The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter xii

The Tomb of “A Great Prophet” — “Durance Vile” — Fragile Travelers — Our Craft — A Night in the Jungle — Nocturnal Revelations — January in the Perak Jungle — Glories of the Jungle — Activity and Stillness — An Uneasy Night — A Slim Repast — Betel–Chewing — A Severe Disappointment — Police Station at Rassa

BRITISH RESIDENCY, SERAMBANG, SUNGEI UJONG, January 26.

By the date of my letter you will see that our difficulties have been surmounted. I continue my narrative in a temperature which, in my room — shaded though it is — has reached 87 degrees. After hearing many pros and cons, and longing much for the freedom of a solitary traveler, I went out and visited the tomb of a famous Hadji, “a great prophet,” the policeman said, who was slain in ascending the Linggi. It is a raised mound, like our churchyard graves, with a post at each end, and a jar of oil upon it, and is surrounded by a lattice of reeds on which curtains are hanging, the whole being covered with a thatched roof supported on posts.

The village looks prosperous, and the Chinaman as much at home as in China, — striving, thriving, and oblivious of everything but his own interests, the sole agent in the development of the resources of the country, well satisfied with our, or any rule, under which his gains are quick and safe.

There are village officers, or headmen, Pangulus, in all villages, and every hamlet of more than forty houses has its mosque and religious officials, though Mohammedanism does not recognize the need of a priesthood. If one see a man, with the upper part of his body unclothed, paddling a log canoe, face forward, one is apt to call him a savage, specially if he be dark-skinned; but the Malays would be much offended if they were called savages, and, indeed, they are not so. They have an elaborate civilization, etiquette, and laws of their own; are the most rigid of monotheists, are decently clothed, build secluded and tolerably comfortable houses, and lead domestic lives after their fashion, especially where they are too poor to be polygamists, though I am of opinion that the peculiar form of domesticity which we still cultivate to some extent in England, and which is largely connected with the fireside, cannot exist in a tropical country. After the obtrusive nudity and promiscuous bathing of the Japanese, there is something specially pleasing in the little secluded bathing sheds by the Malay rivers, used by one person at a time, who throws a sarong on the thatch to show that the shed is occupied.

Babu made some excellent soup, which, together with curry made with fresh cocoa-nut, was a satisfactory meal, and though only in a simple, white, Indian costume, he waited as grandly as at Malacca. Mr. Hayward’s knowledge of the peculiarities of the Malay character, at last obtained our release from what was truly “durance vile.” He sent for a boatman apart from his fellows, and induced him to make a bargain for taking us up the river at night; but the man soon returned in a state of great excitement, complaining that the villagers had set on him, and were resolved that we should not go up, upon which the police went down and interfered. Even after everything was settled, Miss Shaw was feeling so ill that she wanted to stay in the police station all night, at least; but Mr. Hayward and I, who consulted assiduously about her, were of opinion that we must move her, even if we had to carry her, for if she were going to have fever, I could nurse her at Captain Murray’s, but certainly not in the veranda of a police station!

This worthy man, who is very brave, and used to facing danger — who was the first European to come up here, who acted as guide to the troops during the war, and afterward disarmed the population — positively quailed at having charge of these two fragile girls. “Oh,” he repeated several times, “if anything were to happen to the Misses Shaw I should never get over it, and they don’t know what roughing it is; they never should have been allowed to come.” So I thought, too, as I looked at one of them lying limp and helpless on a Malay bed; but my share of the responsibility for them was comparatively limited. Doubtless his thoughts strayed, as mine did, to the days of traveling “without encumbrance.” There was another encumbrance of a literal kind. They had a trunk! This indispensable impediment had been left at Malacca in the morning, and arrived in a four-paddled canoe just as we were about to start!

