I’m in Borneo, right now, and I keep having to pinch myself to make sure it’s real.
It takes two days of travel to get here, including a six hour flight from Sydney, a two hour flight from Bali, then another hour in the air to get from Jakarta to Pangkalan Bun, which is where I am as I’m typing this. I’m currently curled up in the hotel’s air conditioning, so tired I’m not sure I can move again, ever.
Bali is hot and chaotic and the humidity hits like a wall as you disembark the plane, forcing moisture-rich air into lungs sucked dry by the planes air conditioning. Bali airport looks as though it’s been decorated in mid-Seventies laminex brown. The people are endlessly friendly, polite and smiling; and I’m glad I learnt the very basics of speaking Bahasa Indonesia before I came- being able to say “Permissi, terimah kasih!” for “Excuse me, thank you!” just makes me feel polite.
Everything here is richly decorated. Baseboards, lampshades, counter-tops and stairwells are ornate and carved, decorated with bright colour and gold leaf. The air smells of clove cigarettes and sweat, incense and satay. People whiz past our taxi on motorbikes and scooters, weaving in and out of traffic, whole families on mopeds. A tiny girl-child smiles at me from the back of one- she’s sitting between her mother, on the back of the scooter, and her father, who’s driving. Her mother is cradling a tiny baby wrapped in a pink blanket.
It’s alarmingly clean here. There seem to be a hundred people employed to do each job, especially cleaning. I no sooner butt out a cigarette (and you can smoke everywhere here… smoking inside is weird) when its gone again, the table wiped clean, ashtray emptied, cleaner smiling and nodding at me.
The flight into Pangkalan Bun- Borneo itself- was slightly terrifying. The plane is the oldest I’ve ever seen, and it rattles and creaks in the air. We are served lunchboxes with sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf. I see the woman behind us laughing, watching these strange white women grimace as they bite into the banana leaf itself, not knowing to unwrap it.
Pangkalan Bun airport is tiny, crowded, not much more than a few small rooms. It’s pumping with people. This city seems to have established itself in the very center of the jungle. The heat. The greenery. The way the local foliage appears to be trying to eat everything in it’s path- thick green vines and tropical plants spill over onto cleared land, rise and snake between dwellings. Pangkalan Bun is relatively spread out, and from the hotel window we can see a smattering of blue roofed houses that concede themselves entirely to the jungle green growth beyond.
Borneo is a Muslim country. Alcohol is forbidden. I’m glad my mum reminded me to pack shirts with sleeves , rather than the spaghetti-strapped singlet tops I normally would have filled my bag with.
It’s a strange feeling. Unveiled. Anglo. In the minority. Out of my depth in both language and local customs.
The river that dissects Pangkalan Bun is teeming with humanity. Houses are built on the banks, hanging over the water, serviced by floating toilets that are really just a small wooden hut with no floor. There are floating fish farms. Men washing themselves off, brushing their teeth with the murky brown water. Women wash clothes. Longboats and the occasional speedboat leave the wake of the water behind them.
And the children, they play. They run from tiny houses to wave at us, this boat full of white woman on their river. They blow us kisses and bomb into the water, giggling as we give them a round of applause from our longboat.
It’s eye-poppingly colourful. If a surface is painted, painted bright- powder blues, neon orange, candy pinks.
The sun begins to drop in the sky, and the hauntingly beautiful Muslim call to prayer goes out through speakers strung across the city. On the very top of the biggest hill sits the Palace, where the Sultan, the Prince and his Princess live. From here, you can see for miles, the jungles beyond the city itself bathed in sunlight.
That is why they built here, our guide tells us. From the top of the hill, they can see all their people, all their land, all at once. All bathed in the golden light of the setting sun.
Tomorrow, we board a klotok (named for the noise the diesel engines they once ran on made- klot-ok, klot-ok, klot-ok) and head up the Senoyer River. That’s when the orangutan spotting officially begins.
So far, it’s all amazingly awesome. I keep looking at the world map, tracing the distance between Sydney and here.
I never thought I’d have the courage to do this. I’m so glad I did.