Dayak children in the river village of Sungai Sekonyer want to save the world. The village is comparatively prosperous with half of the adults working as river guides and rangers in the national park, and the other half working for the palm oil industry. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas
Indonesia, its people and their environment, are on the threshold of a major sea change. The capital of Jakarta, already overcrowded and toxically polluted, is now sinking into the ocean.
The proposed solution: Move the capital to the jungle of Borneo and start from scratch–the equivalent of moving Washington D.C. to the Florida Everglades (no wisecracks please about Washington already being a swamp.) This move to Borneo would install Indonesia’s government seat of power in a place where nature already rules.
Jakarta’s proposed move to Borneo is a metaphor, of sorts, for issues bedeviling many developing countries I have visited on my circumnavigation in Flying Fish. It is a familiar story of unchecked commercialism fueled by the overwhelming pressure of tourism complicated by too many mouths to feed resulting in the degradation of the natural resource and the quality of life of its inhabitants.
Jakarta is currently sinking at a rate 6.7 inches per year, and in 30 years it is estimated that 95 percent of North Jakarta will be submerged, according to a report in Singapore’s Business Insider. The rapid urbanization of 30 million people in Jakarta’s greater metropolitan area as well as the uncontrolled extraction of ground water for mega malls and luxury hotels is draining the Java aquifer. The result is that the ground under Jakarta caving in.
Critics say that dropping the government seat of Indonesia and 1.5 million new residents into a natural habitat like East Kalimantan, Borneo is a recipe for environmental disaster. The location of the proposed new city is surrounded by Kutai National Park, known as a sanctuary for some of the last wild orangutans in existence. Deforestation has already been a problem in Borneo for decades. Its rainforests have been slashed and burned to make way for gold mining and palm oil plantations. Between 1973 and 2015, Borneo lost some 16,000 square miles of its old-growth forests due to land clearing and burning. That deforestation has released a steady torrent of carbon emissions, along with other forms of pollution such as carbon monoxide, cyanide, and ammonia. In 2010, land clearing for palm oil plantations in Kalimantan alone released more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – about the same as the annual emissions of 28 million cars, according to the research journal Nature.
A wild orangutan mother nurses her baby with equal attention focused on potential threats from human visitors. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas
Everywhere Flying Fish has visited in Indonesia there have been similar conflicts of man and nature competing to survive.
In Bali, the long-tailed macaque monkeys are so integrated into human society that in places like the Uluwatu Temple they harass visitors for food (and sunglasses, jewelry, wallets) and then masturbate in front of tourists if they don’t get what they want.
From Lombok, Flying Fish sailed to the Gili Islands where the water demand for tourist resorts is so acute that small vessels work at all hours transporting tanks of fresh water from the mainland to the resorts.
At the remote island of Bawean in the Java Sea there is a stunning variety of coral species. Sadly, some of the most exquisite coral has been trampled underfoot by subsistence fishermen who walk over it at low tide.
Nature is not at fault here. We are. We are loving the world to death.
Other examples in Southeast Asia of extreme human pressure on the environment: Maya Bay in Thailand had the misfortune to be chosen for the set of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach. Before the movie, Maya Bay received about 100 visitors a day. After the movie that number climbed to 5,000 people per day. Over a million tourists swarmed the beach in 2017 and an estimated 80% of the coral in the region was destroyed due to the impact of overtourism. In June of 2018, Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation announced that the natural habitat might be irreparably damaged. Four months later, the Thai government shut down the beach indefinitely.
In 2012, the magazine Travel+Leisure declared Boracay in the Philippines as “The Best Island in the World.” Boracay is less than four square miles but by last year 6.6 million people annually were inundating the island. Sewage was running from hotels directly into the ocean. Inspectors found over 800 environmental violations. Figures showed that the rubbish generated per person on Boracay was more than three times higher than in the capital of Manila. The Philippine government shut down the entire island to reconstruct the infrastructure and give the natural habit time to rest.
