In the space of a decade, travel has changed. Outboard motors went from a rarity to a commonplace. Today even the poorest family has at least a small outboard motor to speed the journeys up and down river. The power is seductive.Villagers clearly envy those with more powerful motors.
Still, there are limits. The river is shallow, so that only relatively low horsepower motors are any good. Because of this, traditional boats hold sway. It may be that the farmers can’t afford to buy commercially made boats, which could handle higher-powered motors. But it is more likely that the villagers like the boats they have. They have made them with their own hands, or know the person who has, and they are not ready
to give up that sense of intimacy.
Their embrace of new technology is partial. So it is with the chain saw, another complicated symbol of modernity. From many angles, the chain saw is a marvelous tool. The task of felling a tree, which once took hours, now takes minutes. In the village, the elder Jagau son, Jonathan, owns a chain saw, and he sells his services to his fellow villagers, who come into cash by selling pepper or gaining remittances from children or relatives who hold jobs in Kuching, the nearest city, three hours away.
It is against Dayak tradition to sell wood from communal land to outsiders, so that Jonathan only cuts trees when people need the wood.He doesn’t give them raw logs either. In another case of creative improvisation, he uses his chain saw to carve logs into rough planks of wood. He is literally a one-man sawmill thanks to his German-made chain saw.
This sense of scale informs the villagers’ hopes for new technologies. For many years, they have asked the government to bring electricity to their village, and telephone lines too. Jonathan’s father, who goes by the single name Jagau, is the village headman. He says that a new road, to be built along the river, should bring with it power and phone lines. Electricity will be welcomed by making lights and television a daily event, but he is less sure of the telephone’s value.
Standing in his pepper garden one day recently, Jagau, dressed only in a loincloth, prunes a tree with his machete, then catches a breath. I ask him whether he will have a phone inside his house.He looks at me as if I am crazy.”Who would I call?” he asks. Before I can answer, he says the entire village will only need a single phone.
With a swift thrust of his muscular arm, he points to a place in the center of his village, where he imagines the phone will go.