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A Glimpse of "Last Time" in Borneo


After dinner the headwoman's son took be on a tour of the longhouse. There were about 60 dwellings there—some had their doors open, others not. People seemed to come and go between rooms often; most people are considered family in a longhouse. The sense of community is very evident. Everyone seems to know everyone and many families seem almost intertwined with the others. Inside some of the rooms I was shown shields with elaborate decorations, often with spirits or dragons, headdresses with hornbill feathers, traditional costumes, and musical instruments. Many of the people seemed delighted to have a visitor from far away, though few could speak English. One told me that I must come back on the last week of May as that's when they have their big festival.

Headman's son with shield.

Headman's Son with Shield

Traditional baby carrier.

Traditional Baby Carrier

Most of the people living at Rumah Bilong belong to the very small Punan ethnic group. Most of the longhouses on the Kacus River are made up of the Iban people, who are a majority among Sarawak natives. Most longhouses today are largely empty except for the very old and very young. Most people nowadays don't want to stay and farm so they go to work in the cities. Like the Iban girl I met in Kuching, they return for festivals and on holidays. Rumah Bilong, however, has some opportunities for young people who choose to stay. There is a timber camp nearby and the headwoman's family owns several caves down the river. They are a rich source of Swivet bird's nests, used by the Chinese in their cooking, and bat guano. Many Rumah Bilong residents live near the caves and spend two weeks in the longhouse, then two weeks working at the caves. During the conversation I was invited to visit the caves the next day, an invitation I couldn't resist.

Outside the longhouse itself I was shown the old meeting house, no longer used, which was painted in fading but detailed mosaics. Not far from there were some small buildings with what looked like tiki torches outside them. I was told that they were used in the old days to make offerings to the gods.

Old Meeting House

Old Meeting House

Today most Punans are Roman Catholics, though the older people still practice the old religion. The young seem less concerned with converting the "stubborn old men" than with saving the poor, misled Protestant Punan who live down the river.

Outside one room was one of the stubborn old men with long earlobes. He was carving a traditional shield. He had a long slab of wood on which he had drawn the borders and the designs. Despite his age he could carve the wood very quickly without ever going outside the lines. The Punan women, along with most of the women of Sarawak, wear one-piece, colorful garments (not as bright as Malay women's' dresses, but still colorful), which they wear like a towel. In fact, I thought at first that they had emerged from the shower. The men wear mostly western clothes.

Regrettably, smoking is very common in Rumah Bilong. The men smoke western cigarettes, while the women smoke cigar-like things that they roll themselves. They are shaped like a cone and rolled in dried banana leaves. The old people don't seem to smoke as often, if at all. Maybe that's why they looked so much healthier than the young people! After the tour I went to bed as I had a long day ahead of me.

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