It began innocently enough one evening in an Iban longhouse on Sarawak's Skrang River.
A dozen not-so-distant descendants of Borneo's notorious headhunters had been entertaining an Australian journalist, me and our Chinese-Malaysian guide with traditional dances. The rest of the well-named longhouse's 200 inhabitants sat with us on woven palm leaf mats under clusters of grinning ancestral trophies hanging from the ceiling like grizzly chandeliers.
As the last dancer bowed and shook our hands, all the women, responding to some unspoken signal, formed a semicircle around us. With our backs literally against the wall, we wondered momentarily if our blond heads had awakened their collective unconscious.
The attack, however, was decidedly 1980s-style. Within minutes each woman spread a rather uninspired array of beads, baskets and mats before her.
Artifact Stood Out
Wondering how to escape with something that wouldn't take up half a suitcase, I saw one of those treasures that only a confirmed collector of weird artifacts could love, a well-used hunting knife with curved bone hilt.
The dented blade was wisely hidden in a scabbard made of two unpolished, unmatched pieces of wood bound together by woven palm leaf strips. A primitive carving resembling seven stones stacked in no particular size sequence rose from the top.
The nice thing about bartering is that both parties can leave feeling they've made a good deal. So in exchange for 25 ring-gifts (about $11) and two magic markers, the knife began its odyssey to America.
With 12 flights ahead of me and the hijacking to Beirut only three weeks past, I realized airport security might take a dim view of a knife-wielding tourist.
Knew From Experience
I remembered how an antique Syrian dagger (yet another souvenir) had caused a near panic when it went through an airline X-ray several years back, so I chose the direct approach and handed over the "weapon," along with two plastic bags of film, at each inspection point.
With nary a grimace at the inconvenience, a Malaysian security guard was inevitably summoned. The knife, secure in bubble-wrap, was placed in a blue plastic bag, taped and labeled, and a receipt was issued.
Maybe airport personnel, accustomed to the unfathomable tastes of tourists, easily knew which passenger would be daft enough to want a knife so out of shape that it could hardly be pulled out of the sheath. In any event, security always found me before I could gather my baggage, and knife and I would be reunited until the next flight.
My favorite knife-interceptor was the handsome Indian-Malaysian at Penang. As I pulled the knife and film from carry-on, warning that "I have a little problem for you," his already gorgeous smile broadened.
"I love problems," he assured me, "especially from women."
I didn't have such a warm welcome on arrival at Medan, Sumatra. Although the customs officer seemed much more interested in unwrapping my bottles of Listerine than inspecting weapons, I wondered just how much the Indonesians were going to "love problems" when it came time to depart.
I needn't have worried.
"Nice knife," the inspector commented as I prepared to board a flight for Jakarta several days later. "Maybe you should give it to the stewardess when you get on board."
The same casualness kept knife and me together for the next two flights.
Indonesia is a land of diverse cultures. As I left Bali for Sulawesi, I learned that it is also a nation with more than one policy governing "weapons and firearms." Once again, the crew held the knife while I held the receipt.
South Sulawesi, in particular the region known as Tana Toraja, is a cultural treasure house. It also is the home of a fabulous cigarette-smoking old woman who has some of the most interesting antique tribal pieces I saw anywhere in Indonesia.
Heaped together under her typical boat-shaped thatched roof in the little village of Ke'te Kesu were feathered headdresses, wooden funerary effigies, heavy metal bracelets and the most ornate kris ("stabbing weapon") I had seen outside a museum.
The wavy blade was rusted beyond description. But despite the fears of imaginative customs officers, it was the gold-leafed scabbard that won me over.
Its gandar, the wooden part of the scabbard that encases the blade, was wrapped in an intricately sculptured pendok, metal sheath. The lower half was carved in thin ridges to represent rattan binding and the upper was a golden mass of vines and tendrils.
A dainty, yet sturdy, filigree loop, centered with a burnt-orange stone, completed the design. The loop allows the wearer to tie the kris to his sash, rather than slip it into a waistband as is common in Java and Bali.
Succumbed to $360 Lure
If the 400,000 rupiah price tag (about $360) was giving me second thoughts, an inspection of the blade's hilt dashed them. A female figure, swaying in a 45-degree curve, seemed to float on a golden wave. The base of her skirt was studded with colorful stones.