Saturday, October 27, 2012

Into the Wilds of Borneo

A while back, I read a novel set in a small hamlet in West Java around the 1960s. The hamlet was disconnected from any large city and sustained itself through rice fields and a strong belief in ancestral spirits to guide its future. The novel, The Dancer, was historical fiction, and it painted a pretty accurate picture of life in this hamlet where children grew up bathing each other from a hill-side spring and catching crickets to sell as snacks at the nearest market - a snapshot of the past - or has that much changed?

Last week, I went to meet some friends in South Kalimantan (Borneo) to go bamboo rafting. There were so many times throughout our weekend, that I felt like I was floating through that little hamlet in West Java.

We started the weekend with an early morning trip to the floating market. I should explain first that the town we were visiting, Benjarmasin, is known as the 'Venice of the East' because the city is built along a river.
So, we piled onto a boat, and headed down the river, AKA the backyards-bathrooms-washrooms of the people of Benjarmasin. At 6 o'clock in the morning, people were just coming out of their houses to bathe or scrub laundry on whatever wooden boards made up their house on stilts.

We felt a little bit malu (shy), but they didn't seem to mind that we were being exposed to such a private part of their lives. Maybe that's just out American mind-set taking over, though.

Our breakfast boat!
We continued down the river to more open water and were soon surrounded by boats, small and large, selling fruits, veggies, fried stuff, and more. We saddled up to a boat set up for cooking Benjarmasin's famous soup and ordered breakfast. While we were eating, smaller boats laden with bananas, melons, oranges, and other fruits, latched on to ours, and we bargained for some sides to our breakfast. Perhaps the best part of the floating market was when we found the gorengan (fried stuff) boat. We were handed a long bamboo stick that had a nail sticking out of one end. They we were instructed to spear whatever delicious fried thing we wanted from inside the boat. It reminded me of the claw game, only we were a winner every time, and the prizes were homemade donuts...mmm, donuts.

Morning greetings in the floating market

Fried stuff boat - note the bamboo pole that's used for spearing your food. Best.Idea.Ever.

Close up of delicious fried stuff. Mmmmm.
Oldest mosque in Benjarmasin. Very cool.
The next day, after traveling by van three hours to the more remote village of Loksado, we traded in our river boat for some ojeks. The ojeks took us another 30 minutes or so deep into the wilds of Borneo. We rode along narrow dirt roads and crossed the river several times over rickety, wooden bridges that appeared to have no business carrying any weight let alone several bules on bikes.
We made it all in one piece, despite my constant fear of smashing my smaller driver with my 'massive' American body at each down hill. Well, I take that back, one of our ojeks had the misfortune of losing it's exhaust, and then the pipe connecting the exhaust, and various other pieces as we drove along. Luckily, the driver had the forethought to bring an old rice bag for collecting and carrying the pieces as they fell. Amazingly, the bike and passengers alike made it to the destination...which was a beautiful waterfall!

Finding well-hidden waterfalls might just be one of my favorite past-times in Indonesia - right up there with climbing volcanoes.We scrambled down some slippery rocks and jumped into frigid water - with our shirts and shorts on so as not to offend any spirits lingering around the falls. Our ojek drivers sat up on dry land and amused themselves by watching our chattering teeth and pitiful attempts to swim up to where the falls crashed into the water. I was pretty proud, though, that I was able to climb up the wall next to the falls and impress everyone with my cannonball skills.
Me climbing with some instruction from Jon - It was hard work!


Next up was the main event: Bamboo Rafting. This was moment we'd all be waiting for, hence the super cool shirts that featured Mr. Peanut saying, Mau ke mana, Mister? (Where do you want to go, Mister? - a question frequently asked to bules, men and women alike. No word on why Mr. Peanut made an appearance.) Answer: Bamboo Rafting!  The rainy season hadn't quite begun yet, so the river was not very deep. Our worries were set aside, however, when we arrived at the river side and saw several bapaks busy at work making our rafts. That's right, they made the raft right in front of us, with little more than Bamboo and palm leaves.

We hung out with some pretty pintar (clever) students while waiting for our rafts to be built.

And they continued to be adorable by following us around.
Bamboo Raft construction. I don't know how they did it either.

Our two-hour adventure down the river began a little rocky. And then continued to be rocky. By rocky, I mean the river was so low that our raft literally got caught on just about every rock in the river. There were some deeper parts that were very relaxing, though. When I wasn't chatting with Iris, my raft-mate, I went back to quiet contemplation about this much more basic lifestyle. It felt very much like I'd been transported back 60 to 70 years ago, as I passed young women bathing in the river, children splashing, and old, sun-browned women loading banana bunches on their own rafts to take to market. The nine other fellows and I, with our blue matching t-shirts and cameras, seemed like an intrusion on their simple lifestyle. Then again, just by extension of being around them, I felt my thoughts, breathing, and just about everything else slow down and relax.

The rocks.
The bamboo raft drivers getting us off the rocks.
Very cool bamboo bridge coming off this tree.
Bamboo rafts used for daily living.

