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

Letter xx

Novel Circumstances — The Excitements of the Jungle — Eternal Summer — The Sensitive Plant — The Lotus Lake of Matang — Elephant Ugliness — A Malay Mahout — A Novel Experience — Domestic Pets — Malay Hospitality–Land Leeches — “A Fearful Joy” — The End of My First Elephant Ride — Kwala Kangsa

BRITISH RESIDENCY, KWALA KANGSA, February 16.

This is rather exciting, for I have had an unusual journey, and my circumstances are unusual, for Mr. Low, the Resident, has not returned, and I am not only alone in his bungalow in the heart of the jungle, but so far as I can learn I am the only European in the region.

“Of all my wild adventures past

This frantic feat will prove the last,”

for in a fortnight I propose to be at Pinang on my way to conventional Ceylon, and the beloved “wilds” will be left behind.

At 4:30 this morning Mr. Maxwell’s energetic voice roused me, and I got up, feeling for the first time in Larut very tired from the unwonted dissipation of another “dinner party,” and from having been kept awake late by the frantic rushes of the lemur and the noise of the “trumpeter beetle,” besides being awoke in a fright at 2 A.M., by the noise made in changing guard, from a dream that the Sikhs had mutinied and were about to massacre the Europeans, myself included! We had bananas and chocolate, and just at daybreak walked down the hill, where I got into a little trap drawn by a fiery little Sumatra pony, and driven by Mr. Gibbons, a worthy Australian miner who is here road-making, and was taken five miles to a place where the road becomes a quagmire not to be crossed. Elephants had been telegraphed for to meet me there, but the telegraph was found to be broken. Mr. Maxwell, who accompanied us on horseback, had sent a messenger on here for elephants, and was dismayed on getting to the quagmire to meet the news that they had gone to the jungle; so there was no means of conveyance but the small pachyderm which was bringing my bag, and which was more than two hours behind.

There was nothing for it but to walk, and we tramped for four miles. I could not have done the half of it had I not had my “mountain dress” on, the identical mud-colored tweed, in which I waded through the mud of Northern Japan. The sun had risen splendidly among crimson clouds, which, having turned gray, were a slight screen, and the air is so comparatively dry that, though within 5 degrees of the equator, it was not oppressively hot.

The drive had brought us out of the Chinese country into a region very thinly peopled by Malays only, here and there along the roadside, living in houses of all Malay styles, from the little attap cabin with its gridiron floor supported on stilts, to the large picturesque house with steep brown roofs, deep eaves and porches, and walls of matting or bamboo basket work in squares, light and dark alternately, reached by ladders with rungs eighteen inches apart, so difficult for shod feet.

The trees and plants of the jungle were very exciting. Ah! what a delight it is to see trees and plants at home which one has only seen as the exotics of a hothouse, or read of in books! In the day’s journey I counted one hundred and twenty-six differing trees and shrubs, fifty-three trailers, seventeen epiphytes, and twenty-eight ferns. I saw more of the shrubs and epiphytes than I have yet done from the altitude of an elephant’s back. There was one Asplenium nidus [bird’s nest fern] which had thirty-seven perfect fronds radiating from a centre, each frond from three and a quarter to five and a half feet long, and varying from myrtle to the freshest tint of pea-green!

There was an orchid with hardly visible leaves, which bore six crowded clusters of flowers close to the branch of the tree on which it grew; each cluster composed of a number of spikes of red coral tipped with pale green. In the openings there were small trees with gorgeous erythrina-like flowers, glowing begonias, red lilies, a trailer with trumpet-shaped blossoms of canary yellow, and a smaller trailer, which climbs over everything that is not high, entwining itself with the blue Thunbergia, and bearing on single stalks single blossoms, primrose-shaped, of a salmon orange color with a velvety black centre. In some places one came upon three varieties of nepenthes or “monkey cups,” some of their pitchers holding (I should think) a pint of fluid, and most of them packed with the skeletons of betrayed guests; then in moist places upon steel blue aspleniums and luxuriant selaginellas; and then came caelogynes with white blossoms, white flowered dendrobiums (crumentatum?), all growing on or clinging to trees, with scarlet-veined bauhinias, caladiums, ginger worts, and aroids, inclining one to make incessant exclamations of wonder and delight. You cannot imagine how crowded together this tropical vegetation is. There is not room for half of it on the ground, so it seeks and finds its home high up on the strong, majestic trees which bear it up into the sunshine, where, indeed one has to look for most of the flowers.

