For Ibans, Gawai is a much-anticipated celebration. Back in Sarawak, celebrating Gawai used to last an entire month and by celebrating, I mean drinking lots of tuak or rice wine. If you’re hardcore about Gawai, you’d forego the tuak and head straight to drinking langkau, tuak‘s less refined sibling. Anthony Bourdain depicted this in an episode of No Reservations much too accurately.
Typically, in my kampung, there would be lots of food being cooked by the womenfolk in the kitchen of my grandfather’s house. Children would be outside playing, waiting for the meal to be served. The menfolk would be playing cards while drinking tuak/ langkau/ beer/ any alcohol/ definitely not water.
When my grandfather was still alive, the Gawai celebrations were truly memorable. Many years ago when I was back home for Gawai and after a most fulfilling dinner of ayam pansuh (chicken cooked in bamboo) and many other local delicacies I forgot I missed until they’re cooked and served, the chairs in the living room would be pushed to the wall and music and dancing would follow. Mostly it was the older folks who’d start while the young ‘uns looked on and tried not to cringe. I’d be sitting cross-legged on the floor in the living room, in awe at their enthusiasm and energetic gyrations. And there were always violins. After all, keronchong wouldn’t be keronchong without violins. And there was always singing. Or perhaps, more apt, there was a singing competition and it would always end up as a berbalas pantun singing competition with the men and women trying to come up with the most creative tune, lyrics and even insults. If only I had a video camera then…
Another memorable Gawai for me was the year my family purchased three pigs and gave the meat to 106 families in the kampung.
The (poor) pigs were delivered to the main house Gawai eve. Men from the kampung were all ready to begin the butchering. There must’ve been about ten men, many of them I’d not seen before but were friends of my uncle. It was an interesting sight to watch (although slightly `slaughter house-ish’) – the sharpening of knives, the sounds of chopping, the men drinking and smoking, telling jokes, singing as they went about selecting the cuts of meat.
The men finished up by dividing the meat into 106 individual plastic bags all laid out on a tarpaulin sheet that was placed on the ground next to them. It was an extremely methodical operation as they wanted to ensure that every family had the same amount of meat and also that each bag had a good ratio of ribs to meat. This seemingly simple task took almost 2 hours to complete. The final touch was to tie the plastic bags with raffia string and we added a gift tag that said `Selamat Andu Gawai Dayak’ (Happy Gawai Dayak Day). The men then divided all the plastic bags among them, filled up their juah or rattan basket and went off in twos on motorbikes to deliver the bags to the families, like santa’s little helpers. It was a good day.
What I’d give for a glass (or bottle) of tuak right about now. And some ayam pansuh too.