Saturday, March 24, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Six

The Longhouse

The longhouse compound is atop a steep embankment next to the river. It is divided into two sections separated by a small inlet and connected by a simple and attractive wooden bridge. The longhouse and several nearby structures are on one side. The lodge in which we would stay is on the other. All the buildings are wood with tin roofs.

We went to the lodge first to check it out and get settled. Like the longhouse it is built on stilts. The stilts lift it three or four feet off the ground; the longhouse stilts are much higher. The lodge is a very simply constructed L-shaped building. The walls are vertical planks of wood butted up against each other. An overhang from the roof provides (some) protection from the rain. It didn’t happen while we were there, but I assume if it is both rainy and windy it will be wet inside.

Inside the entrance door is a large room that is the dining area and, in the rear, the kitchen. The left side of the room is mostly open, like a veranda, where we could sit or stand looking out at the river and the jungle beyond. I assume there is a way to enclose the room if necessary, but it was always open during our visit. I found hanging out in this space, especially in the hour before sunset, was a wonderful experience.

On the right and then left down the long side of the L are the sleeping quarters and then sinks, toilets and showers. We began to check out the rooms. The lodge can sleep 17, but since we would be the only guests we could choose any room we liked. At this point reality started to set in. We began to understand what Lemon meant when he said the lodge was ‘primitive.’ They were all the same, a space about 12’ long and 8’ wide with a raised wooden platform for sleeping filling about ¾ of the area. There was no electricity in the lodge, so the rooms were dark. And there was no ventilation, so they were hot and humid. The sidewalls of the rooms were narrow slats of wood, so had we been sharing the lodge with other people there would have been little privacy.

We chose a room, #8, which had a sign on the door: Dulang Ini Manang. Unfortunately, I failed to find out what that meant. We chose #8 because it was close to the toilet facilities, which I thought would come in handy at about 4 in the morning when I had to pee. (I was right.) Sandra and I hauled our luggage (we had left most of our things back at the Holiday Inn, so we didn’t have too much) into #8. With the door closed it was totally dark, so we propped it open as we began trying to figure out how we were going to organize ourselves. We looked at each other and traded an unspoken thought – something like “Oh, my…”

A woman brought in two small mattresses, sheets, a light blanket, and a mosquito net and set up our bed. There was a foot or two of leftover space on the platform that we used to store our things. We had flashlights, which came in very handy.

I went down the hall to check out the toilet facilities. It reminded me of an army barracks. There was a row of sinks. There were three showers. There were a couple of latrines. Fortunately, they were western toilets so we wouldn’t have to squat. By this time it was no surprise to learn that the water was only cold. I wasn’t too concerned by this. It was the tropics after all, and I’d survived without hot water on numerous occasions in the past.

Without discussing it Sandra and I both realized that in order to get the most out of this experience we needed to spend little or no time being unhappy about any discomfort or other inconvenience we would encounter during our three days with the Ibans. In other words we needed to re-contextualize our circumstances. Or said another way, “Like it or not, this is it. Get with the program.” So that’s what we did – within a very few minutes.

Lemon suggested we visit the longhouse, which we were eager to do. To get up to the main level of the house we climbed a contraption that was like a slanted ladder with wooden blocks for rungs. The wood was slippery, so the handrails on both sides helped. We removed our shoes before going inside.

My guess is that the longhouse is about 200 feet long and 30 feet wide. Lemon said there were 31 families in the settlement, 21 in the longhouse and 10 in additional housing next door. Along the left side was a wall with doors, behind which each family had their private space. Running alongside the wall was a wooden walkway and to the right of that was community space, about 9 feet wide, covered with straw mats.

The light was dim, but it wasn’t dark. Interestingly enough, while we were without electricity in the lodge, there was electricity in the longhouse. They have a generator. I didn’t notice any working electric bulbs this afternoon, but on another visit the following evening one area was brightened by neon lights. I told Lemon later that I didn’t think a little electricity in the lodge would destroy the authenticity of the Iban experience. Just one bare bulb in a room would make a big difference. As it was, we were being asked to be more Iban than the Iban. He suggested I make the suggestion to the Borneo Adventure management, which I did in an email after we returned home.

