Thursday, 27 September 2012

Slicing the Deep Blue-Green Sea: Sibu, Malaysia

Wasabi holding the fort

Sleeping in the Forest 

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

from Sleeping In The Forest by Mary Oliver 
© Mary Oliver

There is this fact about me that I tend to always forget.  That no matter how much I love the city, I need to leave it once in awhile to regroup, recharge, rest and fully recover.  

I remember back in the Philippines, after three or four months of working non-stop, I would wonder why I was a little out of it, a little too tired, too often irritable and just not myself.  It would usually take my ending up in a weekend road trip  or quick flight to the beach after friends have coerced me to leave my computer for a moment that I would start to feel okay. No fail, every year around February, it would  be our week-long school field trip to the mountains up north  that would remind me that I had been in the city too long without escape.  After listening to the waves, smelling the ocean, feeling the sun on my skin, or being active outdoors or seeing old friends in bonnets and scarves, having piping hot mountain tea in St. Joseph’s Inn in Sagada right before we hit the caves, the rice fields and the trek to Echo Valley,  would I quickly realize that to be able to live and love in the city, I have to break away from it’s grasp before the asphyxiation puts me to sleep.  I’d forget that sometimes, I let the things I love suffocate me and it’s only when I am somewhere else that I’d realize, I am no longer breathing. Which then allows me to catch my breath again. To be myself again. To be able to come home to the city again.    

Boracay Sunset: Refuge

Banana Beach, Davao

On our way back from the rice fields 

Famous Filipino photographer, Tommy Hafalla and the elders
the Sagada Market 

Since moving to Singapore a  little over two months ago, I have fallen head over heels in love with my new spaces. Yup. Totally smitten. Everyone who knows me, knows this. That I am extremely happy here and totally in my element. I feel fulfilled, loved, relevant and purposeful.  I couldn’t ask for a better life.  But, it’s been two huge months of non-stop everything.   From furnishing a new home, meeting awesome people, nurturing connections and relationships, to going full throttle at school, it was not hard for me to forget yet again, that my new city and my work have made this workaholic warrior weary.   I didn’t know this of course, until I set foot on a bus with my 23 kids, sat on a boat for ten minutes with not one but two North Face bags filled with long sleeve rash guards, sunscreen, talcum powder, mosquito repellent, marshmallows, board shorts, my resolve and my stamina to go sea kayaking in Sibu, Malaysia.   

On our way

We made it 
Finding my way back to me 
The minute we got on to the jetty, I realized just how much I missed the ocean, missed being near nature, missed feeling the sun beat strongly on my face, and seeing my hand or my paddle slice the deep blue-green of the sea.  It was clear that I, well we, needed to step out of our crime scene classroom and let the great outdoors teach us about life and living and finding balance.  The minute we changed into our kayaking gear to test the waters that late afternoon up until our night paddle, I transformed from being a tired teacher to being an eager learner with my kids.  

We have arrived 
Kayaks in a row 

Tents ready 

Happy campers
Day 1 done and dusted 

Rise and shine 
we heart Sibu 
First meal in Sibu 

Waiting for Seb's debrief

And what did I learn?  A ton. From the awesome Outdoor Ed team (Mike, Jen, Seb and Madi), to sleeping on the earth, to kayaking 24k in three days, to listening to Madi's countless stories about Orion the Hunter and the white bellied sea eagle, I was a giddy, recharged camper when I came home.  It really felt like mother nature and four awesome Outdoor Ed teachers let me peek in their “classrooms.”  It was great to witness how a trip like this could change students’/people’s lives; the best PD on the planet, by far.  

Our classrooms for the week

Meet Madi, Mike, "Wasabi" and Jen

In a nutshell, here are five things I took away from our week in Sibu.  I feel so much of it succeeded because of the following:  
1.  All systems go
      Just like any other classroom, organization is key.  There was room to be yourself and have fun but that came with honoring the Outdoor Ed team's stellar system.  From retrieving gear to forming groups and/or the geese formation up, to camping and snorkeling at the kellong, until we cleaned the kayaks, kitchen ware and rolled up tent mats on the last day, there was a clear cut system that enabled everyone to work smoothly and efficiently.  There was a time and place for everything and everyone got on board quickly.  I chalked this up to the team's experience, planning and presence of mind.  
The whole class rafting up 

2.  There is no I in Team
      I believe in collaborative teaching and learning and I am lucky enough to be working with a team that seems to be cut from the same cloth.  My teaching partners and I meet almost everyday to plan, reflect, deconstruct, question and converse about what we are doing in our classrooms. We listen to each other and collaborate like fiends.  I saw the same thing during the Sibu trip.  The left hand always knew what the right hand was doing and everyone had the kids' safety in mind.  Even if we broke into four different groups (where I jumped from one group to another, from day to day), kayaking in different spots in the open sea, a collaborative string always tied the team together.    Every night, when the kids were asleep, the instructors would quickly get together to review the plan for the next day.  It was awesome to watch and be involved.  

3.  Wasabi was the man
    Now, even if the team was already a well oiled machine, that was made possible because there was still someone leading and driving the plan forward.  Seb, a.k.a. Wasabi, was a great team leader.  He was calm, decisive, smart, motivated, inspiring, kind and really good with kids.  He asked questions with intent and clearly had a plan that he was stringing together. He began the kids' journey with his three-pronged strategy - 'Play Hard. Play Safe. Play Fair" and helped them connect the dots along the way.   


