:: FALL 2018 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Amethysts, deep-bellied drumming, Rangoon beggar’s disease, trogons, carnivalesque funerals, bemos, thumbnail-sized frogs, shamans, spicy eggs, The Confidence-Man, pointless journeys & Borneo.
Long Bagun is an old village—dirt paths, houses on stilts, no electricity—but it is no longer in any sense a traditional Dayak village. Its population of roughly seven hundred is a mixture of Kayan and Kenyah Dayaks, Bugis, Sulawesi and Javanese swirled together here by centuries of commerce like an eddy on the river. Just beyond Long Bagun is a series of rapids at the base of the Muller Range that impedes progress to the villages upriver, and so Long Bagun is a way station, a staging area and the last stop for the big riverboats coming up from Samarinda. It is where the big boats splinter into smaller boats at the rocky impasse.
Apparently, many tourists make their way through Long Bagun; the owner of the losmen where we stayed showed us pictures of them, rosy-cheeked young travelers like ourselves heading up or down the river, some of them having crossed the Kapuas-Mahakam watershed, or on their way to it. One would necessarily spend some time in Long Bagun if one traversed the island by this route. The two Australians who debarked in Long Bagun on our second day there, however, were not traveling along to the Kapuas, nor did they seem the sort of tourists who would make such a pointless journey.
They were out of sorts, the older of the two apparently gravely so. He was pale, gaunt and spent nearly his entire sojourn in Long Bagun flat on his back, quietly struggling for his breath. They told us that their plan had been to travel west from Long Bagun in search of amethysts. That they, as they put it, “had been” planning on such a trip, rather than still were, indicated a significant sign. They had accepted their limits, in light of the medical incapacitation that had befallen them. It would have been irresponsible to travel any farther afield, and they knew it by now. Had probably realized it somewhere along the journey upriver from Samarinda. Realized it when it was too late not to step off toward Long Bagun in the first place. That riverboat from Samarinda is a hard place to be sick.
You never knew if the icy heat you felt always smoldering in your body was fever or sun.
The feebler one was a nature-book illustrator, the younger one a garden landscaper. They had chalked up an impressive travel résumé along the Malay Archipelago over the years. They had been to Irian Jaya and had lived among the Asmat, who ate Michael Rockefeller in 1961. They had from the Moluccas to Sulawesi become connoisseurs of spices, butterflies and shells. They had been into Borneo several times, once in search of orchids. As for birding, they were always birding. Smythies was their bible. They could discern a trogon or barbet or thrush just by its distant call. Birds are what they look around for and see as the rest of us wonder what that creepy thing is crawling up our leg. Now they had come for amethysts, but it appeared all they were going to bring out of it this time was some sort of exotic disease.
The healthier, younger of the two told me how, only a few days previous, in Samarinda, while riding in a bemo, he had gone suddenly, totally and inexplicably blind. Not fuzzy or phlegmy-visioned—completely lights-out blind. His friend escorted him through the sandaled, sari’ed throng to a hospital where, just as suddenly, totally and inexplicably, and without medical intervention, his eyesight returned. He had since been suffering from dysentery. It was a strange and frightening tale.
My own fever had passed, but Eric and I both suffered from sudden and severe diarrhea throughout our stay in Long Bagun, and indeed throughout our journey across Borneo. It was the sort to send you dashing off mid-conversation, or in the middle of the night, to one of the outhouses. This can be an especially hazardous emergency in Borneo, where the outhouses are always located on floating platforms down on the river, which can be reached only by descending steep and slippery logs notched with footholds. Scurrying to the head in the middle of a rainy night and soiling yourself could become the least of your problems; you could slip and end up soiled with your elbow sticking out of your ear at the bottom of the riverbank.
In reality, we were suffering from nothing more than biological culture shock, our systems unfamiliar with the local bugs. I don’t know what had brought the Australians down, or what had Eric flat-backed in the heart of Borneo weeks later. But you thought a lot about disease in Borneo. You saw a lot of it. You felt you were always on the verge of something awful. You never knew if the icy heat you felt always smoldering in your body was fever or sun.
A wandering soul haunting a village is bad enough, but a cabal of angry or mischievous souls and spirits could throw a whole crop cycle off.
