Friday, September 2, 2011, 00:00

Aura of ‘mystery’ and air of joy

By Andre Vltchek

Aura of ‘mystery’ and air of joy

Aura of ‘mystery’ and air of joy for everything.JPG

Aura of ‘mystery’ and air of joy West Kalimantan Governor Office.JPG

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Aura of ‘mystery’ and air of joy Dayak dance.JPG

The Landak and The Kapuas. The merger of these two mighty rivers at the tropical city of Pontianak on Kalimantan (Borneo) Island is dramatic. It takes place near an ancient neighborhood called Beting that is known for the picturesque Beting Permai water village and the Pontianak Sultanate Kadariyah Palace.

The palace is considered to be the birthplace of the city. It was built between 1771 AD and 1778 AD by Sayyid Syarif Abdurrahman Alkadri, the first sultan of Pontianak.

From the unmistakable influence of Islamic architecture to the best local belian wood as well as 13 aged French and Portuguese cannons that encircle the compound the palaces diversity, like Pontianaks, is enormous.

The elegant historic mosque that stands on the waterfront can easily qualify as one of the most beautiful houses of worship in Indonesia. Behind the mosque, colorful pedestrian bridges cross narrow canals. Almost all the houses here are made from wood and supported by stilts.

Small children are seen playing in the water many jump to the depths below the dark surface of canals and women washing clothes, soaping bodies or washing hair.

It may be shocking to some who come from much richer countries, but in this sprawling and poor archipelago, access to clean water is still considered a luxury.

The lack of amenities is compensated by the colorful images of the playful children who are living, as it appears, just for the moment and for fun.

Pontianak is a very interesting example of a melting pot in Kalimantan, says World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia Coordinator Hermayani Putra. It is extremely dynamic, both socially and economically.

People here crave a truly modern Pontianak, but at the same time they are simple, warm and vibrant.

Love and despair is what many inhabitants of Pontianak feel about their city.

Love for the citys obvious attractiveness as an equatorial metropolis replete with history, cultural traditions and mysteries.

Despair because like all big Indonesian cities Pontianak lacks what most Asian urban dwellings take for granted: waste management, sewage system, affordable medical facilities, public areas like parks, even public transport.

With almost 1 million inhabitants, Pontianak does not have one single urban public bus or rail line. Even minivans are few and far between. Nor will one come across any public sidewalks.

What was once pristine environs of West Kalimantan has now been converted into two agriculture industries: palm oil and rubber plantations. This has had a devastating impact on the environment and on the quality of life of ordinary people. Hermayani Putra and his colleagues are aware of the situation, and so are many citizens of Pontianak.

But the problems are so complex and nobody expects quick-fix solutions. But while solutions to big problems have yet to be found, life in Pontianak goes on.

Two days before Independence Day, loud sounds of gamelan traditional Indonesian music reverberate through the night.

We follow the sound before stumbling upon a huge traditional wooden house called Rumah Adat Dayak.

This is Pontianaks cultural center. Among complex and mysterious woodcarving on the second floor is a group of young people practicing classical Indonesian dances in semi-darkness.

However, not everything is traditional here. Motorcycle helmets litter the floor while young men look very much at home in the 21st century. Their gamelan musical instruments are as traditional as they could get.

The girls are barefoot, elegantly wrapped in red silk, and notably, belong to various ethnic groups. Like friendly ghosts their sublimely feline bodies twist and twirl in a complex dance, almost flying between some elaborately decorated Dayak columns and black wooden walls.

The scene is misty, and mind-blowing, too.

There are three big ethnic groups in Pontianak, says Alfons, who like many Indonesians uses only given name. He is the man in charge of the preparations for the upcoming event.

We have Dayak, Malay and Chinese people living here. The governor asked each of the ethnic groups to perform one dance. Thats when I decided to fly back from Yogyakarta to my hometown. In Yogyakarta, I study art, Alfons says.

