LEARNING HOW TO SWIM

Along the Muar river that divides the town, there isn’t a decent area where the people can enjoy walking along a sandy beach. Throughout the stretch is muddy and is only suitable for fishing. During my time in the late 50s, anglers would flock along the shores and sat at the embankment to fish. The most notable area was along the shore from the site of the ferry service to the town mosque. They would spend their time in the morning and stopped at noon. Sometime they would stay until evening. The most common fish frequently caught by these anglers were ikan sembilang (catfish). The lucky ones could catch as many as ten fishes from morning till noon. I used to try my luck along the embankment where stood the town mosque and I usually managed to fish out rubbish and sometime a worn out shoe. At one time a small fish got into my hook and I bragged to my kampong friends that the fish was so big that I had to stretch both my hands to indicate its length. When they requested to see it, I told them that our maid-servant Mak Yang had already fried it. I was quite good in telling white lies when I was a small kid, maybe the best among my circle of kid friends.

I was a Tanjung boy, and one of the “prerequisites” to ‘qualify’ as a tanjung boy was the ability to swim. It would be a disgrace for a tanjung boy who could not swim. The only suitable area where Muar town boys of my time to swim was at the small lagoon beside the residence of the District Officer (D.O). It was in fact hardly a lagoon, just a little curve along the bank of the river. The shore is shallow and we could walk towards the sea when the tide was low. However, it could be very dangerous to even swim at this lagoon when the tide was high, especially during the monsoon season. This was about the only place tanjung boys of my time learned their swimming skill. Some other boys outside the tanjung area would likewise conduct their swimming lesson at this small lagoon. Of course there would be some girls learning to swim as well and they would normally do their lesson quite a distance from the boys. When that happened, the boys would spend their time watching the girls more than learning how to swim.

I was always scared of playing along the shore during high tide because I could not swim and so it was now time for me to acquire the skill. It was unthinkable for a tanjung boy not being able to swim. You would be a ‘laughing stock’ and sometime labeled as a pondan (a gay). I hated it so much when someone called me a pondan and would always challenged the caller to a fight.

My cousin Ajis Mak Enggor who was of my age was already a good swimmer. It was understandable because he stayed quite near the lagoon. This made him a frequent visitor and could practice more often. Boys of my age living within this area were good swimmers as they acquired the skill early, as early as six or seven years old. They would swim completely naked and would not even bothered if young girls passed by. Well, these young girls too were not bothered as well seeing kids streaking along the beach.

I could only do so once a week during the weekend and I could not do this every weekend because during some weekends, I would stay over for the night with my four male cousins living along Jalan Khalidi. So I would learn to swim and play at this lagoon maybe once or twice a month. The distance between my house and this lagoon was approximately three kilometres away so every time I wanted to learn how to swim, I must stay over for the weekend with my cousin Ajis, at the house of my paternal grandmother. It was my uncle Wak Chad who would come and fetch me on any Thursday evening.

On my first day of training, I brought along an extra short. After we had our breakfast, we walked to the lagoon and by the time we arrived, the lagoon was already filled with swimmers as well as beginners. Wak Chad brought along a used tyre tube already blown served as a boya (buoy). The tide was high but not dangerous as the weather was calm. Beginners could learn nearer the shore as it was shallow with the water level just above the knee. Along this level, young kids would walk and pretend to swim as only their upper bodies were visible. Sometime I would pretend too, doing the butterfly stroke, the back stroke and few other strokes. From afar, it would seem that these young kids were truly good swimmers. But my uncle Wak Chad was not amazed and told me that it was time to stop pretending and swim like a true swimmer.

My cousin Ajis was already enjoying himself swimming with my other male cousins slightly away from the shore. Now I must learn how to swim and hoped to be able to join them later. The water tide was becoming higher as the sun rose from the eastern horizon. It was a beautiful morning and visitors began to increase gradually. Young girls from the neighbouring areas too began to join in the crowd and some were already in the water at the other side of the lagoon giving good muscle exercise for the necks of young boys. But it were the slightly older boys who did this exercise more frequent. These young girls dared not use a bikini for that would be a great show for the boys and the scene could turned into a beauty parade rather than a leisure moment. So they normally wore short skirts and their blouses, quite sufficient to entice their male swimmers.

