Graham Reid ventures up the Lemanak River in Malaysian Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, to see how the old headhunters are handling jungle clearing, longboats full of tourists, and the arrival of a Hilton.
In these minutes before you realize how foolish you are being, you could imagine yourself as Martin Sheen going up–river to seek out the mad Marlon Brando: the prow of the longboat pushing through muddy water; humid jungle steaming its way down to the riverbanks; bowing branches and vines hanging so low you sometimes have to duck beneath them.
Sudden and unexpected clearings, smoke from unknown fires exhaling through the jungle canopy, a fleeting glimpse of a wooden hut on stilts. A shadowy figure disappearing between an impenetrable barricade of trees…
This is central Sarawak, some six hours drive on an increasingly deserted ribbon of road from the capital Kuching to the Lemanak River near the border with Indonesia Borneo.
My sweat–drenched up–river journey from a slippery landing beneath the shabby village called Sebeliau is to a longhouse of the Iban people. Within the living memory of their elders these people were headhunters, a practice most texts say ended in the 1930s. But Japanese soldiers fleeing Kuching at the end of the Second World War fell to arrows poisoned by the sap of the Ipoh tree and the cutting blade of the people of this region.
Indeed, three blackened skulls hang in a basket from a roof beam in the Serubah longhouse, which holds 20–odd families and around 200 people. They share a common area that disappears towards a distant point lost in the darkness inside the wooden walls.
Tribal Tats and a Fancy Watch
I am the only visitor to this longhouse and my Malay guide Richard––which I take not to be his given name––tells me that today among these people the young have embraced Christianity. Kitsch Jesus reproductions on the wall of some homes within the longhouse attest to this, but many of the older folk still observe traditional practices.
I am introduced to Unting, the shaman. He is a wiry, witty (at least in translation) and wise–looking 87–year old who cheerfully explains his many blue tattoos: the traditional hibiscus flowers and the facing hornbills on his upper chest because they are the symbols of Sarawak, the snake on his leg came from three years on Sabah to the north.
"Rain all the time, long time," he says through Richard. "Because I have no things to do I now have these." He laughs and points to the thick markings beneath his chin and down his throat. They are for protection, he says with a warm smile, but were the most painful.
He shuffles off and returns with tattoo instruments, darning needles tied to the end of a stick which are tapped into the flesh much as it done in Samoa. He holds them in his horny, blue–veined hands with all the gentleness one might present a rare feather.
Later a handsome and lean man also in his 80s introduces himself. He is so revered that Richard, who speaks this dialect, refers to him only as Tuairumah, chief of the house. When Tuairumah shakes my hand I can't help notice the large and expensive–looking watch on his other wrist.
He tells me I am welcome in the place of his people, and they are pleased to share what they have. The land around the longhouse is productive: corn, bananas, cucumber, the ever important betel nut still favored by the old people, the distinctive black Sarawak pepper seeds which are dried in the heat of the afternoon sun on the long veranda, rubber tapped from trees…
Slash and Burn
Blue–brown smoke across the river, rising as a massive and menacing cloud, drops flecks of ash on the longhouse all afternoon, evidence of another important crop. And a problem. All through this region people are felling and burning the jungle to plant fields of rice, a rotation crop which accounts for those sudden clearings on the journey up–river.
By nightfall the sky has an insipid yellow glow above the jungle canopy and the women in the longhouse are engaged in an animated discussion. It seems people from nearby longhouses are burning the jungle for a rice field but haven't asked their permission. The consensus among the womenfolk is that the headman and others will need to have a council with their neighbors. There is much gesturing, with the headman's wife the most visibly agitated. She talks at her husband for many uninterrupted minutes then leaves.
The old man looks weary as we drink fermented rice wine. Women and children disappear behind the rattan walls to their homes, the old men sit and sip. There is much nodding and head–shaking but very little is verbalized. I nod too. They nod at me, a stranger in their company.
This longhouse has another source of income beyond crops: an increasing stream of buses from Kuching brings tourists into this region. Late in the day while swimming with the children I have seen groups of middle–aged, camera–laden visitors in the narrow boats plowing up the swiftly flowing Lemanak to other longhouses on this stretch of the river.
