A Rungus Party
A Personal Account of another Rungus Party

by Herman (2002)

Kada’ arau monduli
Kadi-oi umandak
Haro po singgorungon
Singgorung di umandak… *

The sound of the gongs came erratically through the jungle. Not the melodious play I expected anyway. When I finally arrived and entered the house, utter devastation met my eye: bodies everywhere, sprawling on the passage, lying on the communal platform, in the doorways. Some were moving and groaning, others drooling, and others again were lifeless, limbs detached. In the middle of it all some children, looking at me with big eyes, absent minded. No, I am not describing some sort of war calamity, or the outbreak of some disease. I am talking of a Rungus party – a wedding to be precise – that had been going on for the past three days, and by the looks of it this was an utterly successful party: people were drinking and over-eating as if there was no to-morrow!

I went along the passage to the other side of the house, from where I could see in the dim light that gongs were suspended from the rafters. There was no more sound. Some gong players were propped up against the wall, head on shoulder, the mallet dropped to the floor. Another player snored heavily under an ancient gong, only inches from his face. It occurred to me that if the gong should drop they guy would have his teeth remade.

Someone stirred. Opened an eye. Recognised me. He staggered to his feet, gave me a bright, warm smile and shook my hand vigorously. “Finally you are here,” he uttered, “you are late!” It was the chief of the village, and now he grabbed his headgear, an elaborately embroidered turban, took me by the hand and pulled me into one of the open doors from where noise came. The party was not completely over, I realised. Like a cold fire, if you stir the ashes you might find some embers. So it is with a Rungus party: anytime ready to be rekindled, and to burst into full flame. There was big clamour when I stepped into the room, dragged by the tipsy chief. Heavily he sat down, and begged me to do the same, and then his head sagged between his knees. Everybody cheered now at me and a youth in shorts came up to me and asked in perfect English: “Do you want a drink?” I was truly taken aback, not so much by the question, but by his English and the tone of his voice. He said it so casually, yet so politely and obligingly at the same time I could have been at the Hilton. Not expecting any other answer than ‘yes’ the young man took me by surprise for a second time when he hold a plastic tube – almost a hose – under my nose and begged me to drink. He had put his thumb on the tip of the tube to prevent the drink inside from spilling, and my eyes followed the hose ten feet to the other end where an elderly man clutched the plastic tube, and with a big grin he told me in Rungus: “asso galas”, no more glasses...

This rather original way of serving a drink would probably have outraged the clientele at Hilton, but here it seemed perfectly normal, and I took the offer. When the old man atthe other end of the hose released his hold the drink – it was maize beer, I tasted it immediately – rapidly guzzled down my throat. Great cheers followed from the small congregation, and the head of the village looked up, shifted his position to lean on a post, and fell back into his alcohol-induced sleep.

I was again begged to sit down, and watched as the young man proceeded to refill the tube and look for another victim. I took my seat amongst a drooling elder who was most eager to shake my hand and talk nonsense to me, and a sarong-wearing lady rather exhilarated by the day’s proceedings, especially the drinks. I was hardly seated when the young man brandished the end of the tube again in front of me: “You were late, you must drink two!” A practical Rungus joke, and everybody cheerily agreed, so I had no chance but take another hose-full of maize beer. Stuck at one end of a full hose you have not much choice but down the liquid fast, but after this one I begged for mercy. I knew that there would be none, but I saw a chance to fill my stomach with some rice. I was starved, and I could feel that the two drinks started their effects, with all intent and purpose. Hopefully having not eaten is as bad as not wanting to drink (or being late to a party, for that matter), and within no time I was served a huge portion of scented, home-grown rice, and a dish of pork stewed for the past three days in its own fat.

I was happy to find some nice chunks of tender meat amongst the lumps of pure lard, as I just love pork prepared that way. It is quite a sin, I was once told (cholesterol wise...), and so much the better it tastes. But someone had to fish out the biggest piece of fat and place it on top of my rice: “This is the best, eat!” I had no other choice but swallow the chewy hunk with a lot of rice, and then shovel in some more meat to get rid of the lardy taste. I know they love the fat, and it is a perfect antidote during such sessions of competitive drinking, but I literally cannot stomach it. Hopefully for me about everything goes down, and I can, after so many parties, quite control my reflexes. And also hopefully it was again my turn on the hose and I could wash down the fat.

In due time I had finished my rice, and politely refused a second helping, much to the dismay of my host. However, the pork remained placed in our round, and everybody helped him or herself to a chewy bit of lard. When drinking, especially during rather prolonged drinking sessions, people here do serve some foods, more often than not salty, fatty preserves and soups to prevent the alcohol from taking over too fast.

