Report from Tomorrow - Vol 42

1USD = S$1.71 (S$1 = 0.58USD)
S1.00 = 2.13RM (Ringett)
1USD = 3.87RM (Ringett)

Sarawak - Visiting the Iban

Our Borneo Adventures guide was a young badayuh named James who has been a guide for five years. After a long van ride which climbed into the mountain range separating Sarawak from Indonesia, we arrived at the Batang Ai reservoir, where we looked out on a chain of lakes surrounded by heavy woods - very much like BWCA in northern Minnesota. We were met by two Iban of small stature with their outboard powered longboat (30 foot long, narrow, with a very shallow draft).

We waited for the weather to improve, as the winds had picked up and small squalls moved across the lake and mountains. The waves were not particularly high, but the Iban were clearly concerned. So we waited - and waited as the daylight began to wane. Our guide would occasionally take a hike up to the top of a nearby ridge to make a call on his cell phone. Soon, we all came to the same conclusion - we're not going to make it that day.

Ironically, on the same reservoir is a five star Hilton hotel - the only Hilton like this in the world, completely within a protected natural park, accessible only by water. Another cell phone call and the Hilton sent their boat to pick us up and Borneo agreed to put us up for the night.

The next morning was calm and cool and we set off arriving an hour later at the Iban village. After seeing how VERY low we were in the longboat, we were even more pleased with the previous evening's Hilton decision.

It was fascinating to see the Iban work the longboat. The bow man kept an eye out for logs, while the other steered and ran the outboard motor. In one case we came across a number of logs blocking the water. Unlike in a canoe, this posed no problem. The longboats have such a shallow draft, the Iban simply gunned the engine and ran over the logs, quickly tipping the engine to avoid hitting the logs. This was quite a novel sensation for a canoe lover like me. Mmmm, maybe these motors do have some value!

The Iban village is on the small Sumpah river which feeds into the lakes. The village is actually composed of three longhouses, spread over this small tributary. We were at the largest which housed 28 families and was probably about 300 feet long. The other longhouses had only 5-6 families.

We did not actually stay in the Iban longhouse. Borneo's policy is to keep you separate. No, not cause of the heads, but because the Iban would feel they must always entertain their guests and as long as we were there, the Iban would not be going about their business.

Rather we stayed in a neighboring structure which had open air bedrooms and even western style toilettes down the hall. There was a kitchen and a large table for meals, and evenings they brought out kerosene lamps. All in all, it was very comfortable.

We had hardly been there an hour when there was a terrific roar as a helicopter landed across the river. It was the monthly run of the government traveling clinic coming on its rounds. How weird to be so remote, yet even here modern life intrudes (for the good in this case).

We read entries in the guest book and discovered the previous tenants had a visit by "monsieur cobra", as one guest described it. A mother had made a nocturnal toilette run and had an encounter - making what should have been a simple event the "highlight" of their trip. When we asked about this, James shrugged and said, "It's the jungle". This became our mantra, like later that evening when tree frogs began jumping onto our table after supper.

We started with a courtesy visit to the longhouse. Most people were gone and this gave James a chance to explain about the longhouse and its customs (don't walk on the mats, don't go past the middle of the house without visiting the head man, etc). James explained there is a chief of the Iban Sumpah who is elected and represented the three longhouses to the outside world. There was also the head man, who runs the longhouse - sort of a "CEO" (obviously my term) of the tribe. The same chief and head man represented all three longhouses.

That afternoon we took another longboat ride up the Sumpah to a nice little waterfalls where we swam in unexpectedly cold water. We returned to our Iban "home" on foot and James stopped often to point out plants, birds etc.

We visited a small hillside where pepper plants were grown as a cash crop. The bushes reach about 8-9 feet high and the peppercorns are picked like small berries and dried in the sun. We Americans prefer "white pepper" which is simply peppercorns with the husks soaked off, separated, and the white kernel re-dried. Pepper is a major cash crop these days since it's price is tied to the US dollar. When the Asian currencies devalued, pepper became an attractive crop.

That night we visited the longhouse for a more formal visit. We chatted with Robert (seated on the right), the "greeter" for the tribe. The small children danced to get the gifts we brought (paper, pencils, and cookies). After some rice wine the woman spread out a huge array of things for us to view and buy. Steve was a very very good guest and bought lots - so much so they gave him a necklace as a bonus.

Our return began with another 1.5 hour longboat ride. Cruising through the rivers and lakes was just delightful - it was so good to see such an empty remote area. Returning in the van we stopped near Kuching at a sanctuary for animals where we saw the feeding of the orangutans, some of which roamed freely outside. These are truly amazing creatures to see!

The next day we spent in Kuching visiting museums and shopping. As usual we managed to help the local economy recover. One friend aptly described this process as "wealth redistribution from the tourist to the locals". As in Thailand, we discovered that all the stuff we bought directly from the Iban could be bought for less in Kuching - and we didn't really care this time either.

Supper on our last night was a delight. The "Top Spot" is an ugly green car park in downtown Kuching and on its top level is a large food court which overlooks the city. The array of food at the "ABC" stall was spectacular and we chose from a large selection of vegetables and fresh fish and ate ourselves silly for a total of 81 RM (less than 25 USD for three of us).

Iban Economy

Undoubtedly the largest impact of civilization to the Iban is the small combustible engine - outboard motors on the longboats and the chain saw. Cutting trees by hand must have taken incredible energy! The Iban live in a protected reserve where they can cut trees for their needs, but cannot sell them.

I can't imagine what it was like before outboard motors. It used to take a full day to get the longboat to where they could trade pepper. Today the same trip takes 1.5 hours. It used to take half a day to haul the children to school (where they live Monday-Friday). Today it takes 45 minutes. With the quicker trip the children are much more likely to attend school.

One the other hand, the longhouse had a generator for lights. I suspect it is used sparingly, but it was on for us and seemed somehow excessive. We even saw a TV. James commented that it was really dumb, because they are so remote you can hardly get any picture at all - but it was their money.

The Iban get their daily food from the jungle - foraging for fruits, vegetables, yams, etc. as well as growing vegetables for own use. The Iban hunt for game (deer, wild boar, lizards etc) and all in all it doesn't appear their daily work is too arduous. The jungle provides for them today, just as it has for many hundreds of years in the past.