Man and Shoes

It was just life.  For Ahmad Baba, that was the thing, and he did not understand it either.  Why people out there, walking past him everyday could be so well of, while he, at the age of 75, would have to struggle all his life – making ends meet; only this time, for himself.

A grandfather of 27 worked as a cobbler at a five-foot-way of Market Road every day – one of the busiest streets in town.  He chose that small space as his ‘office’ as he would like to call it.  At times, he was proud of himself, being able to have a business on his own.  It was a boy’s dream – his dream to become his own boss.  However, it turned out not to be a luxurious one, but a hard one.

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A man of struggle – that is what he is.  He had never intended this to happen.  In fact, no one intended it to happen like that either.  I came across this old man on one rainy morning.  His sitting alone at that little space at the five-foot-way caught my attention.  I asked a friend who was driving me at that time to drop me there for a while.  I took photos of him, and he had no idea that his picture was being taken.  Took a few shots, and I guess the heavy ‘tap’ ‘tap’ of the rain and the voices of people passing by drowned my shutter sound or maybe he was too focus on the shoe he was repairing.

Only when I came up close to him and introduced myself to him, he started looking up.  He was startled of course, and I apologized for my rudeness.  He started talking about his life, and he held nothing back.  Listening to his story, I couldn’t help but feeling sorry.

At 5am everyday, he took 20 minutes bus ride to that little space to open his business.  And so, business would start at about 5.30am everyday.  That was nothing to set up really.  A plastic sheet placed on the floor to provide a clean place to sit.  A plastic bag contained needles and other shoe repairing materials – all probably worth just over RM100.  It was the only capital he had, once gone, everything’s gone.  Not that he was afraid of being robbed.  Who would want to rob a poor desperate old man like him.

He could not be ashamed of himself.  He had a home and a family.  He could always stay at home, looking after his grandchildren.  He wanted to do that part very much.  In a way, it came true, but not all of it.  He could not fully do what a grandfather always wanted to do to his grandchildren because his children could not have enough for him.

Ahmad is very prudent in his spending.  A skill he learned decades ago, when he only earn RM7.50 a day, and raise nine children on his own.  He always bought a fruit with him – Jackfruit.  That normally would be his lunch.  Sometimes, when his son-in-law saw him on the street, Ahmad would be given lunch money, but that never happen all the time. 

 He normally worked from 5.30am until 6pm, sometimes if the business was good, he would continue to after 7pm.  Sometimes, he had zero earning.   

 “Sometimes, I do feel like life has no meaning.  But, life has to go on,” he told to me once.

 I do not admire him for being able to hold on to hardship despite his old age.  But, I have a lot of respect for this man.  Now, thinking back, I regretted for not doing something I should’ve done.  I didn’t have shoes for him to repair, but I could have given him the lunch money for the day.  That I didn’t do.

In The Distance

In the distance, the sun sets in for the night to come.  It was about 6.30pm in the early September, 2013 and I had just had my dinner – the not so comfortable dinner I had.  The boat rocked side to side, and I was trying my best to keep my balance.  It was not a luxurious boat; it had neither air-conditioner, nor comfortable separate beds to sleep.  Just a simple wooden fisherman boat, with a small kitchen/dining room, an engine room, captain’s deck, and sharing the captain’s deck was a wooden bed, which is just above the engine.

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The bed could fit about six or seven people and it was also a place where we put our bags.  Because it was just above the engine, imagine the heat, the smell, and the noise.  Afternoon time was best to be spent outside.  I was told that the toilet was functional; not really.  Literally, it was just a very small room with a toilet bowl in it and that was it.  I couldn’t flush it, no pipe water (well, obviously, because we were in the boat), and there was this rusty sliding door.  It was hard to close, and it was almost impossible to slide it open.  I had been avoiding toilet as much as I could.

