Thursday, 29 May 2008

Peace & Quiet, plus Gongs & Knives

Coming back to the Tulai River we're reminded of the environmental noise we live with. There is very little human background noise here, so every insect, bird, reptile and animal makes its own contribution to the symphony as we wake each morning.

That all changed last week, as the sound of discordant gongs and drums floated across the paddy fields to wake us. Our friends were practicing for the wedding of a local girl, taking place the next day. It was a big thing - hundreds of Iban guests arrived by lorry from the groom's longhouse. Whilst nominally a Christian ceremony, when the two longhouse groups met, they shared a slurp of whisky and then with gongs and drums playing they slaughtered a pig at the entrance to the longhouse. The guests then paraded the length of the long house, with gongs and drums accompanying. Eventually the pig was cut up (very interesting video, see the photo top right) and then things went quiet for a while. Makai (dinner) was served to all, though we were invited into Jampie's house for dinner with the extended family - probably 30 of us. A real feast, huge river prawns, many vegetable dishes, chicken cooked in bamboo, rice in bamboo and of course no Iban feast would be complete without "babi" - the pork!

After makai the bride and groom arrived in modern dress, white long bridal gown, white long bridesmaid dress and the groom in full suit, collar and tie, but only socks - no shoes. The bride, bridesmaid and the best man were bare-foot, like the rest of us. We were the official photographers - took lots of stills and video.

Then the speeches, ceremony and music happened. An Iban gong band played constantly, with Neil's new Bali drum included. Another 80 feet down the long house was a live Malay band - playing music at the same time . It was noisy! One end had people doing the traditional Najat Iban dances, the other doing the modern Malay male shuffle (so boring).

Lots of fun, lots of tuak (rice wine) and a good time was had. We left at 2am, but they went on until dawn, when peace and quiet eventually returned. We didn't hear the roosters at dawn, but the kids swimming after breakfast eventually woke us .... we really do love this river.

The river tides are big at the moment, ranging around 3.5 metres. We try to be on board for the swing as the tide changes, just in case any wind should push us close to the bank. We sit here with 50 metres of chain out in a river that's only 40 metres wide - but the current always wins, and centres us in the stream.

Tradition Survives, Despite The Fire

Despite the proximity to town (only 20 minutes by fast boat), and the influence of the missionary churches, this long house group is still a repository of Iban tradition. Some of that disappeared when Rumah Suring burned, with the loss of many artifacts including valuable long swords, many that had taken heads in the past. Locals still say that if you have a rash on your body, then you wipe the blade of an "experienced" long sword across the skin and the rash will be cured. Fortunately other long blades survive here, so we don't see too many rashes....

Last week we delivered some photographs to Rumah Labang and watched a traditional medicine man examine and probe every rib, muscle and intestinal bump of his patient, who was lying prone on the floor. He then applied a special white paste, finger painting the patient's body in half-moon swirls. Try claiming that on Medicare ...

Two nights ago we watched the yellow/white lights of an aircraft seemingly hover low above the river, as it approached Sibu airport (30km away). Our friend Jampie, sitting with us on the transom steps at sunset, said that many of the old people here still believe the lights are the eyes of the Antu (ghosts). Its taken a little time for these traditional practices and observations to be shared with us - we saw and heard little on our first few visits.

We're very pleased to see traditional music now being played by the younger children, something we've been encouraging for the past two years. During the wedding I was able to play in a spirited gong band, made up entirely of young teenagers, both girls and boys. This would have been impossible two years ago - its a joy and privilege to see it happening now.

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