JUST as we were about to step into a restaurant in Malacca for dinner recently, a flock of low-flying swiftlets across the road caught my attention. Some flew only inches off the ground, unafraid of the traffic.
My daughters were curious to know why the birds were behaving that way. The birds were feeding, I said. And if we were lucky, we would soon find out what they had eaten.
In the restaurant, I requested a table away from the fluorescent lamps. When the peanuts and tea came, the "visitors" I was expecting also arrived. Some patrons who were seated beneath the lamps had their dinner interrupted by flying insects, which eventually found their way to our table.
"Kalkatu," I told my children. "That's what winged termites are known as in Malay."
In the villages where I grew up, the sight of swiftlets, mynahs or bulbuls in a feeding frenzy often marked the presence of the winged termites. Several of the insects would be circling kerosene lamps at dusk, indicating that more were nearby. Neighbours would quickly alert each other of the insects' presence and everyone would get a basin of water, light a candle and plant it in the middle of the basin.
As soon as the house lights were put out, the insects would be drawn to the flame of the solitary candle over the basin of water. Some would crash into the flame but most would land in the water. Once we were sure that all were gone, the water filled with the insects would be emptied far away from the house so that the survivors would not find their way back and build their nests near our homes.
My wife asked why the termites took to the skies. I said that according to my elders, this was because their nest was under threat and they were looking for a new home. This usually meant that rain was coming, or worse, a flood. The insects were looking for safer ground.
Perhaps that was why the Hokkien call them chooi bang, loosely translated to mean "water mosquitoes" as they marked the coming of rain.
In the old days, people developed survival skills by observing natural phenomena.
When the lalang fields started to flower or when the pegaga (Indian pennywort) that usually flourished along riverbanks started to die, village folk I grew up with knew that we would be in for a long dry spell when sore throats and other heat-related ailments would be the norm.
Lalang roots would be dug out, dried and brewed as herbal tea for the hot days ahead. My Malay neighbours would keep the sireh (betel) vine well watered and alive so that their leaves could be used to treat the nosebleeds that frequently came with the heat.
In wells, a puyu (Malaysian perch) or a haruan (snakehead) would be reared as an indicator that the water was safe for drinking -- death of the fish would spell danger.
Today, we don't have to go through such hassles just to get by in life. We no longer need the skills needed by our forefathers.
The push button convenience around us allows us to deal with most of life's daily challenges. And the only thing we need to get by in the urban jungle, it would appear, are our credit cards and mobile phones.