Ok, nothing much has changed, I am still stuck in Singapore, but I have decided to post a little information about the Iban language. For a list of words follow the link below.
The end of the year in Sarawak is a very wet time. It rains most days and often for a large part of the day. Though it is rare for it to be raining all day everyday. I am sometimes asked by people if it is worth going to Sarawak in the rainy season. My answer is always that yes it is, because even during the rainy season you still get more sunshine in Sarawak than you would in Europe in summer. Also if you plan on going into the rainforest then you will get wet, there is no way around it. People going to the forest sometimes ask what they should bring to keep dry. To this my answer is nothing, because you should’t be trying to stay dry, you should be planning your gear so that you can dry out easily after you get wet.
It does seem however that this year the weather has been out to try and push my usual advice to the limit. Sarawak has had nearly constant rain for a good couple of months now, with several floods both in up river areas where heavy downpours occurred and in Kuching where a lot of the water ends up. Pictures of flooded streets and complaints about city planning in Kuching have ben going up on facebook and other sites regularly. Truth be told though, while the city planning in Kuching leaves a lot to be desired, it is not to be blamed for the floods. Some criticism is levelled at the barrage on the river draining the city. It seems sometimes that the barrage is closed during the most critical times and causes the river water to back up flooding the city. However what most people fail to consider is that the reason it is closed is because of the high tide and if it was not there not only would the river water back up but sea water would push upriver and make the flooding even worse. In fact I have heard from several people that until the barrage was built this kind of flooding was a regular every year occurrence. But alas human memory is short, most things take only a few years to be forgotten. I hear opinions that the flooding has not been this bad for 30 years, yet I remember flooding on the same scale on several occasions even from the seven years I spent working in Kuching recently.
Anyway I am getting carried off in by the rain in the wrong direction. Today I wanted to talk about something not related to the rain or to human memory. The fruit season. You could think that in the tropics there is no winter therefore trees can fruit all year round, and you could be forgiven for thinking so because indeed there are some fruit at any time of the year. However there are periods of the year when many fruit trees all fruit at the same time and produce much more fruit than could be eaten by either people or animals in the forest. In Sarawak this occurs around november to january. At this time Langsat, Mangustine, Wax apples, Rambutans and many other fruit trees all bend down under a heavy load of fruit. For the people of Sarawak however most of these are not what they are waiting for. The one fruit which gets everyone in Sarawak talking, comparing, discussing and going out to gardens to gather is the Durian. I have at another time made clear my feeling about the Durian. Suffice to say that I am not a fan of it. Luckily for me my wife (who is Sarawakian) is one of those rare Sarawakians who do not like Durian. Her parents however do not belong to this category and get vary happy and exited whenever the durian season comes around, particularly if the trees fruit well. I have never gotten used to eating durian (though I did attempt it on five occasions) but the smell does not affect me as much as it used to. So these days if I am around I am quite happy to go to the orchard to gather fruit with my parents in law. Below is a description of one such tip and pictures from a tropical rainforest orchard.
This particular trip happened on the morning of another rainy day. Durian trees grow very large and the fruit don’t all ripen at the same time, so trips to collect the fruit are made every 2-3 days. It had been raining for a week already so we decided to go regardless of the weather. For my parents in law the main target was the Durian fruit of course, for me the fruit called Langsat (this is the local name but wikipedia assures me this is also used in English…who knew?) which is one of the most “european tasting” local fruit. By that I mean that is a little sour, people in this part of the world prefer pure sweet flavours unlike northern Europe where pretty much all of our fruit has some bitter or sour to it as well. Unlike the Durian the langsat fruit can not be collected from the ground, they are small, fall individually and spoil within hours of falling down if the ground is wet. So the best way of collecting them is to climb the tree and cut down entire bunches, which look a little like and of the same size as grape bunches. Fruit collected in this way and stored in a dry place can keep for 3-4 days. Which gives me the time to eat through the kilograms and kilograms of fruit that no one else in our house has more than a passing interest in.
