Indonesian Grand Tour Part 4: Pontianak

by Tabitha Kidwell

The next plan on my tour was to go to Pontianak, a city in West Kalimantan, the province on the island of Borneo. My friend Angela lives there, so I returned with her from Geek Week. We got back just in time to head up to Sinkawong, a city 3 hours north, for Cap Go Meh, the final celebration of Chinese New Year Festivities (a lot of people in the region are of Chinese descent.)

The town and the temple were all decked out and full of people…

And there was a special market full of food that had received a special blessing…

And there were, of course, dragons…

But the real attraction was the parade of tatungs. I didn’t get a perfect understanding of what was going on here, but I think that tatungs are people who have a special connection to the Gods on this holy day, so they go into a trance during the trip to the temple, where they will communicate with the Gods. Being in this trance means that they will not feel any pain. There were more than one thousands tatungs, all riding on specially equipped chairs and platforms.) Most were standing on nails, or were sitting on knives, but the really impressive ones were doing things like eating light bulbs, rubbing their faces with broken glass, holding hot peppers in their mouths, and wearing live snakes around their neck. The ones that really got me were the ones with wires, swords, and even bicycle parts piercing their cheeks. I couldn’t even look at those ones, thinking about how that had to hurt. But, they didn’t seem to be feeling pain, so who knows? (WARNING: POTENTIALLY DISTURBING PHOTOS AHEAD

The parade was incredible to see, but after about an hour, I was sweltering in the heat and a little nauseated by all the seemingly torturous displays, so I had to go sit down. 1,000 tatungs, though, means that the parade lasts for like 3 hours! I spent most of the rest of my time doing soft diplomacy – doing interviews with the press, letting students practice their English with me, taking pictures with every teenager with a camera phone, and even holding one lady’s baby for her.

We headed back to Pontianak the next day and were sad to hear that Angela’s boarding house had been robbed! Her host mom had lost like $1,000 in cash and $1,500 in gold jewelry! Luckily, Angela’s rooms were locked and secure, and I had put my computer in there, so all her stuff and my new MacBook air were all fine. I had unpacked my backpack about halfway when re-packing to go up to Sinkawong, leaving “stuff I didn’t need” in the bottom. The thieves took the half-full bag. If they were going to take anything, that’s the best case scenario, though “stuff I don’t need” could also be called “stuff that is easily replaced but really nice to have,” like my hiking boots, leatherman, headlamp, swimsuit, goggles, Lonely Planet, etc. I’ll buy all that stuff again, so it’s not a huge deal. The only irreplaceable thing that was taken was a bag with jewelry from Madagacsar, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Costa Rica It isn’t all that valuable, but was meaningful to me. I’m trying to take this as an opportunity to lose things gradually and be less connected to material things, but I was a little sad. Maybe I’ll just have to return to all those places…

So the last few days in Pontianak didn’t start that well. We had to go to the police office and had to spend some time comforting her host mom, so we were distracted by doing some of the touristy things I had wanted to do, like visit the Equator museum (Pontianak is smack dab on that imaginary line!). We mostly spent the time eating the local culinary specialities, which is my preferred way to travel anywyas. We had bubur pedas, (bean stew),I the local version of nasi pecel (rice with peanut sauce) and a smorgasboard of fried foods.

By my third or fourth fried treat, I’d forgotten all about the robbery. It ended up being a nice few days in a very different part of Indonesia – Kalimantan is less developed than Java, Madura, Bali, or Lombok, the other islands I have been to in the country. In just a couple of days there, I only noticed that in terms of worse roads and fewer mini-marts. My friends who are really out in the little towns see a very different Indonesia. Next week, I’m popping around Sulawesi (another island), so hopefully I’ll get a better feeling for the “real Indonesia” then!

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