The Adventure Begins in the Jungles of Borneo

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

For me, adventure truly begins when you no longer have cell service. In this case it’s when I was isolated, few spoke English and we were on a small, overcrowded boat full of people and live roosters, winding down a river through the jungle of Borneo. I felt the jungle watching us, listening and waiting for us to dock on the jetties of the many Iban villages we stopped at along the way to our final destination. The Ibans are a branch of the Dayak peoples of Borneo. Ibans were renowned for practicing headhunting and tribal/territorial expansion and in ancient times the Ibans were a strong and successful warring tribe. They speak the Iban language.

The boat ride itself was an event and I was smiling inside. The beauty was astounding, mesmerizing and I couldn’t stop repeating how beautiful it was. Bennet, my guide was a celebrity during my visit and I could see his pride; that he was bringing the foreigner to Nanga Bankit. His story would be told in the longhouses that evening, spreading like wildfire to more than 1500 people who live along the Katibas River. He answered many questions along the way and all I understood was the repeating of the word, “Canada.” As we went down the river we would drop people off at their village and the mood was joyful, playful and amusing. The village people would come down to the water to buy rice from our “captain”, children would gawk at me from above, questions would be shouted. One time a girl of about four years old was so excited to come down to the boat and as she saw us approach she ran down the stairs to the water, only to see me halfway and turned back up. I couldn’t help chuckling to myself. I felt like an animal in the zoo, if they had cameras they would have been taking pictures of me as I was of them. 

En route our captain introduced a drink called ijok to me. Introduction by way of handing it to the person closest to him and then each passed it along until it reached me, all anxious to watch me drink it. Leon, a medic from the clinic who spoke English well explained to me how it is made. I asked if it was alcoholic and while the process he explained to me didn’t sound like it could be he did say it gave you a pleasant feeling. To be honest I don’t know if the feeling came from the drink or from the boat ride but nevertheless it was interesting. It’s a creamy white mixture, a liquid and it tastes like a mixture of cider, beer and vinegar. It was actually ok. The drink is made somewhat like maple syrup (I also had maple sugar candies in my bag as a gift for the chief) in that the liquid is drained from a tree. It then sits in a pail overnight and voila, ijok. After that, our alcoholic captain took out his bottle of Bacardi white rum and the ride was on. Note, that spirits here are RM 90+, approx $30 CAD/USD, and a lot of money for a Malaysian; remember a meal costs RM5. And our captain was in the sharing mood. Shots for anyone who’d have them, I politely declined until I no longer could. The first village we reached, Mukish was a hoot. He and an elderly woman bantered, splashed each other (as often happened at each village), joked around, pushed one another and drank shots. I acquiesced at that moment. When in Rome… 

Leon, the medic who temporarily lives in Nanga Bankit was a wealth of information and I was reminded as a travel blogger that it is now my job to ask as many questions as possible to educate and entertain my readers. Leon was not to disappoint and his candor was greatly appreciated.

He spoke of cancer and how rare it is there and that the clinic does minor things such as stitches and delivering babies, lol. He tells me that in fact all Malaysian women are not given epidurals in government hospitals, perhaps in private ones. Gas is given immediately before delivery and anesthesia is only administered for episiotomies. He was a great source of info but passengers often wanted him to inform me that I was getting too dark and that I needed to get out of the sun.

Our ride continued, dropping people off at several villages and we stopped for an old man to pee at the river’s edge. We all watched, as it was the normal thing to do. He made his way back to the boat when I realized that he was the man with only one eye and I thought about how at home he would have been helped there and back but here everyone is so self sufficient; he’s not old in their eyes.

Nanga, meaning the point where two rivers meet and Bankit, meaning a blooming flower, is a small village consisting of 21 families in one longhouse. I’m told that each family ranges from 8-10 people. Bennet and I up walked up from the river and children peered over the longhouse porch to catch a glimpse of me, then ran the length of the common area announcing my arrival. We walked down the path, past at least 15 doors until we reached his brother’s family’s porch. We took off our shoes and entered and I found myself both bowing and putting my hands together in thanks while laughing inside as I exhibited both Japanese and Thai behaviour in one; kind of like when I resort to French when I am confronted with another language I don’t know. I think our brain substitutes when stumped, before I have a chance to stop it from happening. I was introduced to his brother and the chief and then was taken into their home, a really interesting set up in the sense that they all sleep together in the one living room. It seems in Iban longhouses that the living room is the bedroom and basically a covered porch (interior room from which all the separate doors enter into) is the living room, for all the inhabitants. 

