Thursday 2 August 2012

March Madness 1A - Pengerang

This lovely vista reminds me of a cycling trip I once made with some colleagues to Pengerang in the early 90s, an area along the south-eastern shore of Johor.

At the time I was working in a factory that had 2800 employees, quite the departure from the 14 or so I was working with in a TV tuner R&D lab before. However, the work between the two was no different: I was still engaged in an engineering project (which was later nominated for a National Technology Award. I believe my partner and I were the first engineers to be nominated thus) but the factory environment was certainly an improvement; even the aircon felt different! In the Tuner Lab, we had our own TV signal generating equipment, and they all produced a lot of heat. The super-cold aircon had to keep these racks of equipment cool and we, unfortunately, over-chilled!

We had to wear winter jackets everyday just to keep warm and for our brains to still function. That the colleagues there were also reticent kept the temperatures even lower. When an opportunity opened up at the new IVP factory, I decided to scoot for the proverbial "better climes". It turned out to be the right decision. Not only was the Engineering work scope wider, the people there were also more fun to work with. This was especially true of my new colleague, Set, a young Malaysian chap from Kluang. We often teased him because he looked like a young Lee Kuan Yew - all narrow eyes and determined jaw.

The thing about Set is that he dearly loved adventure. During the months of March-April-May, we would - together with the girls from the Trial Run Lab - go beach-combing or hiking somewhere in neighbouring Malaysia. (We - the New Product Eval Department - shared the same lab space with these TR girls. They were mostly young - 16 to 18 yrs of age - and very nubile and full of giggling effervescence. Then, there were also the Engineering Assistants (EAs) who were older and mostly polytechnic grads.)

One time, we decided to go on a cycling trip to Pengerang. I think there were like 18 or more of us. The trip promised a trek through kampongs, seasides, melon fields to finally end up at a seaside resort.

The starting point was at Pengerang/Johor, opposite Changi Point. Like the Causeway, it had its own Customs and Immigration Checkpoint albeit a two-man operation. For bikes, we rented some from Cheap John's - a popular bike shop next to Sembawang Shopping Centre (SSC). John would ferry the bikes to Changi Point in his panel van.

We knew about Cheap John because our factory was in Yishun and we often lunched at the SSC. Back then, SSC was very different - it was full of small shops. The foodcourt at the basement boasted several nice foodstalls. Chief of which were a couple of Thai seafood joints. Popular was 'Pineapple Rice with Fried Fish in Green Curry Sauce'. Upstairs, the Sembawang CD shop run by a certain Mr Boo was incomparable. He had the latest and widest collection of CDs in Singapore. Folks from Orchard Road would even make a beeline to his shop. For us, we would often loiter there past lunchtime to listen to his wide collection of discs. I remember my colleague MH liking synthesizer music. We bought a version of Tubular Bells there. The shop also sold the now obsolete and clunky laser-disc movies..

Our musical sojourn, however, did not last. Our factory Management, tired of staff taking 2.5 hr lunches, issued a general warning letter to us all. Well, it's not as if we could help ourselves. When the factory was in a lull production period (with many workers back in Malaysia for a holiday), there's very little to do but play Windows Solitaire or Minefield. So a long lunch was necessary to avoid looking bored in the office!

The ferry ride to Pengerang from Changi Point was very short, almost a joke. It made carting the bikes on/off the ferry seemed rather unnecessary. But once on land, beckoned by that sun-bleached tarmac of a ribbon road by the sea, we could only look forward to what was ahead.

Along the way, we would find traditional brick and wooded kampong houses dotting the land on the left. They looked pretty in blue with their potted flowers on the front porch. However, they were few and far in-between making me realise what tranquil kampong-living must have been like back in the 50s. By the sea, it was even more charming!

The next 18 kilometres were more or less the same. After the first 10, scenic wonder gave way to concern if the road would ever end. Some of the girls were parched and hungry. Quite a few were unaccustomed to long-distance biking and their butts were beginning to feel sore.

At the 18-km mark, we arrived at a town called Sungai Rengit. I thought the name was "Sungei Ringgit" or 'River of Malaysian Currency' and wondered about its history. Was it a rich mining town like Ipoh once upon a time?

The town was very small and dotted with dark brown wooden zinc-roofed houses typical of those found in 60s/70s Singapore, particularly in the more ulu Woodlands and Lim Chu Kang areas, i.e. Chinese village centres that smelt of earth, river and damp moss. It certainly brought us back to a different era.

Sitting there in the kedai kopi (local coffeeshop) and sipping Coke, I mused that we didn't need a Back-To-The-Future DeLorean supercar to travel back in time. A simple mountain bike did the trick.

