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Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Warm Heart of Borneo: Sarawak - Page 2

Written by Alison Aitken
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Dense jungles, bats and blow-pipes. As our accidental party of four cheerfully unkempt backpackers and a quietly intrepid, forty-something Canadian couple travelled further up the Betang Rejang river and into the heart of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo’s southern province, this otherworldly combination gradually became an altogether more tangible reality. We had sped out of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, on an 80-seater catamaran which boasted a super powered air-conditioning and a steady loop of James Bond classics. Five hours later, we left the inland town of Sibuh on a vehicle older than Sean Connery himself. As the open sea changed from estuary to swirling brown river, rutted muddy tracks came into view. These jagged scars revealed the obvious presence of machinery in the previously untouched Malaysian jungles.

 

As we wandered along the sun-bleached boards of the communal porch, we found the place all but deserted. Small groups of walnut-faced elders sat quietly in the shade, murmuring to one another as they tended to glistening piles of fishing net and bundles of freshly picked tobacco leaves. Most of the adults were further afield, busy with the routine chores of community life – farming, boat building and fishing. The eerie stillness was broken only by the barking of dogs and the occasional burst of giggles from a nearby group of children, initially too timid to approach. It was only the sight of the simple board games such as drafts and tiddlywinks we had been asked to bring for them that coaxed them from the shadows. We learned that while they were schooled within the community, most of their older siblings attended secondary school in Kuching. Given the distance, cost of travel and unmanageable terrain, boarding is the only option. Intrigued by the idea of community living, we bombarded our guide with questions about the governance, hierarchy and practicalities of community life. His patient answers revealed an intricate pattern of traditions, practices and beliefs, which had evolved to accommodate the customary impositions of modern society.

 

Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, tribes people of Sarawak, the Orang Ulu, the Iban, Kuching, travel Sarawak, Betang Rejang river, Longhouse, Kapit, Belaga, Malaysian jungles, travel Borneo,  longhouse wedding, Alison AitkenNowhere was this curious blend more apparent than at our next stop. By chance, we had arrived on the day of a longhouse wedding. The habitual extension of hospitality to visitors meant that we too, were invited. We were delighted and hopped back in the boat to prepare ourselves for the ceremony. By the time we returned, the party was well underway. People of all ages, shapes and sizes were scattered across the floor of the satin-bedecked meeting hall, digging into a hearty lunch of steaming meat stew, sticky rice and vegetables. After a bustling group of girls had cleared away the debris, a few teenage boys made rounds of the hall to serve Tuak, a local firewater made of fermented rice, yeast and sugar, to all the guests. Energetic youngsters jumped around the hall, while sharp-eyed women sporting intricate tattoos and cavernous earlobes, sat chewing betel, a bitter green leaf with mild stimulant properties, and gossiping amongst themselves. Everyone it seemed was out to have a good time, and the slow burn of anticipation was palpable.

 

Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, tribes people of Sarawak, the Orang Ulu, the Iban, Kuching, travel Sarawak, Betang Rejang river, Longhouse, Kapit, Belaga, Malaysian jungles, travel Borneo,  longhouse wedding, Alison AitkenA barefoot three-man band settled themselves close to the front of the hall causing the noisy crowd to fall into a whispered hush. As the solemn rhythm of their copper drums gently began to gather energy and momentum, the sea of cross legged attendees began to sway and nod in time. Suddenly, a flurry of feathers soared from one corner and into the centre of the hall. Clad in a striking costume of quills, fur and braids, this slender figure strutted snakelike around the space, as if to cast some supernatural spell on the audience. The drums were beating ever faster and we couldn’t help but wonder what would happen next.

 

After the tempo of the drums dropped off, the bride and groom revealed themselves as they made their way across the crowded stage.

 

The appearance of an unmistakeably modern couple in their respective outfits of tulle and tux came as quite a surprise, especially since all the guests were dressed in traditional garb. Stepping shyly towards the stage, the blushing bride and trembling groom were greeted with enthusiastic cheers. Flanked by gawky but grinning ushers, the youthful pair were helped onto the stage, where a short ceremony was conducted by the plumed performer. Ceremony concluded and photographs taken, the highlight of the reception was unveiled: an enormous karaoke machine. There was it seemed, much celebrating left to do. After some obligatory, but nonetheless embarrassing, efforts on the dance floor, we thanked the happy couple and made our way out.

 

Pleased to have shown us such a special occasion, our guide led us back to the boat and onward to our third longhouse of the day – the home of the former community chief. While most of the inhabitants were off making merry at the wedding, my group and I were exchanging pleasantries with the chief. Although small in stature, the former leader was big in heart. Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, tribes people of Sarawak, the Orang Ulu, the Iban, Kuching, travel Sarawak, Betang Rejang river, Longhouse, Kapit, Belaga, Malaysian jungles, travel Borneo,  longhouse wedding, Alison AitkenHe was very welcoming, generous and personable and for the next three hours we were entertained by his eager demonstrations of local instruments and eerie tribal dances, complete with hornbill headdress. We tried to master the simple nose flute but were met with laughter and observational humour from the chief – ‘such big nostrils, but so little finesse!’

 

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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