The first time I needed to use the toilet was sometimes in the afternoon on the first day in the sea.  Despite some difficulties, I actually closed the door, living a small opening to allow my hand to push it open later (or so I thought).  And in that eerie, dark toilet, I eased myself with my arms spread wide apart on the wall to keep my balance because there was no handle bar or anything to hang on to.

Once done, I pushed the door open, but the door would not budge.  I lifted, I pushed, and pulled, nothing worked.  I think I was a little panicky that time.  ‘This is not happening…oh God…this is not happening.’ I said to myself, almost praying.  I could ask for help, but I was too embarrassed to do it, because… it was embarrassing.  I could be a joke.

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Few minutes without success, and nobody seemed to notice…I finally let it out.  ‘Uh…hello…Could…you…help to open…this door?’ Slowly I allowed embarrassment to sink in.  I could feel the laughter, though none of them laughed at me.  It was in my head.  One of the guys helped to open the door.  He pushed, could not open it, second push, not a budge.  “Hey, help out here…she can’t get out.”  The guy yelled out.

Clothes and clothes pegs would be a better ‘door’ than a rusty wooden door.  I thought.  Being the only woman with the other seven men was intimidating.  Not that those men were bad, I just did not have the advantage to do some of the things they could do.  Example – shower.  The guys shower in the open, changed new clothes the next day.  I did not shower and I wore the same clothes for three days.

On the bright side, I got to know life in the boat, to be in the middle of nowhere.  At night, when the darkness overcame the surrounding, all you hear was the ocean.  It was weird though, how I got here in the first place.  Why I let it happened?  Why did I leave the comfort of my home to the sea and fish with a bunch of men?  Adventure – yeah, I wanted the experience, and it was one of the best experiences I had, although I did not expect anything such as, a stuck door.

Since that incident, I drank less water to avoid toilet, at the same time, making sure that I would not get dehydration.  I was amazed too that I did not have any bowel movement for three days.  It was both a good thing and not a good thing.  Seasick started to kick in as soon as the boat made its first stop for the guys to fish.  The seasick pill I took 30 minutes before I left for sea, well…I guess the effect wore off.  Hold it…hold it…no…not now…not happening….  Then I rushed to the side of the boat, and everything I ate that morning went to the open sea.

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“There…there…that’s good…you’ll feel better.”  Peter said to me.  Peter was the one who invited me for an adventure.  He called me up a few days earlier and talked to me about the plan, convinced me about the excitement and the adventure that I was going to expect.  I went with him, after getting consent from my parents.

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Peter’s words were very comforting, in a way.  Somehow, I felt very well taken care of.  Before the trip, he told me that would take care of me throughout the trip, and he did, in fact, he was like a father, so I was pretty grateful.  Though seasick was common, Peter told me he never had experienced seasick before.

Seasick wasn’t that bad after all; it gone few minutes later and Peter taught me how to fish.  I’ve never thought deep sea fishing could be this fun.  They were heavy, and hard work.  With my small body, I needed more than might upper body strength.  I used all the strength I had in my body to pull them up.  Once in a while, I needed to catch my breath, and despite with sore arms, it was fun.

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One of the things I’ve always look forward at the sea was the sunset.  I was expecting something like orange and red colour ball in the distance.  Due to bad weather, the sun was behind the cloud all the time.  But, it was still beautiful nevertheless.  The red sky reflecting on the open sea…it was worth the trip.  A lost bird kept returning to the boat.  Tired, lonely, and desperate to go home – the crew told me that the bird would die anyway.  I felt so sorry for the bird because there was nothing I could do to help it.  I picked it up, I’ve never picked up a bird before, but I picked it up with great confidence and I patted it, I stroked it.  And that was all I could do.  It could survive, but it got off track from its flock.  Now, the bird is nowhere to be found by its friends.

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When I told my dad about going out to the sea, he rejected the idea, but lucky for me, mom was on my side.  ‘If she wants to go…let her go’ she told dad.  ‘It would be a great experience for her, let her see the world.’  Dad realised it was my own freewill and choice, and that was how I got his blessing.  He was worried about my safety, especially, when it was during rainy season.  Rainy season means rough sea – I was aware of the danger, but the adventure was too good to let it go.  I’ve never been to the sea in my life.  I needed that experience.