Mr. Hayward prescribed two tablespoonfuls of whisky for Miss Shaw, for it is somewhat of a risk to sleep out in the jungle at the rainy season, for the miasma rises twenty feet, and the day had been exceptionally hot. Our rather dismal procession started at seven, Mr. Hayward leading the way, carrying a torch made of strips of palm branches bound tightly together and dipped in gum dammar, a most inflammable resin; then a policeman; the sick girl, moaning and stumbling, leaning heavily on her sister and me; Babu, who had grown very plucky; a train of policemen carrying our baggage; and lastly, several torch-bearers, the torches dripping fire as we slowly and speechlessly passed along. It looked like a funeral or something uncanny. We crawled dismally for fully three-quarters of a mile to cut off some considerable windings of the river, crossed a stream on a plank bridge, and found our boat lying at a very high pier with a thatched roof.

The mystery of night in a strange place was wildly picturesque; the pale, greenish, undulating light of fireflies, and the broad, red waving glare of torches flashing fitfully on the skeleton pier, the lofty jungle trees, the dark, fast-flowing river, and the dark, lithe forms of our half-naked boatmen.

The prahu was a flattish-bottomed boat about twenty-two and a half feet long by six and a half feet broad, with a bamboo gridiron flooring resting on the gunwale for the greater part of its length. This was covered for seven feet in the middle by a low, circular roof, thatched with attap. It was steered by a broad paddle loosely lashed, and poled by three men who, standing at the bow, planted their poles firmly in the mud and then walked half-way down the boat and back again. All craft must ascend the Linggi by this laborious process, for its current is so strong that the Japanese would call it one long “rapid.” Descending loaded with tin, the stream brings boats down with great rapidity, the poles being used only to keep them off the banks and shallows. Our boat was essentially “native.”

The “Golden Chersonese” is very hot, and much infested by things which bite and sting. Though the mercury has not been lower than 80 degrees at night since I reached Singapore, I have never felt the heat overpowering in a house; but the night on the river was awful, and after the intolerable blaze of the day the fighting with the heat and mosquitoes was most exhausting, crowded as we were into very close and uneasy quarters, a bamboo gridiron being by no means a bed of down. Bad as it was, I was often amused by the thought of the unusual feast which the jungle mosquitoes were having on the blood of four white people. If it had not been for the fire in the bow, which helped to keep them down by smoking them (and us), I at least should now be laid up with “mosquito fever.”

The Misses Shaw and I were on a blanket on the gridiron under the roof, which just allowed of sitting up; Mr. Hayward, who had never been up the river before, and was anxious about the navigation, sat, vigilant and lynx-eyed, at the edge of it; Babu, who had wrapped himself in Oriental impassiveness and a bernouse, and Mr. Hayward’s police attendant sat in front, all keeping their positions throughout the night as dutifully as the figures in a tableau vivant, and so we silently left Permatang Pasir for our jungle voyage of eighteen hours, in which time, by unintermitting hard work, we were propelled about as many miles, though some say twenty-nine.

No description could exaggerate the tortuosity of the Linggi or the abruptness of its windings. The boatmen measure the distance by turns. When they were asked when we should reach the end they never said in so many hours, but in so many turns.

Silently we glided away from the torchlight into the apparently impenetrable darkness, but the heavens, of which we saw a patch now and then, were ablaze with stars, and ere long the forms of trees above and around us became tolerably distinct. Ten hours of darkness followed as we poled our slow and tedious way through the forest gloom, with trees to right of us, trees to left of us, trees before us, trees behind us, trees above us, and, I may write, trees under us, so innumerable were the snags and tree trunks in the river. The night was very still, — not a leaf moved, and at times the silence was very solemn. I expected, indeed, an unbroken silence, but there were noises that I shall never forget. Several times there was a long shrill cry, much like the Australian “Coo-ee,” answered from a distance in a tone almost human. This was the note of the grand night bird, the Argus pheasant, and is said to resemble the cry of the “orang-outang,” the Jakkuns, or the wild men of the interior. A sound like the constant blowing of a steam-whistle in the distance was said to be produced by a large monkey. Yells, hoarse or shrill, and roars more or less guttural, were significant of any of the wild beasts with which the forest abounds, and recalled the verse in Psalm civ., “Thou makest darkness that it may be night, wherein all the beasts of the forest do move.” Then there were cries as of fierce gambols, or of pursuit and capture, of hunter and victim; and at times, in the midst of profound stillness, came huge plungings, with accompanying splashings, which I thought were made by alligators, but which Captain Murray thinks were more likely the riot of elephants disturbed while drinking. There were hundreds of mysterious and unfamiliar sounds great and small, significant of the unknown beast, reptile, and insect world which the jungle hides, and then silences.

