Star Date:  May 2005
Borneo - Sarawak


Hello Dear Family & Friends!


(Universal in Asia)


"Happiness is an inside job! "

(Carolyn Myss, author & lecturer, highly recommended)


We start each day with a clear canvas, and our picture is painted as the day evolves.  Let's try to not throw blobs of past regrets or future expectations or worries on our picture!  Allow the masterpiece to unfold, encouraging the joy and light from inside us to shine through! What a psychedelic picture was painted in Sarawak!  There are no roads in SW Borneo and just when we thought it couldn't get 'mo betta', like they say in Hawaii, we flew around the inaccessible SW corner of Borneo up to Sarawak.  Strolling along the riverbank in Kuching we learned that it was the home of James Brooke, a British adventurer, who in 1838 helped quash a rebellion of warring tribes and as a reward the Sultan gave him what is now Sarawak.  Self appointed and greatly endeared 'Raja Brooke' created a dynasty that lasted until after WWII.  We were back in 'civilization' where we enjoyed electricity, restaurants, museums, colonial buildings and forts that kept the pirates at bay.  Before we softened up too much we jumped on 3 different speed boats and headed up the river 12 hours to Kapit.

Sarawak is a kaleidoscope of tribes people like the Iban, Bidayah, Orang Ulu, many still living in the remote hills and rivers of the area. The Penans are shy nomadic hunter gatherers and build little open stilt houses in the jungle. They are experts with the blowpipe and still hand bore the long pipes and make poison to suit the prey from the sap of the upas tree.  They live on sago palm and when the crop is used up they move on.

Longhouses line the riverbanks and snake down the ridges of hilltops everywhere in the jungle. They are essentially a city street tacked together under one roof with over 200 people sharing an ingenious gravity fed bamboo water system.  Up to 600 feet long, the length of 2 football fields, they were established for protection from marauding tribes.  Not being a very tribal person myself I would envision us in an independent little house by ourselves off in the jungle.  That is until I remember the fact that it wasn't long ago that these tribes were headhunters.  We visited a Baruk head house with 4 shrunken heads still hanging from the ceiling above the fire. Men used to sleep in the head house and sound the gong (traded from the Chinese hundreds of years ago) and drums when attacked.  I guess it was an early version of security guards and alarms.  A special ritual is still carried out daily to keep the spirits of the heads happy, or......???  I imagine those spirits were mighty pissed off at some point!  Tattoos on the back of a man's hand show that he has taken a head. We didn't see any in our travels but we would have been extra sweet in our dealings with him if we had!

In Kapit we applied for a permit to continue further up river.  Only 44 visitors had registered in 3 months.  It was a wild ride up river through serious rapids and dodging logs and rocks the whole way. They even carry extra propellers on the roof. For most of the 4 hours we rode in the back of the boat with an old long ear tribesman and shared our fruit and nuts.  Our faces were black from the sooty exhaust but the sights we absorbed of jungle life were amazing.  While still hot and dirty we made a deal to go spend a night in a longhouse. (From Belaga: Do Not use John as a guide - Daniel is better)  The longhouse was up river nestled in the jungle, with a background of green velvet, mist covered mountains.  The long canoe pulled up in front and we had to balance on 50 foot logs, with 3 feet of mud on either side, just to get up.  Luckily we were traveling light.  I only had a daypack for our 2 months around Borneo.  We brought cookies and treats as was the custom and slept on reed mats on the floor. The old lady next door took us under her wing and we helped prepare wild ginger, jungle ferns and mountain rice, over the fire, for dinner . We mainly just hung out, pantomimed, and laughed with the locals when they would come to sit in front of their door in the communal porch area.  We also watched them prepare tobacco for their cigarettes that looked more like little cigars. An old woman who was fixing betel nut was disappointed that I wouldn't chew the betel nut I had prepared.  I'll try the face masks but I'm not a big fan of dark red teeth.  The older women all have solid black tattoos from the elbow down and the mid calf down.  They claim you can't see the wrinkles so much!  Like most of women's superfluous attempts  to cover aging, it really didn't work. Many young women were pretty but  the older ones were beautiful, wise and wizened up.  I even found my "Yoda"; ancient and tiny, we sat holding hands and talking beyond words.

 One of the most fascinating beauty features of the elders were the long ears. The men have an added hole in the top for a boar's tooth; all very painful procedures to conform to tribal fashion.  Middle age locals have all had their ears trimmed because of being an annoyance when running in sports or to avoid attracting attention when going down river.  Although seemingly controlled by the tribe in every other regard the young folk simply want to look modern and leave the long ears and tattoos to their elders .

