The headhunting days are over, but there are leeches to cope with


October 27, 1991|By Jeannette Belliveau

Borneo seemed like a good place to go. The robust local people -- the Dayaks -- rivaled the original Polynesians as tireless dancers and drinkers. Parties and storytelling raged until dawn in longhouses -- communal dwellings that in old times stretched as long as a kilometer.

Old women with earlobes stretching to their shoulders decorated baby carriers and bracelets with beads that had been traded along unimaginably complex routes from Europe, Africa, China and India.

Spirit worship inspired woodcarvers to decorate grave sites and rice barns, using flamboyant motifs that borrowed from Chinese and Vietnamese art.

Canny hunters, these small but physically powerful people were also clever civil engineers, spanning their many streams with simple wire, rattan and plank bridges.

But the ancient and endangered culture of the remaining 3 million Dayaks, a quarter of Borneo's population, is disappearing rapidly. Booming, semimodern oil and lumber cities on the coast threaten Dayak ways, as does Indonesian resettlement of non-Dayaks to Borneo to relieve overcrowded neighboring islands.

Even dietary differences came between the Dayaks (who love to eat wild pig) and predominantly Islamic (and pork-shunning) Indonesia, which controls the southern two-thirds of Borneo. Malaysia and Brunei govern the top strip of the massive island, the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined.

Dayaks who want to follow traditional ways have fled far inland. They get by living on rice, easily grown in their rainy climate. But kerosene, salt and other basics must be flown in from the coast at great expense. Income sources are few: A little gold is found, a tourist might buy a basket or necklace. Higher education, hospitals and jobs are close to nonexistent.

My chance to visit the Dayaks came as part of a fellowship to study the Asia-Pacific nations. Our group of six fellows traveled together to China and Japan, with a break in between to briefly visit anywhere in Asia. That gave me a scant eight days to see the Dayaks of Borneo, a culture that seemed to beg to be seen "now" before it disappeared for good.

In Samarinda, a coastal logging city on Borneo's southeast rim and jumping-off point for most trips inland to see the Dayaks, I met a local missionary pilot, Emile Borne. He was to fly me upcountry to one of Borneo's most isolated regions to see traditional Dayaks. We had to turn back twice because of cloudy weather in the upcountry, which whittled down my total time upcountry to four days.

Four days is, of course, impossibly short. But even a brief time with the Dayaks of the Apo Kayan, an isolated, roadless highland in Borneo's northern mountains, is packed with impressions.

The weather eventually cleared enough for the 90-minute flight to the village of Long Nawang. Landing there was the culmination of months of mingled excitement and worry about visiting the Dayaks. So far so good: Our tiny single-engine plane had made it safely into these misty villages. But I had doubts stemming from my language ability in Indonesian (10 words) and Dayak tongues (zero); whether I would be allowed to stay in the longhouses; and just how unpleasant leech bites might or might not be.

Providentially, a member of the Krayan tribe in his mid-20s materialized at Long Nawang's airstrip. Ones (pronounced OH-ness), with inky hair in a Rod Stewart shag and glossy dark eyes, proved to be Your One-Stop Travel Agency for upcountry Borneo. He had learned some English from tourists. He and his sister ran a losmen (a tiny Indonesian lodging house) in Long Nawang. He could arrange a canoe charter two hours up the Kayan River to the village of Long Ampung. He had relatives, "people of my tribe," in Long Ampung that I was to stay with. And he was a talented and demanding teacher of Indonesian, insisting that I learn 25 words a day and, for the first time, roll my r's correctly.

Ones and I walked from the airstrip to the village, passing under a giant wooden gate decorated with hornbills and human figures, with "Welcome to Long Nawang" written in Indonesian.

Now I could finally see the "real" Borneo. The very name conjures up the last word in unusual destinations, of headhunters with blowguns prowling seamless rain forest laced with indigo rivers.

Some chance. Even in isolated Long Nawang (population 785), some people -- including Ones -- now have single-family dwellings, while others still live in traditional longhouses.

At dusk, children ran along village paths looking hopefully over their shoulders as homemade kites became airborne. Wild coleus and caladium thrived everywhere. The sun set pink and gray as a grandmother shuffled along with a walking stick. Crickets raised a deafening cacophony, and the heat lightning flashed. In the middle of the night, rain drummed on the losmen roof as thunderstorms rolled over the Apo Kayan.

The only engine to be heard would be the approaching soft buzz of the missionary pilot's Cessna, the link to the outside world once a week.

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