From Borneo and Around

This blog is all about Borneo (and sometimes elswere) as I experience it. It's about places, people, fauna, food ... and anything I find pleasantly worth sharing in words and pictures.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


There is a woman on the moon, her name is Chang’e and she keeps a rabbit.

She’s been there since she lost her beloved husband on earth and became eternally lonely, except that is for the little rabbit.  When she was still a mere mortal, she lived a great passion for Hou Yi who had been sent by the King of Heaven to save the earth from being burnt down under the unforgiving rays of no less than ten suns. Armed with a red bow and a collection of white arrows, Hou Yi had shot nine suns and life on our planet had finally become humanly bearable under one sun that is still shining on us today.                                   
When Hou Yi and Chang’e were given an elixir of eternity by the Western Queen Mother, Hou Yi died of a violent death (there are different versions of his death) and Chang’e drank the potion that gave her eternal life and lifted her towards Heaven. When she reached the moon she decided to stay there and watch over her old world where she had lived a great love.
Chang’e became the Chinese moon goddess and her rabbit a powerful healing spirit praised for once riding into Beijing in the shape of a young girl riding a horse (or was it a tiger, or lion?) and saving millions of people from a deadly epidemic that ravaged the imperial city.

While her Chinese name is Chang’e, the Greeks too revered her as Selene and later as Artemis or Hecate and the Romans called her Diana. The moon, however, was not always identified as a woman; indeed it was the sun that was given feminine attributes while the moon, which was then positioned much closer to earth, was believed to possess more male-like qualities. In time and as the moon raised higher in the sky, it seemed to have been affected with a sex change; that’s when most languages started referring to it as “she”: la Luna, la lune, while acknowledging “her” as the recipient of the great unconscious from which life once emerged and the embodiment of the feminine principle in life itself.

I can’t recall when I started feeling charmed by the moon, its beautiful appearance in the night sky and its sobering light and I find it, oh, so uncanny to think that the new year on the Chinese lunar calendar will start precisely on my birthday with the wolf moon (read this Shakira!) and be dedicated to the healing moon rabbit! Because of this I’d like to imagine that 2011 will be a feminine year, with more sensitivity born from wisdom rather than the bullish attitude that was expected for this last year; a time for us to tend to our earth garden and care for the human family.                                                                      
For a long time I have been contemplating starting my own moon garden near our pond; sad that I haven’t yet found the time or enough motivation to do it. Perhaps I have been waiting for a blue moon (when there is a second full moon within one month) that I keep missing or else it is simply not meant to be and perhaps too, what the moon really wants is not a mere private garden where she could shine her soft rays, but a whole collective and global garden instead. Think about it, it is not un-achievable and it certainly makes more sense to me than to answer a “MOON FOR SALE” advertisement with the intention of buying an acre on the moon. Now who’s been moonstruck?
This is a beautiful vision of a moon garden from Tatiana Hardie’s novel The Rose Labyrinth followed by an Iban legend on the genesis of Borneo where I have made my home. 

Lucy’s finger looped along the spiral Diana had created in her fountain. Made of mirrored glass, it picked its shiny path through a pattern of blues and ruby reds all mosaiced from broken china plates so carefully color matched that Lucy realised they’d been purposely broken. The fountain was shallow, edged with shells; and Lucy was reminded of the Lady of Shalott working in reflections to weave her embroidery, as the silver shards reflected the sky and the landscape all around it. She traced the route to Venus in the center, and thought of Alex’s gentle fingers curving along her scar around her breast, circling her heart. The motion itself was sensual, mesmerising, a gesture of mystery.                                                                                                                         The sun doesn’t preside here. Its vitality is essential for the roses; but even at midsummer, when the smell is over-powering, my mother would bring me out long after the shade had deepened to prove that the scent was strongest, most alluring, in the evening. All the flowers are night-scented. Under the moon’s light the white roses are luminous, almost palpably so. The moon-dial makes it midday at midnight. The fountain reflects down the stars: a fragment of heaven on earth. The spirit of this garden is female. My mother created this space to express another view of the world, and subvert the norm. The sun is consort, and a vital partner, but not the sovereign lord. It wasn’t enough for us to understand it cerebrally: she needed us to witness it.” (...) “Maybe because hers was a house of men”.


