EnRaptured : 6 minute read by Farriz Mashudi 06/09/2020
So loud! The nightly cicada chorus outside this house was deafening. How could people function normally, let alone manage sleep in this racket?
Four over-sized bedrooms all to ourselves, the three of us would huddle closely together for warmth in the same bed, in air-conditioning that was out-of-control. It was either that, or wake up drenched in ninety-percent humidity. MAINTENANCE told us the previous occupants had them fix the settings to maximum, 24-7, and for it to be run like that, on ‘High’ year-round.
“What about when they went on vacation?”, we asked.
Their personal affects, needed keeping cool. Bad news, the adjustments were irreversible. They suggested we wear sweaters.
Taunting us from dusk till dawn, an invisible owl pierced our will to live with his “Houp . . . HoOUP . . . HOOOUP . . .” repeated every twelve seconds. Finally caught on videocam, unblinking in the grainy ultra-zoomed frames the bird of prey appeared to look down on us. His beaky sneer bidding a chilly warning. Or was it a prescient goodbye?
“We need binoculars,” my partner said. The recently acquired edition of Birds of Borneo, told us the greyish-brown specimen was a Collared Scops. Buff feathered, if only the softness of Otus bakkamoena’s white-trim were similarly echoed in his hoots. Eventually, we learned to live with this, too.
Not talking about it only confirmed my hunch. Like the other things we were hearing that affected us in other ways, but which, in over our heads, we were still trying to process.
What was there to discuss? — The quizzical looks on the nannies’ faces at the adventure playground? The pointed questioning when we sat down at the Boat Club? Did the dumb waiters genuinely doubt we were legit? The cold stares and hissed remarks behind our backs at the nearby wet-market when we politely requested halal poultry? What about the twisted laughter in the general air. It seemed to dare us to stay, even as it willed us to pack up and leave. Did anyone care to explain?
At the end of a row of five bungalows, this house seemed at first to be on the wrong side of the street. Was this where the Asian imports lived, the second-class expats, not the real ones who came from further abroad with white and African packaging? Not that it mattered. Our thin-skins, initially super-sensitive soon got past the imposter doubts. Bottomline, this house, with its powerful air-conditioning even in the kitchen, truly, was something to write home about.
That was before the toads arrived.
Violently awoken one morning, we saw them, squatting there, in the nature-pond. It would have been a version of Hitchcock’s, ‘Birds’ except that the menace croaked. Bumpy and slimy with bulging eyes, the size of baseballs every one of them. Back-to-back, they stood their ground, unmoving. Grotesque as gargoyles, except these ones were alive.
So deeply invested were we in that hole. A passion project, every aspect had been thoroughly researched, from its lima-bean shape to the imported membrane for its bottom. The oxygenating plant varieties we filled it with were procured especially from an aquarium shop across town. And its hot pink water-lilies were a souvenir from our first trip to Bali.
All the heavy digging was done ourselves with a shovel and garden trowel. Back breaking work for our soft hands. Not adjusted yet to the readily available manual labour that was reliant on us, we were still into DIY. Newbies fresh off the boat, we could be forgiven our foolishness.
In the end we had the pond back-filled and dried out.
Was it a case of ‘Lessons Learnt’ – that premise so widely touted in the industry, or more — city slickers cum science buffs being stupid?
Whatever else it was, it was a victory for the wildlife and their keepers. We stopped trying to tame it, and accepted that trying to outsmart everything out there in Sarawak was futile. In the end, submission to the natural order was liberating, and we embraced it.
Snakes, mostly of the garden variety, that would choose to come in on occasion, creepy crawlies the size of a palm, Gollum-y lizards scurrying across the ceiling and hiding atop my mother’s antique cupboards that had finally arrived with our twenty-foot container. — This house accommodated infestations of this nature also. Plus, there was something else.
Our baby was barely two at the time. Ambitious for her sake, work could never be left at the office when you occupied company housing. It niggled at us constantly.
The bonus was that the place came with separate quarters for a live-in maid and a red buzzer with which to summon her. Long before Downtown Abbey, we’d never seen anything like it.
