Writer and Traveller

Upriver, Borneo

In Borneo there were only two destinations: upriver and down.

Downriver were the sorry towns of Chinese shop-houses, the shuttered government offices and the anxious people of the coast. Upriver was the interior, a world of forests and fat brown streams, of head-hunters and disappointed missionaries, of blowpipes and all-night raves in long houses decorated with human skulls. Upriver took you to places the roads couldn’t reach. It was not merely a destination. In Borneo it was what people were: hulu — upriver.

I was feeling kind of hulu myself. Perhaps I had been travelling too long. I wanted someplace untroubled by arrivals and departures. I had the notion that upriver might offer stillness, some kind of permanence, after the transient feeling of the towns. Perhaps I toyed with ideas of innocence. At any rate I was soon aware that these notions were not universally shared. The people of the towns felt the need to reassure me. They said the missionaries had done a great deal to persuade the upriver tribes to give up the old habit of decapitating the house guests.

Down at the dock the river clawed at the rotting pylons. The boats looked like aeroplane fuselages which had lost their wings in some nasty incident. Inside the passengers sat in rows of broken seats, mesmerised by the onboard entertainment, a relentless diet of kung fu videos. I took my place between an enormous bald Iban in the terminal stages of emphysema and a boy with a lapful of roosters. A cloud of diesel fumes signalled our departure.

We swung upriver through wide river bends. The water was the colour of wet clay, its swollen surface disturbed by sinister eddies and half-submerged logs. Dark forest pressed down to the water’s edge. From time to time the trees parted to reveal the long-houses of the Kayan and the Kenyah tribes. They looked like elongated Appalachian shacks, elevated on stilts, built of timber off-cuts, thatch and corrugated metal. Each long-house was a communal village of many families, all sharing the same roof, the same veranda and the same problems with noisy neighbours.

Then the trees closed again, and the river was swamped with green reflections. Above us was a wilderness of clouds. As the afternoon wore on, the clouds sank into the treetops, and a melancholy rain came on, pock-marking the smooth surface of the water.

I stayed the night at Long Panai. It wasn’t a scheduled stop. The fuselage made a slow fly-past, and I leapt ashore with a triple jump that would have astonished my old gym teacher. Long Panai was a substantial place; the long-house ran along the riverbank for a quarter of a mile and contained 120 families. People sat outside on the covered veranda sifting rice and gossip. The young people looked like sober suburban kids, with their baseball caps turned backwards, while their parents looked like New Age freaks: a confusion of wild tattoos, pierced body parts, dangling ear lobes, patchwork clothing and funny-looking cigarettes.

I was staying with Thomas, a minor royal. His reception room was a model of aristocratic taste, imported from downriver: purple arm chairs and a lime-green sofa encased in plastic. On the walls, among the ceremonial swords, the hornbill beaks, and the stretched skin of a flying squirrel, was a painting of Jesus and a picture of Bon Jovi torn from a magazine. Jesus and Bon Jovi were both very big in Sarawak.

Both of Thomas’ grandfathers had been chiefs, though on opposite sides of a tribal war. His parents’ marriage had been part of the peace treaty. Through Thomas’ childhood political tensions had masqueraded as domestic strife.

‘The old religion gave my family many powers,’ Thomas was saying. He was a slow, thoughtful man with a stretched shiny face. ‘It was a big responsibility. My paternal grandfather for instance could cure the sick by spitting on them. Also he was bullet-proof.’

I said it was a wonder they had taken up Christianity when they already had such a useful faith.

‘Who needs bullet-proofing these days?’ he said. ‘Like you, we want to be in Paradise with the Holy Ghost. We want Eternal Life.’

After dinner — a rabbit — we sat outside on the veranda, drinking bowls of tuak, a homemade rice wine with a donkey’s kick. Liana vines, climbing the stilts beneath the longhouse, curled round our feet. The evening was spread out across the surface of the river. From the depths of the forest at our backs came a discourse of animal shrieks. An old branch fell from a tree near the house with an echoing crash.

‘We are rotting here,’ Thomas sighed. ‘Nothing survives in these forests. The damp, the termites, the vegetation, they overwhelm everything. If we fell asleep on these chairs, vines would be climbing our legs when we woke in the morning.’

Night fell, and the fireflies began to dance.

‘When I was young I longed for life downriver. I felt claustrophobic here. I wanted someplace with possibilities. Here nothing changes.’

A chorus of frogs rose from the reed-beds below the house. Beyond, the river was a sheet of polished blackness, its movement invisible.

‘What do you hope to find in Sarawak?’ he asked.

