SYNOPSIS:  About a sunrise (or the lack thereof), a new group of fellow travelers, and about a hike up smoking Mount Bromo.

I am treating myself to a nature break.  Mount Bromo, a steadily-sweltering, semi-active volcano is part of a spectacular volcanic landscape best and more fully appreciated with a bit more sun. But, getting up at 3:00 AM to board a jeep to head off to the sunrise viewing point was still worth it, even though there was not much of a sunrise at all. 

I was the last to board the jeep — a French couple, a Dutch couple and a young German guy were already on board.  We all looked rather sleepy.  Within a few minutes we had reached the gate of the Bromo National Park.  Time to pay up the rather steep entrance fee of $30 ($10 more than usual, because it was the weekend). 

I dug up my package receipt, the Dutch had something like that too, the German guy paid up and the French couple started a discussion.  Jeep after jeep passed us and the French were discussing something.  Finally, we cut in:  What’s the matter?! 

To make a long story short, they thought that by walking some “secret path” they would be able to avoid the park entrance fee.  Well, that was not how it worked.  It took quite a bit of explaining on my part that the world over you have to pay an entrance fee to National Parks no matter if you are walking, biking, or in a car.   Finally Andre, the Dutch guy blew up at them with something like:  “Shit, or get off the pot.  We want to move on” — that finally got them to pay their fee. 

About 5 minutes later, they insisted on getting out of the car.  This time, no amount of talk could convince them that they were making a big mistake.  They had paid for the jeep, we would be driven from one important point to the next and back, distances were further than expected, roads were treacherous, it was pitch dark outside, and there was plenty of time to walk around all day if that’s what they wanted.  Not the place or the time now, to start walking on their own, if they were as clueless as they seemed to be; but they left! 

About five other jeeps and a few motorbikes reached Gunung Penanjakan, another mountain peak near the sunset spot.  A 15-minute hike got us to the top and now it was time to wait.  Two entrepreneurial women from Cemoro Lawang, the nearby village had set up a stall with hot noodle soup, hot coffee and snacks.  Who could resist in the dark and at single digit temperatures (that is Celsius).  Thankfully, I had rented a wind jacket from the hotel.  It came in handy.

Dawn revealed two cones in front of us and not quite as many to the right as a picture-perfect postcards would show.  Still, the perfectly shaped Batok ahead of us, and the more irregularly shaped and slightly shorter, fuming Bromo, were a sight to behold.  We found ourselves both above and below the clouds.  The valley to the left and right of the volcanoes was filled with streaks of white mist.  Above us the clouds prevented the sun from breaking through.  Yet, we had a clear view of the cones.  How bizarre!

Our jeep took us back to the entrance of the valley leading to the volcanoes.  And guess who had just made it up to that point by now — missing the viewpoint and all — the French!  We greeted them briefly, but they looked too mad, to hook up with them again.   By now, their mistake must have been glaringly obvious to them.

Both Batok and Bromo sit in a 10-km expanse of black volcanic ashes formed by an eruption of the ancient and now extinct Tengger.  We would first have to climb into that crater — a steep 15-minute descent down a narrow path and then cross the 4 km to the base of Bromo. For the lazy ones, there is a myriad of eager moped drivers and horse tenders who will take you across this area.  First for $10, then for $5 and finally for $2.50.  But it was not the amount of money that made us four decide to walk.  It was the beauty of the experience.  How often in your life will you find yourself walking on the ashes of an active volcano, and at the same time, inside an extinct volcano!  The walk was pleasant and easy.  Now we benefited from the cloudy day.  The air was cool and breezy. 

Batok is covered with greenery. Bromo is covered with black ashes so thick that it forms tentacles in all directions.  At the bottom of Mount Bromo is a small Hindu temple.  It was open today as this is the second to last day of a holy month for the Tengger People. They are Hindus to this day, once escaping into this remote area when Islam was entering their area in the 16th century.  Before we were caught and ushered out, we managed to walk into the temple and take a few pictures.  There is nothing special there in terms of architecture of sculpture, but it was a pleasant surprise to find a Ganesh sculpture in front of a side altar.

Once a year, during an auspicious month, Hindus come here to bring offerings to appease the mountain.  In 2009 was its last major eruption; in 2015 just a small one.  This is an active volcano.  These fumes are no joke.

You can throw anything into the crater — money, food stuffs, other items.  On some of the peak offering days, crazy locals will climb into the crater trying to catch these offerings.  Not all of them will make it back out…  I had hoped to catch perhaps a bit of such a spectacle, but my online calendar must have been off on that one.   Some vendors on the way to the final steep ascent sold small bunches of flowers as offerings.  I got one and made a wish throwing it in.  We shall see.

Once you have made it up the 253 steps a bigger challenge than you might think — you actually can look down into the eye of this crater and hear the gurgling sounds, the hissing, and see and feel the spewing.  Already at the bottom of the crater as you begin your ascent, the ashes are beginning to fall on you.  At first you think it is raining.  But it’s not wet rain drops that are piling up on you, it’s the dry droplets of ashes.  Soon, you will be covered in it!  Some people wear umbrellas, others rain capes.  A cotton shirt as I was wearing is just about the worst idea as the dust settles into your fabric and turns your garment into a dusty mess; god forbid it now really rains.  Then you are covered in black mud.  For a brief moment we did have actual rain…  The resulting paste of dirt in our necks was disgusting.  Mercifully, this did not last.  All that was missing was a huge old long-nosed witch bent over this cauldron stirring it.  It was eerie.

Once we passed all the horses and motorbikes, we trekked back the same way we came, across the Tengger crater. Deep channels resembling the patterns of the Grand Canyon speak of rivers that must gush through here during rainy season.   