Two hours later, we arrived safely back on shore and our bamboo rafting adventure was over. It was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air from big city living. I was able to escape the fast-paced life of Jakarta and learn the rhythms of a much older and (I have a feeling) wiser people. I glimpsed their lives, preserved for centuries, not though a book or museum, but on a boat on a river in the middle of the wilds of Borneo. Pretty amazing.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bapak Ojek of the Jalan Tikus

Keeping with my goal to familiarize the folks back home with day-to-day living, I've posted some short video clips from an ojek (motorbike taxi) ride I took on Friday. Ojeks are great because they can go places where cars can't. Riding them is alternatively terrifying and exhilarating.These guys got skillz. This ride was particularly entertaining because Bapak Ojek (Mr. Ojek) knew all of the Jalan tikus ("mouse roads" = short cuts) to avoid the Friday macet (traffic jam). Hop on the back (we can squeeze one more easy), and I'll show you.

Between the massive sky scrapers of Jakarta, there are little alleys filled with street food stalls, people hanging out on their motorbikes, and drainage systems - or, as I like to call them - bogs of eternal stench. Lean right!

Mind the speed bump at the beginning, and the Ibu (woman), and the high school girls, and the bog of eternal stench (on the right this time), and the dude standing next to said bog, and the other motorbike, and the girl on a bike... 

...and the man on the bicycle-come-merrygoround, and the polisi tidur ("sleeping policeman" = speed bump), and the wall of motorbikes, and the kaki lima ("five legs" = mobile food stalls)...

I made it to my apartment in a remarkable 10 minutes for only $2. The same distance could have easily taken me two hours in a taxi and cost two to three times as much. Thank you, Bapak Ojek. You're a life saver.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Secret's in the Flow

Oftentimes, living in Jakarta can be infuriating. I mean, full-out open the flood gates, shaking of fists and nashing of teeth frustrating. The infrastructure is so horrendous that just the thought of leaving your house more than twice a day is exhausting. Every venture outside must be carefully planned out - the day, time of day, probability of a demonstration occurring somewhere, the weather, availability of taxis, one's level of patience for bargaining with an ojek (motorbike taxi), the alignment of the moon and stars - all of these factors must be considered. And then, even after careful consideration of all of these things, there is a 90% chance that you'll end up in a situation like this: 
On this particular day, my friends and I had already been rear-ended once by a McDonalds delivery motorbike (he drove off without stopping), and our side mirror had been clipped by a truck (drove off also) all in the span of one car ride. Normally, despite the apparent chaos of traffic patterns (ha! patterns!) in Jakarta, there is a "flow." But there are certain days, like yesterday, that something seems to have disrupted the flow and there is a ripple effect that causes these little bumps and snarls to reverberate throughout the rest of the day.

It makes sense, then, that I frequently get the question, "Why do you like living there?"  Fair question. The best answer I can give so far is - The small things, the little vignettes that pass by my taxi window of people connecting with other people. Old men sitting around smoking and laughing, guards giving each other back massages, people on bikes riding slowly from shop to shop to offer hot drinks, snacks, or even seamstress services. I remembered jogging through my hometown this past summer and realizing how quiet it was. No one was on the streets or on their porches. In Indonesia, everyone stays outside to chit chat and become part of that flow of energy. Anther Fellow, Deirdre, described it like this in her blog:

One interesting thing I’ve noticed, here and in other parts of Indonesia, is that so many people are sitting and waiting.  Old men just sitting outside shops, or women sitting beside food stalls; people sitting outside their houses; becak drivers sprawled out, sleeping in their becaks.  It doesn’t strike me as lazy at all, just a calm, patient, endearing practice.  They aren’t in a hurry to get everywhere.  There aren’t so many jobs here, so people do what they can to make a living, and in the meantime, they wait.  They talk to each other, and they smoke.  Lots of smoke. Anyway, driving through these smaller neighborhoods, it was really cool to see so many people just out and about.  Sitting, or working in shops.

I realize that I spend much of my blog space talking about particular one-off adventures that I have here in Indonesia. Those adventures are surely a big part of why I like living here, but perhaps more so it is being plugged into that daily energy and flow that helps balance happiness with the need to punch someone in the face. Recently, my teman Jess and I (known affectionately as J-squared at work) were invited to join our staff and students to walk about the city as part of morning exercise. This was a perfect opportunity to snap some photos of what I'm talking about. I apologize that I didn't get many pictures of people sitting about; I still feel a bit uncomfortable intruding on people with my camera. 

First, an introduction:
Here's what we saw on our walk and things that are common everywhere in Jakarta and Indonesia:
Sharing the road with bajai...and everything else on wheels - sidewalks are pretty uncommon.

Man selling balloons and pinwheels on sticks.
Everyone is an entrepreneur here. This house sells electricity (listrik) vouchers.

This one sells gasoline (bensin).

Bicycles can deliver anything: Vegetables...
...gas for your stove,
...and entertainment for your children.
One of the best places to connect to the flow - have dinner at a street stall. This one sells sop kaki gambing (goat-leg soup...mmmmm)

Happy goat-leg soup customer

I hope that at least starts to answer your question. Of course, the longer I'm here, the more amendments I find to my answer. There are ways for this small-town girl to make it in this big, chaotic, let's be honest - sometimes smelly, city. The secret's in the flow.