Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Borneo (4) - Two Sides of Banjamarsin

One of the many mosques on the riverside
We flew from Pangkalan Bun to Banjamarsin direct.  We were given seats by the emergency exit because the flight crew noted that Paul was "very long" so it was a very comfortable flight.

We arrived at the Hotel Regenerasi, the hotel we had booked online via Booking.com, and it was at this point that I started to dislike the place intensely.  The manager spoke quite good English, having been educated at Leeds University and we suspect he came from Java.  It is a common cause for resentment among the local people on Kalimantan that people from Java, who tend to be better educated and have more money to begin with, come over and take all the good jobs in tourism.  It seems the Javanese are not well liked throughout the rest of Indonesia.


The hotel was undergoing renovations and clearly they hadn’t got to our room yet.  Actually neither of the rooms we were shown to had seen a lick of paint in the last decade and the place was like a building site.

Firstly I noted on the board in reception that the rate for a “superior room” (which we had booked via Booking.com) was 225,000 rupiah but we were paying the rate for a “deluxe room” of 280,000 rupiah.  Not a huge difference but I politely queried this anomaly and asked whether we would be getting a “deluxe room” and the manager was very rude to me.  Neither of us likes to complain (we are generally easily pleased) but this was one occasion where I would have pressed the matter further with them but Paul didn't want to cause a fuss. Booking.com guarantees the cheapest price so I shall be making a complaint about that and expecting a refund of the difference.

Traders arriving early at the floating market
Booking.com will also be receiving a separate complaint about other issues and an honest and most candid review.  It was written in draft while the anger and irritation was at its peak and will be edited in the cold light of day!

Our first room (remember, this was supposed to be a “superior room” and I can’t even begin to imagine what they provide as “standard”) had wallpaper and paint peeling off the walls, no window or other means of ventilation, it was grubby and the tiles in the bathroom were cracked and badly stained.  To top it all the air conditioning was broken.  The temperature outside was in the 30s and you could cut the humidity with a knife, and it was worse in this windowless room which felt like a cell. When they asked us if we minded a room without aircon, we politely said, yes we minded very much!

We were shown to another windowless room where the only improvement was that the grubby paint wasn’t peeling off the walls however any improvements were set off against the fact that the the toilet cistern was cracked and we soon found we were sharing accommodation with an army of cockroaches and an unidentifiable creature that was a cross between a worm and a millipede which could move like the clappers.  Cockroaches don’t normally bother me (you expect them in certain places) but we were in what felt like a prison cell with no ventilation, no natural light or even a window to the corridor (which turned out to be a bit of a problem in a power cut), paying over the odds for a crap room and the management had pissed me off.  I wasn’t happy.  Neither was Paul but he played it down to try to calm me down.
Business is booming

And then, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, we settled down to sleep on the first night and as were drifting off at about 10.00pm the karaoke started.  It sounded like it was coming from the next room with what only seemed like a piece of cardboard separating the two rooms.  

And it was deafening loud.  We struggled through and believe it stopped at about 2.00am but the following night for the first time in our whole trip we dug out our earplugs which helped a little but not much.  They muffled the sound slightly but nothing could block the vibrations caused by the sheer volume. 

Along the way on our trip we have stayed in places of, shall we say, varying quality but this was by far the worst for lots of reasons in terms of service, value and downright shoddiness.  It didn't help that the manager was a money grabbing weasel.

We have been lucky that we have rarely been ripped off but here we were charged $21 for about 3kg of laundry (3 times the usual price).  Once again, Paul kept this from me until we left knowing that I would have blown a gasket.  But it was only for 3 days and once I have calmed down and we have internet access I shall be venting my spleen to Booking.com. 

So I think we have established that I hated the hotel (which in case I didn’t mention it was called the Hotel Regenerasi and should be avoided at all costs) so my impression of this city did not get off to a very good start.

Little wooden houses
that line the riverbank
We were staying in the city centre which was, as you would expect, very busy with lots of traffic.  The roads were dirty and the infrastructure was non-existent with open sewers and manhole covers missing every 10 metres.  While I am aware that this is not uncommon in Indonesia at all, it just added to the whole unpleasant package.  My general dislike of the city grew steadily during our stay. 

There was also a large proportion of drunks which, considering Kalimantan is a dry state, tells you a lot.  The effectiveness of prohibition has been disputed countless times before by many and it is basically accepted by anyone with a brain that it simply doesn’t get rid of the problem but I am not going to wax lyrical about that here.  Suffice to say that drunkenness was clearly a problem despite alcohol being outlawed to some extent.  The tipple of choice is a locally brewed spirit called arak of varying quality but as it is not regulated, all sorts of nasty things are added to it and it has frequently been known to kill.
Heads bobbing about in the river

On the few occasions I did venture out I found it slightly uncomfortable.  Although I was modestly covered up at all times some of the looks I received felt hostile and I was unnerved by it but I suspect part of that was because I was a westerner and concede I may have been overreacting given my general mood by this point but I couldn't help but feel that there was a general air of malevolence and despair about the place.

