Indonesia Early July 2007: I am currently on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia. I came to this spot about a week ago from the island of Borneo, which is called Kalimantan here in Indonesia, where I had been for eleven days. Part of that time was spent on a rather impulsive jungle joyride up the Kayahan River to the center of the island. I had originally entered Indonesia via Jakarta, staying that city for four nights, was in Bali for a week, then Borneo and am finishing my trip this time in Indonesia here in Sulawesi.
It is hard for me at this time to write a good depiction of the bits of Indonesia that I have visited. There is so much contrast and contradiction, and downright unfathomable aspects of the various myriads of cultures that make this country. The trip has been fascinating overall, and I intend to come back again for a more in depth travel of Indonesia.
My first stop was Jakarta, the capital and largest city of Indonesia and a city with a terrible reputation as a horribly dirty, polluted, crowded and unlivable mess. While there I did not do anything of note. However, I stayed in what turned out to be the very modern and stylish city core, with high rises, chic cafes, coffee shops, wine bars and a jumping night club scene. This modern island in a sea of pollution and sprawling slums also features a nascent "New Age" culture reflected in the various organic shops "whole food" stores and restaurants, yoga, meditation centers and spas. The modern city center belies a very large, poor mass of people, though. And the city can be dangerous: I heard stories of people held up by taxi drivers!
In Bali I visited a charming town called Ubud in the hilly center of the island. Although very touristy, Ubud has kept its Balinese Hindu culture relatively intact, and can be a fairly romantic place. Ubud has so many temples that they are literally everywhere, and the architecture of the town is still the traditional Hindu type. It has a sort of Northern California hippy feel to it, Balinese style, with an ingrained organic movement that goes hand in hand with its Hindu culture, and a pronounced New Age culture featuring numerous wellness and meditation centers, and reflexology, health and yoga spas. Mixed in to the home grown population is a large society of expat "counter-culture" types, many who live and work in Bali running small shops as well as the transient variety.
In Ubud, I met an Australian sociologist and retired social worker, who has stayed in Bali for three months each year for the past three decades. Over a very pleasant and long lunch, he explained to me that the Balinese are fairly unique in the world from a cultural preservation standpoint in that they have a propensity to keep their culture no matter the outside influences. The key to their cultural resiliency is a very keen ability to absorb new outside influences into their culture and transform outside influences into something uniquely Balinese Hindu. For example, when motor cars were introduced, the Aussie further explained, a Balinese High Priest came up with a blessing for the vehicle and the spirits in the metal. In a darker vein, something similar was done with the horrible scourge of AIDS. In Bali, there are various ceremonies or health rituals for different diseases. As AIDS unfortunately became known in the Balinese community, it needed its own ritual, too.
The Balinese Hindu culture is on display all over the highland area. Outside Ubud, every village in the area has at least one temple, and often they have many. As in Ubud, the homes in the villages and countryside are still mostly of the Balinese-Hindu architectural style. The scenery in the Bali highlands is quite dramatic and gorgeous. Huge swaths of terraced-hill rice paddies spread out in all directions in many areas. Deep green, even in the dry season, the beautifully terraced and irrigated fields are dotted with the traditional homes, temples and resting spots or shelters.
From Bali, I flew onward to the island of Borneo. I had two main things of interest to me in Borneo. One was to travel into the center area of the island, an area infamous for its fierce headhunting cultures of the recent past. I also want at some point, to visit the Southern peat swamp national park called Tanjing Puting, famous for its Orangutans and other prolific wildlife. Borneo, though, was not originally part of my plan and I was not outfitted for heavy jungle travel. I did not bring mosquito netting, rain tarps and such and I was overburdened with city stuff. I did not intend to do any jungle areas on this particular trip to Indonesia due to the knee problems that cut an earlier journey in Papua New Guinea short. However, since I was so near to Borneo, I impulsively discarded my planned itinerary for after Bali in Indonesia and went to Borneo anyways.
It was not the smoothest trip. I wasted several days bumbling my way towards the southern center of the island. I had flown into Kalimantan via Balikpapan, a major and relatively modern oil boom city on the southeastern edge of the island. From there I ventured eastward to Benjarmasin, the colorful but impoverished capital of Southern Kalimantan in the southernmost central part of the island. From there I was to begin my journey up the great Kahayan River inland to the lands of the once feared headhunting Dayak peoples. My loose plan was to go north upriver to the last town of any note on the Kahayan, called Palangkaraya and sort of outfits myself properly for the jungle journey to Dayak country. At the least I needed to obtain mosquito netting and an English speaking guide.
I ended up getting to Palangkaraya by car, hitching a ride with an acquaintance I had met in the Benjarmasin Garuda Airlines service center, who was going to an area near Palangkaraya to see his mistress for the weekend. However, once I got in Palangkaraya, a stale and drab government town that was very hard to get around as there was no call taxi service of any kind and very little English was spoken anywhere, I was unable to find a suitable mosquito net, or anything else for that matter. Tired of wasting time my first day in that hot, stale and useless place, I again acted impulsively. Early the next morning, I grabbed the first speedboat river taxi heading north that I could find at 7 a.m. I had no guide, no mosquito netting, food or other camp equipment. Not knowing what was at the end of the day long boat ride deep into the jungle, since there was literally no one I could ask as I could find no one who spoke English, I figured I'd just wing it. Hopefully I figured somewhere along the way I'd find someone that could speak English and that I could hire on as a guide, and who would have an extra mosquito net, as well as somewhere to sleep and things to eat. It was admittedly a lot to hope for.
For the first few hours of the journey, our medium sized speedboat, crammed full with native Borneans, sputtered to a halt several times. Each time, our boat driver and his engine man managed to get the engine to come to life again and we sped on. However, about three hours into the normally 7 hour journey, our luck ran out as the boat engine died and refused to be come back to life. For a short while, we were dead in the water, starting to drift backward, downriver. Luckily a speedboat from the upriver direction came by and towed us to a nearby village. We hung out there for several hours awaiting a replacement speedboat to come upriver from Palangkaraya. While in the village, to my relief, I found a small shop from which I bought some bottled water, peanuts and had some eggs hard boiled to take upriver with me. At least I wouldn't go hungry that day.
Finally a new speedboat came along, and we were soon on our way again. Around 5 pm, we reached the end of the ride, a village called Tewah. I was the only one left on the speedboat, as the other passengers had all disembarked en route in the various villages we passed along the way. After disembarking on a small wharf, I looked up this long flight of stairs that went up the hill from the river, and saw...to my astonishment, a hotel! I couldn't believe it as I figured I would have been whacking weeds to make a clearing to sleep in for the night, or at best, would be sleeping on a wooden floor in a common village shelter after getting permission from the village chief. Instead, here was a genuine hotel, or more correctly, a guesthouse; and, a nice one it turned out to be. Run by a petite and attractive young Muslim mother of two, her all female staff added a feminine touch to this jungle hotel. Even more welcome was the site of an air conditioner in my room, which was run off of a diesel generator, so that I could escape the oppressive heat and humidity. Quite happy at this good turn of events, I feasted away on fried chicken and stir fried vegetables whipped up by the very friendly staff.