'Travelling' with dad

Dad at the Gelang Patah dispensary in 1960
RECENTLY, I was in the old part of the Gelang Patah town. Walking on narrow pavements next to tiny zinc-roofed shops, coffeeshops and traditional provision stores, it looked like time had stood still there.

I looked for the old government dispensary and when I saw it from an overgrown compound, I did not hesitate to sneak in for a closer look.

I was amazed that it looked almost the same now as when dad was working there. Now, its wooden walls are painted dark green, the windows replaced by glass shutters and the staircase rebuilt with concrete. It stood silently under the scorching sun and appeared to be still in use.

The building looked virtually unchanged today
When dad was transferred to work in Gelang Patah in 1958, he commuted from Johor Baru almost daily for six years.  While the dispensary had regular opening hours for patients, dad also had to visit remote villages and rubber estates as a "mobile dispensary".  An attendant usually accompanied him but when I was old enough, he would often bring me along.

In the early days, there was no provision for a government four-wheel-drive vehicle. With our Volkswagen Beetle loaded with medical supplies, we would set out for a day trip to villages that were not as accessible as they are today.

Dad's VW car came to grief along an estate laterite road

Our car would bump along uneven laterite roads in all kinds of weather.  When a Land Rover was provided, my siblings and I looked forward to school holidays so that we could travel with dad and enjoy the ride at the rear of the vehicle.  We also wanted to sit in a sampan on trips to fishing villages.

Dad would operate from the village balai raya or community hall, or in a shelter provided by the estate management. Sometimes he would just work by the roadside. 

Dad with villagers of Leong Bee Estate in 1960

I remembered how dad would sound the horn to signal his arrival and almost instantly, people would make a beeline to see him. 

It was interesting to watch dad meet his patients in such rustic surroundings because it reminded me of scenes from a safari movie.  Dad would strike up convivial conversations before prescribing medicine or dressing wounds.  It never ceased to amaze me when he spoke to patients in Malay, a variety of Chinese dialects or in a smattering of Tamil.

Dad sometimes dispensed medicine from his car

Usually, while dad attended to patients, we would explore nearby areas. These travelling adventures were probably my first exposure to eco- and agro-tourism because I saw the lifestyle of rubber tappers, farmers and fishermen.

I also discovered a variety of trees, fruits, insects and small animals. It was exciting to see monkeys, squirrels, monitor lizards and various fowls. The sight of a turkey strutting around with outspread feathers, was always fascinating.

Dad put up an umbrella for shade on a sunny day!

Dad's living quarters was at the back of the dispensary and he would occasionally spend a few days there instead of coming home.  On these nights, he would join his mates to hunt for wild boar that terrorised the villagers.  Occasionally, he would bring home flying-foxes with black wings and scary fangs that looked like miniature vampires.

In untamed vicinity, dad would come across giant centipedes, millipedes, enormous rhinoceros beetles, spiders and a variety of snakes which he would trap and preserve in glass bottles.  Sometimes bite victims would bring the guilty creatures to add to dad's expanding collection.

If city kids only read about rubber trees, my siblings and I were familiar with how milky latex would drip into ceramic cups tied to freshly tapped trees. We were well acquainted with the pong of rotting rubber waste and as we had fun collecting rubber seeds, we hardly felt the mosquito bites. Sometimes we would sit on wooden jetties to watch fishing boats, surrounded by a strong smell from trays of fish drying under the sun.

Thanks to these trips, I knew places like Gelang Patah, Tanjung Kupang and Teluk Sengat long before they made headlines.  I guess my taste for travel and adventure was inspired by "travelling" with dad and now, I can truly appreciate the diverse sights, sounds and smells in my own travel escapades.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Buzz on 24 April 2009

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