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?

3 comments so far

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  1. I am about to travel Indonesia alone: as a female, would you recommend going to Java, after this experience? I’m not a big fan of being treated like a second class citizen. Was there anywhere in Java that was more tourist friendly? I’ve been to Bali/Seminyak/Ubud and it was easy and friendly. though different religion, which seems to make a difference.

    • Samantha,

      I would travel anywhere in Indonesia. You won’t feel mistreated at all. Best of luck. Bon Voyage. ET

  2. What an adventure!

    You mentioned “There was not even an attempt here of treating women equally” at the big mosque. Actually, it would be a severe violation of the Koran and Sharia even to attempt to treat women equally because the Koran (4:34) clearly says that men were created superior to women and that women must be obedient to their men. Any Moslem who denies the validity of any part of the Koran, including this one, is considered an apostate.

    Interesting that the name of the hotel was “Andalus Hotel”. “Andalus”, of course, is the Arab name of that enormous part of Spain which was once under Islamic rule. According to Islamic doctrine, any territory which was once conquered by Moslems, remains Moslem forever. The name of the hotel is an indication of that. The Moslems want Andalus back.