Slumber Party with Headhunters
Steel flashed in the jungle mist. JoJo clenched his machete, fighting through rattan vines as the hog path lured us deeper into the Borneo rainforest. He nervously glanced over his shoulder. “Mister. There aren’t any headhunters left. It is 2014.”
I wacked at foliage with my blade. “Headless bodies have been found,” I exclaimed. “Over a hundred reports in the last ten years. How do you explain that?”
The translator shrugged. “Tigers.”
“And the ones with their hearts cut out?”
JoJo cursed under his breath. “Asiatic bears,” he said. “I do not know. I am not scientist.”
A tribal longhouse appeared through the greenery, built of wood and palm-thatch over soaring ironwood stilts. JoJo sheathed his blade.
“If these rumors are true, if headhunters do exist, this is where you’ll find them,” he grimaced, beckoning me towards the entrance.
“Dayak people creep me out,” JoJo whispered.
Light shafts sliced through the dim and dusty longhouse, exposing tribal carvings, hanging baskets, and family portraits involving bone piercings and feathers. Battling the Pier 1 Imports vibe were chintzy Jesus posters, a 1998 calendar of the Twelve Apostles, and a sickly plastic Christmas tree next to some headhunting swords.
I didn’t know how to broach the topic of “Do you guys still cut off people’s heads around here,” so I made small talk with the tribespeople, complimented their Christmas tree and creepy portraits, and then asked if they still cut off people’s heads around here.
“Apa!?” recoiled an old man with a whimsical beard.
JoJo repeated the question.
The old man mumbled, rolling his eyes.
“Did he say yes?”
JoJo stared blankly. “No, he didn’t. He says there’s no violence here.”
The old man mumbled confusedly, stroking his beard.
“He says the headhunting happens downriver in Pahauman district, near Pontianak, at the Saham Longhouse.”
My jaw fell off.
“He says they are very dangerous and kill many people, even women and babies. Once they killed a whole village in Sambas. He says it’s on Youtube.”
“He says you don’t want to go there though. Emotions are high.”
“Of course not,” I nodded. “What was the district?”
“I need to get to Pahauman!” I told Pontianak Travel.
“I need a translator!” I told Borneo Adventures.
“I need a translator to take me to Pahauman!” I told Mentari Tours.
“HA HA HA HA!” they replied. “No.”
“But I’m writing an article about the headhunters!” I said. “I’m a journalist sort of!”
Suddenly no one spoke English.
“I will take you!” cried the young man at the bus office. “But under one condition: that you don’t mention Madura while we’re there.”
“What? Okay!” I cried. “Are you a guide?”
“No, I only sell bus tickets,” he muttered. “But I can take you and you can pay me forty dollars.”
“I’m Steve,” I said.
Saiful was a young Malay guy with a peevish grin, a few missing teeth, and the motor skills of a drag racer on ketamine.
“What happens if I mention Madura!” I screamed as our motorcycle blurred out of Pontianak. “What’s that mean!”
“DON’T TALK ABOUT MADURA, THAT IS BAD,” shouted Saiful, cutting off a truck. “They want to kill people from Madura!”
Saiful explained that Madura is a sandy, poverty-stricken shithole off the coast of Java with a devastating overpopulation crisis and no natural resources. To solve the problem, the Indonesian government instituted a policy called “Transmigrasi,” relocating Madurese people to islands like Kalimantan and Papua, which were low-density and abundant in resources.
The result was a bunch of uneducated, urban Madurese islanders being plunked down in the middle of the Borneo rainforest with the vague instructions to build a farm, but without any experience or know-how to do so. The government provided them shitty shanty homes that would fall apart after three years, along with the vague promise of financial aid—though this vanished through the Indonesian crazy-straw of corruption and most people were unable to buy basic equipment or even fertilizer.
With no food or means of income, the Madurese settlers took the easiest course of action available—robbing and pillaging from their neighbors. Petty crime and murder rates boomed. Illegal logging burgeoned and massive swaths of rainforest evaporated in months. The logging roads left behind damned rivers, creating malarial swamps, devastating the jungle ecosystem.
Seeing as Dayak culture is based entirely on the jungle—which provides them food, shelter, medicine, and other basic needs—it’s complete destruction was not appreciated.
Bigotry blossomed into hate crimes, culminating in 1997 when Madurese people stabbed several Dayaks at a concert. Dayak retaliation came in ritual form, as a ceremonial “Red Bowl” was passed from longhouse to longhouse—a signal calling the tribes to war in a time of emergency. This looked like the last scene of Pocahontas, except there wasn’t a John Smith and the natives started decapitating all the settlers.
Dayaks overran the police and West Kalimantan ignited in genocide. Amidst the roiling smoke and bloodshed, the old tradition of headhunting was reborn.
While I still haven’t watched the alleged Youtube video, I’ve since read countless articles and reports detailing the conflict surrounding Pahauman—stories of pickup trucks full of Dayaks waving severed heads; photos of Madurese villages reduced to cinders; reports of babies being lanced on parang blades and road blocks killing any fleeing Madurese. In a macabre flourish, some of the victims’ hearts were plucked from their warm bodies and eaten by the Dayaks, who believed this would give them magic powers.