Of the bacterial diseases of Borneo: cholera, leptospirosis (swamp fever); melioidosis (aka Rangoon beggar’s disease, or the Vietnamese time bomb; it causes pulmonary infection, and then you die); Q fever; tsutsugamushi fever (scrub typhus); trachoma, a chronic, progressive infection of the conjunctiva and cornea that may lead to partial or total loss of vision—the primary cause of blindness throughout the world; typhus; yaws, which covers the skin with lesions and flesh blisters that can aggress to the point of resembling “Elephant Man’s disease.”
Of the fungal: histoplasmosis (lesions in the lungs, liver, spleen); rhinosporidiosis (polypoid lesions of the mucus membrane, causing a nasopharyngeal mass that impedes eating and breathing until, in some cases, you can’t eat nor breathe no more).
Of the parasitic: amebiasis (ulcers of the colon); angiostrongyliasis (brain worm; as the name suggests, this is a rather obnoxious family of A. cantonensis worms migrating through the brain in a 1932 Ford Travelaire, bickering, littering and inbreeding in every holler, vacuole and ville up there where you least want even one of them to be); if you want to become a part of the natural tropical cycle in an intimate way, go down to a still body of water and take a piss with your organ beneath water level—schistosome larvae, excreted by the biomphalaria snail, will swim right up the warm stream of your urine, latch onto your urethra with the little barbed hooks that are its face and lay eggs there just happy as a mother can be; dientamoebiasis; diphyllobothriasis (tapeworm); giardiasis (isn’t that just bad breath?); hookworm; lymphatic filariasis (i.e., elephantiasis); malaria (a plasmodium protozoa passed from man to man via a carrier mosquito—still the most prolific killer in the world, claiming three million lives a year); ascariasis, the largest intestinal nematodes in the world, which grow up to thirty-five centimeters (two feet) in length, which sometimes, running out of room in the guts, invade the lungs, causing hemorrhage and obstruction; paragonimiasis, better known as oriental lung fluke; and, finally, the one partially named for my grandmother, hymenolepiasis nana.
This exotic menu of course leaves out the usual creeping eruptions, TB, rabies, lesions, ulcers and those too esoteric, by virtue of their infrequency and isolation, to be classified by science. In Borneo most diseases are not well treated, if treated at all, and the prospect of crashing into some unanticipated, unpronounceable and debilitating parasite, virus or bacterium and going down for the count was brought home as we watched the Aussie bent over himself, sweating streams through the rattan seat on the veranda, moaning about “home” and “wife,” which was really what I wanted to hear him moan about rather than “amethysts,” which in any case he could no longer pronounce with his swelling tongue.
I was sorry to see their expedition brought down, but I was glad to see them go—finally, at the last opportunity, the next day—as the river continued to drop.
Over the days without rain, the river was exposing its rocks. You could almost see the bottom of the Mahakam. The place had become silent in the bristling heat. I don’t remember how we killed the hours during those days, but waiting it out in such a village you become a kind of sloth, taking your time at every turn. I remember a wooden shack we went to for hard-boiled eggs every morning around ten, and the friendly husband and wife who ran it. There was nothing to the place, a wooden box with battered cooking pots, no refrigerator and two folks who were nice enough to fill the time chatting with us. I remember the spicy eggs giving me diarrhea, but going there every day, as it was our routine, because that’s how you do and I figured I was going to get diarrhea around that time of day in any case, no matter what I was doing or eating. I remember trying to negotiate for a boat. I remember pouring a lot of water in one way as it ran out the other. I glanced down and read a random paragraph from The Confidence-Man on the veranda, waiting for the rain: “At Cairo, the old established firm of Fever and Ague is still settling up its unfinished business; that Creole grave-digger, YellowJack—his hand at the mattock and spade has not lost his cunning; while Don Saturninus Typhus, taking his constitutional with Death, Calvin Edson and three undertakers, in the morass, snuffs up the mephitic breeze with zest.”
The book and the situation seemed aligned perfectly, which could be a good or a terrible thing, for we found we were surrounded by disease in Long Bagun.
