On the Kahayan River of Kalimantan

Feb 14, 2023 | | | By Rio Heykhal Belvage

Photo: Rio Heykhal Belvage

A settlement in Central Kalimantan | 2,000 words | Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Dan Benjamin

As an anthropology researcher well-used to exiting my everyday life and heading into areas I’ve never visited previously, coming face-to-face with strangers and getting to know them, sometimes a feeling of longing rises up in me. A longing for fieldwork sites, for the places I’ve been, and for the warm friendships with people I’ve met. For the gusts of cold wind in the mountains of Papua. And the smell of freshly-tapped rubber on a small island off the east coast of Sumatra. For being aboard a boat while watching the sun sink on a river of utterly-clear water in West Kalimantan. Likewise for the most recent place I ventured to, the lower Kahayan River in Central Kalimantan.

An anthropologist isn’t so different from a regular traveller: both set aside their daily routines and set out for new places. The difference is, if travellers return home with photos of themselves, and perhaps videos of the place they’ve been to, an anthropologist carries along as provisions a trove of cultural knowledge. Every time I go to do field research I feel at once spirited and overwhelmed. For me this work is like a free holiday, though it also means I have to leave my family. I return home with souvenirs in the form of field notes.

An anthropologist will have difficulties completing their research if they’re not accepted in the social environment they’re studying. So when first arriving in a new place, they need to carefully build up relations with the people they meet. Every place and community will have its own challenges.

My first time in Central Kalimantan, I took a plane from Yogyakarta and landed at Tjilik Riwut Airport in the late afternoon. I was lucky enough to be on a scholarship provided by a partnership between my university, Universitas Gadjah Mada, and the University of Helsinki, something which had made it possible for me to continue to study Anthropology. After a few days in the city of Palangkaraya, coordinating with my supervisor and visiting a research institute at a university there, introducing myself and obtaining some information about environmental issues in the region, my real adventure began.

I was to visit settlements of Dayak people around three hours from Palangkaraya, in the lower Kahayan. I rode in a minibus big enough for five or six people, paying 80,000 rupiah, around $5, for a one-way ride. Upon arriving in the area, I first went to stay in a village where my supervisor had already been several times to do research, and had already got to know the local people. That made it easier for me to familiarize myself with this new-to-me place. In those first days in that village my body began to adapt to the new environment. I got an itchy rash at this time, apparently from bathing using river water, which was polluted.

At a glance, the settlements along the lower Kahayan reminded me of villages in South Sumatra and the mountains of Papua. Most people’s houses are made of wood and have corrugated iron roofs. The settlements generally stand along the edge of the vast river: one can see from their layout the historical settlement patterns from before there were roads, when people utilized the river itself for transportation, a human adaptation to local geographic conditions. Each village has roughly 2,000 people. Day-to-day the Dayak people of the downriver Kahayan work as rubber tappers or employees of palm-oil companies, with a few in the service sector.

After three days living in this first village, I decided to go wandering. Carrying a large backpack, I moved from one village to another, always hitching a ride with some local person on a motorbike. For three weeks I moved from place to place like this. The travelling was to determine the location for my research. An awkward experience, frankly, even though I’ve already done a similar thing in several places on other Indonesian islands. An instinctive discomfort rises up, caused by a sharpened sense of isolation, given I’m in a foreign place and coming into contact with people totally unknown to me beforehand. An anxiety that comes from not knowing how people in an area will respond to my presence. I think that whoever finds themselves in a similar situation will have the same feeling. But from my previous experiences, I know that this feeling is only temporary, and needs to simply be endured until it passes.

Carrying a research permit from my university, the first place I always visit is the village administration office. In every case I introduce myself as a graduate student doing research for my PhD, and ask for permission to stay for several days in the home of a local person. 

