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The witch and the stingray – Pulau Tioman #1


Pulau Tioman is a gem.

Thirty two kilometres off the coast of East Malaysia, around 160km north of Singapore it is the island paradise chosen as Bali Hai by the makers of the 1950s musical, South Pacific. I won’t pull out all the well-worn cliches people use to fail to describe its awesome beauty. Just trust me. It’s glorious.

As are its inhabitants.

Mostly Malay Muslims, the people of Tioman combine the casual friendliness and good humour common among islanders with an open-hearted generosity almost unheard of in places that draw their primary income from tourism.

In the 1980s and 90s I made over half a dozen visits, staying about a month each time, and made some close friends.

In 1988 a booking error left me almost flat broke in Singapore with no flight home for five weeks. So I headed for Tioman where my dear friend Din-Don (Shamsuddin) put me up and kept me fed until I could fly home.

When I returned in 1990 Din-Don refused all payment for his previous generosity. Instead he added to it by making a gift to my girlfriend Laura of a batik shirt he had made, bearing the stunning image of a stingray in a swirl of water and coral.

A few days earlier Laura and I had been wading the shallows near the reef in front of Mango Grove, Din-Don’s home from which he ran a three-hut bungalow and batik shop, when the tropical air was excoriated with agonised shrieking. Laura leapt into my arms, blood pouring from her butchered foot as the large stingray she had stepped on circled, admiring its gory handiwork. I suddenly realised why so many people on Tioman had nasty scars on their legs.

The nearest medical help was in Tekek village, about two kilometres away over jungle tracks and soft beach sand.

Din-Don ran ahead to get help as I staggered after him, my screaming girlfriend shuddering in my arms.

We were about halfway to the village when Ma-Ohn intercepted us on his trail bike. Laura barely had the strength to hold on as he wheeled and headed for the island’s only clinic. I barely had the strength to follow.

When I arrived Laura was deathly pale, covered in sweat, almost unconscious, slumped on the step of the clinic. Ohn was cleaning her foot with the bloody, torn remains of his t-shirt. The doctor was nowhere in sight.

I put an arm around her, gently pushed her down so her head was between her legs and murmured empty reassurances. There was nothing else I could do. At least she’d stopped screaming and the open wound was now leaking surprisingly little blood.

Minutes later Din-Don ran up, his face telling us the bad news before he could catch his breath to confirm the worst.

“The doctor’s gone to Mersing in a helicopter. A lady had … an accident … lots of blood … no good”. I later learned one of Tioman’s young ladies had a late term miscarriage.

He rattled off some quick Bahasa to Ohn. I caught that he wanted him to take Laura somewhere else but it was too fast for my poor Malay language skills. Ma-Ohn looked doubtful. Laura moaned. Din-Don pointed at her foot and said something brief and insistent.

Ma-Ohn turned to me, “We go to my Aunty”.

Islam is not the uniform, homogenous world religion that most people seem to believe it to be. In South-East Asia many Muslims retain pre-Islamic practices and beliefs. In some cases, believers have incorporated older traditions into their Islamism and make little or no distinction between them. In others, the systems are kept in separate boxes, to be pulled out and applied according to situation or occasion. In the latter case, believers are often uncomfortable and embarrassed about their adherence to the ways of their ancestors but remain unwilling to give them up.

After a short stagger we arrived at an elevated wood hut. Ohn entered briefly to consult with its inhabitants then ushered us in.

Three Malay children who all looked under five years old stared wide-eyed at probably the first ferringhi to enter their home. An elderly man sat in a corner watching us closely, not distrustingly but with apparent concern. But the clear centre of this small assembly was a hunched, grey lady. The charisma around her was palpable and the change in the body language of both Ohn and Din-Don emanated obvious respect. I followed suit.

No-one spoke as Aunty examined Laura’s injury with quick supple fingers and sharp, critical eyes that belied her aged face and frame. She frowned and spoke quietly to Ohn.

