42 handshakes in Borneo

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THE boats pulled up to the makeshift landing and we scrambled up the muddy bank. There, perched atop fragile-looking stilts, stood the longhouse we had come to see. It stood in a clearing in the midst of the jungle, but on the hard-packed ground around it were not jungle animals but family after family of small pigs with their piglets. A hundred feet away was the guest longhouse, put up by the tourist bureau to accommodate visitors to this Malaysian country of Sarawak, on the northern rim of Borneo.

After a hot six-hour bus ride from Kuching, the 45-minute trip up the Skrang River through the jungle was a pleasant change. Narrow boats powered by outboard motors and seating about eight are the only way to this small village.

First we dropped our bags at the guesthouse, a bamboo-sided building also high on stilts. The large room that was our dormitory had a narrow aisle running the length, with a six-foot-wide shelf about a foot and a half above the floor on each side. Beyond this main room was a smaller one where our local guide cooked our meals, and beyond that we were grateful to find a room with Western-style facilities.

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Each guest is given a cloth-covered foam rubber pad, a pillow, one sheet, one light blanket, and a pillowcase. Along part of the shelves, bamboo dividers spaced wide enough to allow for two pads between them give partial privacy, but most of us elected to sleep in the open area, hoping for more ventilation. Doubtful about the lighting, we made up our beds while it was still sunlight.

In the real longhouse, native sea Dyaks still live as they have for generations. As we walked along what was truly a ``long'' house, they returned our nods and smiles but otherwise paid little attention to us as they went about their work. Here the whole village lives under one roof.

The house consists of one communal room running the length of the building, a room so long that it was hard to see the far end in the dim light. Not many villagers were home in the afternoon, although some children kept a curious eye on us. A few dogs were stretched out on the rough wooden floor, and here and there colorful fighting cocks were shackled.

Opening off this room along one side are individual rooms, each housing a single family. On the other side of the community room, doors opened to an uncovered porch where clothes were drying and more lazy dogs were sunning themselves. Hanging on makeshift lines, T-shirts with American and European place-names let us know that we were not the first visitors here.

But if the youngsters wore shirts with CALIFORNIA or YALE printed in bold colors, the adults did not, as we saw when the chief and half a dozen other men came to welcome us. Then, accompanied by a few women playing percussion instruments, the men performed native traditional dances. With their heavily tattooed skins and their immense feather headdresses, these men gave a hint of being not far removed from the once ``wild men of Borneo.''

It was plain that their tattoos were not painted on and were not done yesterday just for the benefit of tourists, even though the performance was. Headhunting is now strictly illegal, but cockfighting, although technically illegal, is still a popular pastime in the villages.

Later when one of the men demonstrated his remarkable skill with a blowgun, we saw that native skills are still alive and well and are being passed on to their T-shirted children.

After the dance, we were free to wander anywhere until the call came for our dinner back at the guesthouse.

Before the tour, the guide had assured us that there would be no problem in the matter of food, as we would take it with us. Doris, our guide from Kuching, proved to be an excellent cook. How she turned out such a delicious meal in those limited quarters we could only guess.

A wok was the basis of it, along with some bakery goods and lots of fresh pineapple. As we sat on wooden benches on our porch overlooking the jungle and the river, dogs, smart in the ways of tourists, begged at our feet and were well rewarded.

During dinner we were joined by three Americans on vacation from their work in Singapore, and by a Malaysian from Kuala Lumpur who was a teacher at a village farther down the river. He explained that one of the boys he taught lived at this village and had invited him here for a visit. The children who do not live in the area of the school board there and return to their own villages only occasionally. The Americans had rented a boat and had been much farther up the river exploring the jungle and other villages. This gave me the opportunity I had wanted to ask how ``real'' this village experience was. Was it just for show, or was it really typical? They assured me that it was indeed typical.

One reason that so few adults were around during the day was that they were out in the forest hunting or caring for crops that were planted in jungle clearings. The fact that they were paid a certain amount to ``entertain'' visitors interfered very little with their traditional pattern of living.

A shower that came up after dinner did not keep us from returning to the longhouse for the evening. This time we were not presented a program but were part of their entertainment. Candles and kerosene lanterns lighted the room as we were led to reed mats to watch their spontaneous and unrehearsed dancing.

One or two people at a time would get up to dance while others accompanied them on drums. After each dancer finished, including a brave child or two, he or she would come to shake each of our hands. Forty-two handshakes I counted!

Then the villagers invited us to participate, and, bumblingly, some tried to follow their lead. By this time, the crowd was relaxed and enjoying itself. Several women now brought out on display some of their handicrafts, mostly crude carvings of jungle animals and birds along with some beadwork, obviously following a recommendation of the tourist bureau. They politely invited us to buy, but they also seemed pleased just to have us admire their work. By 9 o'clock, however, babies were beginning to nod, as were we, and bedtime did not seem too early.

Back at the guesthouse, 12 adults standing in the narrow aisle somehow got into their pajamas and nightgowns and settled down on the foam mattresses. Then the place began to sound like a tent at a children's summer camp. We were too excited to fall asleep until our guide reminded us that sunrise would come early and that we had a long day ahead of us.

Gradually the jokes and repartee died down, and we slept until two pigs had an altercation on the ground beneath the building. We were too tired to stay awake long, and the next thing we knew, the sun was shining through the slits in the bamboo walls. Scrambled eggs, fresh pineapple, and rolls fortified us for the ride back to the hotel at Kuching.

Before I left, the one question I had was, how wild is Borneo? The high-rise buildings reaching into the 20th century in Kota Kinabalou offered one answer. The morning Wall Street Journal under the bedroom door at the hotel in the oil-rich country of Brunei was another. A third was the shabbiness of Kuching and the small towns along the way where happy children, unaware of any shabbiness, were intent on their games.

This village, economically self-sufficient, apparently crime free, filled with busy men and women content to carry on the old ways without television, sports cars, or microwave ovens, was still another. Wild, uncivilized? Not Borneo!

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