When I woke Larantuka was already hot and sweaty in the morning sun. I walked through the streets until I found a cash machine that would accept my card – the first time in Indonesia so far.
Indonesian cash machines are typically housed in tiny glass-doored cubicles of arctic air conditioning. Scandinavians might be able to dash from sauna to snow, but Indonesians have figured out how to have the same experience while getting their cash out at the same time. Multitasking.
I left with cash and a slight tingling in the extremities.
Just along the road, I smelled something delicious. Pancakes? Could it be pancakes? I No, even better. Imagine if crumpets were the size of dinner plates and were made of sweet pancake batter: I had discovered the terang bulan.
A young man was cooking up a storm over a hotplate in a roadside cart, his hands moving quickly, lightly. He poured the batter into a round mold, let it bubble and rise up an inch high, then smothered it with salty margarine, desiccated coconut, a little condensed milk and a layer of black currant preserve. I stood watching him for a few minutes, mouth watering salaciously, then I traded some rupiah for this steaming, calorific happiness.
In the background of my mind, I could hear people – men – yelling out at me from the street, from the traffic. Hey mister, other indecipherable catcalls. It was the same as last night. The irony that they were using a male form of address to sexually harrass a woman was not lost on me, but it was certainly lost on them.
I saw the shady entrance to a letter-box-sized coffee shop and ducked inside. The shouts faded away. It was just me and a man behind the counter who had a marvellous aura of calm. I liked him immediately. He raised his eyebrows to take my order – kopi hitam – and raised them a bit more when I asked for no sugar. Had he heard right? No sugar?
I didn’t know the Indonesian words to describe the joyous counterpoint of bitter black coffee to sweet cake, but it didn’t matter. It was Saturday morning, and in this little shopfront there was space for me and all my peculiarities. I perched on a stool and ate my terang bulan, drank my coffee. People came and bought iced drinks to take away; old mate served them efficiently but langurously, never breaking a sweat.
His mate came by with his young son. They chatted a bit, to each other, to me. A little bit of English, a little bit of Indonesian as they helped me find the words I was looking for. Drinking coffee, hanging out. The child went in and out of the shop, playing with kids in the busy street then doubling back to dad for water and chips. The guy was gentle and patient in his interactions with his son; the kid was confident and independent. I liked them all.
I sat there for a long time, because when you find a time and place like that, you don’t have to go anywhere else. You’ve arrived.
* * *
* * *
It was midday when I left Larantuka. Again, there was a very nice asphalt road heading East, so I immediately turned off it. There was skinny asphalt, and then soon there wasn’t asphalt, just a rocky track through the jungle; then the asphalt would come back for a while. I wondered how much more challenging the road would be get, but once I hit the north coast it seemed to improve. There was spots where the road surface had broken up and washed away – sometimes right into the sea – but mostly, a real attempt had been made to build a road here. It was not bad at all.
I took a rest break in a shady spot overlooking a bay with a few fishing boats and towering groves of coconut palms. It was crazy beautiful.
I sat there for a long time too. I didn’t feel at peace but I was glad to be there, glad to have a chance to just immerse myself a little in this beautiful place which seemed, at that moment, a long way from anywhere.
There were some young men diving for shellfish from traditional wooden boats, and they called out to me when they got close enough. Come swimming, they said, but I shook my head, no. Can’t you swim? They called out, a challenge. I can swim, I said, but I’m not going swimming today.
It was hot and the water would have been nice but my gut told me that this was not the time and the place to be stripping off any layers of clothing. As a foreigner, you are afforded a certain freedom from being outside societal norms; but sometimes it also means that you don’t get the protection of those norms. The boys in the boat were calling out to me, trying their luck with me, in a way I sensed they wouldn’t with a local woman. They didn’t mean badly, but I also wasn’t going to go swimming with them.
A woman came walking along the road, past me, with her two small children. I was happy, so I smiled at one of the children, who was staring at me in open fascination. The mother saw this, and grabbed the child’s hand roughly, pulling him along the road. The body language was clear: she was scared for her child. Don’t look at the foreigner, said the tight grip of her hand on the children’s arms as she quickened her pace, dragging them down the road away from me.
My heart broke a little.
I guess they don’t see many foreigners here.
* * *
I followed the winding, broken road along the face of the cliffs, with the sea dropping away on my right. At one point, I came around a blind corner, face to face with a truck. I was already riding as far left as I could, for precisely this reason; but still there was no room and I had to move a little more. I grazed the mess of rocks and vegetation at the base of the cliff. A protruding branch contacted my left pannier and I scraped along, feeling it pushing me off line, but not deflecting hard enough to push me over and under the truck. I felt the hot breath of the diesel engine close to my right cheek and then the subtle jerk as a branch caught my pannier strap. My heart leapt a little. I felt the quick release on the strap let go, just as it was designed to do. The truck brushed past and I kept riding, steady, straight, like nothing had happened.
A little later, I found a safe place to stop and refasten the strap. In my head, I blessed Giant Loop and Harold and his Round the World panniers, and every little bit of good design that keeps you on the road and not under the wheels of a truck.
* * *
Late in the afternoon, I came across signs for homestays lining a road near a beach. I picked one at random, and rode to down to a set of bungalows. They looked decrepit, abandoned. I thought at least they might be cheap.
A woman emerged from a nearby garden and I asked her how much it was for a night there; she said that unfortunately the establishment was booked out and they had no rooms available.
We stood there, as the abandoned bamboo bungalows crumbled desolately into the foliage, and we let the fiction stand. I rode back to the main road, picked another sign at random, followed a different track.
More bungalows, not even crumbling this time. They even had guests. It was cheap. They told me that the only bungalows available required a short boat ride across the bay – was that okay?
Hell yes. Give me my free boat ride to my little slice of paradise, please. Thank you very much.