Through the blur of the aeroplane window, I see green forests and extensive plantations. Amongst the green and yellow, a wide river flows like a giant snake lashing its tail, stretching for miles and dividing the city full of densely packed buildings. I imagine what life is like along the river soon, the cities grows along its streams, Kingdoms have been built and destroyed along the length of Kalimantan’s Rivers.

The plane carrying me would land in Borneo or Kalimantan. It is home to one of the oldest rainforest, the largest in Asia, the third largest island on this planet. Borneo is divided into three countries that have not been 100 years free from colonialism: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bruney.

Before long, my plane has landed in Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan and the largest city on the island. The city is divided by the Mahakam River – a watercourse encased in myth which flows from Mount Cemaru, in the middle of the island, some 900km to the Makassar Strait.

One morning, my guide, 33-year-old Muhammad Nur, accompanies me from Samarinda to a village situated on the outskirts of the city. It is a Sunday and the village is quiet, with no more than a couple of people around. I walk up the steps of a large house on stilts and go inside, where I meet 94-year-old Pajang Apui, who is dozing on a wooden bench in the middle room, or lamin, of this traditional house belonging to the Dayak Kenyah community. The morning breeze blows from the north into the house. In the yard, I see Pui Pesim, another elderly figure, walking unsteadily towards us and up the steps. He smiles and sits down beside Pajang Apui and me.

“In a moment, we’re going to dance, so don’t go anywhere,” says Pui Pesim with a smile. He starts to adjust the traditional costume he is wearing, adding various knick-knacks and a headpiece. A mandau knife, the traditional weapon of this community, which is shrouded in legends, is tucked into his waistband. He sits back down; despite his words, there is still no sign that the old man is going to dance.

From the steps at the side of the house, a few elderly women enter, carrying rattan baskets on their backs. Their heads are tied with tapong, woven pandan leaves with thorns, used as customary headbands. Some of the women have traditional tattoos on their hands and legs.

Boat through the Mahakam River carrying coal from the many mines in East Kalimantan. (left) Dayak Kenyah women in East Kalimantan (right)

“This is from our ancestors in Apo Kayan,” says Plampang, showing me her arm. The charcoal engraved in her skin is in the shape of ancient motifs and indentations. Tattoos are an ancient ritual in Dayak culture. Restituta Driyanti, in her article ‘The Symbolic Meaning of Tattoos for the Dayak Community’, describes how these permanent marks can indicate a person’s social status.

“Almost everyone in this village originally comes from Apo Kayan. This place is their last hope,” says Pui Pesim. The old man then proceedsto tell me how he and his family travelled by boat, looking for a new place to live, far from the land of their birth, Apo Kayan, an area to the north bordering on Serawak, Malaysia. Eventually, they settled in the place now known as the Cultural Village of Pampang, on the outskirts of Samarinda, some 25km from the busy city centre.

Waitress on a river cruise on throuhg Mahakam river- Local tourist –Fatris MF

The sound of the sape, a traditional Dayak stringed instrument, echoes around the room. The previously quiet house is now filled with almost 300 guests from various provinces, as well as several foreign tourists. Pui Pesim begins to dance, accompanied by the sound of the sampe. The dance is called Lancit Lasan. It is an opening dance, used to ward away all the bad things that may come to disturb people. Next, Emi Liana Ladeq performs a dance. The feathers of a hornbill waft around on her hands, while her feet stamp slowly on the wooden floor, and the beads on her costume sparkle as they catch the light. Her gaze is calm, like the eyes of her ancestors in old black and white colonial video recordings. Liana finishes her dance and I am left in a daze on the wooden bench. After Liana’s performance, more dances by teenagers, children, and elderly women follow. A war dance, a peace dance, a dance about their journey from the land of their birth, Apo Kayan, when they followed the path of the Kayan River until it joined the Mahakam and continued until they reached and settled in this village. They perform all kinds of dances inside the house, which was built in accordance with ancient traditions. “Life here is just like the story in a dance,” says Liana.

“Come here every Sunday and you will see me dance. And I will carry on dancing,” whispers Liana. Darkness creeps across the horizon. Muhammad Nur escorts me back from Pampang to the bright lights of Samarinda, leaving behind Pajang Apui, Pui Pesim, and Liana. The following day, I relax at the Tanah Merah Waterfall, then move on to another waterfall, Berambai. Samarinda’s attractions are diverse.

