It was time for the last push to Australia. Leaving the glossy world of Singapore behind me I caught the boat for Pulau Batam – my first stop in Indonesia.
On my last trip to South East Asia I made the same trip across the water, so I was prepared for the culture shock of leaving a structured lifestyle under Singapore’s high rise buildings and returning to the world where timetables don’t exist and nothing ever runs on schedule. Everybody at the harbour in Batam seemed to know when the daily boat departs for Kuala Tungkal, but unfortunately everybody said it left at a different time.
Bodark, my Warmshowers host picked me up at the dock and we eventually figured out a rough time that the boat might leave in the morning before we cycled over to his place.
That morning I’d woken up in a glossy condo, cool from the air-con breeze and a coffee machine ready for my morning fix. Now I was sweating away in Bodark’s humble and fan-less living quarters, sleeping on the floor and hoping none of the monster cockroaches scuttling around would crawl across me in the night. (I woke once with something of unsettling size scrambling across my chest).
It was 7 hour crossing to Sumatra. When the engines started up I was delighted to be in such a fast speedboat (last time I took the ship to Jakarta from Batam which took an exhausting 30 hours), but once the air-con started up I wasn’t quite so thrilled. I’m not sure why the hottest countries in the world insist on turning up their air-con so high. I sat shivering, envious of the girl sat next to me in a fleece. Who even owns a fleece so close to the equator? I can’t imagine she ever wears it outside of air-con speed boats…
Speaking of equators – I was finally about to cross into the Southern Hemisphere. It’s only taken a year and a half to get here! I watched my phone’s GPS co-ordinates creep closer and closer to the zero mark before the latitude line finally switched to negative. Hurray! Disappointingly, no one set off any fireworks and I was the only person celebrating on board.
By the time we arrived in Kuala Tungkal it was too late to ride out of town. I found a cheap room and collapsed onto the bed. Above me on the ceiling a huge arrow pointed in a seemingly random direction. I couldn’t figure it out at all and it was only when I switched on the TV and saw a live stream of the pilgrims making their hajj that I realised it was pointing to Mecca. The room was so small you’d struggle to pray in there but at least you’d be banging your head against the wall in the correct direction.
I remember the last time I felt like my presence had shut down a whole town. It was in Bokpyin, Myanmar. And now in Kuala Tungkal as soon I stepped out of the hotel the place erupted with ‘hello misters!’ (clearly Indonesians’ trademark greeting). I popped into a shop to buy some shampoo but was mobbed with photo requests. What would have been a 2 minute job became a 20 minute photo-shoot with every customer and member of staff.
Exhausted from my brief walk around town, I found an inconspicuous spot for dinner. Bahasa Indonesian is a very similar language to Malay so I could already work out many of the dishes’ names. As I tucked into my Nasi Goreng some local kids spotted me and by the end of my meal I had no less than 20 children watching my every mouthful. I have stepped into another world. One where white people are aliens, it seems.
I cycled 130km to Jambi the next day. The road meandered through small villages, the houses lined with betel nut and cocoa drying in the sun. Whenever I stopped for a break people would come running to get their photo taken with me. I didn’t mind – everything was new and exciting to me here. But ask me again in two months and I might not be so thrilled about getting a hundred photos taken every day.
In one village an old guy invited me to his home for lunch. His family was Christian, which surprised me. I assume the Dutch bought Christianity over with them but most of the people here are Muslim. They asked me to stay the night but I really needed to crack on. It had dawned on me a little too late how far I have to travel to reach the other end of this country before my visa expires. I really need to push on this roads – I hope that won’t spoil my experience here.
In Jambi I had the pleasure of staying with Lukman via Couchsurfing. He ran a private English class from his home so I could join in the classes. There’s a big Chinese community here, from the same migration wave two generations back that bought many Chinese from the South East to Malaysia too. Most of Lukman’s students were Chinese. If one stereotype of the Chinese works around the world, it’s that they love after-school tutoring.
Lukman was working in the government education/linguistics department. They’re trying to promote Bahasa Indonesia whilst preserving minority culture and dialects simultaneously. The idea of a unified Indonesia is a relatively new one, and a huge number of different peoples and languages exist across this archipelago.
The government has a unique problem here. It wants a unifying identity without insulting the individual groups indigenous identity. Already it has had to balance a particularly fine line with the separatists up north around Aceh and east in Papua.
Now that I’d realised how short I was on time, I had no choice but to bomb it down the main road south. It was the same old boring South East Asia scenery – rolling hills covered in palm oil or rubber plantations. Yawn.
I put my tent up the following evening in a small village, under the shelter of a mosque’s class room. When the kids came out after evening prayer and spotted the bule (foreigner) and his tent, the show had been started for the evening.
The attention is relentless in Sumatra, but I always feel like people are happy to see me. The kids are all such cuties it’s impossible not to smile back.
After the drum started banging from the mosque the kids all legged it back for last prayer and I sat up with the restaurant owner next door smoking into the night. The kretek cigarettes are very unique in Indonesia, laced with a sweet clove taste. It’s 5 years since I’ve had one, but once you’ve smoked a Gudang Garam you never forget the taste. Still, now is probably not the time to start a habit – especially with big mountains in the distance.
The next night I ended my day at a small police box. I’m beginning to think that the Indonesians are some of the most hospitable people I’ve met on this trip. People seem delighted to see me cycle past and thrilled at the opportunity to help me if they can.
