Saturday, August 18, 2007

Could It Be Magic? Pt1

It was originally a timeless classical piece of the past century. Sometime late 1970’s, Barry Manilow rewrote it for one of his albums. Since then, it became a piano piece which I love to play; soft beginning that crescendo to a loud ending, displaying an emotion, in motion. To me, it was beautifully rewritten. But as always, there were critics who downplayed it. Well, even David Copperfield and that Blaine guy – with all the magic and tricks up their sleeve - have no answer to critics, what else Manilow? Still, he weaved his tunes a good number of years, many which are still sung now. Magical were they? As much as I like his tunes, I’d have to say no.

Last Friday, Halim, my front door neighbour, had asked me to follow him to this healer in Malacca since he does not know the way there. Besides, it would be good for my leg, he added. Thus we left just after Subuh the next day, taking a leisure drive and reach our destination at about 9. Soon after registering our names we were informed that the clinic begins at around noon. To kill the 3 hours in between, I took him to Pantai Klebang, a beach just north of Malacca Town, one which I have not been to for several years. Now, before I continue, I’d like to explain why I had to stress Pantai Klebang is a beach.

It does seem ironic that Malacca, the supposedly cradle of Malay Civilisation in Malaysia, famed for the story of its royal court and Malay literature, is also the corruptor of the Malay language. I cannot think of other states, but it is only in Malacca where pantai – which is supposed to mean a beach – is found way inland, almost in the jungles, situated on a once lonely road that links Alor Gajah town and Durian Tunggal. If memory does serve me right, it is the village of Pantai Belimbing, an almost unknown village where my mother’s late father came from. In fact, to this day, we still have families there – rather far-flung I need to add for we may meet once every couple of years at weddings or death of a family member. Or perhaps, even the occasional Eid Fitri visits.

Back to Pantai Klebang, I had quite a shock as soon as it came into view. Due to the rapid development of the historical city, and the lack of space enclosed by the city’s boundary and the waterline of the Straits of Malacca, the State Government has embarked what I think is an over-ambitious plan to reclaim a very large part of the straits for their want to expand the size of the city. And it does so without much thought not only to ecology, historical aspects, but also to the livelihood of the coastal people and the natural beauty and attractions of Pantai Klebang.

As soon as the car pulled to a stop, Halim stepped out and rushed to the banks where a man-made structure of mountain rocks and cement blocks line the coastline kilometers long, in an effort to stop soil erosion caused by the seawater. As much needed it is, it is also quite unsightly and reminds me of the Atlantic Wall which Hitler ordered built to stop any invasion by the allied force. And as much futile the Atlantic Walls was, could this wall be too?

But the sight that caught Halim’s eyes was not the wall, but some dark dots seemingly bobbling on the water. I knew what they were on a glance for having been to here countless time, they are to me, as natural as the sand on a beach. But to Halim, it was a sight he has never seen before – some men and women walking in the water and moving parallel to the beach; each of them pushing two sticks of bamboo tied in a cross on the upper part, with a finely weaved netting tied to the bottom half. These are the catchers of geragau – tiny shrimps almost plankton-like used especially to make belacan (shrimp paste).

These catchers are heavily dressed from head to toe to protect them from the sun on the surface and the nibbles of fishes and other creatures under it. For many of them, it is a livelihood that was passed down generations ago. They work at low tide pushing their sieve-like apparatus to a distant of some 50 meters before turning back to where they started from. With no buoys to mark the boundary for each, their work is hard; depending where they started from, they inevitably will have to face the sea current.

In between one point to another, the catchers will frequently stop a moment or so to check on their netting. Sometimes, they scoop their small catch into a bag-like netting towed behind. Most of the times though, it is to clear the net from any sea debris. Yet, there are also times when they stop just for a brief respite from the raging sun, or to rest the weary legs from walking in the water where the pull of gravity can be many times heavier than on land.

Still they move on till a time of the day only through sheer experience they’ll know when to stop. When we were there, low tide was in the morning. With the sun near its zenith, several of the catchers began walking towards the beach to get back on land. That alone can be a distance of 2 or 3 kilometers. As one walked pass in front of us, I shouted to him asking about his catch. With the sound of water flopping on the rocks off the wall and the sea breeze blowing, he could not hear my question. I put forward my arms, hugging the empty space in front of me. The guy lifted his left hand, shakes his wrist and his head at the same time in a reply that is more apparent from the looks of his face…a very poor or no catch at all.

Further out to the deeper waters of the straits, 2 small boats move towards a man-made island of more mountain rocks and atop of them, a metal beam measuring several square meters sits horizontally. Somewhat in the middle of the beam, a metal structure stands vertical several meters high. Then we noticed several more of this ‘islands’ dotting the straits and stretching towards a small peninsular that marks the boundary of Pantai Klebang. These are the points for works-in-progress for the land reclamation that now haunts the ‘geragau’ catchers. In time, perhaps no longer than a year or two, Pantai Klebang will no longer have a beach and for the catchers, a traditional way of livelihood that has perhaps been passed down for centuries will disappear.

In my mind, I see the silhouette of a catcher against the backdrop of an evening low tide disappearing just as the sun would at sunset. But for the catchers, there will be no magical sunrise. For the state of Malacca and its people, another of its magical charm and identity which too few people know about will also disappear.

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