The Day I Beat the Dayak Men, Borneo

Submitted by mumunmumun on 7 November 2014   •  Uncategorized

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The Dayak Man 2

The forest was pitch dark. Underneath a blue tarpaulin, a battery-powered bulb lit our presences. We looked at each other before I placed my last card in the middle of the circle, while the others closely protected their remaining hand. My opponent’s faces changed as I let out a loud yay, breaking the silence of the entire forest. YAY! I couldn’t believe it! I had won one round of ‘Bok’, a game that had just been taught by our Dayak guides. I had reached one of my happy moments. I had encountered the Dayak People, slept under the same tent, and followed their steps into their land, to then beat them at their own game. How life brings me to these simple happy moments.

 The bok game

The card scene.

The Dayaks are usually portrayed as skinny tanned packed postures, tattoos decorating all over their bodies, headpieces with hornbill feathers hanging out of them, and the women with long earlobes hanging down to their shoulders. They would be found in longhouses and living a traditional life. They’re headhunters and notorious for their ‘magic’. Better not mess with them! Well, at least that was what I’ve always thought I’d see, especially with media profiling the Dayaks as so. Although it might not be the whole picture, this trip to the heart of Borneo showed me the real daily lives of the current Dayak people.

Dayak Man and Nature

We would have never survived the easiest trekking route of Embaloh River. Half of the route was a steep trek up a mountain ridge; the other half was getting down. I can only describe the route as an upside-down V. The trek itself was unclear. We had to surrender our lives to Umpor, our confident Dayak Iban guide, to take us through the woods. These parts of the woods are a piece of cake for him. The unclear route is like a paved highway. He knows every tree to every spot where birds bathe and is full of ticks. Crucial information!

 Dayak man and the forest

The Dayak man in his nature.

“It’s easy to see the signs. Didn’t you see? All along our route, there are signs that one of us (Dayak Iban) has just passed here. See!” He pointed a branch broken on purpose. “You could survive without me,” he said lightly. I cringed. I doubt it, especially since I needed him to pull out all the leeches that had kissed my precious feet.

“I used to be an illegal logger with Slamet. It was easy money. But we thought, how long can we do this? So we stopped,” he says. Both he and Slamet, our other Dayak guide, now help the Betung Kerihun National Park staff on patrols and are available guides for trekking and fishing.

“So how did you do it (illegal logging)?” Vira and I curiously asked, half-breath and adrenaline-pumped, surviving the route.

“Easy. We asked other people to do it. I don’t know where they got it; all I know is that they came back with the required cubes of wood. Then we pay them some of the money that we get from the buyers,” there was a tone of embarrassment in his voice. So they were merely middlemen.

 Guided by the Dayak Man

Pak Umpor lightly skipped down the steep terrain, keeping a few steps ahead. I slowly anchor each step, preventing myself to fall the 60-degree walk down. It was the hardest trek for me so far, and being slippery from the drizzle the night before. With every unpredictable turn Pak Umpor makes, I’m in admiration of his navigation. And true enough, there were more broken branches along the way if only I paid closer attention.

“Foreign visitors are weird. They get mad if we cut anything on our way. It’s to make a safe way. Anyways, it’s our forest and we know what’s good and bad,” Pak Umpor wonders why he can’t make marks on trees.

During my 3-days-2-nights camping trip, Pak Umpor and Pak Slamet showed me bits and pieces of their skills surviving nature. Aside to their ability of trekking the wild forest, they’re super-sensitive to sounds and able to recognize the sound of motorboats in the far distance. They can catch fish in murky waters. They can also survive the forest for days and days, just relying on the forest resources. These forests clearly are their territory.

Dayak Tattoo

That night during the card game, Pak Slamet had an Arsenal shirt on (I’m assuming his a fan), shorts, and smile on his face as he saw how happy I was to have beaten him at his game. Who would have known that he is the last Dayak Iban tattoo artist of his generation at Sadap Village. Also, it wasn’t until few years back, Pak Slamet finally learned the art of his ancestors.

“Tattoos aren’t interesting anymore. No one else wanted to do it, so might as well be me,” he said. I was skeptical at his fresh abilities and forced him to show me his own tattoos.

“THAT’S your tattoo? It’s hideous!” We both burst into laughter. It was a snake hissing at a frog. I laughed at my failed expectation to see a sophisticated tattoo; he laughed admitting it was a bit embarrassing.

Dayak man - Pak Slamet

“Yes. That’s the way it is. Tattoo artists can’t have a good tattoos,” he says then gesturing how difficult it was to make the butterfly tattoo on his arm, using traditional methods. I guess it’s challenging for the last tattoo artists to ink themselves. He explained the differences in tattoos now are there aren’t as much ritual before applying them and that he had higher sanitation standards, different to those before him. Coloring is still made of honey and other natural ingredients because it doesn’t fade and it’s organic.