They had been to Irian Jaya and had lived among the Asmat, who ate Michael Rockefeller in 1961. They had from the Moluccas to Sulawesi become connoisseurs of spices, butterflies and shells. They had been into Borneo several times, once in search of orchids.
A girl has died of fever, a fever that soared through her body, unchecked and furious, until her young heart could no longer keep up with it. Cerebral malaria, perhaps, the fastest and surest killer among the malarial protozoa. If in the tropics you come down with a debilitating headache, cerebral malaria crosses your scattering mind, but of course by then it is too late to do anything about it.
She died a virgin. There was a funeral, and a carnival atmosphere in the village. Eric and I were invited to join the train of mourners to view her in her white casket, in her home, where her family gathered quietly but bid welcome to all to come and walk through, to share their final moments and thoughts on she who was the most beautiful girl in the village, one thought, seeing her there, a girl of sixteen, perhaps, of whom one would expect great strength by virtue of her youth and beauty, but at that interface of childhood and adulthood, at the first blush of adult love, she simply folded, not a trace upon her body. Her cheeks in that white casket still blushed with whatever had killed her, whatever fever, or word, or look. Such a sensitive thing she must have been, this most beautiful girl in the village.
Perhaps there is a plague afoot. For as Eric and I made our way back toward the village from the death house, along a narrow path lined with shadowed faces, gamblers and musicians in the lantern light trembling in patches over the saw grass, we passed a dark house in which there was a lively, deep-bellied drumming, and we were informed that the local shaman was busy inside trying to save one who still clung to life.
Traditionally, nothing engages a Dayak community more completely than rituals associated with death. Lasting up to ten days, funerals are the most prolonged, costly and crowded events in the life of the longhouse. The whole community attends a funeral, with the highest classes attending the funerals of the lowest, and vice-versa and everything in between. For the Dayak, the post-mortem ceremony is the most democratic event in life.
In Borneo most diseases are not well treated, if treated at all, and the prospect of crashing into some unanticipated, unpronounceable and debilitating parasite, virus or bacterium and going down for the count was brought home as we watched the Aussie bent over himself, sweating streams through the rattan seat on the veranda, moaning about “home” and “wife,” which was really what I wanted to hear him moan about rather than “amethysts,” which in any case he could no longer pronounce with his swelling tongue.
Upon the moment of death, a great and emotional wailing is taken up by the women of the longhouse, trailing after the soul in its passage. Preparations are immediately made for the display of the dead, and in some Dayak cultures it is strapped into a death seat, facing south (the direction the soul will travel). It is dressed in fine fabrics, surrounded by offerings of food. Sometimes cigarettes are shared with the dead. Two gems are placed in the mouth: these the soul will need for begging its way toward heaven.
After the display of the body, which can last for several days, it is placed in a large coffin or porcelain Chinese jar. After further ceremonies, this jar or coffin is entombed in an individual or a group mausoleum. Among the Barito, a few important corpses—those of headmen and such—are the objects of a secondary funeral not less than one year after the first funeral. This second funeral is as festive as the first and entails the removal of the remains from the temporary tomb to the longhouse, where the bones are cleaned and festivities take place. These rituals are expensive affairs, particularly in the case of the decease of aristocrats, and the expense and energy devoted to the funeral is the deceased person’s last assertion of his or her power in the community, a post-mortem summing up of a person’s life, as it were. A persistence of that life. A second life, perhaps. The immortality the figure deserves, in any case.
After the festival—which again can last up to ten days—the cleaned, blessed, snugly repacked remains are entombed again in a large and impressive post-and-beam box raised off the ground about ten feet on posts elaborated with carved decorative or totemic floral and serpentine devices. The assertion of an individual’s status as expressed in their funerary rituals and in their mausoleums extends not only through the horizontality of contemporary society, but vertically, back, through history, as these mausoleums are permanent monuments to great leaders of the past. The further back in the past they are, the more remarkable their legends, until the oldest ancestors are equal to mythic gods.
