This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Search for Diamonds in Kalimantan

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We are now in Borneo. Borneo is the world's largest island and divided into a Malaysian part and a larger Indonesian part. Indonesia Borneo is called Kalimantan. We are primarily in Kalimantan to see orangutans, but we have some distance to cover before we can get to them. Our first meaningful stop is in the city Banjarmasin. We have two activities that we would like to do which is visit floating markets and the traditional diamond mines. Even though to Mika's disappointment we will not be allowed to keep anything that we find.

The mine
One mining area is near the village Cempaka which is a minibus, shared taxi and short walk from Banjarmasin. At the road leading to the mine we pick up an escort who leads us to the mining area. The first thing is we hear the chugging of the pumps as they carry the water, rocks and silt to the separating contraptions above on the hill.

The silt and rocks are collected here
Then filtered out in the large basins in the water to see if they have found anything

while others search through the larger rocks looking for a gem
 We are shown some tiny specks of gold and white gold that were found that day and will later be separated out. This area has numerous precious metals, like amethysts and onyx, but the big find is a diamond. In the 1960's a 167 karat diamond was found in the region, while a 77 karat diamond was found as recently as 1999. These miners work very hard and only get money when they find something and after giving half to the land owner and village chief.

While watching the process we are approached by young sellers with polished stones wrapped in paper. We have no idea what we are buying, and probably have "sucker" written on our foreheads, but we decide to get some tiny semi-precious stone souvenirs. Mika chooses a purple amethyst and I select a black Kalimantan onyx, or so they say that is what they are. Both for under US $3.00. The miners give us some free unpolished agate that they just found. There is a larger town outside of Cempaka that has a gem polishing center and numerous gem shops. There are also several hotels, so I imagine they get numerous, serious international buyers here.

The other main activity for us in Banjarmasin is to see a floating market where the buying and selling all take place on boats on the river. There are two different floating markets around Banjarmasin. I want to go to the busier one, but different guides give us different information. A guide recommended in the guidebook tells us Kuin Market is the place to go - a shorter boat trip and busiest market. He also tells us that this market dates back 350 years. Since we are not really interested in a guide, just cheap transportation, we end up hiring a goofy guy that has 23 years experience guiding, knows practically nothing and to Mika’s utter disgust, spits when he talks.

The guide picks us up at 5:30 AM and takes us on the river passing rickety wooden homes built over the water. The river is the backyard and the bathroom. At this early AM hour we can see people washing clothes, bathing and brushing their teeth to start their day. The river also serves as the sewer system. I am not exactly sure how clean the water is or if I would want to brush my teeth in a river used as a toilet by my neighbors upstream. But without proper access to running water they have little choice in the matter.

As we pass on the boat it feels slightly invasive. We are uninvited guests observing their personal morning routines. Women bathe wearing sarongs and men are in shorts. I guess I would be too if strangers passed by my open air bathroom every morning.

The small river leads us to a larger river. We begin to see more boats some carrying produce. We arrive to the main area and I am not sure if it is because of misinformation that we received from the “Lonely Planet recommended guide“, or if just the incredibly overcast morning has kept away most of the sellers. Either way the number of boats here is disappointingly small at around twenty-five, not including tourist boats. At the market the sellers paddle around in wood canoes selling produce to the buyers on other boats. Some sellers travel for hours with their wood canoes pulled by a motorized boat from their distant village.

We hang around the market, buy some bananas, have a coffee and donut at the floating café and head back to once again invade the privacy of the bathers, teeth brushers and the laundry washers as we pass their homes on the river. Having our fill of voyeurism we decline our guide’s attempt to sell us his afternoon tour which would take us past many more homes through Banjarmasin’s narrow canal and take a bus to our next destination.

The Wild Man of Borneo Travel Tip: When searching for a guide in Banjarmasin ask if he will take off his shirt and insist you take photos of him.

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