...LiFe iS BeauTifuL...

There are lots of beautiful things around us. It's just a matter of how we see it and whether we're able to realize it. In life, of course there are always some ups and downs. However, I believe, that even in the most difficult situation, there's always a beautiful thing.. As wise people say, "Everything happens for a reason".

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Damn, just say that out loud. It feels exotic. I am sitting in a Twin Otter bush plane flying back to civilization after spending a week with the Penan tribe. I was conducting research and making contacts for my graduate program. During that short time I made good friends, read Conrad's Heart of Darkness, documented the first Rafflesia flower found in the Kelabit Highlands region, and spent some serious time becoming non-cognizant of time itself. But the tempo is about to take a dramatic shift, I am heading for the biggest party of my life, the Gawai festival.
I have arrived back in Miri, a city on the Northwest coast of Borneo. The Highlands guest house is an excellent base for travels in Sarawak. It is run by David and Pauline Benet, a Kiwi pilot for your Twin Otter flights, and his Kelabit wife. They have put together a home stay style retreat in an equatorial city. You will feel welcome in their pleasant facility as they introduce you to local events, culture, and guides to take you wherever your wanderlust seeks satisfaction.
Gawai is an annual festival held every June in the longhouses of lowland tribes in Sarawak. It is a national event, promoted by local brews and municipalities, but in reality everyone leaves the cities empty to return home or visit friends. Gawai is a harvest festival, a New Year celebration, religious ritual and family reunion all at the same time. If you make friends in the weeks preceding Gawai, the traveler will likely receive several invitations as locals are proud of their culture and want to share their wildest time.
Anyone who has spent a night in the jungle knows that it is alive like no other place on earth. You can hear it, smell it, and feel it. The complexity and quality of that amount of life is reflected in the culture of the people who make their home amongst the tropical forest landscape and creatures. When a nature based religion like the Berawan tribe's Napoh is celebrating its existence, a unique experience for the visitor is guaranteed.
My guide to the Loagan Bunut Longhouse's annual festival is Willie Kajan. He is an adventurer extraordinaire who has spent his life defending and sharing the local cultures and ecology with visitors. He has arranged a four wheel drive vehicle and driver to take us to the site.
Leaving the city of Miri behind, we pass through Lambir Hills National Park, an area protected for its incredible biodiversity. The jungle is impressive. Soon however, the palm oil plantations begin. Palm oil development is highly controversial due to its environmental and cultural impacts on local populations. I realize that all of the alarmist style proclamations that the rainforest is being wiped out, are actually based on the proof in front of my eyes. Passing a family collecting plants along the road, Willie tells me that the palm rows are stocked with venomous snakes to control the rodent population which feeds on the valuable oil palm fruit. I am not sure whether to believe him or not until I see a deadly banded krait which didn't make it across the road in one piece.
We arrive at the longhouse around mid-day. I am introduced to the Headman who welcomes me to his community. Next I meet Willie's uncle, who I am told to refer to in the familiar, "Uncle." I am humbled by this extension of kinship terminology so early in my visit. Uncle is the spiritual leader of about half of this longhouse who still adhere to the traditional religion. I can sense a rivalry between the Headman, who is a Christian, and my new Uncle. I think that my crooked smile at realizing this endears me to the pagan contingent.
The finishing touches on the decorations are being wrapped up. Huge palm fronds are arched in the doorways and western style ribbons and banners drape the longhouse veranda. The longhouse is one long structure where family residences are accessed from a continuous public hallway. This is where the celebration will go off at midnight. It is never too early to imbibe, and within minutes of arriving the crowd is sizing up my attitude. The Borak is flowing.
Borak is homemade liquor made from fermenting rice with yeast. It is comparable to sake, but in a class of its own. As the equatorial heat hovers and the humidity permeates my soul I fantasize about ice cubes. Not a chance. Borak, and beer, is enjoyed at room temperature in the jungle. I share photos from home with everyone I am introduced to. I am ushered between rooms where the hosts are too quick to refill my glass and offer snacks. I have never seen hospitality like this, but it is a trend that will continue throughout the festival. After tying on a good buzz, Willie suggests a boat tour of the longhouse's namesake.
Loagan, or Lake Bunut, is the largest freshwater body in Sarawak. It is shallow and the indigenous fisherman have created unique nets to take advantage of the situation. I am shown a pair of 500 year old totem poles along the far shore of the lake. In the past the bodies of high status Berawan were placed in jars atop the poles. The sun is low in the sky and the wildlife is waking up. It is a waterborne safari. I see black hornbills, storks, a fish eagle and many other bird species. Packs of silver leaf monkeys howl in the towering trees. Most impressive, a 3 meter long crocodile splashes into the water just in front of the small boat. He was sitting still, mouth open, with a fly on his tongue just above the water as bait for a hungry fish. I would need a professional panoramic camera to even attempt to capture the beauty of the sunset.
We return to the longhouse for dinner and more drinking. I am beginning to sense that my tolerance is falling behind my consumption. The stories begin to roll out. I learn about the history of this tribe. The musicians play traditional songs and amazing voices sing ballads of headhunting raids of the past. Tobacco and betel nut are offered. I am drunk, and impressed by the activities surrounding me. Little to my knowledge, this is the warm up for tomorrow night, so I am allowed to go to sleep in peace.
Early morning roosters and stomping feet wake me. Yes, I am served borak for breakfast, along with fresh tropical fruit and rice. Now Gawai is in full swing. I wonder if I am the only person who got any sleep last night. Soon it is out to the front of the longhouse where an alter to worship the spirits of nature has been erected. Pigs are bound with rope and are wrapped in burlap sacks. Chickens run around and the whole community has assembled. I am shown an antique headhunting sword which Uncle will use to dispatch the hogs. The number 7 is vital to the ritual. There are seven spiritually significant birds on the lake; so seven pigs, seven chickens and seven eggs on carved sticks will be offered to the spirits. The expected result will be an abundant harvest and good welfare for the tribe.
Only men are allowed in the fenced off alter area. The fence is not very high, so as Uncle's assistants restrain the pigs during the sacrifice, women from the tribe throw beer and water all over the men. I try to cover my camera as someone tells me that I should have been here last year when the women collected buckets of waste from the toilets to douse the men. Wonderful.
Once the offering is complete I am invited to scrape the hair off of the pigs in preparation for tonight's feast. The pace of the drinking is increasing. I have an un-open beer in my camera bag, one in my short's pocket, one in my hand and a fresh open can in my other hand. These guys are party animals.

