Thursday, July 10, 2008

Moments of My Life - Part 3

In Langkap, we lived in a police barrack in the police station. The first thing that attracted me about the barrack was the special escape door on the floor of the living hall. It led to a simple earth bunker underneath the barrack. The door was once used during the Emergency times to escape safely from the barrack when attacked by the communist guerillas. There was even a well-fortified concrete bunker in the police compound.

School was just nearby. I did not remember much of school life in Langkap except that Nazri was my new best friend. It was in Langkap that I was first exposed to chicken. It was a hen really. My father bought it from a wet market in Langkap. The chicken was supposedly to be slaughtered for our lunch, but with a twist of fate, it laid an egg while in captivity in our kitchen. So, we then decided to keep the hen.

As usual, animals always come into my life wherever I went. If it was a mynah in Kuantan, a gorilla in Teluk Anson, and cats in Kampong Gajah, rabbits became my new pets in Langkap.

My father bought me a pair of rabbits from a pet store in town. With the abundant supply of kangkung from the swamp nearby, they became so productive that I had to give some of the babies away to friends.

The babies were so cute that they became the centre of attraction to many of my neighbours. Sadly, I also lost some of them to hungry rats that found them too inviting and made them parts of their dinner menu.

After school, I always bring my rabbit to play with friends in the school compound.I was fast becoming popular in school. Besides being good in school curriculum, I was also liked by many because I could get into local cinemas free.

Langkap was a very small town then and policemen, including their children, were highly respected and appreciated then (I am not sure whether that was a form of corruption or not). So,usually I ended up watching a variety of movies, from Westerns, Malay,Hindustani and even Thai films.

Besides rabbits, it was also in Langkap that I was first introduced to the world of fighting spiders. My friends and I used to go around town looking for spiders.

These spiders usually made their nests in between leaves of plants such as hibiscus, pandan, sugarcane and many more. All we had to do was to slightly separate the sandwiched leaves and give a peek to see whether there was any spider in them. Usually we would go for male spiders only as they were more inclined to fight if two of them were put together.

The fighting arena was usually on top of a matchbox or rarely a tobacco metal box. Though it sounded cruel, these spider fights rarely caused serious injuries, as the fight was usually very brief.

Death would only occur if two different species (of significant size difference) of spiders were allowed to be in the same arena. It happened to me once with my favourite spider. I had caught the spider on a sugar cane plant not very far away from my school.

It had wonmost of the fights that it participated in. A boy from the neighbouring village challenged me to a spider fight. Everything was ready. The fighting arena was an empty spacious tobacco tin. I let go my spider into the arena. It was ready. Then suddenly a giant black and white striped spider, easily triple the size of my spider, made its entrance into the arena. Without warning it quickly pounced on my spider. With its enormous mandibles and maxillae it quickly gobbled up my favourite spider.

I was totally shocked at the lightning violence. All that I could do was cry. He was laughing his heart out as he walked away. I was boiling inside and felt like jumping onto him from the back and gave him a bashing of his life. However my intention stopped halfway.

He was easily twice my size. In the more usual and fair spider fights, it was more of a test of strength between two male spiders and the loser would always ran away safely without the winner attacking in full rage.

I was so expert in selecting the spiders that I would know its sex by just looking at the eyes and know the probable strength of the spider by just looking at the plants they lived in.

Male spiders usually had white eyes and spiders from sugar cane plants were usually both fiercer and stronger than spiders from hibiscus plant. Spider hunting usually would take us far from home into fruit orchards and vegetable gardens and as the result I sometimes came back late and was scolded and even spanked for that.

However, most of thetime I escaped my father's spanking by going to 'sleep' early after getting myself thoroughly cleaned from head to toes.

It was in Langkap that I first came face to face with a fire. It was the biggest fire that I had ever seen. The fire started in a tobacco factory and involved an L-shaped row of shop houses in Langkap town. Firemen and policemen were everywhere trying their best to contain the fire.