The tribes people primarily grew mountain rice and vegetables, and gathered fruit, roots and plants from the jungle for medicine and eating. The men fished the river for large prawns, eels, and fish. They also hunted, with blowpipe and knife, for wild boar, birds, sun bear, monkeys, monitor lizards, and python snakes (a 20 footer, 1 foot in diameter, will feed most of the longhouse!).  

We shared a little tuak, or rice wine when we were welcomed into an elder tribal meeting later in the evening.  The mood switched to somber as they learned their chief was dying, but overall we felt privileged to have this Kayan tribe open up their life and culture to us. 

The next day was Joseph's birthday and we booked into a small air conditioned hotel back in steamy Belaga, took long soapy showers, and vegged out on satellite HBO movies.  As in many places I shared the kitchen and cooked him a gourmet veggie meal at Daniel's Corner, complete with Kayan hats and Daniel and I singing Happy Birthday!  We took a 4WD truck to Miri the next morning and the following day flew in a small prop plane  (for $15) up to Bario.

The Kelebit Highlands is the most remote area in Borneo and only 2 recorded westerners had braved the natives, the rivers, animals, bugs and vertical footpaths prior to the 1940's.  Oh, had I mentioned they were headhunters?  Maybe I should correct it to only 2 westerners successfully made it to this untouched plateau.  Their headhunting and animistic  practices, frowned on by the Christian outsiders, slowly stopped (although we understand a couple of them did get jobs in New York City).  They did revive this old skill island- wide during the Japanese occupation of Borneo. Nothing is a match for a silent poison dart in the jungle.  Many Japanese skulls were proudly displayed in every village and the Kelebit Highlands were never taken. (Also probably due to the fact that shopping and Karaoke weren't available.)

Sitting outside our room (we stayed with Rhadish & family -good) a local woman stopped and invited us to a party that night.  We walked the 2 kms down the dirt road to the next village and arrived early. The whole longhouse, the oldest in the area, was a flurry of activity:  boar meat being chopped and cooked on the fire outside by the men, while the women chopped vegetables and cooked rice over the fires inside. Just like a luau in Milolii  at home in Hawaii.  We helped chop veggies and set up the only 6 chairs, displays, etc for the festivities. We were able to get to know the family of the elderly parents being honored and walked along marveling at the family photos.  They cooked us a special vegan stir fry for lunch and later at 10 pm that night when over 300 people were being served food, on banana leaves while sitting on bamboo mats, our vegan version was proudly brought out.  Everyone showed up in their finery.  Older men and women sporting very heavy, freshly polished earrings bringing their lobes past their shoulders, and around their necks were antique beads in gold, rust and blue, with a large cylinder of red beads looking just like a rambutan, proudly worn on each male chest in the room. Many had extensive tattoos and women, young and old, wore skull caps intricately beaded in the same colors. The Chinese had traded in the area from the1300's and brought these caps, gongs, beads and large 25 gallon pottery rice wine jars.  We see evidence of extensive trading between continents by the Egyptians, Vikings, Chinese and Maori's to name a few. Amazing they could manage without the supervision of the western culture!  We faded about midnight but they told us the next day that traditional dancing started about 2am.  For the next 4 days everyone knew us and said "Hi!" as we explored the plateau with it's little villages, shops, paths and a hand made suspension bridge across the river. The cooler mountain forests were alive with orchids, large pitcher plants, and scarlet rhododendron trees in blossom.  We even met someone we knew at the airport when we flew back into Miri.  Did I mention we knew the pilot's mother too?!  The world is really one big village.

And so it goes...........................................................Next the Sultanate of Brunei.  Keep Smiling, Keep in Touch and test the theory that Happiness is an Inside Job!     Take care.



Love, xoxoox  Nancy & Joseph










The lady next door in the Kayan Longhouse.  She took us
under her wing and we cooked dinner together.
  Note the tattoos.


Looking out at the river, from the porch of the 600 ft
Kayan Longhouse.


Cutting tobacco on the back porch.


My ancient friend 'Yoda'.  She was bare chested, with a sarong around her waist but went inside to dress up for her photo. What a soothing aura. 


From the family gallery, on the wall, at the Longhouse in Bario.


At the Baruk Head House.  Yes, those are 4 heads hanging
up in the ceiling above the cooking fire.


The mother of the pilot that flies into the Kelebit Highlands.


 Cooking rice for the big party.  Each fire down the row, in the 
Kelebit longhouse, had a pot boiling.


Redefining Cool!  A great melding of Old & New !




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