In the Iban heartland: Day oneAfter a four hour drive from Kuching, we arrived at the dam where there were two longboats waiting for us. Since there were four of us arriving from Kuching, we needed at least two longboats. You could possibly squeeze more people in; I've been in a longboat where there were over ten people, including my camp supplies. Needless to say, it was a very unsafe AND uncomfortable situation (flashback of a memory being wedged between a large box of supplies and a certain, very annoying, very hairy colleague), and from then on, I've made sure that I would never go through that again. I’d throw my hairy, annoying colleague out of the boat, if I have to (like I need any excuse, heee). Two passengers plus luggage, and boatdriver on a longboat is very reasonable and safe.
The longhouse we were going to spend the first night is located in Engkari, which I've never been to. After dozing a bit on the longboat, I woke up to a really pretty sight of rolling hills by the river, some with rice fields. It never ceases to amaze me how the Ibans could work on these hills, as steep as they are. There was one scenic longhouse that was unconventionally built along the hill: instead of your typical longhouse that is usually built on a relatively flat surface, this longhouse had its biliks (rooms) stacked like lego, so that each room was higher than the previous room.
Later, a fleet of longboats with tourists clad with orange lifevests zoomed past us. I stopped counting after the tenth longboat. It’s amazing how some tour companies could pack the tourists in for one single visit. By that fleet alone, they could fill their own longhouse. I wonder if I am the only one who thinks that the orange-clad tourists make lovely hunting targets? So tempting…. Anyway, we passed a longhouse later where there were more tourists, sans orange-clad lifevests, milling about. Some were bathing with the local kids in the river.
It’s always such a sight to see kiddies bathing with such naked abandon in the river. I groaned to myself when I remembered that I didn’t bring my camera along for the trip. When one of the bathing boys saw us, he shouted out and danced a ngajat for us. It was just so cute because he was so young and so naked. Any older and I’d yell at him to stop being a pervert and put his clothes back on.
The boat journey continued on, and the river got narrower and narrower. You could almost touch the riverbank, well, if you had long psycho arms, that is. When we turned into yet another bend in the river, there were about fifteen men waiting for us on a rocky riverbed. A barbeque was set up and they cheered when we arrived. I cheered too because it was long past lunchtime, and I haven’t been fed yet. It was an impromptu party, before we reached the longhouse. Naturally, there was tuak to be had, which I declined. Bosses + alcohol + me are never a pleasant mix, and should be avoided as much as possible, especially if subject has repressed, upset feelings towards former boss. We feasted on wild rambutans, palm shoots and barbequed chicken. I was hoping for some durian but alas, there wasn’t any. I also wondered about the lack of women in the welcoming party but I also knew that this was the Iban society way: where the women wait in the kitchen while the men eat, and yet, they work side to side together in the harsh hills. It’s like every culture worldwide where the men are usually the leeches - those bastards. Later at the longhouse, I definitely appreciated my former boss’s effort to hand out the tuak to the women in the kitchen while in the midst of offering to the rest of the men – so that it’s obvious that the women are not offered last, as they usually are.
After the late lunch, we finally made it to the longhouse and boy, did my jaw drop when we arrived. The longhouse is definitely one of a kind. It has the traditional design of a typical Iban longhouse, the only difference is the type of materials that was used to build the longhouse. It was cemented, with tiled floors. My boss couldn’t get over the tiled floors, as he kept hissing to me, “each tile costs over RM3!!”. And this was at least a twenty-roomed longhouse. Truth to be told, I appreciate the traditional wooden longhouse much more. Besides having lots of character, it was just also airier than a modernized longhouse.
We were ushered into the room of our host and I was amazed on how large the room was. It was as big as our office/house and had large lurid pink pleather couches. They even had Astro, a very popular satellite tv host. The funny thing about the couches was that no one hardly used them and we mostly sat outside the bilik on the cold, hard tiles.
