Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Early Years - Part 5

As my village was close to the mangrove swamp, I was also involved in other activities related to mangrove eco-system. First there was this lokan, a member of a bivalve. They were just like a cockle that we were more used to, but their shells were much larger and they lacked the ridges found in the shells of cockles. Their flesh was much sweeter too.

They usually live in the soft mud in the mangrove swamp, about one to two inches in the mud. To find them, I just had to slash the mud with a spent rubber-tapping knife, a parang or just anything that would make a sound when it hit the shell of the lokan. I would know that I had found a lokan when I heard that familiar sound when the parang hit something hard in the mud. Then I would just scoop the lokan out of its hiding place using my fingers.

But the search for lokan was not as easy as I had made it sound. To walk in the mud was no easy task; more so with the ever-hungry sand flies crowding all over you to get a drink of your blood. The more you scratch, the more these annoying creatures came after you. It was best just to remain calm and try to forget about them. Usually such a lokan search would involve my grandmother, my aunts, and a few of my cousins. Between us, it was not unusual to collect a sampan full of lokan within just a few hours.

However, I was always reminded not to wander off too far from the group, to communicate regularly with others in the group, and to be careful when coming across a heap of beautifully arranged lokan in the swamp. They said that the presence of such a heap of lokans meant that their owner, a tiger, was sure to be close by waiting and ready to pounce as soon as they opened up their shells!Even though I had never met such a heap of lokan or confronted a tiger
knew that the king of the jungle was out there somewhere minding its own business. Perhaps they were just too engrossed in going after the still abundant animals that made the forest their home to bother about us.

However, I also knew then that I should never take things for granted as far as tigers were concerned. I said this because once Ihad come across a tiger crossing the road on my way to school. I wasjust about twenty meters away!

Talking about tigers, nothing could beat my mother's story about how my late aunt's first husband was killed by a tiger. That was in the late forties some where in Pondok Limau. According to my mother, one day coming back from rubber tapping, he told my aunt of his encounter with tigers' scratch marks all along the jungle track in the rubber plantation.

According to him, a tiger would only scratch on the trackas a warning to people in the vicinity that it was hungry and was looking for prey, man including. He knew the real danger if he continued tapping the rubber trees, but he had no choice. He had to earn a living to support his family.

The next day, as usual he prepared to go to work. But this time he was more prepared; he brought along his keris just in case. My aunt was getting worried when he did not return home for lunch that day. "Something must have happened to him," she told my mother, who then was still a young girl living with them. They were supposed to bring the rubber sheets that they had collected over the week to Chukai that afternoon. As the day got past their normal lunch time, everybody in the house was really worried about his safety.

Ismail, their eldestson, started telling people that his father had fallen prey to a tiger. Then they decided to form a group looking for him. Armed with shotguns and parangs, the group made their way towards the rubber estate. A few hundred metres away they found evidence of a fight
on the ground. There were tigers' and human footprints all over the soft ground. There were also blood and tigers' hairs scattered in the area.

The group then continued their way forward. Then they saw him. Two fully-grown tigers were feasting on him. They fired warning shots in the air, and then the tigers, with much reluctance, began to move away from his body. They quickly collected his body and brought the body home. He was later brought to Chukai for burial.

I was told that the tigers roamed the village that night and many nights after, probably looking after their kill. Those days, it was common to see and hear people falling prey totigers, especially for people living in the interior parts of Terengganu.

During the Japanese occupation, so I was told, people were more afraid of the marauding Japanese army than these man-eaters. They would go to the interior and hid their daughters and wives there infear of falling victims to the Japanese soldiers. Falling prey to tigers then was taken as fate, as they, the humans who were intruding into their normal habitat.

Besides that, my grandmother was also very good at preparing nutritious vegetables from nearby bushes. She used to go around the bushes and came back with plenty of natural herbs for our meals. Therewere shoots of cemperai, sweet potatoes, papaya, cashew nut, tapioca,and gnetum; jintan paya, pegaga, keladi agas and many more that I think a few of us would know them. All these were either consumed raw or just simply steamed and eaten with sambal or made into simple soup.

Talking about foods from nature I especially loved roasted cashewnuts. I remember we used to go around the village collecting cashew seeds. The seeds were then dried under the sun. When they were reallydried it was time for us to roast them. Roasting cashew seeds was something memorable and worth narrating.

I learned all the tricks of roasting cashew seeds, the traditional style, from my grandmother. I normally roasted the seeds in fine beris sand about 2-3 inches thick on a piece of oil-drum lid over an open fire outside the house.

Using a woody portion of the coconut frond, I made sure that the seeds were constantly stirred throughout the roasting process.The stirring became more critical when the seeds began to exude their oily content.

Soon after, the seeds would be engulfed in flame. When this happened, I had to stir the seeds more frequently to make sure that the roasting was evenly done and the seeds were not burnt. When the skin of the seeds was uniformly blackened I immediately covered the oil-drum lid with more sand to douse off the flame.

