Iban Longhouse

Trip Start Jun 05, 2007
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128
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Trip End Jun 2009


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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Monday, December 29, 2008

We left Miri in search of an Iban Longhouse experience so we took a 6 hour bus to a place called Sibu, a city that wasn't very pretty nor particularly friendly, but we knew that upriver were many villages home to the Iban and other indigenous groups and we were hoping for an invite for a night! The budget hotels in Sibu are mainly brothels so we treated ourselves to a 'mid-range' place - the room was dark with plastic mattress coverings but it was central and didn't feel too much like a porno set so we stayed there whilst we went to visit a travel agent who's reputation preceeded him. We had high hopes for this guy but when we went in and told Frankie what we wanted, he had it booked and was asking for 500 Ringitts (about 100 pounds) for one night before we could even take a breath. Caught up in the whirlwind, we had no clue if we were being taken for a ride or not but we handed over the money, afterall some of our best experiences have been those that we had not had time to debate. We were told to be back for 9am the next morning and we left the office with our fingers crossed.
Outside the office, waiting beside a suped up 1980's Toyota sedan was Tilda, with a huge smile on his face he ushered us into the fur lined seats with glowing neon dials up front. He told us that the AC was temperamental so we waited with windows closed until we could bear the heat no longer, as the windows came down we found ourselves away from the city and travelling down the quiet backroads that followed the river. Eventually we turned into a village comprising 8 longhouses, a medical center, a school and a church.
A longhouse is a long stilted wooden structure which has a communal verandah running the length and anything from 10 to 60 doors, behind each door is a house for a family, which could be anything from 1 to 5 rooms, sometimes more. Tilda is the father of the family we would be staying with and his home was in a 20 door longhouse, which had a large front room with a corridor leading down to the kitchen and 3 bedrooms in between. Kev and I felt quite bad when we realised that we would be evicting his 12 year old daughter from her room so that we could have a  double bed!
After we had been shown around the house we were taken a few doors down to meet the neighbours, here meeting the neighbours inevitably involves the consumption of Tuak - rice wine, a deadly home brew made from rice gathered from the paddies out front of the longhouse, and as we came to realise every door produces tuak in its own special way - some were as  sweet as a sherry others as dry and sour as a gin or whisky. Every door we went to we met some lovely people and some characters, we got to find out about Iban culture and every day life. We became quite the celebrities and got taken to door after door after door with an increasing entourage. Much to Kev's delight, the visiting of a new door meant a new tuak to try and Kev had found a buddy who kept challenging him to "in one". By lunch time Kev had had more than enough, as I had been delicately sipping mine I hoped that breaking for lunch would see him sober up just a little! The food certainly did us both the world of good as we ate freshly caught prawns, fish, rice and tapioca leaves. After lunch Tilda's son took us out to the back shed and from a black plastic bag, produced a net of skulls - the Iban people have long since been known as The Headhunters and traditionally they would brutally kill and then take the head of trespassing rivals and display them on the verandah of the longhouse to warn any other potential troublemakers!
The afternoon involved Kev and I being dressed in traditional clothing and being taught dance - Kev a war dance and I a very delicate lady's dance!!! Drums and cymbals were brought out and we tried to learn the traditional beats, unsuccessfully! Before we knew it, it was time for dinner and again we were treated to delicious homemade fayre as well as a rare fruit that had been found in the jungle - this was seen as a real treat as it only ripens once a year. The fruit was a little like Durian fruit apart from not having the dreadful smell and was sickly sweet, one or 2 pieces were more than enough although Kev couldn't stomach any especially as the slimy consistency had him gagging!The night passed with more Tuak and a very drunken chap who's slurring made it impossible to understand as well as his continuous repetitive questions. He couldn't remember my name so in the end he and I found it easier for him to call me "Soup" much to the hilarity of everyone else! The next day Tilda took us around the village, we had brought gifts as suggested and spent the time handing out biscuits and balloons to the many kids. As it was a weekend we managed to meet a lot of people who were just chilling, the place had a huge community atmosphere with everyone helping each other out. We had planned to head back around 3ish and give Tilda some peace but his neighbours in the Longhouse were having a celebration for their son who had recently had a promotion in the Air Force, they seemed keen to have us stay so we happily obliged. We were quite unprepared for the actual ceremony as we gathered on the porch for his return with everyone, his mother scattered Puja food offerings up the steps and then a pig wrapped in a hessian bag was placed at the bottom of the steps, the son arrived and was given a long spear which he promptly thrust in the poor pig's neck, it came as a bit of a shock to us but nobody else seemed that bothered. It was however the freshest and tastiest pork we have ever eaten - the ultimate in being responsible for the meat you eat! The afternoon continued with Tuak, speeches, ceremony and more animal sacrifices namely a chicken and a freshly caught mud turtle, nothing was wasted though - the eyes, brains and tongue were all consumed. Eventually it was time for us to leave meaning that Tilda could also drink his body weight in Tuak. As we arrived back in Sibu the heavens opened a torrential down pour and a thunderstorm to boot, we enjoyed the show from the safety of a covered pavement cafe with a nice beer in hand!
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