It was an experience I would not forget.  I went to the sea with only my camera bags and a backpack.  I came home bringing an ice-box full of fresh fish.  The fish I helped to catch.  I’ve never like fishing before, but deep sea fishing was fun, and been on the sea for three days was a great experience too.

We were blessed with calm sea despite the rain.  I was thankful for that.  I didn’t shower for three days, lucky for me, I didn’t sweat a lot for three days either and, not to forget, I got stuck in the toilet.

I felt so stupid inside that toilet.  One of the crews actually kicked the door open when all methods failed.  It worked, and I finally came out to the fresh air.  I would never want to be stuck in the toilet in the future, but I think I would need the sea again.

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Called To Be Extra-Ordinary (Part 2: Living In Faith)

That moment changed my life.  My ordinary life began to feel different.  It began to feel meaningful and surprisingly special.  Faith made me understand that everyone is somebody; that everyone is called to be great; that God has given everyone abilities.  Putting your God-given talents to work is one of the most satisfying things you can do.  Through faith, I see the beauty of life; that I am loved.  Always.  That realization alone made me wanted to get up and dance to it.  Every moment becomes so significance when I chose to see it and to look for it.  What seems to be ordinary, suddenly they are full of life.

Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below.  - Catechism of the Catholic Church.

One afternoon, I was driving to work, suddenly I thought of God.  It just crossed my mind.  I thought of all the things around me, the trees, the flowers, the people; they were indeed beautiful.  Then I thought about my life; how I was put into this earth to be part of the beauty.  That understanding made me moved to tears in my car. It taught me about the simplicity of heart.

Here is another thing about faith.  It does not change who you are.  In fact, it never tried to.  I am still the same person from the day I was born.  However, faith helps me to become a better person a little at a time everyday, but living in faith does not claim that I understand everything about life.

It made me understand something.  That lens of faith made me realize and in the end I have to face, sometimes a very harsh reality and see my mistakes, my weaknesses.  The kind of person that other people might be looking at – that selfish me.  It is hard to admit, but most of us are selfish in everything, literally everything.  Example, you see a larger piece of pizza, and you said to yourself ‘I want that’, or refusing to give way when you are driving, and many others.

To follow Jesus means to be involved, because faith is not something decorative.  It is the strength of the soul – Pope Francis

However, seeing all that weaknesses and sometimes pretty shameful, it didn’t mean to discourage us.  In fact, it is the other way round.  It helps us to become a better person.  At least, it helps me to become a better person.  It changed the way I act, it changed the way I think, it changed the way I see other people, it changed the way I view life.

As I mentioned in the first part of this article, responding to God’s love means breaking into the ordinary-ness of our life.  And so, responding to the Love enables us to live in the present.  The body was designed to handle only one day at a time and so, it actually teaches us to put our tomorrow in God’s hand and making the best time of our life just for today.

God comes admist the pots and pans, the work that we do – everything.  We’re invited to respond to him by putting our faith into practice.  He comes in what seems to be ordinary , and invites us to step into the extraordinary.  Bishop Don Hying

The problem with most of us is that we look too far ahead to the future that we forgot to live in the present.  It is not wrong to look forward to the future.  Most of us, including myself have desires, dreams, and aspirations to achieve.  I am sure that it is a gift.  God put you and me into this world to be somebody, not to be a nobody.

Living in the present taught me another valuable lesson.  When you learn to live in the present, you don’t just see the beauty of life, but the beauty of your future will unfold itself.  Sometimes we got so stuck in the daily routine that it blinded us to the beauty of creation.  That you felt that you are stuck in the daily treadmill and God is out there somewhere.  Remember that life is a gift to be celebrated not a task to be tackled.

