Attack of the Macaques

For another work weekend, I decided to rough it on an island across the Java Sea. A coworker recommended Banjarmasin, the capital of South Kalimantan, which bills itself as a “Venice of the Orient.” (One of thousands of cities that does so.)

My trip went off to a bad start, since my Lion Air flight was delayed by two hours and I had to sit on that plastic chair and play “Angry Birds” for a while. The view of South Kalimantan’s coastline from the plane also did not look promising, with brown strips of water intersecting strips of green like a thatched marsh. I was worried the place didn’t have any roads.

The drive from the airport to the city center was also quite dull, with only garish candy-colored mosques to interest the eye. But once I was in the heart of Banjarmasin, a fairly developed though provincial city, I was in for some fun.

The first of which was my comfortable hotel, Hotel Victoria, which was right by Sangai Martapura, the main river. In later boat rides, the main transport of this water-loving people, the boatman could bring me right to the hotel’s doorstep!

After a long nap, I immediately headed out to Hasanuddin Bridge, where I could charter a boat for the day for Rp 200,000 there and back. I decided to see the monkey island, Pulau Kembang, one of the town’s two main attractions.
On the way, we had to pass through narrow canals (but not the kind you’d find in Venice) lined with houses on stilts. Often, I was in close proximity to the residents and children, who waved and yelled greetings at me enthusiastically as I passed by. They’re also very camera-crazy, with kids known to somersault if you point a Nikon at them.
 They blow you kisses, flip you the bird, and scream “Hawayah!” And this is an Asian woman they’re seeing, imagine what the reaction would be to white dudes.
Notice the young man getting a facial on the far right.

It can be a little unnerving at first, to garner all this attention and to have a voyeuristic view of their private lives and the crushing poverty.

But, to visitors’ defense, their lives are on full display out in the river. Women in batik wraparounds squat on their doorsteps, washing dishes, as their neighbors a few feet down bathe and lather each other’s bodies with soap. I saw one guy brushing his teeth while fishing! Floating outhouses are common. So all their dirt, food scraps and soap suds intermingle in the muddy brown water that unites them all.

I learned through the half-hour boat ride along these liquid streets that the safest way to respond is to smile, because it will be repaid generously.

The poster boy for the people’s extreme friendliness.

Once we got out of the slum area, the river opened up into the bluer, fresher waters of Sangai Martapura, which eventually led to the open sea. We docked at the monkey park, where I was immediately swarmed by tour guides and peanut sellers. (Peanuts: Rp 20.000 for a string of tiny packets)

I was also greeted by a group of macaques, who no doubt see humans as giant bags of dough-encrusted salty peanuts. The women guides took charge of the snack stash, throwing peanuts at me because they thought I would be delighted to be hounded by macaques.

We followed a wooden pathway that cut through the mangroves that constituted this “island” and the guides kept thrusting handfuls of peanuts at me, so aggressive macaques could grab them from my hands. I was alarmed when one of the women told me to EAT THE PEANUTS myself, which I noticed they were doing, using the hands that had just been spit on and molested by monkeys.

Like hamsters, these primates have cheek pouches where they can store food.

The tour ends when the women throw some peanuts in the water and everyone watches as they dive in and stuff their faces silly. I gave them a communal Rp 50.000 tip and ran to my boat, aching to wash my hands. I was praying I didn’t catch the Ebola virus.

It took two hours to get back to the city center through a busy port area where ships come to die, and my boatman made arrangements to bring me to the markets very early the next day. After I showered all the gunk away, I set out to look for dinner.

My heart was set on eating at Depot Kalimantan, described favorably in my Lonely Planet guide, but it was closed and I had to eat at a similar establishment right across the street called Depot 59. I over-ordered in my enthusiasm, and got some pretty disappointing Indonesian fare, which I wrapped up and gave to the hotel’s security guard later on.

Roti bakar keju (Fried bread with cheese)

Bakso sapi campur
Nasi goreng istimewa telor
Es 59, a very confusing dessert consisting of a variety of coconut derivatives, ice, chocolate wafers and croutons.

Beautiful sunsets and awful food. Not bad for the first day in random Indonesia.


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