After the great mud bog I hit the coast again, some small towns, and for a moment I thought that things would get a little more pedestrian. But halfway through the day I was again in the middle of nowhere, and one of my mapping applications was telling me that there was no road at all.
I was trepidatious by the time I stopped by the roadside for some lunch.
I was served bakso by a girl who looked to be about twelve years old and terrified of me. Why so frightened? I ate my bakso and paid and left; I heard no banjos.
I was riding the skinny, deteriorating blacktop when suddenly it transformed into slick, swooping black curves. The jungle was gone. In its place were oil palms as far at the eye could see. Rows and rows of the squat, inelegant palms with their heads of glistening oily kernels. The only traffic was the odd scooter, and trucks piled high with the slightly rancid-smelling heads of oil kernels.
The plantations are sweeping the jungles off the face of Indonesia, replacing diverse resources with a capitalist monoculture that benefits only a few – who are usually far away, in Jakarta or Singapore or Hong Kong. Don’t tell me about jobs: the villages of the palm oil workers are always dirt poor. At home, in the kampung, at least everyone had homes and gardens and the shared resources of the jungle. Now they are displaced from the bounty of the land, and allocated merely a wage.
But the road. Well, it was nice. That road that swept through the palm oil plantations in smooth blacktop and looping curves, then up into the jungle, past the ancient trees that I hope will survive that plantations lapping at their feet. That was a beautiful road. I leant into the corners, felt my tyres grip, felt the physics holding my lean angle steady and acute after the apex of each corner.
I stopped once, to pee, and then as soon as I switched off the engine I was enveloped in the insect chorus of the jungle. The trees soared above my head. I walked through the corner in solitude, photographing the tiny seedpods that had fallen on the expansive bitumen.
Some boys came past on scooters – two-up, three-up – and stopped to look at my bike. New friends on a mountain road. They took photos for their friends – and I took photos for mine.
* * *
That afternoon I rode into an unholy downpour. The road had become a collection of roadworks with lots of trucks, and then the rain came and soaked me to the skin, and then suddenly I was riding through an enormous mine. The road went right under ore elevators, crossed over the haul truck route. It was knock-off time and there were hundred upon hundreds of men in yellow hardhats, yellow overalls, on scooters. Streaming in from all sides. Then there was a stretch of makeshift buildings – shops, food, maybe boarding houses – huddled up the to the edge of the minesite. The place was a workmen’s town, full of single men away from their communities, away from their families – it was 5pm but I didn’t want to stop here.
I kept riding, through the rain, trying to ignore it. A few kilometres further on, some young men saw me and jumped out as I rode past. I was feeling stressed and tired, and I was ambivalent about the body language: was it aggressive, or merely excited? A few minutes later I realised that they were chasing me on motorcycles. They caught up and were trying to get me to pull over, but I just wasn’t up for it. They were probably being friendly, but I wasn’t sure and I just wasn’t feeling optimistic or outgoing. I was wet and cold and tired. I pretended I didn’t see them and kept riding, and they eventually gave up.
They probably just wanted to take me home to their mother and introduce me to their friends. Anyway.
The downpour intensified and lightening started to sheet overhead, bleaching your eyeballs for seconds at time. I couldn’t see through the rain at all. I pulled over under the awning of a shop, and huddled in the small dry space. The people looked at me curiously. I was too tired to make small talk.
As soon as the rain eased, I got back on the road. It was getting rapidly dark. After a while I realised that it was darker than usual: there were no lights in any of the houses, any of the buildings. The storm had knocked out the power to the whole area.
I kept on riding and my visor kept fogging; I put it up and tried to ride like that, but the rain drops stung my face and eyes. I am nightblind and could only see a little of the road ahead of me; because there were no lights anywhere, it was difficult to see where I could stop.
It was about half past six by the time I came past a good flat, clearing on top of a cliff. There was a house on one side, a restaurant on the other. Everything was silent and dark and closed in the black out. I rested a little under the restaurant awning; then I saw that there was a shelter – a kind of rotunda – set even further back, behind the restaurant and the house. It had a roof. It was dry. I was so tired.
I went to the door of the house and called out; eventually a woman appeared. I asked permission to rest under the shelter beside the cliff. She looked confused to see me, but said that yes, I could rest under the shelter.
I pulled the bike off the road, and nosed it into the rotunda. I pulled out my fuel stove and boiled some noodles, because I was starving. I hung up my wet outer layers under the shelter.
All was dead silent and dark. I was exhausted. I lay down to sleep.
The lights came on.
* * *
My early night of pitch darkness, sliding into exhausted sleep, suddenly turned into a group interrogation under bright lights. More and more people congregated around, deranged by curiosity.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING??
My stuff is all unpacked and hanging in the little rotunda to dry; my boots are off; my guard down. I am caught unawares.
I am just resting… I try to explain. I am tired and I just want to sleep. You said I could rest here.
But they are having none of it. Strange women sleeping along in shelters festooned in wet motorbike gear with a giant KTM jammed into the narrow shelter – what entertainment! What consternation! No-one was going to let this go in a hurry, and they certainly weren’t going let me rest.
When you’re tired and trying to explain an opposing viewpoint to a sceptical audiance is the time when language difficulties bite the hardest. I put my head in my hands.
They were saying that I had to go and sleep at the house nearby. I said no, I didn’t want to impose, but they insisted. They said it was safe, that the house belonged to the local policeman, and that I couldn’t sleep here because more people would come and see me and keep me awake.
Eventually, in exhaustion, I capitulated. I am sorry to say that I did it with little grace.
Pulling down all my wet clothes, repacking my sodden belongings, trying to move everything and not lose anything while surrounded by a crowd of people – it was a headache. Eventually it was done.
We put the bike on the porch, and they showed me a small side room with a mattress on the floor. I thanked them, and crawled inside, and turned out the light, and lay in my own sweat. The closed room was hot and still in a way that the outside had not been. Still, exhaustion is the best sleeping draught.
* * *
The next morning I was still groggy from fatigue, and ashamed of my own gracelessness, and troubled by the thought that I’d imposed myself on these people without prior invitation. It had not been my intention.
I wanted to move on quickly. As I packed, the people watched me and a small kitten climbed over my bike. It was adorable, and brought a gentle smile back to my face.
I wished I could explain better to the people about how I hadn’t intended to impose; how I’d thought the spot was more secluded than it was, due to the blackout; about how much I appreciated their impromptu hospitality. But my vocabulary is crude and basic, and there are only so many times you can just say ‘thank you’.
I packed and rode off in a coffeeless fuzz. Half an hour later I saw some women selling rice and doughnuts by the roadside, so I stopped and sat with them. They were surprised to see me. When I asked if they had coffee, one of the girls went into her house and made it for me, and wouldn’t let me pay for it. Instead they wanted to take photos together, and so we did. Photo – many photos – on the beach behind their house, and I was refreshed, and I went on my way.