Ex-Headhunters Welcome U.S. Guests

Lipsig is a free-lance writer living in Sherman Oaks

"What tidings do you bring?" A tall, fierce-looking headman blocked our entry.

"Kabar bayk," we replied. "We bring good news." Satisfied, he stood aside and allowed us inside the longhouse.

That was our introduction to the Banuak Dayaks, one of several formerly headhunter Dayak tribes we visited during a weeklong journey up the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo last year.

We flew from Jakarta on the island of Java to Balikpapan, an oil boom town on the Strait of Makassar, where we were met by Alex Sukardi, our Indonesian guide, who never left our side for the next six days (which was reassuring).

Two and a half hours later we arrived by van at the river town of Tenggarong to board our boat, the Mufakat.

Clean and Bright

The trip literature had warned us that conditions would be primitive, but the Mufakat was a bright, shiny blue craft, sparkling clean. Not expected, however, was the long, open deck with a 4 1/2-foot-high roof, which made standing erect impossible.

My husband and I wondered if our senior citizen bones would hold up on this river trip for six nights and days. We made ourselves comfortable by using our mattresses as seats during the day and as beds at night.

On the first day we traveled nonstop past endless villages lining both shores. After dark our cook prepared an Indonesian meal that we ate sitting cross-legged on the deck because there were no chairs.

We made one call that evening at an all-night river market, where the river taxis stop so passengers can buy meals from the "fast food" stalls.

Afterward we bedded down on deck alongside our guide and the crew, including the cook, her two teen-age daughters and her 12-year-old son.

We were beginning to understand what we'd been told about the "primitive" features of the trip.

Morning Prayers

The boat cruised through the night. When I awoke, a loudspeaker was blaring overhead. We had docked at the foot of a mosque. It was 3:30 a.m. The morning call to prayers was chanted loudly and continuously until daybreak 2 1/2 hours later.

Later, a motor canoe carried us through an enormous shallow lake, the Jampung Danau, where fishermen in other canoes spread huge nets and rattan fish traps. Eventually we arrived at Tanjung Isuy, home of the ex-headhunters, where we waited in the office of the mayor while the village prepared its welcoming ceremony.

Along with the villagers, we were summoned to the ceremony by a man with a bullhorn who escorted us to the village longhouse that was subdivided into small rooms, each the dwelling of one family.

Our guide ushered us through a receiving line of villagers who led us to a canopied throne, placed braided garlands on our heads, hung beads about our necks and anointed us with fragrant liquids.

A heady experience? You bet!

With solemn pronouncements in the Dayak tongue we were presented with a ceremonial plate. In turn we produced a ballpoint pen, the survivor of a long-forgotten political campaign. With a grand gesture my husband proclaimed it "a gift from the big chief in America."

Serenaded and Refreshed

The welcomers serenaded us with a Dayak song, after which refreshments were served, followed by a processional dance featuring drums and gongs and an invitation to witness a "cure" administered by the tribe's witch doctor.

The witch doctor wore a skirt, ankle bells and a turban, and danced, stomped and gyrated to the beat of drums. Something like an old Tarzan movie.

When we visited other tribes in the days that followed, the welcoming ceremony was always different. The Kenyah Dayaks, whose women traditionally tattoo their bodies and stretch their pierced earlobes to form great loops, greeted us warmly.

And in the thick jungles along the banks of the Mahakam we filmed otters, macaque and proboscis monkeys and other animals, while overhead wheeled osprey, hornbills and a wide variety of colorful fishing birds.

Undeniably, we found discomforts and inconveniences on the trip--but all of it was worth enduring for the opportunity to visit the Dayaks, see and buy their superb handicrafts and designs, experience the jungle, see animals and other sights along the river, and for the sheer adventure of it all.

Arrangements for the trip were made through Tomaco Tours, Jakarta, Indonesia, and through Sobek Expeditions, Angels Camp, Calif. 95222, phone (209) 736-4524. The cost: $10,065 per person, not including air fare.

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