SYNOPSIS:  About mosque broadcasts.  About visiting two Longhouses.  About an almost funeral.   Meeting a fellow traveler from Germany. 

The last thing I would have expected in the Dayak village we reached tonight — a predominantly animist culture with some overlay of Christianity  is a nonstop blare from the local mosque…  It is Ramadan and mosque services during this period are more extensive, often in excess of one or even two hours  but there are hardly any Muslims here.  The ones who are here have moved from other areas in Kalimantan or Java.  They are not Dayaks  a collective term used for the indigenous people, but come from other ethnic groups, such as the Kotai.

I already listened to one of those services today, between 4 and 5 AM in Kota  And writing this blog is accompanied by another one (8-10 PM).  I used to love the call to prayer in most every Muslim country I have traveled to.  But hour-long, inescapable broadcasts cutting through rice fields, competing with traffic, or droning on in animist villages, only compare to broadcasts I had heard in the West Bank on Fridays.  Here, they seem out of control and happening every day.  I will see if this continues when Ramadan is over.

Other than that, there are but a few signs of the observance of Ramadan.  Restaurants in Kota and the villages are open, people eat and drink during the day.  The occasional food-related store is closed, but you don’t have to look far to find one that is open.  Sometimes they only seem to be closed  have the curtains drawn  and all you have to do is to go in anyhow just to find that they are open after all.  All of my guides, including Odina, the captain of the motorized canoe I will be traveling with for the next two days, are Muslims.  But they seem to think of fasting as a decision made on a daily basis.  Ishmael, the driver who picked me up yesterday, ate since he was driving.  Now he has two days off and told us that he would fast for that time.  Fair enough.  Jayloni  is not sure when he will fast, if at all.

Two Dayak villages with longhouses were on the itinerary for these two days.  This is a type of communal architecture most likely unique in the world.  It was the primary reason for me to choose this trip over the Orang Utan safari.  The first longhouse we visited in Mancong is the oldest of all the longhouses in existence.  At least, that’s what it is advertised as.  When it turned out that it had collapsed in 1982, and been rebuilt with government funds in 1987 and today is not even occupied, I was quite disappointed.  It is only used for communal functions and if you want, you can stay there, lonely and forlorn all by yourself.  A few tourists venture out here, but there is not even a good sign of the history, or a brochure, or an explanation of the totem figures lining the front of the house.  What a little bit of entrepreneurship and advertisement could do here… 

The longhouse was 72 meters long.  The longest one in Eheng is supposedly 250 meters long (that is close to 750 feet!).  The entire village would live in one house together.  A wraparound balcony connects all the families.  Presumably, you can add on to a longhouse as much as you need and have space either way.  But I am not sure that’s how it was done.  Unfortunately, Jaylani was not very forthcoming with details. 

You step into the house and the first 1/3 of the space is open with latticed floors for ventilation. This is the communal space.  From there, doors go into individual rooms occupying the 2nd third of the depth of the house.  On the opposite side one can exit these rooms and find a row of detached kitchens and outhouses with drainage into a channel running the full length of the house.  There are two floors.  Each family would have a room on the main floor and be connected to a room on the top floor by a small ladder.  The upper floor does not have kitchen areas. 

I had asked Jaylani if there might be a chance to observe a communal event in one of the villages; a marriage perhaps, a funeral, a birth ceremony or whatever else there might be.  He asked the caretaker of the place who operated a small souvenir store, who replied that they could make a welcome ceremony just for me.  Yeah…  that’s what it has boiled down to.  If tourists want a dance, they can pay for it.  Perhaps, that makes sense for groups, but not for me.  I politely declined.

But as we strolled along the wooden planked road; a few hundred yards from the longhouse a group of men had gathered in front of — always a sign of something going on.  Indeed, somebody had died a week earlier.  Tomorrow was the big day to slaughter four pigs, have shamans sing to the dead soul and to watch cockfights.  Those are real cockfights, where the roosters are equipped with sharp blades…  I was very sad to miss the event, but I also shuddered at the thought of the cockfight. 

