The ferry was suppose to get to Larantuka at 3am. Only a couple of hours before dawn. I’d figured I could sit under the lights at the dock until daybreak, then get on the road.
But now I could feel the throb of the engine changing through the steel deck, and it was pulling me out of my restful sleep. The engines were going into neutral, into reverse, then into forward gear again. I struggled to sit up and blinked a few times; I’d slept with my contact lenses in, and now my eyes were dry and blurry. I blinked a few more times until the world came into focus. There were the lights of the port; we were docking in Larantuka. It was only just after midnight.
Well, you can’t stay on the boat. Already the trucks in the hold were starting their engines, attempting to gas all on board with their urgent desire to disembark. Nothing for it but to drink one of my stash of UHT iced coffees – thank you sugar, thank you caffeine – and wake Beastie from her slumbers.
The voyage had been calm and still, my tie-downs unnecessary. I rolled them carefully, stashed them for next time. The ferry lurched up to the dock and vomited us all out into the night.
I rode down the jetty, then there was a dirt carpark and a swarm of shanty-shops. There was no well-lighted, safe, official-looking building where Beastie and I could park up. In fact, it was shady as hell. I didn’t know where I was going to go – at nearly 1 a.m. it was too late to be knocking on the door of any homestay – but I had to get out of here.
I pulled the seat off the bike and started rewiring my spotlights. Long story about water in my relays, but anyway, I’d disconnected the spotlights in Timor and now I was in a dodgy, dark port town in the middle of the night and I couldn’t see a thing.
It was an easy task to reconnect the wiring, and would only have taken me five minutes except for the police. I had the seat off and leatherman in hand when I saw the police Hilux rolling towards me. I quickly turned off my headlamp and tried to blend into the darkness. The police vehicle drove past. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then the police vehicle stopped, and its reverse lights came on. It was halfway up a small hill and there was traffic behind it. Awkwardly, the traffic started to back up. The police had seen me; they were coming back. Fuck my life.
The Hilux pulled up right next to the bike and four big, uniformed men got out. The two in the back were carrying assault rifles. They surrounded me.
‘Selamat malam,’ I said, with a little smile: not hostile, but not too friendly either. I waited to see where this would go.
‘Good evening,’ said one of the men who’d gotten out of the front of the vehicle, in careful English. ‘What can we do for you?’
‘Oh, thank you very much,’ I said, and gave them another, slightly bigger smile. (This was positive.) ‘Nothing at all. I’m quite alright. Just reconnecting my spotlights. Not problems at all.’
They looked slightly confused and slightly disappointed. I’m sure that finding a white woman alone at the port, dismantling a motorbike in the middle of the night had initially seemed very promising.
Then, the standard questions: where have you come from? Where are you going? From Kupang, I said, just travelling around…
There were some nods, then silence. They were just standing around looking at me. I flashed them another conciliatory smile and went back reconnecting my spotlights. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see some local people casting curious glances from the shadows, waiting to see if something was going to go down; but they were keeping their distance. I was on my own.
When I was finished, one of the younger men – from the back seat, carrying an assault rifle – sidled up to me. ‘My commander wants a photo,’ he told me.
Ah, no worries. Selfie dulu. So we had selfies with motorbikes and assault rifles at midnight. As you do.
* * *
As soon as the police had left, I got on the bike, flicked on my spotties and got the hell out of there. I had no idea where I was going. I programmed my phone to navigate to a beach just out of town; perhaps I could find a safely secluded spot to wait for daylight. In the meantime, I scanned the roadsides for somewhere lighted, somewhere safe that I could stop.
There was nowhere. Larantuka is a dodgy port town, especially in the middle of the night. It wasn’t completely dead and dark yet; there were groups of men playing cards and smoking cigarettes at intervals, and they watched me pass with keener interest than I’d have liked. I rode slowly, scanning for my safe place. Still nothing.
I passed the police headquarters, lit up midday. For sure, there were plenty of lights and people there, and I even could have asked the police earlier if they had somewhere safe I could wait out the night. But I’d been too intimidated, surrounded by four big men with authority and assault rifles in the middle of the night. They were very polite to me. But still, there was something that made the hairs stand up on my arms, and I wasn’t going to unnecessarily put myself in the power of men who are used to getting their own way.
So I kept riding; as long as I kept moving I was safe. But now I was running out of town. Running out of possibilities. Where the hell was I going.
Uuddenly, I saw it: golden lights, the guarded courtyard of a hotel, and in it – adventure bikes. There were two Versys, one new CRF250L Rally, and incongruously, a shiny-chromed Royal Enfield.
It’s my people!
On impulse, I grabbed a bit of brake and swung in. The security guards saw me coming; one of them rushed to move a scooter so that I could park Beastie next to the adventure bikes, next to her friends. Parked beside to them with their shining duco, pristine panniers, Beasty looked like a dirty, dirty warhorse. Still, she was a big bike, and looked important, so the security guys assumed that I was meant to be there.
And it was safe. Relieved, I fiddled around with my panniers for a while then sat down beside Beastie. It was an expensive hotel; there was no way in the world I could afford a room there, even if anyone had been awake to sell me one. But for the moment I was safe, so I sat on the curb and wondered how long it would be before security twigged, and threw me out.
Half an hour passed. A man came out of the hotel, smelling slightly of spirits. He sat down beside me to smoke a cigarette, and we chatted for a bit. Are you staying here at the hotel, he asked.
Well, not exactly; after a while I admitted that I was really just a homeless person camping out in the safety of the carpark until such times as I might be asked leave. He thought it was a good story. It turned out that he was an immigration official from Maumere, just in Larantuka for a few days for work. We chatted for a few cigarettes, and he showed me photos of his cute daughter. He said to call if I ever needed anything in Maumere.
After a while, my companion wanderd off to bed. The two security guards were in their little guardbox a few metres away, watching a tiny, snowy television set. I lay down underneath my motorbike so as to be as little visible as possible. I propped my cheek against my front tyre and my jacket under my head. In seconds, I was asleep.
* * *
I woke slightly to the sound of a conversation – one of the security guards, and another man. The other man seemed to be asking what I was doing there. I heard the security guard reply, ‘Dia sendirian. Tidak ada teman.’
She’s alone. She doesn’t have any friends.
The other guy grunted and went back inside. I went back to sleep.
* * *
I woke to the sound of the Muslim call to prayer, ringing out from a mosque nearby. The sound was exotic, a little romantic: it reminded that I was in a foreign land. It also gave me a chance to clear out before anyone had to feel awkward about the homeless foreigner sleeping under her motorbike in front of their hotel.
Since the security guards obviously knew my game by now and were okay with it, I approach them with morning greetings and mustered the temerity to ask them if there were any bathroom facilities. They let me into the darkened lobby, and I performed my morning ablutions in the gleaming, sweet scented facilities of a fancy western hotel. It was utter luxury.
I thanked them, and got my little hobo show back on the road while daylight was still just a slight greying of the sky.
I stopped down the road, by a beach in Flores, to watch the light flood in.