Sunday, July 28, 2019

going off the grid part 2 of 3

The Trouble with Upstream

So where did I leave you last?

Right, Ujoh Bilang, the capital of Kabupaten Mahakam Ulu.  Like I said, it was a quaint little town (well I haven't seen Long Pahangai yet, so Ujoh Bilang was quaint and small now).  Lots of dogs running around the street, but as Rexy (the guy from Telkom) told me, the dogs are scared of human.  I have a phobia of animals, any kind (seriously, anything with fur and walk on four legs, I'm scared, so it's a good thing that I married Asian man right, not as hairy :P),  so even though the dogs are not bothering me in any way, it's still nerve wrecking for me in Ujoh Bilang.

Ujoh Bilang at Night
notice, no dogs... me scared of dogs
dinner at Ujoh Bilang, one of my comfort food, nasi goreng

"warteg" at Ujoh Bilang

So back to my journey, 9 AM the boatmen called, and I met him on the dock, I boarded the boat, and it seems to be a good day to start a journey upstream.  Off we went to the next village, Long Bagun, there we waited, they registered us, and filled up the tank.  I didn’t have time to grab my breakfast back at the inn, so I went up and got myself a treat.

my trustee companion on this journey

my fellow travelers upstream (not in view, a rooster, no joke)

soto banjar FTW

After the tank being filled, we piled up back to the boat and I started going through my Instagram stream (I could still get a decent reception) and going through the streamed of messages that got in, knowing well the next time I could answer them on time would be Friday.  Funny how time flies when you’re deeply invested on your phone, and suddenly there was this man who took the same boat yelling out, “You know we better get out, because it will be a while before the motorist came.”  He said that while he jumped out the boat.  I scoffed at him, thinking drama king.  Yep, I was gullible and inexperienced.

some pictures I managed to snap with my phone while waiting for the boatmen
Then the thirty minutes turned into one hour, and the passenger gradually got out of the boat one by one.  Then the ticketing guy came up to us and said, “Guys, I’m sorry for people who are going upstream, we have no motorist (boatmen) for today, so we have to cancel your journey.”

My Capitol Kid attitude kicked in, I’m on a tight schedule!  Does this man know who am I?? Does the river god know whose journey he’s delaying??  (I know we Capitol Kids think the world revolve around us).  I told the man, how can I get to Long Pahangai, because I have to be there today.

He told me, not today you can’t, we can’t get you upstream today, no boatmen will go up today, because the water is too low.

Says who you simpleton who obviously know nothing about this river?!  I know I’m being dramatic, I didn’t actually say that, in reality I got out of the boat, because there was nothing I could do.  I am not the daughter of Poseidon who could negotiate with the river gods to get me upstream.  So after calling my team up in Long Pahangai, I decided to go back to Ujoh Bilang, and find another way to go upstream.

my ride back to Ujoh Bilang

Then the team in Long Pahangai told me there was another way to Long Pahangai from Ujoh Bilang, that is, by land.  Since it is the dry season, the road will be passable, but it’s going to cost me IDR 4,000,000 ($350) which was more than half of my monthly salary.  To be honest, at first when I hear the cost of the journey, I was thinking maybe I should just stop in Ujoh Bilang and go back to Jakarta with, “Eh I tried, but can’t get up there.”  But I got here already, with my one day and one night journey, and I just go back empty handed with “eh I tried”??

I was not raised that way, so I went to the Bappeda (Regional Planning Agency) in the Kabupaten and asked them if they could arrange a transportation for me to go to Long Pahangai.  Well as expected the price is still the same, but at least I have a trustee driver with me, because it was recommended by a government officials (a colleague I might say).

So off to Long Pahangai I go.  I started the journey at 1.30 PM, I was ready for whatever it is going to hit me on the way.  Another irony, the night before I was communicating with my coworker (my workhusband) who was forced to take 11 hour journey because his flight from Toli Toli to Palu was cancelled.  That night, I swear I didn’t mocked him, I was simply stating to him that I thank God I don’t have to be stuck with 11 hour roller coaster journey because I don’t think I can make it without getting carsick.  Little did I know….

