Curiosity #53: Festival Kalimantan


I wandered in alone. It was 10pm at night and, under campus lamplight, my pasty skin made me look especially lonely. Naturally, I paid no heed, and to the best of my ability stood relaxed among the crowds.

Kalimantan is an island previously known as Borneo, located directly to the North of Java. It was this island’s culture that was being celebrated on the night I attended. The entirety of the festival had been erected in a campus parking lot. Most of the attendees were students: punk youths – many of them with tattoos and Korean-pop-styled hair. They smirked sidelong as I entered the festival grounds, amused that a white woman might want to enter the scene unaccompanied.

Near where I stood, tented stands opened their curtains for visitors who wished to explore various elements of Kalimantan culture: clothing, food, weaves, fabric. Kalimantan, while now known among the Javanese for its mining industry and decadent obsession with wealth and sin, is also a place of lush rainforest reserves, and a place where traditional culture remains preserved among forest-dwellers known as “The Dayak.”

I looked over the crowds at the main stage. No one danced or sang; in fact I noticed no authority at all. And yet the festival lot was crammed with seated bodies facing toward the spot-lit podium, as if something spectacular might emerge at any moment. What were they waiting for? I waited for several minutes and gave up. Convinced that the dance and music performances had already finished, content enough that I had seen the art and idol displays, I decided to leave.

As I turned around, a young man beside me struck up conversation. And so I stayed. The young man’s name was Ade. He was a graduating senior at my host university and a native of Kalimantan. Since he worked at one of the festival stands, he offered to show me around. Grateful to have a well-meaning guide, I agreed to his offer and followed. As I worked my way into the crowd, bumping between chests and backpacks, I kept a desperate eye on my new acquaintance, astonished at my own swiftness in befriending this stranger out of mere loneliness and curiosity.

Ade and I entered a tent of cultural artifacts. They were propped against the sides of the tent like decorations in a domestic space, replicating the walled interior of a Kalimantan Home. Among the artifacts were traditional musical instruments, and beside them: masks, authentic skulls of various animals. These hung from pegs like paintings. The skull of a cobra. A mysterious, large rodent. An orangutan. Was that a human?

Outside the tent, a group of young men in the corner giggled at the sight of my white skin. “Hello, Miss,” they said when they noticed my eyes upon them. One of the young men hoisted a plastic cup into the air and grinned. “Have you tried this?” he asked, giving the cup to a standing member of the crowd. A chain delivery passed the cup in my direction, and at last the cup of yellow liquid arrived in my hand. A greasy-haired drunk nudged my side. “Try,” he said.

So I did. It seemed a quarter of the audience watched as I, the White Alien, tipped back the beverage. The alcohol was strong, and reminded me of the fermented palm wine I had tasted in West Africa. “What is this?” I asked Ade. He said the drink was made from rice, and was generated through an underground process that turned natural sugars into alcohol. “Delicious” I announced in Indonesian to the group of young men who gave me the drink. The young men cheered in pleasure. “Traditional beverage from Kalimantan,” they said, shooting me a thumbs up.

The closing ceremony came at last. University students from Kalimantan who had volunteered to partake in the festival events now emerged in traditional Kalimantan attire. The men were bare-chested, their skin sweating through tattoos painted on in black. Below the waist they wore loincloths that hung in long strips beneath their legs, with their bottoms half-exposed in a way that would make Tarzan blush. The women were more modest although just as striking, with chest-plates adorned by colored tassels.

The costumed students sat in a ring around a clearing in front of the stage. An old woman sat at the head, announcing thanks to supporters and to God. It was almost midnight. Most of the students in the audience now were men, and the only women present were unveiled: clearly more liberated than their conservative female peers who had gone home hours ago to satisfy curfew.

The closing ceremony ended and something else began. I had no sense of what was coming, but I could feel a new energy take hold of the youths as the elders filed out. The students who had been sitting rose to their feet. They mingled, disbanded, regrouped. I was pulled into a series of photos in which I was asked to pose again and again between students tipsy on fermented rice. Then the music began. Drums. Gongs. The rhythms were simple, and people started moving.