It was only 11 AM when I reached my hotel again.  Time for some rest and relaxation.

If the weather had cleared, I would have rented a guy and a bike to see the sunset.  Instead, a full-fledged rainstorm was developing that made that trip obsolete.  Time to write and work instead.

Three fellow travelers arrived shortly after, who had specifically come for the sunset experience.  But nature wins.  They were disappointed, but we gathered at a large and comfortable table in the restaurant and had a great afternoon together. 

And since they had to prepare for a 3 AM sunrise trip, I called it an early night as well.

After all, I got up at 3 AM this morning. 

Good night. 

HOS Cigarette Labels


SYNOPSIS:  The story of the House of Sampoerna.  How I missed the one thing worth doing in Surabaya.  About my first train experience from Surabaya to Probolinggo.   Meeting some fellow travelers. 

Surabaya is not exactly a tourist destination but the Lonely Planet recommends one promising thing:  A free city tour organized by the House of Sampoerna.  I admit that the neighborhood I arrived in last night scared me a bit.  I needed some safe place to acclimate and get started.  This sounded just right. 

The tour leaves three times a day.  It was anyone’s guess when.  At the hotel I convinced one of the hotel boys to give me a lift on his motorbike. That is not hard.  Any young man with a motorbiked in Indonesia will jump at the opportunity to make a bit of extra money.  Too bad for me, the city tour had left right at the opening hour and the next one was not until the afternoon.  What a stupid schedule!  I was quite angry at myself for not being at the door first thing in the morning.

OK, the House of Sampoerna then.  Wow, what a discovery!  It is the dream of anyone poor and the dream of any immigrant the world over:  to make it rich!  Liem Seeng Tee (LST) most likely still inspires every peddler in town.  And Indonesia is the place of more peddlers than you know what to do with.  LST was left without a father early in life and had to start to support the family.  By rolling around a simple wooden stall selling a bit of this and that, he managed to save up enough to purchase a bicycle that allowed him to expand his business.  The bicycle among other things is on display at the museum.  He soon decided to supplement his income by hand-rolling kretek cigarettes, a unique blend of tobacco and cloves, at his home, and the rest is history. 

In 1913 he started an official cigarette company, in 1932 he was able to purchase a large compound built by the Dutch originally as an orphanage.  That compound is still in business making kretek cigarettes today, even though, since 2009 it is operated under the management of the Philip Morris company. Hardly anyone knows or cares, as Philip Morris neither changed the name or the image of the company.  All I could get out of the staff here was that the business was sold for “personal, family reasons”.  To date it is the largest cigarette manufacturer in Indonesia and the longest in business.

LST seems to have had a few interesting ideas.  First, he felt that the owner of a company should live on company grounds to be closely connected to production.  To this day (!) he does live in a building that was expanded into a villa from one of the orphanage homes to the left of the central building.  A twin building to the right was built and given to his son early on, so he could raise his family next to the company and prepare for take-over.  That building has been converted into an art gallery promoting young and upcoming contemporary Indonesian artists, a fancy Art Deco cafe and a Visitor Center administering free city tours (the one I missed).

LST converted the central granite auditorium, sporting an impressive classical facade, into a theater with all kinds of modern gadgets (revolving stage, etc) on which performances were held open to the public.  According to the labels at the museum, Charlie Chaplin performed here.  Since 2003, it is the company history museum and gift shop.  Interestingly, no cigarettes are sold here.  For that and coming full circle, I had to go to the street vendors and peddlers in town.  🙂  I could not leave without a souvenir of kreteks.  The coolest thing about the cigarette pack I bought is a disgusting picture (one of several available) of the effects of smoking.  There is not just a simple warning about smoking.  No, you are confronted with pictures of lung or throat cancer depicting the most disgusting black deteriorated tissue, faces in distress, skulls and the like.  Yuk!  But instead of the intended effect — I was told that these pictures became collector items among the youth.  With more than 80% of the Indonesian population smoking (a figure obtained from a non-reliable source), there seems to be no effect of these warnings. 

More recently, LST put money and effort into developing and training a rescue team that stands by during natural disasters and will come to the aid of people and animals alike. 

The guy had a vision!

The most impressive if disturbing part of the visit though was a full-length observation glass wall at the upper floor allowing a look into one of six production halls.  About 500 workers — all women — were hand-rolling and cutting cigarettes to the tune of soft pop music, at the speed of 325+ per hour.  325 is the norm at which they receive their salary (what that was, I could not find out — it seems to be a company secret).  If they roll more, there is extra money to be made.

I was mesmerized by the rhythmic, non-stop click- and clacking sounds of the small machines and the robot-like body movements; of heads bopping and fingers going up and down a rolling device at lightening speed.  500 humanoids.  Were they still humans when they were done with their 8-hour shifts?  Could they relax after a day of this?  What about a month, a year, a lifetime?

Once in while the whole room broke out into a cheer — was there a number displayed somewhere counting the progress of the day?   Perhaps, every 5000 or so cigarettes, there was a brief vocal acknowledgement?  And once in a while a man talked to the women.  Was he cheering them on giving them motivational support, or just telling them the news of the day?

Why only women, I asked?  Well, this job is too hard for men, I was told.  Men do not have the patience for this kind of work and cannot sit still for 8 hours. However, men are working in the loading docks and in the shipping department. 

Since it was Saturday, work stopped at 11 AM.  The volume of the music was cranked up to uncomfortable levels to signal the end of the day.  All of the yellow-shirted women started to fuss and finished their tasks.  A few red-shirts had been walking around collecting finished products and providing new bins.  They also seemed in charge of small problems here and there.  Everyone started to chat and leave.  Soon, silence fell over the room even though the clicker-clacker was still in my ears.  What about theirs?

