Tuesday, February 19, 2008

stories from the jungle, part one

It’s the morning of our third day and last day at the longhouse, and I’m packing my backpack to leave when Richard, our British tour guide, comes up to me.

“Liz, do you have a second? We need to cleanse Chris.”

Chris is member of our tour group, an outspoken electrician from Australia. I woke up a few hours ago to hear him recounting a strange dream he had during the night—he swears he saw spirits at the longhouse, three women, reaching for him. The first response from most of us is, “what’s the name of your malaria drug?” as one of the side affects of the different kinds of pills we’ve been told to take while in Borneo is trippy dreams; I had a very profound one of my own about an egg yolk and an ocean a few nights ago. But Chris is one of the few who is not on any malaria medication, and he is a little shaken.

So at 8:15 in the morning I pad barefoot over to the circle our group and several Iban villagers from the longhouse have formed on the rickety wooden floor. I sit down and listen as Unsa, the longhouse headman, asks Chris about the details of his dream. Unsa, perched on his haunches and dressed in red sport shorts and a clean but well-worn t-shirt, then pours some rice wine from an old Tsingtao bottle into a plastic blue cup, quietly murmurs in Iban, and slowly pours the contents of the plastic blue cup down on the floorboards of the longhouse. He repeats this, another longhouse man says something else in Iban, and then the cup is filled to half-full and handed to Chris. Unsa gestures to Chris that he should drink and he does. The spirits have had their drink; now it is our turn. More rice wine is poured and the same cup is now offered to me.

I have had a lot of, is this really my life? moments and this is certainly one of them, but I don't have much time for self-reflection. I take the cup and drink. More is poured for the person next to me. At first I think this is ceremonial—we will all have one drink—but once the rice wine has made its way around the circle another bottle is brought out and another cup is pushed into my hands. I drink, but look to Richard for some guidance.

“They just want to make sure the spirits know they’re welcome and feel comfortable here,” he says.

“So it’s sort of like…an after-party?” I ask.

Unsa hears me, and nods and laughs a little.

Another cup is handed to me, and I take my third—and thankfully final—drink of the morning.

And that completes my first early morning séance and after-party in a Malaysian longhouse.

More stories to come soon.


Steve said...

Elizabeth... I am so impressed with how you wrote this story.... I can't wait to read more

lydia said...

oh elizabeth, has being a mennonite brethren taught you nothing? what if the spirits entered your body instead?? ;)

i miss you! will you be in seoul anytime soon?