I mumbled something about the drama of the river and virgin forests. I would have felt foolish talking to him about stillness, the quality he longed to escape.

‘There is nothing here. Only trees and more trees. It is all the same. There is nowhere to go.’

The next morning I found a boatman with a prau, a dugout canoe, to take me further upriver. After an hour or so we turned into a tributary where the narrow stream was cluttered with fallen trees. Hornbills shrieked from the forest canopy. The forest trailed leafy fingers in the current, and we slipped through cool chambers of shade beneath the strangler figs. An escarpment reared on our right, packed with giant hardwoods.

In the early afternoon an Iban longhouse, surrounded by black pigs and stands of maize, appeared on the left bank of the river. It was a ramshackle affair elevated on a rickety wilderness of stilts. Laundry and children dangled from the railings. The chief was away in the fields and we were received by his mother, a tiny octogenarian. Her lips and teeth were crimson with betel nut. Blue tattoos swarmed up her arms and across her bare breasts, and her elongated ear lobes hung down to her shoulders. She served us tuak for afternoon tea. It had a faint taste of sticking plasters. Sitting in the front parlour on straw mats, I checked the rafters for skulls, and was disappointed to find there weren’t any.

With the boatman as translator, I asked about head-hunting. The woman was old enough to remember its heyday.

‘The heads protected us,’ she said, her gaze lingering on my cranium as she shifted a vast wad of betel nut from one side of her mouth to the other. ‘They made the longhouse safe.’

In the old days, after a head-hunting expedition, the heads were skinned and smoked over a fire before being hung from the rafters in rattan nets. Properly appeased and respected, the heads brought blessings to the longhouse, from warding off evil spirits to producing rain. The magical powers of the heads waned with time so fresh goods were always in demand.  Without fresh heads, the old woman said, longhouses are vulnerable. Now we have nothing to protect us.

In the evening we partied. After a rather murky dinner of fish and rice, more tuak was produced, and we moved outside to the passageway that acted as the village square. The neighbours began to gather. Music was provided by an erratic cassette player. After a few bevies, the dancing began. Young girls arrived wearing sarongs and straw bonnets decorated with hornbill feathers. They turned slowly on the balls of their feet, gesturing with their long-fingered hands.

I asked if it was a dance of courtship. ‘A war dance,’ the chief cried merrily, throwing back another bowl of tuak. The chief was everything his mother was not: big, boisterous, and coarse. As the drinking progressed, the entertainment grew a little ragged. A barrel-shaped man in a torn sarong sang Oh God Our Help in Ages Past. He made it sound like a drinking song.

The chief’s mother, a stickler for cultural traditions, was unimpressed with such innovation. She disappeared for a time, and when she returned she was wearing a blue silk gown. She had tied her hair in a bun and put kohl around her eyes. The girls and the men fell away and the old woman took centre stage. She danced exquisitely. Her face had the quality of a mask, austere and aloof, while her long delicate hands were full of expression. She was the Margo Fonteyn of Sarawak. Her performance was the highlight of the evening.

Or so, naively, I thought. In fact the entertainment thus far was merely a prelude to the star turn: me. On the wrong side of my tenth bowl of tuak I suddenly noticed that the assembled Ibans were waving at me. Closer inspection revealed they were waving me to my feet.

I demurred, but it was too late. A press gang of young women were bearing down on me. Someone put a straw bonnet on my head. Strong arms were lifting me. Through a veil of hornbill feathers, I suddenly found myself standing before the entire longhouse: a sea of expectant upturned faces. ‘Make the Dance of England,’ bellowed the chief.

In a tuak-inspired moment, I decided against such narrow nationalism and opted instead for the Dance of Europe. It seemed to offer more scope.

I began with the flamenco, a stirring rendition of heel-clicking and finger-snapping. I moved on to a Bohemian polka, interspersing this with bits of an Alpine jig of my own invention. Dizziness cut short the Irish reel and I passed groggily on to a high-kicking Cossack number which I ascribed to the Poles. When I tried a bit of Morris dancing, it came out like a storm troopers rally.

My audience went wild. They held their sides and hooted. They beat the ground and howled. Even the chief’s mother was amused. She clung to a post, dabbing at her eyes.

My performance marked the end of the evening, for which I was grateful. I felt I had been dancing on the Titanic. The longhouse seemed to be pitching in heavy seas. I made my way to a corner of the chief’s front parlour and was asleep before I had finished unrolling my mat. At dawn I was awoken by the routine longhouse cacophony: crowing roosters, howling dogs and people quarrelling over breakfast five households away.

