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A Glimpse of "Last Time" in Borneo

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that I was sitting next to someone whose great-grandparents used to eat people and preserve their skulls. The truth is, half of the world's people have ancestors who practiced cannibalism, maybe more. Still, as I sat there on the plane from Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to Kuching on the island of Borneo (also part of Malaysia), it was a strange feeling.

On the plane I had sat down next to a girl who told me she was an ethnic Iban. Yes, the Iban were headhunters until about 100 years ago, though they only took heads from defeated warriors and there is no head hunting in Malaysian Borneo today. The native people of Borneo are often called the "Dayak." This term has no meaning to anthropologists as the people of Borneo are too diverse to lump together. The largest ethnic group in Borneo is the Iban. They live in huge dwellings called longhouses. As many as 100 families may live in a longhouse which is divided into rooms.

The Iban lady, named Marilee, told me that she was raised in a longhouse. She moved to Kuching when she was 18 to attend school. Now, I've always heard that the Iban are extremely hospitable and love guests from other places, but I had no idea just how hospitable they were until that day. After we got off the plane, she offered to drive me to my hotel.

On the way, we stopped at her grandparent's house (where she was staying). Her family had converted to Christianity, but at the house they had many pre-conversion artifacts that had been in the family for decades, many for well over 100 years. Her grandfather explained that many of the converted natives of Borneo, especially those converted by evangelical Baptists, were encouraged to destroy any items that had to do with the pre-conversion time. She also said that many parents didn't teach their children about the ways of their ancestors. Despite being a devout Christian, he wanted his children and grandchildren to remember where they came from. He showed me platters used to give offerings to the gods, wooden shields with magical symbols, a picture of his father, who, at the time the picture was taken, was still wearing feathers and beads. After that I had a look at his blow gun, used to hunt animals in days gone by. He also showed me the musical instruments they used to play, though no one remembers how to play them anymore.

Marilee's grandmother brought down a bag with a traditional costume in it. It is the costume Marilee wears when she goes back to the longhouse for the harvest festival every May 31. It was amazingly heavy. There were huge silver rings that coiled around the stomach which had coins dangling from them. The costume also included some bells that made the loudest sound I have ever heard from such small bells. They were almost deafening despite being the size of golf balls! The grandmother also gave me a small woven wall hanging with traditional patterns.

After touring the museum (erů house), her family took me out for dinner and Marilee told me she would meet me at the hotel at 8:00 am this morning. She showed up the next morning with her niece. From there we went to the Sarawak Cultural Center. She wouldn't hear of letting me pay for the bottle of water I was about to buy, let alone pay for my share of the entrance fee. The Sarawak Cultural Center has houses that look like those of all the ethnic groups, including Chinese and Malay. Members of each ethnic group are paid to live there and show their skills to tourists. In one we found an old man with long earlobes, the result of wearing heavy earrings for many years.

The Iban longhouse seemed to make her a bit homesick, not surprisingly. She told me that she still misses life in the longhouse, though her house is more comfortable. She said she misses the sense of community. In her longhouse she lived with her immediate family in one room, and her relatives were all in the rooms near her room. She told me that in the old days men never lived with their wives. They often had one wife in each of the neighboring longhouses, but they couldn't marry a resident of their own longhouse. So they would travel to the longhouse where their wives lived from time to time to be with them.

In one longhouse there were skulls hanging, and I was told they were real ones. The hanging of skulls had always struck me as some sort of gloating. In fact, I was to learn that it was a mark of respect. Marilee explained that only the warriors' skulls were taken. The spirit of the person who had owned the skull was honored (despite being an enemy). Also, since it took a certain amount of bravery to get to the point where one might have his head cut off, they hoped that the spirit would impart some of its bravery upon the members of the longhouse. I asked if they were afraid that the spirit would be angry at having been killed and having their skull hung up. She said no, it's actually a mark of honor if the enemy wants your skull, because they only take the skulls of the bravest warriors.

The next morning I headed to the town of Tatau, the last town accessible by road. From Tatau, the only access is by boat. I was surprised to find that people there were like people in Lampang in that they thought a blond-haired westerner was a creature from outer space. The reason for this is simple—Tatau and the Kacus River are not in the Lonely Planet book.

If there is one piece of advice I can give about traveling it would be to carry a Lonely Planet book and one other. You can't beat Lonely Planet for practicalities. They list every place to stay and eat along with commentaries on them and give you enormous mounts of advice on traveling in a certain area. The problem is, as soon as they list an attraction, everyone goes there. Nothing turns a pristine place into a tourist trap like an entry in a Lonely Planet book. (To their credit, they often fail to list certain places to keep them from becoming tourist traps.) That's why you should carry another book so you can find places that aren't mobbed by Lonely Planet lemmings. That was how I found the Kacus River, which has many longhouses but no entry in the Lonely Planet book.


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