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An Iban wedding

The first duty of the newly-wed in Sarawak is to slaughter a pig.

The invitation arrived on a cold, wet Wellington day. Practicalities like money and malaria jabs blew away with the wind. Warm, humid, jungle images flew in: exotic animals, birdsong and mystery.

The bride, Susie Kudom, grew up in a remote longhouse at the head of the Limbang River in Sarawak in northwest Borneo. Her groom, New Zealand pilot Garry Allport, has invited 22 friends into the rainforest to meet Susie's family and understand her Iban traditions.

"After shaking your hand, they touch their fingertips to their chest," Garry tells us when we arrive. "It's a polite way of acknowledging you." Like children playing Simon Says, we copy his gesture.

"Iban people are very generous," Susie adds with a smile. "Iban life means being open-hearted. You have to share everything, do everything together and be respectful."

Six New Zealand families, including nine children, have travelled 15 hours by plane, truck and colourful longboats to reach the isolated Melaban Longhouse - the name given to the settlement made up of three long buildings that are home to about 800 villagers. At the water's edge we hear gongs and meet a welcoming party dressed in traditional woven jerkins and skirts. Women place plaited bamboo leis over our heads and offer shots of tuak (sweet, warm, rice wine). Like the Vietnamese in stature, the Iban have finely chiselled faces, broad smiles, high cheekbones and glossy black hair.

To the beat of their drums and gongs, we follow the Sarawak flag and parade through the longhouse so everyone can look at us big, white-skinned strangers. Elderly people sit on mats or hold themselves against the walls. About 300 children watch.

Girls have toddlers on their hips, boys cuddle pet roosters. Smaller children, some as young as four, light firecrackers that explode like gunshot in the ruai, the communal passageway.

Fires have destroyed the traditional pole-style longhouses. Today they are built with permanent materials and lined with white tiles that echo and reflect sound intensely. Outside the longhouse we introduce ourselves with a haka and our national anthem. But before we can enter Susie's family home there is a ritual to perform.

Garry pours tuak over five plates, each containing five betel-nut leaves, five rice cakes, five sticky-rice sausages, five eggs and puffed rice. This serious business is food for the ancestors. An elder chants a blessing while passing a chicken back and forth over the plates. He takes the rooster outside and slits its throat, returning with bloody feathers to add to the assemblages on the plates.

Poultry, it transpires, are sacred to the Iban. They identify with the self-sufficiency of the birds and regard their scratching in the soil as communion with the earth god of fertility.

Inside Susie's home, women squat on the kitchen floor and chatter as they chop vegetables. A cicada larger than my middle finger sings in the corner. Susie's family of 10 have moved into the kitchen so the guests can sleep in the large communal space above the ruai.

The river we wash in is thick and brown with silt stirred up by the logging upriver. Four-year-old Maia Baillie says it's like swimming in peanut butter. The silt clings to our bodies and competes with the soap.

The Iban frown upon nudity so we bathe in sarongs, which is something of an art form. Julie Middleton, a former New Zealand Herald journalist, explains that "you have to do everything genteelly, transferring from sarong to towel, without flashing the world. I find it difficult."

The lack of privacy and constant noise are a challenge. In the ruai beneath our beds, teenagers play heavy metal at maximum distort on competing powerful stereo speakers all night. Cocks crow constantly, two-stroke generators pump and stutter, children light firecrackers and gunshots call the gods in from the jungle. This is Gawai, Iban new year, the rice harvest festival and party time at the longhouse.

"I thought in the jungle people might live a quieter sort of life but they don't," says Julie. Her partner, Andrew Balemi, thinks they use the noise to drive away evil spirits. "They almost got rid of me."

Everyone we meet is gentle and generous, just as Susie said. But will this be their downfall? We see no jungle, hear no birdsong, and see only dogs, pigs and poultry. Malaysian logging companies have felled the trees and the slash-and-burn agricultural practices of the Iban leave a barren environment.

We cross to the schoolyard where hundreds of men gather. They cradle prize cocks in their arms before putting them into the pit to fight to the death. Men pay thousands of ringgit to pitch their roosters against birds higher in the pecking order. Double-edged blades, scalpel-sharp, are secured to the birds' back talons. It is win/win for the bookies if both birds die.

Temenggong, the regional chief for 10 settlements, is resplendent in a throat tattoo. He tells us it is the legacy of an initiation rite for headhunters. Employed by the British Army during World War II, Temenggong hunted Japanese heads in the "bob-a-nob" scheme. Hunting in bare feet, with blowdarts, the Iban killed silently. Fearing jungle spirits were taking their men, the Japanese fled.

Traditionally, heads were hung from longhouses to ward off evil spirits and it was common for fathers to demand human heads as gifts from men courting their daughters. Garry is lucky that Susie's family choose ritualistic animist ceremonies to please their gods.

Back in the longhouse the bridal party prepare. Practising his speech in Iban, best man Andrew Balemi hopes "to be the main man and not the main course". The men wear loincloths and woven red waistcoats while the women are crammed into over-skirt corsets of silver coins and bells that are beautiful but so tight that bridesmaid Gail Baillie can barely move. Huge beaten alumium headdresses are secured into their hair by forks, combs, hair ties and gel. Discomfort is a small price to pay for a regal moment.

Garry and Susie sit on gongs while Apai, Susie's dad, circles them three times with his prize fighting cock. He chants a blessing and plucks long wing feathers that he thrusts down the throat of the rooster. As he pulls them out, they drip saliva, which Apai paints on the brows of the bridal couple before banging their heads together. The spit glues their two minds into one; this is the moment of proclamation as husband and wife.

There is no sleeping. Next morning at 4.30am, Garry's first official function as an Iban husband is to participate in the pig sacrifice and the important reading of the pig liver, a fortune-telling ritual.

New Zealand flags fly from sacrificial altars. Heavy metal music, drums, gunshot and firecrackers call to the gods. Our newly-weds take their pig to the river for some tender loving washing and massage before the slaughter.

The pigs groan and howl in dying agony as their throats are slashed. We watch horrified as the livers are removed with what seems to us ruthless speed. Before our eyes the carcasses lie abandoned and open, the hearts still beating, peristalsis still moving through the intestines. Kiwi and Iban children stare while Kiwi adults struggle to make sense of what they are watching.

On our return to New Zealand we are asked by the MAF officers at the airport if we have visited an abattoir. Well, we have walked through the blood of 50 pigs. Half say yes, half no. Borneo has us confused.

A NEW YEAR WEDDING, IBAN STYLE, produced by Jenny Macintyre, SPECTRUM, National Radio, Sunday, 12.15pm