I now rather regretted having placed myself where I was, for the old man insisted on talking to me in a very loud voice because I made the mistake of telling him that I could not really understand him. I did not mean acoustically, but language wise: the good man kept falling back into Rungus, and I could not follow his entire discourse. But then it was mostly nonsensical gibberish anyway. I also knew it would be a matter of time until he’d slide into an alcohol coma, and my foresight was soon confirmed. Suddenly he stopped in mid-speech, drooled, dropped over, and lay across my knees. Everybody cheered, and two ladies volunteered to remove the reeking body from mine. They sledged the comatose man some way from us, put a cushion under his head and came back to our round of one less. That meant more drinks for us, which observation I remarked loudly, much to the amusement of the crowd. By now I found myself between two ladies, both wearing sarong and ancient beads, and both trying to teach me a song in Rungus. I tried to write the song down, just four lines, but the heat and alcohol in the small room had a curious effect on us all. Somehow I never got the song right, and nobody was able to sing one line at a time. When they started, they had to finish, or start over again. With the hose in between, the task of writing down the song became impossible, but I remember that the short lyrics translated into the very essence of Rungus hospitality: don’t go home in a hurry, we have still a lot of drinks…

Then I suddenly realised that the hose was absent. I looked in the direction of the jar, from where the hose was filled, and saw the old man squeezing maize mash. I took this as an excuse and extricated myself from the grip of the round to join the old man. “I am just making some space,” the good man explained, and then ushered me to come with him to get some more beer. Outside the longhouse there was a neat little hut on six-feet stilts, the rice granary. A thin, notched pole lead to an opening in the wall, through which we gained access to the interior. Several huge and ancient jars, a bark rice container, two bicycles and a row of plastic buckets with lid constituted the furniture. From two of the plastic buckets my friend drew fresh maize beer and poured it into a diesel jerry can. I helped carry the can and back in the longhouse we poured the fresh beer into the jar, inserted again the rattan sieve and looked for the men on the other end of the hose, but he was by now busy eating. The older man looked at me and said: “Well, then, we have to do it ourselves, you don’t mind?” Of course I did not mind, so with his help I suckled at one end of the hose to fill it. “Who first,” I asked? “You, of course,” was the simple answer. Great, right from the source, I thought and obliged, filled the tube again and found that it was his turn, to which he agreed. Then I filled it again and we went to look for ‘victims’, going several times up and down the longhouse until the jar was nearly empty. My head was spinning because ever so often we decided that it was our turn to drink.

Our action had quite a few members of the longhouse woken, and soon the gongs were sound again, which woke some more. We clambered again into the rice granary for more beer, and when we came back the first man on the hose took over from me so that I could dance. To much applause from the reappearing crowd I was stuffed into the elaborate dancing gear of the Rungus men: a long skirt, a home-woven and intricately designed but ever so hot overcoat, several layers of sashes and beads, a broad belt to hold everything together and topped by a rather massive turban. I know, I do look impressive in this outfit, and I have a photograph of it but I would never dare to show it to anybody… Two old ladies, by their accessories I recognised them as shaman priestesses, joined me in the dance, but all our movements were a bit out of tune, most probably thanks to the alcohol. While dancing, the hose came around, I knew it but I hoped it wouldn’t, all the same. And how could I refuse a drink when even the priestesses showed such steadfast drinking capabilities?

After a few rounds I gave my costume up. The call of nature was getting urgent and on ever weaker legs I stumbled down the stairs to relieve myself, closely followed by a fellow drinker who made sure that I would not escape but duly come back for another hose or two… It was an amazing afternoon that continued into the evening, and with a light mind – I knew that I would not have to go to the office the next day – I kept up with the professional attitude of the Rungus master drinkers until there were no more drinks, and virtually no more people who could have drunk any drinks left anyway.

The tropical night is warm and soothing, and one never has to worry where to sleep as long as there is a roof over one’s head. When the drinks as well as our physical resources were utterly exhausted I just lay down where I was sitting and quickly drifted away into a profound and dream-less sleep. I woke up the next morning to the clamour of the chicken, the pigs, and the dogs below the house, and inspected my body for mosquito bites, but there were none: mosquitoes spare the drunk! Hopefully for me, I had only been drinking one day of this three-day wedding, and my head was quite clear, and after a bath in the nearby river I felt quite invigorated – almost ready for the next drink…

* Rungus drinking song (free translation): don’t go home hurriedly / says the maiden / there is still some more wine / the wine the maiden made…

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