Photography was strictly forbidden, but there was only one attendant at the gift shop and when she was busy I positioned myself between two displays of textiles and took one picture of the workshop.  I am sure most people sneak a picture with their cell phones.  But it takes more doing with my large, conspicuous camera.

Six such workrooms are part of this compound.  3000 women are employed here.  But there are other production facilities in other parts of Indonesia — those are machine-rolled cigarettes with filters.  The ones here have no filter.  Even though I missed my tour I was glad I did not waste the day.  In fact, this was quite a memorable experience.

It was time now to get a taxi to head to the train station and depart for Mount Bromo.  I had scheduled this trip via Surabaya for the old-town experience and the opportunity to check out the trains. 

The long-distant Gunung Station was a clean, modern, and efficient facility.  Tickets are not cheap by Indonesian standards, but affordable.  A 2-hour ride cost me $10.  Air-conditioned and somewhat dated trains mainly feature one type of car.  Four to six people face each other on two benches.  There is a first-class option that has all seats facing in one direction with slightly nicer seats; not worth the extra money.  This is not like Egypt where the second and third class trains are literally death traps that fall apart from doors to windows and special trains are run that allow foreigners on it…  The overall standard of travel here is comfortable, with assigned seats, food vendors and reasonably clean, if traditional toilets.  Windows are covered with a dark sun-protective film which makes photography impossible.  But, I am back in Java and the scenery is similar to Yogyakarta: rice fields, trees, rolling hills, flat lands, villages. 

I had been warned by the Lonely Planet and once again by the customer-service office in Surabaya that Probolinggo was a trap of tourist scams and a haven for pickpockets and other small crime.  I arrived with three other foreign travelers and we decided to move on together — strength in numbers.

Since we got there after 4 PM, the public bus option to connect us with 4-wheelers to go up the mountain was gone.  And the scams started as promised.  For a small shuttle bus we paid about 4 times the going rate, and got dropped off at a travel agent who could arrange a variety of options to head up to Cemara Lawang, near Mount Bromo.  Of course, these agents and the shuttle drivers are already in cahoots, but so be it. 

I had tried to make hotel reservations but never heard back from anyone.  That was just as well.  The man at the travel agency offered me a package of transport, hotel and jeep that sounded reasonable.  That means, it was what I had calculated to pay and a bit less.  That also means that surely there were other options  that could be cheaper but I was in no mood to bargain or look further it had gotten dark by now.

After waiting for 2 more hours — we were not sure for what or for whom — we were driven up the mountain in the dark.  I was let out at a comfortable-looking hotel-restaurant compound.  I was OK with that.  The three backpackers were holding out for better and drove on.  I did not see them again.  I hope they found what they were looking for. 

I did not waste any more time but headed to bed.  It will be an early, early morning tomorrow to get going for sunrise at Mount Bromo.

Good night. 



SYNOPSIS:  About a dusty Sultan’s palace.  Visiting the Mega Mosque in Samarinda.  Retour from the jungle to Balikpapan.  Arrival in the metropolis of Surabaya. 

Within 45 minutes of driving to the center of Surabaya, I passed 4 McDonalds, 3 Pizza Huts, 3 KFCs, and 2 ACE Hardware stores, not to count multiple world banks and other recognizable brand names of all sorts.  The 8-lane main road (four going in each direction) was lined with oversized monitors issuing travel safety warnings and flashing various ads in between.  There were neon-lit fountains and digital ads everywhere, and a downtown with numerous high-rises.  I could not believe my eyes.  This felt like New York.  OK, it wasn’t NY, but it felt like it!  I was in a fast-pulse cosmopolitan metropolis.

Was I still in the same country?  This was more than the difference between rural and urban areas.  After all the poverty-stricken fishing villages this morning, and the dusty, dimly-lit, neglected sultan’s palace gone museum in Tenggarong, Samarinda had felt like a fresh breath of civilization.  I visited the “Mega Mosque” there which was built in 2005.  I had dug up my Banda Aceh prayer outfit, put it on and hoped to slip into the mosque to once again observe the Friday prayer spectacle.  But this mosque was even worse than the Banda Aceh one.  Women could not even enter the mosque until the men were finished!  There was no back end for the women or even an outside porch.  Women simply had to wait until the men were done.  At some point, most of the men had cleared out and I obtained permission to go up by one of the ushers downstairs.  A few men were still praying up on the main floor, and promptly I was shushed away by another usher, as I tried to enter the prayer room and take some pictures.  There was not even an attempt here of treating women equally or to accommodate them in any way.

And yes, one more word about that Sultan’s palace in Tenggarong:  There is a sultan here as well as in some other Kalimantan provinces. But contrary to the one in Yogyakarta — the one with the special province status, this one is indeed only a figurehead.  Just for show, if he shows at all.  The sultan now lives in a villa nearby.  The palace that was built for him by the Dutch at the beginning of the 20th Century cuts a very sad figure.  Some fine textiles, metal objects, and ceramics, coins and costumes are displayed in dusty, often dark and dirty glass cases.  A general room label in Bahasa and English makes you wonder if there really is nobody around who knows just the basics of English.  For god’s sake, this is a museum displaying Kalimantan’s culture.  Here is just a taste of one of the labels:

It represent weared for putting or serve appliance of Kilang of sirih dish, chalk, areca palm propose marriage to and this represent especial treat sometime added with tumetic, tobacco, tapulaga, clove, leaf of citrus fruit.

