500 metres per hour…

If you take a short cut through the forest, it’s only about 500 metres’ walk from the Visitor Centre at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan to the Orchid House (Rumah Anggrek).

But this morning it took me nearly an hour. There were lots of distractions along the way…


Forest floor

I spend a lot of time at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan looking upwards, craning my neck to see birds, monkeys, fruit, flowers and treetops in the forest canopy.

But the ground below is sometimes uneven, and very often slippery, so I also spend a lot of time looking down at the forest floor. Sometimes that view is every bit as interesting!


Owa wa

Hylobates muelleri‘ is known in English as ‘Mueller’s Bornean Gibbon’. But I much prefer the Indonesian name ‘Owa wa‘, which is a near-exact transcription of this gibbon’s distinctive call.

This primate is endemic to the island of Borneo. It’s classed as ‘endangered’ – mostly because of the continuing loss of its forest habitat.

I saw this one (an adult female) this morning at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan. She was a little distant, and I had to photograph her through the branches and foliage of another tree. Hopefully there’ll be more opportunities to see, hear and photograph Owa wa before the year is out.


Lutung merah

The Lutung Merah (Presbytis rubicunda) is variously known in English as the maroon langur, maroon leaf monkey, or red leaf monkey. It’s unique to Borneo and the neighbouring little island of Karimata. They eat leaves, fruit and seeds. Their bodies only grow to 60cm – but with an extra 80cm of tail attached. Although their range is limited, the species is not (currently) regarded as ‘threatened’.

There certainly seems to be quite a few of them at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan, even close to the visitor centre. I’m told that they are just one of 12 species of primates which live in the local forest.


Anggrek du jour – Thecostele alata

Thecostele alata, a lovely terrestrial orchid which can be found from Northeastern India across to The Philippines, including East Kalimantan, where this one was collected for the Koleksi Anggrek (Orchid Collection) at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan (Balikpapan Botanical Garden).

I photographed this one just yesterday. Every week there are new and different orchids in bloom. Yesterday there were 13 new ones!


For those who care about these things, it’s (currently) the only species in the genus Thecostele.


Anak burung, Pak John!

I was making some photos in the ‘Belian Garden’ (medicinal plants) at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan (Balikpapan Botanical Gardens), when one of my workmates beckoned me over to show a perfect little bird’s nest hidden inside one of the bushes. “Anak burung, Pak John!” The two tiny little featherless things hadn’t even opened their eyes.


He said the parents were out getting food, and sure enough, in a nearby tree was a ‘Karuang‘ (Sooty-headed bulbul, Pycnonotus aurigaster), with some tasty morsel in its beak, anxiously waiting for us to go away from the imperfectly-hidden nest.


I checked on the chicks’ development over the next week, and it was amazing how quickly they transformed into something more recognisably birdlike. But, two days ago, the nest was empty. No sign of any violence (e.g. from a cat), but surely they weren’t big enough to fly independently, so I fear the worst for them….


The Pemulung of Piyungan

As part of our most recent month of training in Indonesian language and culture at the Wisma Bahasa school in Jogjakarta, we got to go on two half-day ‘field trips’. Because we had already been all the ‘standard’ tours on offer at least once (the Kraton, Borobodur, Prambanan, Pasar Beringhardjo, Kota Gede, Imogiri etc) we were asked where else we’d like to go.


So (of course!) we nominated the Tempat Pembuangan Akhir (TPA) – the local garbage disposal facility and landfill site. After some efforts to dissuade us (“It smells REALLY bad!, you know” “It’s muddy, filthy, and unsanitary!” “You’ll need to wear a mask”) it was agreed, and Mas Anof kindly consented to accompany us there.


The TPA has been in operation near the village of Piyungan, about 16km southeast from central Jogja, since 1995. The site, which covers 13 hectares, is the final site of waste disposal for the city of Jogjakarta, as well as the adjacent Kabupaten (districts) of Bantul and Sleman.

It was constructed in three stages, with a total planned capacity of some 1,300,000 cubic metres. That’s a big heap of garbage. Due to the sheer volume of accumulated waste at the site, and also because of its location amongst some (rather scenic) limestone karst formations, it’s known as the ‘Gunung Sampah’ (the ‘Garbage Mountain’).