Probably out of the process of mythology and its extended characters emerges the belief in the transitions of the soul in the afterlife. The reach of memory mirrors faith in eternal life, after all. Projecting their imaginations onto the terrain of the afterlife, as they have their past, Dayaks have literally mapped it, on paper, for the benefit of those who must navigate the mountain passes and bridges leading to heaven. It is, like all cultures, one in which metaphor becomes reified into belief and cultural anxiety as concerns the wanderings of the soul, the powers of spirits, the existence of heavens and hells, ghosts and the meanings of dreams.
The atmosphere was jovial but subdued, as if we were waiting for the curtain to rise on a play.
The world is full of spirits, so many that even the shamans do not know them all and they may discover a new one from time to time in the fresh nuances of life. All spirits are overseen by a supreme creator spirit, the one eternal and immutable trope.
The spirit is distinguished from the soul, which of all creatures humans alone possess. The soul and the head are closely associated. The soul reveals itself in the pupils of the eyes, the crown of the head, the eyebrows. It is somewhat ambiguous if the Dayak soul itself is material or immaterial, although it is believed to journey and undergo adventures after death. In this way it resembles the hun soul feared and feted throughout East Asia. Indeed, the vitiation of the souls of the dead informs much of daily Dayak life, just as it does in continental Asia, perhaps because the souls eventually become spirits that have true power over the world; a wandering soul haunting a village is bad enough, but a cabal of angry or mischievous souls and spirits could throw a whole crop cycle off.
And then there is the notion of dreams as journeys. The anthropologist Peter Metcalf, in his A Borneo Journey into Death, relates a headman who recalled paddling down the Lamat, the river of the dead, as a young man. At some point he beached his canoe, climbed a steep hill and, at the top of the hill, saw beautiful people dressed in fine clothes, harvesting rice that shone like gold. Realizing where he was—in the land of the dead—he hurried back to his canoe, paddled back toward home and awoke like Dorothy from a febrile coma, surrounded by family and friends, whom he regaled with his journey.
Her cheeks in that white casket still blushed with whatever had killed her, whatever fever, or word, or look. Such a sensitive thing she must have been, this most beautiful girl in the village.
Because in dreams we explore otherwise spirit realms, they are discussed openly. There is the danger, too, that one’s soul may be captured during its spirit wanderings. If it is, illness will result and a shaman is called on to recapture the wandering soul. The soul can leave us even while we are awake, with the same result: illness and death. The soul then is, or can be, an errant element. And sleep is a small death. And illness, if unchecked, draws the soul farther and farther away until the body finally dies without it. Because disease is a darkness that falls over the body, the soul seeks light, and sets out, follows the light, fleeing the darkness.
A gulf of darkness separated us from the dark house with the drumming. The windows, the doors, were dark, and it was like a drumming from a hollow house. The young man who accompanied us fiddled with his flashlight, his most prized possession, and grinned to us through the darkness and said, “Let’s go,” and began to lead us through the knee-high saw grass toward the house. The drumming was equal parts womb and death. There was sheet lightning over the distant jungles beyond the far shore. The young man led us cautiously, tentatively, toward the house, swinging his flickering beam before us. A thousand thumbnail-sized frogs, tiny things, rained before us, but in the direction of our travel as if our army accompanying us. They alighted on our shoulders and on the grass blades before us with the sound of the light patter of rain. The bone-thin wailing of a voice, that of the shaman, arose amidst the drumming. Eric said we should go no farther and we froze. In the flash of distant lightning we could see our guide’s smiling, nervously smiling, face. He whispered, “It’s all right.” The tiny frogs began to invade the house by then. You could see and hear them landing on the porch, on the exterior walls. The quick sweep of his flashlight revealed them there, clinging to the walls, climbing, falling off. They were dark green, no bigger than moths. I did not want to turn away. Not at that point. Not two hundred miles up the Mahakam, not halfway through the Atomic Age. I was all impulse by then.
Suddenly, with arms over her head like Theda Bara as the Vamp, a large woman appeared on the porch in the darkness, her voice thrust at us not merely by the force of her anger but by a desperate urgency forced by anger, shooing us away. We did not wait for our guide to retreat. We beat him back to the road.
