HERKULANUS SUTOMO MANNA
IBAN FROM KALIMANTAN
Not many tourists cross the border between Indonesia and Malaysia at Lubok Antu. The Sarawak side, a collection of bland huts, was largely silent at midday on an average Saturday, sending across our lone group of off-road vehicles with a desultory wave. But the Indonesian side was a different story. An impressive, modern edifice covered in Dayak designs, it was thronged with Indonesian Iban making their way across to trade. The customs officers, all neat and polite young men in batik shirts, posted here from elsewhere in Indonesia, checked our vehicles carefully for contraband – in our case, an excess of alcohol. Apparently Indonesia has implemented strict controls and each person is only allowed to bring across one litre, either of beer or spirits.
With several crates of beer in the back of our convoy, both an offering for our longhouse stay and enjoyment for our river trip, we were way
over the limit. The result was an impromptu party, the first hint of Iban life yet to come. Every Iban at the border, whether part of the group or simply a passerby, was issued with a can of beer. Transit stopped and the sounds of laughter and loud conversations in Iban started as the astonished customs officers looked on, desperately trying to keep track of the empties and ensure proper procedure was followed and quotas maintained.
Suddenly, the border seemed invisible. While the Indonesian and Malaysian languages show differences in vocabulary and accent, the Iban is identical. Into the interior, the longhouses and the lifestyles are the same.
The Iban of Sarawak are entirely at home here.
Once upon a time, of course, there was no political border. Once upon a time, according to Iban oral history, their ancestors travelled up the mighty Kapuas, the longest and grandest of Borneo’s many rivers, pushing up from Tampun Juah near modern day Balai Kerangan into the Batang Kanyau, whose headwaters lie in the mountains that form the border with Sarawak, a short hop over the top from the river systems of Katibas and Baleh on the Sarawak side. From here, they flowed down into Sarawak, overtaking Kanowit, Song, Kapit and onwards to become the most populous single indigenous group on both sides of the modern-day border. These oral histories speak of how the Iban came from Kalimantan and how they must return here to their final resting place at Batang Mandai, along the Kapuas.
This was the purpose of our trip – a visit to the Iban heartland of Kalimantan, a huge area that stretches back from the headwaters of the Batang Kanyau down beyond Putussibau, the administrative capital of the region. Pesona Borneo, our tour organiser, is a cross-border collaboration by Ibans on both sides that arranges trips to places of significance for this indigenous group. The Sarawak Iban on this tour – most of them now urbanised with jobs in oil and gas, construction and education – were returning to their roots, accompanied by two entirely welcome ‘outsiders’, along for the ride. It was a four day, three night chance to go back to being Iban: to stay in a longhouse, mess about in a longboat, hunt, fish, gather and swim in the type of clear water stream that still remains but is fast disappearing in Sarawak.
We drove in convoy down Kalimantan’s single lane roads, cars groaning as each hill got steeper than the last, though eventually the altitude gave us a panoramic view of the enormous, magical lake at Danau Santarum, a national park to be saved for another trip and fast retreating in our rearview mirrors. Our first destination this time, about two hours in from the border, was Sungai Utik. This longhouse community of over 40 families has been in this area for at least 130 years, shifting between 12 different longhouses (tembawai) in that time until the current longhouse was constructed 40 years ago. It is straight out of imagination; a sturdy ironwood stretch, raised off the ground, with notched logs leading up to a wide, open verandah. Chickens and ducks darted around, entirely unconcerned by the rangy dogs which greeted the group warily.
We were told to leave everything in the cars. This is not a hotel but home to a community and welcoming and being welcomed comes first. As we are directed up the central steps, the community waited in time-honoured tradition in the cool of the ruai, the communal space which runs the length of the longhouse. This was a sharing; of culture, of hospitality but also of experience. As we sat cross-legged on woven mats, the headman, Remang anak Kudi, told the history of the community and gave a glimpse into a future that Sarawakians are all too familiar with as loggers and plantation giants are knocking at Sungai Utik’s door. But Remang declared themselves determined to preserve their forest and it was easy to see why.
From the embawang juice served as we entered – a wild fruit from the forest reminiscent of mango – to the delicious dinner of rice cooked in bamboo, foraged ferns and fresh fish and to the handicrafts on display later in the evening – mats woven from bemban and blankets coloured with natural dyes – the forest and farming still provide most of the community’s daily needs. Even our lost beers at the border were forgotten as great teapots of toddy, tapped already fermented from the Ijok palm, were passed around. Of course, the community is looking to cash from tourists sharing their traditions to provide some of life’s extras, like mobile phones, TVs and transport, but in fact, it is a very good fit. After all, few people enjoy visitors more than the Iban. The Sarawak contingent participated fully, purchasing souvenirs made with skills that their parents and grandparents had once practised. In one corner of the ruai, the outline of a hand-tap tattoo was sketched out in the old way but with modern ink.
