“The heads of the man,” Aprianus said nonchalantly while pointing up at the cluster of dark, round objects hanging in the ceiling of the longhouse deep within the jungles of Central Borneo. My Indonesian guide and I had traveled up the Kahayan River from Palangkaraya to finally end up here. As we sat on the floor of the longhouse, Aprianus whispered that “they spirits will protect us.” OK, if you say so. Our Dayak hosts were, as the early 19th century explorers learned, the famed headhunters of Borneo.

It is not easy to get this deep into the rainforest of the world’s third largest island known as Kalimantan to the Indonesians. It is so big that Texas and Oklahoma could fit inside its borders with room to spare. The only way into the interior from Palangkaraya is by following the course of the muddy, opaque waters of the Kahayan which run north and south from the central Schwaner Mountains, named after the German geologist who traveled into the interior in the mid-1800’s. After 150 years this was still the only way in or out.

From Palangkaraya’s docks, Aprianus and I provisioned our boat with several weeks’ worth of supplies; rice, baked chicken, unidentifiable sun-dried fish, tea, canned mackerel, processed sugar and fresh fruit. We bought extra of everything to use as our contribution to the tribes who would take us in each night. There are no hotels or rooming houses in Borneo’s interior. Thus, as each evening approached, we would have to pull our boat to shore and Aprianus would seek out the village chief and request permission for us to stay the night.

We were never refused. It is the law of the rainforest. One day they knew they would be the ones seeking shelter and by accepting all comers, they were assuring their own future comfortable passage.

Dinner, like sleeping, was communal and on the floor. We would add a share of our stores to their simple foodstuffs: rice, fish, vegetables (like the leaves from the cassava plant) and while sitting in a circle, we would eat with our hands. The lesson here is plain; after long days of pushing upstream in the scorching sun, a warm meal and sleep on a hardwood floor feels as luxurious as it gets.

We traveled like this for over a week; sleeping and eating in the huts of strangers; villagers who took us in with kindness and good humor. All along the way, Aprianus and I shared our food stores, our candy with children and some of our Indonesian Rupiah (enough to thank them but not so much as to insult their generosity).

Finally, one afternoon we arrived at one of the oldest remaining Dayak longhouses in the interior. A longhouse is essentially a huge wooden structure built on ironwood tree pilings about 3 meters off the ground. It is longer than a football field and about half as wide. The headhunters designed this structure so that the entire village could live under one, protective roof.

The inside of the betang was divided into sections for families, single women and single men by walls made of woven palm-type leaves. During the skittish of headhunting, the elevation provided strategic safety from marauding bands of warriors looking for trophy heads. It also was preferable to camping on the ground where it was always wretchedly damp, and not to mention full of all of the jungle’s usual suspects: vicious army ants, flying snakes, poisonous frogs, deformed proboscis monkeys, and, well, you get my point.

Dinner was similar fare that we had experienced all along the way. After dinner, the men lay outstretched on the huge expanse of floor with the room lit only by a single candle. They spoke softly as if aware that the children were being rocked to sleep in the arms of mothers made ghosts by the darkness. And there in the single men’s room, I fell asleep under the protection of watchful spirits hanging above us.

For more information on Borneo and trip-planning information, check out www.visitborneo.com and www.e-borneo.com

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