But back to the trip, we arrived early as usual. The morning was cool and rainy, though the rain slowed to a drizzle. Because we had not travelled to the orchard for longer then usual we found that a lot of Durian fruit have dropped off the trees. So rather than start by climbing the Langsat trees I decided to help carry the fruit back to the car. Because some of our relatives also came with us this morning we cut a path in the forest to several fruit trees that have not been visited for more than a week already. At this point I should explain that what Sarawakians call an Orchard would more likely be named “the jungle” or “rainforest” in other parts of the world. The trees are fruit trees but they grow without rows or even spacing, many of them right where a fruit fell at one point in time. Maintaining such an orchard is mainly a job of cutting down the trees which either have no use or of which there are too many. This may sound lazy, but believe me just keeping some clear paths and some semblance of order in such a forest is a full time job. Here are a couple of pictures to explain what I mean:
The Durian trees are LARGE, even by tropical rainforest standards. The ones in this Orchard are about 20 years old, so not yet fully grown but as you can see below they are already quite large. The metal sheeting on the trunk is to make it more difficult for squirrels to climb the trees and spoil the fruit. Did I mention the squirrels for some reason like to chew through the skin of the Durian fruit, take a few bites of it then leave it alone? Perhaps they realise they have made a mistake? Perhaps they were just feeling peckish? Either way the fruit spoils quite quickly after that so people try to stop the squirrels from getting up the tree in the first place…unsuccessfully for the most part.
After collecting fruit from some of the nearby trees, I decided to help bring in the fruit from the far off trees. This, in retrospect, may have been where I made the mistake. When I got to the new far off durian tree the forest floor was littered with durian fruit. In all I think we carried three or four 50 litre sacs and several equally large woven baskets full of fruit. Each time carrying more than 20 kilograms through mud, steep inclines thick vegetation and in a drizzle getting steadily worse. Each trip also took about 20 minutes because the easiest path to cut was not necessarily the shortest. Once the Durians were all collected, this taking the best part of 3 hours, I decided it was time to go and collect the Langsat fruit. Because as I said I was the only one who ate any real amounts of the fruit I had a strict target of no more than about 25 kilograms of fruit to take home. The fruit can last an extra week or two when hanging up in the tree but will spoil quickly if picked, so rationing them wisely ensures they last longer. The tree with the most ripe fruit was one I had already climbed a couple of times and the best fruit were only left at the top (mistake number two). Pretty much as soon as I reached the tree the drizzle turned into rain.
Early on in the day I had lost a small knife I had planned to use for cutting the stalks of the fruit bunches while up in the tree (also a mistake) so now I had to take a larger bush knife (duku or parang in local languages) with me up into the tree which got in the way everytime I turned. Apart from the knife I also had to take a basket with me since it is not a good idea to throw the bunches down into a basket at ground level (sometimes you miss and in most cases regardless of your aim the bunches break up as they land). Climbing up with the empty basket was relatively easy, though at the top you are around 6 meters off the ground and in branches thinner than your arm. But my real problems started after I managed to fill the basket. Tired from hanging onto slippery branches and leaning out at all sorts of angles to reach the fruit I now had an additional 25 kilograms of fruit with me as I attempted to climb down. I had pretty much all the fruit I needed, but to be honest I decided to climb down because hanging onto the branches for over an hour had tired me out to the point of seeing black spots in front of my eyes. At this point I noted that in my wisdom I have not asked anyone to come with me, if someone had been standing at the bottom of the tree passing the fruit down may have been easier. Alternatively if my climbing didnt work well at least someone would be aware of it if I had fallen down from the tree Oh well, we live and we learn. In the end it took me another 10 minutes to get down from the tree, and none of the fruit spilled either 🙂 This is some of the harvest.
A recent visit back to Kuching has reminded me of a topic I had been wanting to write about in the past. The special place of Chickens and Pigs in the Iban, and in fact wider Dayak culture in Borneo. While it is the Hornbill that occupies the most revered place in the Iban Mythology and stories it is the Chickens and Pigs that bear the heaviest brunt of the Iban belief system. Pigs and Chickens both take centre stage in many Iban ceremonies, be they of religious or just traditional character. Weddings, engagements, baptisms, harvest festivals, festivals for the sick, festivals for the spirits and pretty much any other any other events of notice. But being centre stage in all these ceremonies isn’t exactly a good deal for either animal. Both animals are a sort of coin for spiritual purposes. The blood of both animals is used in ceremonies in much the same way as holy water in Christian ones.
Pigs don’t make a personal appearance very often. This may be due to a variety of reasons, most important of them being cost. Pigs are expensive and are only sacrificed for important ceremonies. Probably the most characteristic of those being to welcome an important guest, or guests, to the long hose. The sacrifice of a pig in honour of an important guest is not a religious ceremony, it is more of a sign of respect. Unfortunately for many guests unused to this practice it is also a very big honour to kill the pig, so the guest is usually asked to do the killing (with a spear through the throat of the pig). This can be a daunting prospect or many people visiting the longhouse, luckily the Ibans are pretty understanding of this and will happily agree to supply someone experienced to do the sacrifice for the guests nowadays.