In addition to the many people who live and work in the area, the TPA is home to hundreds of cattle, who feast on the waste vegetable matter, leaves and tree prunings that get dumped there. They roam freely over the site, and are remarkably healthy-looking – considering their diet and habitat. They are owned by the families who live and work at the site.

One owner told me that they sell the meat from the cattle at the public markets. We were instantly attracted to vegetarianism.


People and cattle mingle freely across the site, seemingly oblivious to each others presence.


A steady procession of trucks and utilities arrive, each loaded to the brim (and above) with garbage.


As each load is dumped, groups of workers arrive to sort through the load, looking for bottles, recyclable plastic and paper – and anything else that might be of value. They are usually referred to as pemulung (scavengers), but it may be more respectful to call them pengumpul barang bekas (collectors of used goods).

I don’t know how many pemulung currently work at the TPA – but back in 2007 there were 225.


They only get paid for what they collect, so they work with speed and efficiency, without a lot of ‘workplace chatter’. There are roughly equal numbers of men and women, and (pleasingly) we didn’t see any children. Most of them wear the conical Javanese ‘caping’ hat as protection from sun and rain, and most are very sensibly kitted out in gumboots. Many wear gloves, but all carry a short pole with a hook on the end to pick up recyclable plastic and paper, which is then dropped into a large bamboo basket.


Each pemulung gives her or his collected stuff each week to a particular ‘skipper’ (juragan), each of whom may ‘oversee’ between 10 and 20 pemulung. The juragan recruits the workers, many of whom come from Pantai Baronan, on the far east coast of the Jogjakarta region.


jogjakarta_tpa_20161215_105We were told that a good pemulung can make a ‘reasonable’ amount of money in a day, enough that they don’t have to work every day to get enough for subsistence living. And if you didn’t have to work there every day – why would you?

We found out later that they can earn around Rp600,000 to Rp700,000 per month (around AU$70 – just over $2 per day). That’s if they are fit and healthy, which is not always the case.


There is no sick leave, superannuation or holiday pay. Possessing no capital resources, little or no formal education, and no control over the prices they are paid for their work, they have little or no opportunity to escape from this workplace.

The work is also dangerous. On 21 February 2005, an ‘avalanche’ at the another landfill site (Leuwigajah, near Bandung), buried 71 houses and killed some 143 pemulung and others at the site.


At first we were quite reticent about photographing the people at work, thinking that they might feel shamed or disrespected by being pictured doing such a dirty and menial activity. The negative connotations of ‘poverty porn’ came to mind.


But no-one declined when asked to be photographed, and some seemed to rather enjoy the attention.


Mostly, though, everyone was so focussed on their work that they largely ignored us, apart from responding to the usual greetings, and asking the ‘where-are-you-from’ type questions.


The pemulung actually provide an important service. It’s estimated that 20-30% of the waste dumped at the TPA is recycled (including that portion which is eaten by the cattle). Without this reduction to the volume of waste the landfill would have exceeded capacity several years ago.


It’s good to see what happens to our waste after we throw it out, and it was a fascinating, shocking, thought-provoking, outrage-inducing experience to visit the Jogja TPA. And yes, it is a smelly place, and our clothes (and especially shoes) needed professional cleaning before they could be worn again.



During another very enjoyable month in Jogjakarta, we went away for one extended weekend to visit the city of Semarang, located on the north coast of Central Java. We were in great company, accompanied by Kadek and Roro (who are, in equal measure, our guides, teachers and friends) and by Martine and Juris (who are fellow volunteers, fellow students – and also friends). It turned out to be (as always) an interesting and rewarding excursion. Here’s a few highlights…


Our drive up there skirted around several volcanoes, including Merapi and and Merbabu.


Semarang is the fifth biggest city in Indonesia (after Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung and Medan). Although the city proper ‘only’ has a population of 1.8 million, the greater urban area totals around six million.  We arrived at the start of a long weekend, and it seemed like all six million of them were on the road. (Yes, those balloons are on a motorbike.)


There is a sizeable Chinese Indonesian community in Semarang, and a number of examples of Chinese architecture, and not just in the ‘Chinatown’ area of town. The Sam Poo Kong temple dates back to the beginning of the 15th Century CE, when the Chinese Muslim explorer Admiral Zheng He visited the area. He (He) prayed in a little cave, and a small temple was established on the location. It is now a site used by people of various faiths – Confucian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, while retaining a very Chinese feel to the architecture and artworks. Over the centuries it has endured many cycles of neglect and renovation, and was restored to its present impressive condition just ten years ago.


