The canals of Banjarmasin

Perhaps Banjarmasin is an amphibian.

On land, I found it like any other Indonesian town, with streaming motorcycles, markets overflowing with stuffed toys and thousands of aneka gorengan (deep fried snacks) carts.

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However, once I ventured into one of the town’s hundreds of canals, the capital of South Kalimantan revealed its true character.

When the engines of my small boat began humming, it was like the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s frog jumping into an ancient pond.

“Foreigner! Foreigner!” a child screamed at the top of her voice. The message was relayed from one backyard to the next, spreading like wildfire. What I had planned to be a one-hour trip for Rp 50,000 with my boatman turned into the greatest egotistical trip of my life.

For never had I imagined I had such great capacity to bring happiness to others. The residents of the canal bank houses came out in their hordes. Naked children, bent-backed grannies, cool-vibe oozing soccer teenagers, toned young males made of copper and beaming pregnant mothers.

At my very sight, the children became ecstatic. The boys jumped from their backyards, creating waves that obscured the otherwise perfect reflection of the houses on the canal water. Kids jumped in all around me, water splashed everywhere. They swam as fast as they could to my boat, hoping to touch me just once or even better, to give me a high-five.

The stronger boys managed to climb into my boat and not knowing what to do once they were there, just gave me a big smile and fell back into the water. The younger ones screamed out, shaking their heads, closing their eyes in utter delight. The girls and the older people folded their arms and greeted me with big smiles.

There was no doubt! What a wonderful person I was. I didn’t know how to react. It was a sudden attack of innocence on my senses.

I wanted to join in the ecstasy, somersault and dive into the murky water and then swim around with the jovial children. But I had a contract with the boatman. So I just waved and waved.

“He waved at me, he waved at me!” neighborhood voices exclaimed. They were in raptures. I almost felt like I could make the world a better place.

Once things calmed down, I could marvel at the endless stream of houses on the banks of the canals, leisurely hanging their scrawny wooden legs in the water. Houses, mosques, madrassas, grocery shops, furniture stalls, all built with patches of wood, the same color as the canals, nailed to each other.

Some of the houses had lost their footing and were slowly merging with the canals, looking like old men slowly crouching for a hot spring bath. Colorful coffins waited patiently in the workshops along the canal.

"Here, mornings began with the boatmen and boatwomen waking up the owners of the gasoline stalls by the canals."

Canals, canals and more canals - some as wide as a soccer field pretending to be a river, some as narrow as a log of wood. They connected here and there creating a maze, quietly going about the business of moving all the muddy water from the washing of the Meratus Mountains, closely watched over by roaming patrols of hyacinths and water lilies.

Here, mornings began with the boatmen and boatwomen waking up the owners of the gasoline stalls by the canals, first by calling their names, then clapping and then a friendly shove with the oars.

Soon, Gauguin’s women came out from the backyards of each house and lathered their whole bodies and mouths sitting on the small jetties built from their house, for the women of Banjarmasin love to shower and brush their teeth at the same time. The elderly man came out too and hundreds of eager fish would splash out, begging them for food in the fisheries built on the canals, because it was breakfast time in Banjarmasin.

As the day progressed, the canals became the highways, moving people in all directions, tiny heads in white hijab going to school, ducking every time their boat passed under a bridge. An endless flow of motorcycles and helmets keep on passing the bridges; from the boats below, they looked like chess pawns on roller blades.

The canal fairies of Banjarmasin, the colorful old women selling bananas, guava, rice and other supplies on canoes, rowed from door to door looking for custom. Throughout the day, elderly women sat facing the canoe holding a fishing rod.

A thousand and one buckets tied with long strings, built to fetch water from the canals, swung from each backyard like pendulums, keeping time in the canals of Banjarmasin.

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