A Travellerspoint blog

Balikpapan

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Sadly sleeping in this morning, I had already left it too late for an intended day trip and so it descended into an unfortunate waste of a day, redeemed vaguely by some time on the net and major wowser, discovery of a proper less than obvious bar in a shopping mall, all chrome and glass and even boasting the F1 schedule. Upon peering confusedly through the darkened glass it was thankfully the presence of a lone white man at the bar which coaxed me in, Gordon transpired to be an expat worker overseeing the local powerplant. And having been there for 7 and a half years I reckon that Gordon had to be either very boring or very mad, it was a charmless spot to get stuck it had to be said. He was however able to relate that as had been illustrated all too frequently in the local insufficient electrical capacity, "Kaltim" was booming due to the continuing Transmigrasi programme. After securing some writing in the refreshingly comfortable environ, I then promptly got accosted by a local guy out on the street and couldnt shake him off, getting stalked by him in a 4 X 4 and having to run to escape in the end! Something told me that white men were a rare breed in this town indeed.

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Samarinda

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With a proposed day trip out to small town Tenggarong precluded by its museums Monday closure, I forewent that intention today with what turned out to be an unmemorable traipse around town, checking out the market area bearing many local trademark sarongs and just generally getting to grips with what was clearly a remarkably large city for Borneo, and the blisters certainly told that I still did a lot more than nothing.

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Pampang No Thanks Man

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Though trying to limit the distractions these days, I deliberated until the last minute whether to invest today in either an out of town appointment or sods law, the precisely conflicting timing of the Chinese Grand Prix, the second to last of the season and possibly the championship decider. I surprised myself then in plumping for the effort required to get myself 26Ks out to the village of Pampang, the draw of a regular traditional song and dance performance proving too alluring given that the guidebook promised "these are not made-for-tourist performances and the ritual is unadulterated". The winding undulating trip took me past ramshackle mainly thatched roof shacks, many of which were unusually now staggered on hillsides in groups of 5 or 6, and clearly too squat to be conventional longhouses I could not be sure what their usage was. A covered cattle market was another rare sighting and the palm groves of Sabah had clearly not filtered down southwards. The road to Pampang steadily deteriorated until the last few Ks descended into a bad joke. Men concocted a slapdash and seemingly pointless roadside wall together whereas the horrendous broken surface should have surely been their priority. Perhaps I should have been forewarned by the preceding series of professionaly produced signs, but arrival at the prescribed longhouse where the performances took place immediately saw me presented with a visitors book to sign and excruciatingly a demand in English for 5,000 Rupiah. 5,000 Rupes was nothing, but it certainly wasnt my idea of unadulterated and I winced at being cast into such an obvious pantomime. On another day I might have even foregone the whole charade, but I paid the pennies to realise that I was perhaps fortunate to have arrived a little late and so only caught the tail end of the cavalcade. Though there were only a couple of other white faces inside the garishly overdecorated arena in yellow and white, I sat determined not to get sucked into what had obviously become a sell out, most probably due to the very homage paid to it by the guidebook. As the village elders with requisite elongated earlobes sat by, another 2 played Sape guitars for the village kids to mull around to. Costumed in overelaborate beaded finery or feather covered warrior breastplates, their lame, mischief laden gyrations had me begging for something more akin to the truth, and though I was momentarily beguiled by ladies proffering feathers or kids porting ghoulish masks, one a fantastic tusked wild boar representation, I sat begrudgingly with my chin in hands at the nonsense. Perversely I even became much more interested at investigating the sham, noting for example that the reported "longhouse" was actually a Dayak stylised stage evidently custom made. Though its effigied wooden stilts had character, it was devoid of decoration around the back and no true longhouse would ever be built like that. Though I well understood and appreciated the chicken and egg argument that tourists had undoubtedly precipitated the descent into showbiz, I still struggled to accept that the local peoples desire to retain their culture and get by meant that they had sold out to the devil. Adjacent trinket stalls demonstrated its corruption beautifully in women trying to sell me all manner of keyrings for example, just what every longhouse dwelling Kenyah Dayak needs, I was also offered a Perang (sword) ridiculously completely covered in beading. The ladies were probably surprised to hear the Bahasa rebuke "Saya becuk orang perang" (I'm not a warrior). For good measure some of the kids came to me in turn to pester me for photos, though this time I knew that it was motivated by financial gain. Most distastefuly, a perfectly translated board decreed prescribed tariffs for snapping men with long earlobes and people in traditional costume, also declaring that reprinting for promotional purposes was only permissible with prior agreement ie. payment. My camera stayed stubbornly and firmly in my pocket despite the odd temptation. How soon would it be I wondered before they slapped a standard and habitually extortionate camera usage fee onto the entry charge and the 5,000 became inflated to 50,000.

