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Sungai Kepala
River of the beheaded

Complete darkness... Slowly I made my way on my feet which were slippery because of the mudd. The steps of the ladder were a little safety; it were just shallow holes in a block of wood. The ladder leaned to the house dangerously, at least in my opinion. The last step have access to a small room, lit by a small light. I moved along several sitting people. What should I do? Singing, high singing suddenly broke the silence. I oriented on the place where I came from, a corner of the room. It was a clear, almost womenly sound that maintained. A skinny shape, only dressed in a dark skirt, long hair loose, bent over over a child...
My host Burham Mas, the camat of Ben Hes, whispered me about what was happening: an healing ritual. The belian - the traditional healer and religious specialist - begged the spirits to heal the patient. The solhouet of the long belian was hard to see. It seemed like the women floated over the child. She stroked the girls and rolled an egg over her body.
Next, the egg was cleaned in the light of many flashlights. Together with the inside, a worm, a piece of carrot and a piece of fish showed up. All of a sudden I felt the slippery mudd under my feet again. The belian told that the stomach problem of the child was caused by eating a fish. This had angered the spirit. The woman cut the egg and the inside, taken from the childs body by a spirit, to throw it in the river. That's all, how would the child feel tomorrow?

On the way to Ben Hes

The Dayak village of Ben Hes is located deep in the hinterlands of Eastern Kalimantan. The journey to there takes you over one of the bigger side rivers of the Mahakam, the Kedang Kepala. The name means as much as 'Chopped Head' and is a subtile pointer to the very communly used technique.
The several days lasting boat trip to Ben Hes was enough time for me to learn how to balance myself. The moving boards, which connected the huts on the bank with the piers and the boat, I took in a slow walk. The floating piers, also used as washing area and toilet, cannot be tightened more because of the varying water level. In the morning, the piers are extreme slippery because of the mudd which the river has left there.
The local population, used to balancing from childhood, didn't bother walking from and to the boat. After a little practice I managed to climb onto the piers as well. The way back still was a disaster, especially when the stairs was little more than a primitive step, a block of wood with small steps in it. So I always gave my bag to a more stable local, with the bad argument that my camera's could not swim.

Long Noran

The night after our departure from Samarinda, the boat went on in complete darkness over the river, encountering the environment with a strong light. Just past Muara Kaman we left the Mahakam to enter one of it's side rivers, the Kedang Kepala. The next night we stopped near Batu Ampas. The following morning it became clear why we had stopped. Past the village, the river gets smaller; the current was so strong that we could not pass, even at full speed. The shipper was only able to navigate along the big stones close to the banks, to eventually pass the dangerous location.
After several hours, a long and colorfull totem showed up, the first evidence of the Dayak woodcarvings. On top was a warrior with sward. The hampatong (a bad image for the Dayak, which should scare bad spirits) was placed in front of a big communal house on woodcarved pillars. The spacy interrior was a true orgy of brightly colored woodcarvings, an abstract composition of arabesq and stylized faces. A picture of President Suharto on the wall was totally lost because of the bright decorations.
The village of Long Noran was founded not too long ago by Kenyah Dayak - from Apokayan, just like the neightboring village of Long Segar. The first group was a few hundred people and had been nomadic for about six years. Before they could settle for good the Kenyah farmed the land and waited for the result. After Long Noran we passed a woodloggers camp of Georgia Pacific, before arriving at the outpost Muara Wahau, the governmental center of the subdistrict with the same name. I spent the night with the camat of Nehes Lioah Bing (also called Slabing), the village across Muara Wahau.

Arrival in Ben Hes

The next morning I rented a motorized canoo for the last stage to Ben Hes. The start of the journey with a ces is a nerve-breaking experience. The distance between deck and waterlevel is only a few centimeters; and in the first place the boat whobbles a lot, but eventually it's amazingly flat. Because it's low placing the ces reached a high speed. After three hours we reached Ben Hes, the last village along the river.
Ashore I was welcomed by a group of school kids; the new elementary school built earlier that year wasn't in use yet. Several hours later, the camat also arrived, dusted and sweated from working on his field. Burham Mas guided me to his house, which was built on three meter high pillars. His wife welcomed us with tea and when the night fell, we were talking about small things on the floor.
I wanted to inform the leader with the goal of my trip: collecting information and making pictures of the village. But first Burham Mas had several questions. In the past there were several problems with visitors and he didn't want that to happen again. His first question was about my religion. It was clear that I wasn't muslem, to two main important things to the Dayak's hospitality would not pose a problem for me. The next questions were a bit more fundamental. Could I sleep on a hard floor? And could I bear the local food? Could I also use the river as washing place and toilet at the same time? After I had said yes to all questions I also told him I did do well in much worse circumstances.