Music rang at a pulse from every end of the festival. The musicians joined to form four or five nuclei of traditional Kalimantan instruments, around which students gathered with drinks in hand. Some of them began to grow drunk. Young men crouched near the ground, beating gongs the size of SUV tires. There were taller drums that lent an ominous thrum, tambourines that hissed. One person riffed on his electric guitar. Some of the men and women formed a dance train, and I watched as they held on to each other’s shoulders and marched around the music as if engrossed in some mystical churning.

One young woman grabbed hold of my hand and tried to pull me into the train. At first I tried to resist, but then I looked at Ade, who nodded encouragingly. And suddenly I was in, dancing freely for perhaps the first time since I had arrived in Yogya. In daylight, Muslim culture strictly scolds against immodest movements of the hips. At night, particularly this night — in light of the celebration — the students allowed themselves to move freely, get drunk and kick at the night air. Touch the sweating neck of the opposite sex.

As the dance train gathered energy, the participants began to chant. “Hey! Ha!” they sang. “Hey! Ha!” Surely, I thought, there were other exclamations that could accompany this music. These students were members of the most prestigious university in Indonesia; no doubt they could invent some lyrics that were less — primitive. But the “Hey”s and the “Ha”s did not vary. In fact they never missed a beat, and I realized that despite humanity’s obsession with words and my purpose here of teaching expression through complex language – there were no words that could capture such besieging, simple, pulse-ridden revelry as those two otherwise meaningless sounds: “Hey. Ha.” Repeat. Refrain. I chanted them and became more human.

A campus television crew stopped me mid-dance and asked me what I felt about the festival. I told them I was grateful to be a part of a culture so deeply embedded in history. Ade and I moved from dance circle to dance circle as the movements became more riotous and the expressions more drunk and joyous. People jumped up and down, swayed from side to side. The animalistic nature of it all increased with each cycle of song.

At the center of the parking lot was the largest music circle of all. It surrounded a tall traditional idol propped atop an office desk dragged from the nearest academic building. Three young men stood atop the desk and waved the Kalimantan flag, crying into the night like territorial birds. Again I was pulled in to the circle, and for some time the color of my skin was forgotten.

The music stopped as the musicians gathered rest. Then it started again, and the students came together to dance and sweat. This went on for an inestimable amount of time, never getting tiresome despite the monotony of the ebb and flow, spurring on a feeling of release I had not felt in months. Primitive it might have been, although what shame was there in it? In the face of primitivity was honesty that — I realized — was deeply necessary, and in it too was the confirmation that I (like the rest) was just another member of the wild.

Standing with a student from Kalimantan after the closing ceremony

Standing with a student from Kalimantan after the closing ceremony

3 thoughts on “Curiosity #53: Festival Kalimantan

  1. Sounds like quite a night. Reminds me of the “Village People” concert mommy and went to back in the early ’80’s, except the constant thrumming of “Y-M-C-A” took the place “Hey, Ha.” Still, evidence of a pretty primitive culture–at least until the Beastie Boys came along. By the way, you really know how to tell a story and create atmosphere. You should send this in to Java News or Yogya Yodeler, or whatever newspapers they have in your area. A pleasure to read. Love, Mr. Daddy

  2. Julie, I was recently watching a film in which an actor in it reminded me of you, and I thought ‘what is Julie up to these days?’ The work you’re doing is fascinating and the blog posts are fun to read. Glad I found your blog and glad your continuing to hone your remarkable skills. Stay well!

    1. Trovato! So nice to hear from you. I dread asking which actor reminded you of me, and especially of the person I was in high school (I have a strangely vivid memory of – in my usual high-strung state one morning – spilling coffee all over the floor next to your desk and then, clearly hyped up on caffeine, fumbling with my papers while you laughed). I can’t imagine an actress clumsy enough to be on screen, and am now concerned about the low-caliber B movies you must be watching. Actually, now that I’m teaching a writing class to college freshmen, I often think of your class my Senior year and how it changed my life. I had my students write break-up letters as a warm-up exercise, but – because the Indonesian culture is so friendly – the letters were terribly unexciting. I also just had my students send letters to Marvel, who just came out with a new female Muslim superhero. I believe the series is already on the market, and – since it will be some time before that (or anything) reaches where I am in Indonesia, I would love to hear your opinion on it. I hope you’re still writing, and I hope your son still wants to be Superman.

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