Dispirited by the whole experience, I tried to retrieve something from Pampang in noting the still prolific incorporation of carved totems and high roofs into local architecture, but an immediate and doubtless infrequent Kijang was too good to resist despite wishing to search out some more genuine touches. The blazing heat must have really hit me since I conked out upon my return, and I later tried to redeem something more from the day, only succeeding in patronage of a very rare thing, a modern cinema with a film I actually wanted to see. "The Good Shepherd", a tough espionage thriller was perhaps too compounding for one already so cynical, but it sure beat wasting another night traipsing around in search of non-existent beer or football on TV. One favour my trip to Pampang had done was to bless me with a discarded tourist map of the city, and though crazily only written in Bahasa and of an inappropriate scale, it related the alleged existance of a few pubs besides hitherto untold attractions. Thanks presumably to Ramadan the pubs were all shut however, a little ironic given that that was precisely why I needed one so much. I stayed up all night to write that night, and it was these very words which were prompted by an air raid siren at 4.30am, presumably warning of the impending renewed fast ahead. I knew for sure now that it was not so much the privations of travel or of being tired of the whole affair, though somewhat, I really had by now been thoroughly sickened by the perversities of that ridiculous belief system. Self enforced hunger and dehydration in raging heat, rising in the middle of the night to perform inane rituals, the profligation of fixed ideas, even the film had been savagely edited lest I be led astray by the devils influence. And yet the poor irritating guys sprawled behind me at the cinema had probably come to see an English language movie just to ogle Angelina Jolie as much as anything else. Bali started to sound better than ever then as my original reservations at hitting a major tourist destination evaporated in anticipation of a more amenable culture and strangely, a refuge in Hinduism of all things. The only enduring problem was my protracted failure in establishing how to get there!

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Balikpapan to Samarinda

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Though my hotel also managed to boast unexpected balcony views of an adjacent beach and very contrasting rickety shoreline shacks, Balikpapan's initial poor showing was little redeemed by an ugly skyline skulking under a full on tropical downpour this morning, and though I tried to brave it I finally gave in and took refuge in a net cafe since the poor light scuppered photography anyway. Seeing no point in hanging around then I made alternative use of the time by immediately decamping 2 hours north to the nearby city of Samarinda, helped on my way by an unbecoming street culture of pestering kids and beggar women betraying a local dichotomy of wealth. Having literally bumped into a rare white face in the night in search of a beer, the expat presence was actually belied more by the local kids knowledge of the English word "money" than sadly any evidence of an anticipated pub. Thankfully there surely had to be closer to 30 buses a day to Samarinda rather than the 3 the guidebook advised, so a prompt departure soon had me surprised again at a very undulating inland route not once hinting at the Sulawesi Sea despite both cities being on the waterfront. Sadly, it actually persistently revealed evidence of the worst forest devastation I had hitherto encountered anywhere in Asia, with repeated bare tracts of charcoaled tree stumps not even having succumbed to reinvestment as agricluture. Variously pretty or rickety timber shacks were contrastingly greenified by a local industry of pot plant production. It had been an irony to be heading back north in contest to my recent maritime marathon, and I was left to ponder in hindsight whether the more convoluted but doubtless equally challenging local boat from Tarakan and then a lengthy bus journey south might not have been the more logical progression in getting here. I would have regretted it either way I mused and was at least again glad to have made further swift progress. Allegedly a very contrasting affair to Balikpapan, arrival in Samarinda revealed the difference to be defined more by its setting upon a broad low sweep of the mighty Sungai Mahakam, one of Borneo's major inland waterways. At another time the draw of its access into Borneo's most exotic heartland might have proved irrisistible, but that was a recipe for tough, costly and time consuming adventures I had no further heart for. The promise of Samarinda itself had been enough reason for this short backtrack, and though finding all the desirable hotels full and ending up in a dive certainly didnt help, the city's immediate impression was one of a further downward spiral into disappointment. Streets choked with stagnant traffic became impassable even to pedestrians, with swathes of motorbikes inconsiderately blocking the patchwork pavements as a matter of course. Random unlovely developments made neighbouring overelaborate architecture look ridiculous, and I also started to notice the telltale symptoms such as putrid piles of roadside garbage, prominently placed ugly electrical junctions and stomach churning street food reminiscent of the Third World. Even the established restaurants were a poor retreat in habitually not even mustering vegetables or cold drinks but giant rats instead, and though it didnt serve to make me any less grumpy about it I was at least aware of the ever narrowing blind alley I was leading myself down. Certainly Ramadan was a compounding factor which was really starting to bite, but besides starving for the main part of the day and struggling to even trace a chilled drink, the final test was not being able to retreat into a bottle of Bintang after hard hot days short of redemption. Though I chanced upon several normally elusive net cafes which perhaps served to illustrate Samarinda's size, there was not a single hint of any beer advertising around town let alone a bottle of booze to be had, even in the large supermarkets, and the evident prevalence of non-alcoholic malt brew "Near Beer" had me surmising East Kalimantan had to be unexpectedly dry. It was an irony to consider that such privations were the very reason why beer had become so important, with the renewed convention of my bathroom sink soaking my feet for the want of plumbing serving to typify the hint of desperation.

