Indonesia Part 2: Falling Victim to Sumatra’s Deadly Roads (South Sumatra 08/08//16-14/08/16)

The landscape was changing again. The fields of rice disappeared and the hills began to undulate once again but now they were only occasionally covered in palm or rubber trees.  Small cassava trees (a root vegetable) were growing across the hills and farmers were drying crops in the sun. It suddenly occurred to me that it hadn’t rained a drop in three days. I had finally made it back into dry season! For weeks I’ve been racing south knowing that eventually I could escape the rains and now I am finally here. Thank goodness.

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Villagers were out on the fields with cow drawn carts – I haven’t seen any of those since Mynamar. People are actually farming again, not just tapping rubber trees or cutting palm fruit for oil.

The villages looked different too. In a couple the aesthetic was totally new: ornate Hindu stone carvings lined the homes and small shrines. A rear spoke snapped and I stopped to fix it outside one such house (I say fix – by that I mean cable tie the problem out of sight and out of mind) and the family came out to say hello, take photos with the foreigner and watch me problem solve. They didn’t speak English but replied ’ya’ when I asked ‘Hindu? Bali?’

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Balinese Hindu home

Despite the change of scenery I still hated the road I was cycling. Until Palembang it hadn’t been too bad, but now it was uncomfortably dangerous. The people drive as crazily as I’d been warned. The problem is this: the road is obviously going to busy – it’s connecting a bunch of eastern cities to Java and Jakarta. Yet the road is incredibly narrow – two trucks can just pass each other, but throw a million motorbikes into the mix (and one loaded bicycle) and the place becomes a deathtrap.

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I stopped at the side of the road to have a drink and look a particularly beautiful house across the road. I’d put my feet on the ground, stretched my legs, looked over at the house’s gate when ‘CRASH!’ and I was sent flying onto the road. I climbed up from the ground and looked backwards – my bike was lying on the road and beside it a man with a fallen motorbike loaded with two huge crates either side. One was leaking some kind of liquid but luckily neither of use were badly hurt.

The man looked pissed. I was pissed too. Let’s just say that neither of us asked the other if they were OK and our initially exchange was certainly less than polite. The bloke had just driven straight into me!

I checked my bike – the mudguard was smashed and the rear wheel wonky, but I suspected that was from the spoke that had snapped earlier in the day. My saddle had rammed into my right bum cheek, nothing was broken but the bruise would turn a nice shade of purple pretty quick.

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These are the kind of roads I should have been cycling more!

Within a seconds a bunch of people had come out to see what had happened, but no one could speak any more English than ‘you OK mister?’. I’d calmed down but the other guy still looked fuming. I tried to ask if he was OK but he just babbled in his language so I shrugged and got on my bicycle. The situation was messy and uncomfortable and I just wanted to get away – neither of us had broken anything badly so there was no point sticking around.

As I started pedalling a rock skidded past my wheels. Someone (I can probably guess who) had either thrown or kicked it at me. I hope the latter. No more than 200m down the road a small van overtook me and the guys inside leaned out gesturing that I should cycle quickly, pointing backwards and making an angry face. Brilliant. Clearly the drama was not over just yet.

Another couple of guys on motorbikes overtook me and motioned I should stop. When I did so the man who drove into me arrived as well, looking even more pissed than before. They said that he wanted money from me, to which I replied that he should give me money for the damage he had done to my bicycle. I showed them my wallet with barely a pound in it and they said to follow.

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Some nicer locals in another village

At this point I assumed we were heading to the police station. I wondered whether they would take the side of the foreigner or one of their own. I would have just given this bloke a fiver to get him away from me but it seemed that moment had now passed.

He stopped not far ahead where a sign read ‘English school’. What are the chances of seeing that in a village here? Not high – and a far better place to stop than at the police station. With a face like thunder he stormed over to knock on the door, from which my ‘knight in shining armour’ stepped out.  

What Mr. Motorbiker didn’t know, is that an English teacher in a random Indonesian village will be so delighted to meet a native speaker that they will take their side no matter what. First he asked my side of the story:

The more I thought it over, the more I worried I was in the wrong. On paper it sounds very much so – I had stopped on the actual road without looking behind me. Had this happened in England I’d be more worried about my story but in Indonesia the road rules are different – or rather – there are no rules. That’s the difference.

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The sharp 2 feet drop found at the side of many Sumatran roads

The Indonesians have a very unique way of making their roads particularly dangerous. Instead of making a hard shoulder at the roadside leaving drivers with a margin for error, they just stop the asphalt a couple centimeters from the outer white line (if there even is a white line). Often they layer up the tarmac so that the actual road is a few inches (up to 2 feet!) higher than the rubble of a hard shoulder. The drop is sharp – meaning that should an overtaking lorry squeeze me off the road (as a couple have done) I could have a really bad accident in the wrong place.