My performance of the previous evening had earned me a reputation as a comic turn. Crowds now gathered to watch me eat breakfast in the hope that I might do something funny. I was unable to oblige unless a minor bout of retching over the grilled chicken feet counted as fun. Perhaps understandably, my audience seemed to believe it did.

We pressed onwards, following the trail of rivers further into the interior. Herons patrolled the banks, lifting their feet primly from the water with each step. Brilliant kingfishers, blue and orange, flashed among the overhanging boughs. A monitor lizard, as still and gnarled as driftwood, watched us from a sandbank. A tribe of gibbons passed through the treetops on our right, hooting as they went. Fish eagles rose from their perches at our approach, and flew away upriver, disappearing around the bend ahead. Through that whole afternoon, as we bore upriver, we were preceded by eagles.

In the early evening we came to the last longhouse on the river. Women were washing in the shallows, and their voices and soft laughter drifted across the water. We moored the canoe and followed them up a mud path. The stairway, leading up to the longhouse platform, was a log carved in the form of a woman. Steps had been notched up the sides of her thighs and ribs. A few people sat outside their doors in the wide passageway that ran the length of the house. Tiny oil lamps burned at their feet, throwing tall shadows across the walls above their heads.

In the twilight fireflies swooned above the water like errant stars, and the pigs snuffled beneath the house.

I called in on the headman, and fell into another discussion about religion. Like Thomas he was an enthusiast for Christianity. It might have knocked head-hunting on the head, but in other respects he reckoned it was a Good Thing. His chief worry was backsliders. The Baptists used to operate in these regions, he explained, but the pastor, who was based on the coast, was no longer able to make the journey upriver. In the absence of the Baptists, things were getting out of hand, and the chief hoped the Anglicans might take an interest.

‘Harvest Festival is a bad time for backsliding’, the chief said. ‘So much drinking and playing with the girls. The girls become so frisky, and the boys get too virile.’

I tried to look disapproving. I had heard about the harvest festivals. It was a time of carousing and licentiousness. In the party atmosphere, women strapped large phalluses round their waist, and taunted their menfolk. I cursed myself for travelling at the wrong season.

‘I am thinking the Anglicans could sort us out once and for all,’ he said. ‘Do you know any Anglicans?’

‘A few,’ I said. ‘Not overly virile.’

‘I think it is time for the Anglicans.’

‘I shall mention it to them. It sounds like an Anglican kind of thing.’

In the morning the longhouse was wrapped in a cloud, and the river was a tunnel of mist beneath dripping branches. After breakfast I set off for a walk through the forests. Among a tangle of orchids, I came upon the tomb of a local dignitary. In the riot of vegetation it looked like a garden shed overwhelmed by its garden. The boatman explained that the former chief had been a key figure in the War of the Penises, a notorious altercation that had neighbouring tribes trading insults to one another’s manhood.

The great man had been buried with his belongings, which were littered about the sarcophagus inside the shed: a few clothes, an old wireless, a favourite rattan chair, some pillows, his shield and two swords. Thirty years had made them look like garden shed junk, rusty, cobwebbed, moth-eaten, and mouldy. In another thirty years, they would be jungle. I thought of Thomas: nothing survives in these forests.

We walked on, cutting back towards the river where a canoe from the longhouse was waiting. Two boatmen poled me upriver over shallow rapids. Their shins were tattooed with fish hooks, a talisman for fisherman’s luck. The longhouses all lay behind us now. The river narrowed to a green aisle beneath the leafy vaults of the forest. Giant hardwoods rose from beds of tiny unfurled ferns. The water was clear as air, running over smooth amber boulders. A long curve brought us to a waterfall. Beyond, the river was too shallow for boats. This place, miles above the last longhouse, was as far upriver as men ever came.

We drew the boat onto the sand bank and the boatmen made a fire and cooked lunch: chicken flavoured with lemon grass and ginger, baked inside bamboo. I swam in the sheltered pool beneath the waterfall. The forest tilted above me, overhanging the water, trailing vines like long stout ropes. The air was full of butterflies, iridescent green and lemon yellow. The boatmen sharpened their swords on the rocks, smoked palm-leaf roll-ups and watched the treetops, cradling their blowpipes. Some sweet stillness was suspended on the liquid notes of birds.

I asked the boatmen the name of this place. They shrugged. It has no name, they said.

Eden, it occurred to me, must have been like this: a river, a sandbank, dappled sunlight, birdsong, the close embrace of forests. It was a virginal world. There was nothing to disturb this place. Only ourselves.

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