On my first Saturday in Sungai Siput I was lured into the jungle without preface. That is to say, the two Malay ladies who had politely abducted me weren’t privy to disclose our destination. What was disclosed, however, were the details of my dogs at home, the reason as to why my socks were incidentally different colors, why I had studied something as ludicrous as art in college, what I thought about Chinese people, and of course, my opinions on the venerable Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. The two Malay women, Fadziah and Maisara, were my assigned “mentors,” and while time would reveal certain sadistic tendencies on their end, they were in general extraordinarily, almost maternally, protective over me. With the exception of this day.
We veered in to a conservatively dressed gathering beneath a thatched roof. There I was greeted with muted stares and tilted heads and some shy waves and giggles. My mentors partially introduced me, and hazily explained that this was the annual ‘family day’ for my school’s staff. From there, eighty of us or so consumed several vats of rice, lukewarm fish, and Tylenol-flavored punch, cleansed our palettes with soap-sponge-concoctions, and began a day of forced fun in the equatorial sun. An unwinnable scavenger hunt to be precise. I was paired with the school’s elderly female staff, and for several hours we threw coconuts at water bottles, untied knots, counted granules of rice, and solved riddles about grass or something. By the time the sun reached its apex in the sky we’d achieved an unshakeable last place. So we gave up, regrouped, and polished off more vats of meats in various stages of fermentation and decay. I washed down a delicious blend of putrid shrimp paste and sardine noodles with another warm glass of Children’s Tylenol (affectionately referred to as syrup), and reclined for a bit while the others prayed.
The camp’s numbers started to dwindle and I entertained the idea that my Saturday conscription was nearing its end. As it turned out, people were merely escaping to the designated naptime area where rented cots awaited them. Several liters of sweat later camp resumed session.
Here we gather around an authoritative figure who stands confidently on the embankment of a slow, brown river. He gesticulates with strong, concise movements, and his robust triangular eyebrows assert his points with piercing conviction. I can’t understand a word he’s saying. A natural born South East Asian leader, our stout but handsome principal dons a bright orange life jacket. Without translations, I can only presume that we are to be committing an amphibious assault against some unknown aggressor downstream. Tuan Haji, or ‘He who has made the hajj’ (to Mecca), turns his orange back to us. With slacks and shoes still on, he marches steadfast into the river, stopping when the water reaches his waist. Making sure we are still paying attention, he says something informative, then leans back, lifts his legs up, and allows the lazy current to drift his whole body. He glides about ten feet downstream and then forces himself upright to the applause of many.
Everyone begins equipping life jackets and a procession of teachers ford the river in tow of their triumphant leader. Already having drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid, in this case Tylenol, I keep my shoes on and march right in. The water is disconcertingly warm and mushy and two older men with wiry beards beckon me over. They hold onto my life vest and insist that I lie with my back to the water, and then release me to the current. Ten feet later I’m instructed to stand up, and my soaked, mud-caked peers nod approvingly. When the baptismal ritual comes to an end I am told we have all just engaged in water confidence training. Having floated on my back for over four whole seconds I am now, certifiably, water confident.
We drip in the sun for a bit and then pile onto the back of a large truck, which drives us up the road a few miles. Awaiting us are several makeshift rafts comprised of partially inflated tubes tied together along with some wooden boards for paddling. Simply buzzing with water confidence, we overlook the messy task of dividing our competent sailors amongst the available rafts and naturally the most eager and capable seafarers force themselves to the front of the line and immediately embark without looking back. Left on the shoreline is a huddling mass of ambivalent old ladies, clad in still wet hijabs, boarding the last remaining raft, which appropriately is the shoddiest and most deflated raft as well. Of course, several small children are also relegated to this partially sunken, overcrowded vessel as well.
The river is formidable and our rafts proceed at an enthralling pace of five miles an hour. In the distance I think I spot whitecaps, which turn out to be floating chunks of Styrofoam. And even further off I spot the raft hauling the young and elderly, which to everyone’s surprise has begun to unravel into several smaller, equally imperiled rafts. There’s no time to stop, survival of the fittest, let them pull themselves up by their waterlogged bootstraps, etc., and we begin paddling faster downstream. But soon the wayward raft in last place has completely undone itself, and its passengers, clinging to semi-buoyant tubes, find themselves in the midst of a real humanitarian crisis. With over three feet of water separating them from the riverbed below, death becomes imminent.
After a brief stint of panic, unrest, minor screaming, and reckless heroism, we come up on an anti-climactic sandbar and stand up in what is now less than four inches of water. Apart from several drowned sandals there are no casualties. From there we trudge back to shore, pray, hydrate ourselves with ever-warmer Tylenol, and sit for the awards ceremony. Everyone is in good spirits and has forgotten the terror that subsumed the previous hour. I understand absolutely nothing that is said over the microphone, and am consequently summoned on stage to receive a gift-wrapped basket containing orange soda and shrimp chips for my token White presence. Furthermore, once the points are tallied, my elderly team from earlier is awarded third place in the scavenger hunt, for which my share is a pack of Mentos and a bag of fish biscuits. And just like that the day is over. On the drive home my mentor informs me that the river is pretty much just pesticide-infused agricultural waste and runoff.