South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Visiting a longhouse in Borneo
Date: March 25, 1995 19:22

17:31 Penan Longhouse; near Belaga, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 22 MAR 95

[As way of explanation for this initial entry, it was made in the presence of the headman, a dozen or so children, and a couple other curious adults at the longhouse we visited on the 22nd of March, 1995. For example, in the next line I type the names of the 4 intrepid travelers 'deep in the jungle of Borneo'. pmj-25/MAR/95]

Patrick, Gerry, Katrin, Mandy.


Names: Lugan-a little girl, Magool-the headman, bonet-the headman's wife, shy-ran away when asked his name, ute, shamon, ka kuching, lardin, leena, judi, pauline, norton-some more children.

Names of things and other unsundry items [in this particular native Penan dialect].

baa, chicken; baa bowung, rooster; aung, dog; baro, monkey; aleh, aroh, boy, girl; tokay, adult; langong, hand; eekoo, elbow; uroo, nose; kahp, [another word for nose?] nose; matoh, eye; yah-oh, chin; mohdue, lip; gohdue, finger; bohdue, shoulder; shapit, arm; ehboh, hair; bulolecole, eyebrow; bowcoub, [whoops, missed one]; mahole, to laugh; batin, foot; buah batin, toe; pahn, leg; shoeluelle, pants; jam, watch [note 'jam' is Malay for 'hour']; shoeloco, shirt; tavalle, necklace; tohn, neck; barouie shoeloco, shirt button; kachoute, shoe; kneepen, teeth; yalat, tongue; balo, head; shlulesluck, shorts; libuhn, sarong; gahlouie, baby; gaben, camera; no word for computer; galung, bracelet; goleeching, ring; pakou, nail; abong, tummy; boolumbabba, mouth; ayoo, big; ichii, small; sirat, hole; goihna, you; niyo, I; daho, floor; dago, ching, roof; watonicha, milk; muwhit, mosquito; yamo, hit; dali pigalle, belt; alat, basket; toket, headman; jot ebu; hair band; galingeh matoe, sunglassess; joeping, earring; bitaan, towel; gabrio, door; chit shoeloco; shirt pocket; chit chilouen; moorook, sit down; gaiyou, wood (log?); nackarin, stand up; gayou, run; louet, stop; lotop, falldown; nut, nut&bolt.

20:59 Penan Longhouse; near Belaga, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 22 MAR 95

It's like living in a mixed metaphor. Ghetto blasters, fluorescent lights, hand-woven mats, artistic artifacts hang over the headman's front door. They lugged each section of the tin roof from the river a few hundred meters below. The generator runs only for a couple hours in the evening, primarily to light the headman's apartments but perhaps also to power kitchen appliances? We didn't get a tour of the complex of houses, nor the interiors of the homes. We were invited into the headman's living/dining room and are sleeping in his attic, on a Persian rug, next to the easy chairs that may once have been downstairs. Evidently, these are a bit of advanced civilization that didn't pan out.

The primary source of light is a Milo tin (powdered malted drink mix) with a cylindrical metal sleeve punched through the top. A wick draws the paraffin inside up to the noxiously smoky flame.

The children and adults wear a mixture of western shirts, T-shirts, shorts and sarongs. One T-shirt advertises the NBA depicting Jersey #23 of the Chicago Bulls. Another has Garfield and a third, Mickey

Mouse. There are a couple pairs of shoes, necklaces, rings and wrist-watches. The headman wears nothing more than a pair of ratty old shorts. When we first arrived he was carrying on his shoulder

logs bigger than himself negotiating the notched log serving as side stairway.

And many smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, short and fat, that hang like stogies. These stain the teeth of the heavier smokers' charcoal black. I've seen a fag hanging from the lower lip of a 5 year old and nine year old boy trails a smoke streamer from mouth to nose and blows smoke rings and flicks ashes with the panache of a sophisticate. Bogey never looked so cool.

