As I sat under the huge white tent facing the stage, the rain beat down, which was the reason for the delay. We all sat patiently for another hour before the call was made to proceed. Patience is something one gets a lot of practice with in Indonesia.
The Isen Mulang Festival is held in May every year in Central Kalimantan. I had been in Palangkaraya city three days and tonight I was excited and intrigued about this Prince and Princess Tourism Ambassador contest. I found out from my chatty, friendly chair-neighbour that every year, all over Indonesia couples compete in the Duta Wisata Indonesia competition, and the winner goes forward to Jakarta to compete for the title Indonesian Ambassador of Tourism which no doubt opens doors and opportunities plus a few overseas trips and major prestige.
As the contestants presented, they spoke confidently, articulating in their own unique way, about their dreams and aspirations. Entertaining the crowd, in perfect English, they spoke persuasively about of a popular tourism attraction of their Regency. Not an easy feat in a second language. Every contestant was indeed exquisite looking, tall and very elegant. To me, they all looked like professional models, and they did have to walk the catwalk. I was assured none of them were professionals.
For some reason, the MC of the night, the former Prince of Tourism 2011, singled out my English friend, Jonathan, who was sitting in the front row. It turned into a very funny evening. He asked his opinion throughout the contest, putting him on the spot and challenging him with, “Sir, Sir, does this girl get the thumbs up? And what about that one’s tourism object statement, how about that answer – was it intelligent enough?”
The crowd was sometimes in roars of laughter as Jonathan answered wryly, “Oh, that’s a secret,” and other politically correct answers at times outwitting the MC. To me, this night epitomized just how friendly the Palangkaraya crowd is and what a delight it is to visit places like this in Indonesia. Sharing in the culture, meeting the locals and being one of the very few foreigners was an absolute honour. Later that night there were murmurings that Jonathan would be approached officially, later in writing, to be asked if he would be a judge in next year’s Tourism competition.
Every day of the five day Isen Mulang Festival, the events got bigger and better but nothing matched the opening act, which was a grand affair. The festival opened with a dazzling street parade, a spectacle of seventy floats in a collage of colours, invigorating dances and a fine display of culture in motion, with each float proudly raising their flags, dancing their warrior dances and welcoming dances and singing in their individual native language.
With drum rolls beating out, gongs clanging loudly and delicate sapes and lutes waxing lyrical, not only did the Dayak tribes entertain the crowds, but other Indonesian ethnic groups were represented as well.
As we gathered along the roadside, mixing and mingling with the locals, towering feathers and war shields flashed past us along with richly clad Javanese dance troupes. Then the singing Papuans would herald in the next act, and a few hairy-faced tree people from somewhere else would skirt around the edges. Iridescent shiny red and gold Sumatran dancers would swirl by along with dance troupes from Sulawesi, the Maluku Islands, graceful Balinese dancers and singers from Nusa Tengara, all displaying their unique traditional costumes.
During the day, a multitude of events unraveled at the large museum grounds, and it was hard to decide which ones to watch, as most of the events were taking place at the same time. Did I want to get roped into the famous blowpipe competition or try my hand at rice pounding? I was even offered the chance to jump in with the locals and try catching fish with my bare hands in a mud pond! Encouragement encircled me at every turn, and I did try my hand at the blowpipe and failed miserably. In fact, I blew the dart off in some other direction, and no one could find it. I was fired immediately amongst great peals of laughter. The calendar of festival events seemed to run to a totally different timing to the official programme, so I was glad I had an informed local with me to help navigate through that maze of confusion. One event that did stick to time was the Dayak traditional dragon boat racing on the river.
The best way to view this event was to get on the water with a local boat. This allowed you to get close to the bright green, red and yellow painted boats, which compete for the best-decorated vessel, best dance performance on board, best costume and best singing. Not only is there prize money at stake but also bragging rights, which makes for high entertainment value as each team tries to out-dance, out-sing and out-do their competitors. This event is loud and proud and when the winner is announced the best boat gets to sail alone up the river, with Dayak warriors sporting towering feather headdresses and gigantic spears, standing humbly at the bow.
It was day five, the final day, which was the highlight of the festival for me. We were treated to thirteen unique dances from the different Regencies and towns of Kalimantan. I sat through every dance entranced by what I saw plus the running commentary I got from my ever-so-chatty friendly neighbour, who described each dance for me in great detail and perfect English.
We had the fast and furious dance of the crocodile first, then a slow dance about the old lady who lived as a hermit with the spirits of the forest. This was followed by a dance representing the taking of the spirit beyond our known world into the supernatural world. Next a massive masked hairy series of trees burst on to the stage, offering help to troubled souls and then the music would soften, and we would be guided by graceful movements into a dance by men singing about brotherhood and the significance of a circle of protection. Next minute the tempo would change, and confusion would reign as a troubled soul scampered across the stage. This person was being held and possessed by a spirit and the fiery dance performance re-enacted the releasing of the soul from unwanted tension and nightmares.
We had energetic dances and enlivened music about power and courage and a dramatic dance of the spirit of yellow bamboo, and, of course, love. The romantic dance took us on a journey of hope, with lilting music and we watched the young man pausing to attract the attention of a young maiden and with longing, asking for permission to stay in the village, to marry the beautiful girl. The evening finished with a dance called The Tree of Life which included a display of fighting hornbills, testing their wits and challenging each other. That dance involved a towering two-metre hornbill headdress. Amazing!
The Isen Mulang festival is a cultural festival of showmanship, sport, dance music, fun and entertainment and above all friendship. So what are you doing on May 18 this year?
David Metcalf runs cultural tours to Kalimantan. He is taking a group to the Isen Mulang Cultural Festival (featuring 17 Dayak tribes) on May 18-23, 2016, which includes a trip to see the orangutans and attend a 3-day Tiwah (traditional Dayak funeral ceremony).
Looking for Borneo
– by David Metcalf, Mark Heyward, Khan Wilson
Kalimantan Documentary Film