I had thought to myself, gee, this longhouse has really “made it”, until we took a walk up and down the longhouse and found out that on the other ends of the longhouse, the rest of the inhabitants were not as well-off as our host. Some didn’t even have roofs inside their rooms, much less furniture. It was quite a bizarre social experiment where we knew that each inhabitant had to chip in for the tiled floors outside the rooms, but not all had enough money to complete their own rooms. So it was quite sad really. Another thing that we noticed was that there was no mixing between the “poorer” and the “richer” inhabitants of the longhouse, which was very “unlonghouse behaviour”, if I recall. There were also “NO SMOKING” signs plastered on the walls, and after talking to a few inhabitants and being in the longhouse for a while, it was very obvious how everyone adhered to the signs. It was also interesting that very few people in the longhouse actually smoked, which is really uncommon in the rural areas, or heck just Asia in general. An elder claims that most of them quit when the price of smokes increased.
“…and it’s not good for your health!”
The rest of the day was spent drinking (I was the paragon of abstinence, very easily achieved when most of the alcohol available was cheap, distilled liquor called langkau). Socializing with the rapidly pissed men proved to be a very boring affair, so I snucked out to the back where the women were happily chatting and most importantly, eating durians. I eagerly reached out for a white, plump piece only to be hugely disappointed when my teeth couldn’t penetrate the fruit. It was completely unripe: it was like chewing coconut. That was what I kept telling myself so that I could eat it and not offend anyone by spitting it out, which was what I dearly wanted to do. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to wait for the durian to be ripen, or most importantly, offer me ripe durian. The host’s wife took a great liking to me, despite her first words to me being, “your Malay isn’t that great, is it?” Everyone’s a critic in the rural areas. At least, I didn’t get criticisms of my size, which unfortunately, was what one of us kept on getting throughout the trip.
“You’re so fat! You’re so fat!!!”
God, if it were me, I would crumble inside into little pieces. Especially when they made pig sizing gestures with their fingers (two fingers clenched together and held under the victim’s throat). It’s not so much spite, but rather, the pleasure of endless repetition of the obvious, especially when you are so different from the rest. It’s like everyone is a Chinese aunt/mother in the longhouse and strives to point out any physical flaws that you have, over and over again. Hello, self esteem? I see you’ve been battered mercilessly into little pieces. Looks like I need a new one.
I later sought refuge with my drawing pad, and within minutes, I was surrounded by precocious girls, aged 5-6. They were intrigued when they discovered that I had been drawing their longhouse and chattered merrily to me in fast Iban, which I barely understood. I offered the pad to them and suggested with gestures and some Malay that they could draw on it. Thrilled, yet a little shy, they looked hesitantly at each other before the boldest took the pad and drew her version of the longhouse. At one of the other girl’s suggestion, she also wrote her name and age above her drawing. So cute! An elderly woman came up to us, curious with what we were doing. I tried speaking to her in Malay but she barely understood so we spent most of the time, smiling pleasantly at each other. It was rather nice, since we were all outside the longhouse. Just ten metres away, were a group of young men engaged in a fast & furious game of sepak takraw. The sun was setting, casting a reddish glow on the cultivated hills. I could see my bosses talking amongst themselves, and hear the swift current of the river below. There were few biting insects and I felt that I could just stay out there for hours, in the company of these sweet, chattering girls and a smiling grandmother.
But soon, it was time for dinner and dinner was a combination of canned food that we had brought, some wild veggies, and lots and lots of hill rice. Some rooms insisted that we try their version of hill rice, which tasted all the same to me anyway. I’m also rather irritated by people’s insistence that you should eat more, and at the same breath, comment on how big/fat you are. I mean, it’s one way or the other, leave the poor fat person alone!
After dinner, was more drinking, which I escaped by sleeping really early (around eight p.m.). I was exhausted from the long drive, and boat ride, and unripe durians, and truly just wanted to sleep. I endured crazy dreams of my family turning into orangutans. More importantly, I also dreamt that we saw an orangutan the next day, which according to the Iban dream interpretation, meant that – we were going to see an orangutan the next day. The Ibans are very literal people.
coming up: day two in the Iban heartland