The Tho Tee Kong temple (also called Dewa Bumi) is used by people praying to the earth god Tu Di Gong – who will “provide fertile soil, abundant harvest and a wealth of natural resource diversity”.


The temples (klenteng) have all been built around a central paved square. One one side is a large stage area, used for all kinds of performances and ceremonies. While we were there, a large team of young Danish gymnasts arrived to put on an acrobatic show for the bemused locals.


We visited each of the temples on site, attracting some curious glances, and (as always) great interest from the children.


When we arrived at the Klenteng Tay Kak Sie, preparations were under way for a ceremony to mark the seventh anniversary of the death of prominent member of the community. A model house, complete with cars, staff, air conditioners, satellite dish etc was constructed, all from paper, to be burnt later that day. Meanwhile temple attendants prepared an elaborate meal for the spirits.


An oil flame candle burnt in a bowl beside the shrine.


In another part of the temple are shrines for several bodhisattvas and guardian deities – this one to the ‘minor’ Taoist god Kong De Zun Wan (known in Hokkien as Kong Tik Djoen Ong).


Displayed in alcoves along one wall are engraved tablets dedicated to the memory of prominent members of the community.


Not far from the Klenteng Tay Kak Sie is Kota Tua, the old Dutch centre of town, with a number of fine (and not-so-fine) examples of colonial architecture.  (The centre of town has long since moved to another area, which is less prone to flooding.) The Immanuel Protestant Church of Western Indonesia (generally known as Gereja Blenduk) was first built in 1753, and is the oldest church in Central Java.


Beside the old church is a little lane lined with about a dozen stalls. They call it an ‘antique market’, but in reality it’s a wonderfully eclectic mix of genuinely old stuff, artwork of variable quality, broken and/or obsolete equipment (anyone need an instamatic camera or a Gestetner machine?), quirky oddities – and some tacky junk. All set out against a backdrop of attractively run-down warehouses and offices. All very photogenic…


These old cameras are now mute (they’re cameras, after all…) but, if they could speak, I’m sure they’d have many interesting stories about the exotic scenes they had captured…


We have developed quite an interest in children’s games and toys in Indonesia, with many traditional games (e.g. kite-flying, spinning tops) still very popular. Karen was delighted by these little toys, which may be unique to this area (Does anyone know more about them? The stallholder himself did not know much). You wind a piece of string around the wheel, and the figure is somehow propelled forwards when you pull on it


The owner of this stall seems to have made a point of hanging a printed photo of former President Suharto beside another of Hitler and Mussolini. ‘Old Order’ and ‘New Order’?


Another stall had a great mingling of European ceramics and Javanese statues and other artworks. The four figures above would be immediately identifiable to any local. They are Semar, Gareng, Petruk and Bagong – the four Punakawans who are only found in the Indonesian version of the Mahabarata epic. They appear clownlike, but they are themselves gods, and are deeply profound observers of human folly – especially Semar (on the left in the photo above) – who is the father of the others.


After a rather nice seafood lunch at the local branch of the Rumah Makan Cianjur franchise we went to visit the Lawang Sewu. This compound of four elegant white colonial buildings is the former headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Railway Company. In the Javanese language, Lawang Sewu means “one thousand doors”, and there certainly are a LOT of them – though perhaps not quite 1,000! The central courtyard is adorned with frangipani trees and one huge and very old mango tree.

Construction of the complex began in 1904, in an architectural style known as ‘New Indies’, apparently a version of Dutch Rationalism, transitional between 19th century classicist and the modernist styles of the early 20th century.


The Japanese occupied the building during the 2nd World War, and used the basement of one building as a prison. Several executions took place there. Later in the war there was a battle between Dutch and Japanese troops in the tunnels below the building, in which many died. As a result of this history, the building has a strong reputation for being haunted, including by at least one headless spirit. (Indonesians seem to commonly believe in ghosts, and enjoy being terrified of them!)

The basement is closed off at present, supposedly for renovations, but I got at least one ghost photo upstairs (who bore a striking resemblance to our friend and fellow volunteer Martine!)


A nearby church spire viewed from the top of the Lawang Sewu.


Along the lane of the Kota Tua ‘Antique Market’.


Street art on a wall near Lewang Sewu.