Lounging in a Longhouse

Machan, Sarawak
July 3, 2017

Vanessa was in Miri, on a school-sponsored field trip, when we met. While we chatted, she told me of their ancestral longhouse deep in the forest, built of bamboo and wood. Little did I know that as I listened entranced, she was hatching plans. The next day she informed me that she had already called her parents and they were waiting to meet me in Sibu. Halting Malay at my end and stuttering English at theirs notwithstanding, I was promptly invited to their home. Suluk, Vanessa’s father picked me up in Sibu and it was only then I learned that they live in the tiny township of Machan some forty kilometers away. Their longhouse is even further in the interior, and the plan was to go there that weekend. Suluk had grown up in the longhouse but nobody in the family lives there now, he told me. Most have jobs in towns and cities but they all congregate in the longhouse for festivals and holidays.

The downpour began as we left Sibu and in the increasing torrent we drove to Machan. Their home is not so much a longhouse as separate houses, built in a row, very close to each other. All the houses belong to the same extended family and are surrounded by fruit trees – coconut, papaya, pineapples and mango trees stand along with chili and lemon bushes. Some of the bushes are the greens that they traditionally harvested in the forests and still use for cooking. At the end of the row of houses are a series of cages – chickens I thought, for fresh eggs. But these were roosters! For cockfights, they tell me. With a smug look and the broad smile, they pointed out the king of the roosters; the source of a good bit of money, I gathered.

The large open-sided, covered parking area is next to the front door is full. Each family seems to own multiple vehicles including latest model SUVs. The front door leads into a spacious living room with four rooms leading off it. A large flat-screen television dominates the living room; it was the first thing switched on in the morning and the last thing switched off at night. There are some photos on the wall – graduations and weddings mostly. A large poster of Jesus claims another wall. A kitchen to one side of the living room has a bath and a toilet off it. The house is no different in design from millions of others and their lifestyle in this generation is no different from those elsewhere in the world. But old habits die hard. Come evening, quilts are spread out on the living room floor and everyone sleeps there, despite beds in the bedrooms.

Vanessa’s older sister is already married at twenty, and pregnant with her first child. Her brother Wincelause, at nineteen, is studying at college. He wanted to practice his English and while peppering me with questions, was happy to answer mine. The youngest daughters said not a word but were appreciative of the cake that I had brought. The copious amounts of sugar in the icing clearly met with their approval. I met the uncles, aunts and cousins and was inspected and interrogated thoroughly. My vagabond lifestyle garnered a thumbs-up from the older women, surprising me. But in keeping with traditional values, the men were not quite as approving.

I was shown the rug handwoven by Suluk’s grandmother and a couple of his grandfather’s parangs. About a foot long, these are the machete-like knives that were traditionally used by the Iban and still are. One had a bear’s tooth attached as decoration – the bear supposedly killed by one of his ancestors, several generations ago and handed down through the males in the family. The six-inch long tusk of a wild boar was also from his grandfather’s days, another valued memento. The scabbard of the parang was beautifully carved, the work of his grandfather. It is a lost art, they tell me. None in the family now, know how to carve, nor can any of the women weave. Suluk’s mother still weaves mats and makes hats and baskets. She was happy to reminisce and tell me stories of life in the forest. With Win translating, she told us tales of catching wild boar and killing snakes. Dinner that night included wild boar but this had been bought, not caught.

The downpour had continued all night, making the rough road through the forest to their longhouse unusable. Instead, Suluk had been making other plans. The town of Kanowit, about twenty-five kilometers away was the first stop as they showed me the one sight of note – Fort Emma. Of Charles Brook fame, it is a squat building, still standing. But it was fenced in and locked up even though the sign outside proclaimed its history and fame. Wandering through the bazaar, we were greeted at every step – everyone seems to be related in these parts. Cordially introduced each time, I hadn’t a hope of remembering the names and faces, let alone the relationships! Our motley crew of six soon grew into a gaggle of a dozen or more and we squashed into two cars for the trip to the longhouse where more Suluk’s extended family live.

