It's a long drive to Kotabaru. I found this out, first hand, this last weekend. Kotabaru is a small city on an island (Palau Laut) off the eastern coast of South Kalimantan. Looking at a map of Borneo you would think… "oh, not so far." And in fact you would be right. A flight to Kotabaru from Banjarmasin is under an hour. But if you look at a map that shows roads, you would see a road that winds close to the coast to Batalucin which is where you'd catch a ferry to the island. There are some mountains, or as I learned on this trip gunung, between Banjarmasin and Batalucin, making a direct crossover difficult. But this indirect route was not really the key reason the trip to Kotabaru took 9 hours each way. It was the road itself.
Originally we were going to get flown there but the plane used between these two cities was grounded for repairs. I say better to know before being in the air. So the organizers of the workshop offered to hire a driver to take us. Before leaving Banjarmasin I heard many different estimates as to how long it would take to drive there. 6 hrs was the lowest bid whereas 8 was the highest. Only after our driver picked us up did we get the most up to date travel time as he had come from there to get us. Oy, I thought…. Well I've been in an airplane much longer than this so I figured I'd just try to sleep and relax. Not at all possible because of said road.
The road, like the rest of us in Kalimantan, suffers from the whims of the rainy season. It's pockmarked with sinkholes that the drivers have to swerve around, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic. Some stretches the road were completely washed away leaving those bumpy craters my brother would be proud to 4 wheel drive through. The Lonely Planet makes no mention of this. They say it takes 5 hours by bus. My driver passed these busses, leaving them in a cloud of dust.
Once in Kotabaru, we ate and went straight to our hotel so I could get my beauty rest as my workshop was scheduled to begin at 8 the next morning. I was nervous as I usually am before meeting a new group of students. I had no idea what their level would be. I was about to teach a handful of high school English teachers, all with a variety of backgrounds. Kalimantan, and much of Indonesia, has a shortage of English teachers who have degrees in English. It seems that the ones who do have this degree want to be in the bigger cities and are unwilling to live in more isolated areas. So my students had educational backgrounds in Biology, Economics, Mathematics and only a couple with degrees in English.
The workshop lasted for a day and a half. The first day was set up to weave between theoretical background and real activities that implement more communication in English, less grammar translation. But their first reaction to me when I first began speaking was priceless. As excited as they were to see and work with an American, many of them cringed and gave me the wide eyed look of fear as if they didn't understand me. But I continued to talk in my teacher voice and once the initial shock wore off (within a few minutes) they were nodding and answering my questions and engaging fully in the activities I'd planned for them.
As successful as this workshop was and as jazzed as I felt about working with these teachers, who showed themselves to be quite creative and motivated, my highlight of the trip was meeting Linda, whom I'm affectionately calling my healer. I may never meet her again but I have the greatest fondness for her which began the first day I was there.
To begin, she cooked all the food we ate and was sure to make special vegetarian arrangements for me full of a yummy variety of mushrooms and vegetables. She gets her coconut milk from the coconut, uses the best ingredients and knows a heap of information about what grows in the forest. I had noticed there was a forest behind the school and asked at lunch if I could walk around and take pictures. So they obliged me and she led the way. She showed me plants that were used for coughs, for helping women heal after birth and just pointed out things that your eyes would pass had you not known it was there. She didn't really speak any English so everyone translated for me but it didn't matter, I was in awe of this person. And only later did I find out more: she learned how to do traditional massage and was pretty good.
I had been battling a small cold the week before leaving but the long bumpy drive and the fact that I didn't sleep well in Kotabaru made it so that on Sunday I felt sick with some sniffles and a slight sore throat. I still had a couple of hours of the workshop to facilitate, luckily it was a group work brainstorming session at this point and the participants were now doing 90% of the work. But once I hit the two hour mark I needed a break and I was adamant not to let the organizers make me stick around without taking it. So I hurried up to our central "chill out" spot and Linda was there. I was coughing feeling dizzy and she encouraged me to get a massage. I didn't argue. It worked wonders. It was the break and attention I had needed for a while and helped me to feel much more centered.
We drove back that same day, leaving this beautiful island at noon. I really hope it doesn't get over developed with time and industry. What we didn't see on the way due to arriving at 10 pm at night was now illuminated in day light. This gave me an opportunity to see villages and the beautiful beach at Pagatan as well as some bits of natural rainforest. But what you've read about Borneo's landscape is true. I was recently emailed the most recent National Geographic article about what is happening to the rainforests here. (Thanks Cat!) The road we took happens to cut between huge expanses of palm plantations. Other areas show signs of having been cleared with charred jagged tree stumps poking out amongst some youthful green grassy growth as the land tries to recover. Palm oil: a fabulous new replacement for those trans-fat laden hydrogenated oils in those pre-packed cookies you and I adore and the base for many of the bio fuels we all know and love. And of course rubber trees, rice fields, all those tropical crops are here. Next week, I'm leading my speaking students to discuss this topic we venture deeper into our unit on 'discussing controversial issues.'
Kotabaru's key industry is cement. One of the main organizers of the event, I Nyoman Rudi (Rudi for short) is Hindu from Bali. He says there is a small (couple hundred people) Hindu community there. Although Kotabaru is primarily Muslim like Indonesia, the use of the jilbab (Muslim head cover for women) was far less than in Banjarmasin.