I was at the harbour in Larantuka at 7am. 11 hours later we finally docked in Kupang, just as the last of the sun was slipping below the horizon.
Like every ferry crossing in Indonesia, the journey involved a plenty of faff and stalling but was accompanied by stunning views across the straits.
It was only the second passenger-only ferry I’ve taken here (Batam to Sumatra was the other) and I had to carry my bike and bags all the down into the hold. The ship was a huge Pelni boat, running over a week from Java to Papua. I was glad only to be on board a day – some people I spoke to were on board for days between destinations.
It’s a lot cheaper than flying. But also more frustrating. The same bloke walking around with drinks would come over to me and say “mister, kopi?” every 5 minutes once he’d completed his same loop. This went on for 7 hours. In the end I took out my own gas canister and brewed my own coffee just to spite him.
Kupang was a suprise. Even in the dark the road was in far better condition than anywhere I’d cycled in Flores. The town is a sprawling city – by far the biggest I’ve been since Denpassar in Bali 3 weeks ago.
I liked it. In fact – along with Yogyakarta, Kupang is only the second Indonesia city with a population greater than 250,000 that I’ve actually liked. If the incessant “hello mister”s would shut up for a moment I’d have fancied sticking around longer.
Fortunately I could afford a day off. The first since Bali and a much needed break. I stayed in the one backpackers’-hostel in town and planned my route to the border. The planning was easy: with just a few days left on my visa I had no choice but to continue east along the main road.
This island was different. Around the village homes the cleared land was a dusty red. That red soil I associate with Australia. I wasn’t quite there yet, but Timor does sit on the same continental plate with its large neighbour ‘down under’. Its flora has traces typical to both South East Asia and Australasia. So does the fauna: there are monkeys on the island (which you don’t find in Oz) but also marsupials (common in Australia but not found anywhere else I’ve been). There’s also a more concerning animal around the shores now – salt water crocodiles!
After the relative quiet of Flores, Timor was a busy island. It felt more like the rest of Indonesia with warung restaurants in abundance and villages lining the road non-stop.
There was nowhere to camp so I invited myself into the police station in Ngilmina. Like all the police stations I’ve slept in, they were a little confused by my initial request but more than happy to have me once they understood. First they had to make some phone calls and the mobile was passed over for me to chat to an English speaking cop from the next town: “You can stay here but first the police must take your body and bags”. “Take my body?” “No sorry, check. It’s protocol if you are in a government building”. Government building… it’s a shabby block in a little West Timor town. But sure!
First question they asked me was ‘sendiri?’ (alone?). Every country has its unique ‘textbook’ question they ask every time without fail and this is the Indonesian one. It’s strange. I get asked it every day and each time they are surprised I’m alone. I think Indonesians are too scared to even go to the shops by themselves.
The cops were lovely guys. One of them bought me bakso for dinner and then invited me to watch volleyball with him. I hopped on the back of his motorbike (amused that a policeman didn’t wear – or offer me – a ‘legally required’ helmet) and drove to the nearby volleyball court where the whole town seemed to have gathered. The first kids that spotted me were shy and had to spend a few minutes mustering the confidence to come over and practice their limited English phrases. But once word was out that there was a bule in town every kid came flocking. Suddenly I was surrounded by dozens of kids, encircling me with barely a foot of personal space and all yelling ‘mister, mister!’ ‘my name is?’ ‘how are you?’. For a few seconds it was entertaining but very quickly became overwhelming. They just scream the same thing over and over and none of the adults tell them to leave me alone. They just stare from a distance, even the cop didn’t realise that the attention might be a little over the top.