Paul was happy enough though and was always greeted warmly with people commenting on his height and his tattoos.  One evening he trundled off out after dark to fetch supplies while I hibernated in the room which I left only when absolutely necessary.  He returned with what he thought was an amusing tale of being accosted by a drunk woman with a knife.  He thinks she was begging but Paul could see she was drunk and simply ignored her and carried on.  As he passed by her he felt a sharp point in his back and when he turned around he saw she had a knife which she continued to brandish in front of him while laughing and mumbling something in Indonesian.  While he found this encounter rather entertaining I, of course, added it to my reasons to hate Banjamarsin.

Our little stowaway
However, we did want to visit the floating market in Banjamarsin and also go for an evening river cruise.  When we asked the manager of the hotel he told us emphatically that there were no guides in the city that spoke English.  This turned out to be another blatant lie (something else to add to my list of reasons to dislike the man) and on his travels Paul came across someone called Makani who spoke excellent English and had, in fact, been a guide for some years in the city.  We also found out there were several other guides, all of whom could speak English, that being the common language for most non-Indonesian tourists so the hotel manager was a big fat liar.

Makani was a lovely man and arranged for us to visit the market early in the morning before sunrise and then for an evening excursion around the canals the same evening. 

In fact, Makani was to show us the other side of Banjamarsin in more ways than one.

Early on our second day we were promptly met by Makani outside the hotel at about 6.00am. We walked down to the river where were met by the boat which was to take us on the hour long trip to the market.  It was dark for much of the way until the sun started to rise and then within the space of a few minutes it seemed full daylight was upon us.  We were very the equator and sunrise and sunset happen very quickly with no twilight to speak of.

We arrived at the market early and as we hung around the number of boats steadily increased.  They were generally women in small canoes either touting their wares (rice, bananas and coconuts or some other, sometimes unidentifiable, fruit or vegetable).  Some of the women arrived in empty boats to buy produce to sell door to door, hopefully at a small profit.  Some, Makani told us, just came along for a gossip with their friends.

Minutes from the city we cruised into the farming area
There must have been about 40 little canoes, all vying for space on the small section of the river, the narrow brows of the canoes squeezing in between the other boats to get from one person to another.  It was fascinating, so different from any other floating market we had seen, and obviously very traditional and unchanged for many years.

We tried some strange fruits which I don't recall the name of, green oranges (green outside, orange in the middle), and some traditional sweets (fried battered banana with chocolate which seems to be a favourite).

The river is none too clean as it is used for everything (and I mean everything) but, bearing in mind westerners are warned not to even consider the drinking water, I nearly fell out of the boat as I watched with horror as an older lady (she could not have been a day under 70 but it’s hard to tell) used a large cup to scoop up some murky brown river water, take a long drink and then discard the surplus.  In what is a relatively poor country with large pockets of poverty and where lots of people still live a traditional life, infant mortality is fairly high but obviously those that make it through to adulthood have the constitutional of the proverbial ox. 
Some of the children bathing and playing in the river

After hanging about for a couple of hours we headed back to the city.  In the daylight we noticed just how many mosques there were.  Makani explained that there was about one mosque for every 40 houses although attendance is fairly poor.  As Makani explained, few people attend all 5 daily prayer sessions, a few pray once a day, more once a week and some purely on holy days.  It sounded much like Christian religions in the west!

Makani also told us lots of little anecdotes like the one about the mullah who didn’t practice what he preached and scolded his wife who in accordance with her husband's latest sermon gave away his most valuable sarong to a poor man.  It seemed that through speaking with Makani that Indonesian people are more superstitious than religious but Islam is a very visible religion, particularly in the way women are dressed, and in view of the limits on alcohol and the number of women covered up it is obviously very  influential in these parts.
More friendly river children

We were back at the hotel by 9.30am and later on the same day Makani met us again at around 5.00pm and we went out on the same boat for a cruise around the canals to see where the locals still lived the traditional river life.  It was a bit like the equivalent of the back streets of any city elsewhere in the world.

Our little boat was again just a large canoe and a bit unsteady when a bigger boat passed in either direction, so much so that we stopped several times to avoid capsizing but we are much more accustomed to Asian boats by now and blindly trust the skill with which they are handled by the locals.

We soon turned off the main river into a small canal and wound our way around lots of even smaller canals where one small canoe could barely pass another.

It was early evening and once again, as in Pangkalan Bun, we saw people going about their business outside their homes.  However, Banjamarsin is a much bigger city and although the riverside did not appear as overcrowded as the Mekong, we saw many more people here than we saw in Pangkalan Bun. 

Once again, the children entertained constantly.  Every hundred metres or so a gang of boys would be playing in or out of the river.  If they were not already in the river messing about, when they spotted us they were soon in it, dive bombing with huge splashes, shouting out hello, laughing like lunatics and just generally having a great time.  Many swam alongside the boat high five-ing us as we passed.  One cheeky monkey actually climbed on board and hitched a lift for a couple of hundred metres until he looked back and saw how far he would have to swim home and with a swift “goodbye” he dived back in and off he went.

