Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My unforgettable rubber tapping experience

I feel sorry for those poor rubber tappers on whom I blogged about in Malaysia's economic backbone - unappreciated & marginalised!, more so for their children as some rubber estates are placed fairly remote from decent schools and other facilities.

Rubber tappers are multiethnic in composition, though regarding tapper-owners (usually of small rubber plots of land), there is a greater number of Malays, a few Chinese, and probably none or just an insignificant number of Indians. The ethnic ratio of employed tappers is probably in the reverse order.

The nature of rubber tapping requires the tappers, for practical reasons, to be located or housed in the plantations. In the general case this means a rather difficult life with few amenities, especially schooling for their children.

When I was a young lad, I went to stay at a rubber estate somewhere in Perak during the school holidays to experience what it would be like. My uncle was the estate manager and welcomed my request to bunk at his huge bungalow during the two weeks’ vacation.

After a couple of days of driving around the plantation with my Unc in his land-rover, and visiting its various buildings, I was feeling bored after seeing the 12,176th tree, or was it the 57,902nd?

I told Unc that I would like to accompany one of the tappers on his morning tapping. Hmmm, even at my tender age my latent socialist nature was already urging me to check out the harsh life of a rubber tapper.

He looked at me with surprise, initially, and then broke into a grin but warned: “Are you sure?”

I replied in the affirmative, thinking I might have a go at milking the trees with my stupendous sizzling skill at slashing, slicing and slitting. Straightaway I fantasized impressing the tapper with my deftness in using my neat little penknife.

One of my weaknesses, and I must confess I have many, has been allowing my imagination to run away at FTL* once I have begun my fantasy.

* faster than light speed

My cousins who were there and knew something about estate life, declined to accompany me, with such alacrity that should have alerted me to what was in store, but then I was what the majority of my girlfriends had all along criticized me of – too bloody naïve.

Unc assigned me to a young lady instead of a man that I expected. She would call for me at 4-ish. But Unc, don’t they tap in the morning?” He laughed and replied that it was 4-ish in the early morning, and not late afternoon as I had initially thought.

4 a.m! Gulp, what had I gotten myself into?

Anyway, she came for me very early the next morning (to me it was still ‘last night’). At a few minutes just before 4 a.m she was already standing below the veranda of Unc's bungalow.

I recall she was all wrapped up from head to toe, though wearing pants. She stood there silently and patiently, waiting, I suppose, for me to descend down the few steps to be with her. All I could see, and barely too, were just her eyes. They seemed to smile at me, so I gave a tentative smile back in the dim light of the Bungalow’s porch. She uttered not a single word.

Naturally she led the way, carrying a small oil lamp and various implements, which I had absolutely no clue what they were. I asked her in broken Cantonese why she didn't carry an electric torch instead. She turned to look at me, held that look for a few seconds - again that piercing look from her eyes - as if she was wearing a wry smile; then maintaining her intimidating silence, she continued her stride.

I felt I must have said the wrong thing, which of course I did. An electric torch for a rubber tapper? If I thought I was deft with a knife, I most certainly was daft with my suggestion.

By then, I was virtually half running just to keep up with her as she strode most determinedly towards wherever she was headed to.

Now, the plantation EWS (early warning system) hooted “intruders, intruders, intruders” – oh, by the way, that’s me and the lady tapper.

Responding to the EWS, swarms of mosquitoes scrambled to intercept us - no, wrong, just to get me because either they recognized her or they didn't like me. Some did a couple of loops and barrel rolls while others did defying stunts, maybe to impress me, but all were angrily buzzing their intention to get kaytee.

They went into battle formation as they selected on their IR (infra-red) sensors which the Americans and Russians were to invent for their warplanes years later.

I realized then why the lady tapper was wrapped up real tight. Even though I had long pants and long sleeves on, my head and neck and hands were unprotected.

Some of those mossies pretended they were airline jets, circling over my head as if they were at Kennedy Airport on an early foggy morning. They were in tight formation, forming a black halo over my head, depicting me as a young Anti-Christ, a scene I am sure the director of Omen: 666 would have loved to capture.

Zoom & rat-tat-tat - a squadron of Aedes zipped in to attack my neck, while a wing of Culex flew low level to strafe my hands. I responded desperately by waving frantically at the black swarm, hoping I would hit some of them, or at least cause massive air collisions among the mossies.

I slapped my own neck, barely killing any, as those intrepid mossie fighters changed tactics a la Harrier jets (or the JSF J-35), by converting themselves into helicopters to hover undetected over various juicy morsels of my exposed body.

