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

Letter xxi

A Malay Interior — Malay Bird–Scaring — Rice Culture — Picturesque Dismalness — A Bad Spell — An Alarm — Possibilities of Peril — Patience and Kindness — Masculine Clatter

KWALA KANGSA, February 20.

Yesterday afternoon I had an expedition which I liked very much, though it ended a little awkwardly owing to a late start. Captain Walker was going on a shooting excursion to a lotus lake at some distance, and invited me to join him. So we started after tiffin with two Malays, crossed the Perak in a “dug-out,” and walked for a mile over a sandy, grassy shore, which there lies between the bright water and the forest, then turned into the jungle, and waded through a stream which was up to my knees as we went, and up to my waist as we returned. Then a tremendous shower came on, and we were asked to climb into a large Malay house, of which the floor was a perilously open gridiron. At least three families were in it, and there were some very big men, but the women hid themselves behind a screen of matting. It looked forlorn. A young baboon was chained to the floor, and walked up and down restlessly like a wild beast in a menagerie; there were many birds in cages, and under the house was much rubbish, among which numerous fowls were picking. There was much fishing-tackle on the walls, both men and women being excessively fond of what I suppose may be called angling. They brought us young cocoa-nuts, and the milk, drank as it always ought to be, through one of the holes in the nut, was absolutely delicious.

Where the Malays are not sophisticated enough to have glass or china, they use dried gourds for drinking-vessels. The cocoa-nut is an invaluable product to them. Besides furnishing them with an incomparable drink, it is the basis of the curries on which they live so much, and its meat and milk enter into the composition of their sweet dishes. I went to see the women behind their screen, and found one of them engaged in making a dish which looked like something which we used to call syllabub. It was composed of remarkably unbleached sago, which they make from the sago-palm, boiled down with sugar to nearly a jelly. It was on an earthenware plate, and the woman who was preparing it mixed sugar with cocoa-nut milk, and whipping it with a bunch of twigs to a slight froth, poured it over the jelly.

When the rain ceased we got through the timber belt into a forlorn swamp of wet padi, where the water was a foot deep, and in some places so unintelligibly hot that it was unpleasant to put one’s feet into it. It was truly a dismal swamp, and looked as if the padi were coming up by accident among the reeds and weeds. Indeed, I should have thought that it was a rice fallow, but for a number of grotesque scarecrows, some mere bundles of tatters, but others wearing the aspect of big birds, big dolls, or cats. I could not think how it was that these things made spasmodic jerking movement, as there was not a breath of air, and they were all soaked by the shower, till I saw that they were attached by long strings to a little grass hut raised on poles, in which a girl or boy sat “bird-scaring.” The sparrows rob the rice-fields, and so do the beautiful padi-birds, of which we saw great numbers.

The Malays are certainly not industrious; they have no need to be so, and their cultivation is rude. They plow the rice-land with a plow consisting of a pole eight feet long, with a fork protruding from one end to act as a coulter, and a bar of wood inserted over this at an oblique angle forms a guiding handle. This plow is drawn by the great water buffalo. After plowing, the clods are broken by dragging a heavy beam over them, and are harrowed by means of a beam set with iron spikes The women do the sowing and planting. The harvest succeeds the planting in four months. The rice ears are cut short off, sometimes by a small sickle, and sometimes by an instrument which produces the effect of shears. Threshing consists in beating the ears with thick sticks to loosen the husks, after which the padi is carried in baskets to platforms ten feet above the ground, and is allowed to fall on mats, when the chaff is driven away by the wind. It is husked by a pestle, and it requires some skill to avoid crushing the grain. All these operations are performed by women.

The Perak Malays don’t like working for other people, but some of them cultivate sugar-cane and maize for sale. Even for clearing jungle-land foreign labor has to be resorted to.

Ah, that swamp is a doleful region! One cannot tell where it ends and where the jungle begins, and dark, heavy, ominous-looking clouds generally concealed the forest-covered hills which are not far off. I almost felt the redundancy of vegetation to be oppressive, and the redundancy of insect and reptile life certainly was so; swarms of living creatures leaped in and out of the water, bigger ones hidden from view splashed heavily, and a few blackish, slug-like looking reptiles, which drew blood, and hung on for an hour or two, attached themselves to my ankles. I was amused when Captain Walker congratulated himself on the absence of leeches, for these blood-suckers were at least their next of kin. I fell down into the water twice from the submerged ridge that I tried to walk upon, but there is no risk of cold from a hot bath in a stove.