The bettle neat equipment consist of place pekinangan, place of tobacco, pounder of cutter, pinang tool (place and kacip) of spitting. 

This culture is of 9-10 century.

You get the picture.   Or do you?  Even though I stood in front of objects that this description presumably referred to, I had no idea what they were talking about.  The worst Indo-English I have seen just about anywhere.  It does not help to promote the image of Kalimantan.

The sultan’s grave yard was displayed under a fancy roof and looked brand-new to me.  No, these were the sultan’s graves, I was told.  But a look into a neglected corner showed the remains of the truly old graveyard.  At best these were the newly built tombstones of the sultan’s graves.  But I guess, we won’t be too picky about what is old, new, authentic, or a replica.

From Surabaya’s perspective, Samarinda now looked not much better than a provincial backwater.

Java is the commercial center of Indonesia, the concentration of wealth, the pioneer of progress, the measure of where Indonesia is heading.  It is by far the most densely populated island and the seat of the government, of course.  Surabaya in size and importance is only topped by Jakarta.  But too often Java is equated with Indonesia as a whole and as my trip to Kalimantan goes to show, there is much more to Indonesia than Java.

But wait…  after 45 minutes of this glitz, we turned a corner and within minutes were in the middle of crowded, small, dusty alleys filled with street markets, little shops, food stations, people, life.  Our car became a nuisance on these backroads as rickshaws were the rulers of this world.  It seemed as if the 19th century had never ended here.

Of course, my taxi driver had no idea where my hotel was.  For the entire ride he had been on the phone with who knows who asking for help in locating the Andalus Hotel.

I hope this is a safe area…  I remember choosing this hotel as it was located in what is dubbed the “old” quarters of Surabaya.  The hotel is located between two traditional ethnic quarters.  The sultan never permitted foreign traders to live within city limits if he permitted them to settle at all.  But he assigned quarters to the different nationalities.  Here, some of this division is still visible.  There was the Arab Quarter of Surabaya with a mosque that to this day serves as a site of pilgrimage.  And there was Chinatown with an impressive gate and a few vestiges of pagoda towers or Chinese roof decorations sprinkled here and there .  Both of these quarters would have been located outside the Indonesian sultan’s realm of protection.  To this day, these quarters  seem worlds apart from the “New York” a few blocks over.

That the driver (ever coughing — I hope he did not have anything infectious) found my hotel at all, is a miracle.  It is a hole in the wall in one of those alleys…  Nobody spoke a lick of English and nobody seemed to know what to do with a foreigner or how to answer any of my questions:  Do you have a map of the area?  When and where does a train for Mount Bromo leave?  When I asked about the free city tour offered by the nearby tobacco factory, they had not even heard of it.  It was hopeless. 

But I got the Deluxe Room!  Certainly the biggest room I have had so far.  But no light bulb worked, the tea maker was broken and half the outlets were dysfunctional.  I had a tub and could do laundry though. That took the rest of the evening.  I had AC.  And I only heard a faraway sound of a mosque sermon.  My ear plugs will do the rest. 

Perhaps, I can get some sleep tonight?



SYNOPSIS:  Mainly photos today.  🙂

I am giving myself a little break writing.  Instead, I will compile two photo essays on the images I will take with me from Kalimantan.  Much may have been lost in the Dayak culture (headhunting, for one, will not be missed!).  But there also was much to see and many wonderful people live there.  In the first set of images you will see glimpses of daily life as I observed it from my boat.   People washing clothes, bathing, buying petrol in plastic containers, preparing fish in various ways, and just socializing.

Through the second set of images, you might get a better sense of the living conditions.  Colorful, tiled homes often signify a more prosperous family.  Wooden structures and tin roofs indicate poverty.  Mosques were always a striking difference (a step up from the surroundings) just like medieval churches must have been.

See you back in Java.




SYNOPSIS:  About an overall disappointing day which turned at the end, after all. 

Wifi!  With the overall absence of internet cafes, young adults without facebook or email, the last thing I expected in this little river village Muara Muntai was wifi at this now one-year-old guest house.  It goes to show what money can buy.  The guy who owns it is the richest man in town and I was told this is the only wifi spot anywhere in most likely a 200 km radius.  Well, maybe only 100 km, but close. 

But if this guy can get it, then others could, too.  I am sure all it takes is money and a vision.  What a business opportunity for any young entrepreneur to open up a wifi cafe, for starters. I am sure the entire youth of this town would flock to it and soon the older and younger ones too.

And to think that I almost forfeited this entire experience! 

The day had not started on the right foot.  As usual, we got up by 7 AM — exactly the time I was usually asleep after listening to the inescapable mosque loudspeaker from 3-5 AM.  We were going to another village up another river with more wildlife along the way.  Frankly, this was a total waste of time as it added absolutely nothing to my understanding of this area.  The village was a village like all the others we had seen so far, the wildlife also was no different.  It felt like Jaylani was just trying to kill time.  If I had known what was ahead of me, I would have requested a revisit of Mancong to observe the funeral ceremony which would have been in full swing today.  That would have been worth my time and changed everything.  Forever, I will regret this.  But when I realized that nothing would be happening, it was too late to turn around.  Oh well, no point in crying over spilled beans.

When Jaylani mentioned that he had planned on a stay in a different village for the night (but one we had already passed on our way yesterday) and that we would have to get up extra early the next day (5 AM), to make it back to Kota for the van pickup, I was just as ready to plow all the way through to Kota, sleep in the next day and be done with it all. 

Thankfully, I asked if there was anything else on the “program”.  Yes, a visit of Jaylani’s sisters’ homes in Muara Muntai.  Oh, now that changed the picture!  A look behind the scenes was just what I had hoped for all along.  So, we stuck with the “program”. 

