Come back to the west coast of Sulawesi with me. I want to tell you about the gravest danger you will face as a traveler on this island: you will be subjected to extreme hospitality. You will get fat from all the good food. You will get lazy from all the people doing nice things for you. You will be protectively stalked from one end of the island to the other, and showered in kindness.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
* * *
It was a blue sky morning in central Sulawesi and I’d been lazy for about a week. Just chilling in town, seeing the sights, loving life with the local motorcycle clubs. But now it was time to move. I saddled up Beastie and rolled on out.
I had some offers to accompany me further up the road, but I declined – as ever, my schedule is vague, and being alone is its own pleasure.
Mostly, my local friends do not understand this – the enjoyment of solitude. They worry that I will feel lonely, or vulnerable: if something goes wrong, who will help me? But loneliness is a state of mind and just as real a hazard as in the midst of a crowd. Being alone, by contrast, can be a selfish freedom.
I love to ride alone.
So here I am, just how I want to be: wandering alone along the west coast of the island. Blue sky, jungle. Soon the road is down to slim bitumen, frequently broken and gravelly through the corners; barely enough space on the straights for two vehicles to pass one another.
There are frequent landslides in the rainy season, and the dusty scars on the hillsides tell their stories. My friends in Makassar had regaled me with tales about trying to put a GS in a canoe to paddle around one of the landslips, and other such wet season delights. There are no such challenges for me here, today. Just peaceful riding. I dawdle fabulously.
By the time the sun is setting over my left shoulder, I’m barely halfway to the next town. It matters not at all.
As dusk falls, I find a village with a few food stalls and two guest houses. I pick the one with a fresher coat of paint – lime green, of course – and pull in beside the usual light trucks of Indonesia’s travelling cigarette salesmen. The lady of the house is surprised to see me, even more surprised that I speak enough Indonesian to get by. We negotiate a price – just a fan, please, no air con – and agree that I can park my bike in the foyer. Perfect.
As always, I’m dying to pee as I fumble with the buckles and knots on my gear, unpacking everything off the bike. As always, I mourn the fact that I cannot remove the panniers from my bike without removing all of the contents first. The Touratech puck mounting system is just the bane of my life. Do not recommend, zero stars. Imagine manually unpacking and repacking everything you own, every day. Every morning, trying to get all the stuff to tessellate inside the pannier again.
Anyway. Boots off, cold water wash, it’s been a good day. I’m pleasantly tired. As night falls I eat ayam penyet at a warung across the street – that’s all they make, and it’s delicious – and then I’m ready for sleep.
I get a curious degree of pleasure out of my cheap guesthouse rooms. They only ever have cold water, sometimes the sheets are clean, often they aren’t; but almost always, it feels like my own private kingdom. Being able to retreat into a quiet room, and lock the door, and do exactly as I please at the end of a good day – it feels like luxury to me.
So I roll into bed for my early night and am soon asleep in front of the fan. I wake up hours later to a piercing pain in the side of my head.
I’m tired, deep asleep; I try to ignore the pain and swim back down into my dream, but it’s sharp and persistent. I open my eyes, shift my head. The pain is in my right ear where it touches the pillow; I try rolling over onto my other side, but now there’s an identical pain shooting into my skull from my left ear.
Groggily, I poke around in my earhole. You hear the stories about cockroaches crawling into people’s ears – not unlikely, here, and apparently quite painful – but getting a cockroach in both ears at the same time seems statistically improbable.
I roll onto my back and the pain subsides. It’s not an optimal sleeping position, but it will have to do. It’s a good day to be single. I drop back off to sleep and snore like a water buffalo.
* * *
When I wake the next morning there are 52 missed calls on my phone.
If you know me, you’ll know that my phone has been on silent since 2017. And just as well. Because who tf would call me 52 times?
Did they not realise, after the first 51 attempts, that I was unlikely to pick up on the 52nd?
I don’t recognise the number. It’s local. But wait, there are messages too:
“Where r u?”
“We are waiting for you to arrive”
Who the hell…?
I send a message back: “Who are you?”
“We are bikers…” comes the reply.
I am annoyed. I never gave these people my phone number, and now I look back through my phone and see that some of the missed calls were coming in at 2am. That’s just plain rude.
So it turns out that this guy got my number from some other bikers in another part of Sulawesi; he heard a rumour that I was heading North, and made the assumption that I must be coming to his town that night. Having staked out the edge of town with the other members of his motorcycle club, he telephoned me 52 times while waiting for me to show up.
It is not wise to make such assumptions about me. Unless I make you a promise – and promises will always be kept – you should never assume that I’ll be in any particular place at any particular time. And anyway, who does this guy think he is? Bloody men I’ve never met, acting all entitled to know where I am and what I’m doing.
From my western perspective, I am pissed off: I never gave this guy my phone number and it feels like a violation of my privacy. From a local perspective though: privacy, what is that? These people are just trying to make sure that I’m safe and looked after and not lonely as I travel through their hometown. I see that, too, and I appreciate it, but sometimes it’s just a bit much. Don’t call me 52 times, I tell the guy, it’s rude, stop calling me, I’m fine!
The sharp pains in my head are still there from last night. Whenever I touch my ears, or press the skin around my ears, pain shoots into my skull. That can’t be good, I think, and try not to touch my ears.