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Sabah, Malaysia to East Kalimantan, Indonesia


One last shave in more salubrious surrounds was required before hitting an ATM to top up with just enough Ringgit for the boat fare to Tarakan. The touts were certainly reminiscent of Indonesia here in their aggression and persistence, but I weathered the storm to track down the one office I knew offering the deal I wanted. Most boats from here ran to nearby Nunukan the first Indonesian town across the border, but the service to larger Tarakan much further on was my goal. Incredibly for the third time in 3 days the office at which I had lost my rag the day previous only had one word to say to me, "Besok" (tomorrow) and I could not believe my ears. Talk about manana mentality, it gave the Iranian Post Office a run for their money. The touts had tried to cajole me up to another counter where certainly you could buy a ticket for the imminent departure to Tarakan, but the asking price of 100 Ringgit was more than the 75 advertised elsewhere and certainly more than I had banked on. In frustration I dumped my bag there in spite of their protests and hoofed it back through the heat to one of Tawau's inconveniently located ATMs again, only to be dumbfounded all over again upon my expected return when I was told that the ticket counter was now closed. The 3 day farce would have tested the patience of a saint and after a year in Asia I was very far from god, you can bet I let rip and let the locals know how screwed up their whole sorry set up was. I could guess that they had closed early in order to finalise their passenger list, a perversity considering the general culture of recklessness and disorganisation, but a year in Asia had also taught me a trick or 2. The alternative was to simply try to circumvent all that and either pay or bribe my way aboard directly at the jetty, a strategy somewhat complicated here by the need to first negotiate Malaysian immigration. Standing in line I didnt mess around in accosting an official looking guy sporting what looked like a passenger list and in explaining my frustrations in stunted Bahasa, thankfully his sidekick took up my cause even though it transpired that it wasnt his boat. Crazily, it transpired that the ticket could still be bought from another official source, just a desk on the pavement outside, from where I breezed the stamping out process now absent of a queue. Squeezing through the horde of hundreds of newly arrived Indonesians, the final obstacle was just that, an obstacle course of clambering over and around cargo and baggage arrayed all over the decks of interceding craft until I finally reached my boat the "Tamindo 3" stationed 3 out from the quayside. By now thoroughly bemused by the whole 3 day fiasco, you better believe I was happy to be on that boat, yet in the circus I hadnt even had a chance to blow the last of my Ringgit on so much as a cup of tea.

I departed Sabah soon enough to find myself scudding over a twinkly blue sea studded with menacing looking fishing platforms resembling what struck me as old style Space Invaders. The fast, poorly frequented service in comparison to the crowd at Arrivals testified to the one way traffic of often illegal migration into Malaysia by Indonesia's economic migrants, of whom doubtless many were absorbed by the oil palm plantations. That economic dichotomy had me freshly pondering the downward step I was now assuredly taking, and I wondered if East Kalimantan would muster all the drawbacks that dirty, anarchic Pontianak had on the opposite coast. And yet I wasnt too worried about it considering my recent privations had certainly acted as a suitable precursor. Semporna had been a dump to rival any in Indonesia, undoubtedly the worst Malaysian town I had frequented, and a renewed grubby pavement culture of hawkers and beggars was full on there enough. Thus I broke free from Malaysia for the last time, an indulgence first through enjoyable exotic Sarawak tempered by costlier and more package orientated Sabah which I had elected to finally afford less time in any case. Initially expecting a month to suffice in this venture, the northern segment of Borneo had taken me a day more than twice that to reconnoitre, even with the corner cutting involved. Perhaps it was a certain relief to be turning another corner then, turning another page as it were, since though Sarawak had been a singularly excellent experience throughout, my time in Sabah had been one of trials and frustrations qualified little by redemption. It was the climbing of Kinabalu which stuck out as a sole satisfying achievement.

Arrival at Tarakan came after a speedy 3 and a half hour trip past fishing platforms, large low lying distant islands and most curiously barges piled with coal, from where that came I knew not. Upon arrival a little forgotten obstacle in a sea of hopeful Ojek drivers were so eager as to impede my landing by coming onto the boat, and I sat it out with the patience and resolve only experience earns in unprecedentedly having to wait for the onboard immigration official who had retained my passport. Confused as to this new practice it was fortunate then that upon enquiry to 3 friendly harbour police guys they beckoned me onto an adjacent bus and it immediately departed down the jetty to the arrivals hall. As the only "Orang putih" (White man) my passport had been singled out which suited me fine, no queueing required, and it was fortunate that I knew to expect the unusually loaded query as to how long I would stay. My visa was good for 2 months but I sincerely hoped I wouldnt need all that time (heard that one before), I knew however that if I declared only 1 month for example then thats all the time the rubber stamper would grant me. There were Bemo drivers as well as Ojeks to dodge, hoping to score a lucrative charter from the dumb rich guy, but resolve to immediately track down the Pelni office which I knew to be nearby shirked them off before long. Pelni was Indonesia's national shipping line and a service I might promptly require since there were no roads out of isolated Tarakan. Though the office was closed it mattered little since the schedule for the next month along with the fares were thankfully displayed in the window. And I hit a jackpot of sorts. With sailings proving sporadic at around one every 4 days and only to limited destinations, a night boat the very next day leaving for Balikpapan was perversely a little too far south for my immediate liking. I had hoped to head for less distant Berau or Samarinda, but it was certainly a timely opportunity to make good progress in the right direction. Away from the ferry terminal shenanigans a Bemo was more straightforward than the shark infested ones in dropping me along Tarakan's one very long main drag by the mosque, from where my hotel of choice was just a stones throw away. Perhaps undeserving of all the praise heaped on it by the guidebook, the Hotel Taufiq was at least there to be had and at a little over 2 quid a night good enough for me. Just.

The change of host was immediately evident in many subtle ways, with East Kalimantan delivering the familiar onslaught of friendly "Hello misters" and spontaneous excited waves and smiles. There was much less English here though and certainly less fresh paint about, and I now had to stick "Ribu" (a thousand) onto the end of any prices. There were many more motorbikes than cars to dodge again, many of them scouring the pavements, and soon I struck upon an old favourite in a Padang cuisine restaurant, a delight I had forgotten to expect. Alas, fellow favourites Roti and Martabak were now conversely no more since I had left behind the influence of Malaysia's ethnic Indian population. One thing hadnt changed though, the fair maidens of East Kalimantan were every bit as alluring as the Sabah girls, even if they were all tiny. It seemed however that Ramadan's grip was a little tighter around here though, with all the Indo restaurants closed and no Chinese establishments to alleviate matters. In using the last of the day for an initial foray, I eventually stumbled across a few humble food carts selling only a single staple, one of them finally blessed me with my first meal of the day in an excellent fresh noodle soup. In this bent I had also spied some charming terraced wooden architecture, then elaborately styled pointy roofs synonymous with Indonesia all over it now seemed. There was also the odd banner newly celebrating the countries 62nd anniversary. Tarakan seemed to typify the country in being rudimentary and downright scummy in places, yet building work and many projects recently completed testified to the fact that though she was lagging behind in the race with Malaysia, she was still up and coming. Alas there was no beer to be had in Tarakan that night even if the petrol was now sold by pavement stalls out of vodka bottles, and a net cafe I discovered was too hot to be bearable. I ran back to another old convention then, a squat toilet and cold Mandi.

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Indonesia

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