In the span of ten years, over one thousand Madurese were murdered in Kalimantan, with hundreds of thousands more displaced from their homes. Somehow the outside world never cared to notice.
Today things are more peaceful, Saiful assured. “There aren’t many Madurese left here. The Dayaks killed two-hundred in Pahauman and the rest fled back to Madura.”
I shook my head in horrified disbelief. “Was coming here a dangerous idea?”
“Are you Madurese?”
“Then it’s okay!” Saiful cheered.
I swallowed hard. “”How are you sure? Have you visited Saham Longhouse before?”
“It’s okay!” he repeated, leaning on the accelerator.
An elderly tribeswoman gazed down at us from the longhouse verandah, her decrepit breasts airing in the breeze.
“Do exactly as I do,” warned Saiful. “These are very conservative people with many rules called adat. ”
“Like, if you see a pretty girl inside and she waves to you, don’t have sex with her, or else you must give her family two pigs and a gong. That is adat.”
“Got it,” I said, noting this in my Moleskine.
Saiful pointed to a wooden statue.
“Now before we enter the longhouse, you must kiss the guardian idol.”
“Is that part of adat?”
I did as instructed. The old woman let out a shriek.
“Orang Barut! Orang Barut!” she cried, before scampering out of sight.
“I lied. You don’t kiss the statue. Ha Ha Ha Ha,” Saiful chuckled, before barging into the longhouse.
We were greeted at the door by a mob of staring Dayaks, replete with intricate tattoos and plunging earlobes.
I shifted my weight and smiled. “Hello.”
The Dayaks pointed down the longhouse. Saiful nodded. “This way. We must speak with the chief.”
I followed Saiful down the long, long, long communal living hall, past endless family apartments, past fishing traps and dusty barrels, past a group of old man chewing beetle nut and splitting rattan vines. Upon reaching the last apartment, Saiful pounded on the door.
A cry came from the other side.
“The chief is coming,” announced Saiful.
I nodded, nervously cradling my machete.
The door flew open, revealing a stubby man in a Hawaiian shirt. “I am Albertus!” declared the little Dayak. He had a receding hairline, a porn-star mustache, and a great, big smile that flickered between friendly and terrifying.
We bowed our heads.
“Welcome! Where are you from?” the chief cried, ushering us into his quarters—a treasure trove of woodcarvings, dusty artifacts, and evocative tribal deities. “This is one of the oldest longhouses in Borneo,” he exclaimed. “We have over two hundred families here.”
“Sometimes Dayaks make tattoos that have magic, so parang cannot hurt us. My father had many tattoos. But then he died. The magic of his tattoos still lives inside me though.”
“Why did you come here?”
“Wow, these carvings are incredible!” I smiled, picking up a grimacing idol. “Did you do these?”
“I made that one with adat ritual. It has magic.”
I admired the detailing. It looked like it belonged in a museum. “How much?”
“It has magic. Too expensive.”
“500,000 rupiah,” he winced—$16.
I flung him some bills and he exploded with excitement.
“Wow! You are my friend!” he cried. “Is that parang?”
He pointed at my blade. “Give it to me,” he stammered.
I eyed the man cautiously. While he seemed charming (especially for a genocidal chief of headhunters), I still couldn’t shake the fact that he was a genocidal chief of headhunters.
I passed him the machete.
The blade flashed out. Albertus flicked the sword in the air, ran his finger along the edge, and then examined the plain wooden scabbard. “No design,” he said.
“Can you make carvings on that?” I pleaded.
“What do you want?”
“Something with more magic! I want magic!”
“You cannot have. Is not okay.”
“Well then what about a demon or something.”
“Mm,” he nodded. “Okay. You must stay the night!” he announced. The blade clacked back in the sheath and Albertus stalked out of the room.
I turned to Saiful, “What a nice guy.”
He wobbled his head, “Probably not.”
“You think he’s dangerous?
He shrugged. “Dayak culture is complicated… We should try to stay on his good side. Be careful.”
As the sun sank over the jungle, beds were laid out on the chief’s living room floor. A bag of chisels appeared, and as intricate tribal designs began twirling across my parang, the master craftsman explained the rules of adat and the importance of Dayak hospitality.
Soon the tribespeople returned from the rice paddies, along with the chief’s two sons, and a special feast was prepared.
“Dayak food,” smiled Albertus’ wife, porting out a pageant of bowls—spicy fish sambal, chicken and potato curry, crispy fried tofu, stir-fried ferns, a bowl of dead birds, a plate of snails, and a dozen other unidentifiable yet delicious jungle treats.
Despite our protests, the family refused to start eating until Saiful and I had polished our plates. They insisted this was non-negotiable. This was adat.
“This is incredible,” I cried, picking apart a charred tangle of limbs with eyes. “Is it frog?”
“No,” Albertus smiled. “That is loud bird. Very special. You are guests.”
Food writer Anthony Bourdain once wrote that the most honest window into a culture is through its cuisine, but this is a poetic lie.
There’s a much better inroad.
