Life on water

Banjarmasin- Life on water

The town of Banjarmasin in Indonesian Borneo is an unpolished gem in the truest sense, and not just because of the open pit diamond fields nearby. Though certainly rough in and around the edges the core is hewn from a genuine, robust and authentic local culture. A dawn boat trip to the floating markets upriver yields timeless scenes which resonate with the romanticist in every western traveler. Directed only by the river currents and the dictate of local supply and demand needs, the flotilla of colorful vendors gently jostle for space hawking their wears. Flowers, utensils, fresh sweet pancakes and myriad fruit and vegetables account for the more recognizable items. The locals were mostly elderly, wearing the chiseled features of those with a lifetime of local expertise. They were generally nonchalant about my presence though my smiles were reciprocated with nods of bemused acknowledgement. Some of them were accompanied by young children, the integrity of generational bonds being clearly evident. I wondered how many of them would be plying these waterways in the future, wearing the same conical hats, trading local produce in such a time honored fashion. The scene was truly one of tranquility and parochial dignity as the suns rays began to paint the day.

If the morning had been a picture of reserved serenity then the afternoon was a riot of cheer, curiosity and unabashed good will. The canals of Banjarmasin serve the multi functions of playground, laundry, garden, toilet, social forum and wash area for those living on and over the banks. As the day draws to a close they become a hive of activity which reaches fever pitch when a foreigner passes through. As I crouched below the first of many small bridges our little boat was set upon by an excited rabble of children from all directions. They jumped into the brackish water from the bridges and rickety wooden porches to swim frantically towards me for no other reason than to alleviate the monotony of their day, say hello, slap high fives and catch a free ride to nowhere in particular. The private routines of every day living were on public display for all to see, yet any latent awkward feelings of voyeurism were wonderfully quelled by the warmth and openness of the people. They seemed to appreciate being the subject of outside interest and enjoyed the novelty as much as I did. Their unreserved smiles, enthusiasm and the sense of unconditional fellowship will be forever etched in my memory.

There seems an unfortunate inevitability to such scenes in the face of modern globalization and the onset of tourism. There is such a fleeting time in which it’s possible to witness such dignified scenes unmolested by the economics of curiosity and nostalgia. As one of the well-meaning foreigners to catch a glimpse before its charm and authenticity are relegated to the past (or tourist brochures) I cannot but be uncomfortably aware of the decline that my camera and I may have contributed to. Accepting this inevitability, my appreciation for this brief visit and the locals I interacted with is absolute. I can only hope that I gave as much as I received in terms of good will and that these photos do more to honor their way of life now than to contrive it.

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