Long Logged River Ride to a Long House

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The day started early once again on October 9th. We took a local bus to the nearby town of Pending to catch a fast ferry boat to Sibu.

Even though we had a small communications problem with the bus driver and had to walk a bit to get to the ferry terminal, we made it on time. We piled onto the deck next to a cargo of empty flat packed cardboard boxes and a crate of ducklings. The boat engines roared to life and we sped down the chocolate milk colored water towards the sea.

The trip was supposed to last four and a half hours. We entered another river leading from the South China Sea. After a Short time, a strange looking long boat pulled up to us. It was sleek as a plane fuselage, as long as a regional jet, and had two massive tailpipes sticking up on its back. We were doing a midriver transfer to this other boat as the largest ferry did not navigate all the way to Sibu. To avoid the frigid temperatures inside of the boat, we opted to sit on the roof and enjoy the weather and the riverside scenery.

Due to hard to determine circumstances, the river leading to Sibu is crowded with floating logs of various sizes. We asked around and received vague answers such as “landslide”, “broken dam”, and “ecological disaster.” regardless of the cause, this was not normal, and at times the boat needed to ram it’s was through a parade of logs, which, due to mysterious currents was floating sideways across the river.

We got to Sibu late in the afternoon. According to the guidebook this is a mostly industrial town and there is not much to do for tourists. We were hoping to catch another boat upriver to a smaller town of Kapit, where we plan to embark on a visit to the indigenous longhouses which are home to the Iban people of Borneo. Unfortunately, we were too late, so instead we took care of some errands, bought onward bus tickets for Sunday, and checked in to a comfortable and clean hotel. In the evening we ate supper at a really nice and reasonably priced Thai restaurant where the food was splendid. We went to sleep early in order to get up the next day in the wee hours of the morning.

It was difficult to get up this morning, but thankfully the boat terminal was across the street from the hotel and were soon asleep on top of the ubiquitous slender river boats which make up the most common mode of transport in these areas.

Even though Kapit has no road access to the rest of the world and everything needs to be ferried in by boat, there is a surprising number of cars on the road and the buildings are bigger than we had imagined.

The previous night we got in touch with Joshua, who was a guide recommended by the guide book for visiting long houses. We liked his services and the fact that he was a a native Iban. However, his prices were extraordinary and it was difficult bargaining him down. His only apparent competition is a Chinese lady named Alice whom he seems to strongly dislike. We met him soon after arriving and began the fine dance of negotiating down the price. Paddy and I walked over to where he was eating breakfast and did the first chipping away. We hot back to the girls on the other side of the street where a finely choreographed show of hands and emotion made it clear to him that they were dissatisfied. Paddy and I returned to him with another counteroffer. It continued like this for a little bit until we all came to a reasonable agreement.

We quickly ate and did good shopping for the long house stay. We bought chicken, fish, strange vegetables, and two large bamboo stalks in which to cook it all. Soon after, we rode off to find the long house.

The Iban people on Borneo live in communal structures known a long houses. It is quite literally a whole village living on stilts. And the hose do live up to their name. There is an outside porch spanning the length of the whole structure. Immediately inside is an enclosed common corridor. Off this corridor are doors which lead to rooms where families have semi-private quarters. Two such families would e hosting us here tonight.

The Iban people have a history of being headhunters. A young man needed to prove his manhood by raiding another village and coming back with a head. We are assured that this practice was discontinued at the beginning of the 20th century, but the bundles of skulls hanging in the center of the communal hallway are an eerie reminder of tear not-so-long-ago times.

The arrival was quiet and we were immediately seated in a circle (shoes off!) and drank rice wine. We had some awkward conversation. The only person with usable English was Joshua, our guide.

The heat was quite intense and we were invited to go to a nearby stream to take a swim and wash up. The water was clear and pleasantly cool. We washed up and splashed around as the Iban fished for little fish and scoured the river bottom in doing masks for little snails.

Dinner time similarly started with rice wine. We brought out a bottle of local rum which we had with us, which was clearly welcomed. We chatted more as the women cooked food in pots over a gas fire and in the bamboo stalks over wood.

The food was delicious. There was the chicken and fish we had brought, as well as some of the local fish. We also found out that the strange looking pink flower which the lady at the maker recommended we buy was wild Ginger flower, and it imparts a fantastic flavor on meat. The food was accompanied by vegetables and rice. Everything was well seasoned and everyone was happy.

The evening carried on with a bit more drinking and talking. The kids got a big kick out of watching pictures from Iza and Tomek’s wedding as well as from a racing game on Paddy’s iPod. We retired to sleep early under mosquito nets to the sound of chirping and barking lizards.

Early the next morning we were invited to join our hosts in rice planting. We welcomed the opportunity. We crossed some steep jungle and arrived at a burned out mountainside. Men walked around with sticks poking holes in the ground and the women dropped rice in them. We hung out on the mountainside, slipping and sliding on the steep and muddy ground. The morning meal was a strange sweet corn porridge with other mysterious ingredients. A bit later, two chickens were slaughtered and cooked over a fire. Once again, the food was fantastic.

As all this was going on, a big centipede strolled around on the ground next to us. As Tomek went to pick it up, it curled up into a perfect ball and rolled down a mountainside. A girl ran down and brought back the curled up critter, the size of a ping pong ball. We sat patiently waiting for it to open up, to no avail.

We made it down the wet slippery slope, encountering a few slips and falls. We washed up in the river and were once again greeted with food. Once again it was quite good. Well fe and happy we said goodbyes to out hosts and headed back to Kapit.

After we returned to Sibu, we were all quite tired. Our night bus to Miri was not leaving until 11:30pm. We had about twelve hours to kill and no energy to do anything. We went back to to the Thai restaurant where we enjoyed the food and the décor so much two days prior. This place had everything: good food, nice bathrooms, wi-fi, plenty of power outlets, and pleasant background music. We ate another great meal and made camp, filling the next twelve hours with reading, talking, and generally relaxing.

At one point I ordered a nice looking longan fruit drink. What came out was shocking. White liquid filled the bottom of the glass (sweet condensed milk), brownish red paste (red bean) filled the middle, and the top was filled with crushed ice in longan juice. The drink was topped with longan fruit and a healthy sprinkling of caned whole corn kernels. What was even more shocking is that everyone concurred that the drink was delicious.

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