Hanging from hooks on the wall were some of the arts and crafts the Iban made. There were gourds, baskets, woven items, bags, conical hats, rattan pieces, and more. As we walked through no one made any attempt to show us their goods or sell us anything. It was relatively quiet inside. There were children, babies and dogs, all of whom paid little attention to us, and some adults, mostly women. I had the sense that everyone was so used to seeing visitors like us the novelty had long since worn off. I didn’t get any sense of hostility – more just disinterest.

Apparently it was an important protocol for us to walk all the way to the end of the longhouse before completing our visit. So we did. There, a small balcony gave us a good view of another part of the colony. We looked down at the home of the former chief, who had died not long ago. It seemed to be quite a substantial dwelling. I don’t know whether the new chief will move into it or it will be used for another purpose. I shoulda asked. And we could see the houses of those families who didn’t live in the longhouse.

While the longhouse is a form of communal living, each family is responsible for their own financial well being. There are a few revenue-producing possibilities in and around the longhouse, but not many. The one that had everyone’s attention while we were there was harvesting and extracting illippinut seeds. The illippi trees yield fruit in shells (kind of like coconuts except smaller), which the Iban gather by shaking the trees or by collecting those that have fallen on their own. They break open the shells by hand or with a mallet to get at the seeds. They then sell the seeds which, when processed, produce cooking oil. Lemon told us that the current price for seeds is high, so it was not surprising that illippinuts preoccupied so many longhouse residents.

No one was exempt from the illippinut mania. Inside the longhouse old women were at work opening the shells while they babysat their grandchildren. Outside, men were hunched over piles of husks wielding their mallets. Teenagers and young men were floating up the river and then back again, their boats loaded with nuts. And the next afternoon, when it rained, little girls were wading in the river collecting shells that had dropped off the trees into the water.

It is common for members of the longhouse to move into Kuching or further away to find work. Most are untrained and settle for domestic or menial tasks. These jobs don’t pay much, but for them it is better than nothing. And it is a way for them to help support their families. An example: When we drove back to Kuching a young woman recently graduated from high school came with us. She would live with her sister who was already there and look for a job. Another example: We met two older men who had been away for several years working on oilrigs in various parts of the world. Even with the travel and long absences, however, it was clear that these Iban retained strong ties to their longhouse. It was home.

When we left the longhouse we ran into a group of teenagers. They spoke a little English and wanted to hang out for a few minutes. Our interaction was not profound, but contact was made and it was satisfying.

In the lodge a couple of women would help Lemon prepare dinner. He was the main cook. We’d eat in about an hour, and since spending time in our room wasn’t an attractive option we read, watched the river and jungle as the light faded, listened to the birds, and I had a wonderful warm beer.

Dinner was quite tasty. Chicken, rice, two vegetables and pineapple. And healthful too.
Lemon had a plan for us to visit the longhouse again after dinner, and even though it wasn’t late we were quite tired and asked if we could do it after dinner tomorrow. A combination of travel plus the expenditure of a lot of nervous energy had done us in. So it was off to bed.

In the dining area of the lodge two kerosene pressure lanterns provided light. In the walkways alongside the rooms small glass covered candles lit the way. And, of course, we had our flashlights to use in the bedroom and toilets. Piece of cake? Well, almost, except for taking out my contact lenses. To do that Sandra held a flashlight and I flipped them into my hand. A little dicey, but workable.

I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping under the mosquito net. The thing allows no air and under the best of circumstances it is very warm inside. These were not the best of circumstances, though, and it was hot inside. While mosquitoes hadn’t bothered us up till now, it didn’t seem smart to assume there were none, so we climbed in and figured we’d survive.

In fact we did quite well. I slept far more soundly than I thought I would. The temperature dropped a bit during the night and it was quite comfortable, mosquito net and all. Before dozing off I let the lullaby of the jungle serenade me. I don’t know what all the sounds were, but they were wonderful. I could recognize the crickets, of course, and the distinctive chirp-chirp of the gekkos. But there was much more. Probably some birds, likely some animals nearby, and a few mystery voices.

In the morning we woke to a different lullaby – pigs and roosters. We had noticed that the Iban had quite a few pigs wandering around and many chickens and roosters. The pigs were right outside the lodge, grunting and snorting and rooting in the dirt for – whatever. The roosters were doing what roosters do in the morning. None of this was unpleasant, just different.