There are tattoos. The women have them on their feet, little geometric patterns that play on the lines of tendons and the knuckles of the toes. And on their arms are intricate curlicues and intertwining lines so densely articulated as to seem like blue/black elbow length gloves until a closer inspection yields the patterns. The men also are tattooed, sometimes on the shoulders and the arms. Their earlobes are pierced and stretched. In this tribe, not stretched to a great extent. You might fit a golf-ball through the loop of flesh. But I've seen, in Sibu, a pair of earring dangling from ear lobes stretched long enough to encompass a basket ball.

Their feet are short, flat, splayed and the toes round and bloated with the toenails worn to small nubs. And on them they walk, chatter, and hardly draw a deep breath while your heart pounds, your chest heaves, and your sweat glands open the floodgates. They don't even break a sweat. You rue the moment you non-chalantly accepted to follow 4 old women 2 hours into the Borneo jungle.

On the journey there are two streams to soak over-heated flesh. The women lead the way into the first soaking and then rest for a while to refresh with some junk food purchased in Belaga. This just 10

minutes into the hike. The next stop comes an hour later, at the edge of endurance. Here the foreigners dally at the water before following the women up the last steep pitch to the pass. Thankfully, they stop for a while at the top. Not that they appear to need it; this stop is perhaps for the benefit of their guests.

They laugh when this foreigner pantomimes "does the longhouse lie beyond the ridge visible in the distance?" and they make clear to him that the destination rests in the valley below.

By local standards, at about 75 meters in length the longhouse is somewhat short. It's accompanied by 5 other buildings which, like the longhouse, are built above ground on stilts, except a sixth that may be the pit toilet. The longhouse is constructed of roughcut, untreated hardwood planks that are nailed, bolted and notched together in a surprisingly sturdy structure. The roof, as implied earlier, is corrugated tin. It covers a row of 'apartments' fronted by a verandah and bench. Some apartments, like the headman's, have a second level used for storage, or in our case, as the guest bedroom.

Above the doorjamb of the headman's apartment is written in white chalk "Salamat Datang"-the Malay greeting meaning "Welcome". Next to the doorway is an official health department document used in the

continuing struggle to eradicate Malaria.

10:33 Belaga Hotel; Belaga, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 23 MAR 95

A large bug sporting a rather menacingly deep whirring wingbeat was attracted to the light cast by the Toshiba. I closed shop quickly and hoped the thing would go away. I thought it had but at about 3

AM I fished it out of my shirt and threw it across the room. As it was dark, I still don't know what it looked like. Not that I care to know.

So we have arrived after the 1 ½ hour jungle trek. There are perhaps 20 or so children and a dozen adults. We wonder whether some men or women aren't away working the logging industry, and a few

children boarding at school in Belaga. Three cages containing a monkey each. They may be either pets, or some future dinner. There're chickens and a rooster, and several kuchings and angings

(cats and dogs) the cats, of course, sporting the distinctive gnarled tail.

After an awkward wait, well awkward for the four white travelers, the headman finishes moving his logs and quietly offers his hand as way of introduction. We fish out the gifts of ginseng liquor, cigarettes and candies for the children and awkwardly make the exchange. They've done this before. We haven't. I recall later the gifts still have the price tags on them.

They don't speak much English, or much Malay for that matter. And we of course speak not a word of the tribal tongue. A few more awkward moments pass and the headman disappears, to prepare our reception as it turns out. In the lull I pull out the camcorder.

The children are curious at the black contraption I point at them. After a few moments I fiddle with it and ask them to look inside. They are startled to see themselves. "TV!" This will be the only time I bring it out. The adults don't appear completely comfortable and even the children seem torn between curiosity and trepidation. Later, when Mandy asks if she can take a photograph of the headman he lightly but firmly waves her off. "No." The camcorder will remain in the bag for the duration of the stay. Had it been three days instead of a single night I might have tried to explain my interest in the growing comfort. Or if we'd elected to hire a guide . . .

Meanwhile, the preparations have been completed and the others have already gone inside the headman's apartment. One of the women gets my attention and points toward the door. In my haste to catch up, I

forget to remove my muddy boots. Fortunately, Katherine anticipates this gaffe and heads me off at the entrance. Ooops!

