Trip Reports

Gilang (28-Nov-2001-11-00):
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.

Our guide up the river and around Kumai in general was Gilang Ramadhan Albanjari. A native of Kumai, about thirty years of age, Gilang was a thoughtful and considerate host and a very interesting person to have along. He knows about the orangutans, but it was his savvy analysis of other aspects of our experience of Borneo and Indonesia that was the more fascinating. He speaks English, Arabic, and Indonesian, though he was only educated through age 13. He's traveled around Indonesia, and is nobody's fool.

One night Paul, Francis, and I had a good time, over a bottle of bootleg whiskey on the deck of the fuel dock, trying to figure out, with Gilang, how he could corner the market on cruisers from his competitor, Harry. We argued that the key to the whole thing was moorings. If he had, say, eight moorings, which we figured he could put in for $100 each, we thought he could generate a profit of over $3000 per year, a large sum around here, without doing much work. He actually had a good thing going with the guy at the fuel dock, who owned the riverfront property where the moorings would be located. The moorings would lock in the cruisers for other services, such as fuel, water, ice, laundry, etc., not to mention his guide service. He could get around the alcohol laws by putting out the word to cruisers on their way here that they needed to bring their own, which Gilang could then charge to keep cold at a bar and serve, like they do in Oklahoma. Francis was ready to draw out the method for making the moorings and show how Gilang could raise them every year for inspection, since no diver would dive in the crocodile-infested river, when Gilang resignedly pointed out the main obstacle to our plans. In Indonesia, he said, the cost of paying off local officials, plus the army, the navy, the police, and the harbor police, made it impossible for all but the rich to set up anything this elaborate. But maybe we encouraged him to give it a go, and I hope he does.

Gilang is a Muslim in the most populous Muslim country in the world. Yet he pointed out to us that Islam is not native to Indonesia, and a more ancient, indigenous belief system is so well established that Islam has been adapted as necessary by most local practitioners to accommodate it. So the Islam of Borneo is not quite the Islam of Saudi Arabia or Iran.

I asked his views on Osama bin Laden and the Muslim activists in Jakarta and other hotspots of Indonesia. On the latter, he was rather skeptical of the purity of their motivation. He believed there was money involved, and power politics, and that recently graduated students, now unemployed, were being cynically manipulated by politicians for their own reasons. It's hard to remember this when you watch CNN and everything is seen as relating to the US, but politics is local, so that even if there is a backdrop in some quarters of international Muslim anti-Americanism, the main focus of these groups is on their own fights, not on actions thousands of miles away.

On the subject of Osama, long before Kandahar fell, he predicted the Taliban would cave, as it were, and Osama would flee to Kashmir. He believes Osama committed a grave crime. Gilang was sophisticated enough that he didn't blanch a bit when the Captain, in the most delicate way he could, suggested that because of his field of work, where he not only depends on westerners for an income, but spends a lot of time with them, his views might be somewhat self-serving. What he said in response was that this was simply a case of right and wrong, and that there could be no justification for killing innocent people in an office building. (I found this attitude to be pretty common; although we remind the reader here of Maverick's minimalist research policy.) If America had to kill 10,000 or 20,000 Afghanis to make it clear that this wasn't acceptable, then he thought it wasn't an unnecessarily harsh a way to make a point, as regrettable as it may be.

Gilang told us a story that may provide an illustration about ancient religious beliefs, but also about an Indonesian sense of justice, the relationship between justice and individual rights, and in what way this idea of justice may differ from our own. This story involves ethnic, not religious, conflict, but perhaps we can see some parallels. I leave it to the reader to sort out what these relationships might be, as this would take us far beyond the Captain's mandate.

There was in Borneo a minority of people who were natives of Madura, another Indonesian island, and had migrated here. Through their behavior, which Gilang said mostly consisted of thefts, they had, over a period of time, made themselves unwelcome among the Dayak, the aboriginal people of Borneo. At one point, some Maduran teenagers raped a Dayak girl, and it set off a rather severe response. The Madurans were attacked with swords and blowpipes by the Dayak, and one thousand were killed. The Indonesian government finally brought over a ship and took the rest of the Madurans off of Borneo.

Some of the Dayak ate the hearts of the dead, believing that this would give to them the victim's power. It was also thought a good idea for those who had never killed a human before to taste the blood of the fallen enemy, to help ward off nightmares. Those who were killed were decapitated and their heads, the ones that weren't taken home as trophies, were brought to a central place. It was believed that, since these people did not die naturally, their ghosts could haunt those who killed them. But by performing a rite in the presence of these heads, the souls of the dead could be freed for the afterlife, and this would eliminate the possibility that they could make trouble for the living.

It sounds like a story from Herodotus, but it happened eight months ago, about the time we left California, and Gilang, armed with sword and blowpipe, was one of the Dayak warriors. Gilang is aware that Islam does not require the practice described above, but it is part of a belief system ancient and ingrained enough that the Islamic view must be trumped by the aboriginal. The Captain admits that the story was foreign enough to his personal experience that he searched his mind in vain to find the appropriate social response.

But as is true, we're told, about the fierce soldiers of Afghanistan, Gilang, when not in combat mode, is as gentle a person as one could hope for to lead one through the intricacies of local customs, whether they be those of the man of the jungle, or the man of the city. Since it is unlikely in the extreme that you would encounter him in battle, I recommend him without reservation, should you make this trip. He can be reached at, or; and also by fax at 62(0)532-61223. Since he has to travel 500 km. to get his email, try the fax as well and give him time to respond.

Next report from this location: Safe For Now

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