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Thursday, February 5, 2009

A day I spent in strange surroundings

A day I spent in strange surroundings

I have a cousin, Brian, who is a writer for a newspaper in Kuala Lumpur. Last year when I visited him, he told me that he had an assignment to write about life in a remote village in the national forest reserve in Pahang. He challenged me, a city boy, to accompany him and experience a day in totally unfamiliar surroundings.

We drove to a small town where we boarded a boat for the ride down the river. The boat was a long one with just a few seats. Most of the passengers sat on the floor.

The journey was a thrilling adventure. The boat had to pass through a number of rapids, and at a certain points the boatman used a long pole to steer it. Brian and I were obviously excited but the other passengers took it in a casual, even bored way. To them, it was a usual occurrence. “They have to take this journey every time they need to go to town. Look at you, you have the MRT and you complain if the journey is longer than 40 minutes!,” Brian teased me.

After three hours in the boat, we reached our destination. After getting off at the pier, the first building that we saw was the village shop. Actually, it was a small shop crammed with canned and dry food. Brian chatted with the owner and we found out that the shop was also the only place in the village where people buy their stamps and newspapers. However, the postal service and the newspaper delivery came only once a week.

He then showed us the direction to the headman’s house. The headman’s name was Tok Kassim. When we found his house, he invited us in and told us stories about himself and his village. Then he took us for a tour around the village. Since bicycle was the only form of transport, people walked from place to place.

The village was very peaceful and green. The river was the focal place of the villagers. We saw people fishing in the river and women washing their clothes there. But what struck me most was the way the children enjoyed it. They swam in it, and they rode in rafts which they put together from bamboo poles.

Tok Kassim recounted the time when his father and the other villagers rebelled against British rule. The river was often the battlefront between the two opponents. He talked about the river as though it was an old friend. He explained how it had seen them through the worst of times like the starvation they experienced during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, and how the river has helped them throughout their lives.

That night we had a wonderful dinner at Tok Kassim’s house. Many of the villagers came and brought some food. A neighbor even brought fresh money still attached to pieces of honeycomb. It was one of the most natural food I have ever tasted.

The next morning, we left on the boat. During the journey, I thought about how strange the life of this village and the surroundings seemed to me and my friends in Singapore. Despite the simplicity of their lives, they are strong people who could weather bad times.

But most of all, while we talk about “green” living, these people are quietly practicing it.

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