Samstag, 14. Mai 2011

The Travelogue, Part XVII - Borneo: Explorer's Disappointment Or Why You Should Never Trust Your Guidebook

Not your tourist airport: Balikpapan greets me with mining machine ads instead of resort ones

I came to Borneo with great expectations: It's one of the places on earth that still has pristine rain forests, and its inaccessibility allows for new species to be discovered almost every year. I had visions of teeming wildlife and jungle exploration, and was looking forward to seeing Orang Utans and other elusive creatures. I was very, very excited. Now unfortunately all that didn't happen. Yet I learned some valuable lessons. But let me first tell you about Eastern Kalimantan, locally known as KalTim.

Located between the borders of Malaysian Borneo and the Sulawesi Strait, KalTim mostly consists of jungle. It is one of the richest locations on earth, with mind-boggling amounts of coal, gold, diamonds and oil slumbering beneath its lush rainforests. Consequently most people who come here seek to exploit its treasures, and not as tourists. Apart from its capital Balikpapan, life is still (very) raw in these parts, and Indonesians liken it to the Wild West of the American railroad era. Its local inhabitants, the Dayak, are regarded with superstition by other inhabitants, and tales of black magic and mysterious deaths are whispered at campfires on the rest of the archipelago. Sounds great, doesn't it? Alas, my adventures had to stop prematurely, due to some mistakes that I made in ignorance:

Relying on the information in the Lonely Planet guide book
I didn't mind finding travel times on what Lonely Planet calls roads about twice the amount stated, not including getting stuck. I was going into the jungle, after all. What I did mind, however, was that prices where about 4 to 5 times the amounts quoted (and no, Indonesia does not have a 25 % inflation rate), forcing me to quit halfway through before it got too expensive. So when Lonely Planet says the boat upriver costs about 15$, it is actually 60$. The guide fees in the book are the official ones, but no guide can sustain himself (not to speak of his family) on that amount, and most guides will be "busy" for anything lower than 4 times the price. Speaking to locals, this has been practice since the existence of the reserve, which leads me to believe that none of the authors have actually been there. I could continue to rant about wrong maps and missing information all over the chapter, but I'll spare you for the time being. Suffice to say that this has been the most unreliable Lonely Planet I've had so far.

Not researching more about the destination.
Lonely Planet made it seem like a very straightforward affair, with difficulties only in the most remote regions. I didn't bother double checking anywhere on the internet, apart from a few sample itineraries from touring agencies, which looked pretty much the same, but came at a (comparatively) ridiculous price. Unfortunately, those prices are not as ridiculous as they may seem. It's enough of a gamble that sometimes the tour operators actually lose money sending tours there. I know, because I befriended one, Lucas Zwaal, a Dutchman who has been living in Indonesia for 25 years, who gave me the lowdown on traveling there. Further up from where I made it, gasoline prices can reach 7$ a liter, countless local factors like water level, local situation or roadblocks can mean you are stuck in the middle of nowhere (and I mean: nowhere) for several days, at up to ten times the rate you would pay anywhere else in Indonesia. Jungle life is even more expensive than island life, and villagers only sustain themselves because there are some lucrative side jobs to be had (such as gathering perfume ingredients).
All of this I could have known, and prepared accordingly, had I put more effort into researching my destination better. Pieced together from locals and some of Lucas' information, my journey would have cost about 2500$ or more, far beyond my budget (and Lonely Planet's, erm, guesses).

Not being fluent in Bahasa Indonesia. 
So far, learning the local language of the places I travel to has been more of a hobby than a necessity. Most essentials can be communicated with hands, feet and a piece of paper. Unfortunately, away from the major towns no one speaks English, with even the official language being a second one, and communication subjects become more daunting than the choice of food or an exchange of pleasantries. While Indonesian is a very easy language to learn, I did not spent enough time learning it to be prepared to hitch a canoe ride or to explain trekking plans in detail. Without a proper course, travel away from the three major towns is difficult at best, and impossible once you have to arrange more than a meal and a place to stay. Not to speak of it being boring. In some cases I had to even dig my lousy Chinese out of the relic box to actually make myself understood.

