Skandis Longhouse 5 / Sarawak

On our first night in the longhouse, we "sponsored" a rice wine party. The people who live there will drink as much rice wine as we buy from them, and of course we are expected to drink with them. The first part of the ritual required us to take a cup around and pour for each of them. Technically, we were supposed to drink a cup ourselves to match each cup we give, but the rule is not strictly followed. When the introductory step was finished, we moved on to this (above), where the communal cups were lined up and filled and handed around until all the wine was gone. I think we bought 24 bottles, eight at a time. Not everyone drank. None of the children drank, but they stayed up with the adults and often fell asleep in their laps.

The taste of rice wine (tuak), which the people make themselves, is much like English hard cider, but with a higher alcohol content. It's easy to drink.

After the drinking, there was music (a gamelan was brought out, and some other instruments too; several of the boys had guitars) and games. We all had to dance and then lie down in a line shoulder-to-shoulder and submit to being danced over (belly shaking laughter at that, as everyone threatens to step on you, but no one does) and then dance over the line ourselves. We laughed until tears flowed, till our sides ached, till we had to run urgently up the hill to use the outhouse.

The best part was the bead game, in which we all sat in a circle (well, most of the men and all four tourists) holding a string with the two ends tied in a knot. A single fat wooden bead on the string is slid fist to fist while one person sits in the center. Everyone pretends to have the bead, with many exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, to confuse the one in the center. The circle sings a chant, which ends in a shout, and then the center person must guess who holds the bead. If you guess wrong three times, you must sing a song. After the next round, if you guess wrong three times, you must dance. Then you get to go back into the circle, and one of the young men will take the center spot -- and guess correctly almost always by the third try.

After many rounds of the bead game, we were completely exhausted and very happy to see our thin little sleeping mats brought out and unrolled on the floor. We stayed at the longhouse the next day and slept there again before returning to Kuching. From there I flew to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, to begin the second part of my trip with a new group of travelers.