During our stay in Long Bagun, as the days wore on, the owner of the losmen informed us of a village, by the name of Tembung Tupus, two days west of Long Bagun. He suggested it as an alternative to waiting out the river, as it could be reached by a short trip by boat up the Mahakam and down one of its tributaries, then a day’s hiking from there. Our only problem would be finding guides to take us there. Its approximate location was pointed out to us on my Verlag map among the jagged capillary lines of rivers and streams, an inch from where we were, although the village itself was not marked on the map by name. On the subject of travel beyond Tupus, our host could not advise us.
To travel to Tupus would mean avoiding the impassible rapids north on the Mahakam—impassible then because of the low water level—and continuing on our way, which, after nearly a week in town by then, we were becoming more anxious to do. We could reach Tupus in two days, and from Tupus continue west on small rivers to the headwaters of the Barito, which flows south to Banjarmasin and the Java Sea. We determined that if we ran out of time, or money, or our health, we could bail on down the Barito to Banjarmasin and that would be that. But we noted also that the headwaters of the Barito unraveled toward the west, as well, and toward that coast, our original destination, which we were still, it seemed, bound to in our quest to cross the island of Borneo from its east coast to its west.
We really had no idea what we were getting into. No sense of time or space. People in Long Bagun were highly dubious of our plan to journey clear across the island of Borneo. Too far, they said. Too many mountains, rivers, variables. To put the finest point on it, they felt such a journey would be, literally, impossible. We could thoroughly understand it from their perspective. Long Bagun was as far from the west coast of Borneo as, say, Salt Lake City is from the West Coast of the U.S., as the crow flew—the clichéd crow’s trajectory an easy straight line that shoots over the trees, rapids, rivers, mountains, twists and turns of reality. But we weren’t crows. We were bound to the earth and limited to walking, climbing and paddling the whole way. It was the best we could do. A map to them was a good excuse just to stay home. To us it was a piece of paper we drew out of our pocket, unfolded, pointed anxiously to.
Projecting their imaginations onto the terrain of the afterlife, as they have their past, Dayaks have literally mapped it, on paper, for the benefit of those who must navigate the mountain passes and bridges leading to heaven.
The next evening, I passed the house where the shaman had been the previous night. It had just turned dusk. I could hear some tentative pounding on drums, like a warming up, and I approached the house, hopeful for another chance at a shaman ceremony. The front door of the house was opened. As I approached, I saw oil lanterns burning warmly inside the dark score of sun, in anticipation of the darkness, and onlookers were seated shoulder to shoulder tightly along the walls, chatting and jostling, and among them was a small knot of young drummers who poised sticks over plastic gasoline cans, in playful spirit. I was bidden in a friendly manner to enter and join the party, which I gladly did. I sat against the wall, between the door and the young drummers.
The walls of the main room of the house, where the patient and shaman were situated, were lined with people, and the center of the room was kept clear for the ceremony. A long fetish of bamboo, inverted palm fronds and rope hung from the rafters in the center of the room. It was about six feet long and a few feet in diameter. Over in the far corner, the patient—a kindly faced, portly middle-aged man—was reclining on the floor, chewing and spitting betel nut juice into a can. Near him sat the shaman. The shaman was obviously an elder of the village. He sat cross-legged on the floor, his hands over his face, in deep meditation in a fading corner of the sun.
An adjoining bay of the house was packed with neighbors, family, with lolling babies and their mothers and fathers, old men and women chewing betel nut and smoking pipes, kids and an occasional dog that would be kicked fiercely away from whomever it wandered near. The atmosphere was jovial but subdued, as if we were waiting for the curtain to rise on a play.
A thousand thumbnail-sized frogs, tiny things, rained before us, but in the direction of our travel as if our army accompanying us. They alighted on our shoulders and on the grass blades before us with the sound of the light patter of rain.
A biscuit tin with betel nut, lime paste, betel leaves and tobacco made its way around to me and I partook, for the first time. One of the drummer kids showed me how to do it. You smear some of the lime paste on the leaf, place a clove of betel nut on the leaf, roll it up, stuff it in the jaw like a dip of Redman. As I lay back on my elbow, mildly buzzed, the old women with distended earlobes smiled back with reddened teeth. I was happy to see Eric appear at the door, for I knew he wouldn’t want to miss the magic. He took his place on the floor beside me.
