Wherever I went in Indonesia people would always ask me ‘go to Bali?’. It was as if they thought I’d taken the wrong bus by accident and ended up in their village when I was supposed to be in Bali. Most of the foreign tourists coming here end up on Bali & Gili and they all know it.
Happy now guys? I’m here, where the bule belong. Bali!
It was a shock to the system. The mosques all but disappeared and Hindu shrines lined the road just as they had done in those Balinese transmigrasi villages I passed back in Sumatra.
It was a totally different aesthetic and an enchanting one at that. In the morning people were placing small flowers in leaves as offerings outside their homes and lighting incense sticks. The decorative carvings on the homes were beautiful and I had keep stopping to visit the ornate temples I passed.
The road was still busy and horrible, but life seemed a little more structured on this island. There were even patches of hard-shoulder and sections of pavement in the small towns (both a rarity in this country).The only bad thing was the dogs. My favourite thing about Muslims is our mutual dislike of canines, but it seems the Balinese Hindus love them as much as the rest of the world.
I got off to a bad start in Bali thanks to a flaw in my newly hatched plan to get a visa extension. The pace I’d set across Sumatra and Java had been crazy and I wanted to slow down. Singapore to Bali in a month is fast. Word on the street was that extending a 60 day social visa is far easier in Bali than elsewhere and most importantly – I didn’t need to wait until a fortnight before expiry (unlike what the immigration told me in Lampung).
On the ferry I called up a travel agent to ask how much they would charge. They told me that the immigration would close next week and that through them it would take 3 weeks. I worked out that it would take at least 2 weeks DIY with the holiday, an amount of time I didn’t want to waste. So – back to plan A…
It wasn’t all bad. I was ahead of schedule and I’d easily catch a boat to Timor on time. Plus, this way I’ll arrive in Australia before the worst of the rains arrive which is a very good thing. I invested the money I’d saved not extending my visa on a cheap hotel and beers (finally somewhere in this country where the shops can sell booze) and took an extra day off in Canggu to catch Taneli.
I met Taneli in Iran, July 2015. We then met again a month later in Uzbekistan. We were in Tehran around the time when the Turkmenistan embassy decided they didn’t fancy issuing transit visas. Taneli was so confident that we’d be rejected (like most people) that he cycled all the way back he’d just come to Azerbaijan, taken a boat across the Caspian Sea and then pedalled across the deserts of Uzbekistan. I’d taken my chance with the Turkmen visa and been accepted!
Then in Uzbekistan it was my turn to have visa problems (the Tajiks weren’t making it easy to get a tourist visa) so I was ‘stuck’ in Bukhara when Taneli arrived after his huge detour.
Taneli overtook me in China but got screwed over trying to catch a boat from Bali to Australia. Then he fell for a Singaporean girl and had now been in Bali for three months. The funny thing is this: the reason he took that huge detour into Central Asia when we last met was because he was so adamant to travel around the world using only boat and bicycle. Now he’s happily flying to and from Singapore for a girl!
Of all the things I thought could jeopordise my trip (disease, broken bicycle, accident, etc) I never thought a woman could be the cause. Seeing Taneli so smitten has made me worried. I made a mental note not to talk to any more girls until I reach Australia.
I’d barely seen another white person in my first month in Indonesia and now there were hundreds. No complaints from me. I went for a three course dinner (who am I?) with Taneli and Kim where I used a knife for the first time in many months. Most of the world don’t use knives. In Indonesia they use forks and spoons but usually they just eat with their hands.
We went out to a bar by the sea where a local punk band were playing to a hundred Bintang-swinging foreigners. I must be getting old – at midnight it was past my bed time and as we collected Taneli’s motorbike among all the others all I could think about was how dangerous it is with all these drunkards jumping on their motorbike to get home after a night out…
The next morning I cycled over the east coast to catch the boat to Lombok. It was great to see an old friend again and have a little rest before the next push east. Taneli and Kim are planning on cycling South America in January, I believe. You should check out Taneli’s Instagram feed Gone Bike Fishing as his photos are a load better than mine.