Considering they have English in school, it’s impressive that they can’t even manage ‘what is your name?’ and only ‘my name is?’ I felt like a chicken drumstick dropped into a piranha tank. The people in Indonesia are all nice (I have never thought otherwise) but their social skills leave a lot to be desired sometimes. It’s not normal or polite to treat a stranger like this. I am not a zoo animal. This is exactly why I don’t sleep in villages anymore: the hospitable locals would be more than happy to have me, I’m sure, but the ensuing attention drives me mad. I am tired of being the foreign visitor. Indonesia is starting to wear me out…
This island is not as poor as Flores. More of the homes are built from bricks and there are more ‘proper’ shops and roadside cafes. People sell the extras they’ve been growing in their gardens out the front of their house, which is great as I can always by fruit and veg. I could never understand why no-one in Flores did that. If it’s not good practise to hand out cash to the kids asking for money in villages it certainly is good to buy produce straight from locals’ gardens.
It was still very dry. Wide rivers were just sorry-looking beds of stones with trickling streams flowing along what is probably a raging river in rainy season. The roads were steep and hard work. Scenic, but uninspiring compared to Flores. I was starting to realise just how gorgeous Flores had been. Here I had to remind myself to get the camera out the bag. In Flores I’d had to remind myself to cycle in between all the photo stops!
The villages were fascinating here. The Dawun people’s traditional homes are these extraordinary huts. I read that the government had been trying to get people in towns to get ride of them in favour of modern houses. They’ve deemed them a health hazard which I can believe – the doors are tiny little holes cut into the bottom. They look like straw igloos.
It seemed the traditional houses were becoming less popular. Often extended families live together on the same plot of land and you can see the different houses of each generation. First the traditional straw house, then (with a little more cash) the next generation’s wooden home and then (with again a little more cash) the latest generation’s brick home. Usually the traditional home would be at the back so I didn’t get any good photos of them. Instead I’ve cheated again and nicked a pic from online:
The attention was still exhausting. The people I stopped to talk to were lovely but as I cycled past villages they’d all erupt in choruses of ‘mister!’ or ‘bule!’. Once again I turned to the police for a place to retreat. In Niki Niki the cops even let me sleep inside a spare room.
“Religion?” One them asked me. He was writing down my passport details in a visitor book. “No religion” I replied in Bahasa Indonesia. He looked confused thinking I’d not understood. “Christian? Muslim?” he offered in assistance. I shrugged, “fine – Christian”. That wasn’t enough, apparently: “Catholic? Protestant?” I shrugged again, “whatever”. He raised an eyebrow. I guess ‘whatever’ is not an answer.
If I was a Christian, would I rather be a Catholic or Protestant? That’s a question I’ve never asked myself. I suppose I’m old enough not to need worry about being molested inside a Catholic church and their places of worship are much more flashy – so I told him I was Catholic and he looked happy being able to write a proper answer on his sheet.
The Indonesians are funny about religion. On the whole, I think they have a very admirable attitude to religion (unlike other places I’ve been). In Indonesia the 6 major religions are an integral part of the national identity (they only recognise Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism). From what I’ve seen, people are free to practice whichever they wish. Some are very conservative, others incredibly relaxed. The people I’ve spoken to have always been proud of how tolerant and multi-religious their country is. I think that’s very cool.
But there is something I find weird. That is that everyone has to have a religion. It’s part of Pancasila (their state philosophy). On an Indonesian’s identity card it states their faith. I don’t think you’re allowed to be an atheist. Of all the people I’ve spoken to over the last couple months only one person has told me they don’t identify with a major religion. I find that strange because Islam, Christianity, Hinduism/Buddhism (those two cross over a fair bit) are imported religions. The former two are very new arrivals to the archipelago in the grand scheme of things. If you open the history book you can pretty much see exactly which boat brought over the new ideology and plopped it down on the locals’ heads.
In places they practice seemingly contradictory traditional animist beliefs alongside the newer religion. On the whole the people here are incredibly devout and I find that baffling. Christianity is far older in the UK and yet we are such a secular bunch in comparison. I wouldn’t wonder why someone from Saudi Arabia has never questioned their faith, as Islam has more than a millennium of history there. In Indonesia however, it only has a few hundred years.
