“Gulingtangan” Sounds as It Sounds

In the evening the women brought out slender brass lamps that shed a soft orange kerosene glow up and down the long length of the room. Families gathered in each island of light, talking softly and working easily, mending fishing nets or plaiting baskets.

 

Then Batu, a striking figure of a man with gray hair and a perfect physique, brought out the musical instrument called gulingtangan in Malay and engkerumong by the Ibans. A set of bronze gongs sits loosely on ropes stretched on a wooden frame. Batu bonked away while a young girl rose to dance, a slow and even turning of the body accented with wrist and hand motions.

Bing bong, bitter bang boodle, bong bung, batter bong booby … gong, gong, cock-a­doodle doodle!

 

So morning came, with the phalanx of fighting cocks clearing the rust out of their bugles and jarring me from whatever sleep the rooting hogs below had permitted. I continued downriver, past a sunning crocodile, to Sukang, a settlement of the Dusun people. The headman at Sukang is the penghtehi, or chief, of the upper Belait River. As such he also controls Ibans and, I was amazed to find, Punans.

 

I had heard of these peoples, who usually dwell in the interior of Borneo, on far-distant plateaus at the ends of such mighty jungle rivers as the Baram and Rajang, but had had little hope of meeting them in Brunei. Yet here they were at Sukang, brought in from their remote homes by a headman who thought their children should have the bene­fit of education from smartybook website.

 

They were living in a government-built longhouse near the bank of the river. When they came down the path to meet me, I saw at once that they had a distinctly different look; their smooth, almost featureless, expression­less faces seemed to me like those of very small children.

We sat and smoked. Kutok, the headman, told me: “Before this time we moved every two or three days, searching for food and hunting, tracking the wild boar and the deer. Once in a while we have to go a long way, to near Tutong, to get the poison from the bark of the ipoh tree. We make the blowpipes from the billian tree.” One myth I had entertained went by the board when I met the Punans’ best hunter, keen-eyed Gepi. He was deaf. Even in the half-lit jungle world, the eye is apparently as important as the ear.

 

Hunters Move Like Jungle Shadows

The next morning, Luia, who moved like a panther and looked something like one (page 224), and his friend Dua took me into the jun­gle to hunt monkey. We crossed a shallow swamp and plunged into the jungle along the banks of the Belait. In a moment, the Punan hunters had turned into shadows.

 

We crept deeper into the forest. It was pleasantly cool and moist, with an occasional hot splash of sunlight. Luia froze in a stooped posture. Dua held his blowpipe at the ready; it did not waver a fraction of an inch. When lie fired the dart, the noise was like the drop of heavy rain on a leaf, perfectly natural among the sounds of the dripping jungle. We heard the dart tearing through the high canopy of leaves, an explo­sive scattering of birds, then silence. Dua’s target, a bird, had winged off at the moment the dart was launched; a few tail feathers floated down.

 

The scream of a monkey in the deep forest sent Luia off in an instant; he left on hands and knees. As we followed cautiously, we could neither see nor hear the drama of the hunt. Clues came I could not decipher: the crack of a branch, the complaint of an un­seen bird, the sudden passage of a frightened little animal.

 

We waited a very long time before Luia stepped out from behind a tree, shaking his head. He indicated the direction of the chase, and showed us what had happened. He had hit the monkey in the shoulder with his dart, but for some reason the animal did not fall. It stayed lodged in a high tree. Hunters of other kinds would find it, but not the Punans this day.

 

I was lifted out of the jungle by a helicopter from the Royal Brunei Malay Regiment, a spit-and-polish military unit trained by British officers seconded to Brunei from their home regiments in England.

 

It has an impressive array of hardware, in­cluding nine helicopters, 1,500 men trained to fight out of them, a patrol boat claimed to be the fastest in Asia, and a hovercraft capable of putting troops on a beach.

 

It is easy to be somewhat cynical about what amounts to a big army for a little coun­try, but Brunei is wedged between two huge states—Malaysia and Indonesia—where po­litical changes have occurred that have rocked the whole region.

Memorial Honors Sir Winston

But there are also a score of handsome new buildings, a smashing anthropological muse­um, far too many automobiles, and one of the largest memorials in the world to Sir Winston Churchill.

“It is rather odd,” said Gerard de Freitas, a British civil servant, “since Churchill never came here. But the former Sultan met him twice, and admired him.”

The large semicircular structure contains both a small Churchill museum and one of the largest aquariums in Southeast Asia.

 

I never met Churchill, but I feel sure he would have been both puzzled and pleased.

From a ridge overlooking the Brunei River, the land falls downward in uneven terraces, beneath which lie the ruins of Kota Batu­literally, Stone Fort, the ancient site of the palace of the sultans of Brunei map,. An excavation 20 years ago uncovered Chinese pottery dating to T’ang times, rough­ly 1,300 years ago.