Sheet lightning, very blue, revealed at intervals the strong stream swirling past under a canopy of trees falling and erect, with straight stems one hundred and fifty feet high probably, surmounted by crowns of drooping branches; palms with their graceful plumage; lianas hanging, looping, twisting — their orange fruitage hanging over our heads; great black snags; the lithe, wiry forms of our boat-men always straining to their utmost; and the motionless white turban of the Hadji, — all for a second relieved against the broad blue flame, to be again lost in darkness.

The Linggi above Permatang Pasir, with its sharp turns and muddy hurry, is, I should say, from thirty to sixty feet wide, a mere pathway through the jungle. Do not think of a jungle, as I used to think of it, as an entanglement or thicket of profuse and matted scrub, for it is in these regions at least a noble forest of majestic trees, many of them supported at their roots by three buttresses, behind which thirty men could find shelter. On many of the top branches of these, other trees have taken root from seeds deposited by birds, and have attained considerable size; and all send down, as it appears, extraordinary cylindrical strands from two to six inches in diameter, and often one hundred and fifty feet in length, smooth and straight until they root themselves, looking like the guys of a mast. Under these giants stand the lesser trees grouped in glorious confusion, — cocoa, sago, areca, and gomuti palms, nipah and nibong palms, tree ferns fifteen and twenty feet high, the bread-fruit, the ebony, the damar, the india rubber, the gutta-percha, the cajeput, the banyan, the upas, the bombax or cotton tree, and hosts of others, many of which bear brilliant flowers, but have not yet been botanized; and I can only give such barbarous names as chumpaka, Kamooning, marbow, seum, dadap; and, loveliest of all, the waringhan, a species of ficus, graceful as a birch; and underneath these again great ferns, ground orchids, and flowering shrubs of heavy, delicious odor, are interlocked and interwoven. Oh that you could see it all! It is wonderful; no words could describe it, far less mine. Mr. Darwin says so truly that a visit to the tropics (and such tropics) is like a visit to a new planet. This new wonder-world, so enchanting, tantalizing, intoxicating, makes me despair, for I cannot make you see what I am seeing! Amidst all this wealth of nature and in this perennial summer heat I quite fail to realize that it is January, and that with you the withered plants are shriveling in the frost-bound earth, and that leafless twigs and the needles of half-starved pines are shivering under the stars in the aurora-lighted winter nights.

But to the jungle again, The great bamboo towers up along the river sides in its feathery grace, and behind it the much prized Malacca cane, the rattan, creeping along the ground or climbing trees and knotting them together, with its tough strands, from a hundred to twelve hundred feet in length, matted and matting together while ferns, selaginellas, and lycopodiums struggle for space in which to show their fragile beauty, along with hardier foliaceous plants, brown and crimson, green and crimson, and crimson flecked with gold; and the great and lesser trees alike are loaded with trailers, ferns, and orchids, among which huge masses of the elk-horn fern and the shining five-foot fronds of the Asplenium Nidus are everywhere conspicuous.

