(This is Tuesday Tales, where we highlight folklores and personal stories from indigenous peoples from all across Borneo. These are stories shared with us. We strive to edit it to the best of our capabilities for your enjoyment. We welcome your feedback at email@example.com)
Written by: John Wan Usang
Origin: Kenyah (Long San)
Edited by: Juvita Tatan Wan
Sketch/Drawing by: Loretta Livan Milang
It was an early morning during the long year end school holidays in my early teenage years (mid-late 1960s). I got up to pack my food and drinks for the day. I also checked to see all my other necessities are packed in my kibeu (square rattan woven basket carried on the back). There wasn’t an alarm clock , but I knew it was early dawn as the neighbours’ cocks had just crew. My breakfast pack consisted mainly of kanen Ee’ok, steamed rice packed in leaves (laun kanan), some siai (fire-dried roasted meat), belacan (shrimp paste), boiled tapioca leaves, water and black coffee packed in a small flask. Besides my foodstuff, I also packed my baeng (local made parang/hunting knife), some spare clothings, and our shotgun (dismantled into two pieces) .
I set off to the to-on (river bank jetty) with the kibeu on my back and holding the torch in my hand to light up my way. It was about 15 minutes ride paddling downstream to the opposite bank called Alo Benyu. This was the place of the once famous Long Akah airstrip, which was built by the British Army during the 1963 confrontation with Indonesia.
Upon securing my alot (wooden dugout canoe) to a nearby tree, I hurried to our thatched hut located in the centre of the rubber garden, to keep my ration. In fact, I literally hung my ration to the hut’s beam to keep it away from any hungry predators. I secured the baeng to my waist, lifted the kibeu’ to my back (with the dismantled gun inside) and picked up my pa-at (rubber tapping knife) and headed straight to the first tree.
It was still dark so I had to hold on to my torch light while struggling to rip off the tree bark with my pa-at. Tapping rubber trees requires skill. You need to apply just enough pressure with the pa-at to rip off the bark, but not too deep so as not to injure the ‘wood’ of the tree. Injured trees will not heal evenly resulting in uneven surface making future tapping job more difficult. I was often reprimanded by my mother for ‘hurting’ the trees. Latex from the tree dripped into a glass or tin receptacle.
Though it was pit dark with all kinds of sounds of varying pitch from the nocturnal insects and animals, I was not at all intimidated. Perhaps the thought of carrying a shotgun in my kibeu gave me comfort and a sense of security. There was one occasion while I was busy tapping a tree when I heard a sudden gush of movement from nearby bushes. It then rushed into my mind that it might be a tiger or a bear, or worse – some big hungry alien was out there, ready to clamour and get me. Or could it be a just a wild game animal like a babui (wild boar) , a payau (deer) or a pelanok (mousedeer) teasing me to see if I could really handle the shot gun? I calmly put down my kibeu’ to reach for my gun and ready to assemble it for the assault. Alas, by the time the ammunition was assembled and ready to put to the test, the ‘intruder’ was no where to be seen.
By the time I had completed tapping the last tree in the 5-acre garden, it was already 10.00 a.m. I immediately rushed back to the hut and unpack my breakfast. Though the breakfast was basic and simple – rice wrapped in leaves, pounded ubi shoots and roasted meat – it tasted so good. I was very hungry.
The next task sounds simple, but tricky – collecting the rubber latex and the kulat pulot (coagulated rubber crumbs ). I carried a 4-gallon metal pail to collect the latex and the kulat pulot stuffed into my kibeu. The kulat pulot, is considered a by-product and fetched very low price; sold for only 5 to 10 sen per “kati” as compared to 30-50 sens per kati for the processed rubber sheets. Carrying a 4-gallon metal pail with its latex content almost filled to the brim was quite a challenge, especially for a teenage rubber tapper, criss-crossing the rows of rubber trees, bushes and the uneven terrain. Once you tumble, all your hard day’s work is literally gone. If that happens, you will then have plenty of rubber crumbs!
The next tricky task was to coagulate the latex and rolled it to form sheets. A measured amount of formic acid was added into the latex and let to coagulate inside a mould (usually made from used kerosene or biscuit tins which are cut vertically into halves). An overdose of formic acid would result in your latex becoming over hardened and springy, while an under dose would delay the coagulation process. Once the coagulated latex had attained the correct ‘hardness’, it was then rolled into a sheet on a wooden table called sitak using a wooden roller. Overturning the mould to empty the coagulated latex onto the table also required fast and expert hands or else the content would just sit as a blob or worst, simply slid off to the ground. That would be another downgrade to rubber crumbs. Subsequently, the rubber sheets were rolled between metal rollers to get rid of excess water and were then either sundried or hung above the kitchen to dry for several days before it could be sold.
On a fine day, my efforts would be rewarded with 5-7 sheets of rubber or about 10 – 15 katis. At an average price of 30 sen per kati, I would gratefully earned 3 to 5 Ringgit for the day. More often than not, the day’s routine was often thwarted by late morning rain, forcing early collection of the latex from the trees, before the rain drains the latex off from the collection cups.
Sunday being a rest day, was for shopping! I would eagerly pack my dried rubber sheets in my kibeu, and made the awaited trip to Long Akah bazaar to dispose my ‘fortune’. You either paddle a boat or walk on foot. I would happily carry my cargo on my back for the 10 kilometre journey on foot using the cleared jungle foot paths. I did not mind the heavy load of the precious cargo on my back, as the heavier the load means more katis and more katis means more Ringgit!
For all the hard work, I would treat myself to a bottle of lemonade, some biscuits and “lipang tarik” (sticky peanut biscuit). I would still have to help our family buy basic household necessities like salt, sugar and kerosene. Whatever little balance that was left, I would slip it into my makeshift piggy bank out of a Milo can as savings for my new school term expenses.
At the end of the holiday break, I would eagerly open my piggy bank and would be pleasantly surprised to find a tidy sum of about 40 Ringgit! Though comprised mostly of coins and 1 Ringgit notes, I felt very glad as every hard earned sen through my rubber tapping adventures had contributed to school and our family expenses.
Ma-at Pulot (Rubber Tapping) is a story related from real experience of a young rubber tapper.
John Wan Usang is also the co-founder of The Tuyang Initiative.
Kati or catti is a unit measurement of weight. 1 catti = 0.6048 kg
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