4.  Passion for the outdoors
   It was clear that the team loved what they did and that made all the difference.  Mike became like a kid in a candy store when he talked about the Tides. Jen's favorite day was camping at the spit where she could just be one with the stars.  Madi was most inspired when he generously shared stories upon stories of the mangroves, the birds, Sibu's wildlife.  Listening to them talk about their love for the outdoors reminded me of my love for it too.   I know it is easy to romanticize the Sibu trip now that I am back in my own bed.  I mean, I loved the kayaking for sure but there were parts that I needed some help with to change my perspective.  Like brushing my teeth without a sink.  Their appreciation and respect for the great outdoors, helped me forget everything that was uncomfortable.  

Mike teaching the kids about the Tides
Boys planning the route

Jen working with the kids 

5.  Finding balance and paying attention
     The trip taught me a lot about finding balance. I quickly found out on our way to Malaysia that my phone wouldn't work in Sibu; that I wouldn't have access to the internet 24/7, that I couldn't check my online spaces when I would get the urge to feel connected with my life in the city, and this freaked me out a little bit in the beginning.  Seriously. I was like a junkie going through Instagram and Twitter withdrawals on the first day.  By night time though, I made a decision to let it go. To relish being disconnected. To focus on my kids. To embrace the beautiful ocean, rock face and fresh air.  It felt liberating to only have two hours every night with the internet.  It allowed me to share what was most important and shut down when there was nothing else to read or say. Days were all about the kids, the paddle and the sun. It felt great to remember once again what it was like to be completely present in a physical place.  

After the trip, I asked my kids to write about their experience as well.  Here are some of their posts: 

1. Aroni
2. Dhruv 
3. Ella 
4. Lucas
5. Marcus
6. Navya 
7. Nikhil 
8. Rosie
9. Veer
11. Kharil
12. Phoebe
13. Mizuks
14. Animesh
16. Eleanor
17. Nikita
18. Tom

Here are more of my favorite snaps of the trip. 

My favorite snap of the trip: Rosie 

Early morning Kayak: Day 2 

7PGu with the team 


Anyway, what about you? Is there anything about your Sibu trip you'd like to share?  How does traveling or getting out of the city or your comfort zone affect you? 

Would love to hear about it. Leave a comment or blog about it too.  :)   


  1. I really liked this blog post because you captured all of our emotions and all of the happy moments that we had as a mentor group! I also liked how you included all of the instructors and children!


  2. Great pictures that show everyone having a great time and amazing descriptions about what happened and where, by the way that guy, Wasabi looks familiar...

  3. Wow, i was nervous because of sibu but now i'm dying with excitement to go. Your blog brought me a movie of images, it was amazing.

  4. Great detail and awesome photos. From that I could tell that I am going to have a memorable and a fantastic experiance in Sibu. It clearly says that we are going to have the most enjoyable time there.

  5. OMG I felt like I was in Sibu for a while. That was AMAING and I think, actually i am lost for words…..

    I am ...

  6. i really love how you added 'there is no I in Team', because, its really true!
    you are a great photographer, by the way!

  7. I thought that this post was really compelling to read, because you described the trip so well without being able to give to much detail away. I loved your pictures and I think that you really put detail into the post.

  8. Ms. Paula, this is so cool. Just by seeing your pictures and reading your reviews, i feel so flipping excited. I really look forward to the trip, even though i am second last......

  9. Amazing post. Really enjoyed reading it. Sibu looks so fun. I can't wait to go. Reading this makes it sound a bit better than I expected. The pictures made it much better to understand how Sibu is and what it will be like. Great post Ms. Paula

  10. Ms. Paula, this is absolutely hilarious. I am now more eager to go to Sibu. :))

  11. The description about your trip sounded so real, I read it and it felt like you were actually talking about the trip. After reading all you wonderful experiences in Sibu I can't wait any longer for the trip!

  12. I am so happy that I got to know about Sibu because I was nervous about Kayaking and now because of the post I think that It will be I lot of fun and now I am really excited about it and I hope it is a lot of fun.

  13. An amazing Experience was shared with me in this blog post. People who talked about Sibu being bad forgot to tell us the good stuff!
    Looks like there were some pretty cool instructors!
    Sibu became a thing that was not so interesting after what I heard, but looking at this, All of them had great faces.
    I have not gone to Sibu yet, but when I will, I will have a great time by working with friends, Instructors and by trying to be a TEAM!

    1. You'll have a great time, Pallav. Just keep an open mind and live in the moment. :)

  14. Dear Ms Paula,
    I am soo happy that you loved Sibu too. I can see that you and your mentor group have definitely enjoyed this magical experience. When I went last year, I had so much fun, and honestly, it was the best time of the whole class. We laughed and enjoyed ourselves so much, even if we had to do 28Km of kayaking. And also, I love your pictures!! How do you make them so beautiful???? Hope you had fun and see you next week!!
    Love Celia

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment,Celia. It was pretty amazing. Thank you too for saying you appreciate my photos. We can talk more about photography if you'd like. It is a passion of mine. See you next week and keep on writing!

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