My Inner Hornbill

Our birthday longhouse with village kids welcoming us

(Reis) As we boarded the boat in Pangkalan Bun, Borneo, the smell of oil filled the air, and we were off. Along the Aruk River, passing by village upon village and boat upon boat, we raced. We sped by outhouse after outhouse with holes directly into the river. Passing by many logging stations, with gigantic logs stacked up, ready to be transported down the river, I thought “It’s terrible what humans are doing to our planet.”

After reaching our destination and stepping out of the speedboat, cramped and fried to a crisp from the sun, we walked up a path into Bakonsu Village. I, for one, was not in favor of staying in a village longhouse on our birthday, but nooo, no one cares about my opinion. Through the village, we walked on a path up to a longhouse whose roof had huge holes, and it looked like the supporting poles holding up the house were about to snap. I crossed my fingers that we were not staying in that one. I looked to my right and there I saw a big brown-wooded house, with stable tree poles, that looked great. I asked our guide which we were staying in; he said the good looking one, and I sighed in relief. Notch-in-wood stairs are common in rural Asia, so that is what led into the longhouse. We entered and I was immediately taken aback. It was a huge room, with a strong wooden roof, with beams stretching across the span of the building. It was immense. After settling, we started playing with the local kids. It’s amazing what you can do with motions and gestures, because Andrew and I taught the local youngsters how to play Uno.

Reis channeling his inner hornbill for the dance

When it was 7:00, which felt like a jiffy because all of us were having so much fun, we were brought inside for some ceremony. We sat down, and people started trickling in, until there was a large crowd settled in the longhouse. A man stood up and gave a speech. Our guide translated, and it went somewhat like this. “We thank you for coming here. I am the descendant of the people who built this longhouse…” The hosts started picking us in pairs, one group at a time, to be blessed. When it was my turn, Emma and I stood up and went to sit on two old (and extremely uncomfortable, due to the big bulge in the middle) gongs. There, the same old man blessed us with the tools that they had used to build the house, and the roots of some special peace-giving tree, all the while holding a peeping chicken chick. When he was done chanting and extolling us, he gave us a plastic mug filled with strong smelling liquid. At first I thought the smell was the mug, so I drank, then I realized it was the liquid. The liquid was rice wine. The taste was so horrid, I cringed, and almost spat it all out. I had to force it down, because it would be disrespectful to drench the descendant of the builder with half-swallowed rice wine. Then we stood up from the hard metal gongs and sat back down on the reed mat covering the floor. Suddenly, the music started playing and four guys in sarongs, batik shirts, and wrapped-cloth hats, stood up and started dancing the Hornbill Dance. The Hornbill Dance is a spiritual dance, that locals perform on special ceremony days, to indicate the hornbills taking their souls up to heaven. Of course the locals wanted us to try, so we stood up, improvised, and chanelled our inner hornbill. A lady kept coming around with more rice wine, so I developed the trick of “fake drinking” to get out of the terrifyingly bad taste. When the dancing stopped, my arms were tired, and my whole body was tired, so we went to bed, exhausted.

The next morning at about 4:00 a.m., the rooster roused us from our sleep with a terrible cry of triumph. I was ready to get out of bed to kick the chicken, but I didn’t. I HATE waking up early. But what can you say, that’s one unique birthday!

Reis knows what the rice wine tastes like

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