The city of Banjarmasin, Kalimantan Selatan, has many masks: A place of important Muslim pilgrimages, the southern port to the third largest island in the world, and in the eyes of many a Bali tourist – nothing at all. For this reason I recently took a group of five European friends on a true adventure around the province as it still offers the novelty of exclusivity no longer available in Indonesia’s usurping comfort zones. Our expedition included five orangutan spottings, a bonfire in a Dayak tribal community, teaching French in underdeveloped villages, mornings at floating markets, appearances in newspapers and on TV, and spotting tens of proboscis monkeys – crucial experiences of Bornean magic in one week!
Our first morning we sat cross-legged on the roof of a kelotok boat coasting along a Borean freeway – a traffic jam on a broad river leading to the floating market of Lok Baintan. Known as the city of a thousand rivers and the Venice of Asia, traffic signs line the riverbanks of Banjarmasin. Being stuck in a jam of elderly women selling fruit, coffee, and local sweets loaded in their wooden jukung boats for about two hours was an experience of the world closer to the humble – and chaotic – start of human history, the spirited morning of the world. Paco from France stood tall on the roof of the boat, calling out for pisang goreng (fried bananas) and a vendor eagerly paddled over to us. Borneo’s floating markets are reminiscent of those in Thailand and Myanmar, as are the indigenous tattoos and piercings – because the original people of Borneo descended from Myanmar in boats. The people of Borneo are a minority in Asia, having avoided any influence from Mongolia – culturally and genetically. They instead opted for life in Borneo’s 140 million-year-old rainforests.
Later that same afternoon we boarded another boat to tour the island home of some 75 proboscis monkeys on Pulau Bakut, under the Barito bridge and the trans-Kalimantan highway. A local conservation effort focused on saving their city’s mascot, the proboscis, from extinction, Sahabat Bekantan Indonesia’s employees thoughtfully brought along some mangrove trees for us to plant on the banks of the island – to help deal with erosion. And as we sunk the trees into the muddy banks tens of proboscis monkeys were ghosting us from the trees above. Barges the size of warehouses carried pyramids of coal and piles of lumber down the river, traveling forwards with the relentlessness of these changing times; and in their wake are just a few more mangrove trees.
The Punan and U’ut Dayak have been the strong and lively children of these forests for millennia. They would tell you, however, that orangutan have never been easy to come by. For a glimpse of them it was a full day on the road into the neighboring province of Kalimantan Tengah. We passed the city of Palangkaraya once slated to become the capital of Indonesia – now at the heart of the forest fires of a palm oil economy. From here we rented a boat and channeled through the forests encircling an island rehabilitation center – for orphaned apes. I should think that triangulating our gazes into the eyes of an animal at least resembling a common ancestor – and then back at one another, then back to a female ape where she sits in the dark shade of green leaves, would unite any odd assortment of people. With permission, we went overboard and swam as close as possible to the orange people of the forest – who responded by wisely tossing sticks and stones our way.
As you approach the tribal communities of Loksado the rules of the road change, because Dayak motorists are said to be fearless; we sounded the horn at every turn and motorists flung past us thoughtlessly. While the main community of Loksado has many conveniences and basic services, hiking trails lead off into the hills, connecting Dayak settlements that are set back – both in space and in time. Pigs and dogs roam the streets and families partake in weaving and preparing cinnamon sticks on their front porches. The attraction at the heart of Loksado’s popularity for a good reason, we couldn’t leave without taking a raft down the rivers and through the woods. Our Dayak boatman propelled us through the forest, stopping every hour for a swim in azure whirlpools. He had once rafted down the river for a full month to sell some goods in the city of Banjarmasin.
If an itinerary didn’t leave some down time for connecting with locals it would be a soulless photo opportunity not anchored in any deeper reality. As five foreigners walking into Teluk Mendung village, small flipflops slapped down the boardwalks to greet us. We greeted kids with one blank book each – for studying, doodling, learning, and we also brought writing supplies. Under the awning of a front porch we sang songs, exchanged national anthems, and had a jam – on the only saxophone some of these people will ever see or hear. While the foreign sounds captivated everybody, Valerie, from France, disappeared for about twenty minutes into a wooden shack that was raised up on stilts above the river. The women of the village had invited her in as she was the only female of the group. Without a single communicable word between them, they passed twenty minutes together; a pregnant woman ran her fingers over Valerie’s face, arms, legs – and as a woman Valerie knew the point of this Malayu tradition. The local woman was inspiring French features in her unborn baby to be born on the boardwalk banks of a river in Borneo. When Valerie came back she was in a higher emotional octave. Traditionally, pregnant women of Kalimantan should also avoid looking at monkeys so not to inspire impishness in their children; husbands alike should also try to avoid reaching into a narrow opening to remove an object, until the child is born.
From the port of Tiwingan Lama our last experience was the catchment of Riam Kanan – down the rivers and to the small villages above an important 30 MW hydroelectric dam. We strolled through a village in the forest; Liang Toman was draped with flags for independence day. Here we sang more songs and jumped into the water with all of the village’s children. Our last sunset in Kalimantan was on an uninhabited island in the middle of a vast river – barefooted, windswept, wide-eyed, and together. We were all more than a bit reluctant to head back to the comfort zone of Indonesia – though at this time we needed the rest.