In which Cayce visits Pontianak, Indonesia and wishes for a jellied donutI recently returned from a four-day work trip to Pontianak, in West Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). It is only a twenty minute flight from Kuching, via Batavia Air. There are two flights from Kuching: Batavia Air and MAS. The former is much cheaper and faster (because it's a Boeing compared to MAS' Fokker). Sure, you have much better food in MAS (the chicken and cheese sandwiches are so good... compared to Batavia's dry bun with a sliver of red bean) but believe me, you don't want to be in a Fokker during bad weather. Take Batavia Air!
Looking out the cabin window, I saw such a picturesque sight that you wouldn't see back in Sarawak: ricefields as far as the eye can see. Of course, before that, was a huge block of an oil palm plantation -- a ghastly scar on the landscape.
It felt like heading back into time where most of Borneo must have been like, about forty years ago (maybe more?). I was entranced by the people tending to the ricefields without a care that our plane was descending rapidly to the ground nearby. Within the gates of the airport compound, was a man planting rice just metres away from where our plane landed.
When I entered the airport building and waited in line for the immigration counter, I saw Wanted posters of the Bali bombing suspects who happen to be Malaysians. The posters had various images of what these terrorist suspects would look like under different disguises.
A man impatiently cut in line in front of me and subsequently had trouble with the Immigration. They questioned him for a long time before letting him go. When it came to my turn, it was just a brief flick through my passport, a stamp, and suddenly, I was legally in Indonesia. The Immigration in Pontianak is a lot more professional compared to the immigration in Bali, which is on the shadier side. My guess is that the latter has been primed and porked from many opportunities to ask for bribes from tourists that arrive every day on the island of Bali. Pontianak, on the other hand, does not receive a lot of tourists. Mention the town Pontianak to any East Malaysian and they would shudder. They would rather go to KL or Singapore for a shopping spree than to visit their Indonesian counterparts.
Pontianak is admittedly a seedy town compared to Kuching. There are no tall buildings and traffic is very chaotic, often with vehicles hurtling straight for each other before swerving to the other side at the last minute. The roads aren't properly paved, which contributes to the gritty dusty air that is continually stirred up by honking traffic. There is a sense of desperation that hangs around Pontianak. Women and children in rags beg on the streets. I later found out that these beggars are transmigrants from other Indonesian islands, like Java -- a legacy from the regime of the former Indonesian President Suharto. I also remembered that it was only about five years ago when the Dayaks in Kalimantan were slaughtering these transmigrants -- cutting off every single head, including children. They had hated them because of their aggressiveness and the takeover of what was once native lands. Those were terrible times.
And yet there is still an innocence that remains in today's Pontianak. Becas or trishaws are often occupied by young schoolchildren travelling on their own, heading either back to school or to home. My boss who was with me pointed out that you would never see that in Kuching -- school-age children wandering around town by themselves. Parents in Kuching these days are paranoid about kidnappings. There are guards stationed at every school. Each kid is picked up by his/her parent driving cars which causes huge traffic jams around the school areas.
I felt comfortable walking around Pontianak on my own. Sure I would sometimes get curious stares but never hostile ones. The people may be poor but you don't get hassled like you would in Bali. The locals just continue on with their business, never pushing for a sale.
Gosh, the whole trip was so eventful, so many memories.. it's hard to get it down in one entry. I liked Pontianak, not for its tourism appeal because there wasn't any but rather for a glimpse of what life could have been like if my dad was born on the other side of the border. After all, his village is close to the Indonesian border. He was born to humble rice farmers who could not read nor write. But he studied hard and won a Colombo scholarship to study in Canada. I don't know whether he would have gotten the same chance to succeed had he been born a citizen of Indonesia, of Dayak origins.
And yet at the same time, I envy the Indonesians. At the workshop I attended, Indonesian reps from NGOs were criticizing local government officals and the latter were cheerfully admitting that perhaps they could do a better job in conserving the protected areas. You would never see that in Malaysia. Any criticism towards the government is considered to be not patriotic. The Malaysian government itself is hyper-sensitive to any negative comments and would make outrageous statements that no one in their right mind would believe. We are so afraid of losing face, especially towards foreigners.
It was amazing to meet dedicated, passionate conservationists who were not afraid to thump tables to get their statements across. Yes, yes, it works differently in Malaysia of course but I do wish to see at least such dedication in my Malaysian counterparts. Currently, it's so hard to find local graduates who are willing to work in the field full-time. They would rather have desk jobs while field assistants collect data for them. And that's not right.
Not all is poor and gritty in Pontianak. We passed a large mall (by Kuching standards -- my friend from KL disparagingly said that it was small) that had a Dunkin Donuts.
Dunkin Donuts in Pontianak! Who wouda thunk!
There's no Dunkin Donuts in Kuching! Or the rest of Sarawak for all I know.. Migod, we're so backwards!