Because you have so little faith.  Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain. ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you.  Matthew 17:20

It is true that Faith has its ups and downs.  There were times that I do not feel that I have enough faith.  During those moments, loneliness, frustrations, and fear crept in.  But then, Christians say that it is not the size of our faith that makes the difference, but he size of God that we put our faith in.

It means a complete trust in God.  Difficulties, pains, and disappointments can shake our faith and cause us to close our hearts tight like a fist.  Remember also, an open heart is alive in faith.  It signals a readiness for whatever changes, surprises, and gifts God has to offer.  Give Him a chance to restore your faith.  If you have mountains in your life, some obstacles, and your dreams seem to be far away, just remember, have faith.

Are there realities which make life beautiful and of which it can be said that they bring a kind of fulfillment, an inner joy?  Yes, there are.  And one of these realities bears the name trust.  Do we realize that what is best in each of us is built up through a simple trusting? This is something even a child can do. – Brother Roger of Taize.

Life is pretty ordinary for me.  I wake up in the morning, I brush my teeth, walk my dog, take a shower, have my breakfast, go to work, come home, go to gym, dinner, checking my facebook and, sleep.  That is what my most days look like.  Pretty dull as you can see, but when I put in the lens of faith in everything I do, it is life transforming.  God is the energy that enables me to wake up in the morning, He is in everything I do, He is right there going through day to day life with me.  I realize that I am not stuck in the treadmill of life, I am in fact living the life that God wants of me.  Once you could see through it, you are just magnificent

Read part 1

Dance Festival

A few days ago, I was assigned to cover the 2nd Sibu International Dance Festival (SIDF).  About 11 countries participated in the 5-day event.  As I mentioned it before, stage performances or any other performances photography is a real challenge for me.  But, I love it and every time when I was given the assignment, I knew I’ll have fun.  Opportunity like this does not come very often, especially when it involved cross-cultural performances.  I love those graceful, elegant, fun photos.  I’m not a professional photographer, but I am learning.  These are the photos from the welcoming dinner.  I’m just using my basic Canon 500D camera…well…It’s the only camera I have.  :-)  Been using it for three years.

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Called To Be Extra-Ordinary (Part 1: Knowing The Faith)

Growing up on the streets of New Orlean, Tamara Lowe started taking drugs at the age of 10.  At 12, she became a drug dealer and never get into the eighth grade.  For another few years, she went from one drug-induced high to the next.  She did it until the age of 17, when someone gave her a Bible as a Christmas gift.  Life changed after that.  From the first day she read it, she could not put it down and finished the New Testament in about three weeks.  It was not religion that changed her, but a personal encounter with Jesus.  Today, she is one of the world’s most successful motivator speakers and consultants.  She had trained more than two million people in 70 countries.  She is now a respected author, educator, and businesswoman, co-founder and executive vice president of Get Motivated Seminars.

The Stringfellow family named their dog Faith because they had faith in her.  It was the name given to her to bless her with hope and determination.  They had faith that she would walk again because she was only born with two working legs.  When the family adopted Faith, they believed that the disabled pupply would have a chance to have a normal life.  It took about six months for the miracle to happen.  They put her on a skateboard to show her how movement feels.  They watched her learn to roll from side to side at five weeks old to running full sprints now at seven months.  Today, faith story had inspired many because she showed what can be achieved against the odd.

These are the stories that moved us and inspired us in one way or another.  There are many such stories in which you can read from books, articles or even watch them on the net or television.  Stories about faith.  Not faith the dog, but ‘Faith’.  A very simple word, but such a powerful thing.  So what is faith?  So many people are talking about it, and yet all we got is a very vague term of it.    It involves something that we cannot see, but is given freely to those who seek it.  So what is it anyways?  Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life” 