Wak Chad now told me to stay afloat and for a beginner like me, he would hold by my stomach while my legs peddled and my hands swaying at the front. He told me not to rely on the buoy. While doing it, he would release his hands and watched me floating on my own. Whenever he found me unable to stay afloat, he would again hold my stomach. For a ten year old boy, I was a late beginner. After about an hour of learning, I could float while Wak Chad watched attentively. When he noticed that I was beginning to be able to float for quite sometime, he would sit at the sandy beach by the shore watching over me. Once in a while when I could not balance my body and thus unable to float, I would walk with my body above the water and my hands moving as though swimming like a professional grinning at Wak Chad and he would grin back thinking that what a fast learner I was.

This went on for quite sometime and finally I was able to float and swimming slowly near the shore. By now Wak Chad could do a little bit of neck exercise particularly when the splashing sound and the giggles of the girls at the other end became louder. When it was almost noon, we stopped as it was time for lunch. I was already beaming with joy and tomorrow morning, a Saturday morning, I would continue my lesson. We seldom swim during the afternoon but by evening the lagoon would be full again. However, my grandmother insisted that we should never go to the sea in the evening and so we always stayed away and spent the evening playing all sorts of games.

That night during dinner, Wak Chad told everyone that I was already able to float and should be able to swim independently in a short while. I was very proud and the others too felt proud that I was now able to swim. Tomorrow I would continue my lesson and I could not wait for tomorrow. Before I slept, I imagined that I was already a good swimmer and many girls of my age watched me and some of them waving and smiling at me. I even imagined that I swam near the open sea and all the swimmers looked at me with great bewilderment. Then I imagined swimming back stroke, doing the butterfly stroke with all the girls jumping and shouting at me while I waved back at them with great confidence. After a few minutes of dreaming, I finally dozed off and this time I was really in a dream, but not a good dream. I dreamt I was drowning and the girls shouted for help.

When the next morning came, I was raring to begin my lesson but I’d better be on full alert because last night I dreamt I was drowning and it had better not be for real. It was a good breakfast of Quacker oats (I called this kueh kak oat), toasted bread with butter spread and black 434 coffee, the famous Muar coffee bragged by Muarians of my time as the ‘best coffee in the whole world’. Then we walked towards the lagoon and I was very excited.

As usual it was already crowded when we arrived. My cousin Ajis immediately jumped into the sea and began swimming. I was still swimming by the shore and Wak Chad need not pay much attention to me as I was already able to float. He could now spend more time exercising his neck because the young girls on the other side were already in the water and their soaking attires truly provided Wak Chad a great moment.

For the next few weeks, I spent most weekends with my cousin Ajis and every morning after breakfast we would go to the lagoon to swim. I was already a fairly good swimmer until one morning when I decided to quit swimming for good.

That morning it was quite windy and I could feel the cool fresh air to the bone. As I entered into the water it was so cold that I was almost freezing. Ajis was already swimming this time together with our cousin Othman, also my age. The wave was beginning to be a bit violent and the wind pushing from the west began to blow at a steady pace. I was still near the shore but somehow the tide began to rise faster. Near the site where my two cousins were swimming, I could see fresh incoming waves and the height was slightly higher than the usual. Then my two cousins swam to the shore maybe they had seen the coming waves too. By now the tide was higher near the shore and I could not stand like I usually did when I could not balance my body. Wak Chad was still busy exercising his neck and he was not aware of the incoming violent waves. While I was floating in the water, suddenly I could feel the underneath current pushing me towards the open sea. I began to struggle and I panicked and that made it worse. I could feel the salty water flowing into my open mouth and I could not float any longer. Everyone inside the water was swimming towards the shore. I thought I was beginning to drown when suddenly I felt someone holding me from behind. It was my cousin Othman and he pushed me towards the shore with my head above the waters. It was a frantic moment for me and when I finally reached the shore, I was as white as a cotton.

I sat by the shore panting and was truly scared. Wak Chad was grinning at me not knowing of what had happened. By now all the others including the girls at the other side were already on shore. I related this to Wak Chad and he told me that it was a good experience but I certainly disagreed. From that day, I decided to quit swimming for good. I thought I would rather be a hero on land than in the open sea.

From then on, I stayed away from the sea. If I went to the lagoon, I would just sit by the shore and walked along the coastal area while watching the others enjoying their dips. But I warned all my tanjung friends not to call me a pondan because by doing so would invite a serious duel. Till this date, I am not able to swim. So every night before going to sleep, I need not imagine being a good and fantastic swimmer any longer.

Maybe I should dream of being a good story teller.

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