Another day, I sit beside the Mahakam River, watching the boats laden with coal and other smaller rivercraft passing by. I move to a dock where the small boats are tethered. Pesut Etam is about to depart; this two-tiered boat will carry me and a hundred other passengers along the Mahakam River for a sightseeing cruise.

Pesut Etam sets sail. The boat travels along the river as dusk falls and the city begins to light up. From our vantage point in the middle of the river, Samarinda is aglow with lights reflecting on the ripples of water. Pesut Etam continues to travel along the river, passing under the colourful Mahakam Bridge. The two-hour journey passes quickly and we are soon back at the dock. I can imagine how exciting it would be to attend the annual Mahakam Festival on the first weekend in November (in 2019, it is taking place November 1–3). It is hard to envision how busy the Mahakam River will be with all the small boats floating along and the numerous dance performances taking place in the city.

At night, as the rain falls lightly on Samarinda, I sit in a café up a hill, marvelling at the brightly illuminated panorama and the dimly lit river winding along to its invisible end. This area, once part of the Kingdom of Kutai Kartanegara, established at the beginning of the 14th century in Kutai Lama, has grown into a large, bustling city. I go back to sit at the side of the Mahakam, looking from afar at the twinkling lights, sparkling like the beads on Liana’s dress. The water ripples gently and I imagine Liana dancing, and I think of Pui Pesim and what he told me about Samarinda being the Land of Hope.

I moved to another part of Borneo. I flew 30,000 feet above the equator, the imaginary line that cuts this earth. Overthere, a city below me is growing from plantations, deforestation, coal mines. Pontianak. It is the only city on this earth named after a ghost: Pontianak. But, I didn’t want to go to Pontianak. I go to another place where there is a forest in the middle of the city. How strange and ironic.

The morning had peaked, and the heat began to sting. Hamidi, a well-built, fair-skinned young Ketapang man, awaited me. He was my guide for a tour of the city in his car, and we were set to explore the west coast of Kalimantan, an island once feared by explorers. Kalimantan occupies part of Borneo, the world’s third largest island, and is covered with densely forested topography. Ketapang, the coastal city referred to as ‘Tanjungpura’ according to Prapanca in Nagarakertagama, is mostly inhabited by the Malay, followed then by the Javanese, Chinese and Dayak.

Our car glided past the monuments and various junctions, houses and brightly  coloured shops. “Development is growing rapidly,” Hamidi explained, as he introduced me to his home town. “My city earns its livelihood from mining, wood and palm.” Hamidi kept on talking about life here and the beaches we were about to visit. The car continued over bridges, passing a river next to concrete, multistorey houses, whilst what seemed like a million swiftlets darted through the air and tended their nests on the sides of the buildings. Their nests are providing an emerging business opportunity in Ketapang for bird’s nest soup, which can cost US$100 in Hong Kong.

I was exploring the Ketapang Regency at the Pawan River delta, which seems to be set  back from the tourist track, even though it boasts various destinations worth visiting.

We arrived at the deserted Tanjung Belandang beach where the water was enticingly calm, without a wave in sight. I sat in a hut directly overlooking the sea, with my back to the fishermen’s houses – wooden shacks with woven sago-leaf roofs. Before me were men and women looking for ale-ale, a type of shell mostly found at the beach during low tide. The wind was blowing softly; the waves lightly brushed the sand; little girls were running around, chasing each other. The sun began to emit a hint of orange in the far west as a woman served me a young coconut to drink. “Are you alone?” she asked, trying to make small talk when she saw me contemplating on my own. The people here speak with a soft Malay dialect, and I felt like I was in a coastal kampong in Upin & Ipin – a popular Malaysian cartoon show aired on Disney Channel Asia. Across the sea, Mount Palung stood tall, as if it had just risen from the depths to breathe in the clean air.

In the sweltering afternoon, I visited Gusti Muhammad Saunan Palace Museum, which houses an array of objects from the past: ceramic pieces from various nations, century-old weavings and even weapons. These relics tell the story of how the sultanate here has been in contact with the outside world for a long time. Uti Musri, a museum guide who is a descendant of the royal family, shared the stories of the relics, including the sacred cannons of the colonisers.

I headed back to the coast, this time to Pulo Datok beach, which sits approximately two hours from Ketapang, in a new regency named Sukadana. As my visit coincided with a long holiday and the New Year, there were families on vacation in the bay, which is tucked between Sempadi Isle and Datok Island. Yet even in high season, the beach remained quiet. Young men were canoeing and chuckling, whilst young women were chugging coconut water and sharing stories. Dusk began to disappear behind the far horizon, and I returned to Ketapang filled with a sense of calm.