It is glorious to see the vegetation of eternal summer and the lavish prodigality of nature, and one revels among hothouse plants “at home,” and all the splendor of gigantic leaves, and the beauty and grace of palms, bamboos, and tree-ferns; the great, gaudy flowers are as marvelous as the gaudy plumaged birds, and I feel that no words can convey an idea of the beauty and magnificence of an equatorial jungle; but the very permanence of the beauty is almost a fault. I should soon come to long for the burst of spring with its general tenderness of green, and its great broad splashes of sociable flowers, its masses of buttercups, or ox-eye daisies, or dandelions, and for the glories of autumn with its red and gold, and leagues of purple heather. These splendid orchids and other epiphytes grow singly. One sees one and not another, there are no broad masses of color to blaze in the distance, the scents are heavy and overpowering, the wealth is embarrassing. I revel in it all and rejoice in it all; it is intoxicating, yet I am haunted with visions of mossy banks starred with primroses and anemones, of stream sides blue with gentian, of meadows golden with buttercups, and fields scarlet with poppies, and in spite of my enjoyment and tropical enthusiasm, I agree with Mr. Wallace and others that the flowers of a temperate climate would give one more lasting pleasure.

On either side of the road the ground is densely carpeted with the sensitive plant, whose lovely tripartite leaves are green above and brown below. It is a fascinating plant, and at first one feels guilty of cruelty if one does more than look at it, but I have already learned, as all people do here, to take delight in wounding its sensibilities. Touch any part of a leaf ever so lightly, and as quick as thought it folds up. Touch the centre of the three ever so lightly, and leaf and stalk fall smitten. Touch a branch and every leaf closes, and every stalk falls as if weighted with lead. Walk over it, and you seem to have blasted the earth with a fiery tread, leaving desolation behind. Every trailing plant falls, the leaves closing, show only their red-brown backs, and all the beauty has vanished, but the burned and withered-looking earth is as fair as ever the next morning.

After walking for four miles we came upon a glorious sight at a turn of the road, a small lake behind which the mountains rise forest-covered, with a slope at their feet on which stand the cocoa-nut groves, and the beautiful Malay house of the exiled Mentri of Larut. I have written of a lake, but no water was visible, for it was concealed by thousands and thousands of the peltate leaves of the lotus, nearly round, attaining a diameter of eighteen inches, cool and dewy-looking under the torrid sun, with a blue bloom upon their intense green. Above them rose thousands of lotus flowers, buds, and seed-vessels, each one a thing of perfect beauty, and not a withered blossom was to be seen. The immense corollas varied in color from a deep rose crimson to a pink as pale as that of a blush rose. Some were just opening, others were half open, and others wide open, showing the crowded golden stamens and the golden disk in the centre. From far off the deep rose pink of the glorious blossoms is to be seen, and their beauty carried me back to the castle moats of Yedo, and to many a gilded shrine in Japan, on which the lotus blooms as an emblem of purity, righteousness, and immortality. Even here, where no such symbolism attaches to it, it looks a sacred thing. It was delightful to see such a sociable flower rejoicing in a crowd.

Beyond is the picturesque kampong of Matang, with many good houses and a mosque. Passing through a gateway with brick posts, we entered a large walled inclosure containing a cocoa-grove, some fine trees, and the beautiful dwellings of the Malay whom we have deported to the Seychelles. This is one of the largest Malay houses on the peninsula. It is built of wood painted green and white, with bold floral designs on a white ground round some of the circular windows, and a very large porch for followers to wait in, up a ladder of course. In a shed there were three gharries, and behind the house several small houses for slaves and others. A number of girls and children, probably mostly slaves, mirthfully peeped at us from under the tasteful mat blinds.

Really the upper class of Malay houses show some very good work. The thatch of the steep roof is beautifully put on, and between the sides of finely woven checked matting interspersed with lattice work and bamboo work, the shady inner rooms with their carved doorways and portieres of red silk, the pillows and cushions of gold embroidery laid over the exquisitely fine matting on the floors, the light from the half-shaded windows glancing here and there as the breeze sways the screens, there is an indescribable appropriateness to the region.

