Friday, March 25, 2011

Culture, Part II: What's Always Been There

"If you drink the water from the River Kapuas," says the local legend, "then you can never leave Pontianak forever. You will always come back."

It's quite a pronouncement, but one that I have chosen not to resist. The idea is much older than I am, and I tell people that I will probably always visit Kalimantan every other year for the rest of my life, though I don't feel I should live or work here. But what, really, is the significance of a muddy river?

Plenty. It is around rivers that so much of civilization has grown up over thousands of years, and this is one important thing Pontianak has in common with my city, Tuscaloosa, located at the "fall line," or farthest point upriver (ulu, in Dayak) navigable to barges. Historically, this is where cities were built in Alabama. And like our people, the people of the Pontianak Sultanate depended on their river, an ancient source of water, life, and transportation.

The importance of the river "spills over," pun intended, into the spiritual, as well as the physical world. People today are connected not only to the natural world, but also to their ancestors and each other by the knowledge that they have lived their lives looking at what has always been there for those who came before them, and pray it remains for those who come after.

Lesson TWO: Culture is the source of the meaning we assign to what has always been there, for as long as anyone can remember.

As for me, my culture has changed, because I will go through the rest of my life never quite sure whether to think "Kapuas" or "Warrior" every time I hear "river."

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