Seated on the patch of linoleum spread on the floor, two of the small liquor bottles we brought are opened (they are given to one of the women who, with her already tobacco tar-rotted teeth, lifts off the bottle cap) and the contents spread among 7 cups, 1 each for the visitors and the four top men present. The children crowd near and the women maintain a respectful(?) distance.

We all drink up the Jack Daniels Ginger Juice. The strong but tasty stuff goes straight to Katrin's head. Another awkward silence surrounding tentative moves toward points of conversation. Sitting across from the headman, Gerry becomes defacto leader of the visitors.

7:26 Capital Inn; Bintulu, Sarawak-Malaysia :: 25 MAR 95

The question is, what do two groups of people talk about when they can only make themselves sparingly understood, and their cultural histories share little in common? We try introducing ourselves but that draws to an obvious conclusion once the seven principals have pointed to themselves and pronounced their name. We try exploring lineage; there are so many children, which are the headman's? This line of questioning the hosts find uninteresting and shortly we are again shrouded in awkwardness.

Respite comes when one of the other men asks about money. In particular he's interested in seeing foreign currency. They are absolutely fascinated by the US, Thai, UK and Australian notes we produce. They point to the image of Elyzabeth II on the 5 pound note and say, "James Brooks." Apparently, they believe the Queen of England to be the progeny of Sarawak's first British Rajah, James Brooks. Sarawak was an independent nation then and invited Brooks to be its leader into the modern age and out from under the control of the infamous Borneo pirates. His veneration, over a century later and within even the most remote areas of the country, testifies strongly enough to his success.

Somewhere in all this, we are reminded to pay $5 each for our sleeping quarters. This done, our bags are brought to the headman's attic and the rug is arranged for our comfort.

Next, Gerry describes and draws the route of his travels on pen and paper we produce. This keeps us going merrily until tea arrives, the best tea I've had since arriving in Malaysia-rich and naturally sweet without milk. The hosts are pleased that we like it so much.

Suddenly, the reception ends though, awkwardly, it takes the guests a few moments to figure this out. We four file outside onto the verandah, where most of our hosts already relax in the last moments before sunset. I pull another trick out of my bag-the Toshiba. The results you have already seen in the first entry.

8:36 Bintulu Bus Depot (Bound for Batu Niah), Sarawak-Malaysia :: 25 MAR 95

Batu means "cave" indicating that the name of "Batu Caves" in KL is something of a repetition.

Another aside: If you order "Chinese Tea" you get the familiar thin green tea in a glass that's served in Chinatowns all across North America. Sometimes it will be iced and others hot. If, however, you order "'tay' with milk", and your server understands that much English, what you get is some mysterious, thick and dark concoction floating on a thick bed of sweetened condensed milk. It looks something like an enormous B-52 without Grand Marnier. The richness of the tea varies but the drink is best when the tea is very strong so it stands up to having the condensed milk fully stirred in.

Back to the Toshiba.

I taught the headman, Magool, to play Solitaire, the ubiquitous Windows 3.1computer game. Well, I tried to teach him. He never quite managed the art of double-clicking, let alone the subtler skill of manipulating the Toshiba's mouse pointer. I quickly grew bored but this alone had the lot of them enthralled (except for the man who asked about currency earlier, who harrumphed, "Komputor" and walked off-I think Gerry accidentally insulted him when, earlier, he'd given a US $1 note and 5 UK pounds to the headman, rather than him.)

It's important to keep in mind that these machines are an uncommon occurrence.

13:06 Batu Niah National Park; Sarawak-Malaysia :: 25 MAR 95

Not that computers are completely unknown in these parts: one was being unloaded from the longboat that would take us across the river; when he saw my Toshiba, the proprietor of a restaurant asked me if I could get his games working properly-in his back room was a 486DX2-66 VESA bus, 250MB HD, Soundblaster 16, CD-ROM (with 6 CD games), two shielded speakers, but the poor thing had only 4MB of RAM, which explained why some of his CD-ROM games acted cranky (I told him to pay the RM500 and upgrade to at least 8MB RAM). They're just not common and many people in the further reaches still haven't had a good look at one, or even any look at all.