“You are free-thinkers, not believers”, Ohn’s voice was barely above a whisper, “Perhaps she cannot help you, but she will try”.

The old woman shuffled off to another room, returning with a small glass vial containing a dark brown fluid on which floated a small white wooden cube. She again exchanged a few sentences of Bahasa with Ohn as she unstoppered the bottle.

“This wood is from a tree that has been gone many years”, Ma-Ohn translated, “Aunty got it from her aunty and she got it from her mother”. For some reason I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise.

The elderly healer decanted about half the dark liquid into a small ceramic goblet and handed it to Laura. To my surprise she drank it down without the slightest hesitation. My girlfriend was not someone who trusted strangers at first sight but this old lady was obviously an exception. Perhaps pain had overcome her usual wariness but I suspected it was the sheer magnetism of the woman herself that had disarmed her suspicion.

Aunty rested Laura’s mutilated foot on her lap and poured some of the remaining liquid directly into the open wound, placing the white cube carefully at the centre of the injury and muttering something guttural that didn’t sound like Bahasa to me. To my amazement a milky jelly immediately rose from Laura’s foot to the surface of the medicine. “Stingray poison”, Ohn confirmed my guess.

The old woman removed the cube and wiped the jelly away with shredded cotton cloth, repeating the process several times until the poison had stopped appearing and the bottle was empty. I took out my wallet but a sharp glance from Din-Don told me that was not the thing to do, so I quickly put it away. Later I would ask Ma-Ohn if there was anything I could give his Aunty in recompense but he said she would accept nothing.

Laura’s complexion had returned to normal and she was obviously greatly relieved as we both thanked the old woman profusely. Her face wrinkled into a smile as she gestured towards the doorway. It was clearly time to leave. My girlfriend limped unassisted from the same hut she had been carried into less than an hour before and showed no sign of her earlier agony as we waited at a beach-side restaurant for the doctor to return from Mersing.

Just before sunset a helicopter clattered down onto Tioman’s short airstrip and we went back to the clinic.

The plainly exhausted medico looked so pale as he stitched up Laura’s foot you could almost believe it was he and not his previous patient who had nearly died of blood loss. When we told him of the treatment Laura had already received he just grinned and shook his head without comment. We returned to Mango Grove by the light of a borrowed torch with a packet of paracetamol Laura didn’t even bother to open.

It was a couple of days before we noticed the outline the stingray had slashed across her foot. Like Zorro, it had left its signature on its victim.

Laura and I parted ways about six months later but I have little doubt that someday she will be showing her grandchildren her stingray-shaped scar and telling them the same story I have just told you.

From → autobiography

  1. OMG I was holding my breath all the time while reading !! Really…..
    So glad to know Laura was alright after all and you got her back 🙂 It was so nice to read the kindness of that old women ! Love it !


  2. The story is great- it was very interesting to read it.
    To be honest, it were those middle lines about Islam which caught my eyes and made me read the entire of it! Anyways, it sure was a memorable experience for you and her, and I hope she’d be telling this story later to her grandchildren! 🙂


  3. Philip Squire permalink

    This is fascinating. I stayed at Mango Grove for 2 weeks in 1992. I got very severely sunburned on my back, my (bald) head and arms. I got on well with the staff there and used to sit with them in the evenings talking about the world and life in general. The cook Hasim came to visit me in my chalet as I could hardly move and said he’d talk to his “Auntie”. He returned with a (iirc) folded banana leaf full off a light grey powder. He mixed this with water and applied it carefully my most severe blisters.
    The cooling and almost anesthetic effect was almost instantaneous, I was able to sleep that night and the worst pain and redness seemed to subside very quickly. I asked what was in it and he just shrugged his shoulders.
    I also recognise the mixture of Islam and other faiths. The same Hashim told me that his sister had been murdered by an evil spirit on the mainland (Mersing) and that he’d paid a shaman (my word) to search her house and garden, The shaman had found a bundle of teeth and hair buried in the garden and Hashim was convinced that this was what had caused the spirit to come to her house and kill her.


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