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Full Circle

Day 109: Kuching to Nanga Sumpa

Michael Palin - Full CircleHe leads us towards the longhouse, apologizing profusely that his father, the headman, who is eighty-five, is not well enough to greet us personally as he has undergone a stomach operation and only just returned from hospital. Black, wispy-haired pigs lie lazily about in muddy holes, doubtless recovering from the pressures of making a television documentary.

The three hundred foot longhouse is raised a dozen feet off the ground on a wooden scaffold and finished with bamboo, palm thatch and the odd sheet of corrugated iron. Beneath it is a dark, dripping forest of wooden piling amongst which chicken, ducks and dogs scratch and pick their way and against which the more energetic black pigs rub their coarse hairy flanks. It's not intended to last for ever. The Iban are nomads and this building has been standing for twelve years, which, in their terms, makes it something of an ancient monument.

We climb a precarious notched tree trunk that leads to the front door of the longhouse. We take our shoes off before walking along the covered communal verandah, which opens out onto a shared terrace. On the other side of the verandah are the doors and plank-wall partitions of each family's private quarters. This is a twenty-eight door longhouse, meaning that there are twenty-eight families here, about a hundred and ninety-six people. The place is lit by candlelight, although there are two, highly prestigious, neon strip lights at the centre of the public area, where the meetings take place. On the walls are calendars, cuttings from newspapers, faded pop-star pin-ups, fishing nets, baskets, a fact-sheet about malaria, a pheasant-feather head-dress, woven mats and blankets, and a sun-bleached colour photograph of Dr Mahatir, the Prime Minister. Although it gives the impression of a completely communal lifestyle, I'm told that money and food is not shared, though gifts are.

Jonathan calls the local men together and we all squat down on the floor in a circle. Tuak, the local rice wine, is dispensed from big old kettles which lend the occasion the air of a slightly surreal school tea. We introduce ourselves. I am asked to explain why we are here, which, considering we're cross-legged in a longhouse in the depths of Borneo, seems a suitably existential question.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 109
  • Country/sea: Malaysia
  • Place: Nanga Sumpa
  • Book page no: 155

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