So as I was showcasing the few pieces of software on the Toshiba, privately lamenting the total lack of graphic images, AVI video, interesting games like Civilization or even DOOM, the locals were going gaga over the text editor in MS-Mail (not even good enough to pass off as a word processor) and the wonders of Microsoft's Solitaire game. The sharp reality of this situation struck me the next day back in Belaga.

Yanking out the Toshiba in the Hotel Belaga Restoran always drew a crowd. I never managed to write all that much because jotting down some notes about a town and its people just ain't all that comfortable when the townspeople are sitting in a ring behind your chair. Some of them read English, you know. This happens in many smaller towns and in such circumstances I'll start up Solitaire, or Hearts and play until everyone loses interest. Sometimes the crowd drains the battery before interest ever flags. Other times, someone will start asking questions so I'll give them a tour of the software on the system. On this particular day in Belaga, when I lamented out loud "nothing very fancy" referring to the minimal examples of games, graphics or video on the system, an observer remarked "it's really something for us." Undeniably, it is.

On the other hand, I couldn't convince the proprietors of either Hotel or Restaurant in the Belaga Hotel and Restaurant, that it would be 'cool' to see electronic mail in action. One of these proprietors even owned a computer! Back in the longhouse, there were no such tantalizingly near onramps to the InfoBahn. The nearest lay 1.5 hours through the jungle then across the Rejang river. That would have been cool, eh? Finding a phone here and connecting to the InfoBahn in arguably the most 'primitive' location I've yet encountered. It's not so far-fetched since many of the local tribes purchase modern electronics, among them cell phones. Malaysia Telekom provides surprisingly good coverage, as evidenced by the frequent ringing one hears on the longboats as they ply the upper reaches of the Rejang.

So instead, I used the notebook computer as a notebook and jotted down the names of people and things as they are spoken in the Tribal Penan dialect unique to the people of this longhouse. This process gathered quite a crowd and my less than nimble tongue generated lots of giggles among the young women as it tromped indelicately through the unusually ordered phonemes. This lasted until one of the adults informed us that food was ready.

Now, we'd been advised in Belaga several times to bring our own food, and we had. (Crackers and canned fish-yum! (not!)) So during the reception when they'd asked us, "Food?" we'd proudly responded, "Yes, we brought our own!" Evidently, they'd translated this as, "Yes, we'd love to eat some of your food!" So we did. There was steamed white-rice and two kinds of cooked green, leafy vegetable dishes. The vegetables were tasty, if a bit over-salted for our tastes. We reasoned that the high salt content probably compensates for a diet otherwise low in salt in a climate where the body requires much. Or perhaps they just love salt.

The floor was set for the four of us and we ate while our hosts sat by the kitchen and respectfully looked away whenever we'd catch their eye. We felt a little guilty, and wondered whether, as is the East Indian custom, all the food they had was at the setting and they would have for dinner whatever remained after we finished. This thought occurred to us after Gerry had finished his seconds. It didn't take much mental calculation to recognize that we had something of a 'fishes and loaves for the multitudes' problem if they were to get the slim remains, so we reasoned that this couldn't be their custom and Gerry had thirds while Katrin and I had seconds.

After dinner, we retired to the verandah again. Later, I did see one of the women enter the headman's house with two handfuls of green, leafy vegetables.

Darkness came at about this time and soon, amidst heckling from the 'money' man (still peeved, I presume, that the headman got the foreign notes), one of the younger men cranked up the generator.

Fluorescent light isn't any more attractive deep in the jungle than it is blaring down on a corporate 'veal-fattening pen'. However, this is Malaysia and fluorescent light fixtures far exceed the number of tungsten lights, so it's no surprise that the same applies here.