The boats in Indonesia are painfully slow. It took 5 hours to cover a measly 70km. By the time we arrived it was dark and I didn’t fancy cycling up to Mataram town. Taneli had told me a really pleasant story about locals targeting foreigners on motorbikes by holding up fishing lines across the road as they ride past – slicing them off the bike and nicking their stuff. With that silly story fresh in my mind I decided to stay in the harbour town of Lombar.
I met two Spanish girls on the boat who also wanted to stay nearby so we teamed up and found a room to share. Usually I just ride off without any trouble, but now I walking out of the boat and the touts appeared like vultures once they spotted the girls’ backpacks.
‘Where you go?’ Mataram? Senggigi? I have bus for you!’, ‘Bus?’ I laughed pointing at my bicycle. ‘No problem! Can put inside. Where you go?’. ‘I’m staying in a hotel here’. The guy shook his head, ‘no hotel here’. ‘Yes there is – it’s called ‘Losman Tigadara’, I already asked people’. ‘Ah, Losman Tigadara’.
Now you remember…
He continued his nonsense: ‘Losman Tigadara only four rooms. But all full. Very far. No have water’. Shut up mate. Nothing pisses me off more than a liar like that. How much shit can one person talk? I shooed him away with a dismissive flick of the wrist and we walked to the hotel where – surprise, surprise, they had a room for us. Water too…
I had to dinner with the Spanish girls. After I ordered something in Bahasa Indonesia, they looked at me with surprise: ‘you speak Indonesian!?’. I definitely don’t, but my Indonesian has gotten pretty good this month. It’s a pretty simple language really – no tones to worry about and only some fiddly ‘r’s to roll your tongue around. My Indonesian is already better than any other language I’ve learnt for a long time. I can hold a basic conversation and impress the odd tourist and local, which is a nice feeling.
Don’t ask me what Lombok is like. I blitzed my way across the island in a day. The road was as busy as they had been in South Bali. There was more road kill than usual – I passed three dead dogs, two cats, and a couple splatted rats and snakes. A good day’s sight seeing.
Lombok was dry. Bali’s fields were lush thanks to a series of rivers flowing down from the mountains. Lombok has just one big volcano Rinjani defining the topography and nowhere near as much water. The fields were bone dry and patches of land had been neglected over summer.
It was another sunset ferry to Sumbawa. On the crossing I spoke to an English speaking local on his way back to Sumbawa Besar from Lombok with his brother and uncle for an emergency: his father had had a motorbike accident last night and was now in the hospital. No helmet. I asked him if his father would be OK but he just shrugged, not looking optimistic. ‘Inshallah’.
Just earlier in the day I’d seen the aftermath of a crash between two motorbikes. There was a crowd and a couple people lying on the floor, one of which was getting his head massaged. Recovering from concussion, I think. When will they learn in this country?
There was no accommodation in the harbour town of Poto Tano, but I was allowed to pitch my tent inside the tourist office.
The next day everything changed. After months cycling an incredibly monotonous part of the world (sorry, SE Asia) things suddenly switched. Did I say Lombok was dry? Scrap that, Sumbawa was dry. The mountains were bare, their jagged edges in clear view without trees for cover. At times the scenery reminded me of the arid mountains around Armenia and Iran.
It was an extraordinary change and it made me very happy. Finally I was inspired by what I was seeing around me, stopping every 5 minutes to take a photo.
I cycled to Sumbawa Besar in a day. There I stayed with Jhony and his family via Couchsurfing. It’s incredible that I can still find people to stay with through that website in places I didn’t even know existed until recently!
Sumbawa island was a pleasure to cycle. Thanks to an Australian Aid project ‘developing national roads in Eastern Indonesia’ the road was the best I’d cycled in Indonesia. It was also the quietest. The small market towns were a bit of a scrum, but when most of the traffic is caused by horse-drawn carts it’s almost fun to cycle through.
