When one thinks of Borneo, however, one thinks above all of the rain forest and its innumerable dangers. The river is not the least of these. It was full of jutting rocks and swirling rapids. The Diaccos say "A man who has been up and down the river four times is already old". The jungle earth is viscous and muddy. Every step is an achievement. Often we would take a stride forward and then slip back as far at the next step. In addition, we were troubled by leeches, repugnant creatures which attacked us from both the ground and the trees provoking itching and wounds which later became infected.
The Diaccos live as they always have done, wrapped in an aura of mystery and cruelty, while in reality, they are a people that has learnt to face the hardship of their life with mildness. There are perhaps 50000 of them left, protected little and assisted less by the Indian government in Jakarta. Most still insist on living in the long communal houses which are their traditional form of lodging, despite the governmentt's efforts to persuade them, especially the young, to live in small family units. Living in small houses is fine in the city but in the forest it is more sensible for everyone to stay together. Night falls early on the Equator, and it is both beautiful and reassuring, to be able to gather together to hear hunting stories which ahve been passed down the centuries or to repeat the rituals of the shamans. Civilization has touched them, however. Every year they move nearer and nearer the cities. They have been discovered by Chinese traders too. These buy the Indians' carved wooden masks, war parangs and multicoloured, pearl-decorated clothes and leave in exchange the tackiest fruits of economic progress: plastic buckets, cheap T-shirts, thonged sandals and cigarettes.
In a few years this form of human development will no longer exist. In the meantime, the last few long houses remain, wooden, thatched, resting on stilts some twelve feet from the ground with a balcony which is used as a stage for rituals and the Diaccos' slow, graceful form of dancing. Inside, the long houses are pitch dark except for a flickering fire built on stones which provides a dim light by which one can see the untidy, sad and squalor-filled atmosphere within.
Married women, whose hands are tattoed to indicate their condition, cook the dinner and thresh the rice while holding their smaller children to their breasts. The newly-born, meanwhile, are kept "rolled up" in folds of cloth which are hung from the ceiling in bundles.
The women's life is extremely tough. The only concession to female vanity they allow themselves is to have their ear lobes cut, vertically, when they are still children. By wearing heavy earrings, they stretch their lobes down as far as their chests, which is regarded as more beautiful. Women have a pivotal role in the famity. They weave rush mats, they cultivate rice, they look after the three annual harvests, which would be four if the problem of manure could be solved.
Their domestic animals are left to scavenge for the scraps which fall through the cracks in the bamboo floors of the long houses. Thier dogs, however, which are essential for hunting purposes, are allowed to run up the ladder, cut from a tree trunk, to live with their owners, eating the leftovers from their plates.
This is the only place in the world where I have seen rice cultivated dry; it is a fine rice whose grains are full and heavy. The husks are removed by foot, with the wofnen making a rythmical movement which is both a dance and a prayer at the same time. The Diaccos' diet is limited to boiled rice, supplemented with the meat caught by the men, who are hunters. As well as deer and wild pig, they often eat snake meat, or even mice.
When hunting, the men, accompanied by their dogs, which are a mongrel mixture of a thousand different races, will go as far as a day's march in search of pray. When the dogs root out something, they encircle the prey, to ensure that it cannot escape. The cornered animal, intimidated by the barking dogs, is held at bay until the hunters arrive with their spears. Everyone strikes at the animal, which is then finished off by a blow from close quarters with a parana. The animal is then decapitated, its inside are eaten on the spot, and its meat is hauled back to the village in baskets. Illnesses such as tubercolosis, malaria and measles are still rife among these tribes, especially the ones which continue to inhabit the interior and which have have little contact with outsiders. Some of the villages we passed through had never seen a white man: the smaller children ran away from us as if we were the "bogey men" of legend.
Boats are the only form of transport in this place. The Daiccos sail both upstream and downstream by canoe, long, light boats which are kept out of harm's way by the skill of their paddlers, who live a charmed life in the rock-bound stream of the river. The current is so fast as to make boats almost uncontrollable. Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes not. We lost part of supplies one day when one of our boats overturned.