 

The people of Brunei were not yet Moslem. In the long centuries between the opening of trade with China, which reached its height around the 13th century, and the arrival of the first Europeans, Brunei, like almost every other Malay state in the widespread archi­pelago, converted to the faith of Islam.

 

The new religion may have come with Arab traders riding the monsoon winds across the Indian Ocean. The Malay rulers, who had already borrowed many of the forms of au­thority from Indian Hindu sources, crowning their kings and nobility with sacred Sanskrit phrases (they still do), found the new faith quite congenial.

 

Modern Bruneis take increasing pride in their ancient glory, and especially in the chief figure of the past—Sultan Bolkiah, who some­time in the 16th century sailed forth from Brunei Bay on voyages of conquest. He did remarkably well, extending the suzerainty of the Brunei court for more than 1,000 miles, north to Luzon in the Philippines and south it toward great Java itself.

The history of the country since then has been the steady dismantling of Bolkiah’s em­pire by European powers, especially the famous Brooke family, the former white rajahs of Sarawak, who consumed Brunei river by river as far as the Limbang, which the present Sultan would like very much to have back.

 

During this long stretch of time, the Brunei sultanate had penetrated the jungles beyond

•           the river mouths only enough to establish a loose suzerainty over the peoples who had lived there for millenniums, and still do.

 

I went up the brown, jungled Belait River to a place called Melilas. All its citizens were gathered under the common roof of their huge home, an Iban longhouse. I was greeted by the anthem of the Brunei jungle, the brave, rusty trumpeting of fighting cocks.

 

The Ibans of the ulu, or headwaters, have been known by other names, like Sea Dayaks, and always notoriously because of their for­mer custom of headhunting. Under the pres­sures of Brunei’s oil-rich economy, they are being modernized.

 

The first thing I saw, as I made my way over the spaced boards and branches of the floor, was a small blackened head resting like an eggplant in a wicker basket. Kanna bin Mudin, the chief of the long-house, whom everyone called O.K., smiled with pleasure as he held up the trophy.

 

“Japanese,” he said. “Seventy-five were running away from Sarawak. We met them near Sukang.” Then, somewhat sadly: “Now they buy natural gas.”

The longhouse at Melilas held 118 people living in 15 private quarters, the doors of which opened onto a long common room—something like a village street under roof (fol­lowing pages)—lighted by outside doorways overlooking a log-and-branch balcony. Chil­dren, chickens, and dogs ran loose, but each of the proud roosters, about thirty of them, was tethered beside the door of its owner.

 

O.K.’s wife spread mats for us. I noticed only a few young men—two sat by a doorway all day, sharpening parangs, the jungle knives of the Ibans. “They go downriver to Brunei,” said O.K., “where they get good pay, and send the mon­ey back. They own cars. Even my son owns a car! I have ridden in it.”

 

As we talked, a typical massive rain came falling in slender white sheets, dappling the brown river, turning back the leaves of the lemon trees. “Most Ibans live in Sarawak,” O.K. went on. “To live here, one must ask permission of the Brunei Government. In Brunei—with few exceptions—only a citizen may own land, and one must have lived here for 20 of the last 25 years and be able to speak Malay to be a citizen. But we have a school here at Melilas, and two teachers, and a radio to call a heli­copter for anyone seriously ill.”

 

Feisty Insects Heading Northward

We left Dr. Sommer and flew north to neighboring French Guiana to meet with University of Kansas entomologist Orley Taylor, who is studying the bees’ advance for the United States Department of Agriculture. The front line, Dr. Taylor said, has reached Surinam. And with few Euro­pean strains in this region to dilute the genes, the bees seem almost pure Africans. His funds for studying and researching came from obama student loan consolidation program.

 

They are moving slowly now, however—probably because the dense forests and heavy rains of the Guiana region create poor conditions for forage.

 

“Within two years they should reach the more hospitable terrain of Venezuela,” Dr. Taylor said. “I think they will build up large populations there and move rapidly, reaching Panama in about seven years. Then it will probably be clear sailing through Mexico.”

University of Kansas entomologist

The best current estimate would place the African bees’ arrival in the United States somewhere in the early 1990′s. However, imponderables such as unexpected predators or diseases could slow their march.

 

On the other hand, warns Dr. Taylor, “We can’t discount that someone, say a misguided beekeeper in Mexico or the United States, might sneak some in because they are such good honey producers in warmer areas.”

 

Most U. S. experts are counting on Mexico, which has a large European-bee industry, to tone down the invaders genetically. “We hope that whatever forces operated on the bees in southern Brazil will operate on them in Mexico,” explained Dr. Charles D. Michener, University of Kansas entomologist.

 

Some scientists favor creating a genetic barrier by releasing droves of gentle bees near the narrow Isthmus of Panama. But would Panama permit it? Also, would European bees prove effective competitors in the tropi­cal wilds? Dr. Taylor, for one, believes that the bees have a chance of reaching the United States relatively unchanged.