It is 11:34pm, and I am laying on a mat on the floor of the living room in my students' grandparents' longhouse near Betong, Sarawak. My student's entire family is passed out on the floor around me. Grandparents, aunties, uncles, mom, dad, and brother are starfished in front of fans. A live rock band is playing just outside the door yet somehow, everyone except for me is asleep.
It is the end of the second day of Gawai, the annual Iban harvest festival that is the largest celebration of the year in my region of Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on Borneo. Gawai, which is on June 1st, marks the end of the rice harvest season. Traditionally, families return to their longhouse for Gawai. Longhouses are communal dwellings that are quite literally long houses in which dozens of families reside. Rituals are done to thank the gods and to honor the harvest tools -- anything from machetes to chainsaws -- in hopes that the following year's harvest will be plentiful.
My Gawai experience started out intensely. Yesterday, Patricia (another ETA) and I followed my mentor out to a longhouse a little bit out of town. Upon driving up to the longhouse no later than 10am, we witnessed the consecutive sacrifice of three chickens. A bit shocked, we got out of the car and followed the chicken slinging residents into the main hall of the longhouse. We were welcomed with shots of langkow and tuak, various forms of fermented rice drinks, i.e. Iban moonshine. I should mention we hadn't had coffee yet but we had just witnessed the death of multiple animals and were 4 shots deep before we could even mutter "Selemat Hari Gawai". The freshly dead chickens were placed on an altar of machetes and weedwackers, we were lead in a prayer, and then the party continued. The longhouse head insisted that Patricia and I take turns wearing his headdress adorned with endangered hornbill feathers and beak and follow him as he demonstrated the steps of a traditional dance.
Fast forward to noon: everyone except the children (and me and Patricia) is drunk. People are passed out in the front hall of the longhouse while others stumble their way through karaoke songs. Patricia and I find a quiet corner in one of the houses and take a much needed nap.
We wake up and are lead to a river, where we bathe in our clothing. Then to another longhouse, where we unwillingly try pig intestines. Back to the original longhouse, where the chickens still remain on the harvest tool shrine and everyone is still drunk. We eat as much as we can to forget the taste of the pig intestines and eventually head home for bed.
Patricia left this morning, so I drove alone to my student Valeiry's longhouse. Today was another long day of eating and avoiding drinking, but this longhouse is much more family friendly (or at least Anelise doesn't want to get drunk friendly) than yesterday's. After gorging myself with sticky rice and tapioca leaves, Valeiry’'s dad took us to visit their property where they have rubber trees, pepper plants, and a palm oil plantation. I learned the process of all 3 products and got to taste some pepper straight from the tree. You better believe it was peppery!
Later, we went to the Skrang River and bathed. From what I understand, lathering up in a river with your clothes on is a pretty typical way to bathe if you live in a kampung (village). Valeiry's dad told me that the Skrang is a very famous river on the banks of which many battles between different Iban headhunter tribes took place. He pointed out the different tree species and told me where I might spot an elusive hornbill in the wild.
Upon returning to the longhouse, I had the great joy of seeing the skulls of 5 unfortunate souls who were victim to Valeiry's great grandfather who was a headhunter warrior before the British colonized Sarawak and "civilized" the Iban people. The heads were tied up in ropes and hung from the ceiling. A basket of food hung next to them, and a pile of ashes sat below them. The caretakers of the heads light a fire and offer the skulls food once per month to appease the spirits.
As the night continued, I found myself learning to play a variety of Iban instruments that resembled gongs and drums and a gong-xylophone hybrid. Then, Valeiry's cousin taught us the choreography of a traditional Iban dance. Unfortunately, soon into our dance lesson the rock band began playing and drowned out the sound of the music a band of 12 year olds had been playing for us on the aforementioned instruments. And that leads us to now, 12:25am on a mat in a longhouse near Betong, Sarawak. The rock band has finally gone to bed, and now all I can hear is the sound of the rain of the roof and a grandfather snoring. Selemat Hari Gawai!
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