Gawai Dayak is the major festival of the year for Iban people - imagine Thanks Giving and New Year rolled into one. They celebrate the success of the rice harvest and the continuation of life, whilst looking ahead to the new planting season. Its joyful, exciting and in some cases a little bit drunken. Distant family members come home by ferry and long boat, as both school and public holidays are planned to coincide with Gawai.
Preparations go on for days - all the long house women were involved in plaiting decorations, making tuak, and preparing food. The last days before Gawai are busy, with major expeditions to the nearest towns, laying in supplies for a festival that can last for weeks.
On May 30 at 9.00am we loaded 55 people - men , women and children - and proceeded downstream to Bintangor town. It was raining quite heavily, so more than 35 were crammed down below, with all the hatches shut. It was like a sauna down there. Fortunately the skipper had to steer the boat, while the admiral stood watch on the foredeck and spotted for logs. The passenger load submerged the waterline, and the Cummins was working quite a bit harder than normal to achieve hull speed.
Anchored just off the town dock, we added to the festival atmosphere as our passengers spread out through the shops and markets, returning with boxes, bags and traditional woven baskets full of produce and supplies. For the return jouney we loaded goods on the foredeck - sacks of rice, corn, vegetables, 12 boxes with live chickens and several freshly slaughtered sections of pig. After 4 hours we chugged back upstream against the current, after being photographed for the local Chinese language newspaper. Anchored back on Sungai Tulai, many long boats came out from shore to carry the load back home. I watched an 84 year old woman leap nimbly into a long boat and paddle out to Crystal Blues on her own, eager to help in the unloading. Hope I can still do that when I'm her age.
Salamat Hari Gawai
Gawai happened on May 31. Invited to the small Rumah Malaya longhouse (13 doors) that afternoon, we visited with families and were hosted by the Tuai Rumah Malaya (chief). Many of the people there are quite old fashioned and lead a very simple life. We were the first white people ever to visit this long house. Of course we had to drink, dance and then eat. The chief paraded up and down the verandah with a very good looking chicken under his arm. Finally it was waved in circles over Neil's head and then taken outside for a quick kill (big knife). They prepared 4 plates of traditional foods, beautifully dressed with bloodied feathers from the sacrificial bird. Thankfully it was a traditional ritual, and we didn't have to eat it - in fact no one did, the plates were simply acknowledged then removed.
Back at Jampie's long house, Rumah Lidam, we shared a meal with our friends, taking two bottles of wine and some beer as a contribution. Dinner started at 7.00pm and by 8.00pm we were sitting cross legged on matts outside, on the communal verandah, listening and dancing to the gong and drums. Many people got up to ngajat (dance) - including Neil. We had to dance around a "palm" tree. Hanging from the tree and around the base were symbolic harvest decorations and food and drink. This was eventually all chopped down by Neil, with an Iban parang (long knife) after much dancing. Neil then had to "chop" the tree down with the parang, just before midnight, symbolising the end of one season and the start of another. At midnight the chief of the long house banged the gong and we all called out to welcome in the New Year.
Then something fantastic happened - almost immediately 37 individual parties were set up. Each door (family) in the long house put food and drink outside there bilik (home). As guests we were expected to eat and drink at each door. Neil and I bagi (shared) our glass of tuak and nibbled here and there, 37 times, down the length of the long house. The residents then started a procession of house visiting that went on for hours. We left just after 2am, but there was no rest for the wicked as we were expected at church at 8.30am that morning.