In 1984 I was visiting the Jakarta zoo with my father. One section of the zoo had some traditional long houses from Kalimantan (Borneo). I was explaining to my father how I always wanted to travel to the interior of Kalimantan and live with the Dayaks when one of the zoo employees interrupted.
“I can take you there,” he said.
“What, who, where?” I stammered.
“I am a Dayak,” he said. “I can take you to my village”.
Things happened rather quickly from that point. A foreigner must first spend a month or more applying for a travel visa from the Indonesian government, and NO visas are ever given to foreigners to visit Kalimantan. It’s a good thing I didn’t know that because the next morning we bought our tickets and we were on our way.
The first leg of the trip was by plane from Jakarta to Balikpapan. After a day of negotiating, my guide obtained a car and driver for the all night trip to Samarinda. Vehicles should drive on the left side of the road in Indonesia but everyone seemed to prefer the right side of the road. Also, there was apparently a cultural problem with using headlights at night so the driver blindly raced the car on the winding, narrow road at speeds that would have won him first place if there was anyone else in the race. The headlight problem didn’t apply when a car was racing in the opposite direction. Then both cars would turn on the headlights and, just before impact, switch to high beams, swerve back to the left side of the road, and blow the horns. It wasn’t just our driver that did that, it was standard practice.
I felt like I cheated death when we arrived safely in Samarinda. I was feeling rather tired after being too terrified during the car ride to sleep. My guide didn’t seem bothered by the trip so he left me passed out on the grass as he searched for our next transportation.
“A what?” I asked when he woke me.
“A banana boat,” he replied again.
I had no idea what to expect but it had to be better than another car ride. We boarded a long, wide boat with a roof but no walls. I was surprised that the boat started up the Mahakum River with so few passengers. Being Indonesia, I thought the captain would wait until there were so many passengers that the boat couldn’t float. I didn’t know why it was called a banana boat until the return trip back down the river when we had to sit on 100,000 pounds of bananas.
The banana boat trip was great that day. I watched small villages pass by with kids playing in the water and so many animals in the treetops that I never saw in the wild before. Sometimes I would sit on the roof for a better view. The captain kept a roster tied up there. The roster was the alarm clock. He looked awful after spending all day in the hot sun. He kept trying to stand on a piece of plywood instead of the hot tin roof but the string tied to his foot was too short. He didn’t survive the day and the captain threw the dead roster into the river.
There was a long wooden 2x12 plank extending from the back of the boat and suspended over the water. At the end of the plank was an open-top wooden box tied to the plank. The box was about one foot high and there was a hole in the bottom. I guess that was the poop deck and I did all I could not to think about having to go. If my weight didn’t snap the plank then I’m sure the rocking boat would have tossed me off. Those worries were combined with the thought of me trying to hide below the one-foot high wall. Either way, I sure would have put on a good show for the passengers.
The boat stopped at the next village to buy another roster. I took that as a sign to go find a bathroom. In 1984 I knew very little Bahasa Indonesia but I did know how to ask, “Where is the bathroom?” I memorized that sentence before getting on the boat. The village had a wooden sidewalk connecting wood shack stores perched over the river. I went in one store and said my best Indonesian sentence. It worked. The store owner understood what I asked and pointed at a door at the back of the store. I said my other Indonesian sentence, “Thank you”. I went through the door at the back of the store and found myself outside the back of the store. I went back to the front and tried a different store. I asked the same question and was pointed to another door in the back of that store. I tried it anyway but once again found myself behind the store.
Back to the boat. The boat continued very slowly up river. The captain was sure earning his pay at that point because the river level was dropping, exposing large rocks that would sink the boat. As the sun started setting the heavens opened up and I never experienced so much rain. In one minute the rainfall must have equaled one year’s worth in Colorado where I grew up. I curled up inside my rain poncho and tried to sleep. I calculated that we must be passing over the equator at that point. Sometime during the night the captain gave up the navigation attempts and stopped the boat at another unknown village. I asked my guide if there was a hotel in this village. I meant it as a joke but his reply was, “Let’s find out”.
We got off the boat in the torrential downpour and literally clawed our way up a muddy hill to the village. After we passed a couple huts the guide said, “There’s one”.
“There’s what?” I asked in disbelief. “A hotel?”
It wasn’t a hotel that you could book on Travelocity but it looked great to me, four walls, two beds, a roof, and an outhouse. I was finally able to sleep. The next morning we paid the dollar and a half for the room and we went back to the river. The boat was gone. I guess the new roster was an earlier riser than we were. We waited and waited as there was nothing else we could do. The guide said that the boat will return. I thought that was just wishful thinking on his part but, sure enough, it returned. The boat went up a side river to pick up a few passengers and back down to the main river to pick us up.
