Thoughts on Borneo Continued

by martinhesp

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After an hour (some of which was spent at high speed) we reached the long-house where we’d be staying as guests of the local Iban people. I could hear the welcoming bell before we arrived – a woman and a child came down to the river bank to greet us and we were marched ceremoniously up to climb the ancient steps cut out of a single log, which took us aloft to the entrance of the long-house.
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I was first in line to enter the long communal living space and was given the traditional greeting of fluttering flower petals – thrown over me as if I were some errant bridegroom. I was also given a compulsory cup of tuak, homemade rice wine, which set proceedings off with a buzz.
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By now it was the end of the afternoon and we had a choice of chilling out in the long-house or going for a jungle walk. We did both. First we explored the long-house, which is home to 30 different families. This particular one is only half built on stilts – its back end sits on a hilltop high above the river, but most long-houses are elevated some 20 feet above the forest floor – for obvious reasons given the number of creepy-crawlies in such places.
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The Iban are very laid-back indeed. They don’t seem to mind in the least as you wander about their communal home – and don’t even seem to care if you walk into their own private living quarters. These are located behind doors down one side of the long-house – in the middle there’s a wide communal area – and on the other side runs a long raised platform which is where we were slept under the mosquito nets that the Iban put out for us at night.
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We sat about drinking green tea with the locals for a while – watching them making mats, baskets, handicrafts and mending fishing nets.  
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But then, as Henry was preparing our dinner in one of the private quarters, my companion and I went for a long stroll in the rainforest. Which may have been a slightly foolish thing to do looking back on it – there’s no dusk in the tropics and if we’d lost our way we’d have been forced to endure a night out under the trees. Not particularly dangerous, but uncomfortable if not painful in the sense that there are a lot of things that can bite you in the jungles of Borneo.
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ImageAs it was, this was probably the most magical walk I have taken in all the years I’ve been writing about hiking for a living. Only by being alone in a rainforest – or perhaps with just one other person – can you truly absorb the sensation of being somewhere that is so incredibly alive and so mysteriously exotic.
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We returned safe, but rather speechless and, after an amazing multi-course meal knocked up by the indefatigable Henry, we joined the “Tuai Rumah” (headman) to spend an evening socialising. The Iban put on a bit of a show for us, dressing up in traditional head-hunter gear and dancing to hypnotic music which they played on a collection of weird instruments. It was the only bit that seemed a bit touristy – but then, this was my adventure’s big bow to the world of eco-tourism.
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And we were paying to be there and we’d bought gifts – which now had to be handed over with a great amount of wine-fuelled ceremony. By now I’d moved onto the homemade rice whiskey, which helped me endure a painful poison spider bite I suffered during the dancing.
 
It was the only unpleasant moment of the whole crazy, magical, baffling, enchanting adventure. I didn’t meet the Wild Man of Borneo, but I did meet a wilder wide-eyed bit of me that only surfaces somewhere so remote and exotic. And that alone was worth the 30 hours of air travel and the jetlag.
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While I was in Borneo I thought I’d take the opportunity of learning more about authentic primeval cookery from the experts.
 
Things are still a bit antediluvian when you go way, way, up into the rainforest. In the remote hills there are people who know hardly anything about the modern world, although a tribal chief I met deep in the rainforest did say goodbye to me with the words: “Would you like my email address?”
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I’d met the Tuai Rumah (as the chieftain is called) and his charming ex-head-hunter people in their communal longhouse situated high up the Lemanak River, in the Sarawak province of Northern Borneo – and, after some negotiations with our local guide Henry, the tribe agreed to put on a lunchtime picnic which would show off their rainforest cooking techniques and skills.
 
Our first job was to find a shingle bank in a shady and beautiful part of the river – the rainforest in these parts is the genuine article, in that it’s extremely thick and not particularly conducive to picnicking. There are lots of mosquitoes – and snakes – and sometimes both.
 
What follows is a description of a technique that could be described as “organ-pipe” cookery – and it is something we can copy, to some extent, here in the chilly, mosquito-less, UK. Except for the basic organ-pipe element, that is. Our bamboo doesn’t tend to reach the large fist-sized diameter that it grows to in an equatorial rainforest – but never mind, there are alternatives.
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Having travelled along the river in canoes to reach our shingle island in the shade, the tribal boatmen and women split into two groups. One lot disappeared across the water to climb in to the forest where they could be heard chopping this or that with their machetes, while the others set about building a large fire. By fishing out tree limbs that had fallen into the stream, they erected a basic gantry above the flames – the idea being that the long soaked rainforest hardwood would survive the heat without burning.
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A few minutes later the others returned with long fat poles of bamboo which they’d cut straight from the jungle – and these were then chopped into two or three foot lengths and washed through.
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Banana leaves, which had been brought from the small family gardens around the tribal longhouse, were now brought into the cookery action – they’d been soaking in the river since we arrived and were now being loaded with handfuls of wet, uncooked, sticky rice. With a neat folding action, each was made into a cylindrical parcel and popped, two or three at a time, into a length of bamboo pipe.
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With the addition a little water these were then propped upright over the flames – their bases safe outside the fire on the shingle, their tops leaning onto that central hardwood gantry.
 
This exercise was then repeated with other ingredients for the meal. Beef was chopped and added to copious amounts of fresh minced chillies, garlic, ginger, shallots and white pepper – all gleaned from the local gardens. And they used white pepper by the way – the Iban people grow a lot of this spice and cure both the white and the black peppercorns – but as I’ve learned to do in recent years, they prefer to grind the white rather than the black we are addicted to in Europe.
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The resultant mix was rammed into yet more bamboo poles – as was a similar preparation of chicken meat. Lastly various vegetables – including huge green beans and a plant that looked for all the world like young bracken fronds – were given the same treatment.
 
All these filled bamboo lengths joined the rice until the fire was heating some 30 or 40 green “organ-pipes”. Adjacent to this was a basic wire mesh grill on which some larger pieces of meat were barbecued – including the local favourite, chicken gizzards.
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At this point there was a 15 minute lull which necessitated some speechmaking and much toasting (with the Iban’s homemade rice whisky). And finally, the unpacking of hot food…
 
The now charring bamboo pipes were emptied – steaming and not at all burned on the inside – the sticky rice parcels were unfolded so that white cylinders of the starchy grain could be arranged in a bowl. The meat and veg dishes were simply decanted into yet more bowls – and the whole delicious lot placed was along a central plank taken from the floor of one of the canoes.
 
That meal, which we consumed with our fingers on that rather uncomfortable but mosquito-less shingle bank, was one of the best lunches I have ever eaten.
 
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