Well rested, the next morning I was back on the road. A few minutes away from the city centre, the car couldn’t continue as the roads were ploughed. Before us, the urban forest stretched out, with the gates standing as its keeper. I got out of the car, rolled up my trousers and crossed the calf-high water, passing through the gates. Birds’ chirps and monkeys’ cries punctuated the engulfing silence. A winding wooden track stretched for two kilometres, providing an easy walk, surrounded by rich vegetation and dangling leaves.

A region and city that draws its livelihood from plantations and mining turned out to boast urban forests and beaches that amaze all the senses. In the midst of deforestation, when the world is fighting against global warming, when people start doubting whether there will be enough oxygen on Earth, Ketapang boasts rich forests in its city centre.

“This forest is not too vast, yet you’ll find everything in there as you go around,” said Raden Sebaan, an elderly man who claimed to have worked in the forest for over a decade, as he welcomed me in. This is Ketapang Urban Forest. “Proboscis monkeys, lampiyau (black monkeys), sun bears, endemic butterflies, deer, orangutans – you can see it all! They are not as tame as the ones in Tanjung Puting, but they do not attack people either. Over there in the corner, you’ll find many monkeys bathing, but they don’t use soap!” joked Raden.

I strolled along the wooden boardwalk that winds through the forest. The noise of the city felt so far away. There was only silence, interspersed with animal cries and the sound of water ripples. I was reunited with Raden Sebaan as he welcomed me back with now familiar laughter. He told me stories about the forest and its inhabitants, and as the afternoon faded away with his tales, we shook hands. “I do not want my offspring to know about the forest only from books,” he explained. “While many real forests no longer exist, taking care of a small piece of land in the vast Kalimantan is not an easy task,” Raden Sebaan said softly, like a whisper of a goodbye.

Night fell once again in Ketapang. The blinking city lights and the sound of the Pawan River streaming through the city were louder at night. I sat in a café on the banks of the river, contemplating the needs of the inhabitants of both the city and the forest.

The next day, my flight took me away from Ketapang, across the equator. I looked down to see Pontianak City, the capital of West Kalimantan. This is perhaps the only city in the entire world to be named after a ghost: pontianak or kuntilanak is the Indo-Malay version of the white lady ponti-anak. From the plane’s window, I could see the now-familiar broad, long brown rivers, the city packed with houses, and the flat plain decorated with the squares of vast plantations. I imagined the urban forests filled with birdsong and the splashes of bathing animals. I imagined that under a dense tree, Raden Sebaan sat waiting for me with a smile.

Dayak is the name of a tribe that lives in the rural areas of Kalimantan Island. As a tribe that calls Indonesia’s largest island home, the very island that is often referred to as the lungs of the world, the Dayak tribe maintains unique cultural elements, from its language and traditional attire, to its popular rituals.

The Dayak tribe is organised and divided into six large clans, namely Apokayan (Kenyah-KayanBahau), Ot Danum-Ngaju, Iban, Murut, Klemantan and Punan. The Dayak Punan clan is the oldest of the Dayak tribes to settle in Kalimantan, while the other Dayak clans were formed as a result of assimilations between Dayak Punan and the Proto Melayu group (Dayak ancestors from Yunnan). The four clans are then further divided into approximately 405 sub-ethnicities.

The traditional Dayak attire also functions as a way to identify the caste to which an individual belongs. Higher castes, such as ‘royal’ descendants, typically employ materials with a patterned design that stands out from the rest, such as tiger prints.

Mandau is a type of machete that belongs to the Dayak culture. It is also one of the weapons preserved as Indonesia’s traditional heritage. The weapon typically comes with carvings on the unsharpened side of its blade, on which one can also often find holes covered with brass as an embellishment.

Rumah Betang (Betang House), also known as rumah panjang, is the Kalimantan Dayak tribe’s traditional house, typically built using ironwood. At the entrance, one will find a porch, also known as pene, which functions as a space for homeowners to relax or receive guests.

The Hudoq dance is part of the Dayak Bahau and Dayak Modang tribes’ ritual, held after the planting of rice seeds from September until October. The moves in this dance are believed to have been sent from heaven. Based on the Dayak Bahau and Dayak Modang tribes’ beliefs, the Hudoq dance is held to commemorate the kindness of their ancestors in nirvana.

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