Pontianak, the Equator Town in Kalimantan (2011)

Pontianak, the Equator Town in Kalimantan  (2011)

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How does it feel to be on the equator? Hot and humid for sure, but also as exasperating as it is exhilarating. A 360 degree horizon splattered with rainbow hues, endlessly flat delta crisscrossed by expansive and meandering rivers, deep and dark jungles harbouring strange life-forms seen only on National Geographic channel and glorious sunsets that dazzle. The exasperation quotient comes from the leeches that tenaciously explore your nether regions and have a nasty way of ending up in your lingerie — no matter how well protected you believe you are — and the eternal dampness that comes from temperamental downpours even in the supposedly dry season, and most importantly, from the vast stretch of oil palm plantations that have displaced lush green rainforests.

After all, it is the equatorial rainforests that have drawn us like a magnet to this remote region. As the plane crosses the South China Sea and begins its cruise over the island of Kalimantan (as Borneo is known by its own people), I lean over the window to catch a glimpse of the planet’s largest and deepest virgin forests. What presents itself is a rather scary sight. For several hundred miles, all one could see were plantations — of oil palms. They stretch endlessly for the half an hour of your flight. In between, there are a few patches of jungle, but all these have forest fires belching smoke into the sky. Later I learn that these are not forest fires, but jungles are being deliberately burnt down to make way for more oil plantations. At this rate, it won’t be long before this last vestige of rainforest on the planet ends up on your dining table in the form of cooking medium, bowing to man’s insatiable greed for grease.

We’re on our way to Gunung Palung National Park, one of the last refuges of the elusive urangutan, in Indonesian Borneo, but before that we must negotiate Pontianak, the town that perches bang on the equator. Surprise, surprise, a sign at the airport welcomes you to ‘Broadband city’. If you haven’t heard of Pontianak, that’s entirely your problem. The town believes itself to be a cyber city as good as any other, and has all the accoutrements of a medium-size town anywhere in the world. The capital of West Kalimantan, Pontianak boasts a university, horrendous traffic jams despite its broad roads, fancy eateries on a waterfront that could give the French Riviera a run for its money and scooter-borne women as fashion-conscious as any you might meet in Milan.

Barrels of oil

But Pontianak’s prosperity is rather recent. Alex Afdahl, our Javanese guide who comes to pick us up, tells us that the town has been transformed in recent times by palm oil and timber money. Barrels of oil float down the river to be loaded on to tankers that queue up at the port so that you and I can get our quota of transfat! No wonder Pontianak has so many business hotels and all those apparently important looking businessmen in smart suits and ties doing deals on their cell phones! You scan the streets for local Dayak men and women in their native clothes, but almost everyone you see is wearing western clothes and to the untrained eye, indistinguishable from any other South East Asian resident. Except for people of Chinese origin who look like, well, Chinese. The buildings that clutter its downtown are glass and chrome and equally unremarkable.

But that’s only the business district. The moment you travel out of town, it becomes fetchingly quaint. Neat streets with spaced out single-storey homes painted in bright colours remind one of Madras of the ’60s. Each house has a sprawling garden, a front verandah sporting a couple of chairs and a street scene straight out of a period film. We make our way to the local market to see if we can get a glimpse of real Kalimantan. The fecundity of the land is apparent in the abundance and variety of the produce. Durians dominate the stalls. You’re greeted by the stench of ripening durians long before you see them. They look good though and the stalls are doing brisk business. Spiky and hairy rambutans in bunches vie for space alongside shiny stingrays and octopuses. Impressive crabs invite you to pick them up for dinner while the aroma of native coffee wafts from the grocery stores. And no trace of garbage anywhere. The streets are squeaky clean.

Like all equator towns, Pontianak too has an equator monument and a metallic line you can straddle across with your feet on both hemispheres to get your regulation photograph taken. That done, the next day, we head towards the boat terminal to catch the speedboat that will take us to the edge of the rainforest in seven sailing hours

1 thought on “Pontianak, the Equator Town in Kalimantan (2011)”

  • I have been reading and looking for whatever information I could gather about Pontianak (on the internet) for a month or so. Came across your article while searching with random key words.
    Though your article was published 12 years ago and more recent information is available, I must tell you that yours is the only piece, by an Indian, about Pontianak I found on the internet.
    Will read other articles as well. Thanks!


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