Paul shimmied up a palm tree in the pale moonlight, clenching an empty bucket with his teeth. After much cursing, he reappeared with a frothy, yellowish liquid that reeked of rubbing alcohol and sadness. This nectar was then paraded down the longhouse to Paul’s friend’s apartment, where the noise of drunk Dayaks hit us like a foghorn.
“HELLO!” they roared, sitting with cups on a reed mat. A frazzled-looking woman stood in the corner, angrily frying rice cakes.
“Sit,” Paul instructed, as a dozen hands shot in my face.
“I’m Steve,” I smiled.
“Steep. Steep,” they attempted.
“Welcome to my home!” cried a guy my age. “I am Thomas!”
“I am from Brazil!” screamed a tattooed man. “I am Mr. Bean!” he alleged, and the Dayaks all fell over laughing.
Saiful stared in horror.
“DRINK!” shouted Thomas, thrusting palm wine in our hands. “You love tuak!!”
“No!” Saiful recoiled.
“Cheers!” I cried, slamming back my cup.
Instantly my face crumpled. I guess I was expecting something delightfully tropical, because, well, they got it out of a palm tree.
“BWAAAAAHHHH!” I moaned.
The Dayaks cheered.
It was like drinking the anal discharge of a coconut.
“I am from Bangladesh!” roared Mr. Bean. “I am Islam!”
The Dayaks fell over in hysterics again. “Islam! Islam!” they laughed, slapping their knees. “He is crazy man!”
The woman in the corner turned and belted out a scream, prompting the men to laugh harder.
“That is my ex-wife!” shouted Thomas, handing me another cup. “DRINK!”
“BWAAAAAH!” I complied.
“You have very big nose!” someone exclaimed. “Very good, big nose!”
The Dayaks all nodded, muttering in admiration.
“Does it rain every day in America?”
“How do you like Kalimantan?”
“You are our brother!”
“I am Mr. Bean! I drive taxi to Australia! I not speak any English!”
As tuak flowed, the conversation withered deeper into absurdity. Everyone grew louder and more unintelligible, except for Saiful who remained sober, and Paul who turned out to be a morose, Hemingway drunk.
“People think that I am bad people!” he moaned to no one in particular. “But I am not bad people!” He turned to me. “Steep,” he whispered. “Do you think I am bad people?”
“Why would you say that?”
He stared pleadingly.
Perhaps they knew why I was here.
“Uh…” I mumbled.
None of the Dayaks I’d met seemed capable of decapitating migrants—with the possible exception of Thomas’ ex-wife. They didn’t seem like natural born killers. If anything, they seemed gentle and charismatic.
There was something naggingly familiar about adat and the emphasis on hospitality and vengeance. It was nearly symmetrical to the Pashtunwali code of Pakistan and Afghanistan—a place where I was feted with similar kindness. Perhaps in such remote and unforgiving terrains, where the reach of central governance crumbles into tribalism, these ancient laws afford us a glimpse into our raw and often violent human nature.
Or perhaps Paul was just a bad people.
At around 5AM I was awoken by a woman trying to feed me rice out of a crumpled leaf. I had passed out on the longhouse floor. The woman turned out to be the neighbor, who had taken the liberty of preparing me sticky rice for breakfast.
Before saying goodbye, I found Albertus in his quarters. He was sitting beneath a window, sanding my parang, which was now adorned in beautiful, curling motifs.
“Every carving has story and meaning,” Albertus muttered, handing me the sword. “The story of this design is about safety and bravery. If you can stay for one week, I will make you better parang to scare your enemy.”
“I think this will do nicely,” I smiled, tying it to my waist. “Thank you. How much for this?”
He shook his head, “Whatever you want.”
I fumbled with my wallet. “This is also for the lodging,” I said. “And for the food… And for the tuak…” I pulled out a twenty.
Albertus exploded with excitement. “You are my brother,” he beamed, touching his heart and bowing.
Paul and Thomas walked Saiful and I down to our motorcycle, where we shook hands and bid sad farewells.
“WAIT! WAIT!” came a cry.
Albertus barreled down the stairs, grinning with his hands behind his back. “Wait! For you! A special gift.”
“You don’t have to—“
Albertus held out two new carvings.
My jaw fell as my stomach turned in fear.
“We must go now,” stammered Saiful.
“Wow,” my voice cracked as Albertus placed it in my hands. “What… What’s the meaning behind this carving?”
A devious smile flitted across the chief’s face. “It is too, too long story,” he said. “You please come back again. I tell you next time, brother.”
Before I could manage another word, the chief threw us hugs, waved one last time, and disappeared into Saham Longhouse.
As our motorcycle purred to life, I stared down at a wooden head. Its lifeless eyes gazed back at me, its face bent in a demonic grin, its lips curled back revealing curved, hidden fangs.
Perhaps Paul was a bad people.
For a tribal adventure from Pakistan, hop into cars with Pashtun strangers in, “Kidnapped in Alipur“
To learn more about the tribal code of the Pashtuns, immerse yourself in “The Way of The Pashtunwali”
Or check out the Giraffe-Necked Women of the Paduang tribe in Burma’s “Human Zoo”