And when instead of my dark, sticky room in Kota, I was led into a friendly small room with AC and wifi and could sit on a Western style toilet instead of relieving myself into the river, I was absolutely thrilled.  It’s the little things that matter, always!

Both Jaylani and Odin were from this village.  This was Jaylani’s first stay at this guesthouse and I think he was almost as surprised as I was.  This used to be one of his sisters’ properties.  She ran a guesthouse there with her husband, a more “typical” one, I think…  But when her husband died, she sold the property and the richest man in town bought it and beefed it up. Great job!

There were two sisters in town.  The first one lived in a nice big house with a husband, children, visiting nieces and nephews — the place was hopping.  They had a small stand of coconut milk and shards and various flavored jellies which they would sell one plastic bag at a time to any of the customers who rolled by on their motorbikes.  It is a special treat that is only made during Ramadan as it is so nutritious; good for people when they break their fast.  They had no problem filling up two huge bowls for Jaylani and me to chow down right there (long before the fast was over).  One niece sported gold up and down both arms and when I asked Jaylani about it, he rolled his eyes and said:  “Rich husband”.  I guess this is the way to show to the world that you made it.

I was most impressed with the endless array of cooking pots that were stacked up in the kitchen at the end of the long and narrow house.  Those are for weddings and other large family events.  They seem to be standard around here for any and all households.  You can’t be unprepared when there is an event that warrants the invitation of all the neighbors who care to come.

One of the nieces’ husbands asked to scroll through my entire camera disk.  He seemed fascinated and was occupied for a good 1/2 hour with that.  Thank goodness, I did not take any compromising pictures…

The other sister (the one whose husband died) lived just around the corner.  She has an equally long and narrow house with almost as many pots as her sister.  But the house had an empty feel.  She lived all alone in it.  But she prepared a delicious fish-rice-vegetable meal for us.  The first truly delicious fish.  She got it right from the market, still kicking, and prepared it fresh for us.  Yummy, even though I am not used to seeing the fish I eat kicking just 15 minutes before dinner.  And then she insisted that Jaylani and I would eat at the table whereas she would eat sitting on the floor, as she always does…

I strolled through the village for an hour before dinner.  This is definitely a more prosperous village than some we have seen.  Behind the row of houses that line the river, there is actually solid land (that is not the case with the lake villages which are almost like floating villages just built on posts but in the water).  That solid land allows for small gardens, a football field, etc.  Roads everywhere around here are built out of wooden planks, at times raised the same way as the houses, just on pillars.  Not all the planks are tight.  The loose ones make a constant clapping sound when anything goes over them; and that would be motorbikes, constantly.  It’s a unique sound I will forever associate with these villages.

The owner of the guesthouse himself showed up to greet us and he recommended a traditional massage by Midi, the husband of the wife-husband team who managed the guesthouse for him.  He was known as one of the best in town.  How could I turn down such an opportunity!  Well, get ready for the pain.  And I mean PAIN!  I am used to rolfing and pain, but this was two notches up the pain scale. But that is how it’s done around here.  Jaylani, Midi’s wife and 4-year-old daughter had their fun with me lying on the floor squeaking when it got unbearable  I now remember that even in my guidebook they warn you of this kind of massage and mentioned the blue and black spots you might find all over your body the next day…  But what an experience.

The big, still unfinished mosque was only 100 yards from the hotel; its loudspeakers fully functioning.  But what is another night of lost sleep.  I had to get up by 5 AM anyhow.  This was a good final stop.

Good night, sort of.





SYNOPSIS:  About mosque broadcasts.  About visiting two Longhouses.  About an almost funeral.   Meeting a fellow traveler from Germany. 

The last thing I would have expected in the Dayak village we reached tonight — a predominantly animist culture with some overlay of Christianity  is a nonstop blare from the local mosque…  It is Ramadan and mosque services during this period are more extensive, often in excess of one or even two hours  but there are hardly any Muslims here.  The ones who are here have moved from other areas in Kalimantan or Java.  They are not Dayaks  a collective term used for the indigenous people, but come from other ethnic groups, such as the Kotai.

I already listened to one of those services today, between 4 and 5 AM in Kota  And writing this blog is accompanied by another one (8-10 PM).  I used to love the call to prayer in most every Muslim country I have traveled to.  But hour-long, inescapable broadcasts cutting through rice fields, competing with traffic, or droning on in animist villages, only compare to broadcasts I had heard in the West Bank on Fridays.  Here, they seem out of control and happening every day.  I will see if this continues when Ramadan is over.

Other than that, there are but a few signs of the observance of Ramadan.  Restaurants in Kota and the villages are open, people eat and drink during the day.  The occasional food-related store is closed, but you don’t have to look far to find one that is open.  Sometimes they only seem to be closed  have the curtains drawn  and all you have to do is to go in anyhow just to find that they are open after all.  All of my guides, including Odina, the captain of the motorized canoe I will be traveling with for the next two days, are Muslims.  But they seem to think of fasting as a decision made on a daily basis.  Ishmael, the driver who picked me up yesterday, ate since he was driving.  Now he has two days off and told us that he would fast for that time.  Fair enough.  Jayloni  is not sure when he will fast, if at all.

