I have to confess that my first name Joan is my real one, it means means John in catalan. My second name Maias however is fictitious much as not really invented, it was actually given to me! Let me explain how it came that I was called Maias..
In my post “Come, fly with me” you may have seen a picture of a guy with a beard surrounded by some dubious looking indigenous individuals in a jungly ambient.
Let me show you the picture again here on the left just in case you don’t want to move away.
I had been in Borneo, that is the malaysian part of it four times before. My main intention was always to visit the Iban people.
The Iban tribe is among the strongest in number of all the ethnic groups of northern Borneo, they settle mainly in Kalimantan and Brunei.
In former times the Iban were well known and feared for their practice of headhunting, it used to happen during clashes with other rival tribes and the one who had killed and decapitated his enemy was considered a brave man. The skulls were nicely prepared and conservated and kept in baskets hanging from the ceiling of the communal longhouse. Even nowadays you can see such skulls when you visit some longhouses. During the British colonial occupation, headhunting was prohibited but temporarily allowed during the Japanese occupation in WWII. More then a Japanese soldier lost its head in an ambush prepared by Iban warriors. Nowadays however, the Iban represent very friendly and peaceful communities.
The Iban communal longhouse, built on high stilts for defensive reasons, is roughly divided into the private area of each family and the area which is shared by the whole community. Further one, there is an open veranda or wide balcony which is used by each family to dry the pepper harvest, keep the roosters (very much appreciated for organized fights) and if available, install basic and simple toilets. Any rubbish is just dumped out of the kitchen window or over the veranda and will land on the ground where numerous pigs and chicken take care of keeping hygiene around the village.
I used to get a guide in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, and beginning from Sebeliau jetty travel by canoe on the Lemanak river to the nearest Iban village and pass the night there. Iban village life was not very entertaining specially 10 years ago so that the visit of some westerners was always considered a welcomed change in their everyday life. That means that they were willing to perform some of their fascinating dances accompanied by the traditional gongs but they also expected you to perform for them, singing, dancing or whatsoever! Both men and women are very open minded and after some bottles of Tuak, the traditional rice wine, the ambient used to be more than happy. The procedure was that we would buy two chicken and some bottles of Tuak, make the chicken to be prepared by the hosting family (normally the chiefs) and then, after bathing in the nearby river (clean and cool) everybody was coming together at the communal area to sit on the floor and have a nice time. First the chicken was served together with sticky rice and jungle vegetables, all very delicious! Afterwards the Tuak began to flow, dancing and music was going on and the ambient used to be relaxed and joyful till late in the morning.
Guests were supposed to sleep in the communal area in front of the chiefs private rooms, much later of course.. The problem was that apart of the mosquito net there was hardly any wall between you and the next rooster, that meant that in the early 5 to 6 o’clock in the morning, sleeping time was over! You remained there with your hangover from last night wondering where in the world you were in that moment.
On the next morning we used to go on with our travel to the next Iban village looking for communities which had not been so much in contact with western tourists, those ones who would like to dance just for fun and not for a tip.
On that year 2000 (upper image) we went farther the other times and finally arrived to a village where hardly any white man had been seen for quite a time, the chief actually complained bitterly to me and asked for my help to direct some tourists to his village and this way get some extra money. From this village on we organized the following trip into the interior of Borneos Sarawak. The aim was to watch really wild Orangutans, not those orphans which have been nursed patiently and then reintroduced to the wild and which are used to humans.
( By the way, the name Orangutan comes from the malaysian word Orang = man and Hutan = forest, so, the “man of the forest”. )
You can see the crew in the first image up on the post: the guy standing second from the left is Leslie, also called “”Rimau” the tiger, under his right arm a young boy and on his left an old man whose experience, humor and warmth were as strong as his physical fitness, it was amazing how he could walk one hill up and another hill down with a 20 kg sac of rice in his traditional rucksack without getting tired while you should have seen me! The other young man with the machete was another example for the fitness of this people and their experience while moving in the bornean jungle. Finally, the one ducking down is me.
First thing to do before leaving the village was to close or tie up the dogs of our team members as we intended to move silently and be able to watch hopefully not only Orangutans but also any other wildlife. Hardly an hour after we had left the village, far away barking told us that one of the dogs had managed to escape and was following us, it took him just a few minutes to catch up with us and the face of his owner the old man, was not welcoming him at all, the clever dog could not be convinced to go back home neither by force nor with friendly words, participating in this expedition was by far much more fun than staying in the village! So it happened that we got one more member for our adventure..
During the next days we climbed one hill after the other and slid down another hill after the other (Borneo is not flat!) , it rained quite often and the jungle floor was muddy and slippery, you had to watch were you put your feet and also your hand as poisonous snakes were actually to be found in the area (we saw a dead cobra in the river) , the biggest problem however were wild bees, they built their hives not high in the trees but on the height of your shoulders in the thicket and bushes, needless to say that if you happened to pass by carelessly hitting the bee hive on the move the consequence was to be stung by a dozen of bees in less than 5 seconds.
