In The Sound of Music, Captain VonTrappe and Maria croon to one another after discovering their reciprocal love, “Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever should. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”
This was the song that ran through my head sometime last week. No, Mark didn’t do anything spectacularly romantic, who am I kidding? We’ve just had several too-good-to-be-true days. My best guess is that all the times I stopped in the middle of the road to get out and help a turtle avoid being smooshed (you’d be surprised how often this happens in rural Maryland) have paid off.
Of course, at the start of this most recent adventure, I had nothing but worst case scenarios in mind for us. I begrudgingly agreed to go on a several day boat journey up the Mahakam River, Indonesian Borneo’s second longest. This is where Dayak villages are found, home to indigenous people with long stretched earlobes and elaborate tattoos. Since it is the rainy season, I’d pictured us trying to sleep on tattered palm mats in leaky huts that teetered over a river seething with swamp creatures ready to suck my blood. During the day, we’d be swatting away legions of mosquitoes and have to pry cigar-sized leeches from our jugulars. It would be like searching for Colonel Kurz. Yes, I know that I can be overly dramatic, but my mother says that my vivid imagination is a good thing. So there.
I’m happy to report that I was wrong. The following day was spent wandering around town. We find ourselves doing this in most towns we visit. We meandered past the former Sultan’s home, the planetarium (unfortunately, we were short 38 people for them to start the show), a museum and many brightly painted homes. As we were heading back to the hotel, we walked past what seemed to be a wedding. After several women grabbed our arms and pulled us inside, we found that our suspicions were right. And thus, we crashed the second wedding of the trip.
We hoped to be a few low-key flies on the wall, but were quickly pulled into the spotlight instead. We had our portrait taken with the bride and groom and then with pretty much anyone else who had a camera. We were also invited to enjoy the decadent and supremely spicy buffet, which of course we couldn‘t refuse. Meanwhile, someone shoved a karaoke lyric book in Mark’s hand and it was show time. “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” by Elvis, was the song. Mark performed very well, and I’ve got it on video just incase I need to blackmail him one day.
After several glasses of sweet fruit punch and a mouthful of a gelatinous dessert helped cool off my mouth, we were able to speak with the bride’s sister, who was fluent in English. She did a great job translating for uncles and grandparents and we ended up having a splendid afternoon.
We were up and on the ferry early the next morning. Many towns along the Mahakam are inaccessible by road, so the river is the main travel and transport corridor. Ferries meander up and down the river daily, taking about 24 hours from Samarinda, the port town on the Java Sea to Long Iram, the farthest one can travel year-round by ferry (give or take a town or two, depending on the water level).
The ferries are about 80’ long by 15’ wide and have two stories. The lower floor is open for motorbikes, appliances, chickens and anyone who needs space to spread out and enjoy the view. The upper floor is has a narrow walkway down the middle. On either side there are platforms that extend the length of the boat. Mattresses and pillows are provided so people can sleep during the journey. Plus, there’s a kitchen in the back that serves up fantastic curry chicken, noodles, iced tea and the like.
We decided that our first stop would be Maura Muntai, a small town a nine hour ride upriver. Since the surrounding landscape is so flat, the town hovers a few feet above the banks of the river. Instead of streets, the town has an amazing grid of wooden boardwalks. Motorbikes clatter up and down them night and day.
We arrived around 6 pm, giving enough time to check into a guest house and wander up and down the wooden streets. As is the case in most small towns we’ve visited, people were very friendly and enjoyed practicing their English with us. One young man showed us the local elementary school and pointed out different landmarks in town. For dinner we picked a few treats from vendors at the night market.
The following day started with the search for breakfast. Rather, the search for coffee. We have a trick for picking out good restaurants: look for a place with locals in it. This will usually mean two things: 1) the food’s good and 2) the food’s fresh. So we stopped at an eatery where a few men were chatting and drinking coffee. Soon after sitting down, the rest of the seats quickly filled and we found ourselves in the middle of a celebration. We learned later that it was a blessing of one of the men’s new homes whose construction was starting that day. One of the men, named Kani, in attendance spoke pretty good English and after we found out he was free for the day, we asked him if he wanted to come along with us as we explored the area. Happily, he was ready for an adventure.
So Mark, Kani and I piled into a ces (pronounced chess), a long narrow wooden skiff with an engine. We learned they’re nicknamed “flying coffins.” As we were boarding, Kani asked us, “You two can swim, right?” We then zipped upriver, spotting some monkeys along the way, to where the river widens to a lake. On the far side of the lake was a small town called Tanjung Isuy, where we found one of the few remaining Dayak longhouses in the area. A longhouse is just that – a house on stilts that is essentially several families’ homes grouped together into one structure. The house had beautiful carvings out front, including the intricate steps, which are carved from one log.
As we struck up a friendship with Kani, we learned that he was an English teacher in a neighboring town, and he asked us to come with him the following day to help teach some of his classes. We were more than happy to help. So we were back in a floating coffin the next morning, and much to his students’ surprise, walked up the boardwalk to the middle school in the town of Jantur. We had the opportunity to teach two classes and had a great time talking with the kids about things like what kind of fruits grow in Indonesia that don’t grow in America, how our new president went to school in Jakarta, and sports.
Our river journey continued north to the town of Melak, which in recent decades has become a hub for the timber and gold and coal mining industries. Needless to say, it wasn’t the picturesque place that Maura Muntai was, but we wanted to explore the surrounding area, so it became our home for a day. We hopped on the back of two motorbikes the next day to visit a local longhouse. Lonely Planet said that the longhouse was where we’d meet lots of people with traditional tattoos and stretched earlobes. We saw nothing of the sort. Sooner or later, we’ll stop doing everything LP tells us to. However, on the way back into town, we stopped in a town known for its orchid forest. According to Lonely Planet, the rare green orchids bloom in Feburary, but when we arrived we learned that our source was wrong; they bloom in December. We took the tour anyway, and as luck has it, we ended up seeing one in bloom. Considering the flowers only last for three days, we felt very fortunate. The vibrant green and contrasting black of the orchid stood out in the shady forest and the scent of the bloom was incredible.
Mark wanted to go deeper into Borneo and continue up the Mahakam River, so we hopped on the ferry at 3 am and woke up in the town of Long Iram. Because of rapids on the river, this is the last stop for most ferries. It was a quaint village and our main pastime aside from wandering around aimlessly was playing with the local kids. In most of the towns we visited on the river, we found that after a short time, we’d soon be followed by a flock of children. Picture the Pied Piper and you’ve got the idea. We’d show the gang how to give high fives, how to rub your belly while patting your head, how to thumb wrestle, and other indispensable life lessons.
The following day, we were back on the ferry heading south, crossing over the equator once more and headed to the port town of Samarinda. A journey that takes at least 24 hours on the way upriver takes only 18 with the current, so it was an enjoyable trip and was a wonderful close to our week on the Mahakam.