Sungai 2
Source: Google Earth. Available at: https://earth.google.com/web/search/central+kalimantan/@-3.00206917,114.26720401,32.19969965a,44540.43941571d,35y,0h,0t,0r/data=CigiJgokCfkZckioRkRAEXpj6JzrQkRAGaodJnzPeRDAIW5-zqIMuRDA

On this trip there were no meaningful obstacles. No suspicious staring. The local people accepted my presence with open arms, although they were unable to conceal their astonishment. They asked me: what, really, was I, a college student from faraway Java island, wanting to do by coming alone to their village? The answer I gave was that I wanted to study the culture and history of the Dayak people. This was apparently sufficient, though they continued to ask why I needed to stay in the village, how I got here, how much my plane ticket cost, whether I had been in Kalimantan before, and if I had people I knew here, and so on. All these questions I answered happily, knowing that soon my turn would come to ask them things and hear their stories.

I finally decided to do my research in one particular village, to which I returned on a separate trip. I lived in the house of the village head who, by coincidence, had a teenage son. The reason I chose this village over others was simple: I had forged a friendship with the village head’s son during my first visit. From there, I built more relationships: with the man and son’s extended family and with the son’s friends, the local young people. Every time I do field research I always am most comfortable getting to know people of this age. Perhaps because my own age isn’t very far from theirs, so I feel I can be freer chatting about different things. With young people, if I’ve already come to know them, I can talk about anything and everything: I can hear their lamentations about work and love, and I can also hear their hopes and aspirations for the future.

I made a third trip to this village, and stayed for considerably longer. The locals this time had already come to consider me as an adopted child of the household I was staying at. Plausibly, that thinking arose from the adat traditions of the Dayak people – which can be seen in other cultures, too – which hold that when people eat and drink together, bathe from the same source of water and sleep under the same roof, such sameness of experience can blur the differences evident at the beginning so that the newcomer comes to be seen as a part of the community. Several times I heard a Dayak maxim: ‘If someone has drunk from the water of the Kahayan River, it’s beyond doubt they will return here.’ I don’t know if that’s true or not, but as an anthropologist, being treated as an adopted son made me grateful because it was a sign that my presence in their lives was no longer as ‘foreign’ as it was the first time I arrived. That made it easier to do research, as my interactions with the people of the village became much freer. But as a human being, it also warmed my heart, because I felt accepted and considered one of them. I felt like I had a new family in this place far from the place where I ordinarily spend my days. 

The only thing that continued to be an obstacle at times was language. This is something typically experienced by anthropologists who do their research outside their own culture. In day-to-day interactions, the local people used their mother-tongue, Ngaju, while I spoke Bahasa Indonesia. But after more than two months living in the village, this barrier, too, slowly went away. My ears became more familiar with the daily speech of the Dayak people, even though I could only speak a few words of it myself, like a small child just learning to talk. The frequency of hearing Dayak people speaking their own language made my brain automatically begin to identify particular words that were frequently repeated during their conversations. In my mind I would say, ‘Oh, so that means…’ In such a way I learnt phrases like ‘Ikau barakueh?’ ( ‘have you eaten?’), ‘narai?’ (‘what?’), and ‘hampeak?’ (‘when?’)

Several of the older people sometimes deliberately asked me something in Dayak, wanting to know the extent to which I had mastered their language. They often told me the Dayak language was easy to understand. The reality wasn’t like that, at least not for me. Still, if I didn’t know a word, they would happily act as my teachers. I could freely ask them anytime about whatever I did not know. I could ask about the names of vegetables that people were cooking with in their kitchens, about words that got used when people were lazing around at home or gathering with their neighbours out the front of their houses. They responded enthusiastically to all my questions. This sort of thing is impossible to do if the local people refuse to accept the coming of a stranger, or if that stranger doesn’t have the skills to build social relations in the place he has come to.

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Photo: Rio Heykhal Belvage

Through daily interactions and observations, I obtained a lot of new knowledge. From taking oral histories, I gained a picture of life for the Dayak people of the lower Kahayan in the past, and how it has changed in the present. If, long ago, they had planted paddy fields and tended their own rubber trees, now that pattern of life has been replaced by palm-oil plantations that are mostly owned by large corporations. The change in crops has not only altered how the Dayak people earn a livelihood but has brought deeper changes to their lifestyle and environment.

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© Rio Heykhal Belvage

English translation © Dan Benjamin

About The Author

Rio Heykhal Belvage

Rio Heykhal Belvage is an anthropological researcher. He is currently completing his doctoral studies at the University of Gadjah Mada, through a scholarship program supported by a partnership between Gadjah Mada and the University of Helsinki.

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