It took over two hours on winding roads to reach the village. Rick and I had happily picked the quiet car, free of the blasting techno music the other drivers played incessantly. We splashed through large pools of mud and jumped out of the car to film the other jeeps passing along bumpy stretches of the road.
When we pulled into the Dayak village, we watched as people began to gather on their porches and to point at our cars. The village was so small that it did not take long to arrive at the house of one of the village leaders. Our expedition leader had met him on a previous visit and hoped that he would help negotiate with the guides. The man’s son came out of the house smiling and ran off to find his father. He told us that they had received word of our arrival and had actually expected us the day before. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, happy to know that we were both welcome and anticipated.
Slipping our shoes off on the steps of the man’s house, we entered a large, clean room with no furniture. The almost bare walls featured images of local politicians – a consistent theme in the village houses.We all sat in a circle on the floor, unsuccessfully attempting to understand what was being said. We were offered coffee, which was really sugar with a little bit of coffee in it and we smiled at the women who shyly waited in the adjacent room and kitchen.
After ten minutes of pleasantries, a steady stream of men began to flow into the room, each one pausing to grasp our hands before finding a seat on the floor. One man came in carrying what looked like an oil container and set it down in the center smiling. The grimy container turned out to be filled with a fermented rice drink. They passed a cup around, filling it for each person in turn. While some of our group refused the drink on religious grounds, Rick and I both chose to partake in the sour and extremely potent beverage. The custom seemed to be to chug the entire cup, so with both followed suit and ended up with ridiculous looks on our face. It tasted like sour milk combined with cheap alcohol.
After finishing the entire jug, some of the men left to take a rest and we began to unload all of our gear into the man’s house. His house would become our home for the next two nights as we ate in his kitchen, slept on his floor, and used the tub in the back of his house to bathe and wash clothes. The negotiations with the village were just beginning – we had to arrange guides and porters for a month-long expedition and we had to have standard prices up front. With over 100 kilos of rice alone, we needed a lot of manpower to make it up the mountain and to build a camp out of wood and tarps that could withstand the torrential rains that poured down every night. And, we had to meet with the village’s spiritual leader to gain permission to climb the mountain. Before we set foot on the mountain, we would have to participate in a three-part ceremony. None of us had any idea what to expect.