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Borneo: Pokemon and plastic teeth

November 25, 2016

This is in many ways the turning point of the trip for me. We had the chance to visit a Dayak village an hour up river and we met incredibly nice people who welcomed us into their village to share some of the culture which makes them unique. I cannot truly say a bad thing about any of the individuals I met. Little, weather-worn old ladies giggled when they asked to take a photo with me. Short, strong young guys shook hands with thick, powerful grips. And everyone smiled a huge smile. Not everyone had all their teeth but there was no shame in flashing a funky grill. We may have come to visit them but they took as much joy watching us as we did them. It was a festive atmosphere set amidst the sweltering heat of inland, riverine Borneo. The heat and humidity was oppressive in the still air. Even the locals were hot but they still danced hard and played their wooden xylophones and weird guitars for us like champs. But as is the case, I just couldn't turn off my stupid brain. 

 

Virtually every person in the village was wearing some sort of traditional clothing or jewelry and it was beautiful. Amongst the beautiful embroidery and threaded beads of the ladies dresses were dozens of plastic teeth incorporated into the design. Hats featured a repeating pattern of 6 teeth. 6 incisors. 6 more. Plus 6. Belt lines featured repeated motifs of teeth which girdled the dancers' tiny frames. Arm band = 6 teeth. Necklace = 2. At first I thought, "I didn't know there was such an industry for plastic animal teeth". Some of the teeth were clearly meant to represent those of the now extinct Borneo tiger. Others were from clouded leopards, sun bears, and pigs. I think I saw 2 or 3 real teeth and they were worn singularly around the neck of some old man who probably remembers way back when people wore real teeth. Kids these days. 

 

The Dayak traditional ceremonial dress now serves as a silent witness to modernity and the environmental impact of humans. Would there still be tigers in Borneo if their teeth were not seen as a status symbol and cultural icon? I don't think it's the only reason the tigers are gone, but when you think about how many predators it would take to make one of these dresses it's staggering. Maybe back when teeth had to be pulled from a real animal they were not as prevalent. Back then they had true value and only the best dancers and most powerful people could adorn their wares with the fangs of a killer. But today anyone can buy a plastic tooth or 100. Does this make their culture disposable? I don't know how long it would have taken to accumulate enough teeth to properly adorn a dress, but either way it means a systematic destruction of the predator class, arguably one of the most important factors in any habitat's health. 

 

Like I said, every single person was so welcoming to us. When we walked down the boardwalk to the big house for the ceremony virtually every person from the village was there to shake our hands in a long line. Progress was slowed when tall men came by and everyone needed a photo. I managed to find these two kids on the way back from the paddling race and couldn't help but stop them and ask for a photo. I posed for photos with each of them and we talked a little bit about California. Two kids and a stranger standing in the heat of the day trying to have a rudimentary conversation about life. They are practicing English and I'm just trying to absorb every second of the experience. 

 

The pretty young girl was wearing a fully embroidered dress and traditional dayak head dress complete with plastic teeth arranged in intricate patterns. The young boy, her age, was wearing a black Pokemon Go shirt with Bulbasaur on it. He smiled a big smile for the camera and almost obscured his necklace of plastic tiger teeth with the ubiquitous peace sign. A clash of cultures if I've ever seen one. 

 

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