How does it feel to go back to a city you left three decades ago? Will you remember anything? Will you recognize some places?
To begin this story let me take you back in time, 32 years ago to be precise. Due to his work in the past, my father had to live in Banjarmasin, the capital of Indonesia’s South Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo, away from my mother and I in Semarang on Java. When I was one and a half years old, my mother decided to move across the Java Sea to join her husband and build a new life together, sacrificing her well-paid job as a traditional Javanese dance teacher. Everyone knows that starting a new life is not only challenging (my mother came from a household with two maids, so she practically never had to do any housework), but also daunting, especially for a first-timer. But she did it anyway.
For 1.5 years the three of us lived in a stilt house, provided by my father’s office, in a city known for its many rivers and swamps. I cannot recall much of that time, but my mother told me it was not unusual to have snakes coming into the house. In 1988 we all moved to another, and much smaller, city in the same province. To my younger self, Pelaihari, as the city is called, was merely a place with no street lights (the only lights at night came from cars and motorbikes which were very rare at that time) and a vast tract of barren land not too far from our house (it might have been a coal mining site or land cleared for palm oil plantations). Then a few years later we moved again to a slightly bigger city called Tanjung, still in South Kalimantan, where an ‘eternal fire monument’ stood in the middle of a roundabout.
Since my parents and I moved back to Java in 1991, none of us has ever returned to the Indonesian side of Borneo, until this year when a long weekend at the end of March gave me a spur-of-the-moment idea to go back to Banjarmasin. It is, after all, the city I was named after: BAnjarMAsin.
James and I departed from Jakarta with no expectations; it had been so long since I left the provincial capital of South Kalimantan, and I didn’t expect to recognize anything except the city’s main mosque where my father took a photo of me in front of it (sadly the photo was washed away when a flood caught my parents by surprise upon their return from a trip about ten years ago). On the news, I have been constantly reminded about how conservative the city is, and just a few days before our trip, attempted daylight robbery happened on the street where our hotel was located. Luckily bystanders reacted quickly and saved the victims from a potential loss of their belongings.
After more than an hour in the air, the coastline of southern Borneo slowly came into sight; a muddy estuary a telltale sign of the erosion upstream. A few minutes later what seemed to be office buildings emerged, sitting in a well-planned development suggestive of a relatively recent construction. One building, in particular, caught my attention the most, with a tall triangular roof which then sloped all the way down over its elevated veranda. Suddenly a flood of memories filled my mind. I remembered seeing that kind of structure when I was little, probably in Banjarmasin, Pelaihari or Tanjung, I can’t remember exactly. Moments later I felt this warm feeling, as if I was meeting an old friend I had never communicated with for far too long. Later I learned from Iwan, our driver during our stay in the city, that what I saw was actually Banjarbaru, a city created in 1999 which now hosts some of the province’s most important buildings including the governor’s office.
Despite the small and outdated airport terminal building, our arrival was a rather pleasant affair. A couple donning the costume of the Banjar people greeted us at the entrance to the baggage claim area, while a Dayak (indigenous ethnic groups of Borneo) ensemble played their traditional music inside the building. On the way to the city, Iwan, our very friendly driver who was in fact from Java chatted with us and talked about his decision to move to Banjarmasin following the eruption of Mount Merapi near his native Yogyakarta back in 2010. Like my mother three decades ago, Iwan started his life anew in his adopted city with his family. Looking out of the car window, the road was lined with shops, office buildings and houses. “When I was a kid, none of this existed, only forests,” I recalled.
After checking in at the hotel, situated on the banks of the Martapura River, we went to Sultan Suriansyah Mosque, commissioned by the first Muslim ruler of the Banjar people more than four centuries ago. Located a bit further north from the city center, we followed small streets that meandered along the tributaries of the Martapura River, occasionally catching a glimpse of the locals’ river-bound life. Unlike most modern mosques which are capped with domes, this old mosque’s roof shape reflects the vernacular architecture that was prevalent at that time. Today, however, only parts of the mosque are still original, including the four main pillars of the prayer hall.
A few days before leaving for Banjarmasin, I asked my mother about the local food we should try in the city, and unsurprisingly she gave me a long list of those dishes, with a specific time when to have them. Itik panggang (roast duck) was our pick for lunch, and after exploring the centuries-old mosque, off we went to Depot Madezo, recommended by our local friend, Sherly. She warned us that the place might not be too comfortable, but this street-side eatery was more spacious than I thought, although it was a little too dark to take photos of the food. The duck came in bite-size pieces with sweet sambal (chili sauce). It also came with a clear soup and rice noodles, and a plate of rice (we love our carbs here in Indonesia!). Everything turned out very delicious, a satisfying start to our culinary adventure during our short stay in the city.