Two Dayak villages with longhouses were on the itinerary for these two days.  This is a type of communal architecture most likely unique in the world.  It was the primary reason for me to choose this trip over the Orang Utan safari.  The first longhouse we visited in Mancong is the oldest of all the longhouses in existence.  At least, that’s what it is advertised as.  When it turned out that it had collapsed in 1982, and been rebuilt with government funds in 1987 and today is not even occupied, I was quite disappointed.  It is only used for communal functions and if you want, you can stay there, lonely and forlorn all by yourself.  A few tourists venture out here, but there is not even a good sign of the history, or a brochure, or an explanation of the totem figures lining the front of the house.  What a little bit of entrepreneurship and advertisement could do here… 

The longhouse was 72 meters long.  The longest one in Eheng is supposedly 250 meters long (that is close to 750 feet!).  The entire village would live in one house together.  A wraparound balcony connects all the families.  Presumably, you can add on to a longhouse as much as you need and have space either way.  But I am not sure that’s how it was done.  Unfortunately, Jaylani was not very forthcoming with details. 

You step into the house and the first 1/3 of the space is open with latticed floors for ventilation. This is the communal space.  From there, doors go into individual rooms occupying the 2nd third of the depth of the house.  On the opposite side one can exit these rooms and find a row of detached kitchens and outhouses with drainage into a channel running the full length of the house.  There are two floors.  Each family would have a room on the main floor and be connected to a room on the top floor by a small ladder.  The upper floor does not have kitchen areas. 

I had asked Jaylani if there might be a chance to observe a communal event in one of the villages; a marriage perhaps, a funeral, a birth ceremony or whatever else there might be.  He asked the caretaker of the place who operated a small souvenir store, who replied that they could make a welcome ceremony just for me.  Yeah…  that’s what it has boiled down to.  If tourists want a dance, they can pay for it.  Perhaps, that makes sense for groups, but not for me.  I politely declined.

But as we strolled along the wooden planked road; a few hundred yards from the longhouse a group of men had gathered in front of — always a sign of something going on.  Indeed, somebody had died a week earlier.  Tomorrow was the big day to slaughter four pigs, have shamans sing to the dead soul and to watch cockfights.  Those are real cockfights, where the roosters are equipped with sharp blades…  I was very sad to miss the event, but I also shuddered at the thought of the cockfight. 

After asking for permission, I was invited to enter the home and observe two nonchalantly dressed shamans sing.  Offerings had been place in the communal room in front of a display of items that had belonged to the deceased.  In the kitchen area several women were hard at work producing literally tons of food to feed the anticipated 700 guests  the entire village  the next day.  A few baked goods were on display for visitors today.  Outside the house, two more shamans sang in front of a small display of bamboo sticks, the pyre that had been piled up for the pig roast and the cages in which the rosters would be put.  That was a small authentic taste of what is still going on in these animist villages. 

One word about the religious freedom and tolerance of Indonesia that is anchored in their constitution.  I have referred to it a few times.  The veneration of (a) God is valued high and tolerated in various forms that typically includes what we would think of as world religions (Christianity, Hinduism, etc).  However, the worship of nature spirits is looked down upon.  Animists are not appreciated and merely left alone. 

By sunset we had arrived in the small Dayak village Tanjung Isuy which sported two longhouses.  One of the longhouses now serves as a guest house.  The other is a communal gathering place.  I was looking forward to this experience.  Except for the fact that this “traditional” longhouse turned out not to be so traditional.  It was built in the 1970s by a couple as a family home and guest house.  Today, it is their granddaughter who is running the place.  She sees about 100 foreign visitors per year…  The numbers have declined steadily.  To increase the space as a guesthouse this longhouse was not built in the traditional single-line fashion, but in U-shape.  The traditional part has been opened up completely to serve communal functions, including a little souvenir store, a dining room, a TV lounge, a reception desk.  The two wings are lined with rooms.  At the end of the corridors are communal showers and bathrooms leading to a veranda overlooking the grass-overgrown lake. 

The entrance of the guesthouse is marked by a typical longhouse gate with two totem figures holding up a lintel.  A spacious court is lined with covered seating areas and a platform on which Dayak dances can be performed and about twice a year are performed.

At the guesthouse I ran into Sina, a young woman from Germany.  She is a photographer, traveling by herself in search of portraits of indigenous people in costumes.  She paid a local family to dress up and did a photo shoot with them in front of the longhouse and in the grass area behind it.  She does absolutely stunning work! Beautiful faces, beautiful costumes, beautifully choreographed.  And a hugely expensive, professional camera with filters and all does not hurt either.  I hope she can publish some of them.  If she does, I will post the link.

However, I could not help but wonder.  I have been in search of Dayak culture — that was in part my mission; their architecture, their life.  Overall, I am deeply disappointed.  What I see is mostly the absence of traditions.  Some weavings are still done the traditional ways and some bead work; mainly for the tourist market.  Dayaks walk around in Western T-shirts; even their shamans.  Very few ceremonies are still performed from within.  Most of them are driven by demands from the outside, in other words, tourism.  One of these staged events happens every Sunday with the “long-ear” Dayaks who dance in a village 30 minutes outside of Samarinda.  Tourists and Indonesian spectators are bused to these events.  The Dayaks there now pose for photographs in costume and charge close to $1 per shot!  Something is wrong with this picture. 

As the infiltration of other ethnic and religious groups will only increase, the indigenous way of life might fall to the wayside completely.  I am torn between wishing that an increase of tourism will keep some of this alive and accepting that it is simply on its way out.  No amount of propping it up artificially will change anything about it. 

Well, you can ponder with me and let me know what you think.  Good night.





SYNOPSIS:  About a ride into the rain forest, wild animals dead and alive, an unusual lake, mosque broadcasts, and a few other things.

Orang Utans or Dayaks…  that was the question I had to decide.  From all I could tell, a trip to see wild Orang Utans in the National Park is a spectacular experience and one unique to Kalimantan.  But I had to make choices and as an art historian, teaching cultural studies and not biology, I had to decide in favor of the Dayaks.  I know, I will  always question this decision, perhaps even regret it someday or very soon, but both trips were not in the cards for financial reasons and for time constraints.

