following morning, she was
brought to the clinic whereby she was given some medication; she luckily
recovered within a day. This incident just made me realize how much we really
depend on 24/7 medical staff availability. We obviously do not need a doctor to
be around us at all times; however, when we actually do need one, we don’t wish
to wait for one for several hours. So this simply made appreciate constant
access to medical facilities in our urbanized place of stay a lot more. Knowing
that an ambulance is only a call away may be the standard for many, but because
of this experience, I see this as a luxury as there are a lot of people who do
not enjoy such a service.


Another thing I have come to
appreciate a lot more is food. After having seen and experienced how much hard
work is behind food production, I would never ever waste food again. Especially
after having worked on a paddy field, I have always eaten every rice corn on my
plate ever since I have returned from Bario. Farmers do a great job and we
wouldn’t be able to survive without them – they and their hard work needs to be
appreciated a lot more.

In conclusion, I am very,
very grateful for all these many experiences in Bario because they have made me
look at things differently – I value many things a lot more now.
A Beautiful Community Like No Other

A Beautiful Community Like No Other

Since I got back home, people have been asking how my experience in Bario was. I tell them of the crazy things we did there, the ice-cold showers that we endured on a daily basis, the limited electricity supply, the fresh air we got to enjoy and the list goes on and on. But one thing I make sure I talk about is the people in Bario. 
The people in Bario specifically the Kelabit community that I had the privilege to know, are the most beautiful people inside and out. Never have I met a community so close-knitted to one another, ever so loving to the outsiders and completely selfless in the things they do for those they love.  
Picture taken on 5/8/2014 while walking with
Aunty Nicole to a sundry shop.
If I were to use a picture to describe them, the above picture would be it. Like the sky that reflects its beauty on the waters contained in the paddy field, so are heavens glory and beauty reflecting in the lives and hearts of this group of people. 
I have experienced the most genuine love and care given by the people that I did not really know when I first arrived. When one of us got ill or hurt, they gathered people and held a prayer meeting to pray for healing and recovery. When we needed help, they offered their hands immediately. When we were tired, they pampered us with durians and pineapple juice. 
Such people are difficult to come by especially living in a world where people are self-centered and selfish, always putting others second after themselves. People are constantly looking out for themselves that they ignore the rest around them. I, too am guilty of this at times. And what I have witnessed through the Kelabit community for the mere 15 days definitely impacted to me to imitate their actions. 
Their actions that are deeply rooted to their faith and what they were taught from generation to generation. Regardless of whether it is people who are blood related to them or people that they have just met, everyone is treated like family nonetheless. And personally I think it is something that I will always remember and hold on to. 
Thank you, Bario, for blessing me with the privilege to know these group of people 🙂

Wise Wishes.

takes me two trains and one bus to transport me to university, every day. On
some days, I find myself being very reluctant to drag myself out of bed two
hours earlier only to reach my class on time. On some other days, I reach home
with just adequate energy to walk myself to shower and crawl myself into bed.
While I was in Bario, Sarawak, I
count myself fortunate to have witnessed not only the lives of the elderly
folks, but also the lives of the school going children. Over the couple of days
I have experienced at the schools, I have all my admiration towards how
respectful they have been. To us, complete strangers at first and friends, at
the end of the trip; I hope.
There was an interesting mix of
enthusiasm and a care free nature I saw in these children that had me thinking
of how much I spent most of my schooling years feeling rather pressured to
perform academically better and only that. I remember not liking to stay back
extra hours in the afternoon at school for classes and here I was, teaching
English to a class of Form 1 students during after school hours, with an
initial assumption that they were probably going to be napping in class and
completely ignore my existence.
However, to my pleasant surprise, I
had a great two hours teaching this bunch of excited and enthusiastic kids! I
felt like I was doing something right when the students were so appreciative
when I corrected their mistakes on their written essays. Getting them to
interact in the beginning was a tad bit difficult, but the class got so much
pleasurable when the awkwardness broke. Class ended abruptly one day, when the
teacher made an announcement requesting all students to make their way to the
hydro dam to have their bath as there was water rationing around Bario Asal.
Yet again I was amazed at how these
kids did not rant a single bit or heaved a sigh at the thought of hiking up to
the dam after a long day at school. They quickly got their towels and soaps,
grouped up and headed to the dam while some boys sang songs and some girls had
giggly chatters. At that moment in time, watching that sight; I had a hit of
realization towards an aspect of myself. I came to terms that I should really
reduce on focusing about my end of day exhaustion and simply try to look beyond
and continue the walk.
Sometimes, I give in too much,
simply too much towards my tiredness that the rest of my day goes to waste.
These children too, have reminded me to be a little carefree. To always add the
element of fun whenever possible. When I think about it, a little ease to the
mind doesn’t really kill anyway. I have learnt to look beyond the situation
and twist it into a little fun adventure. I would like to believe that these
children had great fun bathing at the dam, might I also add how fast these
children are at hiking!
More often than not, we all wanted
to be adults as soon as possible while we were still in school. Through these
children, I saw what schooling years and being young meant through a different
lens. Carefree, enthusiastic, they have fun and they are focused whenever