From afar we could see black smoke and burnt debris flying in the air. The heat was so unbearable that my father had to break his fast because prolonged exposure to the towering inferno made him too hot and dehydrated.

I could see sewing machines crumpling in the intense heat, stacks of rubber sheets burning fiercely and buildings completely burnt to the ground.

After the fire, the area was thronged with owners and curious onlookers. Everybody was looking for something that could be salvaged. At one point of time, a Police Constable saw piles of money by th eroadsides. The presence of many senior police officers around him prevented him from taking the money. Thinking that he had all the time to come back for the money later, he forgot about the money for a short while and instead, continued fighting the fire.

When the coast was clear, he returned to the site where the pile of money was. From about three feet away, the money appeared untouched by the fire, but the second his eager hands touched them they disintegrated into fine dusts.

He was so frustrated for trying to be too honest in front of his senior officers. So too were other materials like clothes. I saw one owner opening his metal chest full of traditional Chinese clothes frustrated on seeing the seemingly untouched clothes crumbling into dusts as soon as they were touched.

It was in Langkap that my father realized that our nomadic way of life might be bad for my studies. He feared that the constant, yearly transfers might affect my academic performance. Both my father and mother had high expectation of me to do well in my academics.

Beingt he eldest child and son, they wanted me to be successful in life. Since in my early school days, I had dreamed of going to a boarding school. So, it was decided that I should stay and continue the rest of my primary education in Kemaman.

So, in late 1964 I went to Standard Four in Sekolah Kebangsaan Chukai,Kemaman. It was the first time I went to school in my own hometown.

The school was just a stone's throw from my grandmother's house and so I just walked to school.

What attracted me most to the school was a row of oil palm trees lining the boundary fence. Then, oil palm trees were just planted as ornamental plants, unlike today where they were for commercial palm oil production.

We used to collect the oil palm kernels and creatively made beautiful rings out of them. The meat of young oil palm fruits was delicious. They tasted just like the meat of young coconut.

Among friends and elderly folks in the village, I was known as the earliest boy to school. It was nothing unusual for me to be at theschool's gate even before it was opened. I was just too attracted to school life. I would never miss school for anything, not even a certified medical certificate from the district hospital.

I remember once I badly injured my foot when I accidentally jumped on a piece of barbed wire. Without realizing that sharp points of the barbed wire had pierced into my sole, I continued walking, thus lengthening the wound.

A one-year senior friend noticed that I was bleeding profusely from the foot. I was then rushed to the hospital for the gushing wound. For that I received a few stiches, a jab of anti-tetanus toxoid and a two-day medical leave.

Surprising many, teachers and fellow students alike, I showed up in school, with heavily bandagedf oot, the very next day as if nothing had happened to me.

In Kemaman, I restarted my Quran reading lessons. It was interrupted when I moved to Kampong Gajah from Teluk Anson. In Teluk Anson, I was already half way through the Quran. With equal zealousness, I read the Quran fluently and because of that I completed it within a year, passing almost all other students in the class.

My Quran teachers were Haji Embong and his wife, Hajjah Teh of Kampong Tuan. Sadly both of them had passed away.Besides teaching Quran, she also cooked and sold nasi lemak and palm candies.

Her students usually helped her in wrapping and distributing the nasi lemak. Her nasi lemak was unique by today's standard for it was wrapped in baru-baru leaves. The leaves gave a certain special aroma to the nasi lemak. It was even better than the present day banana leaves nasi lemak. That was why many people liked her nasil emak.

In those days, students did much more than only reciting the Quran.They also helped the teachers in carrying out daily household chores such as carrying well water to the house and cutting firewood.

Thewater was for both the teacher's domestic use and also for washing ourfeet before getting up the staircases into the hall. For washing ourfeet, the water was normally placed into an earthen jar next to the bottom of the staircase. A well-shaven empty coconut shell, sometimes complete with a wooden handle, was normally used to scoop up water from the jar.

