By Carolyn Paletta
Stepping off the airplane in Palangkaraya, I felt a little bit nauseous. I had just flown over 24 hours around the world to a city I had never seen or heard of prior to my internship, and as I stood on the ground I could feel the thousands of miles that stood between me and my family, sound asleep at our home in New York.
To add to the disorientation, I had no idea what I was walking into. I didn’t know anyone who lived in Palangkaraya or could tell me about the lifestyle, and Google Images left much to the imagination, so I filled in the gaps with unfounded assumptions about this new place I’d be living.
Each of the six weeks that I spent in Palangkaraya peeled back a layer of misassumption and misunderstanding about the people, the culture and the issues that constitute life in Central Kalimantan. I was prepared to live with little-to-no Wifi access, to eat nothing but locally sourced foods, and to be completely unable to communicate with the majority of the population. You can imagine my surprise to find all of my new friends and coworkers at Ranu Welum scrolling through Instagram, a fully stocked Hypermart the size of any American Wallmart and so many English speakers that I never felt out of the loop. I was constantly laughing at the thought that my family back in the USA was picturing me living in some deep-jungle village of huts and spears, while I sipped on an iced latte at my favorite local coffee shop and practiced videography with the top-of-the-line equipment at Ranu Welum.
What I find truly beautiful about Palangkaraya and Central Kalimantan in general is the blend of traditional and modern values. The Dayak people of Kalimantan have one of the richest cultures I have ever seen. I was awed by the dances, the stories, the unique skillsets and the bright Batik prints, and mostly by the deep level of respect that the Dayak people have for their local habitat. The lifestyle of the Dayak people is led in harmony with the forests and rivers that shape it, and it was amazing to see that this respect for traditional culture and values was maintained even by younger generations growing up in the city. My friends in Palangkaraya wore clothes and did activities that were no different from my friends in the United States, but this embrace of modernity in no way negates the role that traditional Dayak culture plays in their life.
I will never forget when my friend Andre, who I watched come to work in jeans and a t-shirt to edit posters and films on Adobe programs like any other millennial, donned a Dayak warrior’s outfit of beads and pelts and an animal headdress and performed an intricate traditional dance before a crowd of people to celebrate the Indigenous Peoples’ Festival. The dichotomy between the friend I was used to seeing at work every day and the Dayak warrior standing before me was striking, and it helped me realize that what makes the Dayak people truly special is that they can have both. They can embrace tenets of a modern life while maintaining the invaluable traditions that keep them connected to their rich history and set them apart in a world that is quickly losing touch with its roots.
My trip to East Barito to witness an Ijame Ceremony was another powerful example of how Dayak traditions are mixing with modernity. The village we visited was seven hours away by car, and I was expecting to arrive at a cluster of huts in the middle of the jungle, completely cut off from the world and maintaining a strictly traditional way of life. This misassumption was immediately dashed when we drove to the ceremony on a paved road, lined with motorbikes and pop-up shops selling Coca Cola and Snickers bars. Members of the Dayak Ma’anyan tribe came from all over Kalimantan to participate in the ceremony, just as New York Giants fans come from all over the state for a football game. Only the elders and leaders of the ceremony were in traditional dress, while all other spectators were in their everyday clothes, with cellphones and cameras to record the experience and share on their Facebook and Instagram accounts. While it wasn’t the purely tribal event that I had envisioned, it was moving to see once again how modern life is meshing with traditional life in Kalimantan. Hundreds of people showed up to the ceremony, and hundreds more who were unable to attend still observed its significance and followed it via social media. It was uplifting to see how the importance and value of traditions like the Ijame ceremony can be amplified, not diminished, by the rising presence of modern technology.
The Indigenous Peoples’ Film Festival that the Ranu Welum team hosted in August was a moving celebration of the relation between tradition and modernity. By combining a showing of locally produced films with traditional dance, music and storytelling, the festival was a beautiful example of how Dayak culture can pervade in the modern world, and how tools of modernity such as filmmaking can be used to preserve and celebrate the culture. In Central Kalimantan, there doesn’t have to be a strict choice of maintaining culture or embracing modernity. In fact, they can be used to support each other and create a stronger future for Kalimantan in all respects.
When I landed in Palangkaraya at the beginning of my internship in July, I had no friends, no idea what I was doing and no idea where I was. Now, six weeks later, I leave with an abundance of skills, friends, mentors and experiences that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Palangkaraya has become a part of me, and I hope to be back soon to witness the beauty of Dayak culture and the power of Dayak innovation continue to gain strength in the future.
Thank you to all my friends at Ranu Welum for giving me the opportunity to live and work in Palangkaraya, I will be back!