Tuesday, 11 August 2009
Thailand quite rightly still reigns supreme as 'The Land Of The Smiles' but Indonesia is pressing hard for the premier position as I am constantly smothered with smiles - this is undoubtedly one of the friendliest countries I have pedalled through. Each corner brings a fresh chorus of 'Hello Mister', 'How are you?', 'Whats your name?' and 'Where do you come from?' The smiles are always stunning but the words are often wayward. I have had, 'Who are you?' 'Where are you?' and more worryingly, 'What are you?' Questions I have often asked myself! The 'Hello Mister' is never said softly but roared from the rooftops. One young girl screamed 'Hello Superman' - that is more like it! I have had 'Sexy man' and 'Strong man'. Another guy shouted 'After morning', he wasn't wrong it was four pm! Probably the most accurate term, said so softly by a sweet young girl at the side of the road was simply, 'Hello tourist'.
However, my first impressions were not good. A seven hour ferry ride from the Indonesian Island of Batam took me to the north eastern coast of Sumatra and the dump that is known as Dumai - a typical ferry port with the added ingredient of a massive oil depot employing an international workforce. Within five minutes of disembarking in Dumai I was offered sexual favours by both sexes. The first hotel room I checked was dirtier than Benny Hill! I eventually found a reasonably priced one for fifty thousand rupiah, about three quid. Whilst gulping down some grub at a restaurant next door, a doe eyed kid asked me for some money. He looked so forlorn and famished and was absolutely filthy. He was either an astute actor or the real thing - I opted for the latter and bought him some food. He may have been malnourished but there was nothing wrong with his neck - that was made of pure brass! Half way through fingering down his food he stopped long enough to dunt his digits in the direction of the owner to request a coke - brilliant! A woman half dressed and half off her head sat down on the road next to me and simply laughed, at everything! There was a lull in her laughing but no peace for me as a motorcycle taxi arrived and offered to take me on a tour for ten thousand rupiah, about sixty pence. He was also a part time pimp and offered me anything I wanted for forty American dollars. I asked for a plate of macaroni and cheese with heaps of hp sauce and a sumptuous fresh salad with romaine lettuce, feta cheese, avocado, tomatoes on the vine, pine nuts, coriander and freshly squeezed lemon...Oh, and a pint of real ale, please! The reality was an over priced omelette and no hp (hanky panky). Although, that night I was probably the envy of many women in the world as I slept with the entire Manchester United team - I had a Man U bedspread! Of course I did not score but I did manage to fart on Ferdinand, which is a good result in itself!
Football is massive in Indonesia with kids sporting many tops from the top European teams. Manchester United are blazoned on billboards all over the country. During the last seven weeks I have probably seen more of Alex Ferguson that his wife has. The other favourite faces are Ferdinand, Giggs and Rooney as they accumulate more cash for their already bursting coffers by promoting their sponsor!
Before retiring to my room I had the misfortune to chat with the owners of the hotel and saw one of the many sad things I have seen whilst cycling. They had what they called a 'Superstar' baby. I sat and watched as their two year old boy drank beer, smoked cigarettes and simulated sex by bouncing up and down on someone's lap whilst sucking their nipple. They were fair proud of their protege! I said goodnight and sloped off upstairs to my room feeling a little uncomfortable.
On this wonderful journey I have tried hard not to judge but just observe. Judging does not change anything and wastes vasts amounts of energy. After spending so many years getting it back I am now reluctant to release it so cheaply. However, as always, some situations are more trying than others!
I was happy to head out of Dumai - not so, when I realised I was going in the wrong direction. It took five kilometres facing the sea to wise up to the fact that I should have been going west! Throughout the trip I have only used three maps - Turkey, Pakistan and India, which I bought before I left. I pop into the net and have a wee goggle at googlemaps, write down a few place names, then pedal off. I rely on road signs, individuals and instincts - often I am completely clueless as to where I am but it always seems to work out. Prior to leaving I was determined that my plan was to have as little plan as possible. Whilst this is not full proof, it has got me this far!
The next six days involved hills, heat, humidity and horrendous roads with pot holes in which a parachute would have been more appropriate but it was so satisfying. The scenery was stunning and the people warm and welcoming. One night, as daylight was deserting me I took a wee detour to a small village in the middle of nowhere. I needed somewhere to sleep but I was still unfamiliar with the terrain and did not fancy sharing my therma rest with wild monkeys. I bought a coke and sat down to wait for something to happen. I was immediately approached by Indra, who offered that I stay in his home. He apologised that I would have to walk two kilometres into the jungle to his house. So with half the village following us and my headlamp on full, I pushed my bike along the narrow muddy paths. I spent a lovely night meeting his parents, grandmother, friends and local kids. When they found out I was vegetarian, some young girls were sent back to the market to buy some eggs and fresh vegetables. I had to force money on them for the food! In Indonesia, as in many other eastern countries, 'Guest is King' but they were obviously desperately poor. A delicious meal was cooked on an open log fire and as the power had gone off we ate under candle light. Indra apologised for this too - I told him I was having the time of my life! I slept on the living room floor with five of Indra's friends. He repeatedly offered his bed but I was content where I was. The house had a big well situated inside the bathroom - it was deep as hell and I almost dropped my shorts down it. Although the house was run down and in a state of disrepair I felt completely at home. The following morning as I lay on the floor listening to the sounds whilst looking out the front door at the jungle, I simply sighed and shook my head...I guess I was just happy!
