July 8th, 2012 by Cedar

This is another installment of Cedar’s Digest, a series of poetic stories about the experiences my husband, Ren Ruslan Feldman, and I are having living for six months in Central Borneo. We are volunteer teachers in a small, innovative Indonesian school. The school is child-centered with a focus on hands-on learning and character development. Classes are taught in English and Indonesian.


longhouseThrough the bus window
we see the skeleton of a “long house”
no longer inhabited, but
once the home of maybe thirty dyak families
like a wooden warehoue on stilts
each family had a little cubicle
all open to the center
like little cottages on main street
the under-stilt “garage”
was home to the family’s animals

the Dyaks (native peoples of Kalimantan) were guided
by dreams and by a “Bible” of bird sounds
with meanings categorized by
time of day, type of bird,
whether heard on the right or left side
colorful community ceremonies
celebrated life transitions
birth, baby naming, puberty
marriage, planting season, death
The Balanga Museum in Palangkaraya
is dedicated to showing and preserving
these traditional ways

Gaye and I take a twenty-minute walk
through the jungle on a small path
at 6 am before it gets too hot for me to be outside
to Sei Gohong, home to maybe 100 people
some of them children in our school
most of the village is wooden houses on stilts
at the edge of the river
in the front porches with little shops by the front door
two dogs tussle in the dirt road
a papa rides his motor bike
one child in front, one in the back
off to school
mama breast feeds baby on the front steps

Gaye chats with the guy who lives
in a little dugout boat with his wife and baby
he is the guardian of the rubber that has been
made into logs and tied up together as a raft
waiting for the right price to sell
the prices have gone down
competition with the Chinese
they wait now for the price to rise
I listen to the now familiar Bahasa language
recognizing many words
each word I know, like an exciting window into
culture as embodied in language

the day gets hotter and heavier
we start to sweat and begin our return
each villager greets us with a big smile
selamat pagi, good morning
we pass a water storage container
used like a local well,
a basketball court in disrepair,
small gardens,
clutches of wandering scrawny chickens
we walk alert for mosquitoes
carrying Dengue Fever–doesn’t kill you,
but takes 6 weeks to recover from
four people in the compound have gotten it
while we’ve been here

Emerging from the jungle into the Rungan Sari
compound that is home to people from some fourteen countries
we are spontaneously invited to breakfast with
the group of mostly Indonesian teen-agers from the
International School in Jakarta
who are on a service trip and staying at the “eco-village”

The Jinn, everyone in Central Borneo knows about the Jinn–
they are the other worldly guardian spirits of the land
Alerted by Ren’s past experience here
we walked around our cottage before entering
found the spirit of the place tree
told the Jinn who we are, that we have come in peace and service
and asked for permission to be here and live in this cottage
The Jinn show themselves in remarkably animated cloud formations
and in mysterious felt energies or smells
They also are given respect and credit for unexplained interferences
with plans and activities: intermittent internet connection,
sudden hot water in the kitchen sink, rattles in the pipes,
random computer troubles, an event suddenly not working out

In the teachers lounge, I ask about Dyak spirituality
two of the teachers come to our house
to talk more
both are Dyak, one is Christian and the other Muslim
they describe a parallel and co-existing universe
they, the Jinn, can interact with our world
but we can’t interact with theirs
except occasionally
“When one of my cousins was little
she got lost for 8 hours.
We looked everywhere and couldn’t find her.
Then we found her asleep under a tree.
We had already looked under this very tree.
She wasn’t hungry and said she’d been fed
and taken care of by the Jinn.”

“In this other world, they have families,
and troubles, and stuff just like here,
and they are as close as this chair away.
Because we can’t see them,
they like to play tricks on us.
Some people can see and feel them. I can sometimes.
Like, there’s an old lady who lives in your bathroom.
She’s there because she was very attached to the tree
that was where the bathroom is before the house was built.
She’s okay with your being here.”

“My uncle was on his motorbike and he stopped to pee under a tree
and he didn’t get the permission of the Jinn
and then when he got back on his bike, as he rode away
one of the tires blew up and he broke his leg.
They were teaching him a lesson.”

How is it to be a Christian and a Muslim as well as a Dyak?, I inquire.
“It’s okay. We just know both ways. No conflict.”

Ren and I began to have our own experiences
of numinousness.
The four-inch spider that showed up in the bathroom
seemed to be the spirit of the old lady,
the very weird smell that showed up in front of the TV
gave us a message we needed to follow,
strange events would seem to be guidance
to have a particular conversation with someone.
these things did not seem strange, they seemed natural

when you embed yourself in a culture,
the culture begins to embed itself in you

(Image: stock.xchng/blagr)



4 Responses to “Dayak”

  1. Lola says:

    Now that I have met that lovely young lady Subud member Dayak, this becomes so much more of interest. When i was growing up the “Wild Men of Borneo” were head hunters and savages, so we learned. But Life moves on and changes hopefully for the better. Again I enjoyed your vivid description. Hugs from Lola

  2. Shoshanah says:

    Lovely. Thank you again for your sharing.

  3. Eleanor says:

    Once again, Cedar,
    I am transported by your observations and descriptions. I am also very aware of the coomon features of the indigenous people’s world(s) as you describe the Jinn — and the messages, and the value to all of us as we allow for a unification of cultures — which have parallels to the Navajo culture which opened my mind, eyes, and heart!

  4. This was beautiful in all ways. I enjoyed it so much and look forward to seeing and hearing more as time moves forward.

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