Some villages had irrigation channels keeping the rice fields lush, other villages by the water were farming fish or out in boats. But mostly it was just dry. The trees were leaf-less and the fields dusty. It was hard to believe how green Bali had been just a couple of days ago.
I cycled over a huge nail that popped my tube and stuck 2cm straight into my wheel. I walked until I could find some shade and swapped tubes in front of a crowd of rice farmers.
The heat was stifling. That day it got too much for me. The winds provided a little respite from the heat, but the paying price was an awful headwind reducing me to an average 14km/h. I was exhausting and suffering a splitting headache by the time I reached Empang. The small town had one hotel, but it was a stuffy wooden room with no fan and hundreds of mosquitoes. I pitched my tent on the floor to have a mozzie net and fell asleep in my own sweat. What’s the point paying $4 for that? No more hotels here…
I stopped in one village the next day for lunch. As I was tucking into my mie goreng a huge fight broke out across the road. Two women were going crazy. As the brawl moved out from the house I saw one of the women trying to batter the other with a big stick. Then the other began lobbing rocks back as she was dragged away. Yesterday I’d entertained a village fixing my puncture, now this village was giving me a great show over lunch. A fair swap, I suppose.
I was surprised to see the fight. Indonesia is such a peaceful place on the whole and Sumbawa struck me as a very conservative Muslim place. Then I spotted a bunch of beer bottles by the guys’ feet across the road. That’s the first village in the country I’ve ever seen people drinking in the street. Maybe not so surprising that it’s the first I saw a fight in.
Just when I thought things had calmed down one of the women came charging back with two more bintang bottles in here hands and started chucking them at the other women. Jesus Christ – that got a bit serious! I hopped on my bike and left the drama. There were only a dozen houses in that village, squeezed in together in a dramatic bay. That’s going to awkward tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that…
Later in the day I stopped for a fresh coconut (perfect afternoon tea). I met an English speaking local who told me about how he’d snuck into Australia 20 years ago on a ship to work illegally for a couple years. He laughed the whole time he was telling me his story, even during the parts where he got caught, put in prison and sent back to Indonesia.
There was big mountain to climb before Dompu. The road turned away from the coast and zig-zagged up the mountain side. It was beautiful but I couldn’t stop due to the monkeys. I’d passed many monkeys in Sumbawa but they’d all been very shy – running a mile as soon as they spotted me. Here they were different. A few of the males were really aggressive, perching on the railing and hissing as I passed. One even made a mock-charge at me,
Further up one male jumped out and ran towards me, nearly giving me a heart attack. He leaped out on the road and lashed at my bag snarling. I shouted at it and fumbled for some stones to chuck at it, eventually driving it back into the trees. Little bugger!
There were a few more aggressive monkeys further up but I’d filled up my handlebar bag with rocks and had a fun time playing target practice with them. I managed to knock one straight off the edge of the cliff. It was weird behaviour, but I guess they were up at the road looking for food. Apparently they come up in dry season when there’s less to forage and people chuck food to them from the car windows. I don’t get why they were so feisty…
Over the pass things changed again. The people now spoke Bimanese, not Sumbawanese anymore. Adin invited me to stay with his family in Dompu. We visited the NGO he worked for – a local group teaching kids English. In return for free lessons, the students must bring 100 pieces of rubbish to the centre. It was really nice to see people doing something about the litter problem here. The situation is bad in Sumbawa, like everywhere in Indonesia. It’s pretty disgusting to be honest. Beautiful roads covered in rubbish dumps. I stopped feeling angry about mankind’s litter habits (otherwise I’d be angry all the time), but it makes me sad to see people act with such little regard for their natural surroundings.
I met Spanish Juan on the road the next day. He was the first foreign cyclist I’ve met since Malaysia a couple of months ago. We had lunch and cycled together to Bima, where he was stopping to look for a boat to Kommodo island. I wanted to continue over the next mountain pass to try and catch the morning boat from Sape instead.
