Monday, July 26, 2010

Learning to ride bicycles was a rite of passage

LEARNED to cycle quite late in my childhood when I was about 11. Most families in our village owned at least one bicycle. Well-to-do families owned more. Even their kids had expensive and smaller bicycles.

That year, one of the richer neighbours bought a Chopper bicycle for their youngest son who was my age. The Chopper had a five-speed gear lever that you could push back and forth. It had a long cushioned seat with a backrest.

The boy, of course, showed off his bicycle to the rest of us. One day, he offered to let us ride it around the village if we paid him five sen each. I did not have the money but an older boy who did, took up the offer.

When he returned from his ride around the village, we were shocked to see that he was not cycling. He was pushing the bicycle instead.

The Chopper's handlebar was bent, its front mudguard was twisted and the chain had fallen off. Its owner was aghast when he saw what had happened to his pride and joy. The older boy explained that he had crashed while trying to avoid hitting a fowl.

Instead of sympathising with the rider whose knees and elbows were bleeding, the owner of the Chopper demanded a 20-sen compensation or he would bring the matter up with his parents. Reluctantly, the older boy paid him. In those days, stuff on loan came with a tacit agreement -- if it was damaged or lost, you had to pay for it unless the owner refused compensation.

When I saw what happened, I was glad I did not have money that day. I would have caused greater damage to the Chopper because I did not know how to ride a bicycle at the time.

I realised that I had to learn and, to do so, I had to own a bicycle. From that day onwards, I would frequently stop by a bicycle shop near where we lived to ask the owner whether he had any old bicycles for sale.

One day, tired of my persistence, he told me to look at an old bicycle in his storeroom. It was a Norton. Its frames were rusted and the tyres were bald. The chain guard was missing and the cogwheels were covered in grime. But, it was good enough for me. The owner asked for RM15 for it. I told him I did not have the money but if he could keep it for a few days, I would buy it.

In not days but the weeks that followed, I went fund raising. I gathered and sold used beer bottles.

In those days, soy sauce factories paid nine sen for a large Guinness or Anchor bottle and four sen for half-sized ones. When I had enough money, I went back to the shop and bought the bicycle.

Perhaps out of pity, the owner also helped me to fix the bicycle. He allowed me to use his tools and taught me to use kerosene to remove the grime. I learned how to remove the links of the lengthened chain and even patch up a punctured tyre using a piece of cut tubing and rubber cement.

Learning how to cycle was one of the rites of passage children those days had to go through before they left primary school. No matter how many times we fell and bruised our limbs (and pride), we got back up and tried again. We cycled everywhere.

Back then motorists were kinder to cyclists. Although today cycling has been elevated to a healthy pursuit, there are few places in the city where you can ride safely. Even the parks do not have proper cycling tracks and most of the time, cyclists risk their lives riding along busy roads.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Can't we do something about the canteen?

AN errant canteen operator at a school I know will not have his contract extended next year for repeatedly flouting the food preparation and hygiene guidelines set by the school board.

For the past year and a half, the school's canteen committee has been lenient on and accommodating to the operator, who gave various excuses.

Repeated advice to improve has fallen on deaf ears. When a dead lizard in the sambal of a student's meal came to the attention of the principal, the school board decided not to renew the contract when it ends this year.

Cases of school canteens not serving nutritious food are not new. Those whose food handling hygiene is suspect often go undetected until mass food poisoning makes the news. Go around the city schools and do a surprise check if you want to see the mockery that some canteen operators are making of the guidelines set by the authorities.

From what I gather, schools monitor their own canteens' cleanliness through a committee comprising teachers and students.

Because the school board does not have the power to fire, even if the canteen operator is caught red-handed flouting health and food preparation regulations, the school boards can only advise them and perhaps notify the Education Ministry for further action.

Maybe the process of awarding of contracts to canteen operators should be tightened. At present, the Education Ministry calls for tenders for canteen operations. Maybe it is time the schools and their PTAs be allowed to do so, at least in city schools. After all, who understands the students' needs better than their teachers and parents?

At one school I know, the canteen operator often cites the lack of profitability as an excuse for the monotonous menu and unpalatable food he serves. It is an open secret that some school canteen operators have more than one contract, with each canteen run by a proxy under a different company name. It is not too difficult to know how much profit a canteen operator makes, if you ask me, what more those that serve food of substandard quality.

But why should our children pay the price for the actions of unscrupulous canteen operators who give scant attention to food preparation and quality?

Aren't there canteen inspectors to conduct surprise checks to weed out unhygienic practices and make sure that the guidelines and conditions for the awarding of contracts are adhered to -- and to penalise those found guilty, or even blacklist and bar them from future contract applications?

Canteen operation is not a gold mine, a former operator tells me.

It comes with a heavy responsibility. One cannot operate a canteen business blinded by profit, although the captive market allows one to take advantage of the situation quite unnoticed.

Our children spend one-third of their 11 years of education at school. When they are hungry or thirsty, the canteen is their first venue of choice.

And if the canteen operator cannot even provide clean premises and palatable, affordable food, we should do something about it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Missing the fruit trees of the good old days

WHERE have our fruit trees gone? Do you remember the red "jambu air" (rose apple) that was so sour that you could only eat it dipped in thick soya sauce and "cili padi"?

How about the green ones, so crunchy and sweet that you had to watch out for worms within its cottony pith?

