Saturday, September 6, 2014

Across the Causeway II




     Stops Along the Tracks

It was around midnight
When the train groaned to a halt
At Kluang Station
Written in bold black
On a stark white board 

Rows of yellow wooden benches
Matched the wooden offices
Next to the ticket booth
Was a Chinese coffee shop
With its round, marble table tops
And curved wooden chairs

The kopitiams was run by Hainanese operators
Who served thick white loaves, steamed or toasted 
Generously splattered with Planta margarine
And thick layers of golden kaya spread
Half-boiled eggs splashed with dark soya sauce
And strong, black coffee in chipped porcelain cups

It seemed like yesterday
When we got off here
To spend our school holidays
In Kahang, about 40 miles away

We arrived at the tiny hut
In the middle of the paddy field
Which was ripe for harvesting
Pa had cleared the land and planted the grain
With help from his adopted sons
Razali, a mualaf, and a couple more young men
With unusual Javanese names which slipped my mind
Jobless youths whom Pa had befriended
While at Outram 
Or the tea shop at Central
The simple, country life was a new experience
We woke up to the sounds of birds chirping
The sight of golden paddy fields was refreshing
A splash of cold water from the pump
Boiled tapioca and sweet potatoes for breakfast
Boiled rice for lunch, withulam and fish from the parit
Narrow waterways in between the paddy plots

The boys brought home sepat, keli and haruan
Which Mak cleaned with lots of tamarind
And boiled with santan in earthen pots
Or fried and grilled them with tumeric
Dipped in soy sauce with cut chillis and garlics

Sometimes after our morning meal
Razali took us up the trail
Which led to the winding river 
As we passed the bamboo thickets
We took a deep breath
At the top of the rickety stairs
The clear water which flowed below
Lured us to brave the steep descent
To the jetty by the deep end
Where Razali left his rakit
A flat bamboo raft
Tied firmly with vines
Which ferried us across to the shallow, sandy bank

There we waded and splashed
Ma had our laundry washed
And Razali swam after small items
Swept away by the currents

We couldn't believe our eyes
When we spotted a snake with its ornaments
In a hollowed cavern
On the opposite bank
And heard a tiger's distant roar
Which made us quickly leave that shore

The kampong folks were full of tales
Of Sang Kelembai, the Fierce Ogre
Who felled the tall trees with both his arms
And Bunians, the sprites and nymphs
With their hidden communities

While on a walking tour one evening
The local guide pointed to a grass clearing
He whispered: 
“This is the site of the Bunian hamlet
They’re just like humans
But they inhabit a different dimension”
As if to welcome us
A sweet fragrant filled the air
“Be careful not to walk alone  
There had been cases of young men
Taken by the Bunians
These creatures, it seemed
Had lured loners and simpletons
To be wedded to their women
Which sounded like the infatuation
Between Titania and Nick Bottom

Not long after our adventure in Kahang
We heard from Razali that the paddy project had bombed
They failed to harvest the ripened stalks before they wilted
And were out of funds to pay the workers' wages
When Pa returned home depressed
We were careful not to ruffle his feathers

It was the middle of the night
When suddenly everyone stirred
As the train approached the interchange
At Gemas, Negri Sembilan
Unlike Kluang and other smaller stations
Gemas had another set of railway tracks
Which branched off to the East Coast states -
Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan
And passengers bound for those destinations
Got off and boarded another set of wagons

The stop was longer than at other stations
Indeed it was a chance to stretch our legs
Sip hot coffee or drop in at the public toilets
Since very few ventured beyond our seats
To reach the dining car and stinky WCs

During such long stops
Food peddlers got on board
To sell curry puffs, nuts and sweetened drinks
Ma made up her mind
We should refresh ourselves
And refuel at the kopitiam
With a clean Good Morning towel
Rinsed at the nearby sink
She scrubbed our faces of oil and grime
And ordered warm steamed buns
With cups of hot Ovaltine

My new belted dress
With its short, puffed sleeves
Was not exactly travel friendly
But Ma thought our friends and family
Should remember us at our most trendy

As the youngest
I was doted upon
Much to Mal's chagrin
Who revelled in horror stories
About me being a Changeling
And about Ma keeping a toyol
A chubby imp who stole money when he was told
And a pelesit, an evil spirit unleashed to wreak revenge
To be passed on to the last offspring

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