The aircraft dipped its wings dropping through the cloud and there below us was the coastline of southern Borneo. Fleetingly I glimpsed a muddy estuary its broad entrance dotted with small fishing boats and larger cumbersome container vessels. Rivers and smaller tributaries reddish-brown with soil converged and emptied into this broad sluggish waterway. Inland the estuary curled and twisted into an ever narrowing corridor, here and there, spread sporadically along its meandering swampy shore were small wooden houses propped on rafts and stilts.
From the air the coastal belt of Borneo seemed to be entirely swamped. The paddy fields reflected a broken opalescent sunlight, further inland stretched vast oil palm plantations interrupted by the occasional straight line of a road and the huddled congestion of a little village, simple houses and shacks, clumps of trees and palms, a singular pocket of urbanity and cultivation, lining its route.The plane rocked and dipped alarmingly as we made our final approach to the airfield. I gripped the side of my seat and braced my legs. I’m not a good flier, which remains a certain disadvantage to my choice of career. Expediently I tried to not think about the widespread catastrophes of Indonesia’s recent civil-aviation history. Alongside sinking or burning ferries, the almost dull regularity of train derailments and the frequency with which planes fall out of the sky Indonesia is a place of growing uncertainty and ever present danger for the passenger willing to take their chance.
As the ground started to close with ever threatening proximity I reckoned that we were coming in slightly on the fast side. A quick look at the ashen but altogether stern expression of the hostess strapped in opposite us suggested she shared my concern also. I noticed that she was gripping the side of her seat in a similar vein to myself.
To hasten such thoughts of imminent death, the pilot announces on the intercom.
‘Please, no panic. Please remain calm.’
Descending and turning, the plane rocked and bumped and finally levelled itself. I remember looking out of the window and glimpsing a line of palms bordering a vegetable garden, a small boy tending a flock of goats, the low red rooftops of a shanty town, then a mosque with turquoise minarets and behind it a busy roadway. The next moment we hit the tarmac of the runway with an incredibly hard jolt and we shuddered eventually to a halt.
We were ferried across the open runway and squeezed and cajoled into two attending coaches, the driver stepping into his cab swung us around the airplane and we head towards the small terminal building of Banjarmasin. The airport is really nothing more than an over-crowded gymnasium filled with the echoing sounds of largely ignored tannoy-announcements and the squeaking of rubber heeled trainers. We pass signs advising this as a ‘no smoking’ area. The human contents of our flight from Jakarta in a single, almost pre-rehearsed movement, take out their cigarettes and in unison light-up. When in Rome I thought, finding my very own ‘no smoking’ sign to stand beside before lighting one of my crumpled Marlboro’s.
There were four of us in our little group waiting by the clanking luggage merry-go-round. Two Englishmen and two Indonesians. These accomplices of mine, all of intrinsic interest and variety, warrant a certain description. Beside me stood my whimsical and ever cheerful business partner Paul, our main cameraman and director for the trip. Unbuttoned and unshaven he grinned coyly at the scene around us, scratched his curly head, shrugged congenially and lit a fragrant cigarette. Standing next to us was Ridzki, a suave and well-spoken man. He was co-producer and without question ‘the boss’ of the entire expedition, as if to emphasize this, he was already locked in a deep conversation with one of our local fixers on his mobile phone and scribbling into a worn leather note pad. A little to one side, standing over the luggage merry-go-round was Nanang, second camera, assistant-director and amateur comedian. I watched him as he stood there, a bandana wrapped tightly around his head, hands on hips, observing the first bags and carefully wrapped boxes as they started to emerge from beneath the plastic flaps of the loading bay. Nanang is an extrovert of the highest order. One of those enduring characters whose cheeky charm and fast-talking quick-wittedness enthuses everyone he comes into contact with. This particular quality, as well as Ridzki’s cool businessman-like demeanour, would serve us well in the coming weeks. Over all, as we stood there waiting for our film gear and luggage to emerge, I recall counting myself fortunate to be in such good. indeed charming company.
Driving out towards the city of Banjarmasin in a somewhat congested taxi the heavens opened above and swept the countryside around us in a monumental deluge. As we joined the main highway, I noticed through the struggling work of the windscreen wipers, four men in tattered clothing by the side of the road. Behind them was a bare flooded field of stubble and rotting tree roots. It wasn’t too hard to imagine what this land had once been. The damage to the deeply rutted top-soil was attributable to the work of bulldozers and heavy chains. The men straining and heaving on ropes in the soaking rain by the roadside were erecting a sign. As we passed I turned around and noticed a familiar text and logo, which was at once humorous and also deeply saddening: it read, ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’.