‘Tomorrow, I will take you to have lunch next to the river’, said Marwan, 57, with a cigarette in one hand, exhaling a steady stream of smoke. He had been smoking two and a half packs of kreteks, Indonesia’s clove cigarettes, every day for twenty years. It was the night, and we had an interesting day, visiting one of Marwan’s initiatives, an organic fertiliser production facility. In reality, it was a modest shed with a covered plastic pail containing fermenting seaweed. Enzymes were stored in small plastic bottles on a table that was really a few wooden planks. To test the organic fertiliser, it was sprayed weekly onto a small padi field. The grasses of the rice plants quivered in the breeze. He had then brought us to see a traditional medicinal operation, with medicines made from cumin, snakehead fish and sea worms, used to treat a host of ailments and illnesses, with anecdotal success stories.
I had a feeling that it was going to be a special lunch. Though Marwan was our tour guide by name, he was a friend in spirit. Marwan was not tall, though he cut a lean figure. He almost always wore a cap, covering his greying hair. During the day, he wore a soft collared t-shirt and board shorts. Now, it was night, and he wore a thin cotton shirt, a mysterious hump protruding from his back, which was never mentioned in our conversations. He spoke about books, about the environment, about water conservation and other subjects, but not much about himself. We were sitting outside the hotel room. The hotel rooms had a generous amount of outdoor seating for smokers.
Indeed, lunch was something special. We were the first guests of the villagers of Kampung Lintang, and many gathered around to witness the spectacle of the ‘visitors’ having lunch. More so than us, two Singaporeans, visiting a rustic kampung and sampling traditional fare, it was one of few encounters of the villagers with the outside world. The people of Belitung had their own calendar separate from the rest of the world, which begins in April, and marks the agricultural seeding and harvesting cycle. But this was not to say that they were completely isolated. The previous night, the villagers had made a bonfire to celebrate the incoming year with the rest of the world.
The festive lunch included catfish, kampung vegetables, and sambal chilli fish, eaten with rice and washed down with sweet coffee. We waited for the coffee grains to settle to the bottom of the cup before drinking it. We had driven on the road for about an hour before turning right into a dirt path surrounded by oil palms. It looked like we were going into an oil palm plantation, but in the middle of this oil palm plantation, a simple structure was erected of wooden rods and planks, a kind of resting area, providing shade from the tropical sun. While we were slightly sunburnt from being outdoors all day, Marwan’s skin was a dark brown, protecting him from the sun.
After lunch, we had a brief spot of rowing on the River Lenggang in Belitung. Thankfully, there was little chance of meeting a crocodile, for crocodiles were found in the brackish waters, where the river meets the sea. The river water was still, though not clear. Advancing forward through the narrow water passages, our short but sturdy wooden paddles were sometimes caught in river weeds, and we had to steer away from the tall riverine vegetation, their long emerald grass-like leaves were studded with tiny thorns. I was beginning to sweat from the hard work of paddling. We were rowing with the people from the kampung, to check on their fishing contraption. The women and children stayed on land.
We were careful not to capsize the simple boats. The boats were simple but effective, fashioned from hard plastic barrels cut in half and fastened together with simple nuts and bolts. White plastic pipes were tied to the boats with thin rope, to help keep them afloat. My mobile phone was safe in a ziplock bag, stashed away in my backpack. I sat with my legs cross-legged, my knees pressed against its sides, and kept my back straight, not wanting to destabilise the boat. It worked, and we got to the fishing trap without getting wet. The villagers paddled comfortably and chattered away in a local dialect. Had they caught any fish? We would soon find out.
With two of them lifting some wooden poles, the net was raised to cheers and smiles all around. Something like a spluttering of fish flipped and squirmed, their silver bodies wriggling, glinting in the sun as water splashed from the net. That was today’s haul, which would be used for New Year’s Day dinner for the village of Lintang.
- In 2013, the population of Belitung was 170,782.
- Banka-Belitung’s literacy rate is 96.41%. Further, school participation up to 12 years old is 99.25%.
- However, in Belitung, only 32.17% of students go on from elementary to junior high school. The percentage of those who complete (high school?) education in Belitung is 8.26%.
- Belitung’s regional poverty line in 2009 was Rp334,165.
- Less than half of the population of Belitung are employed- the rest are made up of students (17.72%), housewives (24.74%) and those who are unemployed (22.67%).