I must admit I wasn't using a mountain bike at the time. I'd brought my own racing bike. An odd choice, I know, given the outback B-roads. But back then, I had only ever ridden road racers. Mountain bikes were just gaining popularity but they were slow on paved roads. As a road racer, I'm accustomed to carrying my bike whenever terrain proved formidable. Fortunately for me, all the roads along Pengerang were good to cycle on, even the dirt ones.

After Sungai Rengit, we came across a sand quarry. The better cyclists among us made sure nobody got left behind or got run over by the passing dump trucks. The sand and dust gave the girls something to wince about but they were mostly rather sporting.

After the quarry, the dirt road continued to slope downwards towards the coast. Angela, a skinny and very vain girl from Lab Run, thought she could make it. However, her pride was undone by a stone in the road. She fell rather awkwardly and cut her knee. We were a bit surprised and later she confessed that she was twisting to protect her face. We laughed as we all knew how precious that piece of real estate was to her. The first thing she had asked after getting up was: "Did my face get scratched?"

Although the cut on her knee was not life-threatening, it needed attention. One of us cycled ahead to look for First Aid. We soon found a hut but had a hard time trying to convince the old Malay woman living there what we needed. She finally understood after much gesturing and brought out some yellow solution. Although Angela was vain, she was rather brave, no doubt brought on by her need to keep lady-like composure. She did not complain about the pain but I guess the knock must have hurt a little. Although hobbling, she gamely continued to cycle on with a hanky tied around her injured part as bandage.

From there the coastal road cut inland and winded its way through a grove of tall coconut trees and across a small brook. In all that green shade was a cluster of houses. The whole scene looked lovely and truly idyllic.

Not long after, the tarmac road again gave way to track. By the time we exited that kampong area, we were back to the seaside. We decided to stop for a while to rest and enjoy the breeze. Plus the scenery was very liberating. The sky was blue, the sea was rolling in white waves. It was all shouted freedom and adventure!

Daniel, a Quality Engineer from our factory's Test and Control Department spied a really short coconut tree by the beach and decided to pluck its beckoning fruit. Although the tree was short, it was not a midget. The fruits were beyond our reach and we had no implements that could us help bring them down. We stood around and looked at each other for a solution.

As Engineers facing a problem, our first task was to break it down with Theory. And as usual, everyone had one.

"Let's get a rope and bend the tree down." Where?
"We could shoot the coconuts down with a catapult?" What? Who has one? Nobody.
"Let's go find a monkey!" Huh, what??? Where?
"No, stand on my shoulders." Can't balance.

As you can see, it was mostly done in jest.

Daniel then started to climb the coconut tree. He failed and slid down. He humped it instead. A lot of good that did.

Daniel was a fun chap to have around. He had a spiritual look about him, no doubt imparted by his high forehead. He also always wore an easy if not mysterious smile. He's actually quite intelligent and his jokes tended to have a sarcastic wit about them. One time, we got him drunk on tequila during an Office Christmas Party and he ended up going round the whole floor singing Christmas carols to anyone who cared to listen. He then fell dead drunk and we had to cart him home. The same thing happened at the factory's D&D (dinner and dance) function the next year.

Back at the beach, someone finally found a long scaffolding pole that we could use to knock a couple of the coconuts down. We then cracked them up on a sharp rock. The juice inside was extremely sweet.

Suitably refreshed, we cycled on. Along the dirt track, we came across two large bungalows being built. It didn't seem normal (SO out of the way) and we could only guess that some rich politician must have squirreled money to build such luxurious homes away from prying eyes. In any case, the design of the homes was rather obiang (Singlish for "ugly"). The exterior was tiled in cheap, deep-blue glazed tiles like those found on Chinese "huay guans" (clan houses). The Malaysian Chinese among us were typically cynical with their country's politics and their politicians. And not to mention their sense of home design taste.

From that tree-lined area, we burst into the open, right smack by the edge of a watermelon field. Oh, what joy to see such plump water melons sitting so invitingly in their patch. It was difficult to resist and so we went and picked a few.

We crept under the simple wire fence and sought out a couple of nice melons. We then lugged them back to the group. But we felt bad stealing other people's labour and so left two Malaysian ringgit notes tied to the snapped vines as token of payment. Funnily, it was only during our return journey that we realised we could have found the farmer and bought more (and paid him direct). The melons were dirt cheap (if you pardon the pun) and utterly good on a hot day. But semi-pilfered fruits somehow always tasted better!

After the melon fields, it wasn't long before we reached the seaside resort that signaled the end of our journey. Many of us were glad to get off our bikes. All in all, we had cycled some 36 kilometres - not a mean feat for any novice rider. Our bums were indeed saddle-sore and we walked like cowboys not unlike John Wayne in some Country Western. Someone said he felt like a "gay loh" - meaning a gay guy. We laughed and proceeded to look for the resort's Admin Office to inform them that we had indeed arrived. (See link below for continuation)

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