Before I could evolve any effective air defence tactics, I was distracted by a flight of Anopheles which zeroed in on my poor sensitive ears. Even as I tried to react to that sneaky assault, an air flotilla of Mansonia came for me, with all guns and rockets blazing away. Probably all 366 species of 20 genera of Malaysian mossies took part in Air Operations 'Get Kaytee'.

Oh, those nasty bitches – for those who don’t know, only female mosquitoes bite animals for their blood while the males are vegetarians, sipping the sap of plants –wimps!

By the way, it’s not the bite that makes one itch but the saliva they inject into the penetrated skin. The saliva is teeming with digestive enzymes and anticoagulants, to enable your blood to flow freely so those teeny weeny vampires would enjoy their 'Bloody Mary' cocktails.

Apparently the first time a person is bitten, there is no reaction. With subsequent bites, the person becomes sensitized to the foreign proteins, and that’s when hell occurs. It seems with repeated bites, some people would become insensitive again, but alas, I haven’t yet reached that fortunate stage that early morning.

Yes, that morning, unlike the hills of Austria, the plantation was alive not with the sound of music but frantic kaytee-ish slapping. All creepy crawly denizens slithered away silently in utter disgust as one noisy kaytee made his way through the lines of silent mocking rubber trees.

“Hush” they seemed to say to me, in vain. Eventually I sort of surrendered (unconditionally) to the aerial assaults and tried instead to concentrate on what was going on. The lady of course ignored me all these while as she went about her job.

I noted that she tapped the trees with such ruthless efficiency that I dared not request she let me have a go at the tapping.

Using her tapping knife, she rapidly cut (sort of scraping away) the tree’s bark in a V-fashion, using earlier cuttings as guidelines. Even as the latex started to flow down the V-cuts (to a centre vertical slit that ended at a metal guide which drained the latex into a clay collection cup), she gave each cup a quick cleaning swipe with a rag. Occasionally she came across a broken cup and replaced it with a new one from the spares she carried in her bag strapped by her side.

Every now and then she would glance back to check I was still keeping up with her or was not being swallowed up by a python. Again those mysterious eyes would stare at me with, I thought, great humour. I cringed to imagine what she must be thinking of me, perhaps “O Tien Kong*, what a daggy city wimp”.

* Lord of Heaven

From time to time she adjusted the wick of her crude oil lamp, just by using her fingers, to ensure there’s adequate lighting. I did wonder what she would have said if I had suggested the use of tweezers to adjust the wick – I supposed I would have been guilty of murder if she died from laughing.

She was so much the very example of sheer economical effectiveness that I was intimidated into silence. I dared not attempt to engage her in meaningless chatter. Never was a movement wasted nor delayed, other than to occasionally check I wasn't dragged away by a hungry tiger.

not her but looks like her ;-)

As I grew used to the mossies and her tapping of the rubber trees, which, to be frank, mercifully allowed me to catch my breath back, I began to do what I did best, evaluated her … er … physique - mind you, purely as a scientific study on the health benefits of plantation living through assessing the correlation between her work regimentation and her ... er ... muscular development. Despite her thick wrapped up she looked very trimmed, nice and ... er ... healthy in all the correct places. I began to enjoy my sojourn with her.

After the tapping was done, a wee too soon I thought, she left me at the bungalow. Before she departed, she gave me her laser-like penetrating 'eyes special’ again. She hadn't said a single word from ‘collecting’ to ‘depositing’ me back at the house. She left so suddenly that I didn't have the presence of mind to thank her.

I knew she would return to the trees later to collect the latex once the sun warmed everything up and stopped the sap from flowing. So I waited to catch her again, because I intended to follow her and this time, hopefully chat her up.

But I waited forlornly because she must have taken a different and probably more direct route to her sector from her place, just a quarter mile away from Unc's bungalow. I thought I would never see her again or find out who she was – I was too shy to ask Unc.

The evening before I left the estate to return to Penang, Unc informed me I was invited to dinner by her family. After the typical briefing from Unc on behaviour and manners, that the tappers were very simple but sincere folks, and not to criticize the food, he dropped me at her place at 4:45 pm and would pick me up in two hours time.

Rubber tappers have their dinners early as their unearthly hour work schedule demands an early retirement soon after the evening meal.

My thoughtful Unc provided me with two large bottles of Guinness Stout and a box of cream biscuits as gifts for her family. Her father was at the door to invite me in. They spoke Cantonese and Hakka, and the Law of Probability would have it that I spoke Chiuchow (Teochew) and Hokkien, so I was not unlike a recently landed illegal immigrant asking Chinese rubber tappers for directions to Kuala Lumpur.

But the four dialects did have a few common words so I wasn't entirely lost though not far from there. I resisted the temptation to show off my versatility with Cantonese and Hakka swear words.

As I entered her house, I saw her standing by the kitchen door, recognizing her immediately by her mysterious eyes. The fact that she was the only one there besides her parents helped too.

