K A L I M A N T A N 


Borneo is the world's third largest island. Even when you discount the north coastal strip that is part of Malaysia, and the tiny, oil-rich Sultanate of Brunei, what's left is still about as big as France, with fewer people in it than Paris. Some are Dayak, descendants of the first inhabitants of the island, making a living in the forests of the interior or the coastal swamps. But most people live in small towns along the river banks, or cities at the great river mouths. The rivers - Kapuas, Mahakam, Barito, and many others - are still important means of transport between coast and interior.

Sanskrit inscriptions, Hindu remains, Chinese histories, show that this island has been on Asian trade routes for perhaps two thousand years. By the fifteenth century AD, Islam had arrived in the ports and soon they were setting themselves up as sultanates. The Chinese are still here, and today there are rapidly-increasing numbers of Indonesians from other islands, government people, ambitious businessmen, or farmers who have transmigrated here from overcrowded Java and Bali. Kalimantan is said to have great mineral wealth, but for the moment its economy is focussed on timber and oil, with a little rubber and fish to help it out. Tourism is develop­ing, but there are few good beaches, no high mountains or spectacular monuments. Most foreigners come here on business. Four-star hotels, western food and air-conditioned travel are therefore not particularly cheap.

Kalimantan towns have a frontier atmosphere about them, a go-getting openness that is rather attractive. Where you came from, what your family are, interest people very little. What matters is how much money you have and who you know. I admit that I have not spent enough time here to cultivate my contacts at all thoroughly, but there are members of my family in Pontianak, and that is therefore where we begin.



On an early visit, we were taken out of town to see rice and soya beans being farmed by a Javanese village community who had moved here en masse a few years before. There is no compulsion about village transmigration; anyone who wants to stay behind in Java is free to do so, though the fact that your friends and neighbours are all leaving simultaneously must put a lot of pressure on you to go with them. There are effective support schemes to help everyone get going again in their new home. Each family is given 2.5 hectares of land (a little over 6 acres); in Java, virtually all were landless.

It was a little strange for me to be talking Javanese in a landscape that was so utterly unlike Java: flat as far as the eye could see, peaty, only a metre or two above sea level and therefore practically waterlogged. Endlessly straight drainage canals stretched away under a sky whose natural blue seemed to have been bleached out by the sun. But the people I talked to looked prosperous, by their own standards, cheerful certainly, and their houses had the fastidious neatness of the Javanese, people who carefully sweep every centimetre of their dusty front yards twice a day. Some households were obviously doing better than others. Only a few had been abandoned altogether; these, we were told, had belonged to townees from Jakarta who came with government grants, lived in idleness for a year or two, and then went back to whatever it was they did in the big city.

The rice itself looked rather thin and uneven, compared with what we had seen in the fertile valleys of West Sumatra, but yields from new varieties specially bred for these near-swamp conditions are satisfactory. A few days later we went north from Pontianak, crossed the Equator just outside the town, and after two or three hours arrived at a village among low hills where local farmers were getting ready for their harvest festival. These were not wet-rice growers or peasant proprietors like the Javanese, but shifting cultivators of communal land, clearing a patch of forest, sowing rice, beans, other vegetables, bananas and papaya, all together in the thin soil, taking one or two crops and then leaving the forest to regenerate itself for four or five years before they clear it again. Five years is barely long enough for the fertility and structure of the soil to recover, and this dry-rice cultivation can only support a very sparse population. The rice itself, at its best, is delicious; the best upland rice, gogo rancah as we call it in Indonesian, is exquisite, but alas only obtainable where it is grown.

Not very far away, we called at a cattle ranch that had been recently set up by a local businessman. He had rented about 200 hectares of land from the government on a twenty-year lease and employed a full-time vet and two or three hands who lived in a cottage on the land. The cows lived in rather spacious accommodation, an open-sided thatched cowhouse, where they were fattened up on grass grown nearby. Most of the land, when we saw it, was still lying idle, covered with small trees, dense undergrowth, rather scruffy grass or bare sandy ground. The soil was obviously very thin and poor, but there was a stream that always had water in it. The cows finished up in the Pontianak marketplace, but there were plans, as the business expanded, to ship beef to Java, Singapore, perhaps further.

