In Palu, I am spoiled rotten.
My local biker friends install me in their clubhouse – there’s a little room with an old mattress on the floor, a fan, and a cold water bathroom, and I’m welcome to camp out there as long as I like. It’s not fancy. I carefully lay my groundsheet over the mattress which could undoubtedly tell stories (and, indeed, appears to be on the verge of developing the language skills to do so). But it is safe and I am welcome – so welcome. And that makes it better than fancy, it makes it perfect.
Aunty lives next door to the clubhouse with her sweet-faced 14 year old son. She mothers all the young bikers who come and go from the clubhouse, and she takes me under her wing. If ever I need anything, I am to ask her.
When I wake bleary-eyed in the mornings, she is always nearby putting water on for coffee. Over the many days that I spend sitting on the front porch talking with various people from the various bike clubs, Aunty learns that kankung is my favourite food. Perhaps you know it as morning glory – it’s the long slender green leafy vegetable that grows in water. One afternoon Aunty buys gigantic bunches of it and fries aromatically in salt and oil and garlic, and watches with deep satisfaction as I eat my fill. It feels like my birthday and Christmas come at once. If having someone go out of their way to cook your favourite food for you is not love, I don’t know what is.
Each morning when I wake up, there is a package of takeaway food waiting by my door – breakfast for me. Nasi lemak, or nasi kuning – rice cooked with oil or spice to make it rich and succulent and moist, served with a little chicken, a little vegetable, some roast peanuts. Classic Indonesian breakfast food. It’s delicious, but the thing that strikes me the most is the magical way that it appears: I never know who brings it, it always just there when I wake up.
With similar magic, the tyre from Metzeler appears. I don’t even have to follow up directly – the guys know the guy that the other guy sent the tyre to, and one morning he arrives at the clubhouse and presents it to me. I thank him profusely for his trouble, and we chat, and he disappears, and I never see him again.
We go down to the local tyre shop to get it fitted, instead of me spending all afternoon sweating and swearing over my tyre levers, but for a moment I think I’ve made the wrong choice. They’ve never fitted a motorcycle tyre this big before; they don’t even have a socket big enough for my axle nut. It’s okay, because I do, but then more consternation ensues when their usual stack of wood blocks is not high enough to take the weight fully off the front wheel of the bike. The boys propose hitting the axle through with a hammer – my aluminium axle, my delicate and very expensive KTM axle – and I have a minor breakdown. They watch me with bemusement, don’t take it personally. I’m sweating and swearing and they’re just grinning at me.
Soon I have to laugh too. We sort it all out with sign language and a bit of back-and-forth. I show them how the axle slides out smoothly with your hands when it’s properly unweighted, and I get my friends to help me find some cardboard so that my brake disk doesn’t end up ground into the concrete of the workshop floor. The boys are sweet, even if their methodologies give me the horrors. I’m grateful for their skill with the levers and their good humour. Soon my fine 690 is reshod – fresh rubber on the front, only a couple of thousand of kilometres on the back, ready to roll again.
At night I get on the back of one of the bikes and we all ride around Palu seeing the sights. The word for pilion in Indonesian is boncang, which literally translates as freeloader, and that cracks me up. On a mountain overlooking all of Palu there is a beautiful golden gong, a monument to the tolerance and peace between all the religions in Palu – Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, animist.
Down by the river, we walk between stacks of gigantic durian, the much coveted king of fruit. They say it smells like death and tastes like heaven. I’ve never quite come to terms with it, but it is a much sought-after treat.
They are crazy spiky looking fruit with soft yellowish pulpy kernals inside. If you bring them into hotels or onto the bus, you’ll be prosecuted and fined. I often see people transporting durian by tying them underneath the passenger pegs of the scooter – down below, and well downwind.
* * *
Up at the landslide, a few days before, I’d also met Eky with his CBR250. He was from Parigi, on the other side of the mountain, and he invited me to come diving.
I prevaricated, because I like to dive but my budget doesn’t; but he was inviting me to be a guest of the company. It was a new diving operation, and all they wanted was some feedback as to how I thought they could best appeal to foreign visitors, and whether there was anything that I thought could be improved.
Wow. Am I asleep, and dreaming? Apparently not. So one morning I get up early and ride my motorbike across the mountain, right over the spine of the island to the eastern beaches. Once I get past the landslide, I find myself swooping down the tight curves in a state of delight. The bike is unloaded and there’s no traffic on the road; it’s like those early Sunday mornings when I use to ride over the mountain range out of Sydney with no objective but to chase that feeling.
I’m feeling zen and blissed by the time I get down to the coast again, and I’m only half paying attention when I ride right past Eky. He sees me and gives chase – let’s go back the other way, he says. The dive place is ahead, but first he wants to show me where his friends are planting mangroves to regenerate the coastline.
So I follow him down the road and off the road and down a tiny sandy footpath through the trees and out onto a grassy sandy shore. There are cows grazing lazily under dramatic wet season clouds. There’s a cluster of scooters and tents, a guitar, someone making coffee, and a dozen people out in the water up to their knees.
They are all planting mangrove seedlings – pushing them gently into the submerged sand and tying them with natural twine to bamboo stakes. A little further away, I can see larger mangroves peeking through the surface of the water in neat lines – ones they planted previously, which have now taken root and grown.
Eky explains that they’re a group of volunteers who mobilise to carry out projects for the betterment of the community. Replanting the mangroves will improve water quality and fish stocks, and help protect the coastline from the frequent tsunamis.
Some of the people are from Parigi but others are from Palu – they have ridden across the mountain range to camp out here for a few nights and get the work done.
We plant mangroves under a glowering dark sky that promises rain but by the time we’ve moved onto the dive spot and I’ve wiggled into a wetsuit, the sun is beating down from a hot blue sky.
It’s crazy. All the colours are and glorious on a day like this; the water is sparkling and clear, fabulous visibility. We walk straight down the beach and the reefs are right there, only four or five metres deep, thick with coral.
There are no currents; there’s no wind. We do four dives that day, moving further along the reefs that flank the beaches.
It’s just me and the divemasters; we’ve got the place to ourselves.
When we come out of the water, the compressor is right there to recharge our tanks, and there is a row of foodstalls selling deep fried bananas and other delicious snacks.
We bask in the warm sun. We swim off the pontoon.
It’s divine. Just divine.
Sometimes I look at my motorbike and remember buying it that day on the outskirts of Brisbane, and now I see it here, parked in the sun by a beach in Indonesia. And I marvel. I just think, wow, how did we get here.