Trip Reports

Kumai (28-Nov-2001-10-00):
1000 AM local time, Wednesday, November 28 (0200 Nov. 28 UTC) 02 46 S 111 42 E. Temp. 80, Humidity 83%, Cloud Cover 100%. Kumai, Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Once at anchor near a funky fuel dock across the river from the town of Kumai, Paul, Francis, Terry and the Captain were in a mood to sit in a restaurant, have a cold beer, and shake off the passage from Bali. Gilang, the guide we had hired, picked us up on the same boat we were to use on the trip to see the monkeys and orangutans, and ferried us over to the wharf where the local fishing fleet of large boats with a radical sheer were moored. Wedging the African Queen-style launch between the fleet and some other smaller, old-fashioned wooden boats, we clambered over the decks of a couple of them in the dark and pouring rain to a walkway consisting of loose and rotting one-by-tens between unpainted, ramshackle, clapboard buildings, and gained the main street.

The short but densely adventurous trip from the boat to the street was archaic and foreign enough, and the street made one feel as if he were in a frontier outpost in 1850. There were no streetlights. Various small wooden structures housed establishments, of indeterminate function, that were dimly lit by lanterns if they were lit at all. Through the heavy rain and gloom, it was possible to see that many had people sitting inside, talking and eating. These were snack bars, selling only tea and some small portions of chicken satay or whatever was the specialty. Gilang led us to believe that the main attraction of these places, beside the food, was conversation with the youngish woman who would serve the customers.

The choice of restaurants for a full dinner was limited, but as we walked down the street through the mud puddles Gilang chose what looked like it might be the biggest place in town, with a seating capacity of perhaps fifteen. We entered and took off our foul weather gear that seemed like fancy city-folk attire in comparison to the dress of the locals. Choosing we knew not what from the unheated steam trays, we found the food-rice, fried chicken, vegetables, noodles--quite palatable. When we first arrived, the small room was faintly lit by the glow of a kerosene lamp, but upon our arrival the proprietor ignited the brighter Coleman knock-off and this lent a little more cheer to the scene. Dinner and drinks for five was about $10 US.

Beer, however, was not available. This was a Muslim town in a Muslim country, and even if we had not been in the middle of Ramadan, alcohol is illegal. Gilang said its illegality had as much to do with controlling crime and rowdiness as it did religion. The prohibition applied de facto primarily to the poor, because rich Muslims who could afford to go the nice restaurant in the nearby, larger town of Pangkalanbun could get it, although I don't remember its being on the menu. Gilang took us there on another night and it was no problem to order beer, Ramadan or no Ramadan. Bootleg whiskey could also be purchased by asking around. What was required in Kumai to break the law with impunity is not unique to Borneo: discretion and money.

Bali was strange, but self-consciously so. Tourism is big business and Balinese art, dance, and music have long since discovered their appeal to an audience beyond the small island of their origin. But Kumai is not a tourist town. They have seen tourists, but because it is a bit difficult to get here from the outside world, the majority of these are yachties on the way from Bali to Singapore, and this is a pretty small number of people. We saw no other westerners during the six days we were there. There are no tourist facilities at all, except the river travel arranged by the guides, and one wilderness lodge catering to monkey seekers, up the river, closed now for the season. There are no ATMs in Kumai and only one in Pangkalanbun; and this gives only $30 at a time. The closest Internet cafe is 500 kilometers from here. The exotic feeling of Kumai stems from its being just what it is, an isolated town in a strange land, far from anywhere you've ever been and practicing customs you've never heard of. We saw some men playing dominoes, but they weren't gambling in the normal sense. When you lost, you had to stick a clothespin somewhere on your body. These men had them on their faces. Evidently, you play for the pleasure of seeing the other fellow's pain, and as we'll see in a later missive, this was a comparatively benign cultural element.

On the other hand, there are satellite dishes, and small stores selling lots of DVDs, which seem to be the main form of entertainment. This naturally led the Captain to ask the sophisticated Gilang about acquiring the latest album by our favorite recording artist, and I think the reader knows to whom I refer. I complained to him that in Bali, we saw no Britney posters at all, and my query was really just in jest since I in fact was sure that our girl's fame could not have penetrated the primitive jungle towns of Borneo. He just lit right up, and said, "She's bloody beautiful." He regaled us with all the latest news, including Britney's new movie and tour, and something about her being set up with one of those sons of Prince Charles. I was all aflutter, you can be sure. He said I just didn't look in the right places in Bali, and before we left, Gilang presented me with a parting gift of the "Oops! I Did It Again" CD, that he bought somewhere around here. (By the way, am I the only one that thinks this new, heavily made-up sexpot phase our Britney is going through seems pathetic? Leave that stuff to the girls who really mean it.) Now it turned out it was a bootleg and also had some tracks by that pretender to the throne, Mandy Moore. Southeast Asia is the land of bootlegs. Some nights the electricity was on in town, and though, oddly, this didn't do much to change the lighting situation, the restaurant where we had become accustomed to taking our evening meal had the DVD going. On it was a karaoke Beatles tape, with real Beatles music but actors playing the role of the Beatles. I wonder how much dough Sir Paul collects for that one.

I took a lot of pictures of Kumai, but you can't hear the sounds and smell the smells and see how people relate to you and others. You can't hear the girls say, "Hey, Mistah" as you walk by. (These are not prostitutes but are curious or perhaps hawkers, wishing to attract you to their eating establishment.) You can't see the traffic going one way for a while down the street, and then later going the other way, with no signal from anywhere to notify the uninformed of the change.

At night, the muezzin in the mosque would sing the Koran from distorted loudspeakers. To become one of the singers is an honor, and auditions are held. There are established ways of singing, and phrasing, and it must be done properly. But at anchor across the river, we could hear the singing from four or five different mosques simultaneously, and the combined effect was eerie. They began at sundown, at the same time people lit off firecrackers to celebrate the end of the day's fast. (The end of fasting for the day was announced on VHF channel 16!) The singing continued without pause until dawn.

People were friendly and a little curious, but not invasively so and certainly not threatening in any way. We, like Paul, have decided it feels too lame to do as some cruisers have suggested, and claim to be Canadians, so we just tell them we're from America. This from time to time elicits a joke about the Captain's beard and Osama, and much laughter.

At a small shop (there are no large shops), a girl with a glowing smile who wore the chador asked me where we were from.


"Are you Christians?" she asked.

For an instant, the Captain considered giving his usual Kierkegaardian response, something that he will spare the reader, but be assured it is thought provoking, moving, and profound. However, he was restrained by what the guides have told us, that there is no comprehensible answer in this part of the world that does not involve a straightforward claim for one religion or another. So Paul, following my lead, and I said, "Yes."

She said, still smiling but in complete earnest, "Then are we enemies?" When you think about it, this is heartbreaking. But the Captain did not think about it, and spontaneously laughed out loud.


She laughed, too, but asked, "Are you afraid?" To which I answered, "No-should I be?"

She said, brightly, "Yes."

Hmmmm. Captain Paul and I are sticking to the story that she did not understand the question. It just makes so much more sense.

Next report from this location: Galang

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