So today I did something! I woke up early and instead of heading up to the TV room to practice some Chinese, I headed to the reception area to practice some Chinese while I waited for my minibus to a longhouse.
The longhouse is a traditional way of living for Borneo folk and it was not what I expected. I’ve heard a lot of people who have visited a longhouse say it wasn’t what they expected; and I’m not naive, I was expecting satellite dishes, mobile phones and various other mod cons. It was what I expected in that sense. However, it wasn’t what I would describe logically as a longhouse. Let’s break it up:
LONG … HOUSE
If you’re imagining lots of houses connected in a loooong line, then we’re on the same wavelength (I’ll let you be the judge as to whether that’s a good thing or not). What it really is is a small village community built on stilts. Most houses are made of bamboo and wood in the traditional fashion, however, there is the odd concrete one dotted here and there, which makes for a bizarre mix of old and new.
In an attempt to save money after spending rather a lot this month already on Mulu and the Grand Prix, I opted for the half day trip, which involves just a nosy around the village rather than an overnight trip, which involves staying at the longhouse (in the purpose built concrete building) and various activites. Initially, I was in two minds as to whether or not I should splash out and go for the overnight stay (the cheapest I found was 420RM). After having seen the place, I’m glad I just visited for the day. An overnight stay would offer nothing more to me. The activities were all things I did on my tour in the Cameron Highlands and sleeping in a purpose built concrete building would have taught me nothing additional about the longhouse communities than an hours stroll did.
When it came to 8.50, my pick up time, I put my Chinese book on my bed and headed outside to wait for the minibus. I wasn’t waiting long before a Chinese man came and found me. We had to walk to the bus because lots of people who stood around while “Scotland The Brave” played were blocking the road. Apparently it’s the Governors birthday and they are doing dress rehearsals…that require the roads empty…despite them being in the park. They were there yesterday too, which is why I couldn’t find my bus to Kubah National Park and therefore spent the day learning Chinese.
Anyway, we get to the bus, pick up two more tourists and away we go. Our guide was a nice chap who laughed a lot at his own jokes.
“This is the dragon fruit tree,” he said as we drove past some weird looking short trees, “it is pink inside. It is imported here from Vietnam and China because it is good for the health. It clean the body. I eat the dragon fruit one time, and I go for shit to the toilet, and my shit is red! I call my wife, “I think I’m having a period or something!” Haha! Because it is red! But it is just because it cleanse the body. Haha!”
Awkward… I’ve just met you and you’re talking about poo. At least wait an hour.
When we arrive at the longhouse, we are given a shot glass of rice wine, which I knew we would be given. I don’t drink alcohol. I had read that it is very rude to refuse the rice wine, and the only way people get out of it is if they have heart problems. I didn’t want to offend, and so drinking small sip by small sip so as to be able to hold my wincing face at bay, I eventually managed to finish it.
We then began our walk through the first longhouse, admiring the electricity and kittens.
“This pink slip,” our host began, pointing to one of the pink slips that was outside every front door, “is from the doctor. The tribe people and people who live in the longhouse in Malaysia all get free health care. And the yellow one is for free electricity when there is enough money from the government. Sometimes they need to pay but water is always free – from the river, yeah? This is their water source.”
Free health care? The Malaysians who don’t live in the longhouses pay 1RM every time they want to see the doctor.
We soon came to the second longhouse, which wasn’t much different to the first other than the amount of people. There were a few more people in the second longhouse. One young looking 72 year old was weaving a ratan basket, one 60 year old man was making a wooden spinning top. He was brilliant and let me have a go. He wound the string around the spinning top and then wrapped the other end around my hand. When he had finished, I threw the top and pulled on the string as instructed and send the spinning top into orbit. Yaaaaay! Feeling quite confident, I tried again, this time with me doing the wrapping.
“Like this?” I said to the man, showing him my hand.
“Not like that!” he said, with real comic tones in his voice. He re-wrapped it. And I couldn’t do it. Must have been a fluke.
Before we left, we were offered some durian. Again, I didn’t want to be rude and so I took a piece of the revolting, creamy, gone off mango flavoured fruit.
In the minibus on the way back, I agreed with the Australian couple on the tour that it wasn’t what any of us were expecting. The longhouse not durian. It is a worthwhile experience to see how people live, but it is changing rapidly. A few doors down from the old woman weaving her ratan basket are a couple of 20-somethings smoking and playing on their mobile phones. Next door to the “typical” show house of ratan rugs and bamboo cooking poles is a comfortable living room set complete with sofas, cushions and Barbie flip-flops by the door. If you look up, that tin roof holds up the satelite dish.
I’m not claiming that this is a bad thing, or that these communities should not have TV, or mobile phones, or ambition. What I am saying is that in 5 or 10 years time it would not be worth visiting a place like this. The idea is that you see how people live, yes, and this is how they live, satelite dishes ‘n’ all. However, would you bother to go to a council estate in Corby or a penthouse in Plymouth to see how people live? I’m pretty sure the answer is no (if the answer is yes then we’re definitely not on the same wavelength).
“It’s not the same thing!” I hear you cry, “You go to a longhouse to see how people live because it’s different to you!”
Exactly my point, in 5 to 10 years time, I don’t think it will be that different to how me or thee live. Yes, the stilts and bamboo will still be there, but with the smart, young ones moving to the city for money, you’ve got to question who’ll still be in the longhouses?
I think the answer is the real smart ones. If the tourists are still coming and giving the odd gift here and there, and the government is still giving free health care, and the world around them is still giving free food then really they’re made up! They may be living differently to me, but I’m sure if I asked anyone today who Lady GaGa was then they would have known.