That’s why I had stopped on the road. People always stop on the road here. Trucks constantly break down and stop, blocking half the road and the minibuses slam their brakes on whenever they stop to pick-up or drop someone off and never have working brake lights. You have to be constantly alert on these roads and never too close to the car in front.

I had stopped, put my feet down, caught my breath and looked across the road. A few seconds had passed before impact. The guy clearly hadn’t been paying attention and definitely wasn’t keeping braking distance. Furthermore, the way he’d strapped two crates to his bike (in truly Asian makeshift fashion) made the thing horribly unstable. A policeman would never allow you on the road with that in the UK.

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Rice fields

In the end I didn’t need to argue my case. They talked for a while and then the motorbiker went very quiet. The English teacher turned to me: “OK – you both fix your own problems and leave it at that.” He suggested we shake hands. I extended mine but the other guy made a dismissive gesture and waltzed outside. He sulked around smoking a cig before jumping back on his motorbike and revving off. Phew.

The English teacher told me that he’d been asking for money (25,000 Rupiah/£15) for the damage. He’d said he could ask me, but warned that I might ask for money in return. In that case he could call the police and they could sort things out. He then told the guy that I was alone travelling the country as a visitor and it could be bad to cause me such trouble. Someone else playing the ‘white privilege’ card on my behalf! But then again – he wouldn’t have been asking for money if I was Indonesian. Apparently the guy said I’d been on my phone and that the road was very busy at that moment – hence why he couldn’t swerve. Liar liar pants on fire. I’m glad you didn’t get a penny out of me. If he thought he was in the right he would have just gone to the police.

It was only after he’d left that I realised how shaken up the experience had left me. My heart was racing from the adrenaline rush and I even felt a little quiver of my bottom lip. Get a grip mate.

I’d had enough drama for one day and my arse was sore from the crash. The last thing I wanted was to bump into that idiot further down the road so I asked the English teacher if I could setup camp for the night in his garden.

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Mirhunadin and his son before going to school in the morning

The English teacher was Mirhunadin and his family was really wonderful. They invited me to dinner and made me feel safe and welcome. I took advantage of meeting an English speaker to ask about the Hindus here (the neighbours across the road had a Hindu decorated home). He explained that they’d come over from Bali about 25 years ago as part of the government’s transmigrasi movement, relocating people from the crowded islands of Java and Bali to farm in other places. The Hindus had pigs behind their house, and Mirhunadin had cows behind his. Hindus don’t eat beef because they consider cows sacred, Muslims don’t eat pork because they are considered dirty animals. I thought it amusing that two groups of people could live side by side, disgusted by the others’ eating habits!

Speaking of animals – he also told me that when he was little (his house was on his Grandad’s land) he’d seen a tiger walking across the garden once. Imagine that! I get excited seeing a fox down a London alleyway…

But this was back when there was raw jungle around. Now all the nearby land is being farmed on.

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The next day I could finally leave the main road. A relief to say the least. I’d been bombing it south as quickly as possible due to the limited time on my visa but when Mashur had contacted me via my blog the situation suddenly changed. He told me he could ‘guarantee’ me a visa extension if I headed over the mountains to Kota Agung, so I started heading west.

A huge thunderstorm soaked the region in the late afternoon. What did I just say about dry season? I felt like and idiot for tempting fate like that. Now I was soaked and in dire need of a place to sleep before dark.

I stopped in one small village and asked if I could put my tent up by the mosque. The guys let me sleep inside one of the adjoining classrooms so I made myself at home. After evening prayer the men all sat out chain smoking and chatting until final prayer. The imam was a tiny man sporting a moustache that should have been trimmed a year ago, which hung over his long wooden cigarette holder.

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Love the contrast between the imam on the left in white and the kid on the right, wearing a black t-shirt of the metal band ‘Skeleton Witch’!
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More pics with the village kids before leaving

Mosque’s are good places to sleep if you want an early start. Morning prayer is at 5am (an hour before first light) and the call is 15 minutes before. We had the obligatory village photo shoot in the first daylight and I was off nice and early, ready for a big climb over the mountains. It was the first time I’ve been over 500m since China and it felt good to pause in the cool breeze at the pass.

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Heading for the mountains. The flags are up in preparation for Independence Day – only a week away.

I stayed in a small village near Kota Agung, where Mahur and some of his friends from University in Bandar Lampung had rented a house for a month during summer holidays. I was exhausted when I arrived, having cycled more than 100km over the mountains. Unfortunately some local kids had spotted the bule arriving and quickly a mob of dozens of kids had gathered for an impromptu party. So many motorbikes had parked in the front garden the new arrivals had to park on the road.
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The chief turned up too. A really nice bloke who proudly said that I was the first ever foreigner to come to the village. He also banned the kids from taking photos and shooed them all inside the house where he conducted a meeting for Independence Day celebrations. The event is only a week away (17th August) but already the streets are lined with colourful flags outside every home.