The journey lasted about 4 hours, 4 hours of bumpy ride even my watch detected that I was in some kind of exercise for all those 4 hours and I burned about 2200 calories that day (dear Apple you really need to tweak these watches).  Just to give you some ideas...

my ride from Ujoh Bilang to Long Pahangai

my trustee driver pak rahmat

And in some part I literally used the river, the actual river as a road, not just for crossing, for the road. Please ignore the background music in some of these videos, Pak Rahmat had some really eclectic taste in music.

All those four hour drive is without a phone reception whatsoever by the way, because we were literally going through the wilderness.  So I had to chat with my driver, he was not a man with a lot of words, nor did I understand much to what he was saying.  But from our occasional exchanges I gather that he used to work for one of the timber companies that used to operate in the area.  That was why he knew the road like the back of his hand.

He also told me that his father was one of the congressman in the regency from 2004 all the way to the recent election in 2019.  He resigned from his post because he was getting too old.  He told me that his father scolded the way he lives, and his job.  His father would want him to wear uniform work for the government.  But he told me that it was not the kind of life that he could live.  He was not cut out for sitting in an office.  He much rather being outside on the field.

Funny huh, things that you can learn when you’re not on your phone constantly.

and the view though.... it's amazing!

So after 39 hours journey I arrived in Long Pahangai.  So I had some time to fantasize about Long Pahangai on the way (four hours of bumpy ride do not give you the time to look at your phone made the imagination goes wild).  There are not a lot of picture about Long Pahangai, not a lot of people have visited there, so I imagined it to be picturesque countryside by the river with dimly light bridges and road.  When I got there, it was close.  Not exactly as is, but it was close.

the market

the dock

Pak Camat's house

view from the inn

The narrow streets, charming shops, and dimly-lighted street, it was so charming.  It made me realize how fast-paced my life had been for the past years.  In here people took their time.  With almost no internet connection, the kids are still running around the streets.  In the afternoon the men go to the riverside and fish while keeping up with the latest news.  Then the kids and the women took a bath in the river (yes they still do that around here).  In here suddenly I have some time to breathe, to write!

The village only have one inn and one place to eat.  It was so small, so simple everyone knew everyone.  I was not used to it, because for the last 20 years or so I’ve been living in a community who would close their door (for safety reasons).  In Long Pahangai, the doors are open as long as the owner of the house is awake.  The sense of community was felt from the moment I arrived, as my driver stopped by and said hi to one of his relatives.

Then the next day was the event I really came here for.  So I came to Long Pahangai to make a detailed spatial planning (Zone Planning) in the district.  Long Pahangai is one of the outermost district of the country, so the detailed spatial planning is composed by the ministry rather than the Regency Government like other district’s detailed spatial planning.  I came here at this time to get an idea what Long Pahangai looked like, because I have the means to tell their story, also I have to hear what they have to say about what they want in the future, and how I can accommodate that in the document that we are about to compose.

me in the meeting trying to keep my poker face
In the meeting, I was again slapped with harsh reality that they are dealing with.  The electricity we took for granted in Jakarta, who would complained if it goes out more than 5 minutes, they only got 6 hours of electricity.  6 hours, from 6 pm to 12 pm and that’s it.  If you need it for 24 hours you have to buy a generator, which will cost you (because of the transportation).  Moreover the cost of operating the generator will run pretty high, and even though the cost of diesel is the same with what it is in Jakarta, but the supply is very limited.  

With this limited access to electricity public service sector was also disrupt.  The cops cannot write out Police Certificate of Good Conduct (SKCK) for the people who are seeking jobs.  They have to wait until 6pm to work, or they could go to the district office (kecamatan) to print out document if it was needed immediately.  They have to do this because the Police Force do not have the budget for generator.

They have solar plant, but it was not functional due to technical mix ups.  To add more to the misery, when the solar plant was operating, it could only generate about 250 watts for 50 houses.  250 watts is too small, even for a small household these days.

