A Sentimental Attachment

THERE’s a kid staring down at me. Huge, clear, bright eyes. No stress to dull them, no late nights to line them with bloodied veins. I’m still in bed but he’s calling my name and telling me to come down and eat. I don’t think Ujang, the eight-year old Punan boy, ever sleeps. He’s always in sight or running around with his siblings.

“Good thing you don’t have school until Sunday,” I tell him, but he insists there’s a special holiday, so he doesn’t need to go. It’s also good he hasn’t learnt to lie well yet.

We had heard earlier from some of the villagers of several Punans who spend nights alone and outside the Kg Sukang longhouses, in smaller huts closer to their working areas, farther out in the jungle. We ran into one, Wudik, who promised to meet us this morning.

[See Part 1 of Wood’s adventures in Kg Sukang.]

Ujang will show you the way to Wudik’s hut, so you don’t get lost,” says Imutas I swill hot coffee to dispel my grogginess. I slept well, so did Mark Esplin(The Brunei Times videographer), I think.

The fans died at 4am when the generator stopped, but it’d only served to wake me temporarily. The air was cold.

We head out into the jungle, Ujang leading the way. It’s just secondary forest, the trail evidently used often enough, but still a tricky walk on soft ground. Mark’s video equipment isn’t exactly light and thorny rattan snag and tear at us.

We finally meet Wudik about halfway, the Punan man wielding his machete. I’m not sure he remembers we were supposed to meet but he happily leads us back to his abode. About half an hour later, we’re there.

“I built this place myself,” Wudik says, matter of factly. His dog, Gobi, snarls a warning when we arrive but becomes friendly when she realises her master is among friends. His hut rests on stilts, much like any building in this area, ready for temporary flooding when the nearby Belait River swells. A clutter of cooking utensils, a squirrel tail over his fireplace, radio, clothing and other tools are all I spot in an otherwise spartan house.

“I planted paddy here, in the marshy ground. By the second year, I started planting fruits… durian,jackfruit, pineapple, rambutan… I stopped planting paddy in the fourth year. It’s not a difficult life; it’s not an easy life. It’s comfortable,” he talks, as Mark films.

Wudik explains how life has evolved for the Punan: “In the 60s, we used to follow the work. Paddy planting, hunting parties looking for wild boar, looking for sago. We used to hunt with dogs, and we’d come in for the kill with machetes and blowpipes (with spearheads). Now we are all here in Sukang, we farm and mostly hunt with traps.”

We ask to show us these traps, and Wudik gladly obliges, taking us around to show some traps he’d set up.

“I’ve set up probably 300 of these traps all around here, but others also set traps. Nowadays, a young boy of 12 or 13 already knows how to set one easily,” Wudik says.

He shows us how to make such a trap, setting one up and setting it off in minutes, Mark trying his best to catch everything on film. “The larger the animal, the thicker the line,” he says, showing us the different sizes of nylon. “The most common is wild boar, but you might catch a deer, or mousedeer, or porcupine. You can catch squirrels too, just with a simple cage and bait.”

We ask if the wildlife is just as abundant as in the past, and he surprises us with his reply.

“In the old days, you had to organise hunting parties. Find the feeding places, the source of food. Now it’s so easy. Our farms are the source of food for these wild animals. Look around you, there’s tapioca, palm fruit, everything that they eat. We just set our traps, and the animals come. In the peak season (May), you can catch so much you can sell some!”

We’re interrupted a little later when a Punan couple come up from the jungle into his clearing. They are barefoot; the wife, Duk, carrying fish for their lunch and the husband, Alit, carrying a blowpipe with a supply of poison darts.

“My cousin Alit and his wife plant paddy just across from me. It’s tebasan time now, so they’re just clearing the land to prepare for the next planting in August,” Wudik explains. Alit shows us his darts, their tips smeared with poison from the sap of the kajem tree (Malays call it damak). They’re not planning to hunt, but are ready to use the blowpipe if the opportunity arises.

Mark later enquires about the range of the weapon, and they point to a tree in the distance, claiming to be able to shoot a bird out of it in favourable wind.

Wudik never married, and is quite happy living alone. He receives regular visits from his nieces and nephews, though. His siblings live out in the cities and their children are close to him.Why does he stay out here all alone when he can live with the others in the longhouse?

“It’s all right here. I may be alone, but it’s as if I’m not, I’m surrounded by family. I live out here most nights because it’s easier to be near my work. I’m getting old and my legs hurt so I can’t walk too far,” he smiles.

“I do go to town if I have business. In the past, I used to teach Punan to foreigners. There was this couple, a white man and his Iban wife from Simanggang (Sarawak). They lived in Kg Mata-Mata so I went to teach them.”

Wudik fingers the bead necklaces around his neck, something he put on when we came up to his house. I ask about them.

“Just some beads we wear for important things… they’re not important themselves but we Punan wear them,” he says. I guess he just wanted to look good for the camera.

As we chat into the late afternoon, trading stories, the heavyset skies finally surrender their stores of water and we shelter under Alit and Duk’s tent. But when the showers feel less violent, we take leave.

It’s a quiet trek back to the longhouse. Those who see us may think we’re a funny sight, Mark cradling his precious equipment under an umbrella, myself balancing bag and tripod while trying not to slip. We eventually arrive, hot coffee and endless food waiting.

But our day is only half done.

Daniel Wood’s adventures in Kg Sukang continues in Part 3 “Death by Spearing aka River Fishing PunanStyle ” as the writer and photojournalist Mark Esplin go on a ‘menyuluh‘ trip, led by Helmi, Kg Sukang’s sole policeman.

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