I waited for the elephant in a rambling empty house, and Malays brought pierced cocoa-nuts, buffalo milk, and a great bouquet of lotus blossoms and seed-vessels, out of which they took the seeds, and presented them on the grand lotus leaf itself. Each seed is in appearance and taste like a hazel-nut, but in the centre, in an oval slit, the future lotus plant is folded up, the one vivid green seed leaf being folded over a shoot, and this is intensely bitter.

The elephant at last came up and was brought below the porch. They are truly hideous beasts, with their gray, wrinkled, hairless hides, the huge ragged “flappers” which cover their ears, and with which they fan themselves ceaselessly, the small, mean eyes, the hideous proboscis which coils itself snakishly round everything; the formless legs, so like trunks of trees; the piggish back, with the steep slope down to the mean, bare tail, and the general unlikeness to all familiar and friendly beasts. I can hardly write, for a little wah-wah, the most delightful of apes, is hanging with one long, lean arm round my throat, while with its disengaged hand it keeps taking my pen, dipping it in the ink, and scrawling over my letter. It is the most winsome of creatures, but if I were to oppose it there is no knowing what it might do, so I will take another pen. The same is true of an elephant. I am without knowledge of what it may be capable of!

Before I came I dreamt of howdahs and cloth of gold trappings, but my elephant had neither. In fact there was nothing grand about him but his ugliness. His back was covered with a piece of raw hide, over which were several mats, and on either side of the ridgy backbone a shallow basket, filled with fresh leaves and twigs, and held in place by ropes of rattan. I dropped into one of these baskets from the porch, a young Malay lad into the other, and my bag was tied on behind with rattan. A noose of the same with a stirrup served for the driver to mount. He was a Malay, wearing only a handkerchief and sarong, a gossiping, careless fellow, who jumped off whenever he had a chance of a talk, and left us to ourselves. He drove with a stick with a curved spike at the end of it, which, when the elephant was bad, was hooked into the membranous “flapper,” always evoking the uprearing and brandishing of the proboscis, and a sound of ungentle expostulation, which could be heard a mile off. He sat on the head of the beast, sometimes cross-legged, and sometimes with his legs behind the huge ear covers. Mr. Maxwell assured me that he would not send me into a region without a European unless it were perfectly safe, which I fully believed, any doubts as to my safety, if I had any, being closely connected with my steed.

This mode of riding is not comfortable. One sits facing forward with the feet dangling over the edge of the basket.* This edge soon produces a sharp ache or cramp, and when one tries to get relief by leaning back on anything, the awkward, rolling motion is so painful, that one reverts to the former position till it again becomes intolerable. Then the elephant had not been loaded “with brains,” and his pack was as troublesome as the straw shoes of the Japanese horses. It was always slipping forward or backward, and as I was heavier than the Malay lad, I was always slipping down and trying to wriggle myself up on the great ridge which was the creature’s backbone, and always failing, and the mahout was always stopping and pulling the rattan ropes which bound the whole arrangement together, but never succeeding in improving it.

[*See Frontispiece.]

Before we had traveled two hours, the great bulk of the elephant, without any warning, gently subsided behind, and then as gently in front, the huge, ugly legs being extended in front of him, and the man signed to me to get off, which I did by getting on his head and letting myself down by a rattan rope upon the driver, who made a step of his back, for even when “kneeling,” as this queer attitude is called, a good ladder is needed for comfortable getting off and on. While the whole arrangement of baskets was being re-rigged, I clambered into a Malay dwelling of the poorer class, and was courteously received and regaled with bananas and buffalo milk. Hospitality is one of the Malay virtues. This house is composed of a front hut and a back hut with a communication. Like all others it is raised to a good height on posts. The uprights are of palm, and the elastic, gridiron floor of split laths of the invaluable nibong palm (oncosperma filamentosum). The sides are made of neatly split reeds, and the roof, as in all houses, of the dried leaves of the nipah palm (nipa fruticans) stretched over a high ridge pole and steep rafters of bamboo. I could not see that a single nail had been used in the house. The whole of it is lashed together with rattan. The furniture consists entirely of mats, which cover a part of the floor, and are used both for sitting on and sleeping on, and a few small, hard, circular bolsters with embroidered ends. A musket, a spear, some fishing-rods, and a buffalo yoke hung against the wall of the reception room. In the back room, the province of the women and children, there were an iron pot, a cluster of bananas, and two calabashes. The women wore only sarongs, and the children nothing. The men, who were not much clothed, were lounging on the mats.

