42 handshakes in Borneo
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.