I liked Reo. It’s a totally, totally ordinary town. Built between the river and a decent sized commercial port, it’s dusty and important to local commerce and unknown to everyone else. There are no tourists. Nobody was trying to sell me anything. I loved it.
In the mornings, there would be a cup of sweet black coffee left on a small table outside my door. Most days, the coffee was still hot when I woke and peered outside, even though I didn’t wake up at the same time each morning. I have no idea how they did that.
I would drink my coffee in bed and read the newspapers on my phone. Such sweet, sweet luxury. To be able to have those golden moments of peace as you gently wake up and re-engage your thoughts about the world – before you have to do anything or be anything for anyone – it gives a sense of calm well being. Sometimes I think back to my old life as a lawyer: I was so chronically time-poor, so unrelentingly stressed, and so deeply fatigued that I couldn’t imagine taking a sleepy half hour, in the morning, for myself. Perhaps I should have.
After my coffee, I would wash in cold water in the bathroom down the hall, and then go out into the streets. There was a lady selling small plain cakes and fried bread from a tiny stand outside a clothing shop, and I each morning I would go there. I’d take a plain doughnut – my morning delight, exquisitely starchy and fatty against unsugared black coffee – and then try one or two of the other little cakes. One thousand rupiah, ten cents, each. The first morning, she sold me cakes. The second morning, she insisted that I wait until she brought out a fresh batch of cakes, steaming and hot. The third morning, we talked a little in my broken Indonesian, and she gave me extra cakes, for free.
I smiled all the way home. People are kind.
Sometimes, I would sit in a small warung and drink another coffee, to go with my doughnut, and the women would cast me shy glances and ask where I was from. One day, a man followed me uncomfortably closely while I walked back along the busy street, not to quite touching me but nearly, nearly touching me, and creepy as hell; I turned and told him no, politely; then I told him no, again; then I turned and shouted into his much-too-close face. He retreated. I think, perhaps, he was mentally unwell.
One morning, I was walking past the government offices and a local official waved me down. He insisted I come in and speak with him; he wanted to talk about the development of the region. There were not, he said, many foreign tourists in Reo and he wanted my feedback on the town.
He insisted we go down to the river front; it’s a big, muddy, navigable river with the police boat moored along a neat concrete quay.
This quay is what he wanted to talk to me about: it’s new, clean, expansive. He has a vision of a thriving food market there, perhaps a night market, and then maybe the tourists will come.
So we rode down to the riverfront on his motorcycle, and sat watching as a couple arrived on a scooter, laden down with pots, burners, jugs of broth, meatballs. In front of us, they set up their basko stand, ready to begin selling the eponymous meatball broth to anyone who came by. They were not locals, my new friend informed me: Muslims from Java, they were outsiders and new arrivals on a majority Christian island. But, because they were willing to work hard, he told me, he was prepared to give them a go.
A subordinate official was dispatched to buy es kelapa – chilled coconut juice and flesh, sweetened with condensed milk – and cups and bowls were obtained from inside a nearby home. As a guest, I could not be allowed to slurp the es kelapa out of the plastic bag it came in.
As time went by, it became clear that I had been mistaken for a potential investor, or at least a wealthy and well-connected personage capable of bringing foreign capital to the quays of Reo. Alas. How to explain that I am a homeless, unemployed, insignificant wanderer who cannot afford to subsist in her own country? Or more to the point, how to be believed?
A case of mistaken identity, indeed.
My friend Arry, local policeman and fellow dirtbiker, made sure that I was well looked after and wanted for nothing in Reo. He said if I needed anything, just call him and he would bring it; we went out and ate basko and talked about motoGP. He picked me up in the police Hilux – gigantic, black, tinted – and we patrolled the streets of Reo with Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’ on the radio.
It was surreal, and we were impossibly cool.
On the verandah of the homestay, I talked to some of the Indonesian guests. They were mostly travelling for business; one was a cigarette salesman, with his Surya truck parked in front of the building; another couple of guys had technical roles, and were only in town – from Java, from Ruteng, from Labuan Bajo – to consult or meet with colleagues for a few days. With one man I had a long and detailed conversation about the agriculture industry in Australia. He was interested in the subject matter, and immeasurably patient as I struggled to construct concepts using my rudimentary Indonesian. It was hard work, and slow, and I loved it; I was learning, slowly.
I felt connected with people: friends, acquaintances. Nobody seemed to expect much of me. I was happy.
After five days, I ate my final meal at my favourite warung. The food was Padang style, delicious, cooked early in the morning and displayed in the window on carefully upturned plates. I loved their chicken, their tofu, their tempeh, but most of all I loved the nangka – jackfruit – cooked in a slightly spicy coconut sauce. Such delight.
I asked the proprietor if I could take a photo before I left; he said yes, and was pleased; suggested a photo from outside too; and wished me well on the road.
I was still packing my gear back on the bike when my friend Angelo – another policeman from our little dirtbiking adventure – drove by with his family, and stopped for a final farewell.
As I headed for Ruteng, I overtook the cigarette truck of the salesman who had been staying at the homestay; he recognised me and waved too.
And just like that, I was back on the road. But Reo remains one of my favourite places in Indonesia. Just an ordinary town, where the people are kind, and you can just be normal.