For 10 hours we were on the water today, going down the Mahakam and a few tributary rivers such as the Ohong River, crossing two lakes (Semayang and Jampang Lake) and visiting a few villages.

Most interesting were the different biospheres we encountered today.  The Mahakam river shows itself from the busy side with tugboats pulling cargo of one kind or another.  Upstream, it is only 100-200 meters wide.  Logging is the main industry in what is called the primary rainforest — the one that has not been cut down yet (but is being cut down further by the day).  A hundred or so huge tree trunks, stripped of their branches, are bound together and slowly pulled down river by a single small tugboat.  Logging has been regulated a bit (as Jayloni told me).  From over 100 companies cutting down indiscriminately everything they felt like about 50 years ago, only four companies are left that cut trees with Jakarta-controlled permits.  But something is wrong with that picture, too:  Jakarta businessmen become lumber millionaires at the expense of the locals who are only exploited as low-wage laborers.  Further down towards the delta where the river can reach widths of 500 meters, it is one huge barge after another loaded with mountains of coal that is tugged along.  Same story as above; and I already mentioned that in my last blog.

The story of the lakes is interesting.  When I heard lake, I pictured something like the lakes in Michigan.  These lakes here felt more like swamps.  They are big, but not very deep; perhaps a few feet.  But this time of the year they have grass growing on them;  much more on Jampang Lake than on Semayang Lake.  At times there is no horizon in sight.  Odin, our captain, had no GPS, no compass, just his experience and instincts to follow.  But the grass is unpredictable.  In some areas it makes passing impossible.   Picture yourself riding along (between 5 and 45 km per hour through channels in the grass and all of a sudden, you reach a dead end: nothing but a circle of grass around you.  Now you have to decide if you can cut through the grass.   Two of the three types of grass will make that possible but for short distances only.  Or, you have to return and find a different channel.  At times we would circle for a few minutes until Odin had decided on a course of action.  And once I was sure that we were doomed, stuck in the mud.  His motor got caught up in these weeds and there are limits as to what one little paddle can do once your motor fails.  And that was close to dark…   But we made it. 

Even though Odin has driven these routes dozens of times, there is no one way to get from one point to the next.  He has to figure this out new each time.  He is young, but among the most experienced captains of these lakes.  He even made it into the Lonely Planet (as Jayloni repeatedly pointed out).  Overall, this was quite an adventure.

But why would people tolerate grass taking over their lake to the point that makes travel between villages increasingly difficult?  Beneath the grass certain fish congregate that feed on the grass.  Locals put nets there and live off of these fish!  They care more about eating than getting somewhere.  Now there is a give and take.  🙂 

What I did not realize either is that in about a month or two there will be no more lakes.  The dry season will have lowered the Mahakam river to a point that both of these lakes will drain right into the river, taking all the grass with them!  Then the lakes dry out and become surfaces hard enough for motorcycle traffic.  And since the fish also leave, this is the season for the fishing villages along the river; now, their nets all lay idle.  And when the rainy season starts, slowly the lakes will fill up again, grass will grow until it almost becomes impenetrable, fish will return to the lake fishermen, and it all starts over again.  What a cycle! 

In two days, we will cover over 200 km.   The first afternoon, we reached the primary forest.  It rained quite a bit the first morning and the second afternoon; its the rain forest, duh!  But in between it cleared.  Between Jaylani and Odin, I could not believe how many animals they spotted.  Where I saw nothing but greenery and gnarly trees, they repeatedly pointed to three different types of monkeys that usually congregate in a group in one or another tree.  When we stopped and inched closer to them, they started to jump and run away.  The bigger males literally would “fly” away.  They would have all four limbs stretched in a diamond shape to create more wind resistance and then jump from high points into the thicket below them.  The greenery was so tight that they would land somewhere and then make a run for it.  These jumps were so unpredictable that I did not capture a single one on camera.  Believe me, they were impressive. 

In addition we saw two eagles and various other birds; the most common and fun one was the Kingfisher.  But what Jaylani called a Kingfisher here has little in common with the Kingfisher at Silver Lake back home.  It is almost crow-size, has a huge red beak, a yellow head and an iridescent turquoise body which glistened in the sun as the bird crossed from one side of the river to the other.  Not a minute passed without one of them in sight. 

But most impressive was how these guys would all of a sudden stop, glide under a tree and point to a snake hanging in the tree right above us.  And then they had the audacity to casually mention that these snakes sometimes fall into the water!  No they were not poisonous.  🙂  And they are nocturnal and really could not care less about us staring at them.  Still…  They even found a curled up baby python!  I was amazed that our motor noise would not drive all the wildlife away.  But most of these animals did not seem to care. 

In addition to the live animals, we spotted a dead monkey in the river, on which a huge lizard feasted.  It was the creepiest thing, to see a fist-size lizard head coming out of a dead monkey’s body!  I thought I was looking at a creature from Mars!  This lizard was a good 3 feet long. That does not quite compare to the famous Komodo Dragon Lizzard  only found on Komodo Island, but it was the biggest lizard I had ever seen. 

Some of the villages we came through were clearly poverty stricken, their wooden homes a hodge-podge of ramshackle wooden add-ons and .  Other villages oozed prosperity sporting fancy and colorful tiled facades, TV dishes, and often a fancy mosque to go with it.