“Pak Tungku was my latest project. He had to get the tattoo because there were TV crews coming in and wanted to see the process. He was OK with it, but it’s not finished, yet,” Pak Slamet pointed to the tattoo on Pak Tungku’s shoulder. It was an outline of a ‘bunga terung’, a pattern specific to the Dayak Iban. One day Pak Slamet will finish it.

“Tattoos are just decorations. They don’t mean much anymore. We don’t have to have tattoos, but we can if we want,” says Yacobus, third son of the Banua Tengah Village chief. Banua Tengah is the home of the Dayak Tamambaloh, another Dayak tribe I had just known upon this trip. Just like him, the other men of the house that day, didn’t show much visible tattoos. Not that they didn’t have any, just that they didn’t have as much as previous generations. I did see a tattoo of a hand showing a peace sign on a man’s chest as I walked to Yacobus’ house. Definitely not a traditional pattern!

Modern tattoo

“I did mine with the modern needle. I didn’t want the traditional way. It hurts too much,” a young Dayak Iban boy at Tekalong Village told me as he showed me his tattoos, when he just came back from working at the field. The monochrome scribble showed ‘krawit’, another traditional pattern of Borneo. It was nice to see the next generation still clinging to some tradition.

 Dayak tattoo - Modern krawit

Dayak Cloth

In the dim light of the Sadap longhouse, the old lady calmly concentrates on her work. The unfinished red cloth with colorful decorations caught my eyes and let my feet to come closer. I haven’t seen anything like this in Indonesia. Sungkit weave is one technique the Dayaks practice to make some of their traditional attires. The vibrant colors were far from the natural hues that are usually found in traditional cloths. The picture didn’t follow a repetitive pattern. It was basically a sewed-in drawing. I was intrigued.

Dayak Sungkit weaving

“The threads were purchased in Malaysia. They’re really expensive,” the old lady said as she searched for an intended color thread.

“It can take a year to finish a vest,” says the other lady working besides her. A YEAR?!

She took out an example of a finished full body vest, wrapped in a ragged Ultra Man towel. My eyes sparkled to see a new type of cloth. It was a vest that had a drawing of a dragon trailing down on the sides. The back was fully covered with similar dragon-like drawings. It was beautiful! The cloth was dense, heavy, but loud with colors and patterns. I glanced back to the unfinished red piece, hesitant to ask its price. Surely, I couldn’t afford it.

“How much does it cost, Mam?” Vira broke the silent curiosity. I looked at her and we exchanged glances terrified of the answer.

“Oh! We never sell these cloths. They’re only worn for special occasions,” the old lady explained as she folded the vest back in. That made it even more valuable than any number she could have mentioned!

 Dayak Sungkit vest

On another occasion, I met Bu Kia, a Dayak Iban woman of Tekalong Village. She showed me a few of her ‘ikat’ cloth. Everything was made from scratch including the coloring of the cloth.

“How do you make the blue?” I wondered, while staring at the vague indigo color.

“It’s from leaves. See! It’s from that tree in front of this house. Near the garage,” she points outside to the tree with small leaves across the longhouse. So, she lives in this longhouse but owns a car.

“We’re only selling ‘ikat’ and not doing the other weaves,” she continued explaining her remaining limited collection. So how many Dayak weavings are there?

Dayak Ikat

“There are 4 types of Dayak weaving. Sungkit, Ikat, Plin, and Sidan. I usually sell them all, but I’ve run out of the Plin,” said Susana, a cloth businesswoman in Putussibau. We were in her living room, roaming through her goods; some that we have agreed to purchase already. She took out one of her old collection, buried underneath layers and layers of newer colorful cloths. I gasped!

“My grandmother made this. She also bought the thread from Malaysia. It was different then, there weren’t many roads to Malaysia, unlike now,” she continued as she laid out a small finished ‘sungkit’ cloth. The cloth was denser than the one we saw at Sadap Village and felt antique. So, did the older people have to walk all the way to Malaysia or wait ages for the Malaysian thread to reach their weaving devices?

“Can you see the plane? They probably inspired my grandmother as they flew overhead. This would cost about 5 million rupiahs. But I’ll never sell this,” she said with a smile. As a new fan of the piece, I can understand why.

 Antique Dayak cloth

There’s not much I can say about the Dayak tribe. My encounter with the Dayak people was brief and hardly a good basis to say anything about their lives. However, I saw the Dayaks in their daily life and not for show (on stages and performing). The remaining Dayaks are people like you and me, with the need to survive life with their own values, which might not be around forever as we saw many aspects of their lives have turned modern. I’m glad I got to see some of it, understanding Borneo and its people just a little bit more.

Ps: Psst.. To be fair, ‘Bok’ has a lot of rounds before winning one actual game, but I was pretty stocked winning one round alone the day I learned the game.


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