Saturday August 25, 2012
By ALEXANDRA WONG
It’s surprising how some people will go out of their way to lend a hand to a stranger.
WE can kiss our story goodbye.
I glance fearfully at Soo. Usually poker-faced, she can’t even hide her dismay today.
We’ve just driven two hours to an unfamiliar kampung, braved our way through numerous wrong turns, and taken some crazy risks in the name of professionalism – including following two friendly but underaged motorcyclists to a deserted river estuary – in pursuit of a beautiful scenic spot which I’d seen two years ago.
What I didn’t bargain for was that things could have changed since 2010.
Like the fact that the river bank is no longer accessible because some genius had dug a wide trench between the road and the swamp. And it’s impossible for us to go across to the mangrove swamp, even if we weren’t lugging heavy camera gear. Panic begins to rise as the hopes of getting a story rapidly wilts in the hot sun.
“Can I help you ladies?”
I turn in the direction of the voice and squint at the glaring, sun-drenched landscape. It must have come from the skinny man in bedraggled, dirt-streaked clothes because there was no one else around apart from us. My defences shoot up instinctively, but I explain why we are here.
“Ah, I’m always squiring reporters around,” comes the unexpected answer.
To back up his credibility, he pulls out a business card from a motley stack. It bears the name of a Star reporter.
“I know where you want to go. I can also show you a hidden gem along this road. Follow me!” he says, already hurrying towards his C70 motorbike even as we stand rooted, contemplating our options.
One, ignore the advice that Mum has drilled into my head since puberty – do not follow strange men – and possibly find gold. Two, go back empty-handed.
Sighing, I wave goodbye to the two pre-pubescents who had taken us thus far. Hey, at least somebody would remember us, should our corpses wash up on some seashore later...
After a bumpy ride of about 10 minutes, we reach a jetty with a signboard, wooden sheds and colourful boats. Slowly, it all begins to come back. This is where you hop into a boat and do a mangrove swamp tour!
Relieved, I quickly alight and follow Encik Ismail down a wooden staircase. To my amusement, he scoops up a baby monkey and begins cradling it like a small child.
“Wanna hold?” he asks.
I shrink back, hiding a shudder.
“Don’t worry, he won’t bite,” he laughs, and continues to caress the little bugger. “Meet Encik Din, the owner,” he points to a man sitting on the wooden floor.
When I emerge after my interview, I see Encik Ismail put-putting away on his C70.
“And where is he going now?” I ask Soo, marvelling.
“Our hidden gem ...” she shrugs, hurrying towards her car.
The road to this mysterious hidden gem is a rocky road studded with jutting rocks and pebbles amidst cauldron-sized potholes. As we inched along, Soo, her car and I shake like leaves in a turbulent crosswind. Thank goodness, before we burst a tyre or a blood vessel, Encik Ismail parks his motorbike by the side of a sloping embankment.
“Look,” he points out to a green clump some 100m away.
Shielding my eyes from the sun, I follow the direction of his fingers.
Like excited little kids, we slide down the embankment and hurry after Encik Ismail, like Alice chasing after the white rabbit in Wonderland. The mangrove swamp is even more beautiful up close. The tangle of looping crossed roots elevated above the muddy banks, and the thick green canopy of foliage, which forms a shady and cool atmosphere beneath, look otherworldly.
“Have you ever seen a mangrove seedling?” asks Encik Ismail.
He apparently takes my split-second hesitation for a no. My eyes bulge, unable to believe what I see.
Taking a few giant strides towards the nearest mangrove tree, he steps on one of the roots, places his hands on the trunk, and scampers up and away from sight before I can say greased lightning!
The clumps of leafy branches hide him momentarily, but I know he is there, from the rustling caused by his rapid movements.
And then I see him. Or rather his jaunty red cap, poking out through the sea of green leaves like a periscope rising out of the water. The top half of his head is visible now. Then the whole head, a grim expression on his face. His dark brown arm bursts out of the leafy branches into the air, attempting to reach for something in the bunch of leaves next to him.
He is pulling at something and then ... snap! He waves a slim reed-like thing in the air like a glow stick at a concert, with a triumphant grin.
“Can you raise your head a little?” I yell, whipping out my camera. “So that we can see your face? Yes! That’s it!”
Uncaring that rivulets of sweat are streaming down my face, I click away madly.
“Encik Ismail,” I blurt out when he reappears on terra firma, “I can’t believe you did that!”
He looks nonchalant, like he had just shaken my hand, instead of climbing a 5m tall tree, just so that he could show us city-slickers what a mangrove seedling looks like.
“That’s the dicotyledon,” he points to the long bulging seed.
“Would you join us for ikan bakar (grilled fish) dinner?” I ask.
“OK. But I don’t eat much. I’ll take you to my friend’s place.”
So there is a streak of opportunism in him, after all, too, I think cynically. On the other hand, he had done us a huge favour. I couldn’t begrudge him the impulse to plug his friend.
Upon arriving at the restaurant, I instantly feel ashamed of my uncharitable thoughts. There’s a fresh market selling ocean catch right next to the restaurant, which means I have one more thing to write about.
As for the restaurant, oh, my, it has the most gorgeous setting I’ve seen for an ikan bakar shop – a plank-floored, stilt-legged open air structure that appears to hover above a shimmering sea. The dining area looks out into the horizon, front-row seats to a spectacular sunset in an hour’s time.
This is much, much more than the story I had come for.
I spurt out: “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Next time you come, just call me and I’ll try to help.”
True to his words, he sticks to his guns and only orders hot tea. “My wife has prepared dinner,” he explains. “I promised her I’d be back for dinner.”
One last sip, a friendly toot of his motorbike horn, and he is out of sight.
But never from my memory.
Alexandra Wong (bunnysprints.com) is grateful to Encik Ismail for reminding her what being a Malaysian truly means.