I’m not sure what it is but I have a problem remembering where I am. Today I am in Pangkalanbun, yesterday I was in Pontianak and its not as if these names spring to mind upon waking in the morning. Certainly there is that moment every morning when I pinch myself and think, I’m in Borneo, but pinpointing exactly where can be challenging, even pronouncing it is difficult. But, Pangkalanbun is where I am right now and I had better get used to it. I arrived today as I mentioned, from Pontianak, in Eastern Kalimantan where I spent a few days absorbing the fact that everything is quite different here. I wondered why all the flights left so early in the morning until I worked it out, of course they leave early to avoid the regular afternoon thunderstorms and torrential rain. Up then at 5.00am, a six thirty ride to the airport and an 8am flight. No disrespect intended but why is there always a Prayer Room adjacent to the gate? The Trigana Air prop’ plane didn’t exactly inspire confidence but we made it here after a couple of stops at what appeared to be no more than jungle airstrips. The aircrew must have thought me slightly odd as I kept asking, on landing ‘Pangkalanbun?’. No, Sir, sit. OK. Eventually we were in the right place and I was ushered off the plane and arrived in Pankalanbun.
Pontianak was interesting, a big city with terrible traffic and more scooters than even Saigon, yes, really. As in Sabah everyone goes out to eat in the evening so the perpetual scooter madness never lets up, the evening rush hour turns into the dinner rush and everyone wears a helmet, even over their hijabs and the ladies sit side saddle when riding pillion. Curiously people wear their jackets reversed, ie in front, with their arms down the sleeves. I don’t remember seeing that anywhere else. Looking at the guidebook it seems there is one thing, and one thing only to do in Pontianak and that is to visit the Equator Monument. The city sits on the line and is one of the few cities in the World that does that, so, first port of call, The Equator. My hotel allocated me a taxi driver cum guide who turned out to be the genial Baim (Baeem) and he was very attentive and spoke some English.
The Monument was quite interesting, old photos of scientists celebrating the Monument’s creation, hard boiled eggs in bowls that could be stood up on their ends on the marble floor, a large monument capped by a large arrow pointing in the direction of the line. Unfortunately there was nowhere nearby to prove that in a flushing loo the water goes straight down rather than spin clockwise as it does in the Northern Hemisphere. This because the only conveniences present featured what my niece, Ms Sophie, euphemistically and charmingly calls ‘long drops’. The big disappointment was that actually this was not the Equator at all, it’s moved. Its gone one hundred meters south for reasons I could not fathom, it was all explained on a leaflet but I came away a little disillusioned. It was everything a geography nerd could hope for, almost. One thing that does catch the eye in Pontianak is the position of the satellite dishes, they all point straight up, as in vertical. Of course, the satellites are all in position over the Equator. But there is a problem, the dishes fill up with water when it rains so there is a frequent message on the tv to the effect that normal service will resume when it stops raining. I thought that was lovely.
The serious Baim struggled a bit to find other interesting things to do. We went looking for black orchids at an Aloe Vera farm but came away empty handed. We went shopping but that was very tiresome. We did drink tea on a somewhat dubious looking river craft. There were no tables or chairs so we sat on the deck as the boat puttered along the riverbank. At dusk we puttered which was the time the local residents came down to the river to bathe, sure, very interesting, but I felt a little like an intruder. Another similarity to India, kites, thousands of them bouncing and gliding about in the fading light, flown not only by the kids but also the adults, whole boatloads of kite flyers on the river. Following that expedition we went around the town visiting Baim’s family. First to see his wife and children in their house beside a busy street, twelve year old daughter, eight year old son and very shy wife. Yes, it was suitably….what? oh I don’t know, but it was worth it to raise a smile from both the wide eyed young ones. Then to a house by the river, reached by making our way across narrow planks above the water (vertigo again) where his parents lived with his sister and her four kids. All the neighbors came out and visited for one reason or another but mostly to stare at this Anglo in their midst. Tea was made and passed round. Lots of mirth, hilarity and fun, shouts from nearby houses, people came back from the river after their baths in various stages of their toilet, washing was done and hung out for the following day. All this took place in what I will call ‘local houses’, raised on stilts above the river, each reached by a maze of planks across which people rode their scooters, bicycles, carried groceries, carried on with life. Evening Prayers started from all the neighboring Mosques, chanted by children, and everyone around me joined in. It struck me that I was a long way from home.
Today I booked a klotok, a boat, that will take me up the nearby river Arut to Camp Leakey, two days away. The camp in the Tanjung Puting Reserve, is run by a lady called Birute Galdikas who is one of the three Leakey Angels, the other two being Jane Goodall and Dian Fossy. Ringing any bells? DR Galdikas runs the biggest Orangutan rehabilitation center in the world and I am on my way.
I’ll let you know how it goes in a few days. There will be no Internet access, obviously.