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Tarakan to Balikpapan

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All at sea. Mercifully I did at least mange to escape the oppression of the crowded sauna below decks and score a spot on a bench on an outside deck that night, I slumbered a little at least. The stars were a rare treat that night though, complimented by a stereotypical Islamic crescent moon, and thankfully the late departure hour meant that the uncomfortable restless night wasnt too long to endure, the heat tempered by the 25 knot headwind. With the dawn arose an island which from my poorly scaled map I could only guess to be Pulau Derawan, one of East Kalimantan's major draws as a diving destination, though predictably pricey. Later that morning our only other view of land materialised forest clad with barely a sign of human influence, this was the headland of the Pegunungan Sambaliung promontory which jutted out from East Kalimantan and served to lengthen my voyage by forcing a circuitous route to within 100Ks of Sulawesi. Flying fish darted about as the sea shimmered under a nigh on cloudless sky, and I elected to variously burn and resort to Factor 30 than retreat inside to the carpet of scattered bodies. Scanning a distant featureless horizon, there was not another ship in sight for hours. Then a military style performance in demonstrating a life vest drill was a sadly belated affair involving solid style life preservers of a type I hadnt seen before. It would have been pretty tricky trying to figure them out in the dark the night previous, though it was actually funny in that each deckhand sported a different coloured overall, they reminded me of the Teletubbies. The ship seemed pretty full too, with Ekonomi class proving to be a great gallery of open mattressed areas, with tellingly not a single one apparently spare for me. Out of a maximum 1906 souls permissible on board I was clearly the only tourist , just the way I liked it. 5 hours short of Balikpapan the first of many oil rigs pierced the glaring horizon, testament to
the city's credentials as a dramatically expanding boom town based on oil, tellingly boasting for example the 2nd busiest airport in all Indonesia. Most unexpected for Kalimantan, to think there was more air traffic here than ever popular Bali, and upon reaching the city the aircraft were a regular feature even at this late hour. Also lighting up the sky was a gas flarefrom the nearby petrochemical works, a glow which helped me deduce that the ferry had actually docked much closer to the city than the guidebook had led me to expect. Considering the number of people on board and Indonesia's propensity for a different interpretation of etiquette shall we say, it was a predictable crush in trying to the negotiate the narrow deck passages and egress point, before being hurried on bruskly by a deck officer onto the ships own retractable gantry. It was a serious health and safety issue to be descending down steps not in parallel with the horizontal, an accident waiting to happen as I stepped gingerly down the slippery stair faces heavily loaded.

Now if I thought the crush on board ship was bad then this was just beyond the joke. Being forced down a very narrow passageway through but not within the terminal building, we were promptly abandoned in trying to force ourselves out through a field of thousands of people intent on heading the opposite direction, dodging motorbikes also crazily trying to squeeze past. They had so many eternally idle policeman, a bit of crowd control wouldnt have gone amiss. Escaping out onto the road the morass transmorphed into 2 solid snakes of Bemos, or Kijangs as they call them here, small vans ill suited to getting easily in and out of, but I found one heading my way soon enough. With the locals on board taking an instant shine to the rare white face and my Bahasa seeming more accomplished here than average, it was still no surprise to be asked for over the odds but I was simply too tired to fight. I gave the chancer what he asked for simply telling him I knew that that was a lot. It was only pennies but these were the petty details which often served to prey on my mind, every day was something of a fight and I felt stupid when I lost, especially for not sticking up for myself. Balikpapan's major waterfront junction was easily discernible and close to my first budget choice, and soon enough I found myself a surprisingly good deal at a joint which was most definitely a mid-range option. Gargantuan and shiny, it bolstered such hitherto unknown wonders as security guards, an inclusive room service breakfast and corridors wide and long enough to play football. The Ekonomi price tag was qualified by the insufferble lack of air-con and the enduring entrenchment of the Indonesian psyche in a tiny Mandi basin, but at this late hour proved a boon nonetheless. The resident Padang restaurant certainly helped too, even if the pickings were slim and I mistook curried brains for chicken. I declared it Haram to the waiter and thankfully got my chicken in the end. With a change in historical background from Sabah, the singular absence of a Chinese community also perhaps explained why a beer became too much to ask for that night, and I was shocked to discover Balikpapan not as the shiny cosmopolitan expat friendly centre I had presumed courtesy of the oil money, but still boasting dodgy pavements with gaping holes, partisan driving and slapdash buildings.

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