The Malays are passionately fond of pets, and are said to have much skill in taming birds and animals. Doubtless their low voices and gentle, supple movements never shock the timid sensitiveness of brutes. Besides this, Malay children yield a very ready obedience to their elders, and are encouraged to invite the confidence of birds and beasts, rather than to torment them. They catch birds by means of bird-lime made of gutta, by horse-hair nooses, and by imitating their call. In this small house there were bamboo cages containing twenty birds, most of them talking minas and green-feathered small pigeons. They came out of their cages when called, and perched in rows on the arms of the men. I don’t know whether the mina can learn many words, but it imitates the human voice so wonderfully that in Hawaii when it spoke English I was quite deceived by it. These minas articulated so humanly that I did know whether a bird or a Malay spoke. There were four love-birds in an exquisitely made bamboo cage, lovely little creatures with red beaks and blue and green plumage. The children catch small grasshoppers for their birds with a shovel-shaped instrument of open rattan work. When I add that there were some homely domestic fowls and a nearly tailless cat, I think I have catalogued the visible possessions of this family, with the exception of a bamboo cradle with a small brown inmate hanging from the rafters, and a small shed, used, I believe, for storing rice.

The open floor, while it gives air and ventilation, has also its disadvantages, for solid and liquid refuse is thrown through it so conveniently that the ground under the house is apt to contain stagnant pools and heaps of decomposing matter, and men lying asleep on mats on these gridirons have sometimes been stabbed with a kris inserted between the bars from below by an enemy seeking revenge.

I must not, however, give the impression that the Malays are a dirty people. They wash their clothes frequently, and bathe as often as is possible. They try to build their houses near water, and use small bathing-sheds.

I went into another house, rather poorer than the former, and, with a touching hospitality, they made signs to me to know if I would like a cocoa-nut. I hinted that I would, and the man at once got up and called to him an ape or monkey about three feet high, which was playing with a child, and the animal went out with him, and in no time was at the top of a tall cocoa-nut tree. His master said something to him, and he moved about examining the nuts till he decided upon a green one, which he wrung off, using teeth and hands for the operation. The slightly acid milk was refreshing, but its “meat,” which was of the consistency and nearly the tastelessness of the white of an egg boiled for five minutes, was not so good as that of the riper nuts.

I had walked on for some distance, and I had to walk back again before I found my elephant. I had been poking about in the scrub in search of some acid fruits, and when I got back to the road, was much surprised to find that my boots were filled with blood, and on looking for the cause I found five small brown leeches, beautifully striped with yellow, firmly attached to my ankles. I had not heard that these were pests in Perak, and feared that they were something worse; but the elephant driver, seeing my plight, made some tobacco juice and squirted it over the creatures, when they recoiled in great disgust. Owing to the exercise I was obliged to take, the bites bled for several hours. I do not remember feeling the first puncture. I have now heard that these blood-suckers infest leaves and herbage, and that when they hear the rustling made by man or animal in passing, they stretch themselves to their fullest length, and if they can touch any part of his body or dress they hold on to it, and as quickly as possible reach some spot where they can suck their fill.

I am making my narrative as slow as my journey, but the things I write of will be as new to you as they were to me. New it was certainly to stand upon a carpet of the sensitive plant at noon, with the rays of a nearly vertical sun streaming down from a cloudless, steely blue sky, watching the jungle monster meekly kneeling on the ground, with two Malays who do not know a word of English as my companions, and myself unarmed and unescorted in the heart of a region so lately the scene of war, about which seven blue books have been written, and about the lawlessness and violence of which so many stories have been industriously circulated.

Certainly I always dreamed that there must be something splendid in riding on an elephant, but I don’t feel the least accession of dignity in consequence. It is true, however, here, that though the trappings are mean and almost savage, a man’s importance is estimated by the number of his elephants. When the pack was adjusted, the mahout jumped on the back, and giving me his hands hauled me up over the head, after which the creature rose gently from the ground, and we went on our journey.

But the ride was “a fearful joy,” if a joy at all! Soon the driver jumped off for a gossip and a smoke, leaving the elephant to “gang his ain gates” for a mile or more, and he turned into the jungle, where he began to rend and tear the trees, and then going to a mud-hole, he drew all the water out of it, squirted it with a loud noise over himself and his riders, soaking my clothes with it, and when he turned back to the road again, he several times stopped and seemed to stand on his head by stiffening his proboscis and leaning upon it, and when I hit him with my umbrella he uttered the loudest roar I ever heard. My Malay fellow- rider jumped off and ran back for the driver, on which the panniers came altogether down on my side, and I hung on with difficulty, wondering what other possible contingencies could occur, always expecting that the beast, which was flourishing his proboscis, would lift me off with it and deposit me in a mud-hole.

