Tuesday 4 November

Pitcher plants Pitcher plants (magnify) The boatmen’s longhouse

This morning we do the pitcher plant trail. It is the same path as last night, but this time we can see where we are going. We reach the spot about five minutes from the chalet. I spy a couple of pitchers near the path, and suddenly we are seeing them everywhere we look. Some are tall, thin and speckled. Others are short, squat and green or red. They all hang curiously from the tips of the leaves.

It is very hot again by the time we return to the chalet to pack our things ready to take to the river once more. We motor downriver for a couple of hours and arrive at the longhouse of our boatmen, where we are invited in. The longhouse is a modern one, built of brick and tiles. A cool covered precinct runs the length of the building, with the individual families’ houses off to one side. We are ushered into a well-appointed house (TV, video, hifi, etc) belonging to one of the boatmen and sit down on the tiled floor of the living room. Then out comes the rice wine. I’m a little concerned that it might be taken as rude for me to refuse, but I seem to get away with it. I’m told that it is somewhat similar in character to home made apple wine, except tasting of rice of course, not apples.

It’s not far downriver to the “traditional” Iban longhouse at Rumah Bala Lasong, where we are staying the night as guests of the headman. The longhouse is set a little way back from the river on stilts and is made of planed wooden planks and a corrugated iron roof. The rear part where our room is is on a concrete base at ground level.

Longhouse The longhouse at Rumah Bala Lasong

It is a forty-eight room longhouse (where “room” really means family home, consisting of two or three actual rooms extending backwards from the veranda) – an entire village in a single building. The door of each house opens onto the long veranda, and a sign hanging outside one of the houses signifies the family that is currently assigned the role of longhouse caretaker. They have their own system of law and order, with strict rules of acceptable behaviour and fines for fighting or arguing. It is a very communal lifestyle – you wouldn’t want to be on bad terms with your neighbours.

There seems to be a hierarchy from one end of the longhouse to the other. Up at the end where we are staying, most families seem to have hifis, television, sofas, etc, and the veranda is well decorated. At the far end though, plain barn doors serve as front doors, and the ceiling is not finished.

There is a school behind the longhouse that serves this community and five others – a total of 142 children. The children arrive by river on Monday morning, and board until Friday when they return to their own longhouses. This morning, they were having their end of term prize-giving. Some of the children speak very good English and they seem keen to practise on me as I look around. The next term begins in about six weeks time.

(magnify) Heat exhaustion

Back on the longhouse veranda, it is too hot to really do anything, so we laze around waiting for the evening. Facilities are fairly basic here. The shower is a small cubicle partitioned off the courtyard at the back of the house with a large barrel of water and a plastic saucepan. After tipping the pan’s contents over myself, I feel much better.

I emerge to find the others engaged in a fruit-tasting session. Then someone brings out the infamous durian fruit, said to smell like Hell and taste like Heaven. It is a large green spiky fruit, that when opened smells quite revolting. It tastes like a mixture of overcooked onions and kerosene too.

Musicians Culture show musicians
(magnify) Iban dancing

After dinner we are treated to a culture show for the bargain price of RM20. While waiting for the longhouse dancers to ready themselves, Chris gives us a demonstration of the hunter’s dance. A gong keeps time with a steady beat, and a long drum and muted gong provide backing. In front, a melody is hammered out on a set of five tuned metal bowls rested in a line on top of a wooden frame that looks like a short ladder.

Iban hunter Fearsome Iban hunter

It doesn’t take long to conclude that the music is the same for all the dances that they do, but more worrying is the fact that we are now expected to provide our own interpretations of the hunting dance. No one is allowed to escape this ritual humiliation. Grasping the small wooden shield, I crouch down, peering through the undergrowth. Pushing it aside with my right hand, I begin stalking my prey, to the obvious mirth of the audience. With one swift movement, I take my trusty sword in my hand, narrowly avoiding removing my ear. Three small children jump backwards in mock terror. Fortunately the ordeal is soon over before any major damage is done – other than to my reputation.