Sun, 11 May 2003



By Korrie Layun Rampan

If my cousin Ramin had not persuaded me to come along with him for a visit to my hometown, I would not have gone to the Piraq River. It is called piraq, which means silver in the Malay language, because it is believed that millions of tons of silver ore lie hidden in the earth beneath its swift current. Others say the riverbed contains rubies and other precious gemstones cherished by spirits and demons who dwell on Mount Lumut.

These chilling tales about ghosts and demons hanging on high branches make my hair stand on end. My cousin told me that many evil spirits called Pelot dwell upstream of the river and enjoy kidnapping small children, which is similar to the story I heard about the Bunian people of Sumatra. To lure a child into the dark forest, the demon, according to my cousin, disguises himself as one of the child's parents. The child, however, feels like he is in an enchanted place when he enters the forest.

However, the scary ghost stories and tales about the honey ghosts who prey on men as they climb tall trees to get honey did not deter me from playing on the sandy shores or catching shrimp and small fish in the river. To catch shrimp and fish I used a cone-shaped device made of rattan, which I borrowed from my newly married cousin, Ngilang. She warned me that a gigantic dragon living in the deep bay kept strangers from stealing the area's natural resources such as gold, diamonds, iron and sulfur.

"Don't ever play by the river!" my cousin warned me. "You know, once a Dutchman died after he cut a huge root that stretched across the river. Fresh blood spurted from the root. People said that it was the blood of the guardian of the river and the root was part of the dragon's body. The Dutchman got a high fever shortly after and died before getting any medical attention."

Time and again her ghost stories made my hair stand on end. Accompanied by another cousin who was about my age, I roamed the area until I arrived at a house at the edge of the jungle beyond the river. Never had I imagined that I would find a house built on stilts in the middle of a lonely, vast rice field. The paddy was yellowing, ready for harvest. I helped my aunts, uncles and cousins in the field during harvest time, cutting paddy stalks one by one because I was not skillful with a scythe. It seemed liked it took me ages just to harvest a basketful of paddy.

This experience opened my horizon about forests, rivers, paddy fields and crop planting. It also enabled me to set foot in the home of my uncle who lived in Tanjung Batu, far from the river where farmers from Besiq village could cultivate large areas of fertile land. At my uncle's home, I met my other cousin, Marthanius Busra. I was proud of him because he had been able to secure a good position in the bureaucracy. He could have been named the regent or even governor, if he had wanted to.

He was not only intelligent but also had a convincing performance even though he came from a remote place not even on the maps of the country.

It was on the riverbank that I saw how my uncle cut down huge trees of good quality such as meranti, keruing and kamper. The big logs were then rolled down into the river to be carried downstream for sale. This business made my uncle a rich man.

Then teaming up with his son, Ringken, he bought some boats, which were a status symbol for rich people in the district, to ply the rivers of Pahu and Nyuatan. He used the boats to transport the goods and people who lived in distant villages along the rivers. The locals were grateful to my uncle for the service rendered because the boats connected them with the two important towns of Tenggarong and Samarinda.

I was really proud of my uncle. I remember vividly how they rolled big logs down into the river, causing huge waves and thin sheets of water to shoot up into the air -- a sight that reminded me of an oil tanker being tossed up and down by huge waves during a storm.

I was also proud of the Pirag River as it gave life to many people. Apart from the fact that the river provided delicious jelawat and empam fish -- local favorites -- and a place where my uncle drifted his logs downstream for sale, making him rich, the river had also become my faithful and pleasant companion.

The river provided me with a place where I could lie down and playfully run along its white sandy shores, dive in the clear water, observing small fish frolicking above the shallow riverbed. At times I made small hills out of sand, imagining the fight between Mount Jempang and Mount Meratus. According to a legend my teacher told me when I was in the first grade, Mount Meratus emerged triumphant and now stood tall and stretched to the center of Kalimantan island, while the tall Mount Jempang vanished without a trace and turned into a vast lake.

I doubted the truth of my teacher's story but the Piraq River which flowed down from Mount Meratus was my wise companion. The river taught my cousin, Yapania, who was about my age, and me to swim, despite the warning we received from my cousin Ngilang for swimming in the dangerous river. The river did something else for me as well: a dead tree branch stretching across the river saved my cousin and me from being carried helplessly downstream by the swift current.

Moreover, the experience taught me that the beautiful water, which was a source of life, could also create disasters.

The Piraq River was indeed gorgeous; the rapids, waterfalls and forests were marvelous. Had my cousin Ringken not asked me to come with them sailing upstream on a small wooden boat, I would not have been able to enjoy the splendid expanse of water flowing among rocks in the middle of the river. It was really challenging to sail upstream and to be able to negotiate the rocks. In the forest near the rapids, I saw my's uncle's boat moored to a tree by the Batietn rapids. In the forest along the riverbank I heard him cutting down trees.

While waiting for the rice to cook, we tried to catch some small fish visible in the clear water. After enjoying our meal we walked upstream to a breathtaking waterfall in a pristine forest. To the eyes of someone brought up in Jakarta, this was the most beautiful place. Was I not very lucky to have this beautiful and handsome river as my companion?

The river was both helpful and faithful to whoever drank its water. From it I learned many things about life. I learned the meaning of faithfulness, affection and sacrifice, which the river gave without expecting anything in return. Was nature not part of our life and a source of love?

With my finger I tenderly caressed the surface of the water just like I did the cheeks of my baby sister. The water quenched my thirst and my body was composed mostly of water. On the banks of the river I saw crocodiles with their eggs lying in their nests of black leaves. I also caught sight of a poisonous snake waiting for its eggs to hatch.

Another time I had a glimpse of graceful peacocks and black rangkong birds drinking on the banks of the river. I even had a chance to see other rarities: a crow waiting for prey, a snake catching a tengkara fish, a monitor lizard chasing a mouse deer and a variety of other wonders. The river was a real feast for me.

"Dad's crying! He should be ashamed of himself," my five-year- old son said, pointing to my eyes as I brought my speedboat to a halt near a spot where I used to swim -- a sloping shore near my uncle's house. His home had disappeared without a trace. "Where's Ramin? Where's Ringkeng? Where is Nilang and her husband, Usuk? Why has the whole forest been destroyed?"

"Are you sick?" my wife asked.

"No, I am only saddened by the destruction of the forest and the pollution of the river. Everything I saw before has vanished. Why have humans become so greedy and barbaric?"

"But why are you crying dad?" my other son asked.

"I'm remembering my childhood. I lived here once, but now the forests are gone and so are the animals. Even the house I used to live is gone. It's so sad to see everything destroyed."

Translated by Faldy Rasyidie

(Specially written as a gift for Drs. Yahya Marthan)

Note: Pelot: type of invisible forest people with their heels facing forward and the soles of their foot facing backward. tengkara: a type of fish with white scales.