I have a morning routine that I’m attached to. I have to be highly disincented to change it. The lodge may be primitive, but that wasn’t disincentive enough. So I did my thing. Brush my teeth, wash my face, shave, and shower. I must say the shower was a bit colder than I expected it to be, probably chilled by the same temperature drop that made it easier for us to sleep. But not too cold to go ahead and get refreshed.

Lemon made a great breakfast. Eggs, potatoes, sausage and baked beans plus lots of good, strong coffee.

This would be the day we would go upriver and have lunch at the Enseluai Waterfalls. But before setting off we had a choice to make. We could go all the way on our longboat or we could trek for a while and meet the boat about halfway to the falls. Lemon said it would be about a 45-minute hike. We chose the trek/boat combination. We were blissfully ignorant of what we had signed up for.

Both Sandra and I thought the trek would be similar to the kind of hikes we take at Yosemite. Some ups and downs – a little tough in spots – on a well traveled trail. Well, the Borneo rainforest ain’t no Yosemite. It took us about 30 seconds to figure this out. We were taken to the other side of the river on the boat and had to climb up a muddy, slippery embankment to the trail. Sandra was wearing hiking boots that had no grip. I was wearing sneakers that had no grip. If you can slide uphill, that’s what we did to get started. But we weren’t about to back out.

It turned out that our trek was both wonderful and much more difficult than we’d anticipated. It wasn’t the distance traveled, or the elevation changes that made it tough. It was keeping our balance. It does rain in the rainforest, and even though it didn’t rain while we were walking (if it had I don’t think we’d have been able to make it) for much of way it was quite slippery. Lemon saw I was having trouble staying vertical and used a machete he was carrying to cut off a tree branch that I carried and used to steady myself. It made a big difference. Later, he did the same for Sandra.

We crossed several small streams on bridges of logs. We passed a small wooden house that is the grave of a legendary local Iban warrior. We saw one of the longhouse residents cultivating tapioca plants. Further on women were harvesting rice. We saw pepper growing wild. We learned that the Iban only clear land part way up a mountain, leaving trees on the upper slopes for the spirits of the dead. In some places there was open space. In most places the jungle closed us in.

All along the way Lemon tried hard to find an orangutan for us to see. They are the only species of great apes outside of Africa, are only found in Borneo and Sumatra, and are endangered. They live in this area and from time to time are seen. He listened closely and said he could hear them. He showed us trees in which they had nested. But none came into view.

By the time we met up with Nam and Abong on the river nearly two hours had passed. Clearly, when Lemon said the trek would take 45 minutes he didn’t take into consideration who he was walking with. My thighs were suffering. I guess that’s the part of my legs that bore the brunt of my struggle to stay upright. They cramped up a bit and were very sore. But we did make it and were proud of ourselves. It was also a glorious two hours. I noticed that in this case I was really happy to see the longboat.

From where we linked up with the boat the falls weren’t far. On the way we passed through quite a few rapids and we also stopped several times so Nam could fish. He fished the Iban way, with a net. He would toss a stone some distance out in front of the boat and then lower a round net, about 6’ in diameter, into the water. After a minute or so he’d pull the net up and check the results. I don’t know the purpose of the stone that begins the process. Maybe it is to frighten the fish so they swim in our direction. At the time I couldn’t tell whether he was catching anything, but later when we had lunch we realized he’d actually done quite well.

The Enseluai Falls are wonderful. They aren’t too large, maybe 25 or 30 feet high, but the setting is very beautiful. The trees, the plants, the color, the rocks, the sound, all come together into an idyllic whole. We were dropped off on the side of the river with the best spot for viewing the falls and our three guys, all cooks for this meal, went over to the other side to begin preparing lunch. We spent the next half hour quietly soaking up the rainforest’s ambiance.

In the meantime, a lot of activity was going on. Abong built a large fire. Nam built a small fire. Lemon was preparing fruits and vegetables. And the cooking began. Abong stuffed rice into bamboo cylinders and laid them in and (atop some poles he’d erected) over the fire. He was making sticky rice with a delicious, unique flavor. He was also grilling eggplant on his fire. Nam was frying the fish he’d caught (Lemon said they were small carp about 6” long) and steaming regular rice. The fish are very bony, but when thoroughly fried can be eaten as is. They were also delicious. Sandra balked at eating the heads, so I had more than my fair share of them. Lemon cooked a beef dish, pieces of chicken, string beans and made a sauce of I know not what. Finally, we had chunks of not-quite-ripe papaya.