We continued up the Mahakum. Another day passed on the river when the boat stopped again. Last night's rain was not enough so the river was too shallow for the boat to go any further. “This is where we get off,” said the guide. We watched from shore as the boat disappeared down the river.
I didn’t know the details, for example, will the boat ever come back to get us. That wasn’t important to me at that time. I was now in the interior of Kalimantan with a Dayak. It took a plane, car, boat, and now we were on foot and I was more anxious than ever to continue. It was sure a different world than the Jakarta zoo a week earlier.
It wasn’t a long walk before we came upon a Dayak long house. One Dayak man came out to meet us. Other than him, the village seemed empty. The guide talked with him for awhile in a Dayak dialect. The man returned to the village and the guide told us that we have to go back to the river to wait until nightfall.
When the sun started to set we returned to the village. I then saw why we had to wait. The entire village was there, lined up, dressed in their traditional clothing, waiting to greet the visitors as is their custom. Others were quickly preparing food. We went through the greeting ceremony in the traditional manner, except for one. A chicken’s head was cut off and placed on the trail in front of us. The guide said that we must step on the head before we can enter the village. I stepped on the chicken head as the chicken’s body ran around to our side. Later I was told by the guide that they used a chicken’s head instead of the customary human head. I approved of that change in custom.
Not long before this time, the Dayaks were headhunters. I’ve always known this but I thought it was long before my time. The guide explained that just recently the Indonesian government passed a law stating that the only heads the Dayaks can hunt are Communist heads. Looking at the Dayaks around me, I really doubted that any of them had any idea what a Communist was, or, for that matter, what the Indonesian government was. The old man chief standing in front of me, who was also the one who cut the head off the chicken, most likely did the same with human heads in the past.
The party that followed was the party of a lifetime. Lots of food and traditional dancing. They even pulled us out to dance the traditional dance. I thought I was pretty good but I’m glad no one filmed me to prove me wrong. Then, all of a sudden, it ended. There must have been a signal that I didn’t notice because everyone quickly left. We were given a room in the long house where, once again, we had a good sleep.
“Where is the bathroom?” was my first question the next morning. The guide explained that the river is the bathroom. Just go for a swim, do your duty, then get out. I remembered the stores down river. Each time I asked that question I found myself behind the store, facing the river. I gave it a try. As I stood waist deep in the brown river, obviously the toilet for all the villages upriver as well, Dayak women from the village came to the stream to wash dishes. I pretended that I wasn’t doing anything but they knew what I was doing and didn’t care.
I spent the rest of the day with the children of the village. I don’t know if they were assigned to entertain us while the adults were away in the farms, but they did a good job anyway. One very old Dayak women also came to us for medical advice.
As the adults returned to the village I was brought to see what the men caught. I grew up in the mountains of Colorado so I’m no expert on this. All I can say is that it was an extremely long snake, maybe 15 feet. They cut the skin off and fastened it to a long log and set it in line with the skins of previously caught snakes. They seemed very proud. All I could come up with to say was “Good job”. All the men were pleased with themselves and I never ventured away from the village alone again.
I don’t know how many days were spent in this village. Time seemed to have stopped once we got there. One morning the guide said that it is time to go. We packed our bags, said good buy to our loyal followers, the children, and went to the river. At the river we waited and waited as there was nothing else we could do. No banana boat. Finally it was decided that it didn’t rain the previous night so the banana boat could not return to pick us up. Dayaks jumped into long canoes to save the day. They were to chase us down the river to catch the banana boat.
I was told to get in one canoe. The rower was already aboard. Once I got in, my weight, at that age I was probably 170 pounds, started to sink the canoe. That was the equivalent of two more men by their standards. I saw water quickly seeping in from all the joints of the primitive canoe. The rower was bailing out the water as fast as he could. I knew that there was no way he could bail water and row us at a fast enough pace to keep us afloat, so I jumped out. They brought another canoe that seemed to hold out the water a little longer.
We caught up to the banana boat, which was full of bananas by that time. The captain had a full cargo and didn’t think twice about leaving us behind. I’m sure he would have checked on us on the next trip up river if the river conditions were favorable. He pulled over and we boarded the banana boat.
The trip downstream was much faster than the trip upstream and we had all the free bananas we could eat.
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Posted by EW Johnson