As soon as we finished our meal, James, a foodie at heart, proposed a rather crazy idea.
“Do you want to go to another place to try more dishes?”
“Now?” I was more amused than shocked.
About half an hour later we found ourselves sitting cross-legged inside a big stilt house which had been converted into a popular 24-hour restaurant. “This is where the locals hang out,” Iwan told me on our way there. We ordered a Banjar specialty I had been curious to try: ketupat Kandangan with haruan (snakehead murrel). While waiting for the dish to come, I realized that we were sitting on something I still vividly remember from my childhood: lampit, a local mattress made from rattan. We used to have it in our house during my father’s tenure in South Kalimantan, and one thing I recall is its plaited edges. Sitting on one after all those years truly evoked a certain nostalgia.
Then before long the dish came; sliced ketupat (rice steamed in a packet of woven palm leaf) with fried haruan served in a sauce made from coconut milk, turmeric, lemongrass, candlenut and other spices. Originally from Kandangan, a namesake district in the province, traditionally the dish is eaten by hand with the ketupat mashed into the creamy sauce before scooping it into your mouth. “I don’t see the point of them making ketupat when they eventually eat it like normal rice,” my mother jokingly said to me once. As I tasted the sauce, rich yet balanced flavors exploded onto my palate. I looked at James, who nodded as his eyes widened. Later he told me that it is now one of his favorite Indonesian dishes.
Full and satisfied, we retreated to our hotel and called it a day, for the following day would be a long one.
We woke up at 3am, far too early even for an early riser like me. But on that day we were about to go out of the city, not to climb a mountain, but to see what Banjarmasin is well-known for among Indonesians: its floating markets. We opted for Lok Baintan – one of two such markets that still exist in and around Banjarmasin – which according to Iwan could be reached by car in about one hour, if not a little more. However, we decided to rent a boat for a more unique experience. An article I read prior to our trip says that going to Lok Baintan by boat from the city will only take about half an hour, so I expected to arrive at our destination just before 6am, the supposedly peak time of the floating market’s hustle and bustle. We went to a pier near Sultan Suriansyah Mosque as it was there where Iwan took a boat several years ago to visit Lok Baintan. But no one was at the pier when we arrived, and there was not even the slightest sign of human activity. Thankfully half an hour later, with the help of our driver, we managed to find a boat captain who happened to be walking nearby. Negotiating the price was easy, so was getting on the boat in darkness. But instead of going to the east – where Lok Baintan is – the boat headed to the west.
Still feeling sleep deprived, I didn’t realize this until the boat left the small river and came into a wide body of water which in darkness almost seemed like a big lake. James and I instantly felt something was not quite right, since the Martapura River that we were supposed to cruise shouldn’t be this wide. This must be the Barito, one of Borneo’s mighty rivers that cuts through the island’s dense jungle – or what is left of it. At certain places both of the river’s banks are separated by about a kilometer, making it the widest river in Indonesia.
“We’re going to Lok Baintan, aren’t we?” I asked a crew member this to seek an answer to my confusion.
His reply was a short yes.
Moments later we figured out why the boat had to make a detour: to stop by a shop and buy a jerry can filled with petrol for the rest of the journey. Relieved, I made sure the boat eventually turned east and hoped that we could reach the famous floating market before sunrise.
The captain surely and steadily piloted the boat through the calm waters of another small river that would merge with the Martapura River. We passed by stilt houses, hundreds or even thousands of them, with their dwellers slowly waking up to the sound of the Islamic call to prayer. Occasionally I saw the silhouette of big ships, seemingly too big to be on this side of Banjarmasin’s riverine landscape. But there they were, anchored near warehouses or at slightly wider sections with nothing but dark marshes in the background. I was wondering whether or not I would see the reflections of crocodiles’ eyes on the river’s surface.
One and a half hours into the journey we were still far from Lok Baintan, but the sky was still dark so I just took it easy while trying to keep myself awake. However, a few minutes later, one, two, three tourist boats overtook ours, then four, five, six… I lost count. I didn’t realize how slow we were until the moment we were left behind by those faster and slightly bigger boats whose engines were not heard fifteen minutes earlier. Ten, twenty boats passed us by and I could only hope that when we finally got to the market those local women selling fruits, vegetables and other things would still be there.