                - _ -

IBAN LEGEND:                                                          
The Owl and the Moon                                                                            
This is a story from very ancient times, when the moon was still identified as a male.
A long, long time ago, so the Iban people of Sarawak like to tell their children, the moon had married the only living creature on earth, an owl on the island of Borneo. Soon they had a child: a moon color owl.                                                                                                 Sadly, as the moon ascended higher and higher in the sky hence making nights much shorter on earth, the couple finally gave up on an impossible schedule to be together. When they finally decided to end their union, they agreed to split the child; and so they did, into two halves which they scattered separately across the sky and we can still see at night as stars and all over the land of Borneo where they are still cherished as the trees of the great Rain Forest.


Singing off...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Newlywed Nasruddin bin Rambli and Dayang Kahirunnisa binti Awang Khairudin

I remember reading somewhere that children are far more aware of their surroundings than we are; they seem to be gifted with a wide angle vision which we, adults have lost to the benefit of a narrower focus on things; we, as in “most of us”, have lost the ability to see the bigger picture developing around us without making a voluntary conscious effort.

Sunday morning, I dressed up and drove to a Malay Kampung (village) close to the bungalow of the former White Rajahs Brooke and now the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak, the Astana to attend a wedding. 

Finding the street, Lorong Petra Tiga, was quite easy; if you ever visit Malaysia and happen to notice the national and (at least in Sarawak) the State flag rising high at a street junction, I sincerely hope you will remember that there are the Malaysian way to indicate the direction to a wedding reception and that you too are invited. Indeed, Malaysian weddings, especially among the Malay and indigenous communities, with all the music and the DJ announcements, never fail to remind me of a happy funfair where the whole village (and often more than one) and, for that matter, any passer-by turns up to feast, dance, exchange the latest gossips and mostly marvel at the newlyweds. 

In the Malay tradition, the groom is expected to follow his new wife into her family’s home where the ceremony is often performed rather than at the local surau (small mosque). With a few large tents designed for outdoors receptions, the home roof of our friend Awang Khairudin Bin Awang Buang and his wife Salamah Binti Bushrah had been extended enough to accommodate a few hundreds of diners and keep them safe from enormous dark rain clouds which, thankfully, never kept their menace to down-pour upon the party.

The bride's parents Awang Khairudin Bin Awang Buang and Salamah Binti Bushrah

Welcome committee in red Baju Kurong
As far as weddings are concerned, Malays have become masters of organisation with the help of volunteers set up as a committee whose members have their names printed on the invitation card. Among them, the welcome delegates awaits guests at the arrival point and usher them to their seats at the banquet table. They all wear the same uniformed baju kurong (for the ladies) and baju Melayu (for the men) that match the theme colour of the day worn by the parents and family members (red for this occasion), while other “officials” can be recognised by the orchid flower pinned under their collar. In doubt with what you can or cannot do, or whom you would like to find in the crowd, ask one of them.               
A very kind and helpful "official"
Never too far away from the welcome committee is the Kumpulan Hadrah,  a  group of tambourine players, dressed in light blue baju Melayu with a kain songket (fabric woven with gold or silver threads) sarong worn around the waist and over the pants. They role is to follow the bride and groom on their way to their reserved seats set up on a stage decorated with rich drapes and flowers.  

Kumpulan Hadrah
Food is an important part of the celebration; there’s always curry, and rendang, beef and chicken, perhaps lamb and today a lime skin pickle that woke up all my taste buds at once and sent them begging for more; and of course there’s always some fruit and lots of very sweet cakes. The beauty of all this is that one never has to wait for even a minute to be served by one of the soldiers of the catering army.