During the afternoon it is apparently acceptable to pass out wherever you wish. The musicians from last night have given up their spots on the traditional instruments to amateurs like myself. At least I can play a gong. An old man, a master of the martial art of Silat, demonstrates his moves. Others take their turns, and the younger men of the village ask me to go next. I perform Muay Thai moves and some basic Capoeira to the music. It is well received and must be toasted with more borak.
The longhouse begins to stir in the late afternoon. The feast is being prepared.
The veranda is lined on both sides. Family has been arriving all day. It is a full house. I sit in a place of honor between the Headman and Uncle. All eyes are on me as a procession of young women from the longhouse file out of the Headman's residence with plates and bowls of food. An amazing feast is laid out in front of me. I can't believe my eyes. It seems like a dream. I have never been so humbled by this genuine respect of another people.
I try to return my respect when I am asked to repeat the warrior dances I witness after dinner. With a ceremonial cap, wooden shield, and the headhunting sword of the tribe, I fight an imaginary army.
Later on I face fierce resistance when trying to go to bed. I am twice dragged by my feet from my room. A conga line rages through the night. People are yelling, stomping, and they are still pounding booze.
In the morning I am wished a safe journey as I prepare to head back to town. Ash from a hearth is smeared onto my face. And yes, farewell drinks of borak are in order.