Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Indonesia: Sumatran lows and highs - part 1

He lay still, face down on the tarmac, his helmet split in two. I stared as a pool of blood grew around him and his life ebbed away. Someone went over and turned off his moped engine that lay across his legs. I wanted to reach over to him, to touch his hand and reassure him it would all be okay, instead I turned my head away and, overwhelmed with the emotion of the morning spent with a wonderful group of school children, followed by the harsh reality and fragility of life and a painful tugging of my heart to see my family again, wept silently.

"Hello Mister!" I looked towards the greeting and 2 men on a moped swerving to avoid the body in the road grinned and waved at me. "Where you from?". "Inggeris" I choked, wiping my eyes and forcing a smile. More waves, more smiles, more hello's as mopeds and vehicles passed me, weaving their way around the obstruction and the crowd that had gathered to view the deceased and the tourist on a bicycle. His body was dragged from the road. With a last glance and a bow of respect I left the accident scene and continued on my journey across Sumatra.

My border entry into Sumatra, the largest of the islands that makes up Indonesia, was thankfully smoother than the journey crossing the Malacca Strait by boat. A few times I stumbled through the tangle of bags and passengers on to the deck to check my bike was actually still onboard as the ocean spume gave it an impromptu dousing. After the first visit I returned with toilet paper offering it to the dribbling seasick passengers sprawled out on deck. A visa was secured on arrival and with only 5cm of map to guide me I left the port asking the immigration crew to point me in the direction of Bukittingi some 400km away. Within 2 minutes of leaving the port I was faced with the dilemma of which side of the road to cycle on. Of course elsewhere in the world it is simple: follow the traffic. I did this but then oil tankers, pickup trucks, mopeds, buses, cars, minivans were speeding towards me head on, throwing up a cloud of dust and choking me with their fumes. I stopped at the side of the road to regain composure recalling how I'd scoffed in disbelief at tales of cyclists in Sumatra having to throw themselves off their bikes into a ditch to avoid a head on collision..

After 20km I got myself into a rhythm and the fear of being crushed eased as - despite the terrible roads with tennis court sized craters, the bizarre stretch of bedsheets, the dust, the smoke, the fumes, the constant thundering noise of trucks and horns that would sound from behind to say they were going to overtake me, then another loud blast when overtaking, then again when they realised I was a tourist and this was usually accompanied by the driver and passengers becoming contortionists and leaning out of the windows with irrepressible grins and of course a final blow of the horn when they had safely passed me - I realised there was a hint of courtesy in their overtaking of me that I did not experience on the only other road to have created such fear in me of imminent demise that being the A2 to Dover.

Approximately 250,000 hornblows later and after being stalked for the last 5 km by the tallest ladyboy I'd ever seen I spotted a house on the opposite side of the road that screamed out at me "stay here. There is a kind of instinct you get after so long on the road as to where is safe to stay and I was drawn to this place and after a 10 minute battle with traffic I performed a u-turn, asked the man on the verandah through a variety of sign language if I could pitch my tent next to them. He nodded. The father came to say hello as I pitched my tent- down a slope yet still in full earful of the roar of traffic - then the mother, the daughter, the daughters of someone else, the brother and another sister followed by the neighbours popped by to say hello. With camp finally set up I was then informed that where I was camped would put me at risk of transgenders. "I'm sorry.. risk of what?!" I shouted back recalling the strange encounter with the ladyboy earlier who though twice the height of me did not seem to pose too much of a threat. After a few more attempts of communication above the din and reassured that I was only at risk of 'danger' and not my misheard 'transgenders' I convinced them I was okay and would knock on their door if any form of danger came to my tent in the night. They agreed with this arrangement and the air raid siren sounded to indicate that sun had set, the soulful voice of the muzzein rose from every mosque in the vicinity and the family rushed off for the fast-breaking meal on this first day of Ramadan.