Not only do orchids crowd the branches, and the hoya carnosa, the yam, the blue-blossomed Thunbergia, the vanilla (?), and other beautiful creepers, conceal the stems, while nearly every parasitic growth carries another parasite, but one sees here a filament carelessly dangling from a branch sustaining some bright-hued epiphyte of quaint mocking form; then a branch as thick as a clipper’s main-mast reaches across the river, supporting a festooned trailer, from whose stalks hang, almost invisibly suspended, oval fruits, almost vermilion colored; then again the beautiful vanilla and the hoya carnosa vie with each other in wreathing the same tree; or an audacious liana, with great clusters of orange or scarlet blossoms, takes possession of several trees at once, lighting up the dark greenery with its flaming splotches; or an aspiring trailer, dexterously linking its feebleness to the strength of other plants, leaps across the river from tree to tree at a height of a hundred feet, and, as though in mockery, sends down a profusion of crimson festoons far out of reach. But it is as useless to attempt to catalogue as to describe. To realize an equatorial jungle one must see it in all its wonderment of activity and stillness — the heated, steamy stillness through which one fancies that no breeze ever whispers, with its colossal flowering trees, its green twilight, its inextricable involvement, its butterflies and moths, its brilliant but harsh voiced birds, its lizards and flying foxes, its infinite variety of monkeys, sitting, hanging by hands or tails, leaping, grimacing, jabbering, pelting each other with fruits; and its loathsome saurians, lying in wait on slimy banks under the mangroves. All this and far more the dawn revealed upon the Linggi river; but strange to say, through all the tropic splendor of the morning, I saw a vision of the Trientalis Europea, as we saw it first on a mossy hillside in Glen Cannich!

But I am forgetting that the night with its blackness and mystery came before the sunrise, that the stars seldom looked through the dense leafage, and that the pale green lamps of a luminous fungus here and there, and the cold blue sheet-lightning only served to intensify the solemnity of the gloom. While the blackest part of the night lasted the “view” was usually made up of the black river under the foliage, with scarcely ten yards of its course free from obstruction — great snags all along it sticking up menacingly, trees lying half or quite across it, with barely room to pass under them, or sometimes under water, when the boat “drave heavily” over them, while great branches brushed and ripped the thatch continually; and as one obstacle was safely passed, the rapidity of the current invariably canted us close on another, but the vigilant skill of the boatmen averted the slightest accident. “Jaga! Jaga!” — caution! caution! — was the constant cry. The most unpleasant sensations were produced by the constant ripping and tearing sounds as we passed under the low tunnel of vegetation, and by the perpetual bumping against timber.

The Misses Shaw passed an uneasy night. The whisky had cured the younger one of her severe sick headache, and she was the prey of many terrors. They thought that the boat would be ripped up; that the roof would be taken off; that a tree would fall and crush us; that the boatmen, when they fell overboard, as they often did, would be eaten by alligators; that they would see glaring eyeballs whenever the cry “Rimou!” — a tiger! — was raised from the bow; and they continually awoke me with news of something that was happening or about to happen, and were drolly indignant because they could not sleep; while I, a blasee old campaigner, slept whenever they would let me. Day broke in a heavy mist, which disappeared magically at sunrise. As the great sun wheeled rapidly above the horizon and blazed upon us with merciless fierceness, all at once the jungle became vociferous. Loudly clattered the busy cicada, its simultaneous din, like a concentration of the noise of all the looms in the world, suddenly breaking off into a simultaneous silence; the noisy insect world chirped, cheeped, buzzed, whistled; birds hallooed, hooted, whooped, screeched; apes in a loud and not inharmonious chorus greeted the sun; and monkeys chattered, yelled, hooted, quarreled, and spluttered. The noise was tremendous. But the forest was absolutely still, except when some heavy fruit, over ripe, fell into the river with a splash. The trees above us were literally alive with monkeys, and the curiosity of some of them about us was so great that they came down on “monkey ropes” and branches for the fun of touching the roof of the boat with their hands while they hung by their tails. They were all full of frolic and mischief.

Then we had a slim repast of soda water and bananas, the Hadji worshiped with his face toward Mecca, and the boatmen prepared an elaborate curry for themselves, with salt fish for its basis, and for its tastiest condiment blachang — a Malay preparation much relished by European lovers of durion and decomposed cheese. It is made by trampling a mass of putrefying prawns and shrimps into a paste with bare feet. This is seasoned with salt. The smell is penetrating and lingering. Our men made the boat fast, rinsed their mouths, washed their hands, and ate, using their fingers instead of chopsticks. Poor fellows! they had done twelve hours of splendid work.