Maybe you remember the red and white "jambu batu" (guavas) that used to grow along the roads and whose leaves were home to the best fighting spiders.

No, they are not the same ones you find at fruit stalls today. I am not talking about the giant ones but the smaller variety that are harder to bite into unless ripe. The fruits ripen on the trees if they are not plucked and they attract flocks of birds and other fruit eaters.

There were quite a number of "rambai" trees, too, in Jalan Sentul in the 1970s. There were a few "bacang" trees as well, until a road-widening project got rid of them. In the mornings, when you passed by the area, you could see freshly dropped fruits waiting to be picked.

Did you know that people did not pluck "bacang" those days? You collected them after they dropped from the tree because the fruits are considered sweeter once the tree is ready to give them to you.

There were other trees, too, including "buah sentul", "kuini", mangosteen, "ciku" and even wild durians. If you knew how to climb trees, you just helped yourself to their bounty. But if you couldn't, there was always something that you could use as a boomerang. And if the fruits were out of reach using either methods, you left them on the trees for the animals.

A friend with whom I shared some "emping belinjau" (a type of cracker) recently said that the nut from which the snack was made could only be found in Indonesia. I said we also had some in Kuala Terengganu back in the '70s. We called them "buah sakok", not "belinjau".

The tree had a cone-shaped foliage, waxy leaves, and bore fruits in small bunches. The fruits changed from green to yellow-orange as they matured, and to wine-red when ripe, after which they fell.

Locals collected the fallen fruits, stripped off the skin and fried the nuts in a "kuali" of sand over a slow fire.

Once cooked, the shells could easily be removed and the nuts eaten. They leave a bitter aftertaste and were popular snacks before potato chips were here. The nuts can also be flattened with a pestle, dried and deep-fried in oil to make tasty crackers.

During my recent trip there, my wish to show my friend the "belinjau" nut and the "buah keranji" (the velvety tamarind which has been immortalised in a "pantun") was dashed.

The fruit sellers at the Pasar Kedai Payang did not have any. One chap who was selling apples and oranges told me that both "tok peseng doh", which in local lingo loosely means the fruits were no longer fashionable. I hope he was joking.

Many of our indigenous fruit trees have disappeared, some because of development, others likely because people did not know how to enjoy them. I now wonder how the animals whose diet comprises the fruits that have disappeared are coping.

The morning roll-calls of the bulbuls and magpies that I used to wake up to are fading away.

One day last week, the lone tree shrew that used to scuttle across the wall of my condo at 7.45am each day to feed at the rubbish dump across the road did not appear. The next day I saw a flock of crows feeding on a carcass of a small furry animal.

I hope it was not the tree shrew's remains.

Monday, July 5, 2010

My sleepy but safe and clean hometown

AT the risk of being accused of bragging about my hometown, yes, I still think that Kuala Terengganu is one of the cleanest towns in the country. You should visit it one of these days to see it for yourself — as my family and I did with a family friend.

I would not have noticed the cleanliness had my wife not pointed it out to me. Throughout our four-day stay, we saw council sweepers at work at many times of the day and even late into the night, in areas including the town square Dataran Shahbandar, the parks and alleys. Their presence must have made litterbugs feel guilty.

I did not see any warning signs against littering. You know, those that say you will be fined RM500 if you are found guilty of littering. One sign I do remember seeing was at a traffic light junction leading into town. It read: “Tak rasa bersalah ke…? Buang sampah dari kenderaan anda ?” (Don’t you feel guilty throwing rubbish from your vehicles?).

Judging from the cleanliness at the junction, the gentle reminder must have stopped many motorists from throwing out tissues, sweet wrappers and such from their vehicles.

But cleanliness is not the only thing Kuala Terengganu can take pride in. Along Jalan Kampung China, my friend was surprised to see cast-iron drain covers still in use. If those were in Subang Jaya or Jinjang, he mused, they would not have lasted 24 hours before ending up in a junkyard in Puchong or Kepong.

I also noticed that the fire hydrants along the heritage row in Kampung Cina were mounted with solar-powered LED lights.

The flashing lights came on at dusk so that in the event of fire, the hydrants could easily be spotted from a distance. That many of the blinkers were still attached to the hydrants and in working condition could only mean that vandalism was not rampant in the coastal town.

The trees, lamp posts and traffic lights, too, were spared from buntings and banners advertising ubat kuat bank lelong or announcing a kenduri kahwin The walls of buildings we saw were free of graffiti or bills and in most cases, it only took a “Stick No Bill” sign to keep the walls clean.
Perhaps people in Kuala Terengganu are more law-abiding than city folk, my wife said. Yes, and literate, I added.

Although the town is still very much a sleepy hollow by nightfall, Dataran Shahbandar was a hive of activity.

A bazaar and a fun fair held in conjunction with the World Cup was the centre of attention. Late into the night, scores of locals and tourists were out enjoying the breeze or watching a live soccer match being screened on a giant TV screen.

The streets were pleasant to walk during the day, and safe even late into the night. One could enjoy a stroll without worrying about being mugged.
I also noticed that there were more council enforcement officers checking on expired parking meters than policemen doing their patrols on foot or bikes.

The only time I saw the men in blue was one evening when a road block was set up at a corner of town to nab those driving recklessly on the narrow one-way streets.

And if the lack of visible police presence can be interpreted as a sign of safety and low crime rate, then Kuala Terengganu has definitely got one over Kuala Lumpur.