Another couple of hours of bumping along dirt roads will bring you, if you know the way, to a Dayak community, a single longhouse with a row of family rice barns opposite. Almost the whole structure is of bamboo, set up off the ground on massive bamboo trunks, its open verandah reached by a flight of steps chopped into another trunk. We were welcomed with great kindness by the adults and intense, but polite, curiosity from the children. Green coconuts were quickly slashed open with a machete, and we drank the water from them as if they were goblets, sticky liquid coconut dribbling down our chins. Although the idea of a Dayak longhouse is romantic, suggesting war dances and perhaps a few severed heads, this longhouse, typical or not, was extremely cosy. Each family had its own section of the building, which was in effect a row of terraced houses, and when we were invited into one we found the only heads on the walls were those of Queen Elizabeth II and the Pope, in framed colour photographs.

There is little in the way of a food tradition in any part of Kalimantan. Most of the townsfolk are first- or second-generation immigrants and cook the dishes of whatever part of Indonesia they came from originally. Pontianak has some quite agreeable restaurants where you can eat Australian steaks and straight-down-the-middle Cantonese and Indonesian dishes. My favourite restaurant in that area is the one we were taken to the day before we left, a seafood place built right on the water in the estuary of the Kapuas river. It was Sunday lunchtime and the place was crowded, mainly with Chinese families. Each table occupied a little pavilion on a concrete pillar that rose from the muddy water, and the pavilions were linked by boardwalks as well as direct telephone lines to the kitchen. We ate rice and seafood and hot chilli sambal with our fingers, and watched the fishing boats. Many of them were one-man dugout canoes, which paddled vigorously seaward against the breeze or drifted home with a pandanus leaf held up as a sail.

But in Pontianak as elsewhere you find better food in many homes than you do in restaurants, and my sister at that time had a young woman in the house who was an enthusiastic and talented cook, a real treasure. In Europe she would probably have trained and qualified as a chef, but in Pontianak a girl who is a natural good cook has to pick up her craft whatever way she can, from her mother to begin with and later by talking to neighbours' cooks or watching cookery programmes on television; I don't believe this girl ever saw a cookbook. Her perfectionist approach appeared when she spent almost an entire day preparing bubur pedas for the family. You will never get real bubur pedas in a restaurant, it is much too fiddly a job. In any case, this is a special family dish for occasions when the family is gathered together in private. We eat it at buka, the early evening meal that breaks the fast of Puasa, or when everyone comes together to make plans for a great event, a circumcision or a marriage. Rice is first roasted until it is a beautiful golden colour, then ground by hand in a stone mortar. Herbs are freshly picked - daun kesum, daun kunyit, daun kencur and many others. There are 24 ingredients altogether, including lemon grass, galingale, ginger, fennel seeds, nutmeg and candlenuts. Our cook in Pontianak insisted that this was how her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had all made bubur pedas, and she was certainly not going to be the first to change.

Such an old-fashioned attitude is probably rare, and was certainly not learnt from watching television. I admit I would not spend six hours in the kitchen to make a hot spiced rice porridge, however delicious. In fact, the list of ingredients is similar to, though much longer than, that of the Minahasa dish, tinutuan.

At breakfast the next morning, my sister's cook, knowing we were about to leave, pulled out all the stops. She set on the breakfast table a large steaming bowl of bakso - Chinese noodle soup with meat balls - which she had bought from a street vendor. I knew it would contain a lot of vetsin, or monosodium glutamate, which I am strongly allergic to, so I refused it as politely as I could. Quite unruffled, she brought in a bowl of noodles she had cooked herself, but I suspected these too were laced with MSG. Roger, who is always hungry in the morning, ate plenty of both. After a further interval a bowl of cold rice appeared, and I cheered up. It was quickly followed by the cold fried chicken left over from last night, so I ate rice and chicken thankfully, knowing it would be the last square meal I would get before we reached our hotel in Jakarta that evening. Just as I was polishing off the chicken, she came in again, with a dish of boiled bananas. I love boiled bananas, which are never on the menus of internat­ional hotels. "If only she had brought those in first!" I said to Roger. "I wouldn't have eaten anything else."