The corner shop
We saw all generations from babes in arms with their mothers (and often fathers cradling their offspring) to grandparents and all, almost without exception, had a smile or a wave.  Some of them were more shy but once again, as we have found so far in Indonesia, once you smile at them their faces light up and you are rewarded with a smile in return. 

Some of the older generation, many sitting on the edge of a jetty having an evening bath, simply nodded and smiled.  To begin with, you feel like an intruder in their private life but they seemed completely unabashed and perfectly at ease and it became obvious that this was the life they were used to.

I had enjoyed the floating market but it was during this little excursion that I actually found myself laughing and interacting with the people.  They were so friendly, it was hard not to.  It was a completely different atmosphere from the city centre where we were staying and a completely different side to a city which had started on such a bad footing.

Our last day was to be spent making final travel arrangements for the rest of our trip which was depressing in itself.  We wanted to make sure that we made the most of our last few weeks and this would involve some organisation, particularly as we were in Indonesia.

After spending a good few hours making hotel reservations, sending emails and booking flights we set out to find an internet café where we could print off our flight tickets.

Two of Indonesia's millions of cats
We consulted our 3 year old Lonely Planet and the first place listed looked as if it had shut up shop 10 years previously and so we set off in search of the one other place we hoped was still there.

We wandered around and could not find anything remotely resembling an internet café and we were becoming increasingly frustrated, hot, and slightly worried.  If we couldn’t print off our tickets, we thought this was going to cause a major problem.  We later found out that the airline ticket office at the airport will print off tickets if you provide the booking reference but we didn’t know this at the time.

Then just to add to my general miserableness my flip flop snapped and at this point I cried.  Paul was marching on ahead and it seemed that he didn’t realise I was no longer behind him until about an hour later (it was actually as long as it took me to smoke a cigarette but it seemed like an hour).

So, I now had one bare foot and had to walk along dirty streets next to open sewers to try and find a shop to buy some new flip flops and we still hadn’t found an internet café. The day was just getting worse.

Facilities in a Superior room at Hotel Regenerasi
We found flip flops so that problem was fairly quickly solved.  We then went for something to eat at a fast food chicken place with air conditioning (very important as it was very hot and humid which didn't help) during which time I consulted the Lonely Planet and after close examination we established that while internet access is readily available in Indonesia, they do not have places like internet cafés with printing facilities.  We were stumped.

Paul decided that our best bet was to call on Makani and ask him if he knew of anywhere we could print our tickets.  We called him from the fast food place and he immediately agreed to help and arranged to meet us back at the hotel.  He phoned when he arrived which only some 10 minutes later.

When we met up he explained he had a friend with a printing business about 20 minutes away by bus so we hopped on a yellow minibus (read: death trap) which was not unlike a Mongolian bus where you simply hail them on the street.  At a push about 10 people can fit inside.  Makani knew the driver (who looked about 60 years old) and informed us he had 17 wives and his 17th wife was sat next to him on the bus (she looked about 15).  We never did find out whether he maintains 17 wives or whether he was divorced from some or all of them (or worse).  We were too afraid to ask.

Chilling in the back yard with the kids
We arrived in one piece at his friend’s shop and after about 40 minutes and with lots of help successfully printed off all the flight tickets we needed which amounted to about 25 pages.  When it came to payment Makani's friend flatly refused to accept anything for either the printing or the internet access.  We tried very hard to insist but I gathered from the exchange between Makani and his friend that his friend was doing him a favour. 

It was this extreme act of kindness that made me revise my opinion of Banjamarsin (although I was still very angry about the hotel and Paul still hadn’t told me the cost of the laundry!).  Makani had literally come to our rescue when we were desperate.  Although it would not have been a disaster, we didn’t know this at the time and would have spent many sleepless nights worrying about it.

Makani accompanied us back to our hotel by hailing another bus (he didn’t know the marital status of the driver of the second bus or, if he did, he chose not to share the information).  When we reached the hotel Paul gave Makani the equivalent of $20 for his trouble which he would not accept to begin with but we insisted as we felt was the least we could do.  He had not hesitated to help us, and he had gotten us out of a hole.  When Paul insisted he take the money, he actually shed a tear.  He explained that he had not had a booking for some days and that money was tight, so this would mean a great deal to his family (he had a wife and two young children). 
Sunset on the river

A short while later Makani sent Paul a lovely text thanking us again.  In it he explained  that when Paul gave him the $20 he only had 3000 rupiah in his picket (the equivalent of 30c), nowhere near enough to feed his family.  He was a very nice man, very genuine and, once again, we were lucky to have come across him on our visit to this city with two personalities.

While our experience of Banjamarsin was very mixed, it is the market and the river life we will remember but, above all, it is the kindness of Makani and his friend that we will never forget.

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