The drummers had taken up a steady beat, had found their rhythm as the shaman sat self-absorbed, hands over his face, apparently on some plane beyond our own. Big lightning had begun to flash, blasting away the gathering darkness outside for white moments. The shaman stood up and began walking, still rubbing his hands over his face. He seemed thoroughly preoccupied. Perhaps more accurately, not preoccupied himself, but occupied by some other, larger force. Children who had been wandering found safe arms to ease back into. The shaman spoke and the drummers ceased, and all was sudden stark silence, punctuated by the random cough, whisper. Then the shaman walked away from the drummers and assumed a stance in his open space in the middle of the room, near the hanging fetish. He wore a long red, black and white skirt. There was an ammo belt around his waist. This is all he wore. All was silence. He braced as if against a strong wind, one hand on his hip, one arm raised, palm forward. He pressed his face forward as if in defiance of this wind. Then he began to sing. It was a high-pitched wailing, an invocation of the gods, perhaps, in a voice that was like his body—old, strapping, bony and sharp as knives at the edges with not an ounce of fat on it. All faces were turned up to him as he sang. A child of three or four cradled in her mother’s lap gazed up at him wide-eyed, then began to cry.
Suddenly the drummers hammered on their drums, then just as suddenly stopped again. The shaman did not respond to this burst. The shaman’s gestures early in the ceremony seemed codified, precise and independent of the drumming. His powerful presence implied that his ambivalence to the drumming derived from a superiority to it. Though apparently choreographically uncoordinated, these two elements—the shaman’s song and dance, and the drumming-—were complementary. It all fit together nonetheless. Even the lightning was just right.
It was a high-pitched wailing, an invocation of the gods, perhaps, in a voice that was like his body—old, strapping, bony and sharp as knives at the edges with not an ounce of fat on it.
But through the course of the evening the shaman seemed to become more and more engaged in the dialogue he carried on with the spirits, and the whole process and all its elements—shaman, drumming, lightning—seemed to disintegrate further into a ghostly randomness. And this too seemed perfect. Deep in the night the shaman wandered and stumbled around drunkenly possessed, unsteady on his legs, fairly reeling around the dark room, glassy eyed, detached from us, bellowing and singing, at some points stopping dead in his steps, placing his hands over his face and nearly keeling over, dizzy, entranced, as if the spirits had just whispered something terrible, disorienting him. But when his wife—the large woman who had scared us away the evening before—placed a flaming votive candle on his head, he spun and moved around the room with such command of equilibrium and gravity that it was as if the votive were nailed down on top of his skull.
During this phase all other lights in the house were extinguished, and in his evolutions the shaman approached each door and window of the house as if chasing the spirit of disease away, chasing it out with the candlelight into the vacuum of darkness outside. That’s how it may have seemed. But, as it turns out, what the shaman was doing was not driving spirits away, but drawing them back, out of the darkness, back into the house. It occurred to me then that the shaman’s wife had not been chasing us away the night before, but the light of the torch, which would have enticed the fleeing spirits out of the house. This would have meant certain demise for the patient. For the shaman was trying to keep the spirit, which seeks light, in the house with an unambiguous, and uncontested, candle flame of light. I wondered to what extent the frequent, brilliant doses of lightning would confuse the process of this anti-exorcism.
These proceedings lasted until well past midnight, and that night it rained heavily, for hours. The next mid-morning, Eric and I entered the now rapid and eddying muddy stream of the river, with two guides, in the long, narrow cockpit of a boat, our gear piled up, with our asses below the waterline and jiggling as tenuously on the surface as a leaf. We were on our way again as our host, his family, the shaman, his wife, all those we had met standing on shore, were waving us goodbye. Waving back, we nearly tipped over into the ravenous water, so we hunkered down, keeping our centers of balance low as we flew and bounced and jiggled precariously along on our way north from Long Bagun, toward the heart of Borneo, like spirits on the run.
Lou Morrison is a writer who lives in South Korea. “Death Comes to Long Bagun” is an excerpt from his unpublished book A Stranger in Every Sense, his account of reading Melville’s The Confidence-Man while trekking from the east to the west coast of Borneo. He has been published in the journal Fleas on the Dog.
Lead image: Carles Rabada