Evenings at the longhouse, if this night is any indicator, consist of much laughter and play. The children play and laugh, and the adults laugh while they watch the children play and laugh. The home entertainment system consists of one beat-up ghetto-blaster and two or three tapes. Two of the young boys, and a 3 year-old boy, liked dancing to the music. The two boys had rhythm and the 3 year-old had chutzpah and the habit of swinging his upper body so hard as to lift himself from his feet, always with a great roaring response from the onlookers. The only other entertainment, other than the general rambunctions of children, was a couple of songs sung to the accompaniment of a clapped rhythm. These were quite beautifully rendered with sweet voices and sophisticated rhythmic parts played by each child. It was great to see a group of young children so adept at creating complex rhythmic patterns of their own rather than just following along to a thumping beat.

Soon enough the crowd began to thin, the generator was shut off and four travelers set about getting one of the worst sleeps of the trip. It was not just that the bed was not particularly comfortable: a rug spread on uneven boards without pillows. Though I suppose the advantage of a longhouse is a heightened feeling of community and a more efficient use of materials, the disadvantage is the heightened feeling of community. That is, a noise at the other end of the longhouse bounces between tin roof and ironwood floor all the way along the longhouse. You can hear someone in the neighbouring compartment have a difficult thought. However, the cacophony is extended by the two cats outside making kittens, the 4 or 5 roosters arguing over who's coolest, the phlegm clearing hacks that always seem to come at 3AM in this crazy country. All that, and you're keyed up over all the new stimulus. Sleep just ain't in the cards.

The next morning we wake up early and groggy. Gerry and Mandy have to catch a 9:30 AM boat from Belaga to the Belaga airport (with flights to Sibu, only). We pack up, give our canned fish to the Headman's very pleased wife, make our formal good-byes and thank-yous to the headman and, as quickly as we arrived, we depart.

It's cool and wet on the morning of our departure and on the uneventful return journey I thought about what most characterised the trip and it would have to be the smiles, the peace and the simple business of living. Oh, the return was not completely uneventful. At the riverbank, just 20 feet from reaching the gas barge, Mandy's right leg sank into the mud up to her hip. When we got her out, it was without one running shoe, lost forever deep in the muck. In the spirit of the moment, she sacrificed the other to the river as well.

To symbolise the personal loss of civilization experienced by the character 'Marlowe' in "Heart of Darkness", Joseph Conrad had him lose his shoes to the river. But this was on the way upriver, into the jungle-into the heart of darkness. Once, the Penan of our longhouse visit were head-hunters, the very type of 'savage' being to which Conrad's character Kurtz sank, and Marlowe did not. But that savage, if ever such truly existed, certainly does so no longer. Interesting that for Mandy this loss of 'civilisation' came at the end of the trip down river, after returning from a place that seemed more like the heart of mirth.

Milan Kundera wrote of "the unbearable lightness of being" as if all worthwhile life should be lived under a weight, as if being should be 'significant'. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Politicians tell us that 'doing our duty for our country', that accepting the hard times that always seem to see looming ahead will bring prosperity for all in the long run. However, the economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out that "in the long run we will all be dead." The beings of 10,000 people such as we met living upriver from Belaga, are so unbearably light to the Malaysian government and big business, that their traditional riverside homes will be flooded as part of a vast new hydro-electric power.

If their lives have in the past been lived primarily unexamined, there is growing reason for them to examine their condition now. That is a shame. More to the point, perhaps Westernisation needs a more thorough examination. Displacing 10,000 inhabitants of, say, Kuala Lumpur may perhaps produce a larger political impact than 10,000 backward tribes people standing in the way of progress; just try to relocate an urban neighbourhood. While the political clout of a few thousand savages is negligible, the cost of this action may be several hundred distinct cultures, dozens of unique languages and a way of life that has existed largely intact for thousands of years. Evidence of inhabitation in Borneo, once presumed to be settled later than Europe, now goes back to 37,000BC, predating the earliest finds of European human remains.

I spoke with the headman of another Penan longhouse. His group represents the last nomadic band of Penan. Their longhouse is among those soon to be flooded by the planned reservoir. He believes that after the flood, there will be no more nomadic Penan.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

What is the most dangerous animal in the jungle?


  graphical element Flip-up question-and-answer display.
Batu Niah National Park Information Center.