“ARE we going in the right direction?” queries my colleague seated in the passenger seat next to me.
Her brows furrow with worry as she notes my little car’s desperate struggle uphill through a small slip road somewhere in Hulu Langat. High brick walls flank both sides of the path while natural green canopies cast a gloomy shadow. Her question is similarly echoed by my two other passengers in the back seat.
Just as I start to think that perhaps I’m on a wild goose chase, I hear the clipped female voice from Waze announcing that we’d arrived at our destination. A quick scan of the surroundings and all I can see are trees. There’s no house and no one around.
“Oh! You’ll need to head down the steep slope at the end of the road. If you berani (dare), you can drive down. If not, just park in the empty lot and walk,” advises Noah Ibrahim Wells on the phone, his voice tinged with amusement. Noah, who makes his home here in the tranquil idyll of Lembah Barakah Organic Orchard in Batu 22, Jalan Sungei Lui in Hulu Langat with his family, is the person I’ve come to see this sunny morning.
The car continues steadily along the narrow path until suddenly... I hit the brakes hard prompting startled yelps from my passengers in the backseat. From the vantage point above the dashboard of my car it looks as if the road has vanished into an almost vertical drop. There’s no way my i10 will be able to “climb up” later should I opt to go down that route. Taking no chances, we decide to park, disembark and trek down the slope instead.
“Papa! Ada orang! (Daddy! There are people!)” The excited voices of two little boys slice through the natural hum of the forest. Just like a welcoming committee, they’re standing on a bridge, from under which a pristine clear river flows, that connects the trail to their home compound.
On opposite sides of the river are two large structures set against a backdrop of lush greenery. The scene reminds me of Aurora’s cottage in Sleeping Beauty.
Following the children’s happy squeals, we spot a man decked in a simple white T-shirt over a faded pair of red shorts, a khaki cap on his head.
Smiling, Noah welcomes us to his land. “That’s the house we’re staying in,” he reveals, pointing to a wooden kampong house to our right.
The house, shares Noah, previously belonged to someone else and was actually located in Negeri Sembilan. When his family bought it, they dismantled the structure, brought all the parts over and painstakingly reassembled them here.
However, it doesn’t seem as if Noah plans for us to visit the house. Instead, he leads us up a mud-sodden path towards a striking-looking brick house, with brightly coloured wooden windows, and a wooden staircase that goes up to where I assume the rooms are.
“This was constructed while my wife (Zarah Ariffin Alkhadri) was pregnant with Ali, my second son,” shares Noah, patting the head of a cute little boy with unruly curls who has wrapped himself around his father’s leg.
He adds: “It was supposed to be her birthing home, but then the whole family decided to move here instead. So, now it’s a guesthouse for those who come for our holiday programmes. The space below is where we have our modest soap and balm lab.”
As we make ourselves comfortable on a long wooden bench, my attention is diverted to the two little boys who seem intent on holding court with their mischievous antics.
Don’t they ever get bored, I couldn’t help asking Noah. “Nah... This one here (pointing to Ali) is the resident Mowgli (the main character from The Jungle Book). Both of them are familiar with the area and they find entertainment from nature.”
This large piece of land was first purchased by Noah’s mother-in-law, Kashiyah Hashim, 40 years ago. It used to be a rubber plantation and was cleared to make way for a small orchard which Kashiyah, now 72, took painstaking care to nurture. No one has ever lived on it before until now.
“Almost all the plants here have been planted and are maintained by my wife and mother-in-law. My mother-in-law used to work for MARDI (Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute) where she took care of the seedlings so she has the expertise. My wife has learnt a lot from her,” shares Noah, proudly.
Prior to their move here, the family of five were comfortable city folks. “We had a home in Damansara Jaya. I only heard about the land after marrying my wife,” confides the 33-year-old, whose father is American.
He adds: “When I first came here to have a look, it was pretty much like a forest. There were no proper roads, no infrastructure, nothing. But it didn’t take us long to have everything fixed before shifting in.”
The decision to move was partly due to the increasing cost of living in the city.