On the driver’s return I had to dismount again, and this time the elephant was allowed to go and take a proper bath in a river. He threw quantities of water over himself, and took up plenty more with which to cool his sides as he went along. Thick as the wrinkled hide of an elephant looks, a very small insect can draw blood from it, and, when left to himself, he sagaciously plasters himself with mud to protect himself like the water buffalo. Mounting again, I rode for another two hours, but he crawled about a mile an hour, and seemed to have a steady purpose to lie down. He roared whenever he was asked to go faster, sometimes with a roar of rage, sometimes in angry and sometimes in plaintive remonstrance. The driver got off and walked behind him, and then he stopped altogether. Then the man tried to pull him along by putting a hooked stick in his huge “flapper,” but this produced no other effect than a series of howls; then he got on his head again, after which the brute made a succession of huge stumbles, each one of which threatened to be a fall, and then the driver, with a look of despair, got off again. Then I made signs that I would get off, but the elephant refused to lie down, and I let myself down his unshapely shoulder by a rattan rope, till I could use the mahout’s shoulders as steps. The baskets were taken off and left at a house, the elephant was turned loose in the jungle; I walked the remaining miles to Kwala Kangsa, and the driver carried my portmanteau! Such was the comical end of my first elephant ride. I think that altogether I walked about eight miles, and I was not knocked up; this says a great deal for the climate of Perak. The Malay who came with me told the people here that it was “a wicked elephant,” but I have since been told “that it was very sick and tired to death,” which I hope is the true version of its most obnoxious conduct.

I have said nothing about the magnificence of the scenery for a part of the way, where the road goes through a grand mountain pass, where all the vegetable glories of the tropics seem assembled, and one gets a new idea of what scenery can be; while beneath superb tree-ferns and untattered bananas, and palms, and bright-flowered lianas, and graceful trailers, and vermilion-colored orchids, and under sun-birds and humming birds and the most splendid butterflies I ever saw, a torrent, as clear as crystal, dashes over the rocks, and adds the music of tumbling water to the enchantment of a scene whose loveliness no words can give any idea of. The pass of Bukit Berapit, seen in solitude on a glorious morning, is almost worth a journey round the world.

Another wonder of the route is Gunong Pondok, a huge butte or isolated mass of red and white limestone, much weather-stained and ore-stained with very brilliant colors, full of caverns, many of which are quite inaccessible, their entrances fringed with immense stalactites. Some of the accessible caves have roofs seventy feet in height. Gunong Pondok is shaped like the Bass Rock, and is about twelve hundred feet in height. Its irregular top is forest-crowned, but its nearly perpendicular walls of white or red rock afford scarcely roothold for trees, and it rises in comparatively barren solitude among the forest-covered mountains of the interior.

At the end of ten hours’ traveling, as I was tramping along alone, I began to meet Malays, then I met nine elephants in groups of three, with men, women, and children on their backs, apparently taking “an airing,” the beasts looking grand, as their fronts always do. But that part of the road passes through a lonely jungle region, tiger, elephant, and rhinoceros haunted, and only broken here and there by some rude Malay cultivation of bananas or sugar-cane. When the sun was low I looked down upon a broad and beautiful river, with hills and mountains on its farther side, a village on the shores of a promontory, and above that a grassy hill with a bungalow under cocoa-palms at its top, which I knew must be the Residency, from the scarlet uniforms at the door. There was a small bridge over the Kangsa, then a guard-room and some official residences on stilts, and at the top of a steep slope the bungalow, which has a long flight of stairs under a latticed porch, leading to a broad and comfortably furnished veranda used as the Resident’s office and sitting-room, the centre part, which has a bed- room on each side of it and runs to the back of the house, serving for the eating-place. It is as unpretending a dwelling as can be. It keeps out the sun and rain, and gives all the comfort which is needed in this climate, but nothing more. My journey of thirty-three miles from the coast has brought me into the interior of the State, where the Kangsa river joins the Perak, at a distance of a hundred and fifty miles from its mouth, and I am alone in the wilds!

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