As for the chickens, though they are considered a smaller sacrifice, they are much more important for most celebrations. At weddings and various other occasions the people officiating the ceremony must hold a rooster while making speeches. Only a speck of the roosters blood is needed for the ceremony so usually only a small cut is made in the roosters comb. A feather is dipped in the blood and touched to the foreheads of people who are being blessed. Alternatively if a sacrifice for spirits is being made the feather is used to touch each of the prepared small bowls of the other traditional offerings. Unfortunately for the rooster it is still considered necessary to kill it later after the ceremony.
Roosters are also commonly kept outside of many longhouses in individual cages or tethered to stakes in the ground. They are fed special imported or hand mixed feed and praised highly. The role of most of these roosters is to engage in cock fighting, usually organised alongside key festivals in the year. Traditional cock fighting is legal in Malaysia, it is the only time it is legal, provided however that no betting is involved. This unfortunately doesn’t appeal much to anyone involved, so there are often bets of hundreds to thousands of ringgits riding on each fight. The fights are usually over very quickly due to very sharp metal spurs which are tied to the roosters feet. Those fights which I have seen have all ended within 30 seconds, in most cases with both roosters either dead or so heavily wounded they had to be “put down”. Though I have been told that round of fights was quite unlucky and normally more of the victorious roosters survive the fights.
This leaves only my most recent brush with traditional ceremonies to describe. Since my wife is Iban and we have been married for a few years now, I have seen many chickens and pigs sacrificed during various ceremonies. Among those ceremonies our own wedding and various other family events. Coming from a city and having no experience with farm animals, nor any particular wish to have an experience killing them, I have always managed to get my way out of killing either chickens or pigs. On a recent, short, trip back to Kuching, one of my friends had the misfortune to have his car stolen. Seeing as the Police were not interested in doing anything beyond noting this in their records the family decided that maybe they could consult a trusted family friend (who is a kind of shaman) who sometimes helped out with “spiritual” problems. Yes, I know cars are not really spirits, but spirits may know where the car is right…? The shaman proceeded with enquiries of the spirits, this took some time, best part of two days in fact, though to be fair a lot of normal chatting and even gossiping was involved as well. As I am not hugely interested in the supernatural I didnt follow much of the procedure and went out of the house for a while. On the second day I had to drop off my friend to the airport (as he now lacked a car to get back home). Upon my return to the house I was told by my wife that the shaman had prescribed a sacrifice of one black chicken as appropriate on this occasion. Since this was not a holiday there were not the usual throng of cousins, uncles around and since my friend had gone home I was the only person left in the house 😦 since the sacrifice of the chicken was a necessary part of the procedure of thanking the spirits for their help I would risk spoiling the whole effort if I didn’t help out. And so after managing to avoid having anything to do with any chicken or pig slaughter for years I was now accidentally roped into killing a chicken…to recover a stolen car. (thanks Charlie<—sarcasm)
Not to stretch the story out further, the chicken died. Oddly killing it myself was in some way actually less unpleasant than watching other people do it. I was in control and the chicken lost its head with one stroke of the blade, rather than having its throat slit as is the traditional way in this part of the world. It was a slightly bizarre experience for someone who grew up in a city, though I expect it sounds like a silly problem to people who grew up in the country. Another odd thing is that after dreading this kind of situation for years actually killing the chicken didn’d bother me that much, and in some way gave me a short termed confidence boost of sorts. Truly humans are a troubled species, and perhaps this last part goes some way to explain why people do stupid violent thing in the first place?
Ps: The chicken was eaten afterwards so I have no feelings of guilt from the experience.
After a very long break, caused by the fact that I have now moved to Singapore, I have found time to add an article on one of my favorite hobbies while in Borneo. Making rice wine. The recipe, ingredients and some instructions and pointers can be found here.
After another long break I have added and expanded on the Sarawak Quisine section. You will now find some information about different streetfoods and fruit available in Sarawak. More will be coming.
First sorry to those who follow the Blog and probably got quite a lot of “new page” notices today. Actually I was separating the Laksa page into smaller individual fragments because it was way to big to edit. Basically after I switched it on it would hang up for a couple of minutes each time I tried to change anything.In a way of apology I have added a small new page from a trip towards the Matang area recently.
And there is going to be more material coming up soon since I have just found out my contract will be done in December, so I guess I will have a lot more time on my hands for a while. By the way if you are coming to Borneo and need someone to show you around now is the time to ask 😉