Monday, November 19, 2012

Kalimantan: Finding Durian in Borneo's Wild Wild West

Very few people visit Kalimantan, the forgotten Indonesian side of Borneo which actually comprises nearly two-thirds of the island. Huge and sparsely populated, with the largest tracks of virgin rainforest left on the island, Kalimantan is still relatively unexplored, which means there's very little information about where to go and what to see (the best reference is Lazlo's Kalimantan Guide). For those of us trying to figure out where to go for durian, it's a blank map. We spent hours and hours on the internet plugging in every search term we could think of and coming up empty.

Fortunately, eleven months down the durian trail we've had the time to do our homework and make some contacts. With so much territory to cover via Indonesian transportation (read: really slow and smoky), we’ve decided to focus our time and energy in one smallish area, the province of West Kalimantan on the border of Malaysia.  So we've launched ourselves into inland Borneo, taking a plane from Kuching to Pontianak, and then an 18 hour bus ride up to Putussibau, a frontier town on the upper Kapuas River where orangutans still roam the forest, the native people retain their traditional way of life, and there is only one internet cafĂ© with a dodgy connection (from which I am writing this post).

Originally I didn’t even want to spend the night in Pontianak, not only because I’d heard the city had little to offer besides the usual Indonesian chaos, but because of it’s connection with one of the truly scariest of mythological creatures. In Malaysian folklore, a Pontianak is a cross between a female vampire and the vengeful ghost of a woman who died in childbirth. Marked by her wickedly long nails, a Pontianak eats babies and kills pregnant women by sucking their blood. I’m not that superstitious, but Rob and I agreed that the danger of infanticidic ghosts was only one more reason not to stay even one night.

But as usual, we don't seem to be in charge of our own plans. Luckily for us, our attempts at securing a flight directly to Balikpapan from Pontianak via Lion Air failed, and we arrived in Pontianak with no ongoing tickets and a phone number for a durian expert in the area. From the airport I called Hendro, who immediately agreed to meet with us that morning. Hendro owns a fruit tree nursery outside of Pontianak and had aided in the durian adventures of the famed durian explorer Mr. Pak Karim. Although his knowledge of other provinces was sketchy, he gave me the phone number of another durian freak in Balikpapan, who was able to tell me that it wouldn't be durian season there until February. So we happily crossed Central Kalimantan off our itinerary and focused on exploring West Kalimantan.

Hendro and Iqbal were eager to aid us in going upriver to find durians, but with a price tag so steep we had to decline. Unlike Mr. Pak Karim, we are not oil palm tycoons! Even after we declined their offer, they gave us loads of durian information and kindly dropped us off at the Central Hotel, a nice hotel with wi-fi right next to where the durian vendors gather in the evenings on Jalan Teuko Umar and across the street from the bustling morning market called Pasar Mawar.

We spent the next day exploring the maze-like market and buying durian from the rows of motorcycle vendors who show up around 5 P.M., just as it's getting dark. Then to top off our Pontianak experience, in the morning we ran into a large parade of children, marching bands, paper mache-ed bicycles and truckloads of people dressed in their Muslim finest. I couldn't help but feeling like we'd been transported to Saudi Arabia, but every one was really friendly and excited to see us. We took pictures with teenagers dressed in long hooded robes, kids in turbans, and young girls dressed in pink and purple scarves looking for all the world like proper Scheherazades.