Our group of boys in the ‘ulu’ (remote hinterland) of the late 50s through to the 60s had to be contented with our surroundings as our playground and source of entertainment as well as joy.
In the absence of toys, gadgets, cinemas and other entertainment items the urban centres could offer to their counterparts, rural kids then needed to be constructive and creative to fully optimise their environmental attributes for entertainment, fun and most of education.
After all play is a very important aspect of education — this is extensively covered in Psychology of Education, a subject taught to trainee teachers in colleges and universities where theories by the likes of Sigmund Freud, BF Skinner, Jean Piaget, Ivan Pavlov and Abraham Maslow were featured.
I was born and bred in the carefree ‘ulu’ environment and befriended trees, plants, rivers, streams, hills and mountains from early childhood. They were part of me, I them.
Shrieks of monkeys, howls of civets, deer and bears as well as different singing tunes of birds, croaks of frogs and many more jungle sounds were music to my ears. Only the whining of mosquitoes caused nuisance.
From early childhood ‘ulu’ kids are trained to distinguish edible plants, creepers, mushrooms and others. We are taught about the necessary knowledge and secrets of the flora and fauna. We learn to live and move around in oneness with them.
We are familiar with the sometimes unfriendly weather, scary environment. We would see slowly grey clouds in the sky spreading their skirts open, wider and wider, and soft rain beginning to fall.
It starts quietly and gently caressing the warm air, kissing all the dark corners of the day or night, slowly and later increases its tempo, changing into a driving, pounding storm, fierce and demanding, a fanatic beat in a steady savage rhythm, plunging down harder and harder, until it finally explodes in a burst of thunder.
There are times when it would suddenly be over as quickly as it started. These are phenomena of the ‘ulu’.
Streams and the upper reaches of Melupa River were my childhood’s favourite hunting ground. From the age of eight I was brought by my parents away from the longhouse and enjoyed the freedom of living at the edge of the jungle.
I was left alone to traverse over the fast flowing upper Melupa and its tributaries, especially Sungai Tapang stream and a few other smaller streams near our Bukit Tinggi abode.
Fishing was my passion, especially using the fishing rod and ‘mansai’ (using a special woven basket to trap fish, crabs and prawns) which is essentially a feminine pastime.
Play makes the child adjust faster to his environment, reinforcing his id and libido pertaining to the adrenalins of fright and fight, Freud points out in one of his many books. One of his quotes reads, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
As young adults and living in the jungle, ‘ulu’ boys are free to roam and run, even indulging in a game ‘teruan’ (hide and seek) in the width and depth of the jungles among trees and wild animals and sometimes unfriendly streams.
This play is vital in shaping our sharpness in jungle tracking and looking for clues of directions. That is why ‘ulu’ boys are natural scouts and trackers and I think Freud scores highly in his aforesaid quote pertaining to Iban boys of Melupa.
One pool, Lubuk Muney, was my favourite fishing ground. One afternoon I caught more than 10 of a fish species called ‘Ikan Pait’, a kind of carp with black and white scales which is rarely caught using a fishing rod.
“You are really something Tawi. I have been fishing all my life but I have never caught ‘Ikan Pait’ using a rod. They usually avoid taking the bait,” my father (Apai) said.
On another occasion at Lubuk Muney I was accompanied by a nephew Endawi Anggun. A few big Ikan Tebalang, forever the hungry fish, were already caught when a giant Ikan Tunggal carp appeared with its head about the size of the 14kg gas tank heading towards us as if paying homage to me and Endawi.
Accompanying their king or queen were myriad of smaller Ikan Tunggal, most of which were about the size of our limbs. The giant fish stayed immobile for at least five to seven minutes, seemingly waiting to be fed.
I just watched — immobile too. I knew Ikan Tunggal took no bait so upon the giant’s appearance I reserved my bait as my string and hook were too small for them. When they finally moved away, the Tebalang came back and we caught a few more.
I am wondering whether anyone else besides the two of us have ever encountered that giant of a fish in the Melupa.
“Endawi is the witness to the event and as insurance you are not lying about it,” Apai said, adding that I was the main target of such spectacle.
I always cherish my ‘ulu’ experience.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.