The most preferred seat and trail of unending trials

Kasih ibu membawa kesyurga, kasih ayah sepanjang masa.

– A traditional saying

IN Malaysia, Father’s Day is celebrated on the third Sunday in June, which falls on the 19th of June this year.

Coincidentally, it falls on the same weekend as the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) 2022 edition – the first real physical and hybrid version of the festival since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019. Last Saturday night, it felt really good to be able to return to the iconic Sarawak Cultural Village at Damai near Kuching, Sarawak to watch the music festival again. It brought back fond memories of my maiden performance at RWMF 2013.

Since Father’s Day is a celebration of the role of fathers, I thought I’d share two stories set in the context of the rainforest environment where I grew up. They are reflections on some quality time spent with my father — his sacrifices and dedication of fathers in general.

On the role of fathers, we could perhaps generalise that compared to mothers they tend to be less demonstrative of how they feel towards their children but that doesn’t mean that they love less or don’t love at all. But often it’s in their actions that we can see that they do love. Yes, a classic demonstration of the phrase “action speaks louder than words”. My ‘Tamaq’ (Kelabit for ‘dad’) was one such father.

As far as I can recall, his actions and words demonstrated that his love was deep and abiding. He taught me many useful lessons which lasted a lifetime.

He instituted me into the wisdom of the traditional ways and the secrets of the rainforest. I stood tall on his strong shoulders because they were high. His reassuring presence was always there for me.

This post narrates two stories, a rehash of earlier versions, which demonstrates what I have written above.

The Art of Stealth:

Hunting for the Tela’o or Kijang Deer

As a small boy, one of my first recollections was of my father’s back in the rainforest in Pa’ Mein, our village deep in the highlands of the interior of Central Borneo. You see, even at the tender age when I was not yet able to walk properly or far, say about three years old, he was already taking me with him on his hunting and fishing forays deep into the rainforest. One of the seeming myriads of activities that he did was, like others of his generation, he undertook to eke out a living from the beautiful land and natural surroundings that made up his world.

Slung on or strapped to his back, I had the most preferred seat in the pristine, natural paradise that surrounded our home. I can still ‘see’ those images in my mind right now — the sunlight streaming through the jungle canopy onto the forest floor mainly in shades of green and teeming with life; the beautiful butterflies flitting around in the mist; the busy bees hovering over the flowers; the hummingbirds flying to and fro or the occasional yellow bird perched on a branch nearby. And there were the cacophony of jungle sounds that only true nature lovers can appreciate. I was immersed and raised in this environment, thanks to my father who himself loved the rainforests.

People used to remark to my dad, “Eh, why do you carry your son like that on your back to the jungle? Others also love their kids, but they don’t do that!” His reply was telling, “I don’t have many children like you. This is my one son, so I want to take him with me wherever I go!” There were two of us, my elder brother Samuel and me. But Sam was then already a big boy so definitely he won’t have to be carried on our father’s back! And he was right, compared to others he didn’t have that many children.

Early Immersion In Nature

My dad introduced me to the beauty and the bounties of the rainforest, something that I am forever grateful for. Until this day, my love for nature and the rainforest has not waned to any degree. I can still recall our hunting trips, some after I was able to walk on my own over longer distances with him, where we would climb many hills and a few high mountains, forging across numerous fast-flowing streams just to get to the preferred hunting spots.

I can also recall the first time we went hunting for the ‘tela-o’ or barking deer. He could imitate the sound of the deer using just two leaves and inevitably the deer would come running out of the jungle towards us!

But that first trip, I was just too excited and as a result, I spooked the deer. You see, when I saw it running and jumping towards us, I couldn’t contain my excitement and exclaimed “Tama’ whose dog is that?” From a distance, the running barking deer did not look big enough and as it was reddish I mistook it for a dog! Maybe someone else’s hunting dog. Of course, there were no dogs in the middle of the wild, unless they were the huge ones belonging to the legendary ‘Pun Tumid’- a mysterious yeti-like being that jungle folks talked about in hushed tones, especially in a forest that made up his home. But that’s another story for another day. Just like the story of the boy who befriended a spirit being of the rainforest or the story behind the origin of the Pun Tumid.

Of course, the deer heard my voice, abruptly changed course, and escaped! My dad was not able to shoot it in time with his old shotgun. After that, Tama’ ever so gently said or rather whispered, “Son, the next time, don’t speak or make any sound! When you see a deer, just touch me slightly and gesture with your lips or point in the direction of the deer. In that manner, it won’t get spooked!” That was my first practical lesson in ‘tela’o’ hunting.

