Why a single pipe in the ground attracts an eager crowd in the midday sun. By Tom Westbrook.

The Equator Monument in Pontianak, Indonesian Borneo

Sunset over Pontianak.
Sunset over Pontianak.

At midday on the equinox the small crowd gathered at Pontianak’s Equator Monument rushed forward in a scrum to watch a pipe stuck in the ground at zero latitude cast no shadow. The spectacle was celebrated with as much gusto as it is possible to muster in such temperatures.

Children dressed in traditional Dayak outfits performed a dance, then opened their lunchboxes in the shade of a marquee. Another group of schoolgirls and their teachers looked on from the small grandstand surrounding the painted line demarcating the hemispheres.

Beside the grandstand a portly emcee led the countdown to the precise moment of the equinox, when the sun held directly above us. Inside a tent a band waited to launch into pop songs, and they duly struck up but only got through a few numbers before the heat did for them, too.

You never get used to the heat, I was told.

Eggs were brandished and people invited to balance them upright on their shells, a mildly difficult feat supposedly easier at the equator. It isn’t.

A wicker cover was removed from the pipe and its lack of shadow was photographed by the hundred or so people assembled – history buffs, assorted astrological nerds and proud residents. After about 10 minutes, the pipe started casting a bit of a shadow and the crowd lost interest and melted away, crossing back over the Kapuas River into Pontianak proper – the capital of West Kalimantan, a province of Indonesian Borneo.

Later, from our hotel’s rooftop bar – centrepiece a big plastic cutout Johnny Walker Black Label, which is odd, given they serve only iced coffee and fruit juice – the late-afternoon skyline is dominated by St Joseph’s spire. Dozens of diamond-shaped kites soared on the sea breeze blowing from the South China Sea, attached to boys in backyards and backstreets. Thousands of swallows wheel and swoop, at large from lofts where their nests are harvested as a Chinese delicacy – yanwo – to be consumed whole or in a gelatinous soup.

Pontianak isn’t on most itineraries. There is no tourist scene. Besides the Equator Monument – vertical black-painted sleeper logs supporting a steel globe, the whole thing covered by a great dome with a replica of the sleeper-log thing on the roof and inside miniature sleeper log things for sale – there are no attractions. At West Kalimantan’s tourism bureau, headquartered in Pontianak, staff were surprised to see tourists in the flesh and suggested an excursion to Borneo’s wild interior would be better than hanging around.

But the polyglot port buzzes. It is one of the great trade centres of the Far East and all the more exciting because it’s not set up for visitors. Stay and everyone walking by calls out, “Hey, mister!”, and wants to know if you are having a good time. Or would we like to come over for dinner, share their banana fritters, come to church with them, teach English to 500 schoolkids the next day?

Half a million people live in this delta city where the Kapuas meets the Landak River and the South China Sea on Borneo’s west coast. Most of these people are at least in part of ethnic Teochew Chinese descent, drawn by the discovery of gold in the hinterland, which led to the city being raised from what had been a small trading post to a large town.

Today it is a cosmopolitan port that still has an outpost feel. Heat gives a languid atmosphere. The baggage “carousel” in the airport’s one-room terminal is a 15-metre conveyor belt that ends abruptly, depositing luggage in a big pile. English newspapers can’t be had and porters rush to greet the passenger ferries of the Indonesian government’s Pelni line, when they call each week to link the city with Java and the archipelago.

Courtesy of the Chinese influence, pork, forbidden to Indonesia’s majority Muslims, is a mainstay of Pontianak cuisine. Nasi ayam (chicken rice), the city’s favourite breakfast, is actually served with pork four ways: cured sausage, crackling, roasted and stewed, as well as roast chicken. Nasi kari (rice and curry), nasi kuning (yellow rice), kwetiau goreng (fried noodles) and bubur (rice porridge) all come with pork, although halal versions exist, substituting the meat so that Muslims can enjoy the meals.

On Main Street – Jalan Gajah Mada – which runs two blocks back from the river, kongsi, or Chinese clan-houses, were still festooned in March with decorations from new year celebrations in February. They are the focal point of the Teochew community and are often filled with extended families sharing meals or gathered to celebrate weddings, mourn or worship deceased ancestors, the gatherings open to the street and spilling on to the pavement.

Sun-blasted by day the street swelled at night with food stalls. Woks bubbled with deep-fried bananas, cauldrons simmered with corn, and every now and then the air was filled with the irresistible smell of garlic oil – a drizzle for another Chinese-influenced speciality: chai kue (vegetable dumplings). The crescent-shaped variety arrive steamed on banana leaves and a fatter, round version is fried until its edges are golden brown. 

The footpaths are filled with the tables and chairs of Straits-Chinese-style coffee shops – where the young folk come to drink and socialise – only here the coffee shops let street hawkers sell handmade chips, satay skewers, stir fries, ice-creams, the whole lot, all parked in by rows and rows of scooters.

Jalan Gajah Mada may be known as Main Street, but the wide brown Kapuas River, Indonesia’s longest, remains the city’s real main drag. Down it flows the spoils of the jungle – palm oil, gold, rubber, timber, rice, durian, delicious mud crabs, fruits and vegetables – to Pontianak’s beating heart, the docks. Oceangoing ships call, with the appearance of decorum, at a modern container-loading facility downstream. We headed instead to the riverboat wharves on the south bank.

There, jetties run up to the warehouses and behind them are more warehouses. Amplified radio was coming from somewhere. The streets were a logjam of trucks, dolly carts, porters, deckhands and loiterers. Men carried rice sacks, coconuts, spices, truck tyres, sheet metal and ship supplies every which way and called plenty of “Hey, misters!”. On the water, wooden houseboats, brightly painted, brought goods downstream, while others loaded with fuel, food and Chinese clothes headed upriver. Ferrymen vied for passengers to carry on their sampans across the river.

On the north bank and either side of the docks are shanties of stilt houses and rickety boardwalks. Children bomb into the water and wave hello. Barges laden to the waterline glide by.

The bandstand at the Equator Monument was by now empty, the small circus moved on, official visit certificates signed by the mayor all handed out – for a fee – and the sun, precisely 12 hours aloft, set over the horizon. The heat of the day sapped away and in the sweet relief of the shade, equinox evening began. Families, students, young couples and old friends turned up, as they do each evening in the park, to take in the twilight and a carnival atmosphere of markets, rides, and food stalls. Tables and chairs set up on the promenade and carts arrived selling snacks and drinks.

Our plastic seats by the Kapuas were soon surrounded by locals trying out their English and we chatted long over iced coffee and fried bananas. Caught in the city’s pull, we never did make it upriver.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2015 as "Out of the shadows".

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Tom Westbrook is a Sydney-based journalist.

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