The Dayak people are one of the last people groups in the world that globalization has reached. It has only been in the past 10-15 years that their traditional hunter-gatherer, subsistance lifestyles have been replaced by reliance on money and buying their food.
We spent an afternoon with one of the Dayak villages up the Mahakam river. The journey there took nearly 24 hours by house boat, with the last 4 hours of the journey continueing in motorized dug out canoes. Along the way we came across many riverside communities. In fact, they weren’t even river ‘side’, these communities were actually built on stilts in the middle of the river! Along the way we saw proboscis monkeys, a poisonous snake, a monotor lizard and many brightly coloured birds and butterflies. If you ever get an opportunity to spend the afternoon going up a river in the rainforest in a dugout canoe, do it, whether you have an interesting destination or not, the trip will be well worth it.
Arriving at the Dayak village brought forth a mix of emotions. Women and children in brightly coloured clothing were scurrying along the boardwalk to gather at the place where our welcome ceremony would take place. It is true that this community relies heavily on ecotourism to survive and this source of income allows many of the men to avoid having to work for logging or coal mining companies. But who were we to come into this beautiful, isolated little village and demand that they entertain us with their dances? Was our very presence cheapening their sacred traditions? They involved us in the ceremony and as we danced with them we ever so slightly gained a glimpse of what it means to be Dayak.
However even the term ‘Dayak’ has no distinct meaning anymore. The clash of traditional and modern was obvious from the dancers we saw in front of us dressed in traditional clothing and the other villagers watching their friends perform as they were dressed in ‘Nike’, ‘Slipknot’ and ‘Oakley’ t-shirts.
After the ceremony we talked with the chief and Victor, the one man in the village who speaks English. When I asked him how he learned to speak English he told me “the radio”. Imagine the dedication it would take to learn a language strictly by listening to someone on the radio! I can’t imagine what it would be like to have that dedication because I speak the universal language. There are no other languages I absolutely need to know. Sure learning other languages is fun when I’m travelling and is respectful to the cultures and people I visit, but I will always be able to find someone who speaks English, and I will never fully understand what drove Victor to learn English from a radio program.
As our dugout canoes sped along through the river and the setting sun filled the sky with striking oranges, pinks and purples, I sat and wondered about the existance of this remote group of people and how different the lives of the children in the village are compared to when their parents were young.