Monday, 3 February 2014

The bird that returns home

Nek Neng
Nek Neng runs short orientations of Home Island. Under the Clunies-Ross dynasty,* he had been trained up as a scuba diver by an American and was put to work maintaining and cleaning the beacons and markers which assist in navigating the lagoon. But, he told me, he got sick of working for almost nothing on the islands. Relatives on the mainland helped organize work for him. He learnt English word-by-word reading newspapers with a dictionary on the side. He started off in Geraldton, then worked in Queensland, on Australia’s Pacific Islands and then landed a job maintaining remote health clinics in Western Australia’s Pilbara and Western Desert regions. He was based in Port Hedland and his job involved driving a Landcruiser to places as remote as Jigalong** transporting heavy supplies and fixing plumbing, electrics, and so on.

Burung main-main

Being a very generous and welcoming gentleman, Nek Neng volunteered to take me on an orientation of Home Island and to a kenduri. This is a funeral ritual, which I will talk about some other time. Men had gathered outside the house wearing sarongs and bright long-sleeved shirts, in the Malay fashion. Inside other men were tahlil (chanting prayer). There I met an animal that was obviously designed as a cross-between a duck, cat and ocean bird. If you haven’t met him yet, let me introduce to you perhaps the world’s greatest pet, man’s other best friend, the Playful Bird (Burung Main-main).

Click to see Playful Bird 'Talking'

According to what the men told me, the Playful Bird comes from Keeling Island.*** Dr Oliver Berry tells me it looks like a Brown Booby and I'm in no position to disagree. The fine specimen pictured above was nipping at my sandals in a manner that was, well, playful. It didn’t mind its owner picking it up. To top it all off, you can eat them too. When I asked if people ate these birds in the old days, and men assured me they had. I couldn’t catch exactly what they were saying then, but it was something along the lines of: with the arrival of government (i.e. 1984, when the Cocos (Keeling) Islands became part of Australia) to eat a Playful Bird was to langgar (break the law). I’d like to think that they just wanted an excuse for not eating such a friendly creature! If you get a baby Playful Bird and raise it, it will always come home. It will fly off in the morning but then, just as surely, will return by the evening.

The Playful Bird in Action!

The same could be said for many who have left Home Island. After spending his working life away, Nek Neng wished to retire to his birthplace As he was showing me around the places, I was touched by his deep sense of nostalgia and belonging to the island. Perhaps this connection might help explain why, even when speaking Malay, local people refer to their island using the English words “Home Island”.

* The Clunies-Ross dynasty were generations self-styled kings of Scottish origins who controlled the Cocos Malay population and the islands from the 1820s.

** I mentioned Prof Tonkinson’s widely-admired ethnography, The Mardu Aborigines, in my blog "Laying some foundations". Some Mardu lived in Jigalong.

*** The Cocos (Keeling) Islands consists of two atolls—Keeling Island (a single island) and Cocos Islands (comprising many islands, two of which are inhabited).

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