The children wave furiously and smile their grills of perfect teeth, and have their photographs taken by zoom lenses. Maybe back home in Berlin or Boston as they recall their trip up the dirty river these visitors might look at their photographs and wonder who that strange white face belongs to.
It isn't a comfortable journey, the Lemanak is unforgiving: sudden eddies appear, there are patches of ominous calm, huge tree stumps rear out of it dramatically at odd angles, and there are unpredictable depths and shallows judging by areas where the surface churns for no apparent reason. As we sit on the veranda in the strength–sapping humidity Richard tells me of the four tourists in a longboat which capsized: the two women managed to hold onto low vines until they were rescued, but the two men had raincoats over their life–jackets and were dragged down the river. Their bodies were found three days later and the Iban wouldn't use this important section of their river until a shaman could release the troubled spirits.
These ancient practices appear to remain uncompromised by tourism. The desultory performance of the hornbill dance for my benefit by the headman, another old fellow, and two women—all in traditional costume and accompanied by a small orchestra of women playing tuned gongs—suggests that culture and commerce now co–exist uneasily.
I am more comfortable when Tuairumah sits and drinks rice wine afterwards, neither of us saying much. By saying less I learn more: the mats covered in cultural takeaways—masks, carvings and the like—which are neatly displayed on yellowed newspapers on the longhouse floor for tourist consumption aren't made by these people. They come from Indonesian artisans across the border. The Iban today, surprisingly given their seemingly remote location, have cellphone coverage—admittedly limited. In Tuairumah's living room the large lounge suite is still wrapped in plastic and he owns a large television. Other aerials jut out of the roof at strange angles.
We Come Bearing Gifts
Unting the shaman tells me they like visitors. In accordance with tribal tradition, guests are encouraged to bring gifts for the longhouse and on the way here I have been guided by Richard as to what is appropriate. We pull in at a small marketplace–cum–lunch stop for buses and he buys a large plastic bag containing 40 packets of instant noodles, plus bags of lollies for the children. I wonder aloud about these but he is insistent and says the children will be delighted. I say I don't doubt it, but he is confused by my discomfort at these "gifts" and what I see will be the inevitable consequences of lollies and instant noodles, which I later suspect are traded back to the shop where tourists buy them. Perhaps though this is a trading convenience and gesture in which everyone wins.
The children seem like kids anywhere: the boys and I flounder in the river using balloons and an inner tube as cheap flotation devices, other kids take hours of pleasure with handmade kites and run the length of the veranda hauling them into the ash–filed air.
It is still officially the dry season but a deafening seven–hour downpour which drops at 3am gives the lie to that. It is unimaginable what it might be like here in the jungle during monsoon season when such torrential rain will fall for days, if not weeks, and the Lemanak will rise three or four meters.
Even on this saturating morning that washes the sky clean, the river climbs measurably up the banks and the incessant warm rain turns rivulets into torrents. My "nature walk" which Richard has threatened is mercifully cancelled. Everyone stays indoors.
I sit in a doorway watching the fighting cocks huddle in the corner of their pens as a longboat of tourists huddling against the downpour bounces past, slapping against the roiling, muddying water of the Lemanak.
When we leave we strip down to our underwear and put our clothes and shoes and plastic bags. Tomorrow, Richard says, a tour group of about 20 English tourists––carrying noodles and lollies I guess––is coming here from the new Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort. It is just 30 minutes away from the muddy clearing below Sebeliau where we got into the longboat to come up–river to meet these people in what was once a remote corner of Sarawak on the border of Indonesian Borneo.
As we watch the river rise I can't help think: The horror! The horror!
Graham Reid is an award-winning travel writer, music writer and journalist based in New Zealand. His book Postcards From Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year award, and his website www.elsewhere.co.nz features travel stories, photos, rock'n'roll reminiscences, and a weekly music review in which he posts tracks from albums which have gone past radio programmers and other reviewers.
Books from the Author: