Sailing Above the Dragons

It is around 3pm at Tering and they are loading up the second riverboat of the day with a another load of scrap metal – old motors, scraps of old bulldozers and truck parts, the indecipherable tags ends from timber and mining camps that litter this area. We had waited until the first boat was loaded, 12 hours before but by 9.30 am, we were ready and headed off down stream for the two day journey to the big smoke of Samarinda.

Boat Terminal 500
Boat Terminal

However, as Shakespeare once put it, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip and an hour or so downstream the good ship Nihlam Cahaya (Nihlam’s Light) sheared it’s flywheel bolts, just as I was settling in to another interminable cruise on a Mahakam River ferry . The good Nihlam, the owner/captain of the rig, was playing cards upstairs while a trainee pilot on the overloaded boat mangled an attempt to pick up more passengers at a wayside floating dock.

It had been that sort of trip. Back at Tenggarong, a relatively accessible and civilized town on the lower Mahakam River in Kalimantan Timur (East Borneo), I had eschewed the early morning boat up river for the later one which I had determined would be the more spacious, luxurious (well, for these parts of the woods) double-deck variety. Mahakam River ferries are huge 30 to 50 metre wooden constructions of shallow draft and almost all with basically an identical design except for the additions and customisations added according to the owners wealth or the use, and there are many, which it might be put to.

After three hours sitting atop rice sacks on the wharf, besieged by the usual and repetitive questions of my destination, the purpose of my visit, my country of origin, marital status by every person walking by, I was regretting the decision. When the good ship Makasser finally arrived, to add disappointment to my consternation, it was looking even shabbier and more run down than it’s predecessor.

Having already wasted half a day waiting fruitlessly and dreading to think what the next boat would look like, I climbed aboard. Making a beeline for the upper-desk area; basically a space on the main cabin roof with a makeshift tarp and wood construction above for shelter from the terrific heat and/or constant rain in these parts. There was method in the madness as the bottom deck was well-filled with a mass of curious eyes and twitching mouths itching to continue the same unending conversation I had just escaped from on the dock, (Indeed, the same conversation I have been having in bus, train, ship and plane terminals all over Indonesia for so many past years).  I have learned how to respond fluently and automatically but I have also learned it usually does not go much further than the basic formalities and generally it was better to avoid if at all possible..

Upstairs, lurking in the eerie light cast by the blue nylon tarp, was a lone Javanese rice farmer and a single Banjar (from Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan) timber worker, both heading up to Long Iram to continue their separate professions, The Javanese farmer was a wiry salt of the earth type with a graveled working-man’s voice who confirmed what I had just been reading – Borneo soils are poor in comparison with Java and most of Indonesia, The first three crops – possible in one year here with the almost year round rain and heat and with expert farmers like the Javanese transmigrates – have excellent yields. After that, the production plummets as the soil is leached and the land dies. He went on to describe the problems of foraging wild pigs, deer and monkey, the floods and dry spells and the isolation. I detect more than a hint of homesickness for his native East Java, which he had left 10 years ago for the adventure and promise of a better life.

The Banjar guy was a different breed; a silent, more sophisticated man who was on his way to start a new job at a timber concern somewhere up there in the middle Mahakam. After six years up river from Pontianak in west Kalimantan, a couple more in Irian Jaya and Sumatra, he was a bit worried about how this lot would work out. His wife and two kids had been left behind in Samarinda while he checked the place out and met up with his mate who had got him the job in the first place.

The Javanese farmer, along with a crowd of youths which had quickly gathered soon moved downstairs, probably a bit miffed at my sudden taciturn bent after starting a seemingly knowledgeable conversation about rice. But with the relentless interest of local in Westerners, even grubby on the cheap travelers like myself, it gets tiring. On journeys where it is impossible to escape notice, I now follow a general policy of a polite (and sometimes not a polite) closed mouth when a crowd gathers.

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