Underestimating the little things.
This is the most embarrassing part. Thinking I could settle for just doing the Kutai National Park which is less extreme, but still pleasing, I headed back down. On the way, my shoes got stolen. I don't know who would want a pair of size 45 (UK11) trekking shoes, but I assume someone in the exact situation that I am in now. Because of it I won't be able to do any jungle trekking anymore. Neither here nor in Sulawesi, where I am heading tomorrow. Because size 45 simply does not exist in Indonesia. I would settle for sport shoes, fashion sneakers even, but there are no Indonesians with size 45 feet. Ordering them in takes at least a week, and they are very expensive (trekking shoes about 200$). Trekking in Flip-flops would be "possible" but extremely idiotic. So unless I find someone's shoes to buy off on the way, my main reason to come to Indonesia has been thwarted not by lack of adventure spirit, but lack of footwear.  

But it was not all for naught.
So what can I say about Kalimantan Timur? Have I gained anything from it? Yes, I have: Some interesting insights into the local culture, some hands-on experience with corruption and violence, and an entirely different perspective on civilization. KalTim is a place where nature is still close to people, especially the Dayak, and people are more in tune with the natural flow of things. But not in a hippie way. Death is all around people here, and a life holds no value. During my stay I have seen three bodies float downstream on the Mahakam River, and a week ago a Dutchman got stabbed to death for not sharing his cigarettes (a crass discourtesy in Indonesia) in a border town. Another (unarguably stupid) American shot a Hornbill, a bird that is holy to the Dayak as it carries away the souls of the dead, and subsequently was found decapitated at the outskirts of town. The Dayak used to be headhunters, and despite a "ban" violence flared as recently as the late nineties, when 500 Madurese immigrants where killed and thousands needed to be relocated. All in all, even for non-Dayak, life is a fight, and the philosophy is to live in the moment, as die we all must in the end. You can feel that resonate in how people treat you in the small towns; they smile, but they tax you. They will be friendly as the rules command, but if any opportunity presents itself to gain advantage they will take it. Evidence for this attitude can be found in Dayak folk religion, in which shamans will bestow riches to you or damage your enemies, but the price for those services is always blood (meaning death of a child or loved one). Having met such a shaman has made me aware of how thin the line can be, between modern western man and those living near (not even in) raw nature, where concepts such as human rights and sanctity of life are mere fantasies of an idle mind. It may sound odd from a staunch atheist, but this experience has made me realize what a big feat people such a Jesus or Mohammed have achieved in their time, where undoubtedly, attitudes have been similar.

Many buildings float on the Mahakam River banks

Speaking of attitudes, corruption here is so prominent that I went to a museum knowing it would be closed, expecting someone to open it for me for a price, which is exactly what happened. In fact, the caretaker was waiting there for exactly that to happen. It then only comes at a minor surprise that the museum's director turns up as well, trying to sell me some of the remaining antiques. Most exhibits, I was told later on by Lucas, are actually replicas, the originals long sold off to foreign collectors. And I can't blame them: with the legal minimum salary of 1.2 million Rupiah (and most companies will pay exactly that) no one can make a decent living in KalTim. Role models are far and few between, and surely not to be found in the government. Did I mention that the Suharto family marks promising mining spots as 'nature reserves', so they cannot be exploited for the next 75 years, to lay claim to them for the next Suharto generation? Or that government posts, even low police ones, are called "key" businesses here, because when you want one of these, you have to bring a key to the interview? For a police office, a motorbike key will suffice, for a better post a house key might be required.

(Illegal?) Logging is still good business in Kalimantan

And my personal lesson: sometimes it is better to retreat, regroup and recalculate rather than pushing things through. Pressing my itinerary would have been tiresome and expensive beyond reason, and I just will have to find other goals instead. As much as I hate to concede defeat, Indonesia is big and has plenty to offer, so I will have to choose flip-flop friendly terrain for the time being and not fret. I will return, some day, with more money and a second pair of shoes. Until then, the mighty jungles of Kayan Mentarang must remain unconquered (at least by me). I'm now off for a last try at shoes. I hear there is a basketball shop in town, maybe I will find something there.

Random Impressions

Indonesian gas station, the bottles hold gasonline
Ojeks, motorbike taxis, are the way to get around quickly
Indonesian mosques are colourful and modern
Every bus has someone who "entertains" the passengers with songs for a small donation

1 Kommentar:

  1. Really enjoying the travelogue.
    Brings back some memories and highlights how much has changed or not in the last 16 years.
    Keep writing