Their access of clean water is also a problem, at the moment they are relying on the river for their source of water.  So they pumped the water from the river, filtered it, and that’s their drinking water.  The installation for tap water was built a couple years back, but the solar cells used for the pumps was not enough to generate the electricity for the big pump, so they changed the pump but did not change the pipes, therefore the pump was not compatible with the pipes, now the facility laid as a decoration in the village.  My head starting to burst in the middle of the meeting.  Not because these problems were headaches for me, no, because I feel like a fake sitting there taking all these problems.

This was not the first time I hear about problems in the remote areas.  But most of the time the problems I hear were largely caused by the people itself.  Not the case in Long Pahangai.  The people here are resilient.  They figured out ways by themselves, they pulled through.  They’re hoping there are more that the central government would do to them.  Especially, they repeatedly said to me, is the road.  The access to their place is too limited, the high cost of the transportation (that I have to endured myself) means high cost to their goods too.  Just to give you an idea, the cost of whole chicken here is IDR 400 – 600 ($35 - $55).  That is a whole restaurant meal for my family!

They’re not asking much, they’re just asking for a program, that they could benefit, because all other programs that was conducted here seemed to be (pardon my language) half-assed.

Other failing infrastructure in this place is the cell phone tower.  Physically there is a cell phone tower in this district, yet it does not work due to bureaucracy mixed up, so it had been standing there since 2017 doing nothing.

the not-functioning cell phone tower
But I was impressed by them!  I could not recall people with such passion for their community like them.  Even the army leader who was not the local, have ideas on how to make the district self-reliance by making paddy-fields by the river, which he said will lower the cost of production and could make good investment for the people.  I was also in awe by the fact that they already thought out about their spatial planning since 2014.  In 2014 I was still drowning on my thesis and taking care of my firstborn.

They even told me, that they were tired of people monetizing them, using their status as the “border area” as means to get projects and money, but none that they can benefit.  My heart genuinely goes out for them, because I have never seen a community so willing to move forward yet they have no way of doing it.

There was the “dana desa” discussion.  Dana desa, or the village fund from the government in a large sum of money (around IDR 2 billion per village or more, about $143,000).  They were willing to use their fund to fix the failing facilities, but they were told it was not yet their jurisdiction to do so.  See the weird tangled of bureaucracy web in this country, they have to be given the authority to manage these facilities before they can use their money to fix the problem.  They have the means, but they are not given the authority.  Can’t you feel their frustration?

So as I was frantically taking notes, hoping I would recall every single details that were being told by them so I could tell their story correctly, my head was spinning with ways I could help them.  How to get their voices out.  They have resources, they have determination, they have good leadership, what they needed was a connection, a good network to get their district going.

As the meeting came to end, I took a mental note to at least fight for the community the way I can.  To help them to have a voice.  I don’t want to be another anecdote for them, like they told me about those who came before me.  This person came promised us this, but nothing after.  I have to at least, try to make their voice heard.  This was not any other business trip.

The day did not end yet, as I walked back from my dinner in the only warung makan (canteen) available, the elders of the village had been waiting for us.  They would like to show us what they have, and discuss what they had worked on in 2014.  Again, I was in awe.  They already did a participatory planning of the village.  They have allocated an area for new development should the Trans-Kalimantan Road is up and running.

They also told me that it would be nice if they were included in any decision making regarding development in their area.  Because they gave us an example of their hospital, it was built during the dry season.  Dry season is the worst in terms of access for them.  Therefore, the builder complained that the cost of the built was over their estimated budget.  They told me, had the builder converse with them first, they would advise them to delay the built until the rainy season, so they could have better access to move the goods.

the petinggi adat (the leader of the tribe so to speak) the one in the middle with black shirt, I have the utmost respect for him, the way he speaks and the way he explained what needed to be done, I know he must went to some ivy-league school, he's too awesome!

night meeting with the elders
Suddenly I felt like John Smith and they’re Pocahontas singing “Colors of the Wind” to me.  How we, the people of Capitol, always made our policy based on what we know, and what we are.  We often forget that this country was an array of people, and we’re simply one shade of the rainbows.  We forget that not all people do not live like we do, or think like we do.  We often forget about local wisdom when we make policies.

