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At one with the Iban


In a remote corner of the globe, seemingly from another time, the Iban people of Sarawak, Borneo live in tranquil, isolated peace.  But it hasn’t always been this way.

The Iban have a well-deserved reputation for headhunting….and the proof of it can be seen in some of their longhouses.  Right in the middle, hung in nets from the rafters, some Iban proudly display the heads of their enemies, many taken during the last days of World War Two against the Japanese.

Today, far removed from the hectic pace of urban 21st century life, they reside on the outskirts of civilization, welcoming strangers into their homes and giving them a glimpse of their heritage.

The journey started in Los Angeles…we landed in Kuala Lumpur and headed straight to Malacca.  It’s Malaysia’s oldest port, where the Dutch and Portuguese battled for control of the Straits of Malacca, and together battled numerous pirates who pillaged their shipments of spices and treasures.  Malacca is a curious mix of cultures today, where Malay, Chinese, Indians and more live together in harmony.

But our destination was back across the South China Sea to the subdivided island of Borneo.  Malaysia shares the island with Indonesia and the sultanate of Brunei.  It was to Sarawak we were bound, via the port of entry of Kuching, or Cat City.

 We cleared customs and were met by our guide, Mike.   We soon left the 21st century atmosphere of a late model Malaysian Airlines 767 airliner for the rugged confines of a small river canoe.  But it took about 5 hours on a journey of about 175 miles to the southeast to do so.  And that was to be the last stop before we arrived in headhunter country.

Mike drove us from the airport out of Kuching on a journey back in time. We left the modern metropolis and our first stop was at the Semenggoh Orang Utan reserve where we encountered a very large…very angry Orang Utan.  He was thrashing about an office, tossing chairs, desks and anything else he could find.  Apparently it was past feeding time.  His handlers managed to appease him with a large bunch of bananas…which he proceeded to devour.

From there, we proceeded down the road about an hour or so, to one of the many large open air, or wet markets, that dot the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  Mike tried to entice us to eat from a very, very smelly fruit that he said was delicious.  We countered that it must be an acquired taste, because there was no way we were going to eat it.  After the brief pit stop, we hopped back into our air conditioned van.  For a few more ours, we journeyed along the spine of the mountain range that separates Malaysia from Indonesia.  Winding along the two lane road, and finally to our destination on the shore of a tributary of the Batang Ai river. 

Two of us, plus our guide Mike, tossed our gear into a longboat with an outboard motor and took off, upstream.  We were there during the dry season, so there were many spots of the rocky bottom that we barely navigated…and on our way back we had to get out and ford some spots since the water continued to drop during our stay in the longhouse to which we were bound.

The river was murky and the canopy hung low overhead.  We’d lost sight of the sun some time ago.  Fog had barely lifted off the water, so it felt as if we were traveling though an eerie cloud, punctuated by scraggly strands of limbs, a maze of trunks lining the shore, with roots snaking into the water.   The silence of the jungle was broken by the roar of the outboard which was something of a comfort, knowing that we hadn’t entirely left civilization behind. 

Making our way about an hour upstream, we came to a deep pool at a bend in the river.  There, about 100 feet up on the shore was our destination…a longhouse right out of Iban lore.

The chief was there to greet us as we unloaded our meager supplies and equipment.  Just the normal clothes you’d take deep into the jungle, which isn’t much considering we’d been sweating for a couple of hours by this time.  T-shirts, khaki’s and shorts were the order of the day, and by the time the day had ended, we’d gone through more than a few t-shirts.  

Thin and wiry, the chief didn’t look much like a killer, except for the multitudes of tattoos that testified to his legendary exploits.  Later, in sign language, he told us part of his story.  That he had indeed had killed and taken heads…heads he was to show us in the center of the longhouse.

But the natives were very friendly …welcoming us with hugs and plenty of water to re-hydrate our bodies.  It was mid-afternoon and they were already at work preparing a chicken dinner for us, complete with lots of local produce.   It was a real treat and as we were to discover, there are some amazing ways to cook in the jungle. 

Before we knew it, darkness was beginning to settle on the jungle.  In these parts, when it gets dark, it gets very dark, for there is no electricity less what it provided by generators and their use is kept to a minimum.  And with the dense fog that settles in, there is no light from the heavens.  No moon, no stars, and since we are so far from civilization, no city lights in the distance, either.  Just after dinner, most electricity is turned off, except that reserved for the center of the longhouse, for there awaits a regal display.

Everyone gathers inside the longhouse just after dark.  The chief returns, donning his traditional garb, complete with headdress, loincloth and feathers.  Before things got busy, I sat with him and via sign language began to understand some of what life in the longhouse is all about.  There in the center is a net holding the heads taken from enemies.  The chief described how he fought with them and took one of their heads as a prize.  Without knowing for certain, but given his age and the relatively recent laws against headhunting, I suspect that he fought for the allies during world war two and that the heads are those of Japanese soldiers who he fought.

Then the music started.  Clansmen and women were playing instruments for which there is no Western equivalent.  And the sounds are as foreign to us as we are to the scene. The chief rose to begin slow gyrations as he circled the main floor of the longhouse.  Soon his costumed daughters joined in, dressed in their rainbow-hued finery, and then other members of the clan, and soon the group was snaking its way through the entire length of the longhouse.  The rhythmic notes filled the hall, the pounding feet shook the foundations, and soon the cadence took hold in all of us, and we rose to join in.  For the next hour or so we are all as one, prancing and dancing, driven by the beat of the tunes which echo down through history.  A traditional tune that has been passed from one generation to the next and now we bcame part of that cycle of life on this remote outpost.  With the heat and humidity still hanging in the air we were tired and sweaty, but the pulsing music drove us on.  Too soon, the music faded away and the cast members once again took their places leaning against the bamboo and reed walls of the longhouse.  We said our goodbyes, and retired to our cots, where the mosquito nets and darkness surrounded us for the night.  But the Iban tunes echoed in our heads and our legs still felt the rhythm of the dance until we relaxed our way to sleep.

The next day it was into the thick greenery of the jungle and into the cultivated pepper plantations not far from the Iban longhouse.  Along the way, we turned up roots, pulled vines from the canopy and chopped bamboo to serve as our cooking pots when we arrived at our riverside destination a few miles from “home”.  The chief’s daughter already had a fire burning and we stuffed fish, meat, rice, roots and more into the hollowed-out bamboo tubes and placed them into the fire.  Not 20 minutes later, we were eating a stew we simply poured out of the bamboo and onto our plates. 

Lunch was excellent, but then it was time for the trek back to the longhouse.  The jungle was beginning to close in around us as a dense fog settled in.  By the time we made it back to the longhouse, we were covered in sweat.  Back “home”, it was time for a swim.  The younger members of the clan were already in the river.   As we jumped in, our guide calmly reminded us that there were no crocodiles in this part of the river… The cool water was a welcome relief from the stifling heat, so any risk of croc’s was pushed into a corner of our minds that said watch out, but enjoy the water anyway.  We must have mimicked the croc’s themselves though, by taking to the water in relief and letting it cool us from the tropical heat that was simply overpowering.

In just the two days we were there, the river level had dropped noticeably.  It was down enough that our longboat couldn’t navigate the rocky shoals between us and the main river.  So, on our last day, we packed our belongings, wished our new friends well, and started walking on the first leg of our long journey back to the 21st century.  Our feet led the way while our thoughts remained, for quite some time, back with the Iban headhunters of Borneo.

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