Friday, April 13, 2018


Today's children are a lucky generation. Brought up in a time of plenty, most of them are hardly in want of anything. They get the best of education (some of us may debate on this), best of food, healthcare, entertainment, holidays, toys and many more. 

During my time, that was 2 generations ago, we had meat maybe once a month, toys are often home made (my mother was my partner in crime) and holidays meant going back to the kampong (village). Really glorious; great traditional food by my grandmother, a collection of aunties and uncle to spoil you, miles of paddy fields, jungle and rivers to get lost in (which happened a few times) and a taciturn grandfather who decided that you must be an expert woodsman, fisherman, carpenter and a master of all the adat (traditional customs) all by the age of 12. Healthcare was not too bad and toys were often home made or improvised, whilst entertainment was black and white TV restricted to 30 minutes per day. Hence my special attachment to Star Trek. Now education, was something our generation felt, that we had better deal. Being raised in the English medium educational system, most of us mastered both English and our mother tongue very well. The curriculum was also very extensive. Until today my foreign acquaintances would ask if I was educated in the United Kingdom and how come I know so much about other countries, economic, social or otherwise. But, I digress. What has that got to do with Rubber tapping?

A while a ago a group of parents decided that they should uproot their children from their comfort zones and let them experience something totally different. So, they trooped to Uluhati as our guest over the weekend. Instead of staying in the Longhouse chalet, which in itself is an experience, afterall how often do you get to sleep in a traditional kampong house, they decided to go for the full monty, camping under the stars with the heavens as the ceiling. This suited us just find as we have ample grounds for camping which is well tended and lighted. so it was not actually the WILD, WILD kind of thingi. Plus they have proper bathrooms and toilet and a swimming pool filled with water from the mountains. They managed their own food cooking under the stars.

The highlight of their stay was a trip to the nearby rubber small holding. (A small holding as the name denotes is a plantation anything below 50 acres. Above that one would call it an estate). Here both adults and children were given an insight into what a small plantation looks like, how rubber trees look like (yes, many adults nowadays don't know this, what more the children), how and when tapping is done, how the product (latex) look like and the simple economics of  the trade. As a bonus they were also taught how to make simple traps on how to catch animals in the wild.

Going into a plantation is not like going to the Mall. Firstly, there is the heat, followed by the buzzing insects curious at the strange new scent of the city folks. Then you have the various vegetation engulfing you in a maelstrom of colors and scents. To their credit, they took all these in stride and they enjoyed themselves. Of course, they were passing through. Tapping rubber for a livelihood would be a different matter altogether.

Typically, rubber tapping would start very early. Rubber tappers would start going in at about 4 to 5 am with their packed breakfast. The idea is to finish before the sun gets too hot. By about 8 or 9 am they would be done and get on with other things like tending to their vegetable plots or rice fields or doing repair and maintenance. This also means that in the wee hours of the morning, they would have to use lamps, in the old days carbide lamps and later battery operated headlamps. In the old days, when the jungle was very nearby, quite a few of the tappers became unexpected breakfast for the lucky tiger. Also there are the various snakes and scorpions and other denizens (bears, wild boars and even elephants) to content with. However these encounters are few and far between and when it happened its because the animal was surprised or cornered, though in the old days, rogue tigers would do it on purpose. Humans are easy prey so to speak.

Laying traps
So how much would they earn? Firstly, rubber trees cannot be tapped every day. They need time to recover. So it is done on alternate days. Tapping everyday would shorten the lifespan of the tree, which in the long run is a bad thing, considering that they take about 5 to 7 years (depending on the variety) to mature for tapping. So that leaves about 15 days a month. Then you have to minus the rainy days. Rain spoils the latex (milk). So you have between 10 to 15 days of tapping. One acre of plantation could yield about 200 kg of  rubber. The price of rubber varies widely. It has seen RM7-8 per kg to as low as RM2 per kg. So the income could range between RM1500 to RM400 per month, not much by city standards, but not too bad by rural standards if you live in your ancestral home, plant you own vegetables, raise your own chickens or pigs, grow your own rice and so on. Plus you don't need to drive your latest Volkswagen into the plantation nor do you need to spot a tie or sheath your feet with Jimmy Choo's latest style. So, it's not that bad. But at RM2 per kg, it can be tough.

Also today, most of the plantations are not tapped by the owners (many of them too old and their children too educated) but by tenant tappers, i.e. people who take a contract to tap the trees. The income is then split 50:50. So at RM2 per kg or RM400 per acre, that comes to RM200 per side. As a result many plantations are left unattended as it becomes economically not viable.

A note on the tapping technique. the cut is made only on one side of the tree. The cut should not be a full ring around the tree as that would kill the tree. All trees survive by nutrients transported from the ground through the outer circumference of the tree. So as long as there continuity on the tree bark at the outer circumference, nutrients can still pass through and the tree lives on. The inner core is dead.

So, what do all these mean to the visitors. Are they going to switch careers and now become rubber tappers. Most unlikely. But they get to know what goes on the other side. They get to know how tough it is. Perhaps they can now appreciate more what they have and not take things for granted. They get to know that there people who are not as fortunate as they are so that they emphasize and be more accommodating and understanding. In short, it enlarges and open up their minds and enrich their experience. Afterall, life is a collection of experiences. The more we have the better we are at understanding and coping with the world. Plus, for the enterprising kids they now know how to lay a booby trap for that never satisfied, perpetually grumpy P.E. teacher. (we disavow all knowledge or association with the techniques employed).

So that is what Uluhati can bring you. Not the latest craze or game but down to earth basics. Cheers and Salam.

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