Holy Bells

Most of the villagers, among them Burham Mas, has converted to catholicism three years before. The village however, didn't have a church yet and the priest who visited Ben Hes every once in a while lives more than threehundred kilometers away. A big part of the existance of the villagers was mainly based on the old religion, which has an important role during marriages, funerals and healing rites. On my demand to see several traditional dances and make pictures of them, Burham Mas said no. The dances are performed on the rhythm of holy bells, which was only allowed to be played at preset times.

Field Change Agriculture

Every morning during my stay in Ben Hes the villagers went to their ladang, fields chopped from the rainforest, by canoo. Chopping and burning of trees and bushes, which ashes are used as fertilizer, often happens in August, the most dry month of the year.
The soil is so poor that the fields are only used for a single or sometimes a second harvest before it has to be left alone for about seven years to recover. The big benefit of this system of field-change-agriculture is that it's ecologically accepted, though used properly and as long as the population doesn't get too big. Each of the 71 families from Ben Hes, at least holds one ladang. Because of the need to change fields every year, their fields are far from eachother and sometimes ofer ten kilometers from the village. Some families travel for hours each day to work on their fields.

On the Land

On a morning I went to the field with Burham Mas, by boat. The leader steered the cano like a toy. We followed the river for half an hour when we entered a side-river, which was so small that the vegetation formed something like a tunnel. Several minutes later we reached a few canoos which were moored around a slippery pier.
I followed Burham Mas to an open spot where about fifteen people and a few children were together. In a small, open hut they were waiting for the owner of the field. The people spend time with telling stories in the local language and I smiled friendly to everyone who tried to talk to me.


The women started to prepare lunch. They mixed wheat, rice and coconut milk into a paste, which was boiled in bamboo. One of the men offered me something to drink. A big bamboo chute which contained tuak, a light alcoholic drink from yeasted palm juice. Eventually the owner of the ladang showed up and everyone prepared to go to work. The men got their sticks and hit the soil every fourty cm. The women followed and threw several grains of rice in the holes before closing them again.
Later on the women served lunch in a more comforable hut. The bambo chutes were opened on a layer of leaves, which served as a table. The meal consisted of pieces of meat in a soup of vegetables and palm-parts in which lumps of rice were mixed.

Harvest Rytes without Harvest

That night, Burham Mas had a surprise for me. Coincidentally, one of the men who had worked on the ladang this afternoon also was the kepala adat, responsible for traditional circumstances. After lunching, the man had talked about my question to see a traditional dance. And however the kepala adat insisted on not using the holy bells, he came up with an interesting alternative. A year before, the rytes which are held after the harvest, were videotapes, including the sound of the holy bells, and the kepala adat was sure that playing that tape didn't belong to the taboo.
To make preparations go as smooth as possible and to make everyone happy, I bought three bottles of 'gin', a locally destilled drink. The first guests were some old women, which most of them wore the big earrings. Among them was the sjaman which had called for the spirits during the healing ritual. She looked elegant in her traditional clothing; every once in a while she made eyes at a younger men. The village secretary, a young man which I have seen before only in western cloths, has had a complete make-over. He looked like a warrior which was capable of beheading his opponents right away. He held a dance of war, gracefull and masculin at the same time.
After him, the girls of the village dances. With elegant, short movements they imitated birds in full flight. After this, a second warrior-dance followed, performed by two men. One of them was fierce and serious, the other a born comic which enjoyed the people.
The kepala adat and the sjaman followed to perform a gracious dance. The evening was brought to an end with a group ritual which was held with all people, including me. Tired of dancing I fell asleep that night, still hearing the sound of the holy bells.


    
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