Rent a Real Man in Borneo — Page 2
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

The next morning, our second trek followed a mountainous saddle, giving Belansai more opportunities to chat with birds and crickets. Stunned again by his many talents, I left my walking stick behind. During our next wild kingdom moment, he gave me that fatherly look you get when you've been a naughty kid. In Iban, he meant "You seem to have lost your hand-crafted walking stick, again?" And then he quickly chopped and sculpted me another one.


A Survivalist Without a Camera Man
Never idle, Belansai was always working on something except when taking quick cigarette breaks. While shoring up his woven wicker backpack, I pondered this chapter of "roughing it" until realizing how at ease Belansai was in his jungle home. I imagined presenting this full-time machete-on-hip dude to a televised survivalist and trailing them on a walk in the woods as Belansai unfurled his skill set. This jungle triathlete, or decathlon outdoorsman, is capable of winning gold anywhere. Two things have always amazed me about tribal people. The women have no idea how beautiful they are, and the dudes have no idea how cool they are.

This non-Muslim Malaysian experience was an overdue reconnection to primal Southeast Asia. Before leaving the jungle, Belansai waltzed out of the river with more freshly caught frogs and fish in both hands and then brewed our final tea time on the Jelia River. After a few sips, this chain-smoking Gandhi amid survivalists grabbed his old British pump-action shotgun to go hunt a wild boar. Pretty neat for a guy who has never driven a car.


Longhouse Living
Emerging from the jungle back into a longboat, Belansai, still in spotter-mode, found the floating sandal lost by my buddy upstream days earlier. He just didn't miss a beat. After traversing those two log jams again, we arrived at Belansai's all-wooden manor, a classic longhouse. Usually built near water, longhouses are horizontal apartments that resemble a ground-level 1960's one-piece motel. This one had 15 two-room units with every kitchen facing a lake. Outside one kitchen window, a collection of wild boar jawbones hung like trophies. Under the same roof—nearly half of the longhouse width—is a 100-yard-long communal living room. This cavernous hallway brings to mind a tool shed doubling as public space. The woody structure has the feel of a rustic dorm, or a busy summer camp for all ages.


Historically, longhouses were designed to keep the Iban in close proximity so they could quickly unify against enemy attacks. The communal hallway (ruai) has 15 other doorways leading onto an open-air wood-plank porch where the lazy dogs lie snoozing despite the dozens of noisy chicken coops. Inside, as long as natural light lingers and shines back through those 15 doorways, adults use the light to craft machetes and machete cases, or weave mats, fishnets, and baskets. Everybody seems to pull their weight on this romantic but disconnected assembly line. Meanwhile, the kids watched the equivalent of Malaysian Idol on the lone generator-powered television. Next stop for these kids—video games about conquering the jungle?

After the sun set, the rice wine (tuac, pronounced "too-ock") started flowing from five recycled liquor and soda bottles. Each bottle was distilled by a different family including Belansai's. While seated on 80-year-old rattan and pandanus mats, the folks enjoying this rice-wine bash frequently offered up the Iban toast—ooh-ha—which is an animist "cheers" calling all spirits. No handicraft hard-sell here, as it wasn't even apparent that the woven mats I bought were for sale. Portable mattresses transformed the tunnel-like common room into an indoor campground.

The next morning, as our longboat pulled away from Belansai's longhouse, he stood on the dock waving slowly. It was like saying farewell to the handyman who saved my life, or at least alerted me to the leeches making a beeline for my balls. My urban-numbed psyche got its knees dirty. I'd soon be back online, while the only way for city folk to communicate with Belansai is by calling a regional radio station DJ who sends him one-way messages over the airwaves.

longhouse deck

Longhouse Legacy
In Kuching, a city a world away from longhouse life, I met several residents who grew up in longhouses and now practice law; own trendy hotels, restaurants and bars; or play in popular rock bands—another ooh-ha. I sat with longhouse-raised Peter Jaban in his popular bar, Ruai, that's modeled after a longhouse and jammed with tribal memorabilia, locals, expats, and tourists. Imagine a slight, tan, well-dressed businessman covered in tribal tattoos. He shared an Iban maxim—"Don't make a fool of other people"—and then drove me to the airport in his vintage convertible Cadillac.

At the airport, the coifed woman sitting across from me yapped on her iPhone about her Land Rover field trip. She gave my 10-year-old, bulky Dell laptop a look that screamed ew. Then she lowered her eyes toward my muddy boots and inquired, "So what did you do?

"I got bamboo-tube stewed with a Tarzanian handyman," I answered.

Long, uncomfortable pause.

"I mean, where did you go?" she asked in a lower, more confused tone.

All I could think of adding was, "Ape-shit."

Hire a real man to navigate Borneo's jungle via Planet Borneo Tours. Planet Borneo's chaperones translate Iban (it's also a language), help identify wildlife, and arrange access to longhouses. Unlike any outfitter I've dealt with, this "exploratory" no-guarantees expedition had no cute intros, waivers, safety warnings, rules, or guidelines; that is probably not normally the case.

Bruce Northam's THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons shares the infinite goodwill of strangers through enlightening tales from his travels to 135 countries. He has spent decades navigating the globe in a continuing search for words to live by—and live for—in local mode. Visit

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