This was not your ordinary headhunters - recruitment agents calling you up offering you a new job. This was the real deal! They collected heads!
Well… their ancestors did anyway…
In 2005 I went to Malaysia with my family for two months and a few of those weeks we spent on Borneo. Ten years earlier Becka, then my girlfriend - now my wife, and I went to an exhibition at Malmö Museum about the Headhunters of Sarawak, especially the Iban tribe. We loved the exhibition and had a beautiful poster from it hanging in our living room for several years after that.
So, when we were going to Borneo we just had to seek out the opportunity to go to one of the long houses of the Iban tribe. Unfortunately we heard rumors about tourists exploiting the tribes, or the tribes taking the opportunity to get some money from the tourist, depending on how you want to view this, and we didn’t want to ruin our picture of a beutiful culture. So if the only long house we could visit was a metal shack with a few dancing tribe members asking us for money - we’d rather not go.
But as it turned out, we stayed at a guesthouse in Kutching, the capital of Sarawak, and the guesthouse was run by members of the Iban tribe living in the city. They offered us to go visit their relatives a couple of hours away by car and of course we we’re happy to go. We packed our bags, brought the kids David 3 years old and Adam who just had turned one, and left together with Stewart, our driver and guide who had his relatives in the longhouse we were about to visit.
A few hours drive into the countryside, and a visit at a small vegetable and fruit market, later we arrived at the longhouse and was greeted by the family and especially Stewards grandmother, the oldest person in the longhouse. The BBQ was already fired up in front of the house, which was the home of eighteen relatives in different apartments, when we arrived and soon we was treated with small grilled fish and a dipping sauce made out of soy sauce, garlic, chili, lime, sugar and rice wine - a sauce I came to love and still long for sometimes. The fish was mainly skin and bones, but tasted like heaven. It might be one of the best fish I’ve tasted ever!
While I was with the men by the BBQ, Becka and the kids was shown into the house and into the kitchen where our hosts were preparing dinner. I soon joined them since I didn’t want to miss the Iban cooking class. Stewart first lined big bamboo logs with banana leaves and then put rice and water in the hollow logs. Other bamboo logs he filled with chicken and spices. All logs was put on top of the BBQ outside. While the rice and chicken was cooking in their containers we had a few cold ones and the men around the fire offered us granny’s home made rice liquor. Now THAT could kill a small elephant!
When all the food was done we had a great dinner together! Mild chicken in a fantastic broth. Sticky, greenish rice, the amazing soy sauce again and fresh herbs from the jungle. How’s that for a dinner among headhunters?
The following days we went fishing together, hunting bearcat in the middle of the night (thank God I had control over the ammo since some of the men we’re pretty intoxicated at the time and the rifle was at least a hundred years old!) and spent a lot of time sitting on the porch of the longhouse eating pointy, black river snails in soy sauce (yes, that sauce) and talking about the hard life as a member of the Iban tribe. They harvest rubber/kautchuk from the trees and turn the sticky liquid into rubber sheet they can then sell. Leonard, who was the carpenter of the house dreamt of having a pepper garden of his own. Some of the other people in the house had one and they could make a pretty good living on it. We also went to the older longhouse where some of the relatives still lived. There we’re no electricity or running water, but people seemed to have a good life there. “The teacher”, who’s name I sadly can’t remember anymore - but he had worked as an English teacher when he was young - showed us around, took David to play in the river and offered us tea, peanuts and a wild boar stew. It had a full, rich taste of wild game, spices and vegetables that had cooked forever. Mmmmm! Lots of bones to chew on, but very good. The older people of the tribe also offered us betel leaves with a white paste made partly of shells, shavings from some kind of nut and lime peel. Considering the look on their face when I put it in my mouth I think it must have been some kind of not-quiet-so-legal-substance-to-try-to-get-through-the-customs in there.
Becka and the kids sat with the women on the bamboo mats on the floor and I sat at the table with the men. They wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course we knew it was part of their culture, but it felt very strange to be separated like that and leave all the work with the kids and the housekeeping to the women.
All in all we spent a week with our friends in the longhouse and it gave us memories for a lifetime. Who wouldn’t remember waking up every morning looking up in the ceiling at the skulls looking right back at you?