National Geographic : 1945 Sep
Keeping House in Borneo BY VIRGINIA HAMILTON MY HUSBAND said I would have to look under every chair I sat in for snakes, scorpions, and centipedes. My mother-in-law in Holland said to take at least eight dozen sheets and pillow slips be cause, no matter how tough they were, they wouldn't last long under the beating they re ceived on washday. My father-in-law said to remember always that in the Indies we whites were not living in our own country, but in a land of other peoples whose strange customs had prevailed for hundreds of years before the commence ment of our own era. I should, like all good Dutch colonials, try to adapt myself to the native life on the island. Awed by all this, I told my family not to worry, for I would be back for a visit in two years and, looking at the map, said that I'd go often for week ends to see friends in Manila.* Armed with advice, good intentions, and ideas about tropical living gathered from the movies, I set out to begin housekeeping in Borneo. Coffee percolator and curtain materials were necessities. Chiffon evening gowns exposed a perspiring back at dances and were a prob lem where there were no cleaners. The hand some sun helmet was never worn, and there were not half enough cotton washables. My life there lasted not two years but ten, broken only by a vacation after the first five. Manila was too far away for visits. Island of Heavy Rainfall and High Color Third largest island in the world, Borneo wears the Equator for a belt and lifts her leafy face through intense humid heat to some of the world's heaviest rains, and to equally glaring sunlight. Borneo may not be so beau tiful as some of her smaller sisters of the Malay Archipelago, but in her dense foliage are found, in sudden color, some of the most wonderful jewels of the flower kingdom; and under her dark surface hide brilliant diamonds and many-hued semiprecious stones. Someday her almost inaccessible jungle may yield its "teak," billian (Borneo ironwood), ebony, sandalwood, and other beautiful tim bers, as man finds means to track Borneo's surface with roads to the deep interior, like the rivers and streams that wind their numer ous ways to the sea. But it will be a tre mendous undertaking, for Borneo's jungle fights back with a patient, imperishable te nacity and strength (page 305). Borneo's lifeblood is the black oil flowing along her coastline. In some places, it is of such high quality that it can be used almost as it flows from the earth (page 299). It was oil which brought my husband and me to the island. It was oil to feed one of the largest refineries in the Far East at Balikpapan which kept us moving, pushing ever farther inland (map, page 297). To live in Borneo means living in the land of the head-hunter-not a comforting thought to one who has not been there. At inland Amoentai, we were surrounded by Dyak country, with only a narrow strip of ground along the river populated by Mohammedan Indonesians and a few Europeans. No sooner were the curtains hung in our little native house than I heard the neighbors talking about a human head found buried near by. "Head-hunting Dyaks, no doubt," was the opinion, and I felt a profound dislike for these Borneo aborigines. It took me a long time to realize that, al though Dyaks had been head-hunters a genera tion or two earlier, they now rarely break into this type of entertainment and are kindly, peaceful people.t They have little interest in the white man's civilization except for his cotton goods and kerosene cans. Nor have they any love for the Mohammedan religion. For generations they have gone farther and farther inland in small, isolated groups that do not speak a common language and have little contact with each other. At about ten o'clock, when the heat of morning became intense, I would welcome the peddlers who wandered from house to house. One was a Chinese whose pack held silks, cottons, and laces. Another was a Malay, and at his call I knew I would find something he had persuaded a Dyak to part with. Long before I saw a Dyak I had bought many of their articles. Their jackets made of tree bark have now been replaced by ones of Javanese cotton materials. But they still use long blowpipes and bamboo quivers filled with poisonous arrows as their principal hunt ing weapons. Their round, deep hats served as lampshades in our little house (page 310). Woven baskets made wastepaper containers * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Facts about the Philippines," February, 1942, and "Return to Manila," October, 1940, both by Frederick Simpich. t See "Notes on the Sea Dyaks of Borneo," by Edwin H. Gomes, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAG AZINE, August, 1911.