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Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Warm Heart of Borneo: Sarawak

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, 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 Aitkenrutted muddy tracks came into view. These jagged scars revealed the obvious presence of machinery in the previously untouched Malaysian jungles.

 

The unrestrained logging which claimed so much of Sarawak’s rainforest in the 1980’s and 1990’s has fortunately been brought under tighter controls. However, economic pressures and the interwoven need for sustainable employment ensure that significant logging (both legal and illegal) continues. While a small percentage of the remaining forest in Sarawak has now been allocated to government protection, the controversies surrounding the logging, and more recently the palm oil industry, remain significant. As we passed upstream, evidence of current work completed was in no short supply. Huge piles of felled forest awaiting transportation downriver lined the riverbanks. Although saddened by the piles of timber, we could see that this industry provided much-needed income for the impoverished workers who were scattered at logging sites along our route.

 

After an overnight stopover in the one-time garrison town of Kapit, we awoke eager to advance deeper into the jungle and away from modern civilization. Unfortunately for us, another boat trip was required. Our ferry skimmed across the currents of the Pelagus rapids and into the Upper Rejang. Although the damage done by loggers in past years was evident, the surging jungle seemed to be regaining much of its’ previous strength along the riverbank. Here, elegant coal-eyed egrets patrolled the shallows, the brilliant white of their plumage in stark contrast to the vivid greens of its surroundings. Above the dull roar of the outboard engine, the song of unseen cicadas broke through the thick rainforest. Nature was, without question, still the dominant force.

 

We were confident that we had broken free of the beaten path, but our hopes were crushed within moments of arriving in Belaga. Happy to vacate the confines of the cramped boat and begin our adventure into the wild, we were surprised to catch sight of a chubby pair of locals taking part in a clumsy game of tennis on a well-kept riverside court. Given that the town itself was comprised of little more than two shabby streets, an imaginative use of surplus concrete seemed to explain this odd sight. Not quite the bats we’d been expecting.

 

Within five minutes of arriving, it was quickly established that we six were the only tourists in town. A much needed shower and a cold beer later, an improbable meeting with an enterprising but as yet unknown local had been arranged for early the following morning. With a growing sense of anticipation, we readied ourselves for what we hoped would be an unmissable adventure.

 

Tired, hungry and frustrated, we decided to rest up for the night in Belaga, hoping that we would be refreshed for the adventure ahead of us. After questioning a few of the locals we were pointed in the direction of a guide to lead us on the next part of our trip. At only 24, the energetically mischievous Andreas had a merry twinkle in his almond eyes. Proudly professional and unquestionably entrepreneurial, he was a man of many talents. This one-time Sarawak Tourist board employee and tribal dancer deployed an inexhaustible stream of cheeky banter, jokes and magic tricks throughout our trip- inevitably drawing playful slaps from the tribal women, hearty guffaws from the men and coy glances from the younger girls. With little negotiation and a few last-minute errands, Andreas had us heading upriver towards a local Longhouse in no time. 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 AitkenPeppering the banks of the otherwise uninhabitable jungle, these stilted, elongated buildings are home to communities of the modern-day tribes people of Sarawak – the Orang Ulu and the Iban. Constructed from hardy Balian or “Ironwood”, each Longhouse accommodates up to 180 people, whose homes share one roof and a huge communal front porch. Despite the excitement of our visit, I was still wary of the head-hunting tendencies of the Iban ancestors. This concern never left my mind as we approached the building.

 


 

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!’

 


 

After enduring our failed attempts at the nose flute, the spritely septuagenarian leapt to his feet and plucked a long and narrow piece of bamboo from a nearby wall. 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 AitkenWondering if this was yet another exotic instrument, we were stunned into silence as it became clear that it was something altogether more compelling. Once used by head-hunters for unambiguous purposes, the blow-pipe continues to be used by tribes-people today with wild boar, the local prey of choice. Through mime we learned the stealth and precision of the technique in spite of the fact that rifles were now a popular upgrade. All too soon, it was time for us to take our leave. The formality of our initial greeting was in amusing contrast to the farewell hugs and kisses we now received. We ended our eventful day with a candlelit catfish dinner and a few hours of rest on the floor of our guides’ home. Around us, a chorus of snores floated in and out of the thin wooden walls, as the longhouse united in sleep.

 

The following morning we re-energized with a few cups of syrupy sweet local coffee before the start of our next adventure. Having experienced the civilised side of jungle life, we set off an hour later to try our hands at the more primitive alternative. We slid down leaf strewn slopes following our nimble-footed guide as he made his way expertly through the mesh of sprouting foliage. Giant creepers dangled from the branches of the canopy, and unseen birds called across the treetops high above us. Somewhere ahead of us, the crash of water on rocks could be heard. After sidestepping a colony of fire ants and scrambling over fallen trunks, we emerged into a tranquil lichen-clad glade. My group and I were delighted to come upon a loud cascade of water falling from 30 metres above. After trekking through the humid jungle our clothes were drenched with filth and sweat. We welcomed the oasis-like waterfall and cast our clothes and fear of leeches aside, leaping with glee into the crisp, cool water.

 

Aside from a minor encounter with a swirling, potentially poisonous giant millipede, the waterfall was a success and we headed to our jungle camp rejuvenated. Our clean skin quickly resumed a sticky sheen, as we pushed on through the trees followed by a swarm of hungry mosquitoes. Arriving at the ramshackle camp not long before dark, our guides set about preparing an impressive meal of sticky rice, vegetables and freshly caught fish - much of which had been cooked inside bamboo tubes hacked from the surrounding undergrowth. As our sated campfire chatter stilled to sleepy silence, we were quickly immersed in the strangely hypnotic green noise of the jungle.

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 Aitken

The following day, it was time to pack up and head for home. Having arrived not knowing quite what to expect, we departed with fond memories of the remarkable experiences of the days that passed. With heads occupied by the striking images we had been privileged to observe, and hearts full of gratitude for the longhouse people, we took our leave and began the slow trip back to an altogether different kind of civilization.

©Alison Aitken

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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