According to Iban priorities we travelled with hardly any luggage, myself just with a little rucksack while the groups food necessities were provided by the always near-by river: sweet-water crabs, fishes and frogs were captured by snorkeling under the overhanging tree roots of the giant rainforest trees and then put into a bag. The forest offered also plenty of wild vegetables like ferns and bamboo sprouts. We actually carried only a sac of rice and some spicy sauce. The bamboo which was growing everywhere was very useful to us, apart of the before mentioned sprouts it also offered us the necessary cooking pot to boil the rice! Around lunchtime the Iban used to begin to look for some thick bamboo, they cut some half-meter long pieces and the intersections were removed. After washing the rice in the river it was wrapped into some big leaves like a huge cuban cigar and then put into the bamboo tube. The bamboo was then leaning on a green branch which kept it at some distance over the fire. As the bamboo was really fresh cut and full of water it would not burn straight away but resist the fire till the rice was cooked, you could know that the rice was ready because some boiling water begins to pour out of the bamboo tube. I have newer again tasted a more delicious rice than the one prepared Iban style!
To pass the night the Iban scouts used to look for some abandoned hunters camp which consisted in just some primitive roof thatched with big leaves and a wooden sleeping grill which was supposed to keep you far from the ground, it was however more comfortable to use the hammocks. On one afternoon we spotted a little antelope, very similar to the african Dick-dick which is called Lesser Mouse Deer. The poor thing stayed in the river and couldn’t run away because of the high river bank on on side and us on the other. The Iban asked me for permission to hunt it and I just answered that this was their country and I just a guest. As they had not carried any gun with them (it is not allowed) they used the harpoon which was used to kill the fishes and that night we had crabs, fishes, ferns, rice and Lesser Mouse Deer for supper (and for breakfast during the next days).
After the first two days of walking we discovered the first nests of the wild Orangutans. Similar to Chimpanzees and Gorillas they build a new nest every single night high in a tree, it keeps them safe from predators and far from the humidity of the forest litter (anyway, Orangutans very seldom come down to the ground). The first nests we saw were quite old but as we advanced deeper into the rainforest those nests appeared to be quite recent. It was about the 3rd or 4th day when we discovered the first wild Orangutan, it reacted fleeing as fast as possible moving from one liana to the other with easiness, we were very excited for this success! In the next days we saw another one, also briefly, it was clear that the really wild Orangutans were very shy to human beings.
After having managed to accomplish our illusion, it was the 5th day, we decided to return home to the Iban village, all went well without any incidents, we walked, stopped for a rest, removed the leeches from one another, the Iban smoked a cigarette and we went on. Many stories used to be explained during the night at the fire, when there is no TV around neither any radio, this it the entertainment available and very often it is much more interesting.
The young boy explained how one day he got lost in the forest while hunting, it is extremely unlikely for them to get lost in the jungle but it happened on that occasion. They always recommended to smoke first a cigarette and then try to find the way back home, (probably a good system to avoid initial panicking). So, after smoking the anti-panik cigarette our friend began to try to orientate himself but without any possibility he went completely lost for around two weeks which he survived eating raw vegetables, fishes, crabs and frogs. Eventually, he explained, he suddenly found a group of people completely unknown to him, nearly naked and without any signs of having had any contact with the outer world, he said that he had no idea who they were! With signs, the group managed to show him roughly the way out of the jungle in direction to a river which was familiar to our friend and which led him back home.
We agreed that they were probably members of the Ukit tribe, at those times a rather unknown and mysterious nomadic indigenous group.
(I decided with my friend Rimau that the coming year we would met again and try to contact the Ukit, unfortunately my life changed later on and I have newer again come back to Borneo)
After 4 days of walking we arrived back to the village where everybody seemed extremely relieved to see that nothing had happened to me during the trip. Actually, the rocky river banks, wet and slippery, presented the highest risk because of the danger of falling and breaking a leg, days away from the nearest hospital or even car this can be a problem! In the evening, we celebrated at the chiefs house with all the village members our safe return and as the Tuak made us feel more free they explained to me that they had given me a nickname:
While walking over the dangerous river rocks I used to bring my center of gravity as much down as possible, in other words I was awkwardly crawling to make sure I would not fall, while the Iban used to walk barefoot over the wet stones as relaxed as me over a sidewalk in the city. They confessed that they decided to call me “Maias” which is the Iban name for the Orangutan. This primates are overwhelmingly arboreal and therefore not used to walk on the floor so that if they by any means happen to come down to the ground they move as stupidly as I did!
For them I was definitely moving like an Orangutan – Maias on the floor…
To say the truth I was very proud having gotten that name and as you see I am still using it nowadays when possible…