During the Christmas holidays – or any other public holiday for that matter – the world and his brother-in-law will descend on Umbai for the ikan bakar. Sleepy back roads, normally the domain of a few cows and goats, take on the appearance of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman at rush hour. Compounds of nearby houses, usually vacant except for the odd underbone motorcycle or two, are miraculously transformed into temporary car parks – often without the consent of the houseowner. And the normally peaceful night is shot to pieces by the constant ringing of the ikan bakar operators’ cash registers.
Being without a training gig for the past two months has given me plenty of time to twiddle my thumbs. And between twiddling my thumbs I have also managed to dream a little: a sweet indulgence that I have almost forgotten how to do. But after being here in Umbai for almost a year now, it’s all coming back.
For a couple of weeks now I have had a strange (but amusing) recurring vision. There is this gleaming white 30-footer walkaround boat (an Island Hopper Sea Leveller, actually) berthed at the far end of the Umbai jetty. Its 420 hp onboard diesel engine is purring on idle as it bobs gently to the rhythm of the waves. An old-timer, dressed in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, khaki cargo pants and blue deck shoes climbs out of the cabin. Straightening his worn out captain’s hat, he lights up a Winston and beams me a smile to end all smiles.
Since the client was not quite prepared to run foul of copyright laws, he instructed me to shoot my own photos for the write-up I had to do for him. Fair enough. But there was a problem: I didn’t own a camera. When I alerted him of this, he promptly wired some money so I could purchase one. Money in hand, I rushed out to the local Jaya Jusco to do just that.
Like a grand steamship unloading its precious cargo onto the wharf, the warung’s proprietor, an elderly lady with a kindly face piled-up the roti jala onto a plate. She then ladled the steaming hot gulai into a bowl and brought me my mid-morning snack. But this was no snack. The serving was so generous that it made the portions I was used to in KL look like a joke. An average-sized man could easily go through the entire day on this meal alone. Then again, I am not an average sized guy: this will see me through nicely till lunch.
I smiled at the proprietor. She smiled back knowing that I was silently pleased with what she had brought me. As she disappeared to the back of the warung, I found myself thinking about what her life was like. Was she happy? Was she sad? Did she have any children? Did they take good care of her? What did her husband do for a living?
It’s a typical weekday morning. The kids are at school (at least, I hope they are) and wifey is minding her tiny handicraft shop tucked somewhere in a little corner of Bandar Hilir. I’m all alone at home; alone, that is, except for Puteh. She is stretched out, napping on my son’s study table, a little more than contented after half a tin of Whiskas and maybe a centipede or two for dessert.
I can make out strains of Uji Rashid, M Daud Kilau and Sanisah Huri coming from the neighbouring houses. The tunes seem to colour the moment with the sweet sepia tones of an old photograph and I fight the urge to have a flashback moment to the times when I used to wear bell-bottoms and platform shoes. The only reminder that I am in this present decade is the laptop whirring away on my table.
At about 6.35 a.m. every morning, an Ah Pek – his face leathery with age and wisened by experience – putters by my house on his 30-year old Yamaha cub. He shouts, “Selamat pagi!” and I shout back, “Selamat pagi, tuan!” He smiles and makes like he wants to stop for a chat. But at the last moment he always seems to change his mind. He gives me a friendly wave and turns off into the direction of the jetty.
Maybe tomorrow he’ll actually stop for that chat. Or maybe tomorrow I’ll wait for him by the road and stop him. I don’t know. But unless he dies in his sleep tonight, I reckon that at 6.35 a.m. tomorrow he’ll be around again, passing by my house, on his way to wherever he needs to be.
It’s been just over two weeks since I’ve uprooted myself from KL and relocated the remnants of my life to a place called Umbai (not Mumbai, OK?). A sleepy little fishing village on the coast of Melaka, Umbai is located somewhere between Melaka town and Muar. On weekends, however, this sleepy hollow morphs into a hive of activity as folks from as far as KL and Singapore descend on it to savour its famous ‘ikan bakar’. By the time they leave (usually in wee hours of Monday morning), the local economy is richer by thousands of ringgit.
By my estimates, Umbai has got a total population of maybe 238 at any one time (if you include any transients in the poll). Yes, it’s a low-density, quaint little place. As such, it is naturally very quite; maybe too quiet, even. As I write this, birds are chirping away on the balcony of my kampong house. It is almost bedlam. But that’s OK. In a minute or two, my recently acquired pet cat, Puteh (a white-ish mongrel who came around one day and decided not to leave), will come around chase them all away. Not to worry, though; the birds will be back. And Puteh will chase them away again – and so goes the cycle.