"Huh? Where is Kampung Lerek?"
The official letter was in my hand. I grabbed the only Malaysian atlas in my house and scanned the map of the state of Trengganu for a place called Kuala Berang.
"Alamak!!! It's in the middle of Trengganu!" I almost fainted, seeing that the village is near the Kenyir Dam. That would mean having to go to a school that's near the jungle or a plantation.
I first started my career in Terengganu at the tender age of 21. For my whole life I had never been away from my family for more than a week. The thought of having to live in a place hundreds of kilometres away from home, without a known friend or relative is quite frightening. But I had to go. I had signed the contract and the sense of adventure soon turned fear into eagerness.
The first trip to school.
"Are you sure this is the way to the school, pakcik?" I asked the Malay taximan as he swerved his taxi left and right to avoid the round objects on the road. I was getting dizzy with the ride and the stench that greeted my nostrils the moment we left the main road. We were moving along slowly through the newly-tarred road across a big oil-palm estate after passing a secondary jungle. To me, it was like a road to Jurassic Park than to a school. Being a town-bred amoi (Chinese girl) I was totally unfamiliar with the narrow lane, the sight of newly- produced cow and goat dung on the road, and the stench that rises from the dung along the 10 kilometre road. It would soon be a normal sight - the herds of cows, goats and sheep in the middle of the road every morning slowly making way for the van to go through the narrow road.
Great, I had landed myself in the middle of an oil-palm estate, 15 kilometres from the nearest town. The school caters to the villagers' children, all seventy of them Malay Muslims, who would walk about an hour everyday to learn at school. I shared a rented house in town and travelled for 20 minutes to the school daily. A school with 7 teachers and 70 students.
Visits to the village.
"Cikgu, jangan malu-malu. Kalau sedap tambah lagi." (Don't be shy, take more food)
The father of my student invited me and my colleagues to their house for lunch. It was a normal practice in the village for the parents to invite teachers to their homes in the kampung for breakfast or lunch.
At first I was shy but I got over it. Being the only non-Malay teacher, I was a novelty in the tiny village. The parents fussed over me. They liked to see me in baju kurung as I was the only non-Malay woman they know who wears one in the small village. The problem was, I had little experience being in a traditional kampung. Sitting on the floor, and eating with my hands Malay-style was quite a challenge. The plate of warm rice, which was on the floormat, was about a foot away from my mouth. I didn't want to appear rude so I had to eat like everyone else, taking small portions of the food with my right fingers and bringing them to my mouth. However, the food, normally nasi putih with kari kurma, or laksam, was really delicious. Another challenge was to sit properlyand politely on the floor, Malay style, without suffering from leg cramps.
The houses were warm because not all of them had electric fans. There were very few furniture inside as most of them were poor. Yet the villagers did not seem to complain. They accepted the hardships as their lot. They practised Islamic teachings as a way of life. I admire their friendliness, their warm hospitality, and their kindness. Like their parents, the children were patient, polite and hardworking, qualities that many students today lack.
The stereotypical thinking that Malay children are lazy is simply nonsense. I've taught Malay children who are brighter, more hardworking and honest than those of my own race.
" Aiyoh Milah, how much further do we have to walk?"
I was panting as Cikgu Jamilah and I continued our journey up the steep hill to school. We had gone for a trip to the village earlier during the day. Cikgu Jamilah merely pointed at the top of the hill. She was too tired to answer.
As we slowly climbed up the hill in the hot afternoon sun, I realised that my own students had walked up the same hill every day. None of them had complained although they carried heavy bags full of books. They had continued tirelessly in school; listening attentively to the teachers, and finishing all their schoolwork as told. The furthest house of the students was an hour's walk away at the far end of the village and the nearest was 20 minutes. The trips to the village changed my perspective about village students and their problems. Now I can walk for 30 minutes and still be cheerful because I remember those 70 students who had undergone hardships for the sake of getting a formal education.
I was stranded. I used to carpool with my headmaster who would drive me to the front of my house after school and pick me up the next morning for another trip to school. However when he had to attend meetings, I had no transport to go home. The village was 10 kilometres away from the nearest main road, where the public buses and taxis passed every hour.
"Come cikgu," The old gardener arrived with his motorcycle. "Let me give you a ride to the main road where you can take a taxi."
I was shy but I had no choice. It's either to hitch a ride with the old pakcik (uncle) or risk spending a night in school, as most of the villagers had no cars.
The old gardener became my life-saver each time the headmaster left early. Later I managed to hire a mini van to drive me to school. However due to his help, I became close to the gardener who treated me like a daughter.
The gardener reported that he found a giant python all curled up at the toilet. He knocked loudly at the zinc door and it slithered out. The toilets located at the far end of the school compound, was also next to a secondary jungle. Perhaps the python found the cool toilet was perfect place for a nap.
From that day onwards, I acquired the habit of looking at all corners of every toilet I enter before 'doing my toilet business'. It was a habit that eventually saved my life as I had a close encounter with a viper in another school, also inside a toilet.
"What is that?!" I froze as a big four-legged creature almost a metre long crawled past me, with tongue flicking out of its mouth.
"Oh, that's a biawak (monitor lizard)," replied Cikgu Jamilah coolly.
The school children left it alone, and after getting over the fright, I too regarded it as a school guest. There were scorpions on the desks, mice as big as kittens, and fat worms that the children would dig up as fishing baits. I reminded myself that I was the visitor, because the land belongs to those animals too. We learnt to live together in harmony with the animals.
Of course, we were scared when news of tigers attacking the cattle were reported in the village but alhamdulillah we didn't have any close encounter with them.
I stayed for a year in that little quiet town and taught the children English and Mathematics, as well as nasyid. It was a year of self-discovery. I learnt that despite being a woman, I could survive on my own, miles away from the nearest relative or family members. I also learnt how kind and hospitable the Malay villagers can be. They were not materially rich but they had opened their hearts and service to a young woman who had travelled miles to their land to help teach their children. I had observed their simple way of life and the way they followed Islamic teachings in their daily dealings with other people. I had gone there to give a formal education but I received a more valuable lesson in life instead.
I had left the school more than a decade ago but it is still the best school I had taught.