That night I feel asleep with heavy thoughts in my head.  What a journey this had been so far.

Well, I the next day would be my journey home.  No, my adventure is far from over.

Please stick around for part 3, I know it is longer than I have intended but bear with me :)

gotta add this little guy to represent the dogs of Mahakam Ulu

Monday, July 22, 2019

going off the grid (part 1 of 3)

Introduction to Digital Detox

I don’t know about you, but me and off the grid really got along well in one sentence (please notice the sarcasm please).  But since 2017 I’ve been assigned to a post that deals with the off the grid area.  In pictures it looks good, I admit.  And I do kinda know how to package it on Instagram.  Hey it’s me the master of content.

But to be honest, the reality is grueling but I do take good angles for pictures.  So, when it is presented, you wouldn’t know the struggle to get there, you’d have no idea that I only live on granola bars because the food was questionable, or the fact that I have not had a decent bath for a week.  Because I love romanticizing stuff (in other word, I’m good at bullshitting).  So here’s the latest classic adventure that I’ve taken.  In some ways, it does change my perspective about how lucky I was for things I took for granted, like decent internet connection, (for like 15 minutes, and then I’m back ordering my cup of coffee from a gojek, while taking selfie for an IG story).

As you notice from the title, I’m going to break this down into three parts, I drafted it (yes I did, a first for me TBH) in one part, but decided it is too long for one part.  So three part it is.  Here we go...

Have you ever heard of Long Pahangai?  If you haven’t, congratulations, you’re like 97% of the world population that doesn’t know Long Pahangai.  Long Pahangai is a relatively new kecamatan (district) in a newly formed kabupaten (regency) called Mahakam Ulu.

That's where Mahakam Ulu is right in the middle of Kalimantan

The kabupaten was established in 2013, and before I bored you with the details, Mahakam Ulu has only 16% non-forest area, that means, about 84% percent of the area cannot be built or have a very restricted building code.  For Kecamatan Long Pahangai, it has 98% forest cover!  Meaning only 2% of its area is populated.  And how to get there, is what makes it interesting.

That's where Long Pahangai is, and to give you an idea of my route from Samarinda, Melak, Ujoh Bilang (somewhere near Mamahak) then Long Pahangai (the highlighted area).  The scale when I screen captured this google map was roughly 1:250000

Apart from being so densely covered with forest, the access to Long Pahangai is very limited.  You can get there by plane to Datah Dawai Airport from Samarinda, Balikpapan, or Melak, but the seats are EXTREMELY limited, and the schedule changes every month.  The reason the seats are limited partly because this flight is subsidized, prioritizing those who are in needs, like critically ill people who needed to go to a better health facilities.  Another way is through the capital of Mahakam Ulu, Ujoh Bilang, in the district of Long Bagun, it is largely only accessible by water, with the river boat.  And when I said boat, don’t think of it as an R&B music videos boat or what New Kids On The Block had on their video “Summertime” (I know I’m old).  It’s this boat:

The boat that will take me upstream to Ujoh Bilang

Don’t’ worry, it is safe, it has lifejacket and everything, but for me a city kid.  This was like white water rafting!

How to get to the dock in Tering
Inside the boat

Anyway, aside from the river, you can get there by land, but they don’t have public transportation for that, so boat is the only public access to Ujoh Bilang, the capital of Mahakam Ulu, where Long Pahangai is.

So to get to Ujoh Bilang, from Jakarta, you have to take a flight (preferably morning flight, because the boat won’t run past 3pm) to either Samarinda or Balikpapan.  From those city, you have to take another flight to Melak (have I lost you yet?)

Okay, then from Melak, you’ll take a 45 minutes – 1 hour drive to Tering, that’s where the dock is that will take you to Ujoh Bilang.  Then from Ujoh Bilang, it will be another 5 hours ride upstream to Long Pahangai, simple right? Uh huh….

