12 February 2008

Berhala Hut

My sister CH visited my family a few days after Tết. Mother made a big meal and we talked afterward about many topics. Eventually we gravitated toward our refugee experience again. The question was, "How long were we at the various islands?" There was no calendar to tell the day, the weather was always hot, and there was no TV to watch our favorite show to make reference to a particular event. Hmm, remember one night some drunk set his hut on fire? Luckily his neighbors quickly put out the fire, lest it spread to their huts too. It was a Thursday because I was watching Naruto Shippuuden on the PowerBook. Yeah, right.

With the need to record more of this memory before it is all forgotten, I am resuming my "memoir" of the experience. It also helped that I received a positive feedback for my entry earlier about my refugee experience.

The drawing above is what I remember of my home on Berhala Island. As you may recall, my family was lucky enough to meet Grandaunt "Luck" to inherit the hut from her. Granny's family were scheduled to leave Berhala for Galang Camp when we arrived. They were among the first on Berhala Island and they did a great job of putting the hut together.

The view in the drawing is that from outside the "window". It's just a big, rectangular opening in the wall. Next to the window, there was a pair of chairs with a table in the middle. I don't know for sure if we had a teapot and cups on that table. There were two openings to get into the hut - to the left of the big column in the picture and to the right of the "window". The left "door" would be for getting to the street while the right one would be for entering the yard. Taking up a big portion of the hut was the bed. I don't recall us having pillows. I made believe we stuff some luggage bags with clothes for use as pillows. At night, my two sisters and I would share the bed. My parents and brother would sleep on the floor, on some tarp, to the right, while my uncle lie along the space between the bed and the tea table. In the right corner, we had our own shower room complete with a door that swung to the right. Water was stored in a metal drum and a scooper would float on top of the water. There was probably some long groove in the ground to drain water to the ditch in the back of the hut. We had our own well to draw water from, Granny Luck really made it easy for themselves and then us. The "kitchen" consisted of a hole in the ground with three bricks. There was plenty of trees on the island to supply fuel for the kitchen. I drew the "range" deeper into the hut, but in reality it was much closer to the "wall" of the hut, in the foreground and not shown. I think there was a sheet of metal to keep the occasional long tongue of the flame from setting the wall on fire. There was a shelf against the right wall and is not shown in the picture. We probably kept kitchen stuff like pots and pans, ceramic bowls and plates, spoons, chopsticks, etc. I drew those things near the kitchen, as if they were ready for washing, but in reality they would be cleaned in the yard. The ground was just dirt and the walls, as well as the roof, were fronds, perhaps from the many coconuts trees on the island. Other than the metallic barrel (thùng phi) in the shower room to hold water and the nails to hold the furnitures together, we were living in the Wooden Age.

Prior to the Berhala hut, our home was a top-floor condo with indoor plumbing and electricity. The floor was tiled and the walls were solid. The kitchen, interestingly, used firewoods, too, so that part of our life wasn't too different from the refugee experience. It was a big change for the worse to go from the condo to the hut, but I still consider ourselves lucky. We didn't have to spend any money to get the hut. We got food from some relief agency periodically, but we still had to provide for other expenses. I think we got by mostly from the jewelries that my mother sold, one by one.

Without electricity, cell phone service, or iPod, how did I spend my days on Berhala Island? That is a topic for another drawing on another day.

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