She was smiling at me like Mona Lisa, this time with both her sweet lips and her beautiful eyes. I kid you not, but to a 15 year old kid she was absolutely gorgeous. Her porcelain complexion ( no doubt protected from the harsh elements by the wrapped up) stood in contrast to her rosy cheeks. She was the typical outdoor healthy big-bone tall Hakka woman. I eventually found out she was only 17, aiyah, just an insignificant 2 years’ difference from yours hopefully.

Throughout dinner we exchanged love messages with our eyes, so I imagined, but yes, she did smile enchantingly and look at me frequently. I hope it wasn't to count the pimples on my face, or more probably the marks left by my vigorous scratching at the mossie bites. Again, she didn't say a single word. Oh, how I loved (and still do) those silent type. Wish my girlfriends had been like her.

Her dad and mum encouraged me to eat more of this and that. Their hospitality was truly the genuine kampong (village) type, wonderful and warm. I conducted some polite conversation with her parents, assisted by comical hand gestures because of the near impenetrable barrier of 4 different dialects, despite these having a few common words.

During the conversation, I sneaked numerous glances at her. Each time I did so, I saw her smiling sweetly at me. I was rapt but alas, before too long, my Unc came for me.

Just as I was able to leave the house, she finally spoke to me (in Cantonese): “Please come again”.

When I heard her sweet musical voice for the first, only and last time, an excited chill shot up my back (I was in love) while I experienced stomach cramps (I was love-sick at the thought of leaving her).

I turned around to look at her, she with the sweetest smile and gorgeous enchanting eyes, and considered sweeping her flamboyantly into my arms for a deep passionate farewell kiss before I confessed eternal love for her, but all pathetic me did was to nod and mumble a confused thank you.

Sadly, we were but passing ships in the night. I never saw her again, but I do think of her sometimes.

Many years later I drove by that plantation, thinking to myself that if only she had the opportunity to study, perhaps even go to university or whatever, she would have droves of men going after her. But undoubtedly she was doomed to a life of tapping rubber in a forsaken plantation somewhere in Perak, my mysterious sweet Mona Lisa.

But wherever she is, I wish her all the best, and hope she would sometimes think fondly of that young bloke who did the crazy calypso slapping beside her on one early morning.

Note: I posted this on 19 June 2006 in my other blog KTemoc Konsiders - updating it with some corrections to spelling, awkward phrases and flow.


kittykat46 said...

Hi KT,
Interesting historical vignette.
My guess its somewhere 1960's ?

I grew up in rural Johor in the early 1980's, and knew many children who had the kind of background you described. Its surprising how many things remain the same, I believe, even more than 20 years later in 2007.

The most disadvantaged were the children of employed tappers. Very difficult living conditions and very poor. Those who own their plots, even if quite small are economically better off, but the work is always hard and tough.

Education is a great equalizer, but they do have serious disadvantages from poor diet, having to help the family after school, some lack electricity at night. Forget about tuition , internet, computers , books which middle-class kids enjoy.

I know some who managed to go to college and university. I still keep in touch with some of my classmates.
I went to university in Australia, got a Master's degree, but my parents had a very different background.

KTemoc said...

approximately 1990!

xenobiologista said...

Thanks for sharing, I guess not many of us city kids have had this experience...we just see lots of trees going past as we zoom down the PLUS highway.

iateadonut said...

Just some advice for all the kiddies out there...

In my experience, the feeling in my stomach, I later found out, meant that the young lady in question was willing to... you know.

Zakir said...

awesome writing, KT.

your description really got me landed right into the arms the cute-looking-mysterious-rubber-tapper-mona-lisa in the twilight of an unearthly dawn.

please share more of your experiences...........

Zakir said...

and you know what, ( probably, i should let you know), i am currently working on to build up a mechanized system that automatically taps the rubber tree without any human instructions.

i know there are pros and cons.......

we will be missing this kind of marvelous and forget-me-not experiences, but at the same time, that will allow those beautiful kids to cherish there life in a greater extent, not just rushing in mosquito dominated rubber plantation very early in the morning, instead of going to school.

who knows, may be, some other kind of experience will be born.......who knows..............

Danushka said...

most of them are females. Now they get half of the income.

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel

Jibu Abraham said...

Hi KT,

Wonderful.. I am from Kerala and even had the same kind of nights with the oil lamps assisting my father to get the trees tapped. Those were our own trees but really had experienced the same for years what you had experienced in a day. :-) nice narration.. You have a good heart. That's why you fall in love with that girl after going thru those beautiful days..

Marc said...

thanks for the lovely story. I came upon it completely by chance when looking for a photo of a rubber mangle.