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With the chief

Mashur and his mates were a lovely bunch. The chief returned in the morning and took it upon himself to be local guide. First we went swimming in a ‘secret’ water pool up the mountains. The pond was surrounded by lush banana and cocoa trees and a local company used the crystal clear pool for drinking water.

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Glad I don’t have to wear my hijab when I go swimming!

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We then visited the local school where I was introduced to the kids – it seems I was more exciting (and certainly more alien) than Father Christmas.

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With the school’s teachers. You know the real reason why I love Indonesia? What other country could little me stand next to a dozen other adults and be the tallest person in the pic!?
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Dishing out high-fives
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The hundredth photo

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As usual in Indonesia, the even was one big photo shoot…
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We then walked down to beach – a gorgeous stroll through rice paddies, papaya trees and rows of chili plants with a freshly cut coconut to drink from. It was a stunning place, but I was starting to stress about this visa. Mashur had told me his family would drive over at midday. Then the time changed to 4pm, then 7pm….  Mate, are they even coming today?

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Walking down from the school to the beach

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Mashur told me he was concerned too, because he needed clean clothes delivered. Clearly of equal importance. Eventually he told me that their car had broken down but that they’d come in the morning.

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The best company!

Morning came and he told me that it was best if we headed to Bandar Lampung. Why couldn’t I just have gone straight there instead of cycling over the mountains? I didn’t even bother asking that. If I had to take ten buses I would to get that wretched extension. And so we made the long 3 hour trip back over the mountains to Bandar Lampung.

We reached the immigration office in the afternoon, where one of his family members worked. They talked in Indonesian for a while, but I could tell the conversation wasn’t going the direction I wanted it to. Mashur turned to me: “So, because you have a two month visa you can’t extend now. You can only do two weeks before end”. Unbelievable. I told him he’d really fucked me over and we didn’t say another word. He dropped me off back at the bus station and I returned to Kota Agung while he stayed in town. I needed to get back on my bike ASAP, not a further second could be wasted.

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Bandar Lampung – a horrible place, just like all cities here.

Sorry if you’re reading this mate, but you really did fuck me. What really pissed me off was the fact you had the cheek to try say that I’d told you I had a ‘visa on arrival’. Bullocks did I. I even checked back through our messages. I quote:

Me: “But I don’t think it’s possible to extend a two month visa unless your close to it’s end”

Mashur: “haha with negotiation and have family is possible . in indonesia we have easy rule”

And then:

Me: “Yes but you understand that the road I’m aiming for is the menggala – sukadana – ketapang which is nowhere near you”

“Unless you can guarantee 100% that I can get the visa extension I simply can’t afford the detour as I don’t have time”

Mashur: “yes I will guarantee ok”

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Selfie time at the waterfall

The experience reminded me (for all the wrong reasons) why I love travelling by bicycle: because with it I alone am the master of my situation. I don’t need to rely on other people. Mashur wasn’t a bad guy, on the contrary, he was a nice chap, but you can’t ‘guarantee’ someone something as important as that and not deliver. I’ll put it down to a language/cultural barrier but still – I wasted three days and cycled over a mountain for nothing.

I collected my bike, put it back on the bus (obviously no time to cycle back over the mountain) and got dropped of in Pringsewu, where I had cycled from on my way to Kota Agung. From there I continued by bike back to Bandar Lampung.

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Skimming stones

In town I needed to find a bike shop. The broken spoke was cassette side (always bloody cassette side) and my broken gear shifter had broken again. I found a small bike shop that mainly sold cheap kids bikes to local villages but they had a mechanic. He asked me if I had a cassette remover. “No, that’s why I came here!”. He then spent the next 10 minutes trying to pry it off with his bare hands and a rag, When he looked up and saw me wincing he grinned and said: “this is Indonesia!” All very well, but I can waste 10 of my own minutes trying to pull off a cassette…

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Irin and August at the bike shop

His name was Irin, and eventually he gave up and went off in search of the tool we needed. Upon his return it turned out he was a wizard – patched things up perfectly and got my my gears sort-of-working. He was also a tourer, as was his mate August who came over to say hello. He bought me lunch while Irin worked on my bike and when I tried to pay for the bike service the Chinese owners refused my money, despite how long it had taken. I will say one thing about this island – the people here are incredibly generous.

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Trying out a local cigarette. The guys in this village were carrying around little blocks of this tobacco
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Try to look cool – you’re smoking a cig!

With the bike working again I felt better about the last little push to the harbour. I stopped for the night in another police station where the friendly cops let me pitch my tent. They put their chess game on pause to take photos of me.

This nation is one obsessed with picture taking. To an extent I have never seen before. They just take my camera from me and start snapping.

I think this pic sums it up pretty perfectly.
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Behind the camera to the left was a cell, bars locked with a series of padlocks. When the prisoner leaned forward he could see us posing in our sunglasses.

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Cycling to the harbour

Sumatra. You are a crazy, crazy place.

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Bye Sumatra! Hopping on the boat to Java island…

 

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