Apart from the taxi driver Ishwandi, the first person we met in Pontianak was Cassandra, the 10-year-old granddaughter of the man who owned the place we were couchsurfing at – a block of single rooms with a common kitchen and bathroom. We were waiting outside for our host, Ardian, to finish work, and so Cassandra chatted happily to us while we sat there, tired after our eight-hour bus ride. When Ardian eventually showed up, Cassandra didn’t want to leave.
“Is this a white person?” She asked Caroline, pointing at me.
There are definitely western foreigners traveling to Pontianak, but we didn’t see any in our several days there, which is odd because it is a uniquely located place. The capital of West Kalimantan, Pontianak is the only city in the world that sits directly on the equator. The Equator Monument is one of the main attractions in the city, and on two days of the year in March and September at 12 noon, nothing around the site will cast a shadow. The towering monument (seen in the main photo above for this post) was built in 1928 and no longer actually sits on the equator line. Instead it lies a few paces to the south.
We visited it a couple of times. Once during an evening boat ride and once with ‘Backpackers Dunia’, a group of Indonesians who have formed a backpacking enthusiasts club and hold annual get-togethers. Even inside the leaky visitors centre there were no westerners. I had previously thought that white folk had pretty much spread themselves everywhere, but wherever I looked I was a novel attraction. Eyes stared at me. Eyes on motorcycles, eyes sitting at food stands, eyes squatting at the side of the road. At first it was unnerving, but I discovered that in this part of the world a smile breeds a smile 100% of the time.
“What is your religion?” Cassandra asked.
“We have no religion.”
She looked amazed. You are forced to choose between one of six religions in Indonesia; Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and – oddly enough – Confucianism. ‘Other’ isn’t an option, nor is ‘No Religion’. The person we spoke to about it said that most people choose Islam to ‘be on the safe side’, and that is what gives the country it’s 87.2% Muslim population. The number of people strictly practicing, we were told, is actually far lower than that.
“Hey, Bulek!” Cassandra demanded when I was facing the other way. She had folded her eyelids inside-out and was making spooky noises and giggling.
“Don’t call him Bulek,” coached Caroline, (it means white person) “Call him mister, or brother.” We were all sitting in Adrian’s home. A simple room where he sleeps on an air mattress and keeps limited possessions. We shared the room on our two inflatable mattresses. The water for the block of single dorms where he lives is all harvested rain, which is used for everything from washing dishes to bathing. The bucket showering system is still in full swing in Kalimantan.
Adrian himself is the loveliest person we could hope to find. He is a movie lover and traveler, and replies ‘yes’ to anybody who asks to stay with him. His work involves teaching English to kids for various NGOs, although he is slowly becoming more cynical about these groups.
“Whenever there’s a disaster all the NGOs flock to it, and the money pours in. Billions of dollars – and where does it all go? The community is often left with a building – a hospital or school – that doesn’t get used for its intended purpose and becomes derelict.” We asked where the current hot-spot was.
“There hasn’t been anything really huge in Indonesia for a while, but the NGO people are actually praying for a disaster.” This is a very religious country, and when people here pray for something, they mean it.
Adrian was the gateway for our entire trip in Kalimantan. He is friends with Pay, a writer and local television personality. Together they host an English language club for locals every Tuesday at the public library. We showed up late to the meeting after being distracted by a gamelan rehearsal at the Dayak community longhouse next door, but when we did arrive we met several people who offered us places to stay all over Kalimantan. The ones that didn’t live in Borneo had plenty of advice about the things we could do and so we were suddenly flooded with a variety of options for free accommodation and inexpensive transport. In fact, everywhere we went in our daily wandering had us meeting with helpful, hospitable people – from KAMULOP, the Civet cat lovers and breeders association who let us play with Civets, a Python, and a baby Macaque, to the ecology students down at the arboretum, who showed us iron wood seeds and an Orang Utan skull.
“A few months ago a local newspaper ran a story about Miss Indonesia visiting Bukit Jamur.”
We were talking to Maria at the Pontianak WWF headquarters. Bukit Jamur was a pristine, nearly untouched hill an hours drive from the city.
“Since that article ran, young people have been flooding to it. Now there are several hundred people there at any given time and the rubbish is piling up.”
There is no central rubbish collection here. People simply throw plastic into the rivers or by the side of the road or, if they’re feeling a bit more eco-friendly, they burn it. All over the city are blackened piles of melted plastic.
“The thing is, these young people don’t care about the rubbish they’re creating because they won’t see the growing effects of it. They only visit Bukit Jamur once because it’s the flavour of the month. Once you’ve been there you’ve been there.” Efforts by WWF to coordinate group cleanups have had limited success so far.
Rubbish isn’t the only thing people in Kalimantan like to set on fire, cigarettes are everywhere, in coffee shops, in cars, on bikes – even being smoked by the library receptionist. Almost every male smokes, and that isn’t an exaggeration. Heavy advertising is still allowed, and dominating the field is a brand called ‘LA Lights’, whose ads can be found anywhere from billboards to tissue boxes. A pack of cigarettes here will cost about $1.50 NZ. Passively, Caroline and I probably smoked three or four a day during our visit – even during our jungle trekking.
During our last few days in Pontianak we ate well, spent time with our new friends and learned about some of the awkward love triangles in this relatively small city (not to be repeated here). We joined the teeming masses of motorcycles (maybe a 1:50 car to motorcycle ratio) and learned how to ride auto and semi-auto bikes. We learned that the whole city runs on diesel, which regularly fails and results in power cuts. Finally, we learned that you can travel to a country without having any plans whatsoever (apart from a couchsurfing host to stay with) and see a seemingly endless network of possibilities and itineraries start to take shape in front of you.