Friday, November 18

Pangkalan Bun

Neither of the two small airlines that have scheduled service to Pangkalan Bun seems to have any organized way to buy tickets; eventually, armed with wads of rupiah, we queue at the counter outside the domestic terminal of Soekarno-Hatta.

Two cheerfully cavalier eighteen-year-olds attempt to write up paper tickets. Outside, when a gust of wind makes a sandwich-board fall to the ground with a crack, the entire counter staff disappear under their desks in reflex. I have a sense of foreboding.

The airline we are taking has been decertified in the EU due to alleged poor maintenance, and recently one of their turbo-props crashed into a rice field after in-flight engine failure on a similar route. The other airline is reputed worse. There are ferries from the north coast of Java to the south coast of Kalimantan, but they take a day, and are, if anything less confidence-inspiring (the Senopati Nusantara sank with 600 on-board in 2006 while crossing from Kumai to Semarang.)

In the event, we board an aged but functional 737 (from the cabin fittings, a discard from Canadian Airlines, which ceased to function c. 2001), feeling cheated of drama. Our fellow-passengers are returning home to Kalimantan laden with the best Jakarta has to offer -- enormous buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, or trays of glazed Dunkins Donuts. Buffeted by chop, we fly north into towering cumuli stacked over the Java Sea.

An hour later, we come into Iskandar PKN airport, a tail wind driving sheets of rain onto the tarmac. The ground staff show up with a pallet of umbrellas, unfurling one for each of us just in time as we disembark -- no aerobridge, no problem. Masses of dark clouds start from the tops of the trees and cover the sky, the wipers of the old Toyota taxi slap time to the driver's pop and we set off to find our hotel. The town is spread out, a series of low rise compounds along roads cut into the jungle, many occupied by the army, red cockerels strutting on the brigade insignias on green-painted walls, the street dividers immaculate in black-and-white.

These parts are under severe petrol rationing; mile long lines of cars and trucks have formed outside every pump. Most people have left their vehicles parked overnight in line, hoping to get an allocation when the station opens in the morning.

The hotel is called the Blue Kecubung -- the blue amethyst. The term can refer both to a trumpet-shaped flower, and to the mineral. Since the flower belongs to the Datura family, and all parts of the plant, particularly the seeds, are poisonous, we are hoping it is the gem that the hotel aspires to live up to.

Deep at night a ferocious thunderstorm unleashes even more rain. I wake from the doors and windows shaking up a fearsome racket, the a/c unit mounted outside threatening to be torn off the wall by the mauling gale. By morning it has blown itself off, and the school across the street is noisy with the drums of military children marching into assembly.

We get a ride to Kumai. The waterfront is dotted with 3-storey boxlike buildings with no doors and no windows. They turn out to be swallow nesting-houses, a big business.

Bird's nest soup is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. A few species of cave swifts are renowned for building the saliva nests used to produce the texture of this soup. When dissolved in water, the saliva from the nests turns gelatinous. These nests could well be the most expensive animal products consumed by humans, the choicest types selling for USD 10000 a kilo in Hong Kong, a bowl's-worth from the more common varieties easily going for USD 30-100.

From the blurb accompanying the sales pitch of a Bird's nest vendor:

Birds nest has been regarded as highly nutritional as wild ginseng for thousand of years. It is a very valuable natural tonic due to its health promoting qualities. Birds nest is made from Swiftlets in the world; three species produced Edible-nest. Some of these Swiftlets are feeding on sea-products, while some feeding on flying insects or worms from the wild jungle. Birds nest is rich in protein with a slight present of calcium and iron. The protein contents in Edible-nest are more easily absorbs by human body. Research has found that birds nests help to strengthen our body resistance against diseases. It is one of the best tonics for all age groups due to its high nutritive value to human body. If taken regularly, it can help to improve blood circulation, relieve coughing, asthma and maintain good complexion.

Birds nest is expensive because its supply is low and collection work is tedious. It is the nest built from the saliva of male esculent swift after feeding on insects. The salivary gland is particularly developed in the male esculent swift and it produces large amounts of sticky saliva like that of silk. The male would build a nest on steep cliffs and deep caverns near the sea which becomes edible birds nest after solidifying. The female would lay and hatch her eggs in it.

Edible birds nest can be divided into 3 types -- Bashi Cave Nest, imperial/house birds nest (i.e. White birds nest), and hairy birds nest (i.e. Black birds nest). Bashi Cave Nest is the most nutritious and the most expensive.

We learn from Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke that at the time of the Opium Wars, junks from Hainan stopped at Great Nicobar to pick up nests collected by local tribes:

This was when the Serang revealed to us that the island was not new to him; in his youth, while working on a Hainanese junk, he had come here many times. It was called Great Nicobar and it was by no means a deserted wilderness; on the far side of the mountain, down by the water, there were some surprisingly rich villages.
How so? we said.
He pointed at the sky, where flocks of swift-flying birds were wheeling and soaring. See those birds, he said, the islanders call them hinlene; they revere them because they are the source of their wealth. Those creatures look insignificant but they make something that is of immense value. What?
Nests. People pay a lot of money for their nests.
You can imagine the effect this had on us three Hindusthanis! Your grandfather and Jodu and I all thought the Serang was making gadhas out of us.
Where in the world would people pay to buy birds’ nests? we said. China, he said. In China they boil and eat them. Like daal? Yes. Except that in China, it’s the most expensive food of all.
This seemed incredible to us, so we turned to Ah Fatt: could this possibly be true?
Yes, he said, if these were the nests that were called ‘yan wo’ in Canton, then they were indeed of great value, as good a currency as any that existed in eastern waters – depending on their quality they were worth their weight in either silver or gold. A single chest of nests could fetch the equivalent of eight troy pounds of gold in Canton.
Our first thought was that we were rich, and that all we had to do was to find the nests and scoop them up. But Serang Ali quickly put us right. The birds nested in enormous caverns, he said, and each cave belonged to a village. If we walked in and helped ourselves we would never leave the island alive. Before doing anything we would have to seek out a village headman – omjah karruh they called them there – to ask permission, arrange a proper division of the proceeds and so on.

(So much for Tagore's view of Europe as the origin of the pestilence of mercantilism. It seems the subaltern can source, and the habildar haggle.)

In Borneo, the gathering of nests used to be centered around the lime caverns of Gomantong and Niah. As the Chinese become prosperous, demand is soaring, and purpose-built nesting-houses are sprouting up in coastal towns that border the jungle, since the birds flock in such places. This has become an extraordinary industry, and local towns have been completely transformed by the activity. The nests are mostly exported to Hong Kong, which has become the centre of the world trade, and from there they are retailed to mainland China. It has been estimated that swallow nests now account for 0.5% of Indonesia's GDP. A vibrant counterfeiting industry has also sprung up side by side, so it is apparently prudent to ask to see the nest before it is cooked for you.

It is mid morning as we climb into our klotok. Past the nesting houses, past the docks, past the chimney of the power plant rising out of the jungle, where the Sekonyer river empties into the Kumai.


Blogger pjesa said...

Interesting as always!

12:39 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home