Borneo: Dancing in a Longhouse
Smoking Skulls and the Sacrificial Swine:
Dancing for the Dead in a Bornean Longhouse
By S. Bedford
I expected certain quintessential experiences while backpacking in Indonesia. Publicly embarrassing myself while surfing in Kuta Beach, for instance, or losing my sunglasses to a furry fiend at the Monkey Temple in Ubud. What I did not foresee was winding up dancing in a death ceremony in a Bornean longhouse amidst chain-smoking skulls and sacrificial swine. Life is full of surprises.
When my friend Sara and I landed in Jakarta, my first inclination was to travel straight to Bali (and to a pool-side tiki bar), but Sara had other ideas. She was keen to visit a traditional Dayak longhouse in Kalimantan whose inhabitants continued to practice tribal customs.
It was well off the tourist trail, and getting there would be a mission. But, reasoning that our Facebook photos would be far more interesting than those of our beach-bumming friends, I eagerly accepted.
A Long Trip on a Longboat
We flew to Balikpapan; bussed to Samarinda; then caught a sixteen-hour longboat ride north along the Sungai Mahakam, where ambrosial palms dipped their leaves into the river and modest huts teetered above the muddy water on stilts. We docked in Melak, and took a taxi past wet jungles and orchid farms to the longhouse in Eheng.
The longhouse sat above-ground on stilts. Beneath its floors, spring-tailed piglets snuffled after a sow and chickens pecked and squawked. Despite arriving unannounced, we were greeted by a jovial man with an eager smile and a hearty handshake.
“Welcome! My name is Larry. It’s so wonderful to have visitors again! Tourism has plummeted since the Bali bombings, and we now only receive guests about once a year—if that.”
After a brief chat, we followed Larry up a ladder made of stripped branches, and through the front door. The longhouse’s interior was divided in half: one side featured a series of private rooms which housed immediate families, and the other side was the communal area.
Sunlight fell in shafts through cracks in the wooden walls, catching the sparkling dust and the blue cobwebs of cigarette smoke.
Groups of men sat on the floor playing cards, and women sipped tea while babies crawled over their bellies.
Children giggled and chased each other, while teenagers texted with thumbs-a-blur. Upon catching sight of us, the adults smiled or nodded a greeting and the children pointed and whispered. The teens didn’t look up from their phones.
A Box of Bones
A large box hung from the centre of the ceiling in the communal area. Decorated with glittery paper cut-outs and “god’s eyes” (stick crosses bound with colourful yarn), it resembled an elaborate arts and crafts project. I inquired as to its purpose.
“There has recently been a death in the family, and it is customary for celebrations to continue for twenty-one days,” Larry explained. “That box currently holds the remains.”
My eyebrows nearly vanished into my hairline. There were remains in that box? Human remains? This might be better than the tiki bar after all.
The nightly ceremonies started shortly thereafter. A singer began chanting a low, sorrowful melody into a karaoke machine, while someone drummed back-up on an instrument made of hanging metal discs. The women and children sat along the walls, while the men lined up single-file behind one man in a glittering headdress. When everyone was in position, he gave a slight nod and then led the line in a step-two-three-turn style of dance down the length of the longhouse.
Despite what I’d taken to be somber circumstances, the room was far from serious. The men laughed and chided one another when somebody spun the wrong way, and the singer took occasional breaks from his mournful wails to puff on his cigarette. Meanwhile, the children were absorbed in a hand-clapping game, paying no mind to the festivities. Eventually, it was the women’s turn to perform.
Dancing (Awkwardly) for the Dead
That was when a pair of hands grabbed my wrists and yanked me to my feet.
“What the—?! Oh, no-no-no…” Sara protested as our giggling assailants dragged us into place.
My face flushed with anxious excitement. I was about to dance in a Dayak death ritual! Could this get any wilder?
As it turned out, it could. In the next moment, the headdress was dropped on my head, and I was shoved to the front of the line. Every eye in the longhouse fell unblinkingly upon me. Off to my left, the singing began.
“What do I do?” I hissed to Sara through a plastic grin.
“Start dancing!” she hissed back.
“What’s the choreography again? Just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right…?”
“You idiot—that’s The Time Warp!”
With a deep breath, I took a hesitant step forward, another sideways, and then spun around and snapped my fingers. There was a moment of silence, and then the longhouse erupted into laughter and cheers.
“You’re doing it totally wrong!” cried Sara as the headdress slipped over my eyes. “What is that, even?”
“I don’t know! I think I saw it at a bar mitzvah once!”
She shook her head. “This is globalization at its weirdest.”
The Grinning Coconut and the Dentured Skull
Sara and I spent the night at Larry’s bungalow next door. The following morning, we returned to the longhouse to find a tent had been erected with a red carpet laid underneath. The ceremonies were well under way.
An elderly woman was howling into the karaoke machine and beating her breast in lament—although I suspected her anguish was largely theatrical as she often paused to converse amiably with the others.
Next to the woman were eight round objects. A gasp escaped my lips as I realized they were human skulls. Well, five of them were skulls (some sporting lit cigarettes, and at least one wearing dentures). Three of them were coconuts with drawn-on faces.
“When someone dies, it is traditional to unbury the heads of the other deceased relatives,” explained Larry.
“What are the coconuts for?” Sara asked.
“It takes a few years for the flesh to decompose. The coconuts are stand-ins.”
Nearby, a man wearing the head-dress procured a twine-bound chicken; a squealing, spring-tailed bundle of tarpaulin; and a spear. The other longhouse inhabitants gathered as he carefully lay the animals down and raised the blade high, whispering a prayer. Before I had the chance to cover my eyes, he impaled each creature with clean thrusts. The animals wriggled for a few moments before becoming still, their crimson blood pooling in the dirt.
When Larry saw our expressions, he laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s not lunch!”
Before leaving the longhouse that afternoon, we attempted to pay Larry for his hospitality. He graciously declined, confirming my hopes that the traditions and ceremonies we’d witnessed had not been concocted with an eye towards attracting tourist rupiah, but were rather as close to authentic as we could possibly hope to find—the presence of cell-phones notwithstanding.
As a whole, our time with the Dayaks had made for a more-than-quintessential experience, overshadowing anything I had expected to find while backpacking in Indonesia. It’s true that I may have come for the tiki bars, but in the end, I stayed for the smoking skulls… and the grinning coconuts.
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