He’s not ashamed to say that after Mari-Mari should follow Money! Money!
Mari-Mari means Come! Come! It is the invitation of the Mari-Mari Village, a settlement that combines the five almost-extinct tribes of Malaysia– the Dusuns or Kadazan-Dusuns, Rungus, Lundayehs, Bajaus and Muruts- to tightly fit one area for a tourist’s easy access.
Preserving age-old traditions including symbolic cannibalism is an expensive undertaking, one fact that the wry-humored tour guide, Matt, is not ashamed to point out to tourists. They come to this mountainous area, tucked away from the rest of Kota Kinabalu not for the serenity but to be sufficiently terrified of the past.
What is meant to be an educational trip is a horror booth, where visitors are led slowly by the hand into darkness, into the forests of Borneo, where the only light is from fireflies and the next house meters and meters away. In between is the dense jungle, mostly in the mind, where the imagination props the trees up with slithering creatures and mystical forest sprites. A companion warns everyone to never point to anything. It is a sign of disrespect to the residing spirits.
There are human skulls and shrunken heads that look down from the living rooms of their native homes, a machismo statement if anything and a warning sign to other tribes to stay away. The more skulls a home has displayed, the more powerful the resident is in the community. Tribes ask from the skulls of the ones they killed from battle to guard their homes and give their blessings from the afterlife.
“They’re asking for too much, aren’t they? “I’ve killed you, but please protect me?”” I tell my companion who seems just as baffled as I am.
Before the human remains though, before the fear of being decapitated, there is drinking. The native Malaysians perhaps take survival and suffering in stride. In such a dense habitat, you were sure to bump into an enemy. Matt leaves out the shocking details of ancient life for last. For the first three houses, he talks about the docility of the past. He gestures to some men collecting honey, making vests and hemps from tree barks or to those creating old pipes to serve as Malaysia’s first instruments. In the first house, the house of the Dusun Tribe, he points out to a petite maiden making rice wine.
“This mah gahlfriend. She not very beautiful.” Matt gestures to the girl kneeling in front of him. , “But I love her anyway.”
I am picturing out Matt as a headless chicken. He has just flapped his mouth without knowledge from his body. His statement is met with a slap in the arm and a hoot from the group as the petite maiden keeps her head bowed down. I am unsure whether it is a gesture of resignation or of silent plots for revenge. I want to slap Matt myself but I am confused by his honesty. It is stimulating somehow.
So instead, I drink to their union with the rice wine she places in bamboo shot glasses. Matt points to her blouse with cap sleeves that ends in the middle of her forearm. In olden times, Matt says, the sleeves were a sign of status. Blouses without sleeves meant the maiden was single. Long sleeves meant she was taken.
“What about her? Her sleeves are in between.”, a companion signals.
“She is half-taken, with me.” he says with a straight face.
Matt’s mother was also a native Dusun. His father was Cebuano. Perhaps this is why I feel such affinity with him to the point of disregarding his chauvinist statements.
Besides, Matt doesn’t hold any physical danger. There are “real savages” that hide in the bushes ready to behead trespassers to worry about. We are told they would pop out in an opportune time. A skinny chieftain, his frame and size compensated by his monstrous, bulging eyes did just that, in what I think was a most inopportune time.
Along with his posse group of arrow and machete- carrying men from the war-loving Murut tribe, they circle around the group to the chagrin of those with dormant heart problems, which equates to the majority of us.
“Show me your chieftain.” he demands to the group of journalists, editors, PR people, men and women meant to sit in their desks where the only real fear is to run out of coffee midday. Skinny Chieftain, I later examine closely, is smaller than I am and I am sure quite younger, but it doesn’t stop me from clutching on to the jacket of my companion.
He assesses the chieftain we assigned from our group, a voluptuous sweet-looking photographer from Davao, says a few grunts to her, and then issues a challenge to all of us.
To pass on to the next village, he says, all of us will have to shoot an arrow from the tip of a thin, dry bamboo, and hit the target a few meters away. It is a simple exercise of physics and physicality. Breath combines with measured trajectories. But I do not hit the target, do not even try. He lets me pass anyway but I keep my head down all the way to the next house afraid to be picked on.
He leads us to his tribal house, one with some sort of indoor trampoline made out of native weave called lansaran. Lean too closely to one corner of this movable floor and you fall into the danger of hard, solid ground. It is a strange sight to see, this bouncy, unpredictable contraption. What is even stranger is that they consider this as a pastime. There is some sort of prize seven feet overhead dangling from the ceiling.
“It’s an iPhone, a TV, a laptop.” my companions jokingly mutter but we were all quieted by the Chieftain’s quick leap that propelled him from the middle of the trampoline to change position on air almost like a basketball player would when dunking. He does this again and again, this Kobe Bryant of the Muruts. He lets us try just to see how we can laughingly fail. Someone has to make him look good.
It is terribly curated and yet terribly popular. It is the type of experience where different emotions from excitement to fear to relaxation are all scrounged into a single package so that at the end of the tour is a sense of fulfillment for somehow having gone through all emotions in the span of an hour or so.
Of course, after the experience of going through all these tribes, the tourist gets the shameful satisfaction of getting a henna tattoo, eating a good “authentic” meal and to finish off, watching all the role play participants – the warrior, the chieftain, the village maiden – come together in one ala-Bollywood dance.
After dinner, Matt graciously leads the attention to the souvenir shop where the paintings, the necklaces, the bookmarks and the mouth arrows are found, because again, after Mari-Mari should follow Money! Money! For tourists, this is entertainment. But for Matt, the native Dusun, it may very well be his way of life. What is not easily mentionable because of the romance of travel is the cold, hard fact that it is first and foremost an industry. It is a mechanical animal that involves, like any industry, employment and unemployment, occupancy rates, transportation costs, constant competition and an ever-shifting market.
It’s easy to judge places quite singularly on particular levels of authenticity. The traveler will look at the mounting entrance fees, the souvenirs in the gift shop, the manicured tour packages and quickly judge them, just as I have, as sellouts. For shouldn’t any form of beauty be shared by all? It is discounting that nature and culture nowadays should be preceded by economic value.
To preserve a thing of the past for the past alone or beauty for beauty alone is an extinct animal. It should be very well be a cash cow. If not, it falls into the danger of simply disappearing back into the jungle, or worse, built over by more lucrative undertakings.
The ugly truth often is that places like these offer the very sanctuaries of culture and tradition that may very well have died in a world constantly looking for the new and the novel. It is a notion that, to borrow Matt’s words, is not very beautiful. But perhaps we should love it anyway.