Ramadan. Every morning I’d be woken by the scrape of utensils on aluminium pans in the pitch dark, 3am, as the women cooked. Sahur, the last meal before the fast, is eaten before sunrise. During daylight hours, those observing the fast would neither eat nor drink, not even water; under the tropical sun a dehydrated languor would set in. The streets were quieter. Even on sunset, the explosion of activity was brief: people were home with their families. A more reflective time.
Of course, I was still traveling, the homeless nomad. I’d been cautioned about riding through Muslim areas during the fast, for fear that all the restaurants would be closed and I would go hungry. Instead, I found my path awash with Ramadan delicacies.
I traced the north western coast of the island, languidly rolling through small villages under hot blue skies, the sea always on my left. My eyes kept catching on bright colours at roadside stalls, and eventually the curiosity became too much for me: I had to stop and investigate.
I did a u-turn on the deserted road and went back to the spot where I’d seen a particularly lurid flash of green. It was cake. And sweet fruit jellies. And custards. And sugared pink rosewater drinks. Some of the cupcakes were pink and green and white, erupting from their paper cups in colourful spongy layers.
I was fixated. Indonesian roadside cuisine does not typically feature a lot of cake, especially not out in the villages where I’m ordinarily found. There’s always plenty of rice and vegetables and meat and egg, and the sweets are usually fried banana or pancakes, and sometimes doughnuts. But not actual cake. It had been a long time between cakes, and now there were… dozens.
I ducked under the shade of the stall. As my eyes adjusted, I could see that there were five ladies under the modest shelter. One woman was waiting to sell delicacies, another was carefully scrolling more brilliant green pandan crepes and slicing them into beautiful cross-sections. The others, it seemed, were neighbours. They were just hanging out. Under the heat of the sun, nothing else moved in the village as far as I could see.
I gave them my best smile and started selecting sweets to try – one of this, one of that please, one of that also… I figured that this could be lunch and dinner. I would take my sugary haul to a nice shady spot somewhere, and feast in polite solitude.
But we started chatting, and the middle aged lady on my left was having absolutely none of it. Under no circumstances would I be permitted to leave with only cake – without eating properly! Like everyone’s mother, she was appalled at the prospect of my subsisting only on dessert, however temporary that might be.
There were savoury dishes on a bottom shelf – some fish, some vegetables, bamboo shoots in a light coconut broth – but no rice: the food was intended to be sold as takeaway, for after sunset. No problem – one of the ladies went home, and came back with a bowl of rice, a spoon, a fork. I was to eat, and I did as I was told. They sent me on my way properly fed, and of course with cake – one of each kind.
* * *
My ear infection was much improved and I had fallen in to a non-reflective mood where I just wanted to ride. I listened to the same songs again and again and let the road unfold beneath me. It soothed me. I didn’t want to stop and climb a mountain, I didn’t want to stop and make friends and camp on a beach. I just wanted to ride, each day simplified into forward motion.
I stayed at modest guest houses along the road and life was simple. My interactions were with the inn keepers and the traveling cigarette salesmen who frequented the same guesthouses.
One day I breakfasted with a civil engineer, close to retirement, who had supervised the building and maintenance of much of the road I was riding. The Transulawesi was like his child; he took a parental pleasure in learning that I had come to ride all of its length.
The road engineer drew me a map of Sulawesi to illustrate the places he thought I should visit. One of his recommendations was that I should experience the music of the Minahasa people, produced using all bamboo instruments. As we shared the hotel breakfast (a surprisingly good one – rice, noodles, eggs), he looked the music up on YouTube and played it on his phone. He also gave me a short history lesson about the Minahasa people, recounting their legendary descent from Mongolian royalty. He told me all about his kids, and where they were going to university, and how proud he was of them. He wrote down a phone number and said I should call if I ever had any difficulties in northern Sulawesi. At the other end of the table, a young man – one of the eponymous cigarette salesmen – listened in to our conversation. He sat for forty-five minutes listening, long after he’d finished his own breakfast. I wonder what he was thinking.
* * *
One afternoon I felt dehydration coming on, the tendrils of a headache forming around the back of my neck. The sea glittered on my left and I turned off the main road, wending my way towards the water. I would find a beach, and a coconut palm, and I would sit down for a while to rehydrate.
But the streets became smaller and smaller, until they were really only alleys, and then there was a ditch straight ahead – no beach – and a hard right turn. I kept following the road in optimism, but it only took me back into the village and to a complete dead end. In the shimmering afternoon heat at this low speed, the bike was close to overheating, the fan humming ominously. Defeated, I found a small patch of shade and switched off the bike. I would just drink some water here, in the street; it wasn’t a beachside coconut palm, but it would do.
Soon, however, people emerged from the houses around the square. They looked at me curiously. A man asked me me where I was from, and I answered him, and he wandered away for a moment. I was concentrating on loosening my gear and skolling water. In weather like this, wearing full motogear, you become like a shark: once you stop moving forward, you start expiring pretty quickly. By the time I looked up again, I had a small crowd.
Come and sit in the shade, the man was telling me. So I did. A plastic chair appeared and I came and sat in the shade with the women and the children, and we talked.
I told them where I was from, and how I was traveling all over Indonesia with my motorcycle and no husband; but the question that really perplexed everyone was yes, but what are you doing HERE? Here, being a dead end dirt road in a tiny village; no shops, no tourist attractions, no hotels. No, I told them, this is exactly the Sulawesi I have ridden so far to visit.
They offered me hot tea and cool water, and invited me to stay the night should I be weary.
* * *
As I watch the pandemic reshaping travel and social interactions around the world, I wonder if this kind of afternoon will happen again. Will I still be able to show up in a remote village, kind of lost, and be welcomed? I dread that I might, as an outsider, be feared – or worse, that my visit could put others at risk. The world is shifting under my feet, and I wait here in Chiang Mai for the borders to reopen and to see how the world has changed.