It was common those days for Malay houses to have such a jar full of water in front of their house. Being a fluent Quran reader, I was also given the responsibility to teach younger students and newcomers.

I owed a lot to her for teaching me the proper way of reciting the Holy book.

A little bit more about Kampong Tuan, a village where I was born. According to my mother, I was born in a wooden house near thevillage's most sacred mosque. The mosque, which is still standing to this very day, was an all-wood structure that was constructed long ago using no nails at all.

It was said that during the Japanese occupation, no Japanese soldiers were brave enough to dirty the mosque. According to the elder folks of the village, including my late grandfather, even Muslim djinns came to pray in themosque!

My late grandfather used to tell me stories of his numerous encounters with long and yellow-robed djinns praying in the mosque, especiallyduring the dawn prayers.

My grandfather was a well-known Malay traditional martial arts instructor. According to him, Mat Kilau, the famous Pahang Malay warrior fighting against British colonists, would always practise and review his martial arts moves with him whenever he passed by Kemaman on his many journeys across the states of Kelantan,Terengganu and Pahang.

It was a pity that he passed away when I was still a small boy. If not, I would for sure be a martial arts expert like him!

Life as a boy with four brothers and four sisters and whose father was only a police constable was hard by today's standard. Money was not that easy to come by, but those days, not as much money was required for basic living. Instead of buying food for breakfast like the present folks, my mother, being a good family finance controller, would instead cook anchovy spoon-cakes or pancakes, either plain or coconut flavoured, for us.

I remember, from looking at our monthly grocery bills from Maidin's shop, the six of us consumed, believe it or not, about thirty gantangs of rice and many katis of wheat flour too per month.

I confessed that I did not have so many luxurious items as my children are enjoying now, but I think I enjoyed life as much they are enjoying now, if not better.

I was not choosy as far as food was concerned.Even though I was a bit selective in what I liked and did not like, I did not simply choose only good food to eat. I remember I often had just plain white rice and half-cooked self-roasted salted scads for lunch.

My fingers would usually get so dry and sticky after every meal because I dislike any form of gravy. I was skinny then and for a long period in my adolescence. With that kind of physique, worn-out shirtand pant, and most often, walking bare feet, I was just an ordinary kampong boy most of the time.

I remember walking around the village just after a heavy rain in search of resurfaced coins. It was usual to find coins resurfacing in the beris sand during and soon after every heavy rain.

A few fruiting sentul trees at one corner of the village also became my favourite place to go especially early in the morning before school. Usually the ripe sentul fruits would fall to the ground during the night. So,early morning hours were the best times to go around collecting them before others with similar intention did the same.

Besides sentul there was an aromatic coconut tree on the riverbank close to my aunt's house that I used to visit during early mornings.The very young coconuts falling from that tree were highly sought after by many in the village. The entire young coconut except the outer skin, was edible. They were somewhat sweetish and crunchy and good to munch on. They were either consumed raw or eaten with a mixture of soy bean sauce, sugar, and prawn-paste.

Then there was another free source of nutritious food – the mushrooms. Edible mushrooms flourished underneath coconut trees on that part of the riverbank, especially after rain. Tok Wan and I visited the area often in search of the mushrooms.

I just loved the stems of themushroom when Tok Wan made delicious soup out of them. So you see, I was a real kampong boy, knowing just what to do and where to go looking for things to eat.

In general, people were not too money-conscious then. I remember collecting free fish almost every evening from returning fishermen.Fresh sardines, scads, red and white snapper, herrings and rarely Indian mackerels were freely distributed to the waiting crowd.

I was lucky because the brother of my grandmother was a member of one such fishermen group. He would always supply me with the best of his catch,including some Indian mackerels.

I called him Tok Ngah.A unique thing about him was that he would always be in his all blackshirt and trousers (baju Melayu). It was not that he had only a pair of baju Melayu. He actually had many pairs but all of them were black!