We moved on to another spot where he imitated the sound of a deer again. Sure enough, another one emerged, but this time, it didn’t run and jumped like the first one. It was quieter and almost sneaked upon us. The moment I saw it, it was practically almost on top of us. As it was also to my left, I saw it first. My heart was beating faster and faster with excitement, but I did as my dad had instructed. I touched his hand slightly and gestured with my lips and eyes to indicate where the deer was. We had our fresh venison that day, and I had a priceless lesson in nature’s classroom.

Then there was a time when we were on a fishing trip to Pa’ Berang, a medium-sized stream known for its plentiful supply of fish such as ‘semah’, ’empurau’ and others. That was where he taught me how to build a ‘mering’, a bamboo fish trap which operates like a sluice gate over a makeshift dam built across the river. Fish going down the river would encounter the ‘dam’, made of river boulders, stones and tree branches, and get trapped in the ‘mering’. The techniques of build the ‘dam’ which we call ‘patun’ were important as it is foolhardy to build an impervious dam across a river. You can’t stop the power of nature for long. All you need is a makeshift dam which the fish get over and fall into the trap. We camped at the location for a week or so and caught plenty of fish which we smoked under a makeshift leafy hut on the riverbank. A few weeks later, the site would revert to its normal virgin state after all traces of human activities have been erased.

There were many other incidents and events that I have had the privilege to share with my father. For example, he taught me the traditional way of making salt at our community’s salt spring that was discovered by one of our ancestors during a hunting trip.

The Art of Salt Making:

Hardship for a Purpose

Making salt in the traditional way was one of the toughest jobs I had ever done because the whole process was time-consuming and physically demanding.

The typical process starts with collecting a lot of firewood. Yes, lots and lots of heavy wood to feed a huge fire for boiling briny water collected from our salt spring. The collecting and carrying of firewood from the jungle to where the salt is processed takes up to two or so weeks. The amount of firewood would depend on the quantity of salt required.

Perched on the back into the Forest

Once enough wood has been collected, the briny water is collected, poured into giant containers and boiled. The water is constantly replenished and kept constantly boiling to ensure that enough salt is extracted.

This is no ordinary boiling process as the extraction rate is not quite optimum or efficient. The energy dispensed does not quite commensurate with the manual efforts and fuel burnt. The fire must be attended to 24 hours a day. This requires everyone involved to stay awake the whole day and night every day. The refilling and topping up process has to be sustained and everyone has specific tasks or chores to attend to.

Constantly feeding the fire with wood is one of the key activities. You cannot let the fire slow down for a moment, let alone allow it to die off at any time. After the water has completely evaporated, what remains at the bottom of the containers is salt.

This is not the end of the process, though. The next step is collecting and putting the wet salt into bamboo containers for drying by a fireside — much like making the traditional ‘lemang — to remove any moisture in the crystals. After that, the containers are placed in the fire to incinerate them completely, leaving just the hardened cylindrical salt blocks. These are then cooled down, wrapped in special leaves from the jungle, and stacked.

Lastly, the salt blocks are packed into rattan baskets to be carried on already sore shoulders all the way home!

The whole process is a physically bruising, tiring, and mentally demanding trial. No, it’s more like a tribulation. It’s the Kelabit man’s rite of passage! You can’t claim you have been a true blue one until you have done this task successfully. In the past, salts were also used as a form of currency for exchange because it was considered of value. Not surprisingly, it took guts and determination to manufacture the traditional ‘tudtuq’ salt.

Being so difficult to make, it is intrinsically more valuable than the printing of some papers with faces on them. Not everyone can make traditional salt.

Tribute to a Father

I could write many more stories to show how a dad cared for and always wanted the best for his son. Recalling and reflecting on all those times, I realise that I am slightly more demonstrative of my feelings towards my children than my dad. I find it imperative to tell them I care for them and would physically hug them, even when they are now adults. My dad had his way, which was as equally meaningful and ever so lasting.

So on the day when people celebrate what is called ‘Father’s Day,’ I pen these tales in fond remembrance of my dad while acknowledging all other dads who have had in their way shown their love and caring for their children. So dad, let me say I miss and love you. Thank you for having been my guide and a true friend.

I don’t even have a proper photo of you as we lost everything in the fire that razed our longhouse to the ground. The sketches below will suffice as ‘representations’. But really, a photo of you is not necessary, for you are firmly etched in my memory and hence rests solidly in my heart.

The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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