On the way we passed a wide open valley where people were producing salt. I’ve never seen salt being collected before and it was a striking sight. Sunlight reflected off rectangular sheets of white crystal, a stark contrast between the muddy brown flats stretching out to the ocean. Small salt piles glistened between sorry-looking wooden roadside huts.
After we parted ways I had a big climb to make. At the start miners were perched at the side of the mountain hacking into rocks looking for gold. A few years ago they planned to build a big mine further south from Dompu and they had big riots in Sape. Clearly there’s money to be made from the mountains…
I’d miscalculated where the last village was before the climb started. I had no food with me and I was starting to get hungry. Whoops! Just then a bakso motorbike drove past and I flagged him down. He whipped me up a hot meal and even if meatball soup isn’t my favourite it was enough to get me up the mountain.
This is why I love Indonesia. Cycle touring is so easy here – food is never more than 5 minutes away. People always have little carts set up with portable gas cookers to make food on-the-go and they even have people making meals from the backs of their motorbikes! Amazing.
I was hoping to reach Sape by dark but the mountain took too long to climb. The morning ferry departed at 8am so I continued as night fell – if I could at least get a little closer to town I could catch it in the morning.
My headtorch battery started to fade and soon I could see very little on the steep downhills. I’d completely loosened my rear brakes because the holder had bent and I still hadn’t fixed it, but now my front brake pads needed adjusting too. It was too dangerous to get down the mountain like this.
So I stopped in a small village to look for a place to camp. Then Hasan turned up. Another of those ‘trail angels’ who appear out of nowhere when you need them the most. He had lived in New York for a couple of years back in the 90’s and spoke good English. He invited me to stay the night in his home – thanks pal!
Husan did that thing that makes me feel so uncomfortable: repeatedly apologising for the condition of his home. ‘Sorry my home not so good’ or ‘sorry is very simple, a bit dirty’. The idea that someone might think their home not ‘worthy’ for me makes me feel incredibly embarrassed. It’s happened many times. I wanted grab him by the shoulders and say: ‘mate – I have slept in my tent under motorways and in filthy abandoned buildings. I literally have no standards. You would be disgusted if you knew how long I’ve gone at times without a shower!’.
Perhaps the worst part is that there is an element of truth to what they say. Would I want to live my whole life in a rickety building full of cockroaches and mosquitoes? Absolutely not. That’s the embarrassing part.
Husan’s family were lovely. We sat outside chatting into the night and half the village came out to say hello and stare at the real life TV show. Imagine it on National Geographic: ‘rare sighting of Englishman hanging out in a Sumbawa village’.
They fed me and welcomed me like family. The people in Sumbawa have been really amazing. The people and the scenery have made it my favourite Indonesian island so far. I wish I could have stayed longer but there’s always next time. Husan said that if I come back he will find the most beautiful local woman for me to marry, I guess that’s something.
I left at dawn to ride the last section down to the harbour and catch the boat to Labuanbajo. Actually, that’s where I am now. I’ve typed this blog sitting on the boat to Flores island. They might be slow, but these boats give me a chance to sit down and keep the text for this blog up-to-date. We were supposed to leave at 8am but only just started at 11am (half an hour ago). Now that I’ve finished typing I have another 7 hours of twiddling my thumbs…
There is a rooster in a box next to me which has been cockadoodledooing non-stop since I sat down. If I look out the window I can see Kommodo island where the famous dragons live. I’ll be giving it a miss on this occasion. It’s expensive and if I crack on I can cross the 650km of Flores in time to get the next boat from Larantuka instead of Ende.
I saw a lot of huge monitor lizards on Sumbawa and Kommodo dragons are just extra huge monitors, as far as I’m concerned. It feels very strange to be writing in the present, but by the time I post I post this I’ll probabaly already be out the country…
See you next time!