In his free time, I was always asked to give him a massage by actually walking on his back. In return for my service, I was always invited to have lunch in his house.

His house was more of a halfway house for many of his friends from Besut and Kelantan. I never missed his invitation for lunch in his house for anything; I knew that it would for sure be very delicious.

Being a great fish lover, I just loved it when he would always ask me to eat more fish even though at that time I was in fact already enjoying more fish than any boy of my age. It was normal for him to finish one side of a reasonably bif red snapper just with a few mouthfuls of rice.

Unlike many other elderly folks back then who would not encourage kids to eat a lot of fish, for fear of getting infested with worms, he on the other hand, always encouraged his grandchildren to love fish.

Came to think of it, it was not the worms that they feared, but it was more of a way to reduce the family's day-to-day expenses. It was different with him; he had all the supply of fresh fish that he had nothing to worry about his daily fish supply.

Deep-fried red snapper with steaming plain white rice and lightly roasted mackerel eaten with glutinous rice sprinkled with freshly grated coconut and sweet-smelling crunchy roasted glutinous rice grains were his clear favourites, and so were mine.

Tok Ngah was also very close to his sister Tok Wan. I remember well how each of them would walk to one another's house the minute they heard the other was sick.

One day, out of sudden, he fell seriously sick. Every one of his known living relatives and friends visited him. They all believed that he was dying and so preparation for a funeral was hurriedly arranged.

The sad atmosphere suddenly changed to a happier moment when as sudden as he fell sick before, his condition unexpectedly improved. In no time he was on his feet again.He even asked his visitors why there were so many people in the house.

The next day, as most of his relatives returned to their houses, he once again fell sick. Tok Wan was always near her brother. Then he asked his sister for the Quran verses. She obligingly taught her brother the verses that their mother had once, long time ago, taughtt hem to memorize by heart.

The verses were for peaceful and easy departure from this world. Soon after finishing saying the verses, he peacefully breathed his last breath. With his departure Tok Wan became the sole survivor of her family

Back to the daily free fish distribution, during high tide we sometimes had to wade through the knee-deep river to meet them for the fish. On a few occasions, I saw a few unlucky waders unintentionally stepped on a few species of fish that dwelled in the muddy river.

If the fish that they stepped on were species like rays and catfish, scenes of people crying in pain when stung were common. Once I even saw a man trying to remove a catfish that got stuck to his foot when the creature's dorsal spine had pierced his sole.

As far as I could remember, I had never seen fish being sold at the landing place. They believed that their catch was a gift of God and it should be shared with others from the same village.

The same thing was also practiced when one found a clutch of turtle eggs buried in the sand in the turtle-laying area of the beach.Whenever a nest was discovered, everyone in the village could join in tasting the bounty.

Sadly this kind of arrangement is no more viable these days. That is why such a fishing practice is not here anymore. I guess the commercialization pressure killed them off. With the high overhead costs it was no longer profitable to just give away a big part of the daily catch to the villagers.

Or was it because the fishes were not that abundant and easily netted anymore?

Tok Wan was an all-rounder as far as earning a living was concerned. She processed nipah shoots into a kind of cigarette wrapper; she went to the mangrove swamps looking for clams, snails, and shrimps; shemade nipah attap roofs etc.

Catching shrimps in the river when the tide was low was an experience by itself. The river was only about ten feet wide and a few feet deep and boys like me could easily cross it without having to know how to swim. We had to be a bit careful though when wading barefoot in the muddy river for there in the shallow and murky water were poisonous creatures like sea snakes, stonefish, catfish, etc. Stonefish could inflict a very painful injury if we were to accidentally step on its spiny body.

I had seen my friend's leg getting rapidly swollen as soon as the spines penetrated his foot. A trick I learnt to reduce the pain and swelling was to urinate right into the point of injury. The urine somehow neutralized the toxin, thus preventing the leg from getting too swollen.

