Wednesday, December 15, 2004

In the Iban heartland: Day two (part I)

(continuation of my journey to the Iban heartland, Day One)

Despite being really tired, I didn't sleep well on the first night. I think I made a mistake of following my boss to the bedroom (along with the host family, we slept on mattresses on the floor in a large communal room) that night. Later, there was much speculation from the drunken party downstairs that we were doing more than just sleeping, IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. This, despite the fact that my boss is married with kids. It also explained why I had vague memories of yelling, drunk Ibans stumbling into the room and urging us to go downstairs. Apparently, they were hoping to catch us in the "act". Excuse me while I go scourge my brain now.

The next morning, my former boss had the proud distinction of being chosen to provide symbolic strength for a toddler. It was a special miring (?) ceremony where it had to be conducted at dawn. She stood on this specially carved wood, with the toddler on her shoulders. I didn't see all this unfortunately because I decided to take a quick cold shower, thinking that I would be done before the ceremony started. I felt rather embarrassed when I walked out later and everyone, EVERYONE, especially my former boss with her steely gaze, turned and stared at me. Even the toddler looked disapproving.

Social faux pas:1 Cayce in former boss' good books: 0

Number of times Cayce appreciates that former boss is FORMER boss: to the infinity and beyond.

Aside from the fact that my former boss has been extremely generous and very kind towards the longhouse inhabitants since the 90's, one strong reason why they hold her to the highest regard is because she is white.

For the rest of our stay in the longhouse, the women stroked the arms of the two white people in our party, and sighed, "this is GOOD SKIN!" Pointed at their skin, "this is bad skin! Yours is good skin."

The "GOOD SKIN" women were very embarrassed and quickly reassured them that it was all the same skin, much to the disbelief on the Iban women's faces.

I was later asked by A. (one of the GOOD SKIN women) about the difficulties of being a local, female researcher and boy, did I divulge... It's much more difficult than most people realize, there is a lot of sacrifice and hardships involved. There is an expectancy of how a good, local woman should be like, and working in this line of work does not fit into this expectancy. Hence, there is much speculation on the reasons why a local woman would want to do fieldwork. It's hard to be a field boss and a local woman at the same time. And at the end of the day, I'm still treated like a secretary when I am in a meeting with men in town.

She freely admitted that being a white female researcher is much easier, based on her experiences in Africa. As a white man, you are given much respect in the developing world, but as a white woman, you will have the same respect, yet locals are more inclined to confide, cooperate and share things with you than they would with a white man (who is generally viewed as more intimidating). And if you're a local female researcher, well, you're basically the bottom of the totem pole. Sometimes, I kid about being so politically correct: a young, indigenous, female wildlife researcher from Borneo. But I also realize how these attributes really matter because very few are willing to go along this route.

But I digress...

After breakfast (I particularly loved the rice cakes, which tasted like African corn bread according to A.), a woman came up to us and displayed her pua kumbus, a hand-woven warp ikat textile, that represent the quintessence of the Iban culture. The pua kumbu is created from individually dyed threads on a black strap loom. It's definitely a unique form of weaving, in terms of technique and design. Pua kumbus make great gifts, if you can afford the original, and not the machine-made kinds that you mostly see at the Main Bazaar. Sadly, skilled pua kumbu weavers are facing the same fate as the endangered orangutans. Very few young women are picking up the skill, leaving the pua kumbu craft as a dangerously close to dying-out art.

The day before, we had met the best pua kumbu weaver in the longhouse: a small, elderly woman with a shy smile. She stopped weaving over a decade ago due to failing of her eyesight. She would only show us one piece from her collection, because she wanted to keep the rest for her family, which was really, the right thing to do. I loved it the moment I saw it: it was a large piece with spirits?men? and dragons, with the usual colours of red and black and, interestingly, baby blue.

But A. had the first bid on it, being Honourable Distinguished Guest, and anyway, I didn't have enough cash on me. She was selling the piece for RM200, which honestly is a bargain considering the same kind of pieces (although each piece is unique to the weaver) cost around three times as much in town. I could see that A. was unsure about it, but she bought it anyway because that was the only piece that the weaver wanted to sell.

When the other weaver brought out her pua kumbu pieces, it was obvious that A. was very interested in the piece that featured biawaks or monitor lizards. But she didn't want to come away with two pua kumbus, so I offered to trade, which made her happy. And I was happy. Although I also wanted to buy the other one... which goes to show that I would somehow find a way to shop despite being in the deepest, darkest jungle (well, ignore for a minute, the tiled longhouse - it was a considerable effort just to get there!!!).

She later sold the piece to me with almost 50% off, as a token appreciation for me acting as a guide and showing her around in the field. I thought that was very nice of her.

As well, we traded sarongs: my local batik sarong for her bright yellow and orange African sarong. I adore all kinds of sarongs - when I was in Bali, I stocked up on sarongs like nobody's business. I ended up giving almost all of them away to family. I love, LOVE my African sarong. Currently wearing it every day too.

Soon it was time to leave, and we plied into the longboats. My bosses were heading back to town, while A. and I were going to continue our journey in the field. Our longboats split up at the river junction, and as I watched the other longboat steadily getting smaller towards the horizon that was rimmed with green hills, I thought, how lucky I was to be where I am right now.

coming up: Day Two (part II)


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