After asking for permission, I was invited to enter the home and observe two nonchalantly dressed shamans sing.  Offerings had been place in the communal room in front of a display of items that had belonged to the deceased.  In the kitchen area several women were hard at work producing literally tons of food to feed the anticipated 700 guests  the entire village  the next day.  A few baked goods were on display for visitors today.  Outside the house, two more shamans sang in front of a small display of bamboo sticks, the pyre that had been piled up for the pig roast and the cages in which the rosters would be put.  That was a small authentic taste of what is still going on in these animist villages. 

One word about the religious freedom and tolerance of Indonesia that is anchored in their constitution.  I have referred to it a few times.  The veneration of (a) God is valued high and tolerated in various forms that typically includes what we would think of as world religions (Christianity, Hinduism, etc).  However, the worship of nature spirits is looked down upon.  Animists are not appreciated and merely left alone. 

By sunset we had arrived in the small Dayak village Tanjung Isuy which sported two longhouses.  One of the longhouses now serves as a guest house.  The other is a communal gathering place.  I was looking forward to this experience.  Except for the fact that this “traditional” longhouse turned out not to be so traditional.  It was built in the 1970s by a couple as a family home and guest house.  Today, it is their granddaughter who is running the place.  She sees about 100 foreign visitors per year…  The numbers have declined steadily.  To increase the space as a guesthouse this longhouse was not built in the traditional single-line fashion, but in U-shape.  The traditional part has been opened up completely to serve communal functions, including a little souvenir store, a dining room, a TV lounge, a reception desk.  The two wings are lined with rooms.  At the end of the corridors are communal showers and bathrooms leading to a veranda overlooking the grass-overgrown lake. 

The entrance of the guesthouse is marked by a typical longhouse gate with two totem figures holding up a lintel.  A spacious court is lined with covered seating areas and a platform on which Dayak dances can be performed and about twice a year are performed.

At the guesthouse I ran into Sina, a young woman from Germany.  She is a photographer, traveling by herself in search of portraits of indigenous people in costumes.  She paid a local family to dress up and did a photo shoot with them in front of the longhouse and in the grass area behind it.  She does absolutely stunning work! Beautiful faces, beautiful costumes, beautifully choreographed.  And a hugely expensive, professional camera with filters and all does not hurt either.  I hope she can publish some of them.  If she does, I will post the link.

However, I could not help but wonder.  I have been in search of Dayak culture — that was in part my mission; their architecture, their life.  Overall, I am deeply disappointed.  What I see is mostly the absence of traditions.  Some weavings are still done the traditional ways and some bead work; mainly for the tourist market.  Dayaks walk around in Western T-shirts; even their shamans.  Very few ceremonies are still performed from within.  Most of them are driven by demands from the outside, in other words, tourism.  One of these staged events happens every Sunday with the “long-ear” Dayaks who dance in a village 30 minutes outside of Samarinda.  Tourists and Indonesian spectators are bused to these events.  The Dayaks there now pose for photographs in costume and charge close to $1 per shot!  Something is wrong with this picture. 

As the infiltration of other ethnic and religious groups will only increase, the indigenous way of life might fall to the wayside completely.  I am torn between wishing that an increase of tourism will keep some of this alive and accepting that it is simply on its way out.  No amount of propping it up artificially will change anything about it. 

Well, you can ponder with me and let me know what you think.  Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. Traditions do fall quickly as we become more blended as families and travel and wifi and phones connect people all over the world at a unbelievable pace. In our own family , what was once pure Swedes now is complimented with a polish and Spanish son in law – and by the way, is lutefisk really worth holding on to? (But pass the meatballs)

  2. There is no reason to weep over the passing of primitive cultures. Our own ancestors had their primitive cultures at one time, and — fortunately for us — civilization progressed. A shamanistic culture is interesting for us to observe, but, in a way, that is like going slumming.

    Interesting about the blaring mosque when there were few Moslems. Perhaps, this is just another sign of Islam’s inherent feeling of superiority over all non-Moslem cultures. After all, their god tells them that they are the best of all peoples.