Coming back to the special way to catch shrimps at low tide, I seriously doubt that many people nowadays know the technique. My grandmother would sit in the knee-deep river and with her fingers, start groping and probing around her in the soft mud, feeling for the shrimps.

The shrimps were just like the present day tiger shrimps. It was just amazing how she did it. When the shrimps were plentiful, it would not take her very long to fill the rattan basket. I did try a few times, but I was not as expert as she was. She even caught a catfish that way, surprisingly, with out being stung in the process.

At high tide and when the water was clear, she taught me a special kind of way to catch shrimps. It was not in any way a commercial way of catching shrimps, but it was surely far more exciting.

By using anipah shoot's vein, at the end of which a loop of fine thread was placed, she would gently place the loop around one of the shrimp'seyes and then quickly she would twist the loop. The more the shrimp struggled, the tighter the loop would hold it. I thought I was better using this technique, but the catch was usually small. Usually I just ate the shrimps raw or at the most I just roasted them over a smallfire.

It was a different game altogether at night as far as catching something edible from the river. When the sun went down, crabs,shrimps, and if I was lucky, even fishes like stingrays would, for some unknown reasons, made their way to the edges of the river. All that we need were basic things like the tradition harpoon, a torchlight and an empty kerosene tin.

The light would somewhat attracted these creatures more towards the river edge and they would be almost stunned when the sharp light fell onto their eyes. All I had to do then was to use my harpoon on them.

When the catch was good, the container would be full in no time. But Tok Wan always reminded me to be careful as lurking in the dark were poisonous water snakes.

Like me, they too were hunting for the same shrimps and fish.I took heed Tok Wan's advice. For I had witnessed a full-grown man going down into the river, a few seconds after he was bitten by a sea snake.

He was then trying to peel off the bark of a floating log in the river. The bark was widely used for making firewood then. Suddenly out of a big hole in the log swam out a sea snake, probably disturbed by the noises made by the man.

I knew that it was a sea snake by looking at its flattened tail. As sudden as it swam out of the hole, it suddenly swam back in the direction of the man. It then bit the man in the leg. The man immediately fell into the knee-deep water. A few ofhis friends nearby rushed towards him. They pulled him out of the water and placed him on the riverbank. He was seriously sick. His skin by then had turned blue. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the Kemaman District Hospital.

The shrimp story would not be complete without telling you an incident that would both excite and frighten anyone reading it. The story was as follows.

One day, as I was walking through a wooden bridge separating Kampong Tuan and Kampong Enjin Gergaji, I looked down into the crystal clear water of a slow moving brook below. My sharp eyes saw plenty large shrimps swimming peacefully in the stream. Wasting notime, I jumped onto heaps of nipah shoot wastes (these were what were left behind when the nipah shoot was converted into cigarette wrappers) that lined the hill slopes makingmy way towards the stream.

Using my bare hands, I skillfully caught most of the seemingly docile shrimps. It was more than a kilogram of delicious shrimps caught that day. As I reached home, my mother asked me from where did I get the shrimps?

She gave me a strange look as I told her that I caught the shrimps from that stream. According to her, the stream was haunted and no body dared to venture into it, let alone catching its shrimps!

It was true that the stream was flowing through a thick forest that was used mainly as a site for placing offerings to the so-called evil spirits that might have caused sickness to people.

While enjoying thefinger-licking good fried shrimps, I felt a little worried. Would I fall sick or something? After all I had stolen somebody or rather something's property.Well, nothing happened to me that night or days after that incident.

So, all the fuss about the haunted stream was a fake after all. Or was it because I was too strong-spirited to be disturbed by the ghosts that many said to be there.

I was not that brave really. In fact I was so scared of the dark back then. Strangely, I was more scared of being left alone in the house at night than walking around in the village alone.

My fear of the dark was finally overcome when I reached standard five. My shrimp gathering expeditions continued uninterrupted for a long time after that.

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