Despite their combined salaries, Noah, a sales engineer at an IT company, and his wife, Zarah, a freelance fitness instructor, found that trying to make ends meet in the city was challenging. After the birth of the couple’s second child in 2012, they decided to uproot.
Chuckling, the laid-back Noah confides that it did take a bit of time for him to “acclimatise” to life on the land at the beginning. “I’m a city kid who has never lived in a village before!”
Fast forward to five years later and Noah shares that he’s glad to have made the change, remarking how he’s constantly amazed these days by just how seamless and exhilarating life has become. “It’s really peaceful here and there’s fresh air. I still remember the date we officially moved in — Christmas of 2013. It was like a present for ourselves,” he reminisces.
CHANGE OF SCENERY
Every day, says Noah, is an adventure. “The first few years was a bit of a challenge because both Zarah and I still had our jobs in the city. The travelling to and fro was quite something.”
After three years of hanging on to their jobs, the couple decided to let it go so that they could concentrate on building up the land and making full use of the available resources. They first started by selling the fruits from their orchard.
“We have quite a number of fruit trees behind our house, namely durian, rambutan and mangosteen. It’s a good harvest but it only happens once a year,” says Noah.
Knowing that they couldn’t just rely on their fruits, the duo sought other ways to generate income. Wife Zarah was the one who clapped on the idea of turning used cooking oil into soaps.
“My wife became quite eco-conscious after moving. She wanted to do something more beneficial than just throwing away our used cooking oil,” explains Noah, adding: “So she learnt how to turn it into soaps. We discovered that the soap was particularly good for treating eczema, something my mother-in-law is afflicted with.”
Using Facebook as their only marketing platform, they began selling their homemade soaps. So far, sales have been encouraging and they now seek to improve their formula further by infusing coconut oil or natural herbs such as candlebush (Daun Gelenggang), a wild herb that’s well-known for its fungicidal properties and is used mainly to treat ringworms and other skin fungal infections.
“One day, my mother-in-law pointed out a candlebush tree to us, which had suddenly sprouted along the river banks. It was never there before. We went on to make pure candlebush balms and that became a hit online as well,” shares Noah.
Aside from soaps, the pair also conducts holiday programmes and soap-making classes.
The holiday programmes target families looking to escape the city. At the same time, they’re taught skills such as composting, soap-making and simple gardening.
Both programmes have been going well and they hope to expand on it as time goes by.
“We post our programmes on Facebook too and will accept up to five families per programme. Our next one will probably be held during the Thaipusam holiday,” reveals Noah, continuing: “It’s quite leisurely really. The children have the river to play in while the parents can bond over barbecue. And we’ll teach them some of the simple skills that we know so that they can replicate when they get back home.”
In addition to their already active schedule, the family is also invovled in a stingless bee project to generate more income.
“We came across a course on stingless bee-keeping held by MARDI in 2014. I don’t know how we did it, but we ended up with 80 hives at one point,” recalls Noah, chuckling.
His expression suddenly earnest, he adds: “Unfortunately, 60 of the hives are gone now. Twenty were stolen, another 20 got washed away during the flood last year, and the other 20 hives just didn’t work out, probably due to improper middle man care or incorrect harvesting methods by the hunters.”
If there’s one thing Noah is happy to share, it’s the fact that thanks to the move, the family has managed to lower their living expenditure quite considerably.
“We can survive on just RM500 a month now. Hopefully in the next few months it can be further lowered as we become better at making use of whatever we have around us,” says Noah with conviction.
Living in such a remote area and having to be self-sufficient to survive may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it seems to have worked out fine for the Wells family so far.
It has already been hours since we arrived here and looking at the clock, it’s already way past lunch time. We sheepishly excuse ourselves and make preparations to depart. But before our hike back up the hill, I couldn’t help throwing Noah a final question. “Does he have any regrets about leaving city life behind?”
A short pause before he replies: “It’s a much simpler life here and we love it. I guess the only ‘pain’ is not having WiFi! The only way we can connect with the outside world is through our phones. If we lose our phones, habis-lah (doomed)!”
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