So my journey to this edge of the world, starts in 3 AM in my house.  I know I’m a masochist, I like to torture myself by waiting more than 2 hours in the airport.  But I was raised that way alright?  My flight was on 6.50, I don’t like to be anxious in my taxi, and I can’t afford to be late on this flight.  So everything has to go according to plan, no delays, no sidetracks (I’m still recovering from a three-hour-delay two weeks earlier, that should be another entry).

Thankfully my flight from Jakarta to Samarinda was on time, but I didn’t say it was smooth sailing.  Have I told you how much I hate turbulence?!  I hate turbulence.  I mean, pilots and flight attendants, you can call me a wuss, or sacredly cat (what am I 3???) but TURBULENCE IS NEVER NORMAL IN MY BOOK!!  Safely arrived in Samarinda, I had to stop myself from kissing the ground for landing safely, then I have to catch another flight from Samarinda to Melak (the capital of Kutai Barat) in this plane….

  Needless to say, this flight was not smooth either.  What can you expect from a small plane?!  The irony is that I should be used to turbulence and small plane flights by now, come on now, my job is located on these hard to reach areas.  But no, I still hate flights.  But thankfully I landed in Melak, with no major hiccups.
The only picture I managed to take in Melak Airport (Melalan)
The 45 minutes ride from Melak to Tering went without any problem.  I had a great conversation with the driver along the way, asking this and that about the local culture.  He told me in the old days, the people used to respect the leaders (Bupati).  Whenever a Bupati would come by in the old days, the whole village would gather and greet them (I know it’s probably ‘him’ but it is important for me to be gender biased).  But these days, whenever a leader come by, it would be like any other day.  Nothing seems special anymore for him.

The driver also told me on how a lot of people are investing on the Swallow Home.  It’s a tall building, created for Swallows to come by and built nest on it.  As you know Swallow’s nest would go up to IDR 1,000,000 per kilo ($80/kg).  So it’s kind of a great business here in Kalimantan Timur.

btw it's THIS swallow

NOT this swallow...
image from:

When I got to the dock and almost immediately got a boat up to Ujoh Bilang.  The way up was nothing I’ve seen before.  I mean, I took boat rides, on the black river down in Palangka Raya, or crossing islands in Labuan Bajo and Morotai, but the scenery on this ride was different than those before.  Maybe because I’ve been working on the Heart of Borneo for a while, and the scenery that I saw on the pages of the book suddenly came to life before me and it was awesome.  For a while I didn’t want to drown out the voices outside, I just want to hear the sound of the water and the occasional bird calls.

some images I managed to snap on the way to Ujoh Bilang (SOOC, I'm too lazy to edit)

We got into Ujoh Bilang just before dusk, the town took me 30 years back.  The small narrow streets, the houses, and then the cell phone vendors yanked me back to the future.  But it was a charming little town.  I remember thinking, damn why can’t I stay a bit longer in here, it’d be nice to explore the town for a day or two.  Be careful what you wish for.

I learned a lot by traveling, and one thing that I always knew is that the farther away from civilization you are, the higher the cost of living there.  I mean, the prices I paid for a simple meal here, I could get a restaurant-class meal back home.  Hard to imagine how these people deal with it daily.  So after spending the night in Ujoh Bilang, the plan was to go to Long Pahangai the next morning.  I’ve set up an appointment with the boatmen at 9 AM the next day.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that I met a group of gentlemen from Telkom who were also traveling to Ujoh Bilang.  One of them is an expert on the wilderness of Mahakam Ulu, so he kind of guided me through Ujoh Bilang, and got me a room at the same inn they were staying.

Rexy, me and Pak Zul
So this was my stop for the night, and for the next part will be the twist and turn of the 2nd leg of my journey, Ujoh Bilang to Long Pahangai and what made me decided that I should do a three-series full entries on the journey.

For more info on flights to and from Melak (there's only one airline at the moment that goes out to Melak from major cities like Samarinda and Balikpapan) just go to:

And to ask for the schedule for Susi Air you can call/text the following numbers:
Susi Air Samarinda: 0811-211-9802
Susi Air Datah Dawai: 0858-2274-8583
Susi Air Melak: 0822-5118-1992