Feature | 0°42’18.2″S, 113°35’39.1″E

All roads lead to Palangkaraya.

Or out of.

Those were my only options.

As a seasoned traveller, I know not to backtrack.

It is better to move forward, from one point to another. You save time, money, and most importantly, experience more.

This was impossible in Kalimantan Tengah.

After flying into Palangkaraya, the capital city, I planned to stay just long enough to make new friends who could tell me which villages to visit and move on.

But the terrain called the shots, not me.

I quickly discovered on my first ride from the city to Tumbang Malahoi — a four-hour drive to cover a distance of roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) — that the road infrastructure was still being shaped.

The paths we took were born from land once covered by rainforest and cleared by bulldozers. In the best-case scenario, they were created to connect Dayaks — the native inhabitants of this island — and their villages, or the more probable reality, to make way for the logging and oil palm industries.

The earth was a reddish-orange color from ultisol, a soil containing clay, and the landscape curved like a rollercoaster track. Every car had to fend for themselves on this terrain, and the vigor of jostling depended on the driver’s skills. During many trips, I could not tell who was going to win in the line-up of Mother Earth versus manual transmission.

How did locals travel before these roads existed? Kalimantan is endowed with multiple rivers and their tributaries, once-bountiful sources of food and transportation. To head south — the directional flow of the water and where the major cities developed — villagers would cut down trees to carve canoes, a method used up until 30 to 40 years ago. A two-hour trip by car to Palangkaraya would take three to four days of paddling on the river.

So no, I could not move from one village to another to save time.

I repeatedly returned to and departed from Palangkaraya because the best roads were built around the city, and then it occurred to me that this movement of coming from villages into the city mimicked the migration patterns of Dayaks themselves in recent decades.

As roads were built leading to the city to transport products for export— palm oil, timber and minerals, it also provided Dayaks an opportunity to leave their villages for better education and jobs.

But what happened to the relationship between those that left and those that remained? Roads provided a physical connection, but what about the cultural link?

I soon discovered that city Dayaks have nearly dissociated themselves from their ancestral villages, as quickly as the second generation. While every Dayak I met was intensely proud of their history and origin, very few of the ones living in the city desired to visit where they came from.

The experience of a young city Dayak female whom I met while traveling was revealing. Her maternal grandparents left their village at a young age, settled in the city, raised their family and prospered. I joined this family to visit that village for a traditional Dayak wedding, located two hours from Palangkaraya. While there I asked, “When was the last time you came here?” She furrowed her brow while counting the years. “I think, 10 years ago?”

For many in her generation, life has already moved on and the quality of it is undoubtedly better — education, healthcare, technology, electricity. To them, there seems to be little left of value to connect them back to their village, so why visit?

The notion of villages as having no value is a mistake.

There is a reason why when I arrive in a city, I escape to the countryside immediately. These villages are the last microcosms of a world that know how to coexist with the environment. Who else but they can still teach us how to appreciate the natural world that is left? Examples such as medicinal uses of plants from the rainforest, techniques used in cuisine as a result of their surroundings, and utilizing seasonality as a guide for living. All of these can still be applied for use in the modern world for the better.

So let us reverse the course these roads have created because people take notice. It was a small gesture on my part to drive hours on rugged roads to reach villages tucked far away, but the significance of my presence was powerful. In every village I visited, locals took great pride in teaching me, simply because I was there to listen and willing to share their stories with a larger audience — you. The weight of that impact will have me traveling on roads for months to come, no matter how rough they are.

– C

Tip: Plug in the coordinates from the title into Google Maps to see how far I travelled into Kalimantan’s heartland.

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