Mornings of discovery
by Peter Tan. Posted on May 31, 2014, Saturday
MY family moved nearer to town when I was nine. The shift from the village where I lived till then was a drastic change, almost traumatic, for me. The new place was a single-storey terraced house with a fenced up compound. The main gate faced a thoroughfare that cut right across the housing estate. With a busy road in such close proximity, I was no longer allowed to scamper freely around the neighbourhood like I used to.
Around that time, my father who was living with mild heart failure decided to lead a healthier lifestyle. My mother would wake me up at five in the morning on weekends for us to accompany him on his four-mile walks. The sky was still dark at that hour, the air refreshingly cool and the well-lit roads relatively traffic-free.
The route was always the same. It took about an hour and ended at the market near where we used to live. The place was always a hive of activity by the time we arrived. Traders were doing brisk business while housewives were milling about between stalls, looking for the freshest vegetables and fish, and the best bargains to fill their already overloaded baskets.
We usually took a breather at one particular kopitiam where my father would enjoy a cup of coffee and a meal of nasi kandar for breakfast. The generous servings of meat curries with their oily gravies on the rice negated all the benefits of the exercise we had for the morning. My father, intentionally oblivious to that fact, heartily dug in with his hand — how such food is traditionally eaten.
After having satiated our appetites, we would catch a bus to go home. That was the routine we kept for many years. Honestly, I did not enjoy those walks. I did not enjoy being woken up that early in the morning. I was growing up. I needed sleep. Sometimes, I feigned lethargy to get out of it and my mother would let me be. That did not work all the time though.
In retrospect, getting up and about that early in the morning gave me perspectives I could never have gotten at other times. On the way out for our walks, we would occasionally cross paths with a crew of men in khaki shirts with matching shorts and sun hats. I have no idea why they wore sun hats before the crack of dawn.
An unmistakeable pong wafted in the air as they silently went about taking out buckets filled with human excrement from niches at the back of neighbouring houses, replacing them with empty ones and carrying the heavy buckets back to the truck parked by the side of the road.
I would hold my breath and walked away as fast as I could the times we bumped into them.
I could not fathom how they were not nauseated by doing something so filthy and unhygienic, and wondered how many times they had to bathe to get the stench off their bodies.
On our way back from the walks, we were often greeted by the friendly drain cleaner. He was a hard-working man, always armed with a cangkul for clearing the drains of sand, soil and trash. He would stop by the back of our house and ask for a glass of water to quench his thirst. We usually gave him a jug of iced syrup that he sipped slowly while regaling us with stories of his family.
Their making an honest living notwithstanding, they were still viewed with prejudice. Whenever my parents caught me playing instead of doing schoolwork, they would tell me, “If you don’t study hard, you’ll end up being a street sweeper or night soil collector.”
That was my parents’ way of motivating me. Such jobs were considered menial and suited for the illiterate and lowly-educated. It was a bad analogy that they uttered without giving much thought to. My parents were not the only ones guilty of this. I have heard my uncles and aunties giving my cousins the same warning. I eventually grew up accepting that notion too.
It took me a long time to recognise the important roles these manual labourers play in society. They were, and still are, the cogs that keep things running smoothly and unseen in the background although some of the tasks they performed then are no longer necessary now, like the night soil collectors who had to find other work when bucket latrines were replaced with flush toilets.
Imagine if there were no street sweepers, drain cleaners and garbage collectors. While what they do may not be glamorous or ground-breaking we cannot deny that a world without their service would be a miserable place that is filthy, smelly and disease-laden. Their contribution is not any less noble than that of doctors and teachers. They deserve as much respect as we accord to other professions.
As for waking up early, I still hate it. I get cranky if I do not get enough sleep. However, I no longer need to fake an excuse to keep myself in bed. I am actually lethargic all the time. I also realise now why my parents loved taking those walks. As much as it was supposedly for my father’s health, the serenity they experienced along the way gave them clarity of mind. It was no wonder they always looked fresh and animated when we got home.
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