You could have a moonlighting gardener, and although as often as not, also featuring your garden man — the residential facility of over a hundred exec families had its own round-the-clock SECURITY. Even so, in providing us our daily bread, in this house, not slowly enough, but with a certain surety, something more was being nurtured.
From its open plan lawns in cow-grass carpeting to the casuarina-lined rows of verandaed bungalows in timber and cement, once we were rid of those mutant toads . . . life on Camp was idyllic. Sea-front units housed the ‘upper-classes’. Super seniors, pioneer families, and the highest-flyers, theirs were the ones other Camp dwellers coveted and dreamed of. Once they’d gotten over the cicadas.
Here our little one grew from delicate to tough from running barefoot and digging up worms. She remembers a wendy house built from fallen casuarina limbs; little buddies spent hours with daily outside, playing. She remembers pouncing on hands and knees on candies spilled out of piñatas brought especially from far-flung countries in the Americas; and courtesy of the Dutch girls living opposite, she remembers how in this house her obsession with Polly Pockets started. Who knew the gift of a pint-sized doll that came with her own combination flying car would feed her imagination for a lifetime?
And this house threw amazing parties. SUPPLIES would send tables, folding chairs and starched tablecloths. You only had to pick a colour. – Red, plain white, or yellow? Even the catering was catered for.
Escaping the Arctic chill at ours, weekends entailed all-day BBQs and more eating and drinking outdoors with neighbours and lounging in deck chairs at the Boat Club. We’d watch an old fisherman weaving his way barefoot between the novice sail boats.
“LOOK! Out there.” But no one bothered. What was there to see? . . . Definitely not an oil rig.
It was a completely ordinary scene: Old Iban gently filling bamboo baskets strung to his back with bubuk. Netting them where his predecessors had hunted for centuries, the barely visible crustaceans, a seasonal delicacy, would make him a bundle.
Although technically a private beach, no one ever stopped him. The tiny shrimp made swimming there scratchy.
The symbiotic relationship was only a little less lop-sided than the one we shared with this house.
Such were our Halcyon days in the tropics . . . Except that the dominant birdlife was hornbills, not the kingfisher, and the state of the corporate jungle was only benign if you were happy to fly below the radar.
But we’d long passed the point where going back was still possible. The blessed existence of the oil and gas expat, was life-changing. Transformational, in a cocooned bliss of its own, no way could we return to what was before. Envious locals aside, Camp was a Heaven on Earth, and this house at the end of a cul-de-sac between a river and a beach, was our one-way ticket to success; or so we thought. That it was a dead end, would remain beyond the periphery, right up to when the bubble burst.
Soon enough the preoccupation became how to never have to leave our little Shangri-La. Comfortable and content, delusions getting the better of us, we vowed we’d never become boiled frogs. Of course, we’d never lose the spring in our legs and sprightly bounce in our step that got us here. Only in our heart of hearts did we admit that the realities this house blinded us to, and the good life it convinced us to thinking would last forever, simply couldn’t. Continuing its course of milking the remains of dinosaurs, this house was crumbling, and so were we :
High cholesterol, gout, hyper-tension, cardiovascular and oncology issues, diabetes, anxiety, the list of ailments was long and complicated. All negotiated with the mandatory annual check-up. And medication. And biopsies. And laparoscopies. And ultimately, open-organ surgery, or chemo.
Although the health-cover this house was insured for was the stuff of legend, it wasn’t unusual to see wannabe heroes in meetings with canes or on crutches. Seeped in denial was the way livings were made in this house. In our own way, we were all damaged goods, and before you knew it, it was time.
Can you hear it? It’s that twisted laughter again.
Cackling in the whir of non-stop condensers, in the gusty bristling beneath that snarky Scops’ wings. Fuelling a host of occupational hazards, verily, paradise, comes at a price. With a rapturous mirth this house was exacting payback.
 A Photographic Guide to Birds of Borneo: Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan, G.W.H Davidson and Chew Yen Fook, New Holland publishers (UK), 1996