Ramadan in Tarakan

21 Aug

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Bobby’s minivan has a melodic horn, which intones a three note melody. “It is the only one in Tarakan,” he explains, tootling merrily at a cluster of folk on scooters, every one of them revving for a U-turn on the choked main road.

“In fact,” he says, gesturing expansively at the rusty interior of what, to the untutored eye, looks quite the reverse of a pimped ride, though the seats, to give them their due, have nary a hole. “I am the only one with these customisations to my vehicle. And the only one with this horn.”

“Ah,” I say politely.

“Can you toot the horn again?” asks Z.

He toodles. The chaps on the building site we are passing down tools and wave. The scooters continue to bip-bip, the minivans change lanes at random. Like all the other drivers hooting merrily away, it’s just Bobby’s way of saying hello.

And, imperceptibly to the naked eye, the sun sets, bringing the Ramadan fasting to a close.

Women in tight nylon headscarves and men in muscled T-shirts flood to the little stalls set with stripy cakes, plates of dates, biscuits, candies and samosas and begin the gorging session known as Iftar.
Brightly coloured stripey cakes for sale in Borneo.

Chaps in white tunics, trousers and Indonesian prayer caps start up their live gig at the posh hotel, Arab-influenced tunes replacing the Malaysian karaoke classics from the boat over. The traffic develops a sense of urgency as folk race home for sugar, and more sugar.

Now, Bobby would quite like to make a little extra money driving tourists around. But, being Indonesian, he can’t be arsed to hustle.

“You’re going to Pulau Derawan?” he asks.

“Yes, we are,” I say. For the tiny island of Pulau Derawan is the main reason we are here. We’ve been told — by a guy who works on the legendary Pulau Sipadan, no less — that the diving here is even better than that on Sipadan itself. You’re almost guaranteed, apparently, to see a turtle on every single dive.

“You want to charter a boat or you go the slow way?” Bobby asks.

“We’re going the slow way,” I say. “Boat charters are too expensive.”

“Ah,” he says. “Well, I can arrange for you for 1.4, 1.6. If you want. I can drive you around too. If you want. But I tell you this for information only.”

Having heard the horror stories of Ramadan travel — and been on the end of some Ramadan evening approaches in Malaysia (ladies: cover an extra joint or two in honour of Ramadan. It saves a bunch of hassle…) — I can’t quite believe how nice everyone in Indonesia has been so far.

The cliche of Ramadan travel goes something like this. Folk are dehydrated. Sleep deprived. Blood sugar falling through the floor. So everyone is grumpy at best, aggressive at worst. Roads are more lethal than ever before. You can’t find anything to eat twixt sunrise and sundown. And if you do, and consume it in public, people will hate you.

In fact, we’ve done OK for food. It’s a question of finding which restaurant (warung) has its steel shutters partially open, indicating that there is sustenance out back for those who require it.

Given Z, as a pre-pubescent child, would be excused fasting even were he Muslim, we’ve trampled on no sensitivities. And, rather like the official food taster at some medieval court, I’ve taken it upon myself to sample the tepid fried chicken which seems to be the main non-rice sustenance on offer.

Bad temper? Not a jot. Quite the reverse, in fact. Folk have been implausibly helpful and positively jolly.

From the folk at the mangrove forest who gave us a masterclass in Bahasa Indonesia, through to the five chaps at the Pelni ferry office who painstakingly located a (largely fictional) schedule, smiling, bowing and welcoming me to the country all the time.

And, with particular kudos to the chap who gave me a lift on his motorbike for free this morning, and Hoton Abdullah who gave me and Z a lift back to our hotel after I got us lost in downtown Tawau. In fact, even the customs officers who stopped us and ran the sniffer dog over us on the pier as we disembarked were perfectly friendly…

By the time you read this we’ll be firmly en route to Pulau Derawan, which I’m really hoping we can reach from here in a single day. It’s a tiny island, with electricity only at night, and, I’m fairly sure, no internet connection. So there’ll be a couple of posts coming up, but no lovely turtle pictures till we’re back in the land of the web. Probably around the 26th. In time for the possibly imaginary ferry to Sulawesi.

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6 Responses to “Ramadan in Tarakan”

  1. scotttraveler at 10:47 pm #

    Oh, is that where all the work crews have gone? LOL Been so busy I didn’t realize Ramadan had started yet…

    Lovely story – love your writing style…

    • MummyT at 6:09 pm #

      Thank you! It’s in full flood. Id Ul Fitri is on the 9th or 10th, depending on who you talk to…

  2. LaboriousLiving at 10:06 pm #

    I live in a very Muslim area and I love it when the sun goes down and all the families come out and cook on the BBq in the courtyard, the kids run and yell and laugh. They go so late into the night that we fall asleep to the sounds of celebrations all month.

    • MummyT at 6:16 pm #

      The kids were letting off firecrackers every evening on Pulau Derawan. It’s a really lovely insight into something I’ve always seen as a bit negative and austere (coming from the outside).

  3. Ade Kumala at 10:53 am #

    I am Indonesian who currently live in Sydney. One of my dream is to show my 8 yo daughter the beauty of her birth country. Maybe I’ll follow your trail. am waiting for your turtle pic 🙂

    • MummyT at 6:19 pm #

      Coming up as soon as I’ve picked the best! He got to help baby turtles into the sea, and we saw one laying too! Indonesia is awe-inspiring. I do hope you take your daughter soon.

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