Months later, back in London, I tried boiling ripe plantains, slicing them, and serving them with freshly-grated coconut: nourishing and delicious at any time of day, and very quick to make.



When I am researching a new book, I make it a rule only to go to places where I have some sort of personal contact, however tenuous. In Asia, even more than in Europe, without contacts you get nowhere. The only person I knew in Balikpapan was my nephew Reza, who had arrived only a few days before us. As a student of the hotel school in Bandung, he was to spend six months as a front-of-house trainee in the Hotel Benakutai, where we spent the four days of our stay.

The building, which would be lost in the Jakarta skyline, is one of Balikpapan's prominent landmarks. This town is all about oil. Outside the gates of the refineries, there is very little sign of planning, but as land is relatively cheap the town has grown quite comfortably in irregular blocks of low-rise offices and apartments. From our fourth-floor window, it reminded us a little of Jakarta as it was thirty years ago, but Jakarta then still had countless old tiled roofs; also, Jakarta is flat. Here, the view was terminated not by a horizon but by even less regular, more unplanned little hills, sticking up like crocks under a piecrust, the crust being the buildings clinging to the hillsides. Each of these humps has a name, and their names all begin, not with bukit, which means "hill", but with gunung, which means "mountain". This suggests that there must be a local sense of humour. Names in this part of the world are indeed often puzzling; balik in Indonesian means "overturn", papan is "plank". A pontianak is a witch, with a hollow back, who snatches small children, in Java if not here.

One of the highest-profile foreign companies here is Total, and the strongest foreign influence is certainly French. To start with, a French management company runs the Benakutai. I had a long talk with one of their staff. He was off to Paris with his Indonesian wife for a couple of months' leave, but, like almost every European who has worked in Asia, he intended to come straight back, and did not anticipate any difficulty in finding work in the hotel business. Europe is universally seen as outclassed and over-regulated, a place where big corporations and employee protection laws stifle initiative.

He regarded his countrymen in the Total Oil compound with tolerant amusement: "They are seventy or eighty families, they have established a little France in there and they want as little contact with Indonesia as they can." I hope that at least they venture as far as La Petite Boulangerie, next to the hotel coffee shop, where the croissants are far better than any others I have had in South-East Asia. There was a problem with them, my friend said, until he realised that Indonesian butter, made by Australians in Jakarta, has too much water and salt for croissants; butter from Elle-et-Vire made all the difference. He agreed that the F&B Manager has to plan a long way ahead to make sure his imports arrive when they are needed. "But in Balikpapan, everything is imported, nothing grows here that is any good to anyone except papaya and pineapples. You are going to Samarinda tomorrow? Along the road, you will see thousands of pepper trees - a few years ago, everyone planted pepper. Then prices collapsed and the trees are worthless, no one looks after them." We had heard exactly the same thing about copra in Pontianak, and were to hear it again about cloves in Manado.

The road to Samarinda, 120 kilometres, is a remarkable one. The first part, from Balikpapan, is along a high ridge, so that you have tantalising glimpses of hills and forest in the gaps between workshops, warung, houses, trees and trucks. We stopped at an abandoned pepper plantation, where everything was as the Frenchman had told me, a sad sight. Far away to the west, we sometimes saw what looked like rainforest, but there was little moisture visible near the road and in 30 kilometres we crossed only two small streams. As the landscape becomes emptier and wilder, you see that all the land near the road has been cleared of big trees and only a few spindly giants, most of them dead, are still upright. A little of the cleared land is used for agriculture, but nothing seems to grow very well. This is, however, the home of some of the largest battery chicken farms I ever saw in Indonesia. I cannot imagine that so many chickens and so many eggs can all be consumed in Balikpapan, so presumably they are exported to other islands to ease the internal balance of payments.