Bennet then takes me the length of the longhouse and introduces me to everyone and I am particularly interested in the elderly gentlemen who are covered in tattoos, as they are pretty much the only Iban people who remain with them. Some youth have continued the tradition but it is rare. The Iban tradition is certainly one of the most well developed and interesting cultures regarding tattoos, each one had it’s own meaning and story. After meeting everyone it is time for the tour of the village and I have to say, to date, this is one of the most interesting, or I should say fulfilling moments of my life. I don’t know what exactly made it so but the combination of the layout, the camaraderie, the rain, the swinging bridge, the children, the school, the families, well, you get the jist of it. It was pure magic.

We began by crossing the hanging bridge that was built in 1992 by groups of Canadian and American students who would come for a month and then were replaced by another group, taking four months to complete; the last time, for most of the villagers, to have seen foreigners. We then went to the village grocery store which surprise, was owned by my own Bennett. We sat down for about 45 minutes and shot the shit with a few locals. The electricity was off, it was pouring as if we were in a monsoon and I could barely see anyone, oh, and I also couldn’t participate in the conversation but it was fun. And at the end, I received a great compliment. They told Bennet that they liked the fact that I could just sit there and chill like a local, the other foreigners didn’t assimilate well. I thought, yes, that is odd. Typically my knees would be bouncing under the table with too much energy for me to contain. Blame it on jet lag? But in all honesty, I felt at peace.

The school was magical, I met the children and it is, in a sense, a boarding school as children as young as four and from other villages stay there during the week. The were so self sufficient, taking showers (shower time when I was walking through) putting their things in cubby holes, sleeping together in longhouse formation and taking photos with me. As I left their “bedroom” I had tears in my eyes and I wasn’t sure why. I know now that they reminded me of me at that age, so innocent and pure and perhaps too self sufficient for a 4 year old to be? The school property was large and lush with a large soccer pitch, outdoor classrooms and a walkway with inspiring life quotes. As I returned towards the longhouse I stopped to see a group of older students learn traditional dance. They danced for me and then surrounded me like I was the Messiah, questions jabbing at me from left and right, me leading a sermon from the mount. It’s funny about personalities; regardless of if you’re a village boy in Nanga Bankit with fewer prospects or a precocious girl from downtown Toronto with her whole life in front of her, the “it” factor is there no matter who you are. There was a young boy in front of me during the question period that had “it” and a part of me just wanted to do what I could to give “it” to him. What a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. 

The evening came and went quickly. The family embraced me, we spent time together in a circle with other families in the common area of the longhouse, talking and drinking tea as it poured cats and dogs outside, literally. Ok, metaphorically. There were a million stray dogs and puppies outside, along with roosters that woke us up at 5am for our 6am boat back to Song. We ate with our hands, I dove right in (as I had learned in Kenya in ‘94) and our meal was wild boar, delicious, that they had caught that day, pumpkin (not the one we know) and baked beans and canned chicken curry we had brought from town. It was the same meal as lunch and likely the same meal every day; shoot me. My family was wonderful and accommodating and the grandmother and I forged a special bond, not ever understanding each other save for charades and as I write this my eyes tear up because I love her, I don’t know her and won’t ever see her again. She was absolutely pure and beautiful and regardless of her age and where she came from she felt me and I felt her. She would touch me as I walked by; she would sit near me and I near her and kissed me when she went to bed. When I left I held her face in my hands and kissed both of her cheeks and she will never be forgotten. Crap, now I’m crying.

This experience changed my life, and I have had many. This is why life is worth living. This is why we must travel and learn. The next time you have some vacation time, expand your horizons and do something that scares you. And something you never thought possible, what do you have to lose? It will be the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done. Ask me if you want suggestions, I have a ton of life changing experiences under my belt, start with just one.


Xoxo. Julie

What Was Spent In This Post: Nothing

Question: Do you have any tattoos that signify meaning from a trip you’ve taken? I would love to her about them.

3 Responses to The Adventure Begins in the Jungles of Borneo

  1. It’s magical moments like these that make life worth living!

    Dair October 17, 2011 at 5:45 PM Reply
  2. Really interesting read that bought back so many great memories of my own. I visited Nanga Bankit in 1991 as part of a Operation Raleigh (now Raleigh International) expedition. The group was made up of British and Malaysians ranging in age from 17-24. I still have some great photos that captured the bridge build and life during our stay. I hope you enjoyed the rest of your journey!

    Paul July 6, 2012 at 11:14 AM Reply
    • This is about the best comment I’ve received so far and it’s a pleasure to hear from you! I loved Borneo and am even more excited to go to Ethiopia and Zanzibar in September. Thanks for reading Paul.

      juliemunsch July 9, 2012 at 12:01 PM Reply

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