Nanga Sumpa longhouse: Buying a knife from a headhunter

Jonah and I somehow ended up in Borneo. I say that because 2 weeks prior, we were scheduled to arrive in Bangkok for a completely different adventure. Since political upheaval and burning shopping malls didn’t seem like the most idyllic place for a vacation, I opted for plan B. Borneo. First stop, Kuching. A fabulous little city and also known as the gateway for visiting the indigenous tribes. You can drive an hour outside the city and visit a tourist set-up and see tribes dance in costume like some Disney World event OR you can book yourself a guide at Borneo Adventure to take you to the real thing. So no guessin’ what this Dian Fossey wanna be did. Real deal, baby! To get to the tribe, it’s a 4 hour drive from Kuching to some river near the Indonesian border. At the river we were greeted by an Iban who took us in his longboat for the final leg of our journey to the longhouse.  After an hour and a half in torrential rainfall, we finally arrive at the longhouse for our 3 night stay.

Our accommodations were a simple little tribal version of a bed & breakfast where we stay with our guide. BTW…there is no electricity in the middle of nowhere. But look, I’m there to experience tribal living. Not a spa weekend.

Our days are filled with hiking and exploring the river and  jungle with our guide and an Iban boatman. Jonah (my 16-year-old kid), can’t help but notice, every one of these Iban guys has a huge knife tied around his waist and is using it for everything….. chopping up chickens, cutting string beans, hacking paths through the jungle…whatever. Everything is this big freakin’ knife. It’s basically a machete. And every Iban male from the age of 6 to 90 seems to have one attached to their hip. Actually, every male BUT my  son. And now his male hormones are crying out “MUST GET KNIFE”.

We spent our evenings at the longhouse as guests of the chief. The chief brings out rice wine and glasses and serves it to our little group of guides and fellow tribesman. We all sit in a circle on the floor  as a candle is placed in the center for light. The atmosphere is like your favorite neighborhood bar. Nice, casual, everybody’s just hangin’ and  having a relaxed good time.  Rice wine is generously flowing and Lemon, one of our guides tells us it would be some insult if we didn’t drink it. So now, Jonah is drinking alcohol. Mind you, all in the spirit of cultural respect.

So back to knife obsession…In the longhouse, outside every door, are hanging things for sale. Mostly baskets. But here and there are…THE KNIVES. I mention to our hosts that my son is dying to have one.  The tribe guys love this and in an instant a magical male bonding thing takes-over like Superbowl Sunday and melts away any and cultural barriers that existed. The big white boy is now one with them.  They tell him  to go pick the one he is thinking about and bring it to the chief.

He picks out 2, and brings it back to our little circle. The men pass around the knives. They feel the blade, the weight, the action. They examine the knives with pleasure and expertise and a consensus is made on one.

My PC son is questioning if he could even have one in NYC  and the chief and the Iban guys give him a look as if he’s lost a screw. How could a big man-boy, not have a knife? How could big man-boy not even know how to use one???  They knew they had a job to do. One tribes member gets up and starts to show him how to handle a knife. Another ties it around his waist and teaches him how to take it out of the sheef. Over and over they practiced how to take it out and swash it around. In the meantime, I was sipping rice wine, getting nicely buzzed, watching my nice jewish boy getting lessons on how to use a knife from an actual headhunter. True. We ended up buying the knife for 20 bucks. But the demo…priceless.

The next morning our guide Paul, took my son out into the jungle and taught him how to really use “the weapon”. He cleared a path from Borneo to China with that thing.Today, it hangs on Jonah’s bedroom wall. I pity the poor slob who might try to break into our nice little place on the Upper West Side. The poor schmuck would come face to face with a warrior. Who knew!

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