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Traces of Life

By May Cho

“Look out at your left,” she said, “You’ll see a beautiful view.”

It was a lake, shimmering beneath the heat of the afternoon sun, ebbing back and forth and back and forth with the dry winds of the monsoon season.

We had driven all the way from the bustling suburbs of Sengkurong on a long, unwavering road through Kiudang, Binudoh and Lamunin; the kampung-kampungs of the Tutong District, home to the famed Tasek Merimbun. When we finally pulled up by a pondok after the hour long ride – a wooden hut bare on three sides overlooking the lake – I noticed that the place was empty, barren of people. I saw only roosters and hens grazing in the front yards of little, quiet houses. There were birds in cages – cockatoos, parrots, a hawk chained down – and the occasional stray dog. All was quiet.

I had expected it – we had all been briefed on the population epidemic of the place, the dwindling inhabitants and the dwindling visitors – but it was something else to see it in person. I couldn’t quite place what I was feeling.

We climbed up the pondok and it was then that I was finally able to take in Tasek Merimbun in all its glory; the famed black water lake glistened before us, lulled and ebbed, spanned and stretched further than my eyes could see. There was a broken bridge connecting the mainland to a small island where forests loomed. Lily pads floated, sprinkled, gathered at the banks of the lake, concentrated and tightly packed, but when I looked further down, towards the horizon, I saw what I thought were the footsteps of the aquatic inhabitants of the lake; the lily pads were parted into a winding path, graceful, like a crocodile had cruised right beneath the surface to roam the black water expanse. It was life I could not see.

We spent the next hour exploring the rest of the heritage park, taking narrow pathways littered with dead, crunchy leaves from jetty to jetty. We ducked beneath fallen trees, jumped over spiked branches and twigs, and finally reached the far end of the park where a hall on stilts – Balai Purun, named for the tall swamp grass hugging the perimeters of Tasek Merimbun – jutted out above an open, grassy field right before the lake. It looked like the blades of grass had been painted on, moved and swayed in so many directions but had been stopped mid-way. They were still in their movement, like brush strokes immortalised on canvas.

“Babi hutan”, someone said. Wild boars. And then I laughed, exhaled into the still, humid air; there were traces of life everywhere. No matter the absence of humans and their shuffling feet and cameras and resources, Tasek Merimbun lived on, and on and on it will go.

By the end of our visit, when we left for the formidable suburbs of Bandar, I knew what I had been feeling; awe and wonder and a tinge of sadness for the neglected lake, choke-full with traces of life. I knew then that what we were doing was something far more important than what we were; actors and dancers and writers and producers with finite lives. Play Naturally will persist in ways we may not see, not right away, maybe not for a couple of years, but it’s sowing seeds in a garden that, one day, will sprout and bloom, full of life.

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