The cloudy sky began to look brighter every minute on our journey eastward, and we were already past the supposedly peak hour of the market at six. Finally at seven we arrived at a part of the river where there seemed to be a lot more tourist boats, dwarfing local vessels which were each manned by a woman expertly paddling through the busy waters. Several of them were selling fruits – some looked unfamiliar to me – and snacks as well as traditional cakes, and like butterflies hopping from one flower to another, they went from one tourist boat to another, wishing to stumble upon that one tourist who would buy their produce in large quantities. Of course, we only bought a few items here and there, but that morning we were introduced to some fruits we had never tried before, including buah mentega (literally ‘butter fruit’), also known as velvet apple which is in fact native to the Philippines.
Still unsure whether the ‘market’ we were at was created for tourists or a real traditional market, I spotted some women who didn’t bother to come close to any of the tourist boats. Instead they were doing transactions with other women, buying and exchanging items from raw chicken to duck eggs since transactions are done both in cash and through bartering at this ‘floating’ community. Maybe if we had arrived one hour earlier we would have seen more of such vendors.
With several sugar-dusted donuts, two velvet apples, and two local citrus fruits in our hands, we were ready to go back to the city… at least not until the crew managed to fix our boat’s engine. This very boat took us to the market much longer than we had anticipated, and now we had to wait until it got fixed. Life really is like a box of chocolates, isn’t it? You never know what you’re gonna get, even down to getting a proper, working boat.
Lunch was a much easier affair. We met up with Sherly in the city for a feast of grilled silver catfish, fried glass catfish, coconut milk-based soup, and mango sambal at Depot Sari Patin. The soup was sweet and flavorful, and the fried glass catfish well-seasoned. But the real star was the grilled fish; not only was it grilled to perfection, but it was also very meaty and juicy with plenty of fat, making it one of the most succulent kinds of grilled fish I’ve probably ever tasted. Hats off to Sherly who recommended all those places to eat so we could try the best local dishes during our short stay in Banjarmasin.
In the morning of our last day in the city, Iwan took us to Sabilal Muhtadin Mosque, the biggest mosque in the city as well as the only place in Banjarmasin I still remember from my childhood. Standing on the site of a long-lost Dutch fort, the mosque which was built in 1981 bears different architectural styles: its space-age dome (as James called it) reflects the modernism prevalent at that time in Indonesia; its minarets appear to be a magnified version of a fencing épée; while its doors and windows were inspired by the traditional motifs of the indigenous Dayak people. I asked James to take a few shots of me at the exact same location where I had my photo taken three decades ago, and I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic afterward – one of many such moments during this particular trip.
After the mosque there was one last place we wanted to visit before going to the airport to catch our flight back to Jakarta: a museum which, as Iwan told us two days ago, is among the last surviving traditional Banjar houses in the city. Known as Bubungan Tinggi, this type of house once served as the core building of a palace, although the one we were heading to was never a part of any royal compound. Museum Wasaka, as it is called, sits on the bank of the Martapura River. Its decorative wood carvings adorn the edges of the tall roofs, while the weight of the entire structure is distributed among the many stilts that support it. Unfortunately the museum was closed, although that was due to renovation work carried out to preserve this precious cultural asset of Banjarmasin.
Not quite ready to leave the city, we had one more dish we had been very eager to try, none other than soto Banjar. Possibly the most well-known Banjar dish beyond the borders of South Kalimantan, this clear soup made from an array of spices which is served with vermicelli, shredded chicken, fried potato patties and hard-boiled egg is light but rich in flavor. It is the only Banjar dish my mother still makes at home, and it was the first meal I had after recovering from a case of dengue fever fifteen years ago. At Soto Banjar Bang Amat, we had the namesake dish but also a side of chicken sate/satay (skewered meats easily found in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia) which, unlike in other places where peanut sauce or sweet soy sauce is used, was smothered in masak habang – a typical Banjar sauce made from dried red pepper, palm sugar and other ingredients.
Long gone are the days when I spoke the Banjar language fluently. But this trip has reignited an affection for a city with which I have a special connection. Banjarmasin showed me different sides of the city and its people that are not usually portrayed in the media. But I shouldn’t have been surprised since that is also the case with many other places around the globe, places that beckon us to go there and experience their lesser-known charms for ourselves.