When you travel through populated areas of Kalimantan, Borneo, many of the people you meet are poor or unlucky Javanese settlers sent by the Indonesian government to help homogenize this wildly disparate collection of islands. Beside me on the bus sat example number one, a stringy, nervous Javanese man who would sit quietly for minutes at a time and then violently shake his head as if he were having an epileptic fit. Then I’d glance over and he’d be stock-still again, staring straight ahead. By three in the morning, it had begun to freak me out.
I was effectively the primary exhibit in the Barito River’s only floating zoo.
I was in a semi-conscious state at this point, had no idea where we were, and it was time to exit the bus. So I followed the twitchy man and the rest of the riders to a quiet warf where we were loaded onto speedboats, which soon jetted across the river, their spotlights illuminating tiny balls of spray that danced over the surface of the black water. Gradually the shore disappeared behind us and I was left to sit groggily beside the twitchy man and his chickens. Flames rose up in the distance, their reflections darting over the languid swells of the river. The fires lit the far shore, natural gas vented by the oil refineries of Balikpapan. They rose high into the night, faintly reflecting off the cottony cloudcover with a murky orange glow. This was the end of my trip, the biggest city in hundreds of miles, and it looked like the suburbs of Hell.
Banjarmasin however, where I’d begun the journey, is a pleasant little town that only make sense when viewed from its river. There is no shore to speak of; the muddy tree-lined banks stretch out over the water, as does every toilet, bamboo stilted house, and platform from which the water taxis plie their trade, carting people and products up the Barito River. My goal was vague; I’d decided to fly here from Jakarta because the plane was convenient. The room in my losman, a local motel, held a creeky bamboo bed separated from the rest of the family’s house by a blue plastic shower curtain. The bathroom was a platform over the river. It had rained the night before, and the afternoon before, and the late-afternoon and early afternoon before, even though it wasn’t technically the rainy season, and I’d spent my time between showers wandering around the sparsely populated town. I bought an unintentionally comic T-shirt at the city’s only mall -a ramshackle cement structure which would collapse about five years later, killing a large number of people.
It was time to leave Banjarmasin.
So as I sat in the restaurant eating french fries and readying to leave, I spotted a strange little town in my guidebook. Negara, halfway up the Barito river into Kalimantan. This river city made their living from herds of water buffalo they raised on giant floating bamboo rafts. The next morning I talked my way onto a riverboat heading up the Barito.
It was predominantly a cargo boat but they allowed passengers, and being the only non-Indonesian on board I was shown to a position of status, which in this case was a small wooden cubicle about four feet long and three feet wide, with sliding plywood doors on either end. Considering where the other ten or twelve passengers slept I was grateful to have it.
Unfortunately, being the only American on a ship full of locals also had its disadvantages. I spoke Bahasa Indonesia just enough to get by in the marketplace and no one else spoke a word of English. A good percentage of them didn’t even speak Indonesian. This wouldn’t stop them from trying their hand at conversation, however. Indonesians are the most friendly people on earth and so, every few minutes over the next two days of my journey, one or more crewmembers would slide open the plywood door from one or both ends of my cubicle and either try to speak to me, which was fruitless, or stare at me silently for minutes on end, which was unnerving.
This cubicle sat about three feet off the ground so I was effectively the primary exhibit in the Barito River’s only floating zoo. After a few minutes of silent staring I’d try to speak, either randomly stringing words together, or pretending they were people that I knew from home.
Sometime that first evening a sketchy looking Javanese man with a lazy eye climbed into my stateroom. This also happened with some regularity. Luckily he spoke Bahasa Indonesia and my few words of simple conversation carried us along for a few minutes until I finally deciphered that peculiar hand gesture —thumb moving between two fingers. He was politely inquiring if I needed a prostitute. This also happened in Borneo with some regularity. Borneo must be crawling with prostitutes, or else I just looked desperate; I never found out which. At any rate, I quickly shuffled this riverpimp out of my pen, and holding the doors shut with my feet and my hands, I drifted off to sleep on top of my lumpy backpack.
Which lasted about four hours. Sometime around three-thirty or four in the morning, the first mate came by, sliding open the cubicle door to stare at me with his morning breakfast. He was a local man, who knew little Indonesian, just enough to ask for a gift. Many of the crew were unfamiliar with tourists, and being naturally curious, they wanted something from America. I’d given out pencils, T-shirts that said, “My Friends Went to Hollywood and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”; I’d given away drawings and little toys that I’d brought from Los Angeles. I didn’t have much left but I found a Singaporean coin and tossed it to him. I think he misunderstood its value, because the first mate was suddenly my best buddy. He acted as if I’d tipped him with a hundred dollar bill. He held it in his palm and showed it to his friends; he insisted that I follow him around the boat as he introduced me in some language I couldn’t understand. He climbed out onto the deck of this small cargo boat and jumped onto the roof, motioning for me to follow.
I had my daypack and tossed it to him, scrabbling up through the deep purple light of the approaching dawn. The shifty wall-eyed riverpimp was already there, kneeling on a prayer rug, wearing his little pillbox hat, praying to Mecca. Only gradually did I realize that he was the boat’s captain. I followed the first mate over toward him and we sat together on the roof, looking out at the heavy flowing swells, as the morning light began to filter through the trees on either side of the Barito river. The first mate rummaged through my daypack, but it was just out of curiosity.
He pulled out some ink stamps I’d bought in Singapore, a cartoon naked lady with arms akimbo. For some reason he wanted me to stamp the image onto his back, so with the Captain still praying, I pressed a large circle of naked ladies onto the first mate’s back in multicolored ink. This made him very happy and he started to bellow out my name, yelling it over and over in a heavy foghorn voice, claiming the river in my name as the captain finished his prayers, offered me a clove cigarette, and nodded to the rising sun.
When I finally arrived at Negara, somewhere in the middle of Borneo, they’d never heard of anything so absurd as cattle being raised on giant bamboo rafts. One after the other they would stare at me as if I were crazy, smile, and then point me off in some random direction. Indonesians are very polite people and it is considered rude not to answer a stranger, regardless of whether or not that answer is correct.