East Kalimantan: Days 3-4
I am on a houseboat on the Mahakam River and can hear at 4:25 am the call of the Muezzin to prayer in this solidly islamic country. We arrived two days ago into Eastern Kalimantan in a whirlwind of travel: a flight from Pangkalanbun to Surabaya on the nearby island of Java which was delayed 2 hours and then a miraculous transfer as luckily our second flight was also delayed 1.5 hours so that both we and even our luggage were picked up in Balikpapan about 6:30 at night. We drove though town, a commercial oil town established by the Dutch Shell Oil Company, looking prosperous on a Saturday night with restaurants and shops full of activity, and then on and on until about 11 pm we reached our private boat home for the next 3 nights.
The boat motored through the night as we slept in our air conditioned cabins and when we awoke we found ourselves in a small port city where very large barges filled to the top with coal are being pulled by tugs for shipment to, we understand, China. As we continued upriver, we ate our breakfast on the top deck while on the shore more commercial bird nest buildings are apparent along with their recorded welcoming song.
We have a private cook on board, in chefs hat and white smock, as well as a small crew who sleep downstairs. As we could immediately tell on our own, our guide Jailan reports to us that “the Chef does not date girls and has a hard time here”. I can well believe it.
Jailan does not have the best English skills but is helpful. But his true value became apparent when we arrived into the town of Muara Muntai. Jailan was raised in a very small village 2 hours from this town as a Kutai speaker and his parents moved to Muara Muntai in the 1950’s so he and his siblings could attend elementary and high school. We had a chance to visit his sister’s home and he seemed to know almost everyone in the small town. A very interesting place: Most of the town has wooden boardwalk planking on the street, unfit for cars but useful for the many motorcycles which make a huge racket as they pass by on the uneven wooden boards.
All the old houses are raised as flood waters come every year in the rainy season, sometimes flooding above the boards and into the homes. Most of the houses in the center of town look well built, brightly painted and well maintained.
The main shopping street we walked down had the full array of goods for rural village life as well as some upscale eating carts. Fruits and vegetables, clothes, gasoline for motor bikes and propane cans for cooking. Friendly families sat outside and were happy for me to take their photos. The women here seem far less sheltered than their urban counterparts. I asked Jailan and he said that when he was young, most women were uncovered but more recently, it has become “the fashion” (read that as a moral imperative from male religious leaders) to have the heads always covered.
From a little further up the river, we board our motorized canoe with a covered shade overhead to protect us from the increasingly intense sun and heat and head out for a visit to a Dayak tribe in Tanjung Isuy, a town across a large lake area. It takes us about 1.5 hours to get there as we pass fishing villages and waterways with netted areas along the banks to catch fish. The beautiful horn-bill Kingfisher bird sat on top of many of the bamboo poles we passed delineating private fishing area
Once arrived, to disembark from our canoe to land was a olympic level test of stability. We had to climb over the boat edge onto faint remains of a platform, walk along single width planks and then up a 45 degree (maybe even steeper) set of boards with some thin cross pieces for steps. And the way back was hardly better. But we all made it.
Once in this Dayak town, we walked along the main street whose main difference from the other small villages we have seen was the occasional wooden ancestor statue used in funeral ceremonies and the existence of some small dogs. Jailan told us that the Dayaks have dogs but Muslims have cats. I guess at least in parts of Indonesia.
When we reached the community long house, a long wooden building with some sleeping compartments and places for community rituals, we were greeted by groups of small children all dressed up to perform for us. The musical performance was the main gong player and a few drummers, with the adult women performing gentle dances and the children joining in at the end so the next generation can learn the steps.
In this village, although almost entirely non-Islamic Dayak people, there is a large mosque as we have seen in almost every town and village we have passed through — large often green and white or gold and white, dominating the buildings around it. And the call to prayer, although sometime recorded, I have heard many live recitations as well, are a part of the everyday sounds of life.
Later, I asked and was told that this village only performs their dances for tourists once or twice a month. In fact, unlike Pangkalanbun which was filled with tourists, we have not seen a single other tourist in this part of Kalimantan since we arrived. It is definitely not on the usual tourist route, as I prefer. But in addition, thinking about Pangkalanbun, we have met no Americans in Kalimantan, mainly Europeans, many Spanish, Brits, all much younger than we are. Why is this? Perhaps not well-known enough through the U.S. tourism networks, perhaps not luxury enough for our fellow countryman, perhaps just not enough party life (no alcohol allowed here). The tourists we did meet were all going on a more or less set route, through Java and Bali with a quick stopover in Kalimantan to see the orangutans. They are missing a very interesting part of the world.
It is almost 6 am now so I must stop now and get ready for breakfast and another day in the outskirts of Borneo.