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By Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

A sonorous chant wakes me up. The pre-dawn light filters through the window, and I am suddenly awake, listening... I don't understand the language, but I'm drawn into the rolling syllables, the rise and fall of the unseen singer's voice. It is a call to prayer from the village mosque and, like I do at a performance of Italian opera which language I also don't understand, I merely close my eyes and listen. The chant dies away. Other more mundane domestic sounds take its place - a cockerel crowing, the whistle and chirrup of birds, and from somewhere inside the house, a muffled conversation. I peer blearily at my watch. 6.a.m. Time to get up.

I am in a kampong (village) known as Kuala Medang in the Pahang province of Malaysia staying with a Malaysian family. My host "mother" is an elderly woman with soft, expressive eyes We don't share a common language, but she and her slim daughter-in-law are at the breakfast table urging me to eat with a series of gestures-which I'm happy to do. Breakfast is a hearty meal: rice, fried fish, a bowl of Mee Goring (noodles with chicken and mushrooms) and potatoes with aubergines in a spicy sambal sauce-all washed down with fresh juice and tea.

The young men of the family have already left for work at a nearby palm plantation, but my 80 year-old host "father" is watching a political rally on TV. He is a dapper gentleman wearing a chequered sarong, a white tunic and a cap. He smiles and responds to my greeting "salamat pagi" (good morning) with a slight bow, right hand on heart. Charming!

Malaysia's Homestay program has been in place for about ten years, and my host family's bungalow, certified by Tourism Malaysia, has several bedrooms to house their extended family, in addition to a guest room and bathroom set aside for visitors. Their guest book offers comments by Malaysian and Singaporean students, as well as several appreciative notes by European visitors. Remarks focus on the novel experience of everyday family life in a rural setting-a refreshing change from slick and impersonal city hotels-even though frills such as air conditioning and western toiletry supplies are absent.

Our group had arrived the previous day to a colourful welcome by a group of women wearing traditional baju kurungs, (flowered tunics over long skirts), and bearing tinsel "umbrellas". Children peeped shyly at us from behind their mothers' skirts. They ushered us into the dining room of their community centre and we sat down to our first Malaysian home cooked meal-mildly spicy fish wrapped in banana leaves, bean-curd in a cocoanut sauce, stir-fried vegetables and small local bananas.

The experience of living in a kampong involves not only our host families, but the entire village community. Right after breakfast I join the rest of the group and we visit a spotless kitchen with state of the art machinery to watch, fascinated, as two women produce skeins of yellow noodles for packaging and sale at a local farmer's market.

In an adjoining kitchen, we get to try our hands at making traditional Malaysian sweets - dodol (made from glutinous rice and coconut milk), onde-onde - soft white balls covered in grated coconut and a Malaysian potato curry puff with dainty fluted edges. This last looks simple until I try my hand at it. The result is a blob of dough resembling a malformed little kidney! Our reward is a high tea where we sample our Malaysian delicacies, chat about recipes with our hostesses with the help of our translator guide Kamal and pose with them in a blitz of camera flashes.

The next day we head into jungle to visit the Semai - a tribal people whose settlement is a cluster of huts made of wood or bamboo reeds in the middle of a tropical forest. The community- adults as well as curious kids-turn out to greet us, placing a crown of matted leaves and yellow flowers on our heads by way of welcome.

This is a world far removed from technological wizardry and we get a cooking demo of a very different sort from that of the previous day. A wiry old woman and her grand-daughter peel away the bark of tapioca roots, chop and stuff the pieces into a hollow bamboo stump with water and salt, and then, along with rice wrapped in Lerek leaves, they place the bamboos on an open fire. The roasted result is tastier than it looks, specially when eaten along with dry salted river fish.

The Semai depend on the forest for their food - whether fruit, plants, vegetables, fish or game. When hunting animals, they wield their traditional hunting tool-a blowpipe. We take turns at blowing through the mouthpiece while aiming at a paper bag hanging off the branch of a nearby tree. While most of our group manage to hit it, my effort goes wide of the mark, evoking much merriment among the tribal children in the audience.

Palm oil is one of Malaysia's largest cash crops and en route to our next destination we stop to watch, fascinated, as plantation workers, with long curved sharp sickles slash away branches to expose the fruit hanging in huge berry-like clusters; a few tugs and they fall to the forest floor to then be transported to factories for processing. Not too far away is a grove of rubber trees, and we walk gingerly between prickly bushes to pause in front of a tall tree yielding a thick milky latex into a bucket. Rubber is apparently an excellent source of income since it isn't too labour intensive, and the trees that have a productive life of about thirty years, can be tapped year round. "In good market conditions," Kamal says, "owners earn a monthly income of about RM2000 (CA$655) per hectare.

Our plantation visit over, the group boards several low slung dug out canoes fitted with outboard motors to travel up river -an experience that is at the very heart of Malaysia. The river, like thick brown treacle, winds through dense tropical jungle-mango, palm, rambutan groves and flowering creepers bend to the water's edge. The air smells of green vegetation and moist soil.

Disembarking at a village community centre, we are plunged into activities that are not only unusual but also a lot of fun. Most of us supermarket shoppers only know rice in its sterile packaged form, but today we run our fingers through yellow kernels from a nearby paddy field. Some of our group, coached by our hosts, roast, crush and thresh paddy to remove the husks from the grain and the result, cooked into a traditional rice-flour sweet, is served to us at tea-time.

Nature provides the raw material for many home crafts in Malaysia. The Pandamus leaf, for example, is shredded into strips, soaked and dyed with vegetable colours and woven into colourful mats and baskets. As the afternoon shadows creep across the verandah of the community centre, two women adroitly intertwine yellow, orange, blue and green strips into little baskets, one of which now adorns a shelf in my home.

"Top spinning is a fiercely contested sport here in Malaysia," says Kamal beckoning us over to watch a top-maker as he painstakingly crafts tops from Malaysian hard wood. Later we watch a lively top spinning competition between two teams. Urged on by our hosts, some of us wrap the large heavy tops with thick string and whip them with varying degrees of success onto a mat.

The sun is low on the horizon when I return to my host family's home - but the day isn't over. I shower and change into evening wear, and am whisked off to watch a cultural dance performance put on especially for our group. The music is catchy and rhythmic and our group is invited to take part in their dance routine - which we all join in with more enthusiasm than skill.

I fall asleep to the whirr of my bedroom fan, and the scent of ripened mangoes wafting through my window.


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Photos by Margaret Deefholts

1. Noodle Making
1a. Noodle skeins
2. Preparing Onde-Onde
2a. Making curry puffs
3. Tea time Treats
4. My host's dining-cum-family room
4a. My host's living room
5. Semai woman preparing tapioca roots
6. Bamboo encased tapioca and rice cooked on jungle barbeque
7. Roasting paddy
8.Kamal holds a hand crafted wooden top
9. Weaving my basket
10. Top spinning competition
11.How to wrap a top
12. Cultural performance
13.Welcome ceremony at Kuala Medang
14.With my host "mother"
15.Curious kids at Semai Settlement
16.Semai tribal welcome
17. Our group at Semai settlement
18. Latex being tapped from a rubber tree

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