One rinses one's fingers before eating with the right hand

Yummy lime-skin pickles prepared by the bride's mum

In front of the bridal stage, women and little children take turn to seat on the floor and enjoy the blessing ceremony of Tepung Tawar and now that just about everyone owns a mobile phone, close-up memories can be taken away and shared all over again.

To reach a good spot for me to take pictures of the newlyweds, I had to negotiate my way through a tight row of women whom, once they became aware of my presence and purpose showed much kindness. I prepared myself for the next stage of the ceremony where parents followed by relatives and friends, come to bless the groom and bride with rice, potpourri and oil and walk away with a special gift, a Bunga Telur (translated “egg flower”) which is in fact a hard-boiled egg held in a piece of veil to make it look like a flower; such a delicate way to remind us to cherish life, be grateful for our daily food and be thankful to be blessed with children.  

Bunga Telur
As I readied myself to focus again through the eye of my camera, I suddenly felt in full love with the moment, one of those Eckart Tolle’s “live in the NOW” moments, or more poetically a John Denver’s “you fill up my senses” moment, or was it an Oprah’s “Ah! Moment”? No matter, I had just become aware of the rather odd fact that I could actually feel and appreciate the whole happening of  the wedding party, around me as well as in and out of the room, and I wondered if this was the way I used to experience the world as a child, with a wide angle vision where every shape, colour and even sound spoke to me about what every single person had brought of themselves to this gathering while they remained totally unaware of their synchronising a moment of pure joy.

I love this shot

Dear Dayang Khairunnisa and Nasruddin, may you share love and happiness forever.

More picture.....
Men are reciting prayers inside the house
The newlyweds in prayer

A guest wearing baju Melayu
Prayer time
Teenaged wedding guests in baju Melayu

Honoring the elders

Friends arriving at the reception

Elegant couple with a swift gift to take back home

Dedicated bride's maid

Arrival of the bride and groom followed by the kumpulan hadrah

For such a big pot, I'd have to build an extension to my kitchen!

Resting on the groom's lap, a traditional kris

Mr. D.J

The bridal stage taken over: Life's like that!




January 2011   

A tribal and tattoo expo in Kuching? I had to go; after all, tattoos are the ancestral written language of the indigenous people of Borneo and in particular of the infamous former head-hunters: the Ibans. 

In this region of the world where paper would not have subsisted the ambient humidity or the frequent crossing of rivers, sophisticated symbols drawn and printed on the skin became the portable library of the indigenous people.

Although there were some rules depending on the tribe one belonged to or the status the person enjoyed within the community, as a general rule, both men and women could adorn their bodies with artistic and, more often than not,  symbolic designs, with the difference that a man without tattoos was considered sissy and cowardly.

Some legends say that the Ibans are able designers simply because their gods wished them to be so. Two creative spirits in particular are believed to have given the Ibans the idea of decorating their bodies, when the Contrococcyx bird (Bubut spirit) tattooed his friend the Argus Pheasant (Ruai spirit) – both happened to be were in their human form – with the most exquisite designs.
The Bubut spirit tattooing the Ruai spirit - Iban design – Augustine Anggat Ganjing

                                            The Argus pheasant

Since the designs were symbolic and the ink was charmed, certain tattoos were believed to protect from one’s enemies and in particular from head-hunters. The winner in a man to man combat to death would cut his trophy from the neck of their opponent and immortalise his victory by having their hands and fingers tattooed with a special Entegulun design.
Entegulun design.
Basic Iban design – Augustine Anggat Ganjing
Amongst other popular designs to decorate the skin were the scorpion on the throat; the crab, immediately below the nape of the neck, and the nowadays, the ever popular Bunga Terung or egg-plant flower.  
Bunga Terung
Basic Iban design – Augustine Anggat Ganjing

Tattoos would also tell the life story of the Iban man who had had to leave his village and travel alone and far for a few years to prove his courage; they would tell of his Berjalai (his journey) and where he had been. With more Ibans joining the army rangers, they started tattooing their forearm with their ID number and the name of the places their unit had been dispatched.

