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February 25, 2009

The Longhouse Up The River Part 4

Tom McLaughlin

Kapit, Sarawak – We disembarked from our long, green low boat with a 60hp out board motor. Climbing up the crumbling concrete steps, (we’re always climbing here) and reaching the top, we noticed six fighting cocks staked to sticks. They were far enough apart so they didn’t seem to notice each other. I guess they were waiting for their next battle.


Proceeding forward, a large square room on stilts was occupied with several ladies who melted away as we approached. Dressed in very colorful tops and sarongs, they kept their heads bowed low. The room was filthy by our standards. In the corner, an ancient foot pedaled sewing machine stood out in the dingy surroundings. Wrappers from candy, packaged noodles like Roman, and cigarette packs littered the floor.


Moving further into the compound, an enclosed room held fishing nets, the ones you gather and then fling out into the river, pulling in the fish. An elderly (?) gentleman (it is impossible to gauge age here) repaired gear. He used his nimble fingers to work out the knots


Dogs, I think they were friendly, but they did not come up to us for a pat. They watched us with bored interest. Skinny and lean, they did not seem the type to hunt wild boar in the rain forest.


Climbing up the stairs, we removed out shoes and walked on an immaculately clean long porch of the longhouse. Doors lined the back of the porch. In front of each door, pieces of linoleum, all of different shapes, sizes and patterns created a confused mosaic as one looked down the long veranda.


Sitting or squatting, very elderly people rocked and muttered to themselves, locked in Alzheimer’s or dementia. They were exactly like those who reside in a stateside nursing home. And like my late father.


To one end, children played a homemade game, each piece crafted from paper. It looked to me like some sort of football with individual pieces moving back and forth to what appeared to be goal posts.


We entered a door and the very clean front room was empty except for a mat. Used for entertaining and guests, one sat or squatted in a circle to discuss the issues.


The next room held rolled up mats and bedding in front of a 19” television set. Behind that room, a kitchen with a two-burner gas stove connected to a tank of gas, similar to the one we use for back yard grills. In the next room, an outdoor charcoal area, used to grill meats. To the left a corrugated metal area held a hose that was used for washing.


On the roof, a satellite dish pointed skyward. The televisions receive worldwide channels connecting them to the rest of society. Most watched the Malay language broadcast from Kuala Lumpur and Indonesia.


At the back of the dwellings, another large hill rises, covered with rain forest trees. A cleared valley, with fruit trees hugging the edges, while oil palms stretch to the next hill.


A day begins with the crowing of all those cocks. Being Christian or animists, they do not pray to Allah or face Mecca. The parents get the kids ready for school, dressed in blue and white school uniforms. Backpacks and a lunch of rice and fish are carried to the boat. Loaded aboard, they navigate to the schools pier. The kids disembark and noisily rush to class. School begins at 7:15 and they need to be picked up at 12:30.


A free university education either in Kuala Lumpur or overseas is available to all students who perform well on their exams, equivalent to our SAT’s. The results of the last battery of tests are due out in March and there are many nervous parents and students awaiting their fate.


After the school boat pool, the ladies go to the fruit trees where they are tended for home consumption or for sale down river. Rice fields are worked by both men and women, depending on the season and stage of growth. Sometimes the guys will go fishing, casting their nets into the river and pulling in the catch. Some are taken home while others, like the fruit, are sold.


Cockfighting, watching football on television, repairing nets, taking care of the elderly, hunting in the jungle and other activities take up the rest of the time.


The Jewish scholar Ben Zoma stated: “Who is rich? He who his content with is lot”.


I hope I will become as rich as these people of the Rajang River.


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