Ten to fifteen minutes later came the time that we were waiting for –the time when we pounded the charred seed open on a piece of plank using either a piece of wood or a rock to get at the delicious and crunchy cashew nuts inside. Eating the nuts as we cracked the seeds were much more exciting than collecting them for later consumption.

The oil and the soot caused the skin of my fingers to be blackened and the stain would last for weeks. The black marks would only go awaywhen the skin started to peel off, many days later. Though the cashewnuts prepared this way was not as good-looking as those commercially prepared, I still found them tastier and more satisfying.

Besides cashew nut, there were a lot more fruits and berries that were available for boys like me those days. Thinking about it, I now know that I would not go hungry for long, let alone starve those days, even without money in my pockets. There were kemunting, gucil, buah kelat, buah redang, buah terajang, and buah rotan, just to mention a few, that I could use as snacks after school before lunch. It was buah gucil that had a special place in my heart.They were tiny small ball bearing size wild berries that were green and sour when young, but reddish black and sweet with sour tinge when ripe.

We could eat them raw or had them pickled. There were so many ofgucil's trees around that a friend of mine by the name of SakinanChoya used to sell pickled gucil in class. She was one of a few Javanese Malaysians living in Kemaman, in a village called PulauTempurung. The last time I met her, she was a staff nurse in one ofthe health centres.

There was an incident that I could never forget involving a big buah kelat tree, a nestling of kingfishers and me. The tree was on a graveyard in Kampong Tuan. Attracted to its slightly bitter fruits,one day my friends and I climbed the tree. While busy collecting the fruits, I saw a kingfisher's nest in a hole in one of the branches of the big tree. As I made my way towards the nest, without realizing it,I stepped on a branch too small for my weight. It slowly gave way andI knew that I just had to do something very fast if I did not want to fall hard on the ground.

Looking down I saw many gravestones waiting for my fall. Taking aim, I jumped. Luckily for me I missed the gravestone. I escaped with only minor bruises on my rib cage and arms.The kingfisher flew away, probably looking for foods for its hungry chicks.

I came back a few days later for the kingfisher. The chicks had all grown up and ready to fly. At first I wanted to rear them, but I changed my mind after realizing that feeding them would be difficult as they were more fond of catching live fish, prawns, or insects on their own. No matter what, they, the kingfishers were really beautiful and something else when they were hunting for food. They would wait patiently on a twig waiting for small fish to come to the surface.

They would dive into the water as soon as they saw a fish swimming by. Not long after that, they resurfaced with a juicy fish in their beak and fascinatingly without getting their beautiful blue plumage wet. The whole process was just like poetry in motion for a young birder like me.

Another bird that had fascinated me a lot then was the beautiful Blue-throated bee-eaters (berek-berek) . I just loved watching them, the way they were merrily chasing after the elusive bees with the beautiful azure sky background. These birds normally made their nests in the beris soil. Other boys went for their edible eggs. They would normally got hold of the eggs by digging with their bare hands into the nest. I did not really understand why was it that the eggs were halal to eat but the birds were not. I guessed it must have been similar as in the caseof the sea turtle. However, I really did not fancy them for breakfast– they were too tiny for me. More adventurous boys trapped the birds by using a loop of threadstrategically placed at the nest's entrance when the birds were inside the nest. They then chased the birds out of their nests by beating on empty kerosene tins. Frightened, the birds flew away and got themselves entangled in the thread loops. However, they did not dofurther harm to the birds. Knowing well that bee-eaters would not dowell in captivity, they were usually let go after the boys had enjoyed their beauty.

Still on the avian subject, I remember well my or rather my grandfather's big red cockerel and his harem of hens. By those days standard, he was indeed a huge fellow. In one MAHA show, he impressed the judges so much that he was the overall champion in the chicken show. For me it was his bravery guarding his harem of hens and chicks that had really impressed me. Very few people could come close to his chicks when he was around without being aggressively chased after.

Once I saw an eagle swooping out of nowhere towards his chicks under a jackfruit tree. Luckily for the chicks, he was there at the time.Wasting no time, he ran after the eagle and a fierce tussle ensued. Dust and feathers of both fighters were flying in the air. One of the hens joined in the eagle-cockerel fight. Realizing that it was outnumbered and out-powered, the eagle retreated, with a few of its wing and tail feathers broken.

The fight was fast and swift, but I was sure that the eagle had learnt a very good lesson that day. Never again try to attack the cockerel's chicks when papa was around.

In 1965, all Standard five and six students of Sekolah KebangsaanChukai, were directed to move to Sekolah Kebangsaan Pusat, Chukai, a brand new school about three miles away from town. It was sort of a centralized primary school enrolling only Standard four to six students.

Being a relatively new student, I was rudely and inconsiderately placed in Standard five B by the class teacher. Simply put, I was not one of his pet students. The fact that I was always tento fifteen minutes late for his class did not help me either. Actually when I was in Standard five I went to school in a trishaw.