But no matter if poor or prosperous, for those who lived near the water, semi-public bathing seemed common.  It is done on a floating wooden platform where you “shower” with little buckets of river-water.  Only a few people have bathrooms in their houses (also only buckets and a basin full of water).   Women shampoo and cover themselves in soap with most of their clothes on!  Men wear their shorts.  A three-sided hut allows for some privacy to change from one garment into another.  Toilets, of course empty right out into the river.  And despite all of this — add on top of this the pollution of the  motorized traffic — you still see people and kids jump into the river to cool off or just to play…

Much of this reminded me of life on the rivers in Mali.

The mosque broadcast stopped.  I have 5 hours until the next one starts at 3 AM. 

Let’s get some sleep!

The photo gallery above is a collection of different views from my seat in the boat (under the roof).  Different times of the day, different weather conditions, and different lakes and rivers.



SYNOPSIS:  About an all nighter at Denpassar, one airport, two flights and two new guides.

I don’t even remember when I last worked through an entire night.  It’s been ages!  I had all intentions to sleep a good six hours, but what at home and with fast internet would have been a task of 6 hours — that’s what I had planned for — turned into 13.  And as I am heading into the rain forest where even a bad internet connection is unlikely, I just could not bear the thought of not being caught up on all fronts:  grading for my class, posting for the blog, uploading photos, answering emails.   It was agony as more than half of the time was spent waiting; one minute per photo, one minute per document, one minute per email.  Does not sound so bad, but try it, especially with 40+ things to grade and about 80 photos to load.  And I could not go away and do other things as the internet was only working in the hotel lobby and not in my second floor room.  But I don’t need to bother you any further with the details.  The last few blog images did not get captions, as I had to jump into the airport taxi and get going. 

A week ago I had arrived in the dark at night at the Kuta-Bali Airport, now I left at dark in the morning. I wish I had more of a chance to appreciate the airport’s architecture — was it not designed by the very architect whose guesthouse I had so appreciated in Yogyakarta!  All I could tell was that the basic idea seems to be a blend of the very traditional villa-palace-temple architecture and modern elements.

Two uneventful flights with Lion Air — by now I have lost count of all the flights — followed and at the other end, as expected, a guy stood at the welcome counter holding up my name.  It was Jaylani, who will be my guide for the next four days, with Ishmael in tow, who will do the driving at both ends.  With more time, more people, and a lot more money, I would have started the boat tour into the jungle right at Balikpapan, one of the major cities on this third largest island of the world (Borneo), tuckering down one of the longest rivers in the world, the 1000 km long Mahakam.   Instead, I will start in Kota

Of the 7 hours in the car, I don’t remember much.  I did not sleep, but I simply could not keep my eyes open.  At one point, when we first came in sight of the river, I could not help but be in awe of the sheer width of this thing.  Easily, several of the widest and longest freight boats could line up side by side without crowding each other. 

The river is used for transporting goods, mainly coal, from what I could tell.  The entire landscape though had been vandalized by dozens of coal conveyor belts.  Every one of them was easily 300 meters long, suspended right above people’s heads, cutting through villages, and then dipping down at the river where streams of coal would be spewed out as if you would pour coffee.  I wonder what that does to the levels of dust pollution around here…

When Jaylani told me that it was Jakarta people who owned, controlled and profited from the coal, I smelled trouble.  That was one of the sticky points Banda Aceh went to war over.  Siphoning off resources and exploiting the local population — the poverty in these river villages was unmistakable — cannot be good, aside from being morally wrong.

Kota is a town further up the river.  The only guesthouse is just about the rock bottom experience you can imagine.  No AC, but a broken fan.  No window but a hole in the wall leading up to a sticky, dark alley…  The air towards the river has a pleasant breeze.  But the air in my room is a sticky mess.  How will I breathe?  Most likely I will be too tired to care.  I hope so.

But first it’s off to dinner with Jaylani and Ishmael.  I cased the joint before during a 1/2-hour stroll.  There was no decent restaurant in sight.  Homemade street food, yes.  And a lot of laughing children who at the sight of a foreigner with a sun hat and a big camera walking aimlessly through their village probably wondered what had befallen them.  But Jaylani did find a warong (the local term for restaurant) which meant a few tables under a dangling neon bulb, swarming with insects.  In a glass case the already prepared food was on display.  One could choose from an array of dishes.  Fish and rice is the staple food here.  I usually go heavy on the vegetables as these thin fish with all their bones can provide certain challenges I am not trained for.

If Bali gets 3 million tourists a year, Kalimantan gets 800.  And of that, Kota probably gets… one perhaps?  What am I doing here?!

Good night. 






Rice here as in many other parts of the world is sacred.  Indonesian rice is considered superior to other rice, which is also cultivated.  It takes 5 months between planting and harvest, whereas the “other” rice only takes 3 months.  That’s what I learned today.  Rice takes communities to plant and harvest and it is a staple food.  Rice takes water  another life-giving force and it is not surprising that water sources and rice fields around here both are always lined with deities carved in stone.  At times, statues tower in the middle of rice fields and everywhere the small, hand-made, perishable offerings are found. Rice fields and particularly rice terraces make for spectacular scenery.  I hope some of this comes across in these images.






FOTO ESSAY #1:  FOOD:  As many of you know, I am not a cook.  I apologize much for the generic labels of this variety of Indonesian food.  To me, the aesthetics of preparation are the most amazing feature of Indonesian cooking.   But on top of that  every one of these dishes was delicious.  Lemon grass, ginger, coconut milk and oil are essential ingredients.  And it never ceases to amaze me what combinations of foods they come up with and the number of dishes they can make out of single banana.

Enjoy this feast for the eye.

P.S.  I have not yet eaten at fancy places yet.  There, the food is much, much more interesting, elaborate, colorful, pleasantly presented, etc.  Maybe soon…