I was born and raised a Catholic, but I never understood what faith is.  Going to Sunday class as a kid, I was told that faith is a gift, it is a mystery.  So, when I believe in something, I believe that there is a God, that He is a creator, because I was given that gift from God.  That was the only thing that I understood.  But, life was simpler then and as a kid, everything was good; the future was good.  Except for homework  and nagging from parents, life was pretty good.  Prayer was one of the things I looked forward to.  I felt connected, I felt the blessing even it wasn’t there.  As I grew older, life started to change and it seems that I always look for something more.  Something that people always asked ‘What is my life purpose?’  I turned to stories about passions, determinations, hope, struggles, love, and faith, hoping to get some clues what was in me.  Those stories inspired my life, and I began to make an effort to see my life in a different way.  ‘Since these people can do it, I can too’, or ‘What is there for me to complain when these people suffered while I’m here, having everything I need’.  I thought all that stories would be real transformation for me.  It didn’t do anything, except changing the way I think.  I knew that unless I could find something meaningful, something deeper, my life could not be transformed.  In short, I began to see life in a different way, but again, I was still the same old person, wishing that life could be more than this.

For the past few years, I began to search for a deeper meaning of life.  I have to be honest, I have dreams, I have goals I wanted to achieve, but when I look at my life, I kept asking myself ‘Is that it? I don’t seem to get anywhere’.  There were ups and downs.  I love my job, but sometimes it would get very frustrated.  When grandma came, I was never happy, I was depressed all the time.  I tried so hard to feel the connection again.  At some point, I probably forgot about all that, and just move on with my life. Ordinary and boring life.  My true conversion happened, just a few weeks ago.

It happened with one simple word.  I guess you already know it by now.  FAITH – ordinary word that packs with extraordinary power.  Nothing big happened in my life.  It began with a realization that God is in my life.  ALWAYS.  And that realization is enough for me to see that there is a great meaning in my life, that my life really matters.  Bishop Don Hying put it this way “Faith is our response to God loving us.  Faith is our response to God breaking into the ordinary-ness of our life, and inviting us into a relationship with him.”  If you love someone, you want that person to respond to that love in order to have the relationship.  It is the same thing with God.

By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus. – Mother Teresa.

I began looking for Faith because I was at the point of my life where I felt that my life was going no where.  The dreams that I had and the goal that I wanted to achieve seem to be just there, but no way achievable.  And life was just…that.  I felt I was beginning to drift away from my faith.  Prayer became an effort.  When I’m in the church, my mind and heart seemed to be elsewhere.  Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI made this year as a ‘Year of Faith’ hoping to help Catholics appreciate the gift of faith, deepen their relationship with God and strengthen their commitment to share faith with others.

I’m a Catholic, and shamefully, I didn’t really care about this theme. Our bishop encouraged us to study the bible, parish priests wanted us to read the Catechism and to understand what Faith is.  Only then, our eyes could be opened and see, then grow with it.  I did none of that…well…until recently.  Not the bible, I started to read the Catechism.  I didn’t really do it on purpose.  One night I was sitting in front of my computer screen, it was probably almost 11pm, Catechism of the Catholic church just crossed my mind and I just got up from the chair and read it.  I opened my heart to read articles about faith, watching the explanation of faith in Youtube.  I listened to stories of creation and its significance.  Everyone in this planet is part of the beauty in this universe that God created.  Everyday, the moment I opened my eyes, and breathing the air, I say a ‘Thank You’ to God for keeping me alive for another day.  And then as i walked my dog, I looked around me and just be thankful for everything.  I did all these with my heart.  For weeks, I kept reminding myself why am I here, I did my work at my very best; just live day to day, and enjoy the beauty of nature.

 Then I felt it. God is here.

Water, Such A Treasure

Most of the traditional longhouses in Sarawak were built by the bank of a navigable river.  Water was their source of life; their culture, their identity.  The river is their way of life; the most precious thing they treasured, along with other natural jungle produces.  However, in this 21st century, it was all about to change.

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Decades ago, the people of Sg Naman and Ulu Naman, Sibu bathed in the river, decades later, they are still bathing at the same river.  The different between the then and now is the condition of the river they bathed.  Vast and rapid development had taken place and the expansion of oil palm plantation had all brought impact to the river.  It is now shallow; the water is no longer clean and free from pollution.