This feast was laid out in front of us on planks of wood. We sat on our little seats from the boat and ate. I was in awe of what these guys had put together. I was also very hungry. All this plus the setting completed a perfect picture. What a lunch!

It was mid-afternoon by the time we got back to the lodge. I wanted to shower, change clothes and do nothing. Which I did. We had rain for the first time, which was a nice change of pace, especially since we could enjoy it from a distance in a dry spot.

I was content just to ‘be’ as day gave way to night. Dinner was similar to what we’d had last night. We were used to the routine by now. After dinner we went over to the longhouse. We sat in the common area and were joined by several members of the community. Nearby, people were doing their thing, again not concerned by our presence. Babies were being fed and played with. Some women were weaving. Chores were being done. Life was going on.

The new chief was sitting with us, as was his wife and another woman. Three men rounded out our group. We were offered something to drink – tuak, a rice wine that the Iban make. It wasn’t bad, although a little sweet for my taste. And we were offered a stronger drink, a kind of whiskey that they also make. I drank it but didn’t love it.

The men were all smoking cigarettes. Between smoking and the many candles and lanterns that were around the longhouse, and given the flammable nature of the structure, I wondered how they avoided burning the place down. Lemon said that fire was a problem but neither he nor the others seemed overly concerned about it.

I assumed they’d use the occasion of our visit to show us what they had for sale. Again, as with our first visit, it didn’t happen. And since we didn’t inquire and hadn’t seen anything that we wanted to have, the subject passed without comment.

Before we left, Sandra and I strolled through the longhouse, pausing to observe the various activities that were going on. Communication was limited to a word or two, and that was OK. Then, after about an hour, it was time to leave.

In bed I again let the jungle’s lullaby put me to sleep. While challenging for a time, it had been a really good day.

We’d be leaving after breakfast. As we were gathering together what we’d brought Sandra made an interesting discovery. On the way up she’d bought a package of crackers. She’d eaten a few and then wrapped the rest up in what she thought was a secure plastic covering. Her discovery was that during the night some creature had chewed through the plastic, taken a bite or two (apparently deciding it wasn’t so tasty after all), and moved on to forage elsewhere. What was unnerving was that the package was located close to where she was sleeping, just outside the mosquito net. We assume it was a rat, but don’t know for sure.

If you’ve read this far it won’t surprise you to hear that I was now preoccupied with the soon-to-be-confronted longboat trip across the reservoir. My preoccupation wasn’t going to change anything though. There was no way to avoid the journey.

We were ready to leave, but we were also conscious of having bittersweet feelings around our departure, since we’d really really enjoyed our time at Nanga Sumpa.

Not surprisingly, the boat ride back to Batang Ai was uneventful. Sandra had been concerned that it would rain (she doesn’t like to get wet), which would cause us to unpack ponchos we hadn’t had to use so far, and we’d also have to bail water from the boat, which would have been an eventuality that would have fed into my craziness. The logjam where the river ends and the lakes begin was more formidable than on the trip up, but Nam skillfully maneuvered our way through it.

Later, when the longboat was behind us, I asked Lemon if he’d ever had people go in the water. He said it had never happened on a trip he was working, but some years earlier two German people went overboard into a whirlpool and drowned. He said the main concern with these boats is wind, but the boatmen know when the conditions are dangerous and won’t take any risks. We thought Nam and Abong had been terrific and were pleased to tip them generously when we said goodbye.

The ride back to Kuching was also uneventful. We stopped at the same place for lunch. Except for changing from rice to noodles the food was pretty much as it had been day before yesterday (good), and I had my first cold Tiger since our earlier visit (also good.) We were entertained by people doing a Chinese New Year Dragon Dance, complete with firecrackers.

We were back at the Holiday Inn at 5. We deeply appreciated how well Lemon had taken care of us and let him know it. And so – our time with the Borneo Adventure people was at an end.

We’d kept the room during our time away. Returning was an interesting experience. It looked very different than it had when we arrived and found it rather plain and rundown. This time it looked almost luxurious. A large bed. Hot water. Air conditioning. TV. The works. Wow! A nice place to come home to.
And this is the end of Part Six


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