REMANG ANAK KUDI
IBAN FROM SUNGAI UTIK
After a long night of toddy and a short rest, the visitors each said goodbye to the family that housed them in their bilek (family room), leaving their newfound friends for the next part of the Iban experience. It took us to the river itself, now part of the Betung Kerihun National Park. The Iban, designated in Sarawak as the Sea Dayak, are famous for their boats after all, and as we approached the makeshift jetty at the edge of the broad Batang Kanyau, laden and life-jacketed, four longboats came into view. Each twelve feet long and just wide enough to fit one person, these are the classic carriers of the Iban ulu. They require two to navigate – a boatman at the back to man the outboard motor and a spotter at the front to look out for obstacles.
Our eight were old hands, irrespective of age. They had all come down from Sadap, a community about half an hour upriver and they have spent their lives on this stretch of water. With unbelievable balance, they moved from shore to boat to boat, stowing our baggage safely under huge tarpaulins. The tourists, by comparison, including the city Iban of Sarawak, were forced to cling onto the sideboards to steady themselves and even so the boats swung terrifyingly from side to side as we made our way to our seats.
The outboards roared into life – the modern soundtrack to river travel – and the boats swung out against the current. The river was a long stretch of open sky, freedom from the dense jungle on either side. A hornbill flew overhead, kingfishers waited, and the occasional group of monkeys watched our passage. Dragonflies darted alongside the boat, keeping pace or hitching rides. The seed pods from the Ensurai trees pirouetted down to the water on helicopter wings. As the preferred diet of the Semah fish, one of the preferred fish of the Iban, Ensurai was a good sign.
As we made our way upstream, the river altered. Farmland on either side gave way to great trees covered in ferns and creepers. The further up we went, the more crowded the riverbank. The trees on the edge had been pushed further and further forward until they grew out at right angles to the water and even tumbled down, taking great swathes of jungle with them. The boats darted around fallen logs and sharp boulders as we rose upriver, the water becoming quicker with sudden passages of rapids to crest. It was incredible to imagine that, a few hundred years ago, the Iban had made this same trip even further than we would, with nothing but the power of the paddle. Even today, this was not easy travel but it was exhilarating. With the water just inches below the edge, huge gusts of icy water splashed into the boat, soaking us to the skin but providing welcome relief from the heat of the sun.
IBAN FROM SADAP
But soon, the rhythm of the river became clear. As we travelled, there were numerous pit stops. One boat would suddenly pull up on a riverbank where the occupants piled out to collect bunches of jungle ferns. A kerangan (pebble) beach would come into view around the bend and we would all get out. Kindling was cut, fires were built and coffee would be on the way. Half the boatmen headed into the jungle to return with freshly cut bamboo and the rest unwound their fishing nets, flinging them into the water with a practised arm and perfect form. The fish was steamed in the bamboo, the vegetables blanched and lunch served, entirely organic. This is, in fact, the work of the hunter-gatherer – stop, eat, rest, move on in a perpetual cycle. For us city folk, it was pure relaxation.
TO LEFT: SENGEK ANAK BATEK
TO RIGHT: AHMAD SUPRIYADI
A full seven hours later, we reached a tributary where the waters were calmer and our campsite came into view – another pebble beach with a small hut and simple toilet facilities. The boatmen vanished once again, armed with their parangs, to reappear with cut branches. Several A-frames were up in an instant and we were all under cover of tarpaulin. Make no mistake, this was still the 21st century. Some of our group struggled with tents and soon the coffee was on over a portable gas stove. There was even a generator unloaded from the boat to provide a little light. But mostly, this was the still, pure calm of nature and a swim in the river was in order. For two days, we played at being Iban. Daytime was spent in the river, catching fish, playing games with pebbles or simply floating in a stream. Nighttime was spent around the campfire listening to the sound of the jungle and, just once, the sharp report of a rifle as some of our group went out on a hunt. We ate what we (or more accurately they) could find – plenty of fish, ferns and shoots and even, rather horrifyingly, a set of plump frogs with pendulous back legs which were barbecued on a spit.
In the end, it might seem like a long way to go to sit still. In fact, the boatmen told us that rich tourists from Jakarta and even as far away as Japan have been known to fly up by helicopter, set down on a kerangan beach and have a few hours of fishing before returning home. They might be missing the point.
In reality, this is the only place where nature like this still exists; where, in the depths of the jungle, kilometres from the nearest settlement, you can really get to know a new group of people; where you can play at living an entirely different way; where you can truly get a glimpse of what it means to be Iban.