The recent trend and, I’d say the worldwide rehabilitation of the tattoo has somehow rekindled the pride of being a Borneo native amongst their younger generation often turned urban and college educated. The old Bunga Terung has become the new symbol of the young Ibans and surprisingly, many insist in having it tattooed on their skin the old fashion way: manually.
Tattoo artist with Bunga Terung on the shoulder


Reference: Basic Iban design – Augustine Anggat Ganjing                        
Wooden Iban tattoo blocks can be seen at the Sarawak Museum.


I thought the Lars Krutak’s from the TV documentary show “Tattoo hunter” (Lars is the Tattoo hunter) was a wonderful way for the visitors to understand the universality of tattoos. Regrettably, it was the only information available at the gathering.                                                                                                 
Lars Krutak is an archaeologist and cultural anthropologist who discovered his passion for the art of tattoos while researching in the arctic region back in 1996. Since then, Lars has recorded the lives and stories of tattooed people around the globe and become the technical adviser for one of the world’s largest and most popular tattoo website:
Here are a few of the fascinating info I jotted down while at the exhibition:

-       -   SHAMANIC SKIN: In Indonesia the Mentawai people believe that their bold body tattooing keeps them in harmony with the universe and the spirits that govern it. Most tattooists are shaman.

-          SOUL POWER: Less than eighty years ago, Kayabi warriors who had taken human lives were believed to enter an intimate relationship with their victims. A powerful Kayabi shaman explained to Lars that “you definitely take an enemy’s soul when you kill him. Also, the blood of the dead man begins filling your stomach which necessitates a special diet and ritual seclusion to avert spiritual poisoning and physical transformation.” But before the warrior went into seclusion, he was entitled to have the name of his victim tattooed upon his body. “This tattoo symbol represents the new soul that he has gained as well as its spiritual power”.                                                                                                         Today, the Kayabi of the Brazilian Amazon no longer hunt men, but they continue to wear the facial tattooing of their ancestors.

-          RITUALISTICIn Thailand, having the picture of an elephant tattooed on the back to absorb the power of the animal.
BLBLESSED PRAYERS: In Thailand, magical tattoos are based on ancient Khmer texts. Combinations of magic number and Hindu mythological characters that are endowed with special powers that tattooed monks and ordinary Thais find appealing. Some of these designs are believed to protect from bullets and knives; to bring luck in business, to protect from danger, while others may give strength, or even have the power to attract a future husband or wife.
  AAFTERLIFE:  In India, one will be recognised after death only by the tattoos one one’s body.
  GGOOD OMENS:  In the Philippines, Kalinga tattoo motives, centipedes and python scales seem to dominate. Both creatures were considered to be friends of the warriors because of the omen they delivered on the warpath.

-          CURATIVE POWER: In the Philippines, a tattoo on the neck could prevent or cure goiter. It did not always work as Lars’ picture revealed, showing a woman with a tattoo on a huge goiter.

-          EARNING HIS STRIPES: Shows an old Indian man wearing a chest tattoo showing that he is a successful head-hunter and that he can shift to the shape of a tiger when attacked.

-   FLOWER POWER: Shows a Kayan woman (Sarawak, Borneo) with hornbill, “shoots of bamboo”, “guardian spirits’, “dragon dog” and tuba root motifs that are all believed to repel evil spirits. Floral imagery symbolising spiritual power and relationships, permeate every facet of Kayan life, Plants are regarded as a major kind living thing sharing the same fundamental properties of life and death as humans.            

-   HERO SCARS: In Ethiopia  


Tattooed Sape player from the highlands of Borneo

"Old Time Tattoo" Artist work

Preparing the ink at TNT Tattoo

Making a choice

Having it done at "Pijama Tattoo"

Offerings to the gods