They are in fact, drying up.

I met some locals who were willing to share some of their stories – struggles and ways to live in the desperate situation.  How they went about their everyday living could impress you.  Almost everyone was talking about the same thing.  All survived despite not having piped water for decades.  Of course, everyone had to admit that it was much easier before.  But when time changes, and as the surrounding changes, they didn’t change.  And that brought problem, because their life wasn’t parallel with that changes.  Everyone was suffering from the same hardships.  Everyone desperately needed some change, some help that never seem to come.

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“Grasses are growing.  They are covering up the drains, which are already drying up.  Sometimes, there are people spraying weed killer.  We shouldn’t bath there, but what choice do we have?”

The disgusting sight with its brownish colour and the smell, it was quite unbelievable that they could actually go through life like this.  The locals built a small shade at the riverbank and that was their ‘bathroom’.  It was simply a place to sit and bath and for washing.  Nobody dives in the river or pond now as they used to do, and fun wasn’t there anymore.  Unhygienic it could be; but as the locals put it, what choice do they have?  It was the only way.  It was the only water source for bathing and washing.  The only place they could clean themselves…or was it?

I dropped by a school and met three very friendly women – Alice Rantai, Janoi Luat, and Jessi Tanjong.  One of them clad only with sarong, but showed no sign of uneasiness towards my present.  They were very open in their stories and very welcoming to the camera I was holding.  Their house was in the school compound, and just outside their house was a man-made pond.  They were bathing and washing their clothes there.

The little girl who was sitting with her mother was not very happy with my present of course.  I asked the mother whether she was going to bathe her daughter, surprisingly, she literally did so.  “Mandi…mandi” (bathing…bathing).  The little girl was taken by surprise that she cried and that was my call to stop taking pictures of her.  According to Janoi, everybody had problem of itchiness on their body.  She showed me her leg and there were red spots on her leg.  Apparently, the water was so unhygienic that it created some skin problems among the locals.

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Rainwater was still needed for washing and cooking, even in school.  Each school that was affected by the lack of clean water supply has a tube and treated water and the water is safe for consumption – a supply provided by the government.  “We still need to ration the water to ensure that it is enough for everybody.  We would try out best to avoid the tank from going dry.”  A principal who requested anonymity told me this.

However, in the event if the tank did run dry, welfare department could be called.  Fortunately, the department would respond to the call.  In an effort to ease the people at the school, especially the children, a councilor built a tank to store rainwater somewhere in the school for cleaning purposes.  Even that, it didn’t help much.

Lemba Kom, 65 said she had to pay RM2.50 for others to get five gallons of clean water supply, about 30 minutes from her home almost everyday.  The water itself was free, the money was a transportation fee – 50 cent per bottle (one gallon).  It didn’t mean that whoever helped her to get water supply was trying to get opportunity to earn more money, it was just a fair deal (gas and time).

Ironically, just a kilometer away was longhouses from another district, the folks there enjoyed clean water supply, though sometimes, they also experienced no water at all.  The month of June and July are nightmare periods for the folks of Ulu Naman and Sg Namans as it was drought period.  Even when there was pouring rain after long drought, the rain wasn’t safe for cooking as it smells of smoke.

To conclude all this, as I visit the folks (with a help of a guide), listening to their stories and standing under the scorching sun, I realised one thing; no one appreciates clean water supply as these folks do.  I’m not speaking in a global context, but at a smaller scale among the community of Sibu.

There are many places in Sarawak that experienced the same thing; some voices went unheard.  As I talked to them and looking at some sights that I didn’t expect, instead of feeling sorry for them, the first thing I felt was gratitude.  I could do without electricity, I could do with the heat, but without clean water, I’d go crazy.  Seeing their hardship, how they treasured clean water, I must always remind myself that there was absolutely nothing to complain.

However, I do hope that these folks could finally enjoy clean water supply soon.