Into the Heart of Borneo

  • The early fog lifts slowly off the waters of the Rungan River in Central Kalimantan.

    The early fog lifts slowly off the waters of the Rungan River in Central Kalimantan.

  • Village boys paddle on the Rungan's waters.

    Village boys paddle on the Rungan's waters.

  • A painted ornament marks a sandung, or bone house, in a Dayak village.

    A painted ornament marks a sandung, or bone house, in a Dayak village.

  • The captain of the Rahai'i Pangun.

    The captain of the Rahai'i Pangun.

  • A route map and bird-watching binoculars are compulsory accessories.

    A route map and bird-watching binoculars are compulsory accessories.

  • An Indonesian lunch aboard the boat.

    An Indonesian lunch aboard the boat.

  • Canoeing on the still waters.

    Canoeing on the still waters.

  • One of the BOS Foundation's rehabilitated orangutans on Banalas Island.

    One of the BOS Foundation's rehabilitated orangutans on Banalas Island.

  • The 22-meter-long Rahai'i Pangun, a former water-bus refurbished into a cruise vessel.

    The 22-meter-long Rahai'i Pangun, a former water-bus refurbished into a cruise vessel.

  • A young dancer in Bukitrawi village sports a hornbill-inspired headdress.

    A young dancer in Bukitrawi village sports a hornbill-inspired headdress.

  • Looking for wildlife in the glassy backwaters.

    Looking for wildlife in the glassy backwaters.

  • Fresh-caght river fish and homegrown produce in Kanarakan village.

    Fresh-caght river fish and homegrown produce in Kanarakan village.

  • Relaxing on deck as the sun sets over the Central Kalimantan jungle.

    Relaxing on deck as the sun sets over the Central Kalimantan jungle.

  • Wooden cottages line the sunbaked streets of Bukitrawi.

    Wooden cottages line the sunbaked streets of Bukitrawi.

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The leader of the Dayak village of Kanarakan is an old man named Pak Anden. He has five visible teeth, a face so round and jovial that you’d think it was drawn on, and the softest voice you’ve ever heard—pillowy, like a peach that’s been left baking in the sun. With no roads in or out, Kanarakan has remained so small that it can be measured end to end (750 meters) and its inhabitants counted exactly (334). Its minimal electricity comes from a solar panel installed by the government. When we reach Kanarakan five hours after leaving Tangkiling, the first sight we see is Pak Anden, waving to us from the pier, his gaping smile visible long before we dock.

In a wine-hued batik shirt, cherry batik cap, and fuchsia scarf glimmering with metallic thread, he receives us by tapping our shoulders, heads, and hands with a woven-grass rose dipped in floral water; striping our cheeks with rice paste; and adorning our heads with crowns of palm fronds in the tompan tawar ceremony, one of seven welcome rituals he performs depending on the visitors, which have included Prince Henrick of Denmark and ambassadors from Australia and Norway. He later shows us where they have all signed in his guestbook, declaring what a spectacular host he’s been.

Kids playing pool under a tin roof giggle as we follow Pak Anden to the village’s dandelion-yellow spirit house, where villagers of the old Kaharingan religion make offerings when help is needed. Next to it is the more somberly colored bone house, where the skeletons of deceased villagers are interred. Sacrifices tied to the pole planted in front are believed to reincarnate the souls as hornbills—the sacred birds of this region. In his smooth voice, Pak Anden all but sings to us about how in the days of the Borneo headhunters, it was slaves who were sacrificed; every time a villager died, so too did a slave. But around 1900, the regional Dayak tribes held a pivotal meeting in which they made peace with one another and abolished headhunting along with slavery. Now, it’s buffalos, cows, pigs, and chickens that send souls into flight.

Passing gardens of long beans, cassava, snake fruit, and tomatoes, Pak Anden leads us to his house. In his greeting room, framed Christian icons look down on us as he explains how Dayaks first settled here in the 1850s to elude the Dutch missionaries appearing downriver. They eventually made their way here nevertheless, converting many in the village to Christianity. In his guestbook, Pak Anden shows us inscriptions from some of the missionaries’ great-great-grandchildren, who in recent years came to see where their forebears once ventured. He disappears for a moment and returns with a tray of coffee he makes from the beans of a tree in his backyard roasted with six specific spices—cinnamon, coriander, galangal, ginger, clove, and star anise. We ask the obvious question: Can we buy some? No, he answers, his single tree doesn’t produce enough beans to support a business. But his proud smile as we sip leads me to infer that he’s also protective of the fact that his special concoction can be enjoyed only in his home. And he’s right to relish this. Soon, a road will be built from here to Palangkaraya. Young people will leave for better jobs, outside commerce will creep in. But for now, Kanarakan is a shrine to the Dayak past, and Pak Anden is its gracious guardian. We tell him so in his guestbook.

***

Every so often on the river, a cluster of floating wooden contraptions appears in the distance and a tck-tck-tck sound begins building in the air, getting louder and louder as we draw nearer until it reaches the hammering aggression of someone playing a wooden guiro over a loudspeaker. They’re dredges, and it’s a shame they have such violating sounds and purposes, because they actually look quite quaint—planks about 20 meters long with Z-shaped sluices on one end, shacks on the other, and cigarette-smoking men lounging between. But the noise is a motor vacuuming up of the river bottom (and stirring the river into chocolate), which spits out through a pipe and runs down the Z, where carpet collects any flakes of gold hiding in the sand.

Borneo’s past glints with the precious metal. It drove Almayer to his greedy downfall in Joseph Conrad’s 1895 novel Almayer’s Folly and was the basis of the economy when the White Rajahs ruled in Sarawak. But these were histories of the north, in Malaysian Borneo. This rudimentary manner of gold mining is a young misfortune for Kalimantan. It began about five years ago as one player in a case of two evils after the other, lumber, was exhausted. The jungle’s lowness is because all the tall, profitable vegetation has been chopped down—only the white-barked rengas trees, whose insides are often hollow and oil causes rashes, remain—prompting some of the villages to turn to the river for income instead. There is gold here, but very little, just enough for families, including those in Kanarakan, to survive on. A better source of income, of course, is tourism—more boats like the Rahai’i Pangun could help settle this water back to black.

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