Not so tribal experience

Trip Start Oct 13, 2010
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Trip End Feb 22, 2012


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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Thursday, May 5, 2011

After visiting the Bako National Park, I left Kuching and headed for the small town of Sibu, 4-5 hours away by fast boat. The journey was quite nice, as we left the bay for the sea for a while before going up the Rejang River. On all these long distance buses and boats they play movies, and it's always action/war movies, in particular action movies featuring ex WWE wrestlers which as everyone knows is right up my street (seriously). On this boat trip I watched two movies featuring Rob Van Dam and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Hilariously, because it's too noisy to hear the sound they display English subtitles even though the movie is played in English, but the subtitles have obviously been put together by an non-English speaking person watching the film - most of the translations are totally wrong but they rhyme with the actual word so it makes no sense whatsoever! And there was a boat full of people watching intently and looking as though they knew what was going on.

I planned to spent one night here and catch up with my old friend and workmate Wai who (by coincidence, no stalking going on honest!) is working here at the moment, then continue up the Rejang to the smaller town of Kapit in order to organise a trip to a Longhouse. We made a couple of stops on the way to Sibu, and at one point I commented to an Australian couple on board that I wondered how they knew which bags to unload at each stop. Turns out, they didn't - I got off at at Sibu but my backpack had got off at somewhere called Sarikei! The boatmen scribbled down a phone number and shouted out for me to call someone called Madam Lao as the boat pulled away and left me minus my bag standing on the dock. There was nobody in sight to ask at the wharf, and the Tourist Police weren't in their office, so we headed to Wai's hotel to see if the reception staff could call this Madam Lao and see if she knew anything about my bag! After a long and drawn out conversation which bizarrely involved the word 'Evergreen' several times (perhaps some kind of code word for stupid tourist?), the receptionist said that Madam Lao didn't really speak Malay, can anyone speak Chinese? So Wai phoned Madam Lao and attempted to speak to her in some form of Chinese. No luck - turns out Madam Lao only speaks, wait for it, English! We established that Madam Lao, whoever she was, did have a bag which she was keeping in her shop, but we could not establish if it was in fact MY bag. Apparently it would arrive on the boat tomorrow - not fully trusting this, we decided to drive to this Sarikei and get it ourselves. An hour later in the pouring rain we arrived at Sarikei dock, and were directed to a shop by a helpful uniformed man. Madam Lao was waiting in the rain to open up her shop - I could hardly bear to look as doors opened slowly as if in slow motion and I waited in suspense to see if it was  my backpack - yay it was!! She told us some other tourists had handed in my backpack. I never really found out who Madam Lao was or why she had it in her shop, but I got it back thanks to the honesty of several people in the chain. By the time we got back to Sibu I decided to stay put the next day and relax. I spent the next day doing ordinary things I haven't done for ages - going to the cinema, eating Japanese food and popcorn, watching TV - and thoroughly enjoying it! Kapit is a small town, and I only saw two other Westerners.

The following day I booked a ticket to Kapit, costing about 5 pounds for a 'business class' seat, which meant another war movie. This time there were no other tourists on board, an indicator that, as I would later find out, there were actually no other tourists in the entire town. I was forced to blow my budget on a rather nice hotel room because there isn't much in the way of budget accommodation and it was all booked up due to some school event. I soon realised that Kapit is a VERY small town, and everyone was staring at me way more than usual. I ventured out to the local market where tribes people come to sell jungle fruit and veg (and reportedly the meat of endangered animals but I didn't go into the meat section so can't say), and could feel every pair of eyes on me. Most people were friendly and smiled but others just looked at me like I was an alien. Eventually I got annoyed with all the staring and went back to my hotel.

My guidebook recommended a particular guide for longhouse visits, Joshua. I was on my way to find a quiet cafe from which to call him, when a car with darkened windows pulled up beside me and offered me a longhouse trip. It was in fact Joshua himself! He confirmed that there were no other tourists in the entire town so they had no work at the moment. Because there was nobody to share the cost with, the trip would now cost about 50% more. But I'd come this far, so couldn't leave without seeing a longhouse. A traditional longhouse is built of wood and is a very long house providing rooms for around 30 families. The more modern ones are built of brick and can house up to 100 families. I had avoided visiting a longhouse close to Kuching as I wanted an authentic experience and to learn about the Iban culture, not to see people dressed up and putting on a touristy dance show as some of the trips involve. Joshua arranged for me to go to an Iban longhouse the next day and stay overnight.

The following day Joshua and his driver arrived to collect me and we drove about 45 minutes to the longhouse. It was a long, rickety old wooden building on stilts, right on the banks of the river. Looked traditional enough! Venturing inside I found that there are three areas - first there is a kind of balcony, you go inside and there is a middle area where the elderly people were sitting weaving, making things or just chatting, and then there are the family homes, one room per family. The families take in in turns to host guests - tourists are fairly regular here. The money is split between the head of the longhouse and the host family, and provides the guest with food. When we arrived my family were not home yet, so an elderly woman brought out homemade rice wine to welcome me. They even grow the rice themselves. This stuff is strong!! I soon realised that nobody spoke any English. Joshua showed me around, and we watched the old women weaving mats. Some of the older women follow tradition and go topless! Ergh. Others wear sarong type robes. The older men have the traditional tribal tattoos, and collections of human skulls still hang outside the doors from when the Ibans were headhunters. There is no electricity in the daytime (a generator is used at night) so it was very dark inside.

Eventually my host family arrived, and were not exactly welcoming. After introductions, around 16.00 Joshua left me with the family. To be honest I would have been perfectly happy leaving at this point, having seen the longhouse and met the people. The mother couldn't speak any English, but the two children could speak a little. The 10 year old girl was gorgeous and stuck to my side. The children took me to bathe in a clean part of the river (the local version of a shower!) which was fun. The father arrived home later and then we ate dinner. I was halfway through my vegetables, when I was horrified to discover a fish eye floating in my bowl. Yes, a  FISH EYEBALL!!! I almost threw up there and then. Needless to say that was the end of dinner. Later on they tried to sell me some overprice jewellry, then the electricity came on and  everyone watched TV. The family lives and sleeps in one room, which is fairly modern. The kitchen is a separate room but is only half built, i.e. it only has 3 walls. Onto the toilet ... the toilet is a hole in the ground, separated from the kitchen only by 3 partitions that only come up to your waist. Not a lot of privacy then! Amazing what you get used to when you have no alternative.

Now I wanted authentic, but I would have liked some hospitality. What I actually got was sitting around with a family watching the Malaysian X-Factor!! Yes, really. It was very disappointing - I didn't learn anything from the family about the culture (although the mum danced for a little while). When we weren't watching TV I babysat the kids. We slept on mattresses lined up side by side on the floor. In the morning the girl was having a tantrum and didn't go to school, and the mum had disappeared. I calmed her down by giving her my phone to play on. The electricity wasn't on, so I sat for 3 hours in the dark just waiting for Joshua to turn up and take me back to civilisation. I was so bored that in the end I laid down on the manky sofa and went to sleep for something to do. When Joshua arrived, he took me outside to see where the women (including the mother) were preparing to cook the rice in bamboo containers, in preparation for an upcoming ceremony because somebody had died. The men were doing the cooking over a fire and knocking back the wine. The adults seem to do a lot of sitting around getting pissed on rice wine, making a few handicrafts.

I guess this is the point - I wanted real and I got it. By avoiding the tourist shows at the 'fake' longhouses, I got a real family, who do what most other families do, albeit in one room in a longhouse. After a while Joshua took me back to Kapit, and I caught the next boat out of there back to Sibu and relative civilisation.
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