The strange homes all but disappeared but now ‘open plan’ versions of the straw huts were placed beside every home. I’m not sure if they represented anything special but they certainly weren’t for living in. Maybe just for shade. Shade is important here. The heat is awful in the middle of the day.
The kids are nicer here than in Flores. I had one group on colourful bicycles follow me for ages one afternoon. At one point they started singing Bob Marley and we had an impromptu sing along as we pedalled. It was one of those surreal moments I wish I could capture. Me and a motley crew of 5 local kids riding through the villages of West Timor singing ‘One Love’ at the tops of our lungs.
When we reached a big descent they stopped and I cycled away after saying bye. As I rolled downhill they yelled ‘money, money!’ Little two-faced shits. They weren’t being that serious, just ‘opportunist’ and if they thought I was going to give them anything they would have just asked first thing. But still, strange behaviour. I’m less sympathetic here than in Flores. The people here are not poor like they were there.
I really wanted a quiet night, but people were living everywhere by the road. Just as I was getting desperate I spotted a track climbing up a hillside. I dragged my bike up scratching my arms and legs on the thorns as I did so, but it was worth it. At the top was a grass plain with sweeping views across the mountains west. The last of the light was leaving and by the time I’d finished dinner the sky had lit up with the most beautiful star sky I’ve seen in a long time. A breeze made the heat bearable and the milky way stretched straight across the top of my tent. I have missed wild camping like this so much in South East Asia. Nothing makes me more happy than waking up to a gorgeous view.
The next day I cycled across wide flat fields on my way to Atambua. It was dry and hot but a section of flat was very welcome. West Timor had been surprisingly hard work on the legs.
In Atambua I stayed with Ari who I’d met late the previous afternoon. He’d invited me to stay at his place that evening. “It’s 70km away! Maybe tomorrow instead?” Some people aren’t very good at judging the distances on a heavy bicycle.
Ari was a really top bloke. Fantastic English, well-educated, open minded and the same age as me. The kind of person that reminds me that I can make true friends in any corner of the world, regardless of our background.
He was originally from East Timor, but had moved to Kefamenanu in West Timor when he was 5. The country had not been a safe or stable place to grow up in at the time. I’ve met quite a few East Timorese here. During the 25 years of Indonesian occupation the island was united and many people moved West.
It was a perfect end to my two months in Indonesia. At times the attention has been tiring and I know I’ve complained about that plenty. But if there is one final memory of Indonesia that will linger – it is of how hospitable the people are here. On my first full day of cycling back in Sumatra I was invited into a family’s home for lunch and invited to stay the night. Now on the last full day riding I was staying with another wonderful stranger who’d gone out of his way to help me on my journey.
And what a fascinating place to travel! It felt like so many different countries within one. Different people, culture, religion, islands, food and landscapes. After so many months of monotonous South East Asia scenery the riding across the last few islands was stunning.
Before arriving in the country I’d looked at Indonesia on the map as just that last little bridge to Australia. I didn’t realise what a big chunk of my trip would be spent here. I’ve cycled over 4,000km here in 60 days. The first 4,000km I cycled in Europe took me all the way up to Denmark and down to Serbia (across more than 10 countries).
The only country I’ve cycled in more was China and those two countries couldn’t have been more different. In China I often wished people would acknowledge me, rather than just quietly stare. In Indonesia I often wished the opposite – that people would just ignore me. I’m not your friend. It’s none of business where I’m going. Can’t you see I’m trying to read my book!?
But when I reflect on the differences between those two countries, it’s an easy call as to which people I’d rather spend my time around. So thanks to the good Indonesian people. You lot have been a right headache at times but a very fun one indeed.
I will never take my bicycle back to Java but I will certainly return. There is so much to see in this country and I have barely scratched the surface.
After I handed my passport over at the border the guards beckoned me into their office. “You’ve overstayed your visa”. For an awful second I wondered how I could have fucked that up – I’ve counted the days so many times. Then, after seeing the look of fear spread across my face, they all started laughing. Not funny, guys.
It was the 60th and final day of my visa. That’s what I call good timing.