The destruction of the forest has not escaped official attention, and the next part of our journey lay through Taman Hutan Raya Bukit Soeharto - the great forest park of Soeharto Hill (though here, indeed, gunung, mountain, would have been more appropriate). I don't know anything about forestry, but this certainly looks like a model piece of environmental restoration. It is evidently backed by, and will presumably benefit, a great many timber companies whose billboards and even offices you pass by the roadside; this is probably the best guarantee of continued success. The renewed forest goes on for miles, with just one small village at the mountain-top, a tiny mosque balanced on the summit. One area, our driver said, had been ravaged by fire, but there were few signs of this. We stopped again, and he showed us a surface seam of low-quality coal, smouldering from underground fires. There was a powerful smell of sulphur. "That's what kills the trees," he said. We guessed no one would say anything about logging.

The final section, down to the Mahakam River at Loajanan, is quite weird: rolling hills away to the distance, with bald spots that have greened over, or small trees, or outcrops and pits of sand and rock, or endless columns of dead, white tree trunks, often many feet high, sometimes blackened by fire.

Samarinda is an attractive and busy town on a bend of the great Mahakam. At its centre are a handsome new mosque, still being built, and an award-winning shopping centre, a little like Silom Village in Bangkok but less enclosed and much less touristy. On the way into town we stopped to buy amplang kuku macan, a fishy-tasting, crescent-shaped crisp savoury snack. Kuku macan are tiger's claws. In the shopping centre, full of rather superior warungs, we found one selling Banjar food, which is as near as you will get to an interesting regional cuisine in Kalimantan. Even here, most people eat Javanese or Chinese food most of the time, and Padang restaurants are appearing everywhere. The Dayak who have come to town are now civil servants or middle managers, living in small houses in the suburbs where they simply do not have the facilities or even the leisure to chop up a whole pig and cook it slowly in bamboo segments.

We ought, of course, to have gone to Banjarmasin, a mere 12 hours' drive from Balikpapan, to learn about Banjar food on the spot; but one has to leave something for next time. Several Banjar recipes are included in this section of the book. The sea- and river-food that we ate in Samarinda was extremely good, though we couldn't bring ourselves to sample the turtle's eggs. They looked exactly like collapsed ping-pong balls.

An hour's drive along the bank of the Mahakam brings you to Tenggarong, a sleepy riverside town that used to be the seat of the Sultans of Kutai. A lot of it, including the palace, was rebuilt in the 1930s and looks surprisingly suburban-Dutch. If you have plenty of time, and aren't too fussy about your food, you can take a boat up river for another 500 kilometres. We agreed with a boatman to take us for a one-hour cruise. After a few minutes, the chug and shudder of the motor became wonderfully soothing. Little floating islands of greenery drifted past on the turbid waters. A golden tropical afternoon light settled down over the rather scruffy trees on the river bank. Villages passed, their wooden houses like bridges between one element and another, with many flights of steps and landing stages. I saw a woman fill a large washing bowl with water from the river, tuck up her sarong, step into the bowl and start marking time vigorously. She was making tempe, treading the soya beans to split them and rub off the skins.

Considering we had come to Indonesia in the wettest part of the year, we had so far been lucky. Two or three days of continuous downpour in Sumatra had coincided with a period when we needed to spend a lot of time in offices and under cover. We had flown into Pontianak the day after floods had subsided from the main runway, and now we were basking under a cloudless sky. On the road back to Balikpapan, nearly half of this sky was veiled in purple, which almost hid the setting sun. We pulled up at the base of a firewatching tower, and two or three of the men in the party went up the ladder to the platform, thirty or forty metres above our heads. They reported that the purple cloud was smoke, high in the atmosphere, presumably from forest fires; they saw at least three large fires burning within about twenty kilometres, with no visible flame but with great plumes of smoke drifting across the landscape, rising with reluctance into the still air.