I smiled to myself as I heated up some water on my stove to break my unintentional fast (can't get street/restaurant food in the daytime during Ramadan!) with a tasteless bowl of instant noodles: in just 4 hours Sumatra had kickstarted the sense of adventure within me again, I felt I was back in the spirit of central asia, knocking on doors for a bed, being greeted at every turn and welcomed with warmth and curiosity.

Bleary eyed at 0630 the next day I unzipped my tent. "Ah, good morning" I said to the lady of the house next door who was peering in at me. She saw me reach for my jar of nescafe and MSR stove and scuttled off returning with a beaker of hot water, a teaspoon.. and another 5 people. Big smiles loomed over me as I sipped at my coffee. I was given gifts of a beautiful headscarf, a teaspoon and invited in to the house for a bucket shower. After a brief photo session with this delightful family, swapping facebook details with Anja, the daughter, and presenting the mother with the Thai elephant candle holder that I'd strapped to my mudguard some months earlier I said my farewells.

Busy traffic haunted me for the first 40km until I took a back road from Kandis which meant I would avoid the busy city of Pekanbaru. Some teenage girls on mopeds followed me and I stopped for another photo shoot. My aim was to get to the town of Bankinang Barat (160km from that day's start point on the edge of Duri) yet 12km short and after ridiculously steep up and downs I was flagged down by 2 young girls in hijabs on a moped and this encounter resulted in such a precious moment for me in Sumatra.

Having excitedly called their teacher to say they had seen a tourist on a bicycle pass through their village the 4 of them (Sri, the teacher, brought her nephew with her) on 2 mopeds caught up with me. These two thirteen year old girls yearned to speak to tourists, to learn from them and practice the English language that they studied not only in school but also after hours in a language centre Sri had set up in the village. Only a handful of tourists on bikes pass by but they never stop. I was so touched by their enthusiasm that when Sri invited me to return to the village to spend the night I jumped at the chance. Our entourage returned and I sat on a bench under the tree as a gaggle of school children gathered to ask me questions and take photographs.

At sunset they returned to their homes to break their fast. I was invited in to Sri's mother's shop where I had a bucket shower before tucking into a fine feast they'd prepared for me. No cutlery is needed here in Indonesia, steamed rice and gado-gado, bitter papaya flower buds, quail eggs and chillis are scooped up into your mouth using the fingers of your right hand. I was put to bed in the language school while the village sprung to life, men donning 'peci' -muslim caps, women adjusting hijabs as they sped off on mopeds to the mosque for evening prayer.

I slept fitfully and Sri woke me the next morning to join her for breakfast of fried noodles and rice in her mother's shop. The girls came to say hello, dressed immaculately in white, telling me of their dreams to become doctors and pilots and performed a Justin Bieber song for me while I downed my second cup of coffee. I'd agreed to give a talk to their class that morning and one hour later having met every member of staff of the school SB1, including the headmaster and deputy head I gave a talk after morning prayer to.. 400 school children!!

What a privilege and what a pleasure. Thank you to all the staff and pupils for making me so welcome. To any cyclist who is intending to pass through Sumatra please contact me. I've agreed with the school and Sri that a place to sleep will be offered to you in return for an hour of your time to share your experiences with a delightful group of children eager to listen, learn and practice their English. It doesn't get much better than this..


  1. inspiring reading as ever. you really should compile all of this into a book on your return. I for one would buy it!

  2. Thank you Penny. Just seen your email!! you'll be getting a reply very soon

  3. Dear Jill! I would buy a copy too. If only you posted more often, we would have more enjoyment now. Inspiring, empowering, encouraging, amazing, humbling, funny and very, very interesting. These are just a few of the adjectives I was thinking of describing your trip with. Thanks!
    Julianna (Arpi and Zita's friend)

  4. Hello Julianna. thank you so much for your kind words! I have another few posts in progress so I will get them published as soon as possible

  5. I too am enjoying your tales enormously and will make note of the school as I'm determined to get down that way on my travels (if I don't turn round in France and go home that is :P).