The cops let me pitch my tent behind their office, but made sure to warn me of the cobras that like hunting for mice in the palm oil plantations. They invited me to dinner and they kindly switched through the TV channels to find something in English. First we watched a Christian preacher talk some nonsense to a ginormous crowd in India before they flicked over to a b-list US movie in which a pack of monster tarantulas attack a peaceful little American town. They then warned me of poisonous spiders before bed.
It took me three days to reach Palembang from Jambi. There I stayed with Galiansa at the edge of town. Cycling into big Indonesian cities is hell, but unavoidable without extra time. They’re crowded, dirty and too dangerous on a bicycle. With Nina, another CS’er, we visited the bridge in the centre of town. Along with a big mosque, it’s one of Palembang’s most famous sights – there were many families out taking pics there (who all wanted a photo with the bule instead). If a bridge with a couple of fairy lights hanging off it is a city’s ‘tourist sight’ I figure I’m not missing out on too much.
The ride out of Palembang was one of those days where everything goes wrong. First I realised I’d left my travel towel at Galiansa’s. I don’t loose stuff very often but I’m unable to keep hold of towels – I’ve lost half a dozen now. I had that one for 9 months, the longest I’ve ever managed to keep one without loosing it.
Shortly after I realised I’d misplaced my towel I noticed that my rear light had fallen off. It had been broken for a while and I’d been looking for someone who could weld aluminium (but not looking hard enough) and now it had broken off somewhere down the road. Great.
The road had finally flattened and rice fields stretched out in into the distance. I should have been happy about the change in scenery but the wind had picked up and I was crawling at 10km/hr. I’ve been cycling 100km a day in Sumatra but with the headwind they’ve been long shifts unable to average anything greater than 15km/hr. It’s the same headwind that’s been plaguing me since I turned south in Myanmar three months ago. Every bloody day the wind has been blowing from opposite direction I’ve been cycling in. It’s driving me crazy.
Then my rear gear cable snapped. Before I’d even taken the old one out some locals had gathered around to watch me. If I’m in a good mood (which I am most of the time) the attention is fine. I can put on a smile even if I just want a moment’s peace and quiet. But when I’m not in a good mood, as I was now, I just wish I had the language skills to tell people to fuck off and leave alone for just a moment. I am not a zoo animal.
I tied up the cable and cycled in the highest gear to the next town (Kuala Agung) and found a cheap hotel where I could change the cable on my own and get an early night. The hotel owner and his son watched me do my repairs, but better that than a whole village. I worked topless and by the time I’d finished up some sneaky mosquitoes had had a feast on my back. That’s the last thing I’ve had enough of here – the mozzies. The only place I can escape them is in my sweaty tent – a cheap room like this one is full of holes, no net and plenty of tactical mosquitoes who have made their home right where a new person sleeps every night. If I escape SE Asia without catching Dengue or Malaria I’ll be a very happy man.
I was feeling sorry for myself, so went to the shop and bought an alcohol-free beer. I’ve not had a 0% beer since Iran – I’d forgotten how bad they taste. I’ve not seen a single drop of alcohol for sale in this country. Now I’d had enough of the Muslim world on top of everything else. Time for bed, I think.
The next day was better. It always is. It was the weekend and for some reason the road was more busy, but as long as the heavy coal trucks didn’t flatten me I was just happy hugging to curb.
In the afternoon I headed into a long rubber plantation to look for a place to sleep. I miss wild camping – I haven’t camped anywhere ‘sneaky’ since Myanmar now. Someone had tapped the trees but forgotten to collect the rubber. Strange to do all the hard work but not collect the stuff you can actually make money from (I think you get more money if you sell it ‘fresh’). I have passed thousands of miles of rubber plantations but never actually seen the stuff collected. It was more ‘rubbery’ than I’d expected, although writing that I’m not entirely sure what I expected!
While I took a picture of the rubber a cloud of mosquitoes had gathered around me. Those cretins smell blood from a mile away. If I park my bike and leave it for 1 minute, by the time I return it will be covered in mosquitoes searching for human. Mosquitoes love rubber plantations and love human sweat. So this is not a good place for a sweaty Englishman to be hanging out, especially one so scared of the diseases they carry.
I headed back out the plantation while I still had any blood left in me and continued cycling. It would soon be dark and I still hadn’t found anywhere to sleep. A motorbike pulled up next to me, as they do very frequently in Sumatra. For once the conversation wasn’t ‘hello mister! Where you go?’ but actually something helpful: “it is already 6pm, would you like stay my home?” “Er, yes! Did you read my mind!?”
The new arrival was Bobby, who’s home was just down the road in the next village. Both Bobby and his mother were incredible. Fed me like a king, showed me around (although not very much to see) and gave me an almost mozzie free place to sleep for the night.
I’m hugely grateful to the Couchsurfing & Warmshowers communities around the world, but those people who’ve invited me to their home are already on a hospitality platform. What possesses people like Bobby and his mum to act so selflessly and warm to a total stranger is beyond me. But it’s people like that who are the heroes of my story. True ‘trail angels’.
I love travelling this country. The people are wonderful everywhere I go and a new adventure seems to await around every bend. It’s the beautiful smiles of Sumatra that have really won my heart.
What I don’t like is the dangerous roads. They are not safe for cycling and I found that out the hard way leaving Bobby’s house the next day. But I will tell that story next time and leave you with this great pic of me selling rice in the morning market of Bobby’s village…