Then we came to a smothered, reedy, ditch-like stream, in which was an old “dug-out” half full of water, in which we managed to stow ourselves, and by careful balancing contrived to keep its edges just above the water. Our impeded progress down this ditch startled myriads of whirring, splashing creatures. The ditch opened into a reedy swamp where hideous pink water buffaloes were wallowing and enjoying themselves, but on the report of a gun they all plunged into deep water and swam away, except for their big horns, looking more like hippopotami than bovine quadrupeds. They are nearly as ugly as a rhinoceros; all albino animals are ugly, and when these are wet their hides are a bright salmon pink.

The swamp merged itself into a lotus lake, covered over much of its extent with thousands of noble leaves and rose-pink blossoms. It seemed almost sacrilege to tear and bruise and break them and push rudely through them in our canoe. A sadder and lonelier scene could not be. I have seldom been more powerfully affected by nature. The lake lying in hot mist under dark clouds, with the swamp and jungle on one side and an absolutely impenetrable wall of entangled trees and trailers on the other, so dense and matted that before putting one’s feet on shore space would have to be cut for them with a parang, seemed as if it must be a hundred miles from the abodes of men, and as if nobody had ever been there before or ever would be there again. The heavy mist lifted, showing mountains, range beyond range, forest-covered, extending back into the heart of the peninsula; and though the highest may be under five thousand feet in height, yet from their shape, and from rising so near the sea-level, and from the woolly mists which hung round their bases, and from something in the gray, sad atmosphere, they looked fully ten thousand feet high.

Captain Walker climbed into a low tree which overhung the lake to look out for teal and widgeon, which were perfectly innumerable, while the Malays, never uttering a word, silently poled the boat over the dreary lake in the dreary evening to put up the birds. There they went high over our heads in long flights, and every time there was the report of a gun there were screams and shrieks and squawks, and myriads of birds rose out of their reedy covers, and fish splashed, and the smoke lay heavily on the water, and then all was silent again. Any place more solitary and apparently isolated could not be imagined — it was a most pathetic scene. Hazy visions of the mere near which King Arthur lay dying came before my eyes. If I had seen the solemn boat with “the three fair queens,” in “robes of samite, mystic, wonderful,” I should not have been surprised, nor would it have been odd if the lake had changed into the Styx, across which I was being ferried, a cold, colorless shade. To and fro, up and down, we poled over the tragic waters till I actually felt a terror far beyond eeriness taking possession of me.

It grew grayer and darker, and we went back for Captain Walker, who, with the absorption of a true sportsman, had hardly noticed the falling shadows. It was a relief to hear the human voice once more. It broke the worst spell I was ever bound by. As he came out on the branch to get into the canoe it gave way, and he fell into the water up to his chin. Then the boat pole broke, so that when we got back to the padi it was obvious that “the dark” was coming “at one stride,” and I suggested that, as we had two miles to walk and a river to cross at night, and we should certainly be very late for dinner; Mr. Low might become uneasy about us, as we were both strangers and unable to speak the language; but Captain Walker thought differently.

There had been so much rain that it was heavy wading through the padi, and it was quite dark when we reached the jungle, in which the rain had made the footing very precarious, and in darkness we forded the swollen stream, and stumbled along the shore of the Perak, where fireflies in thousands were flashing among the bushes — a beautiful sight. When we reached the bank of the river where we had left the canoe we found several Malays, who laughed and seemed singularly pleased to see us, and talked vociferously to our men, i.e., vociferously for Malays, who are in the habit of speaking quietly. It was very difficult to get down the steep, slippery bank, into a precarious canoe which I could not see, and so thick was the darkness that I sat down in the water between the two gridirons, and had to remain there during the crossing, which took a long time, being against the stream.

When we landed, a Sikh sergeant met us, very much excited. He spoke Malayan, and I guessed from a few words that I knew that there was a hue and cry at the Residency. You know how all pleasure is at once spoiled when, after you have been enjoying yourself very much, you find that people at home have been restless and uneasy about you; and as it is one of my traveling principles to avoid being a bother to people, I was very sorry. We found a general state of perturbation. Major Swinburne, who was leaning over the veranda, received us with some very pungent objurgations, and told us that Mr. Low was out and very anxious. I was covered with mire, and wet from head to foot, and disappeared, but when we sat down to the long-delayed dinner I saw from Mr. Low’s silence and gloomy manner that he had been really much annoyed; however, he recovered himself, and we had a very lively evening of conversation and discussion, though I had a good deal of pain from the inflamed bites of the bloodsuckers in the swamp. Malay scouting parties had been sent in various directions. Rajah Dris was away with one, and the Sikh police were all ready to do nobody knows what, as there were no dogs. Major Swinburne said that his fears did not travel farther than the river, which he thinks is dangerous to cross at night in a “dug-out;” but Mr. Low had before him the possibility of our having been assailed by bad characters, or of our having encountered a tiger in the jungle, and of my having been carried off from my inability to climb a tree!

