Sunday, October 16, 2005

In which Cayce visits Pontianak, Indonesia and wishes for a jellied donut

I 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!


At 9:02 PM, Blogger Colin said...

The worse immigration in Indonesia has to be Medan's Polonia. Surprised you found Bali difficult. Its probably one of the most tourist friendly.

At 12:03 PM, Blogger @ロウ 。LOW@ said...

Sounds like a good place, contrary to it's name - - Pontianak. Just like any other towns with the colours of their own, no?

Similar, if not worse scenario here in Kl : schoolkids-parents-traffic jam! They must have contributed at least half the traffic volume, since i took half the normal time to office during school holidays.

Some NGOs receive financial support from the government, or spent precious time and big bucks to invite some Dato' Tan Sri' for opening ceremony. For many it's just business, how many real philanthropist out there remains unknown.

Solid post!

At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Super post ! Sounds like Wild Wild West kind of town. Desk job is too boring. The real stuff is out there.Dunkin Donuts in Pontianak ? Get a krispy kreme open in Kuching ! Love your post.

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Cayce said...

colin: Thanks for your comment -- it made me realize that I was thinking of the immigration in Jakarta and not Bali! It was in the former where my boss was pressed for bribes. I think overall though, I felt more confident with the immigration in Pontianak than I did with the other two Indonesian cities.

low and annoymous: thanks! but what is krispy kreme???

At 11:03 PM, Anonymous Daniel said...

There often seemed this curious Malaysian obsession with appearances, as if having the world's tallest flagpole or concealing the figures of crimes against tourists would make things actually better.

But then again, perhaps the Indonesian government has more pressing things (for them) to worry about, so dissent on the environment is easier to air.

At 12:42 AM, Blogger Eduardo said...

krispy kreme is a scourge.

Its best not to ask what it is. Pretend you've never heard of it. The knowledge is forbidden!

Maintain your innocence and thereby, your bliss...

At 1:58 AM, Anonymous sidewinder said...

It's called a "Fokker" not a "Forker"
Freudian slip?
Say hi to the guys in Camp Leaky for me!

At 3:54 AM, Anonymous NC said...

Krispy Kreme = Google zillions yummy calories of donuts.
They were doing really great every where in US until the Atkins diet thing stuck out its head.
Did you see the Equator Monument?

At 5:07 AM, Blogger Eduardo said...

Actually, as it turns out they weren't doing that well. Like many US companies they learned a little secret about the stock market -- it can carry you a distance for a while.

See Krispy Kreme went on a massive expansion and inflated their orders artificially to justify the expansion. After the delivery date, they took all their undelivered "orders" and said they were extra but never adjusted their order numbers downward. Folks saw their expansion and their impressive numbers and wanted their stock.

When the bubble burst their sales turned out to be about what any donut chain could expect. Atkins, I think, had little to do with that.

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Cayce said...

daniel: oh yes, we do have an obsession with appearances.. Gawd, we even have our own Malaysia's Book of Records! I think for Indonesia, the fall of Suharto was a breath of fresh air for a lot of folks. However, I have it on good authority that it also meant that a lot of protected areas (national parks, etc..) in Indonesia are now in great peril because the federal gov. have lost their bite -- illegal logging, conversion of protected areas into oil palm plantations, etc.. it's a HUGE mess. I wouldn't say things are any better in Malaysia -- it's just different. But one thing for sure, you'd never see anyone criticizing the Malaysian government and still working in the country/or in the capacity that still allows them to speak. Reporters with a conscience have either seen their wonderful articles edited in such a way that the entire tone of the article has changed (hint: the recent feature story in a national newspaper on orang utans and oil palm plantations), or found themselves reassigned. Look at the national newspapers for example -- MCA (Chinese political party) owns the Star. And who sits on the board of New Straits Times? UMNO politicians. Bah.

At 9:12 AM, Blogger Cayce said...

The Krispy Kreme gang: ahh... very informative.. To be honest, donuts do make me feel really guilty. Freshly-baked cinnamon buns however... yummm..

nc: ah yes! I did! Got my photo taken and everything. Although I wished I had brought my GPS unit.. What was really interesting was walking around Pontianak around noon and seeing your shadow pool around your feet. On certain times of the year, they say that there's no shadow. Freaky.. and very hot!

sidewinder: It's not so much of a Freudian slip but rather my Bidayuh tongue getting in the way. hahahaaaa

I'd love to say hi to the folks in Camp Leakey if I've ever there! [I've gotten an invite but now I've got to find the time and money to get there!]


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