The trishaw peddler was an old man named Pak Man. He had to really sweat it out daily bringing the five of us to school everyday. In spite of my silent protest and perhaps much to the dislike of the teacher, I secured the first place three terms in a row that year. For that I was promoted, rightfully I thought, to Standard six A in 1966.

Later, again much to his dislike, I was also selected as one of the nine students from the school to sit for a special examination to qualify for a place in boarding schools. I missed special Malay class that was scrapped two to three years earlier. There was no UPSR examination back then. In Standard six A, for the first time in my life I met my real academic challengers. There were eight of them.

I knew that I was competing against the best in the school, if not in the district. However I was still the best inthe English subject. Only Aminah came close to beating me in the subject. After school I usually followed my friends to the swamps at the backof the school. It was there that I was first introduced to both the art and science of catching and selecting good fighting fish.

To find these beautiful fish, all we had to do was to look for their unique foamy breeding place. The male fish normally would choose a strategic and private corner somewhere where the water was not too deep and the site was not too exposed to its possible enemies like us. Afterfinding such a place, it would then start building the nest that was made of foams for their eggs (so I was told back then).

To catch themale, all I had to do was to use both of my hands and scoop the fish that was usually hiding underneath the foams. I rarely missed catching the fish that way. Usually only the male fish was caught, the female was allowed to go free.

After a while I became an expert in determining what kind of fish inhabiting the nest. By just looking at the nature of the foam, Iwould know whether the fish living there was a good fighter or not. It was my observation that a rusty foamy nest would mean a very experienced and fierce fighting fish.

I remember my hands being nibbled at when I was scooping one fighting fish under such kind of nest. A clean white foamy nest would normally produce a young and inexperience fighting fish that would always become a loser. After sometimes, I became quite an expert in catching these fighting fish. I would usually go far to any swamp that was said to be the dwelling place of these fish. I did not use the fish for fighting. It was just too cruel for me. Unlike spiders, fighting fish usually fight to the finish, causing severe damage to the fins, mouth parts, and even causing death to the losers.

fter abig catch, I just sold them to a pet shop or fighting fish enthusiasts nearby. Once a MARA officer who had just moved into the quarters infront of my aunt's house bought all my catch for the day. I was paid five ringgits for all the fish.

But I really admired these fish for their grace and bright colours when they were placed in front of mirrors or next to another fish in another bottle. To improve the intensity of their colours I usually place the fish-containing bottlein dark places like in banana tree stumps and even in the ground a few hours at a time. Being my nature, I would always make sure that thefish under my care were all properly fed (usually with mosquito larvae) and looked after.

During the Monsoon seasons when it rained so heavily, my friends and I were often busy running after water birds. We frequented an old airplane landing strip not far from my aunt's house in Kampong Besut. When it was raining heavily, the field would be under a few inches of water and this attracted many species of water birds such as the common snipes, Cinnamon bitterns, White breasted waterhens and even our small and elusive Barred buttonquails. I did not understand why, but the birds, especially the snipes, when they were so soaked with rainwater, they lost a bit of their flight ability. Knowing very wellabout their weakness, we took advantage and chase them with all ourstrength and might along the field. We either caught them barehanded or using long-handled fishnets. On a good day we would catch a dozen or more snipes within a few hours in the rain.

Sadly the airstrip is no more there now. Its open spaces have been replaced with a new primary school and a few blocks of religious school hostels. Gone too were the memories of running after a plane everytime it landed there.

Still on birds, there was nothing comparable to my grandfather'sability to call and net Crakes. When it was Crakes season and during a moonless night, he would sing out a special song and in no time you could hear the sound of the birds' flapping their wings all over the area. The birds came down right into the net that he had earlier setup along the perimeter of the area. The trapped birds would be caught the first thing in the morning when the sun was just beginning to come out. They made a very delicious lunch for us all. If the catch was good, we sold some of the birds to our neighbours in Kampong BukitKuang.

Those days Bukit Kuang was still surrounded by heavy jungles and it was nothing unusual to see wild boars roaming the village at dawn and dusk. The babies of these animals, with their brown body stripes, were beautiful to look at.

One morning we were all surprised to find a lot of tiger footprints everywhere on the beris sand in front of our house. My mother once saw a big black serow making its way into ourland. From the hill in front of the village we could hear the melodious songs of our own pheasants. But now everything has changed in Bukit Kuang. There was so much development in and around the village that I could not even see commonbirds like bulbuls and magpie robins playing in the trees any more.

Those days I could easily catch a few coral cods by just dropping a line into the river from the bridge using just salted fish as bait.During certain times of the year, the bridge would be thronged by fishing enthusiasts who were trying to catch as much scads and herrings as possible. These fishes came swimming into the river fromthe nearby South China Sea by the thousands. We could actually see the fish swimming in schools near the surface of the crystal clear greenwater.

Anchovies too used to frequent the river. I used to catch themusing nets along the floating raft of logs in the river. At high tide, dolphins and even sharks were observed joining in the schools of fish into the river. But now the river is no more as rich as before – wehave to wait for hours to land a few fish, that only if we were lucky.

To be continued

No comments: