June 09, 2011

the village above the clouds

Being in Borneo, the headhunter country, it‘s quite natural you‘d like to expirence some of their tradtionial culture. In the beginning we were really keen on visiting a traditional longhouse for the annual Gawai Festival (thanksgiving after the rice is harvested), which conveniently just happened to take place end of May. Instead we discovered that there was a small village remotely set in the deep jungle of Sarawak, just an hours drive from Kuching. So, for the last three days and two nights we were visiting Kampung Semban, the village above the clouds. The secluded village lies 1000 feet above sea level and the only way to reach it is via foot. 
The Bidayuh village is known for it’s retained Bidayuh culture and the beauty of it’s natural surroundings, as well as its remaining treasure of five ladies each with brass rings on their legs and arms, the so called Ring Ladies. The eldest is more than 80 years old, while the youngest is more than sixty years old. The rings are put on when they were still babies and were to be worn all the time. During their growth small adjustments were made to reduce the pain. The rings go back generations and are a symbol of beauty, so if they hoped to get married at a marriagable age, they were to wear the rings. They 5 remaining Ring Ladies are the last to wear the traditional rings as all their daughters wouldn‘t want to wear them. 

To reach Kampung Semban you have to take the five-hours’ trek from the dam through jungle trails passing bamboo groves, paddy fields, pepper vines, rubber trees, durian orchards and umpteen bamboo bridges and waterfalls. As we were staying at the village for the Gawai, we weren‘t the only ones going up to the village. It‘s the time of the year, when the families gather, so a lot of the family members living somewhere else were trekking up. It‘s hard to imagine for the villagers to trek up and down just for simple things as scissors, brushes or toothpaste. They have so called porters who carry their orders in woven rattan baskets on their backs, they earn RM1 per kg. 

Needless to say that there is no electricity in the village, the water is supplied from the nearby spring and always cold, the cook in their traditional fireplaces or on the gas stove. They do have generators which run from 6 to 10 each night, so they can watch TV, listen to music... Surprising fact for myself is, that they have pretty good mobile reception up there, so it‘s not uncommon to hear the different annoying ringotnes through out the day. They don‘t have internet though. ;-) The 59 wooden houses all have pipelines for sewage and are quite nicely kept. 
For the trip we had a local guide, David, who took us  to the village. After our four hour very much exhausting up hill trek in 98% humidity - it feels like walking in a sauna really and you look the part as well - we were greeted by Sagen, our local host. We were served hot lemon tea (very sweet as they put lots of sugar in it), which was exactly what our body needed, and welcome porridge. The porridge was local grown tomato, sago, coconut milk and green beans - served hot. Yum. 
As the villagers are farmers and hunters and there is no fridge, the food the cook is very traditional and very basic. They grow their own rice, pepper - fruit and seeds grow in their backyard, the jungle. They hunt for deer, wild pigs and have their own chickens to eat. 
We were shown around the village, how they live and manage, their traditions and of course we were shown their skulls, as well as told about the spiritual ceremonies, despite that they are Christians, they still up hold some of their ancestors traditions.
During our stay we were able to try different types of local food, some very delicious others quite „adventurous“, as I had to politely reject the pig and the deer (skin and everything)... chicken ahoi! For brekky we were offered fried rice with sardines or noodles. Both yum. While we had some walks through the jungle we were shown different jungle medicine and food. We collected some „honey flowers“ which we were served for dinner that night. 
The village men chain smoke, while the ladies chew on some weird things, that make their tongue, lips and teeth red. It‘s some leaf in which they put something like nutmeg and spray lemon powder over it. It tastes like spicy pepper.. Yuk. And you aren‘t supposed to swallow the juice since it sorta makes you high. So, the ladies sit around chewing this disgusting stuff and spitting into little tins all day long. Also very common up there, very very very bad teeth aka rotten teeth. The ladies more than the men, but black teeth... maybe that‘s one sideeffect of the chewing stuff. 
Since the festival was going on, the village was buzzling with noise 24/7. Who would have thought that Justin Bieber was a hit in the jungle?! Full volume until midnight, because of the festival days, the main village generator was running until midnight, so the youth totally took advantage of that. Oh, karaoke was a major draw as well. Nice. Needless to say, that we hardly had a good night sleep as the houses are made of wood and not very noiseproof. In the morning we were woken up by the screaming chickens, once one started every single one followed (all day long as well). During the day heaps of „activities“ - as our guide always pointed out -  were going on,like football matches, tug-o-war etc. Another „bonus“ of the two festival days were, that the villagers were allowed to play the big percussion gong in the ceremony hall - right opposite our house - so once the percussion gong starts, as it can be heard all over the place, people start stopping by to play the gong or the xylophones which went on for ages sometimes. I‘d say, nothing beats being woken up by the gong during the night, played by some drunken boys. ;-) 
On our first morning we had the rooster wake up call at around five. Hurray. We climbed up the summit to watch the sunrise. Really nice view, as you look down at the clouds below, that are nestled in between the valley, looking like cotton. Next to you the pepper fields and above you the buzzling mozzies -trying to eat you alive - not so much fun. 

In our last night two of the Ring Ladies were invited over to have dinner at our homestay and to give us a first hand insight to their traditional singing and dancing. The came in their traditional garb, and with some homemade tuak (liquor, tasted like vinegar to me). Communication with the ladies was not really possible as they don‘t speak english, but rather a unique village dialect, so even for the two local guys, it‘s impossible to understand them unless they speak malay. I have to say, that despite their age, these ladies are truly young at heart, always giggling and laughing and joking around, and they sure do love their liquor. They also performed the eagle dance and invited us to join. I felt like a giant next to this skinny small lady. But fun it was. 

Our host‘s son in law came back after a long day of rice wine drinking and attempted to play the bamboo xylophone, which didn‘t quite sound right. Needless to say, the two ladies pulled his leg and in the end, they all went to show him how to really do it at the ceremony hall. So, there we were - five locals elderly folk, us two German girls plus two local Malay guys, up in the little tower playing the gong or learning the ropes. That was truly awesome. The sound ... wow. During our music session a few different people dropped in and played for a while as well. A very nice evening. 

The next day, we headed back down, but not before stopping at one of the waterfalls to have a little swim. Quite nice. 
We really had a good time up there. The people are really nice and friendly, although it‘s hard to communicate with them. Even as they are living a very remote and simple life, they truly enjoy it and most of them still living there cannot imagine living anywhere else. Unfortunately, the historic village is doomed as the nearby dam is about to be finished within the next two years which will isolate the village from the rest of the world - a lost world, so to speak. The government, of course, is trying to persue them to relocate, but how can a traditional village be relocated when you take away their traditional land, where their forfathers fought battles and sacrifised heads for territorial claim to farm? 

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