Helen has had some great ideas for trips within Indonesia, but this was far and away the best. (The only downside was that we had to leave for the airport at half time of the Swans-West Coast grand final.)
I'm not the world's greatest flyer, and the prospect of six flights in regional airline planes was not inviting. The beginning of the trip was inauspicious. We were flying with an affiliate of a budget airline, the safety record of which has been severely wanting in recent times. After clearing for take off, the plane trundled the entire length of the runway before returning to the start. On the second attempt we made it for about 400m before turning off and heading back to the apron. After a peep at the cabin by a few airline personnel, we returned to the runway. Third time lucky.
On the way from Banjarmasin to Pangkalanbun, we flew in a 40-seater Fokker. We had to stop at Sampit, in Central Kalimantan, first. Helen likes to sit in the front seat, and the turbulence enroute made it a very long and apprehensive half hour. The rest of the flying was very good, particularly the two legs in the 60-seater from Pangkalanbun back to Surabaya.
Our first major stop was Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan. Rp50,000 for a taxi, at the airport, got us to the Swiss-Bel Hotel (formerly the Hotel Borneo) on the side of the Martapura River. It was more than adequate, on a par with three-star, or better, in Bali. After unpacking a bit, we headed out into Banjarmasin.
It was raining, and we found ourselves spattered in black muck as we walked around in the dark. We found a taxi which charged us Rp20,000 (no meters in Banjarmasin) to go about one and a half kilometres to a Papa Ron's pizza restaurant, on the premise that it might be in a mall. No such luck. It was "stand alone" and was the only shop in the area that was lit. The food was good, though. The taxi took us back to the hotel for an extra Rp5,000.
The next morning, we went for a walk. We were doing our usual Indonesian holiday - return air tickets, a plan based on information from a well-known travel guide, and enough cash for the duration. We successfully sought the Borneo Homestay, which the travel guide had listed as the place for detailed information. There was one tourist staying there, and no staff. Pak Johan, the owner, turned up, and was very helpful. He organised plane tickets for us to Pangkalanbun, near Tanjung Puting national park. We were also booked for a dawn trip on the following day to the floating market with his brother, Pak. Ayadi.
The big plus for Banjarmasin is the river system. The locals use it for transport, commerce, recreation, washing, bathing, rubbish disposal, as a food source and as a toilet, usually all in the one spot. We negotiated an hour and a half river trip with a boatman who was lurking under the bridge for Rp60,000, and off we went. The first thing we did was cruise a kilometre up river to an aquatic event which was to celebrate more than four hundred and seventy years since Banjarmasin was founded. There were two decorated barges from a parade the day before. We watched a number of exciting rowing races, with crews of six, before the spectators' interest swung around to observing us.
We turned back and headed downstream. The river is lined with timber houses, and people were bathing in the filthy-looking river everywhere, many were brushing their teeth in it! (This didn't seem to correlate with the large number of people with obvious dental problems that we encountered in the streets.)
A few kilometres up the river, the houses give way to industry, primarily logging and coal. The boatman stopped at a waterfront warung and bought Rp5,000 worth of diesel fuel. We headed out into the larger Barito River, past the seemingly endless rainforest logs and coal barges and the site of the floating market, then returned down a smaller canal. It was a very interesting trip, and we gave the boatman Rp100,000 because we had been gone for more than two hours.
The next morning, we were back down by the bridge, to meet Pak. Ayadi. We had the same boat, and boatman, as the day before. As we pulled away, some of the locals went running along the bank with a stick with a loop of rope on the end. They pulled three-metre python out of the water. We didn't ask what its fate would be.
The floating market consists of a lot of boats of varying sizes that congregate near a line of factories that deal in low-grade timber. Everyone buys and sells from each other. We resisted the temptation of coffee and cakes from the floating "cafes". Again, everyone seemed to be bathing in or beside the river, and everyone was friendly and smiling.
We went looking for someone to take us to the diamond mines, out of town. After being quoted Rp250,000, we settled on Rp150,000, with a man with an old Kijang. He didn't want to use the air-conditioning, and open windows were fine. Or were, until he lit up. I asked him not to, and was ignored. The second time, he assured me that the cigarette smoke was going out the driver's window. I pointed out that it was coming straight back in through the back window, and he proceeded to give a tirade about how everyone, including the police, smoked everywhere and anywhere and that he had to smoke to concentrate. I used almost every polite word of Indonesian that I possess to point out that pretty much everyone on the planet knows that it is harmful and unpleasant, that he wouldn't be allowed to do it in Jakarta, and that it was plain bad service. He put it out and sulked until we got to the mines.
It turned out that the mines were way out beyond the airport, so that the price of the trip was very reasonable. The mining methods seemed to involve digging up rocks, pumping them in some sort of slurry and then panning it. We were told that the average boy in the village quits school at 11 years old to work at the mines. We spent about half an hour there and drove back into town.
We had a walk around the block to an ATM, and returned to the restaurant that sold beer. The Chinese-Indonesian owner told us that, because 90% Muslim, no-one was allowed to buy and sell beer. He said that, unlike in Java, nobody got violent if they caught you doing things that they aren't supposed to. I purchased a large bottle from him for Rp22,000, which was expensive, but a vast improvement on the Rp30,000 charged by the hotel for a small can.
We didn't get to see all of Banjarmasin, but it seems like a typical Indonesian city, with development beginning to creep in. If a casual scan of businesses is any sort of guide, commerce in Banjarmasin relies heavily on parts and accessories for motorcycles, cars and mobile phones. The town is very Indonesian, in that it is generally very dirty, but also very interesting. The people were very friendly, and everyone wanted to attempt some English with us. It doesn't have the western-style conveniences of Jakarta, Surabaya and Bali, but it's a nice place for Indonesia-philes to visit.