Our first few days as a group were spent in Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak, getting to know each other and the new, unfamiliar culture surrounding us.  Only a few days after meeting we headed far away from urban life to a remote Iban village via a car ride so bumpy we were all bobbing up and down in the back seats.  Auntie Rosani, our host for the next ten days, welcomed us into her home in the traditional Iban way: by serving coffee and tea.
        We were there to help build a house.  We were warned about the heat, the sweat, the time and the strength it would take to get the job done.  Seth, our project leader, toured us around project sites to give us an idea of the kind of work we’d be doing: laying bricks, mixing cement, fetching sand in wheel barrows.  Every past group has engraved their names somewhere on the house they built; we couldn’t wait to get to work to do the same.
        Work days were as tough as we expected.  We spent hours mixing cement, perfecting the ratio of cement to water to sand; we laid more bricks than we could count, constantly checking to make sure our walls didn’t bulge; we got filthy digging a waste hole deeper than our height, completely slathered in sloshy mud by the end; we killed scorpions that scurried out from beneath wood planks; we shovelled sand from the river into a wheel-barrow and then took the sketchy bridge to wheel it back to the site for mixing; we sweat so much it sometimes hurt to open our eyes!  But no matter how much we sweat, how heavy the load of sand in a wheel-barrow was, or how hot the sun beating against our backs while carefully laying bricks was, we continued to push ourselves, motivated by the work ethic of the owner of the house who was working alongside us.  At the end of the day of we’d go to the river.  Kicking off our dirty shoes, we hopped in upstream and floated along with the current: the best way to cool off and relax after a hard day.

        When we weren’t working we were experiencing the culture of the village as authentically as it gets.  We played pick-up football games with the local kids; we ate new foods: snake, sting ray, and bugs; we barbecued chicken wings on rocks and steamed carrots inside bamboo on an afternoon off spent at a waterfall; we hand-washed our clothes, though failing to completely get the dirt or smell of sweat out of our t-shirts; we abided by customs such as being careful not to walk through a circle of people and always using our right instead of left hands; we celebrated a local’s birthday inside his home over coffee and sunflower seeds.

        On our final day of work we brought a load of groceries to the family whose house we built as a parting gift.  Upon entering we saw for the first time how they had been living before we began building their new extension.  Seeing how cramped and minimalist their lifestyle had been made us all immediately understand the extent to which we had helped this family.  They accepted the groceries and got past the language barrier to express their gratitude, reaching for a handshake and inviting us to stay for juice.
        Later that day everyone in the village came to Auntie Rosani’s house to throw us a farewell party.  We learned traditional Iban dance, which we embarrassed ourselves performing later to the beat of a gong a few men were playing.  It was an amazing evening, and a great send off for the next leg of our journey: back to Kuching and then onto Mulu National Park to see the bat exodus.

2 comments on “House-building, exotic foods and traditional dance in the Borneo heat

  • Thank you so much for writing the blog and giving us an update – its fascinating hearing what you have been doing and great to know how much help you have given to the village people. Please keep the news coming – we love to hear what you are up to and what an interesting and fun time you are having!
    Best wishes to you all!

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