Located on the bank of the Sungai Poi, this really is a long house, the home of twenty families. A courtyard festooned with laundry leads to the ruai, the communal corridor with doors to each house leading off it. These are not the single-roomed homes I remember from Kalimantan; here each door opens into an apartment. Built identically, each apartment consists of two rooms, laid out like train carriages, one leading to the next. The living room is large and mostly empty, with the few pieces of furniture pushed against the walls as are the pile of bedding. Beyond it is the kitchen, also spacious in size. A narrow, steep staircase leads up to the loft, the domain of one of uncles. He weaves mats and baskets here from palm strips. Against the wall are a row of large ceramic jars, from “old days” he tells me.

Plied with platters of sunflower seeds, a couple of ripe papayas and kopi, we chatted, sitting on the floor. My curiosity about the jungle produce seen in markets, had them amused and our host, insisted on taking me out in their boat to pick ferns from the jungle. Crouching in the longboat, we puttered upriver and pulled up next to the bank. My misgivings of snakes lurking in the grass was roundly scoffed at, as we squelched up the bank. Hidden in the grass, are thickets of paku. Along with the fiddle-head fern, this is used widely in these parts. The bundles we picked would be part of our dinner tonight.

Next on the agenda was a visit to Vanessa’s mother, Margaret’s family. They too live in a longhouse, this one even longer, with twenty-seven doors. A row of satellite dishes perch on the roofline, for the large flat screen televisions that seem to grace every home. The rooms inside are decorated with tinsel and strung with beads made from colorful strips of plastic. It is Margaret’s mother who creates these. What used to be traditionally palm, is now, plastic “straw” bought in the market. A cross between origami and weaving, the decorations show a strong preference for eye-popping colors. But it is a skill that will not survive another generation.

A boardwalk leading from the backdoor and is lined with cages. The roosters peck away unperturbed as we walk past. A larger cage had a pig but it lies empty now, the pig long since consumed. A small area holds a barbecue pit, the feathers and rubbish in the pit has the dogs happily scavenging in it. The communal boardwalk leads down to a small sluggish stream. Despite the bathroom, complete with a washing machine in the corner, it is in the stream that everyone bathes. Women in their sarongs, men with towels wrapped around their waists and children in the altogether. Liberal use of soap and shampoo in the waters that they wash food in, does not seem to be a deterrent. Neither are the piles of plastic bottles and assorted junk that float, caught in the reeds. Bamboo shoots are brought in from the forest across the stream and washed here and the chicken that is going to be cooked in bamboo, pansoh style, is cut and cleaned in the same water.

It is put on the fire first, the charred feathers pulled off before being taken down to the stream to be chopped up. Sprinkled with salt and MSG, it is stuffed inside the hollow of a bamboo stick and left in the fire to cook for an hour. The assortment of leaves that were stuffed down the bamboo combined the distinct taste of bamboo with a delicate lemony flavor. It was delicious as were the other dishes. Our festive dinner included the ferns we had picked earlier along with fish, a pumpkin dish, a broth of wild boar with the usual mounds of rice. Despite the dining table and chairs set proudly in the middle of the room, we all sat on the floor and ate.

Most evenings after dinner are spent in the communal ruai, amid chatter and conversation. More often than not, it is accompanied by tuak, the traditional rice wine. As a first visitor to their longhouse, an immersion into Iban culture was practically mandatory, especially for one as ignorant as I. The volume of tuak consumed was in direct proportion to the hilarity and jokes that had everyone convulsing with laughter and me begging for translations. Tattoos that most of the men wore were presented, their meanings explained amid plenty of tall tales.

As the evening progressed, more of the doors opened as other residents came out to join us and before I knew it, it was a party! The set of gongs were brought out, as was a drum. The musicians were rounded up and dancing was not too far behind. A ketapu – a woven white hat of rattan decorated with two long hornbill feathers was brought out. Anyone on whose head this was placed, was given a drink of tuak and had to dance. The tune never varied and the steps were slow. Arms waving, knees bent, I mimicked the others and managed not to fall flat on my face.

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