Eblis is surely dying. He went to the roof, where the half-tamed siamang was supporting him hour after hour as gently as a mother would support a sick child. This wild ape has been very gentle and good to Eblis ever since he became ill. I went out for a short time with Mr. Low, and on returning he called Eblis, but the little thing was too weak to come, and began to cry feebly, on which the wild ape took him by one of his hands, put an arm round him, gently led him to a place from which he could drop upon Mr. Low’s chair, and then darted away, but while daylight lasted was looking anxiously at Eblis, and at 6 A.M. had so far conquered his timidity that he sat on the window-sill behind Mr. Low, that he might watch his sick friend. The little bewitching thing, which is much emaciated, clings to its master now the whole time, unlike other animals, which hide themselves when they are ill, puts out its feeble little arms to him with a look of unspeakable affection on its poor, pinched face, and murmurs in a feeble voice ouf! ouf! Mr. Low pours a few drops of milk down its throat every half hour, and if he puts it down for a moment, it screams like a baby and stretches out its thin hands.

It is very interesting and pleasant to see the relations which exist between Mr. Low and the Malays. At this moment three Rajahs are lying about on the veranda, and their numerous followers are clustered on and about the stairs. He never raises his voice to a native, and they look as if they like him, and from their laughter and cheeriness they must be perfectly at ease with him. He is altogether devoted to the interests of Perak, and fully carries out his instructions,* which were, “to look upon Perak as a native State ultimately to be governed by native Rajahs,” whom he is to endeavor to educate and advise “without interfering with the religion or custom of the country.” He obviously attempts to train and educate these men in the principles and practice of good government, so that they shall be able to rule firmly and justly. Perak is likely to become the most important State of the Peninsula, and I earnestly hope that Mr. Low’s wise and patient efforts will bring forth good fruit, at all events in Rajah Dris.

[*See Appendix A.]

Mr. Low is only a little over fifty now, and when he first came the Rajahs told him that they were “glad that the Queen had sent them an old gentleman!” He is excessively cautious, and, like most people who have had dealings with Orientals, is possibly somewhat suspicious, but his caution is combined with singular kindness of heart, and an almost faulty generosity regarding his own concerns, as, for instance, he refuses to send his servants to prison when they rob him, saying: “Poor fellows! they know no better.” He is just as patiently forbearing to the apes. Mr. —— told me that he had made a very clean and careful copy of a dispatch to Lord Carnarvon, when Mahmoud dipped his fingers in the ink and drew them over a whole page, and he only took him in his arms and said: “Poor creature, you’ve given me a great deal of trouble, but you know no better.”

This is my last evening here, and I am so sorry. It is truly “the wilds.” There is rest. Then the apes are delightful companions, and there are all sorts of beasts, and birds, and creeping things, from elephants downward. The scenery and vegetation of the neighborhood are beautiful, the quiet Malay life which passes before one in a series of pictures is very interesting, and the sight of wise and righteous rule carried on before one’s eyes, with a total absence of humbug and red-tapeism, and which never leaves out of sight the training of the Malays to rule themselves, is always pleasing. I like Kwala Kangsa better than any place that I have been at in Asia, and am proportionately sorrier to leave it. Mr. Low would have sent me up the Perak in the Dragon boat, and over the mountains into Kinta on elephants, if I could have stayed; but I cannot live longer without your letters, and they, alas! are at Colombo. Mr. Low kindly expresses regret at my going, and says he has got quite used to my being here, and added: “You never speak at the wrong time. When men are visiting me they never know when to be quiet, but bother one in the middle of business.” This is most amusing, for it would be usually said: “Women never know when to be quiet.” Mr. Maxwell one day said, that when men were with him he could “get nothing done for their clatter.” I wished to start at 4 A.M. to-morrow, to get the coolness before sunrise, but there are so many tigers about just now in the jungle through which the road passes, that it is not considered prudent for me to leave before six, when they will have retired to their lairs.

I. L. B.

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