In July, the Indonesian government announced that it would close one of its most iconic destinations, Komodo Island, amid concerns that increasing numbers of tourists were affecting the animals’ mating habits. Food handouts were making them docile. In addition, there were also people stealing dragons and selling them on the black market. Last year, nine men were arrested on suspicion of selling more than 40 Komodo dragons for about $35,000 each. Then, in an abrupt about-face, the Indonesian environment ministry cancelled plans to close Komodo Island to tourists and instead proposed targeting visitors with a $500 USD entry fee. Viktor Bungtilu Laiskodat, governor of East Nusa Tenggara, told the UK Guardian, “Only people with deep pockets will be allowed to [see Komodo dragons]. Those who don’t have the money shouldn’t visit the park since it specifically caters to extraordinary people.”
Nearly 200,000 tourists visit Komodo each year, many with a bucket list ambition to pose in a selfie with “one of the world’s most deadly reptiles.” Aboard Flying Fish I had intended to do the same thing until I realized how humiliating it would be to both the lizards and me. Flying Fish sailed past Komodo Island and I wished the dragons good luck.
Graffiti marks a hewn tree stump on the beach at Gili Air. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas
I did not begin this voyage with preconceived ideas of how, or exactly where, I would travel. The joy of travel, for me, is in its fluidity. As I prepare to leave Indonesia I do so with a heavy heart. I have fallen in love with this country, and with its people.
I think about Commandant Lahan Bacho of the Indonesian Coast Guard who welcomed me onto his ship and into his home in the Kai Islands. Despite knowing I was Catholic, he invited me join him at his mosque where we prayed together.
Indonesian Commandant Lahan Bacho, at the helm of Flying Fish. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas
Jamil Udin is a Renaissance man in the tiny Lombok village of Ekas. He is an entrepreneur in his 20s who runs a single-counter general store, a homestay for surfers, he’s a mobile phone provider, a tour guide, and a fixer. He’s also the village nurse, and he delivers babies.
On Gili Gede I met Alain Nedelec, a French expat and his Indonesian wife Ita, owners of the eclectic Tanjungan Buket restaurant with a kitchen serving exquisite French/Indonesian cuisine.
A happy mob of Indonesian kids entered my life (and my heart) one Saturday on the beach at Selong Belanak as they joined 20 million volunteers worldwide picking up garbage on World Cleanup Day.
One night in Bali I fell under the spell of the gorgeous Yeye Luh Swastini, a living Hindu deity, who presented me with a bronze statue of the Indonesian Goddess of the Sea, Nyai Roro Kidul. The goddess is often described as a mermaid, a mythical creature said to be able to take the soul of anyone who she wishes, and she usually prefers handsome young men. That rules me out.
Forever memorable was 20-year-old Diaz Nugraha, aka the Reptile Boy of Borneo. For three days he showed Lilly and me the wildlife of Tanjung Puting National Park, including a baby spitting cobra, brightly speckled water monitor lizards, tarantulas, scorpions, hornbills, a spectacular False gharial crocodile. He also introduced us to the magnificent orangutans of Borneo.
A False gharial crocodile warming in the sun near the headwaters of the Sekonyer River in Kalimantan, Borneo. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas
In my farewell to Indonesia I cannot help but wonder what the future holds for these people, and the places that they call home.
I want to extend love and gratitude to my daughter Lilly who joined me for six weeks aboard Flying Fish as we sailed through Indonesia.
Lilly and Reptile Boy Diaz Nugraha riding the riverboat deep into the jungle of Borneo. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas
I will be taking a short sabbatical from Flying Fish to visit my home in Key West for the holidays. I will return to the boat in Singapore in mid-January to continue my passage west toward Africa and eventually back to Florida. I hope you will continue to follow to voyage of Flying Fish.
NOTE: On passages when I have no cell or WiFi signal, I activate a satellite tracking link that shows the daily position, current weather, and includes a few personal thoughts from the daily log of Flying Fish. I will not be able to respond to messages via satellite but I love the idea that you are sailing along with me. If you would like to follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean via satellite you can click this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish
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To see where Flying Fish has sailed in the past year click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish
Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019