days into coming back home and returning back to my everyday routine, I have
these children at the back of my mind as a reminder that giving up really isn’t
an option. Sometimes, all I really need is to embrace the journey and celebrate
whatever it is the day presents to you; whether it is welcoming a complete
stranger to teach you an academic lesson or taking a hike to have a bath after
a long day at school.

Either way, life gives you a million
parachutes, board it or end up watching it go by.

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find
the fun, and – SNAP – the job’s a game!

 Mary Poppins, A Spoonful of Sugar


Hey you there. 

How long do you think it takes for someone to change his/her life? Some may say just days, months or even the years that one has to go through ‘sekolah menengah years’ to find the change? 

Well, for me. I feel that it’s actually the moments, the seconds that counts. 

The moment when I first met my Nenek Ros (the woman I was paired with) and the first time we hugged.

The moment when I had walks to the kedai-kedai with Nenek Ros, enjoying our kolo mee and enjoying each other’s company while teaching English and Bahasa Kelabit to each other.
The moment when Nenek Ros and me cooked fish and sayur together, improving my skills to be the perfect wife material in the future (Haha!) 

The moment when us WHEE-IANS painted Tepu Sina Rang’s (our homestay host) house and ended up having a paintwar with all of us looking as if we just came out from a warzone. 

And of course, the moment when I signed up for Project WHEE!. Project WHEE! gave me a chance to experience learning from a different culture and for me to have the opportunity to share what I have learnt with the lovely Bario ladies. 

In the next few posts, I would be sharing more about the moments. 

The wonderful moments throughout the last 14 days in Bario, Sarawak. 

Andddd…just scroll a little down, for pictures. 

Feeling surreal, this is actually happening! On my way to Bario!

This is where it will all start, a beautiful hand drawn map I found. 

The scenery we pass walking down from the airport to the long house. 

And last but not least, my NENEK ROS. <3 <3 <3 

I think with every second, one’s life can change. With every 60 seconds, there will be a new minute. You really do not need to wait for New Year’s Eve to start making resolutions for change. 

As a wise teacher has told me before, “The time is now”
So, do it today. For whatever you would want to strive for, leave behind, or create. 
Today can be the day of change. 

Signing off, 

Walking A Mile In Her Shoes

When I first arrived in Bario and met Lendra, the granddaughter of Tepuq Sina Doh Ayu, I was told that she had been really sick the previous week. She was on her way to recovery, although Tepuq, with worry written all over her face, would tell me that Lendra still did get fevers now and then.
We were glad that by the middle of my first week in Bario, Lendra was finally strong enough to go to school. Unfortunately, our relief was short lived. Lendra developed a fever one morning and complained of pain in her throat. That morning, we started the long walk from Arur Dalan towards the only clinic in Bario.

It saddened me that this little girl would have to walk under the heat of the sun for nearly an hour for healthcare. I had gotten accustomed to our walks back from school punctuated with jokes and songs but this walk felt uncomfortable. None of us spoke except to ask Lendra if she was okay or needed to be carried. She turned us both down and I remember praying that someone would be able to offer us a lift. Sure enough, help came in the form of a four wheel drive.

Upon reaching the clinic, Lendra was found to have a serious throat infection. Her previous round of antibiotics hadn’t worked and the doctor wasn’t sure of the next step. He attempted to find out if the previous course of medication had been completed but language became a barrier, with neither my Tepuq nor the doctor being able to understand each other. I  attempted to translate the best that I could and after 10 minutes or so, the doctor had a better picture and medicines were prescribed.

As the doctor  made further inquiries about Lendra’s health, I couldn’t help but notice a young girl in the next counter brought to the clinic by her father. He appeared exhausted as he explained to the doctor that his daughter was not well. After the check up, the father was told that she needed to be given more food and milk because she was underweight and therefore needed more nutrients. I overheard the father promise to work harder before they left the room together.

That day, I couldn’t help but realize how very fortunate I have been all my life. We’re all told not to waste our food and to be appreciative of the little things we have. But that morning drove the point home. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we, myself included, complain about the most trivial of things without realizing that we have so many things to be grateful for if we take the time to look around.