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The Iban tribe

a visit to the longhouse

semi-overcast 29 °C
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It took us around 5 hours, from Kuching, to reach the Iban's long house. This entailed a pleasant journey by van through the Borneo countryside and included a stop off at a pepper garden, to see how pepper is produced. The pepper plant is essentially a vine that requires a central stake for support. All 3 types of pepper (black, white and red) are produced from the same vine, but they are processed in different ways. The berries are picked when ripe and are laid out in the sun for a few weeks to produce black pepper. From the same harvest, other berries are rinsed or soaked in water for up to 2 weeks to remove the outer husk, revealing the white corns inside, and subsequently dried to produce white pepper corns. Only the best (heaviest) berries are reserved to produce the red pepper corns. This process occurs by boiling the berries for a couple of days - and this "dyes" the berries red - before they are dried.

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Black pepper drying out in the Malay sunshine

We then changed van for longboat and had an agreeable half hour moseying up the river to our "home" for 2 nights. Lisab (being an unsociable type) was a little wary of spending so long in the company of people with whom she couldn't readily communicate - though we both were interested in seeing how the Ibans really live - and felt this couldn't be achieved by a one day tour. We had booked our tour with Borneo Adventures, which had promised an "authentic" stay in a longhouse; this would include being the only tourist guests in the longhouse at the time of our visit.

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The longhouse that was our home for 2 nights

As we arrived, we were greeted by the chief and his wife, and given a drink of rice wine. We were then left by our guide to "mingle" with the members of the longhouse. This particular longhouse is inhabited by 34 families, and although they have their own spaces (to cook, sleep & sometimes watch satellite telly!), people are often found relaxing or (if they are older women) working on their handicrafts, on the communal ruai - a roofed verandah. This runs the length of the longhouse. It was a little awkward at first - they often spoke minimal English; we only know the word for toilet (tandas) and closed (tutup) in Malay - so there was alot of nodding and smiling going on. Added to this, the Ibans were at the end of celebrating the harvest festival, which had started on the 31t May. Some of the (younger) male members of the community were a little piddled by our 4pm arrival. But most seemed genuinely interested in our visit and families would often invite us into their house for a glass of rice wine or rice whiskey (Lisa often fancied a cup of tea, but was given short shrift if she mumured the t-word).

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The communal ruai

The boys (who weren't drunk) playing Iban football

Later on in the evening, we were given a formal welcome by the chief, and a welcome dance was performed by two younger Ibans. Part of the welcome involved ritual humilation of the Bruntons as we were invited to take to the dance floor and attempt to copy their dance moves. This was when Lisa cursed herself for refusing the rice wine earlier in the day. We then presented our gifts to the longhouse (pencils and colouring books for the kids).

Unfortuately no coverage of the Brunton's dancing, but here is the male part of the welcome dance.

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After the dancing... You'd think the Bruntons would be embarrassed by the silly hats and sillier grins on their faces. But they are far more red faced because of the state of their shirts - bought in a hurry - to keep out the mozzies.

The older Iban community make their living from working on the oil palm planations, rubber planations and making handicrafts to sell to visiting tourists. The optimum time for collecting the rubber sap is around 4am, so they have to get up early in this job. The sap is collected by scoring the tree and letting the sap drip into the pots. The sap is collected from dozens of trees, mixed with a chemical, then poured into a tray and left to dry for a full day. It is then rolled through a mangle to produce a thiner sheet of latex which is aproximately 1.5m by 0.5m and sold for a few English pounds. A number of people work to collect the rubber, yet they are only able to produce one sheet of latex per day.

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A rubber tree that has been tapped to drain the sap

The Ibans are one of three different tribes in Borneo that used to practice the custom of head hunting. Thankfully the practice is now ceased (at least in Malaysian Borneo - our guide told us the practice still occurs in tribes in Indonesian Borneo - though he could have been kidding us). There were 3 reasons why the Iban tribe collected skulls - to gain land, to gain pride, or to gain a fair maiden's hand in marriage. When the community grew too large for their land to supply them with enough forest to hunt and collect food, they would politely ask a neighbouring tribe for extra land. If the request was refused, they would then attack the village at dawn, after a full night of rituals. The land seekers would cut off all the heads of the males within the attacked village. They would celebrate their success in another ritual, whereby each warrior would mix together the brains and blood of the particular men they'd killed with rice wine and drink the mixture. This was thought to give the warriors increased power, as they took the strength and soul of the dead warrior. The women from the village would become slaves for a period of 2 and a half years (being made to cook, clean etc) before being integrated into the community. The more heads a warrior gained, the more pride and esteem he could command within his community. Successful warriors were deemed to be powerful and were therefore respected by their tribe and others. When a warrior wanted a wife, he would visit a longhouse and peruse the women - to see if anyone took his fancy. He would woo his chosen one with a short courtship, before suggesting marriage. The woman would accept marriage ONLY if she fancied him, AND on the proviso that he bring her the head of the most respected warrior he could kill. Often, one woman could be courting several eager warriors, and the first one back with the best head won! Lisab says "what's wrong with a diamond ring?"

Primary school for the young Ibans is about a 40 minute boat ride away, but for the secondary school kids, they leave the longhouse and board at a hostel for a few weeks to go to school near Kuching. We spoke to one family where 2 daughters were visiting for the festival - they were married and now lived in Kuching and KL. It seems that the younger Ibans are getting a taste of different cultures and are moving out of the longhouse tradition. Because it was festival time a number of families were visiting, so it was hard to get a true sense of how many younger Ibans are staying at the longhouse full time.

The second day was spent in the jungle. We first had a walk through the forest; all the while our guides were picking fruits from the trees (such as limes, mangosteens and chillies) to let us try them. It also involved trudging through the river, up to our knees in water. We then stopped for them to make us a delicious bamboo lunch. This involved them hacking down bits of trees to make a barbeque and to get fire wood, cutting bamboo to provide makeshift cooking utensils, and cutting fresh banana leaves to cook the rice in etc. It was great watching their survival skills in action; we felt like we were living through an episode of Ray Mears.

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One of our guides for the day made us these sticks after Andyb fell down an embankment and Lisab slipped onto her arse on the path. And we were the ones wearing proper hiking boots....

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Preparing our gormet lunch

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When Andyb's chicken went on the bbq

This video shows the man using a kris to cut the bamboo

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The dogs at the long house

The last day, after breakfast and before we said farewell, we were treated to a blow pipe demonstration. They were also going to throw in a cock fight for free but the vegetarian declined the invitation. The blow pipe was a weapon that they used to kill animals and other warriors - they would dip the dart in poison (from a tree) shooting it into their prey. Muchas fun was had by both Bruntons attempting to hit the target (competitive wife was on top form).

Blow pipe demonstration

Both of us thought the longhouse trip was interesting rather than enjoyable. Our guide had purposely left us on our own to engage with the longhouse inhabitants (or at least that's how he justified his long disappearances), which was ok to an extent, but there's only so much nodding and smiling we could do. When he was there and interpreting for us, it was much more interesting - particularly when a couple were asking for his help (the man's ex-wife had put a black magic curse on his new wife - they were clearly terrified at the potential consequences of it). But we certainly felt that we'd got an insight into how the Iban's live in the 21st Century.

Posted by bruntonal 12.06.2008 04:31 Archived in Malaysia Tagged round_the_world

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