Borneo is one of those wild places. Simply saying the word brings forth images of dense tropical jungle, colorful exotic wildlife, and fierce native headhunters. It is a place undeniably of this world, with thousands of travelers coming each year to seek a slice of adventure. Yet it is also somehow otherworldly, a place where native lifestyles defy all that is modern and the flora and fauna are like nowhere else on earth.
With this in mind we made our way to Sarawak, the largest and least populated state in Malaysia, occupying the northwest corner of the island of Borneo. A visit to Sarawak inevitably begins in Kuching, the cat city, which is the region's capital. This genteel small city was home to nearly 100 years of government under white "rajahs," three generations of benevolent and well-liked British rulers. It became part of Malaysia in 1963.
Kuching's relaxed pace, unusual combination of cultures (Malay, Chinese, British, and various native heritages), and well-preserved colonial city center make it an interesting place to spend a day or two. Walk through the central market to experience the incredible variety of fruit and vegetables the climate creates. Sample guava, mango, lychee and durian (or stink fruit), which is said to smell like hell and taste like heaven and is not allowed to be brought into hotels. Then head for the shops along the river which offer the best selection and prices in Sarawak for native antiques and handcrafts.
Still this enjoyable urban experience is not the main reason people come to Sarawak. The real allure here is adventure, and in Borneo when you want adventure you must head into the jungle.
Driving four hours southeast of Kuching to a dock on the banks of the Skrang River we board a longboat for the one-hour trip upriver to an Iban longhouse. The Iban (pronounced Ee-bahn) are the largest tribe in Sarawak and one of three native peoples whose past includes the practice of headhunting. Heading upstream, our Iban guide spots a monitor lizard sunning itself on rocks along the shore. He will return later with his rifle hoping to bring home the prized animal for the village dinner. Another prized animal of the region are the hornbills, large and graceful birds that are revered by the Iban. Most have colorful, hollow "horns" atop their beaks that are used for storing water during long flights. While there aren't many hornbills left in the wild, they can be seen in captivity in several places, the best being the bird park in Kuala Lumpur.
We exit the longboat at a sharp turn in the river. Above us is the longhouse where this Iban community lives. Longhouses differ slightly from tribe to tribe but share the same basic characteristic, they are a single long hut that allows the entire tribe to live under one roof. The Iban have an outdoor veranda, which they use for drying palm or pepper; an interior common space, where they meet, eat and celebrate; and individual living spaces that are organized a bit like railroad flats.
The whole thing is built on stilts to protect the tribe from floods, animals and enemies. It is surrounded by wooden walkways that lead to animal cages, small gardens, the river, or the guesthouse where we will spend the night.
The guesthouse is comfortable, but hardly sumptuous, and that is part of the appeal. We are greeted by a Myna bird that speaks at least three languages, one of them inquiring, "How are you, Bud?"
Not long ago a traveler could show up at almost any longhouse, offer a gift to the tribe's chief, and be given a mat to sleep on for the night. In some more remote longhouses this is still possible. But many longhouses now have separate guesthouses where visitors who make arrangements through tour companies can be assured of a real mattress and a hot shower. That's about it though. The idea, after all, is to get a glimpse of longhouse life. And that's where we head shortly after arriving.
At the entrance to the longhouse there is a wooden arch with small baskets made of palm leaves hanging from the top. Offerings such as a few coins or a cigarette are occasionally put into the baskets and help keep evil spirits out of the longhouse. Assisting in this effort are small wooden totems in the ground next to the longhouse entrance, each representing an ancestor who lived there.
Ancestors and spirituality are important to the Ibans. Their typical greeting to one another is, "How are your dreams?" Freudians take note, the Ibans believe that their most important messages come to them in their dreams. When a tribal elder dreams about an ancestor, for example, it might trigger a ritual to honor the dead.
Inside the longhouse during the day, woman and some older men sit weaving mats or baskets. The rest of the village is out collecting rubber sap or tending to pepper plants. Hanging in nets outside several of the living quarters are gruesome reminders of the Ibans aggressive heritage: Antu Pala, or human skull. Families hang skulls collected by their headhunting ancestors in front of their doors. While the Ibans are no longer headhunters, they are proud of their heritage. The heads outside their doors serve as a reminder of their past valor and, they believe, will frighten away enemies. Seems reasonable.
On the ground underneath the skulls is a flat stone or tile. On cold nights a small fire will be lit under the skulls to keep them warm, since the Iban believe that cold will release the evil spirits still within the skulls.
An elderly Iban couple invite us into their living quarters for tea and show us their large collection of antique Chinese jars, which are the principal measure of wealth among the tribe. The jars, some of which date back 200 years, were brought by early Chinese traders who played a big part in the economic development of Sarawak. While they are quite valuable as antiques, the Iban consider it improper to sell the jars. Some do make their way into Kuching's antique shops, but most are handed down to children or offered, partly buried, at the graves of ancestors.
After dinner at the guesthouse, we return to the longhouse for some dancing. Three of the villagers have dressed in traditional costume and dance to the accompaniment of drums and brass gongs, which beat in a numbing rhythm. Actually, the numbing may have been more the result of the rice wine, or tuak, that visitors are served. This strong, sweet wine is quite tasty, and potent.
After the traditional dancing, we are invited to get up a join in. In a few minutes, something of a conga line is winding its way across the room as the tribe's chief divides up the chocolates we have brought as a gift. The giddy mood continues after the music ends when the village women break out selections of their handcrafts, giving us a great chance to buy carved wooden statues, jewelry, hand-woven baskets and small blowpipes.
The next morning, after breakfast, a villager arrives at the guesthouse in a loin cloth sporting feathers at the top of his head. He carries a six-foot blowpipe made of ironwood with a metal spear at the end and beckons us to follow. He has nailed a large leaf to a tree outside and demonstrates how to use the blowpipe. For generations, the Iban used poison-tipped bamboo darts for hunting small game, although the rifle has now replaced the blowpipe. One tribe in Sarawak, the Penans, still use blowpipes for hunting. After a brief lesson we try the blowpipe and marvel at its accuracy as we hit the leaf from 50 feet.
After a brief swim in the river, during which we excite the village pigs who are frolicking on the other shore, we pack up to begin the trip back to Kuching.
On the way we stop for a lunch of black pomfret, a tasty saltwater fish, and steamed jungle ferns, Sarawak's version of fiddleheads, at a modest roadside restaurant. One hour from Kuching we stop again at a wildlife preserve where we see orangutans that are being reintroduced into the jungle after being kept illegally as pets. Borneo and nearby Sumatra are the only places in the world to see wild orangutans, and they are a treat.
But it is the memory of the Ibans and their longhouse that burns most brightly in our minds as we get back to Kuching. Their sense of community, industriousness, and hospitality are all too rare in today's world. And as changes come to these native tribes, their culture is already being permanently altered. We were just glad we could watch it for awhile.
Steve Simurda is a widely published journalist and journalism instructor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This article originally appeared on his own travel website at http://www.umass.edu/journal/faculty/steve/
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