Then one of them prepared the betel-nut for the rest. I think I have not yet alluded to this abominable practice of betel-nut chewing, which is universal among the inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula; the betel-nut being as essential to a Malay as tobacco is to a Japanese, or opium to the confirmed Chinese opium-smoker. It is a revolting habit, and if a person speaks to you while he is chewing his “quid” of betel, his mouth looks as if it were full of blood. People say that the craving for stimulants is created by our raw, damp climate; but it is as strong here, at the equator, in this sunny, balmy air. I have not yet come across a region in which men, weary in body or spirit, are not seeking to stimulate or stupefy themselves. The Malay men and women being prohibited by the Koran from using alcohol, find the needed fillip in this nut, but it needs preparation before it suits their palates.

The betel-nut is the fruit of the lovely, graceful, slender-shafted areca palm. This tree at six years old begins to bear about one hundred nuts a year, which grow in clusters, each nut being about the size of a nutmeg, and covered with a yellow, fibrous husk. The requisites for chewing are: a small piece of areca nut, a leaf of the Sirih or betel pepper, a little moistened lime, and, if you wish to be very luxurious, a paste made of spices. The Sirih leaf was smeared with a little fine lime taken from a brass box; on this was laid a little, brownish paste; on this, a bit of the nut; the leaf was then folded neatly round its contents, and the men began to chew, and to spit — the inevitable consequence. The practice stains the teeth black. I tasted the nut, and found it pungent and astringent, not tempting. The Malays think you look like a beast if you have white teeth.

The heat was exhausting; the mercury 87 degrees in the shade as early as 8:30, and we all suffered, more or less, from it in our cramped position and enforced inactivity. At nine, having been fourteen hours on the river, we came on a small cleared space, from which a bronzed, frank-faced man, dressed in white linen, hallooed to us jovially, and we were soon warmly greeted by Captain Murray, the British Resident in the State of Sungei Ujong. On seeing him, we hoped to find a gharrie and to get some breakfast; and he helped us on shore, as if our hopes were to be realized, and dragged us under the broiling sun to a long shed, the quarters of a hundred Chinese coolies, who are making a road through the jungle. We sat down on one of the long matted platforms, which serve them for beds, and talked; but there was no hint of breakfast; and we soon learned that the Malacca runner had not reached the Residency at all, and that the note sent from Permatang Pasir, which should have been delivered at 1 A.M., had not been received till 8 A.M., so that Captain Murray had not been able to arrange for our transport, and had had barely time to ride down to meet us at such “full speed,” as a swampy and partially made road would allow. So our dreams of breakfast ended in cups of stewed tea, given to us by a half-naked Chinaman, and, to our chagrin, we had to go back to the boat and be poled up the shallowing and narrowing river for four hours more, getting on with difficulty, the boat-men constantly jumping into the water to heave the boat off mud banks.

When we eventually landed at Nioto, a small village, Captain Murray again met us, and we found a road; and two antiquated buggies, sent by a Chinaman, with their component parts much lashed together with rope. I charioteered one of these, with reins so short that I could only reach them by sitting on the edge of the seat, and a whip so short that I could not reach the pony with it. At a Chinese village some policemen brought us cocoa-nut milk. After that, the pony could not, or would not, go; and the Malay syce with difficulty got it along by dragging it, and we had to walk up every hill in the fierce heat of a tropic noon. At the large Chinese village of Rassa, a clever little Sumatra pony met us; and after passing through some roughish clearings, on which tapioca is being planted, we arrived here at 4 P.M., having traveled sixty miles in thirty-three hours.

The Residency is on a steepish hill in the middle of an open valley, partially cleared and much defaced by tin diggings. The Chinese town of Serambang lies at the foot of the hill. The valley is nearly surrounded by richly wooded hills, some of them fully three thousand feet high. These, which stretch away to the northern State of Selangor, are bathed in indigo and cobalt, slashed with white here and there, where cool streams dash over forest-shaded ledges. The house consists of two attap roofed bungalows, united by their upper verandas. Below there are a garden of acclimatization and a lawn, on which the Resident instructs the bright little daughter of the Datu Klana in lawn tennis. It was very hot, but the afternoon airs were strong enough to lift the British ensign out of its heavy folds and to rustle the graceful fronds of the areca palms.

Food was the first necessity, then baths, then sleep, then dinner at 7:30, and then ten hours more sleep.

I. L. B.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31