In fact, Pontianak boasts more cultural institutions and centers than other places in the country. There is Rumah Adat Dayak, and also the Pontianak Museum West Kalimantan provincial museum with several pavilions and exhibition halls displaying Dayak, Malay and Chinese cultural objects and artifacts, as well as reconstructed living quarters of three ethnic groups. Impressive displays include Chinese ceramic vases and dragons.

Rumah Adat Melayu is the Malay traditional house, home to art and customs of indigenous tribes in Western Kalimantan.

Pontianak is also known for several unique cultural traditions. Chinese Chung-Yuan or sending lost souls to Mainland China is one of the most popular.

Since 1771 AD, Pontianak has been hosting the fascinating Games of Carbide Cannon celebrating Idul Fitri the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

During this festive time there are hundreds, even thousands of carbide cannons along the Kapuas River. It all goes back to the era of Sultan Sayyid Abdurrahman Alkadri Sharif, the founder of Pontianak. He was known for firing cannons, aimed at the mainland. The goal was to exorcise the ghosts roaming around the place.

For Pontianak residents, especially those living on the banks of the Kapuas, these cannons are objects of pride.

Each cannon is made of wood with a diameter of approximately 50 -100 cm and length between 4-7 meters. In the middle of the cannon, there is a hole.

How is the game of ghost-busting played? Well, first the cannon is filled with water, and then the carbide is inserted. Finally, the explosion when carbide and water react.

This is one of the biggest events in this city. People climb small motorboats to go to the center of the river to watch the spectacle.

To put it all into perspective, the sultan had all reasons to fire his cannons like mad, as what was on the land werent just some ordinary benign spirits, but a terrifying battalion of exceptionally scary Pontianak ghosts.

It is believed that they are some variety of Malay vampires (scary enough to start with): the women who died during childbirth.

Initially, these vengeful Pontianak ghosts may appear young and beautiful. But once they are wooed by men, they become ugly, terrifying women with sharp teeth ready to attack their victims and drink their blood. Thats what the locals tell you. Believe it or better not.

If you believe, stay on the river and fire your cannons.

On a lighter note, Pontianak town is one of a few cities in the world that sits right on the equator.

And to mark that, there is the Equator Monument. Built in 1928, this commemorative tower stands on the northern banks of the Kapuas River, offering a fabulous view over the mighty waterway with its uninterrupted traffic of vessels.

Pontianak is also a place where boats are built. It is in fact a major transport center of the region. So vessels of all sizes and shapes are visible on all rivers and canals around the city from tiny ferries taking passengers from one shore to another, to fast but foul-smelling speedboats going to suburbs and towns up and down the stream.

There are even a few yachts belonging to the very rich. But the river transport is largely for moving heavy cargo logs and pipes, fuel as well as chemicals for palm oil plantations. Those who travel all the way to mysterious Borneo find the journey a huge experience, although hair-raising.

For those who do not dare to venture up the dark and daunting rivers, there are other lighter options to enjoy in Kalimantan. Like wild animal watching, jungle trekking and other guided expeditions.

To enjoy the river without being embraced by it for days and weeks, there is a new park on the shore called Taman Alun-alun Kapuas. It is small and a bit decrepit, but in the evening, it features a small water fountain and above all, a spectacular view of the river.

Here one could sit for hours and dream about long journeys in mighty wooden riverboats up towards the heart of Borneo. A few ships are always anchored nearby.

Right next to the park is the ferry dock. For a few coins one can cheat and sail well actually, to cross the river. It takes only three minutes, but it counts.

The entire adventure takes some braising against motorbike and truck fuels, but it is certainly worth it. Later that day, one can write in an email or on the postcard, I crossed the River Kapuas.

The optimist will say, One day the river will be clean again and logging and other commercial activities will become sensibleand based on the principles of renewability. Eco tourism will then flourish.

Until then, Pontianak is only for the adventurous. But this culturally diverse city is ready to reward all who dare to come, even now, before everything gets under control. With Chinese Chung-Yuan and Games of Carbide Cannon taking place at the end of Ramadan, the month of August is the best time to visit.