Indra, who was twenty one and from a family of six was obviously intelligent but was as equally frustrated. He helps in his parents shop which has a daily income of one hundred thousand rupiah, about six pounds and works from seven am to six pm in a photocopy shop for fifty thousand rupiah a week! Although a high school graduate he is unlikely to get out of the village, as he has no money. His English was good but you could tell his mind wanted to say more than his language ability would allow. I felt a little frustrated over his frustration. As I left I gave him a hug and pressed some pennies into his palm - it was far less than I have given for a grotty, filthy hotel room. It is always a thin line between helping out a little and showing your appreciation or offending folk!
That day I had dreadful diarrhoea - it was my own fault as I had drank the local water the night before. Energy was low and the hills were high but I pushed on slowly, stopping frequently to lie down flat at a shaded spot at the side of the road. At one tea stop the lady offered her bed - I took it and promptly fell asleep for ninety minutes. I continued on up the hill eventually stopping at a restaurant at the summit but not before pausing at another truck stop to hose myself down whilst fully clothed. I felt a lot better after that but not when I went to the toilets at the restaurant to see a sign saying, 'Urination Only!' What! I went inside and sure enough - no where to poo, only pee. I managed to pee whilst firmly folding my buttocks! I then free wheeled downhill whilst looking for my own latrine.
A couple of days later I trundled into Tanjun and the front foyer of the local police station. I was allowed to chuck my therma rest over the waiting room chairs. In Indonesia, many women try to lighten their looks by covering their faces with whitening cream. Whilst falling asleep I stared at the posters plastered over the station walls - pictures of dead terrorists in body bags - they looked white enough!
A slow bike ride took me to Bukitinggi and my first taste of tourists. I spent a rest day with two Dutch dames, Kris and Anna. Whilst walking through underground tunnels built by Indonesian slave labour during the Japanese occupation in World War Two, Kris, innocently and spontaneously started singing, 'Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go... I don't think she realised the inappropriateness of her wee ditty. As with most Dutch people they were great company and completely laid back!
Bukitinggi to Padang was a near perfect cycling day with twenty of the fifty miles spent freewheeling downhill through picturesque villages lined with palm trees and paddy fields. I arrived in Padang as bright as a newly bloomed begonia. I braked at a bakery for a bite to eat and ended up staying the night in a wee storeroom. Liang and Suzanne, the owners had a family of five but had fully embraced the ethos, 'Living is Giving', by having a sixth child and handing it to Liang's brother and sister in law who had been trying unsuccessfully for ten years to have one of their own. I was watered and fed and as usual felt completely at home. I know you must be sick of hearing this but I only ever seem to meet nice people. Later on that evening, Dennis, their eighteen year old son took me on a drive around Padang with a few of his friends. We whizzed about in one of their parents four wheel drive vehicles. At times the speed was bordering on the Bond film, 'A License To Kill' but they did not have real a license between them having bought them from the local bobbies station for three hundred thousand rupiah a piece - about eighteen quid, with the payment going to the most senior police officer! As one friend commented, 'In Indonesia, corruption is ingrained in our nature'. I left the following morning with my panniers packed with bakery produce. My bags were so heavy that Liang felt the need to hand me a tube of vitamin c tablets, insisting that it was good for my immune system and for building strong bones, whilst at the same time expressing his irritation that I had bought Dennis a bit of dinner the night before. People are forever giving me things but when I try to redress the balance, then they go ballistic!
I do not mind admitting that the cycling in Sumatra was a real challenge with the constant hills and heat hammering me. Mind you, a lot of it is of my own making. I cycle, sleep and scoff whenever I want to, resulting in my body clock getting bashed about a bit. However, it does mean that I get to experience far more than if I simply rode routinely! I always have good intentions of reaching my destination during daytime but I am constantly distracted by people or places. Equally, some days you just munch up the miles, especially on motorways, whilst on others, you have to dig deep with each mile feeling like a marathon as you count every rotation of the cog.
After a month and almost twelve hundred miles in Sumatra, a virtual jungle, I was seduced by a city - another type of jungle and had a Jamboree in Jakarta! Again arriving late, I wandered along Jalan Jaksa, the tourist trap at one am only to find all the hotels full. So, I bought a beer and sat it out till six when I saw a tourist wrapped in a rucksack jump in a taxi. I asked where she had just come from and within five minutes I was booked into her room - the bed was still warm! After a few hours rest I went to a restaurant for breakfast and was surprised by the breaking news regarding the bombs, which had exploded whilst I was sleeping. Normally when watching world events on television the distance can often dilute the emotional impact, however when you are just a couple of miles from the situation you can almost feel the fallout.
The next few days were spent in the convivial company of a couple of other tourists as we turned night into day but still stared at the stars! - the Indonesian beer 'Bintang' means star!
There was Kate from America, a strong willed, intelligent, independant woman who will undoubtedly go far, although I hope not too soon as she has promised me a bed near New York. There was Isabelle, a sculptor from France, who in between beers kept on bolting off to The National Museum. Olivier, a fellow cyclist was biking from Jakarta to Bali but after four days of joviality in Jaksa, his bike was still boxed! During a boozy session, he slurred, 'Eric, do you really believe I have a bike?' I was beginning to wonder! There were four Czech guys who had forgotten to check their luggage and left their passports in the bar. Sam from England and her partner Pat, from Holland spent the night and the following morning wistfully planning their future trips with the projected profits from the passports. However, sobriety kicked in and Sam, the star that she was spadded off to find out where the Czech guys were garrisoned - most folk would have just placed the passports behind the bar. Sam and Pat were great company and obviously both born to be backpackers. Based in England they both took the decision that they did not want bairns, so they toil like trojans for a copule of years, save their pennies, then push off again - food for thought!
Posted by Eric at 11:11 a.m.