It’s nighttime when I ride into a small town on the coast, spotlights blazing. I don’t like riding at night because I can’t see to save my life, and who knows what you might find on a road around here. The locals on scooters with no lights who are doing 20km/h along the road in front of you are always a nice surprise – the closing speed seems phenomenal when your first glimpse of them is at the edge of that little pool of illumination from your headlights.
No shout out to KTM’s stock lights, by the way. I’ve had bath candles that were stronger.
So I ride around with my LED spotlights blazing, which is downright antisocial but at least on this night, there is hardly a soul on the road.
It’s curious that I don’t see any guest houses on my way into town, or in the middle of the town. There seems to be the main business street – where the Transulawesi runs through – and then a grand, divided avenue fronted by banks and government buildings. All deserted at this hour, and no hotels. Perhaps I passed the guest houses and was simply unable to see the signs in the gloom.
Well, my ears still hurt (surprise, surprise) and I am famished, so eventually I give up the search. I park in front of a small restaurant with martabak hotplates out the front. Martabak is kind of a very fried, stuffed omelette sort of thing, and it’s oily and full of protein and loaded with calories, great roadside food when you just need to stuff something down your throat that will keep you going for a long time. You always see the mobile martabak stalls by the roadside, often in places where there are no restaurants or places to eat out. I think the idea is that a family will get one gigantic martabak and take it home to have it with rice and vegetables that they’ve prepared themselves; there’s no such thing as respectable Indonesian meal without rice. But of course homeless gutter people like me will eat it however and whenever we get our hands on it.
So I see the martabak and give up on the idea of finding somewhere to sleep just yet. It’s not my customary modus operandi – usually, finding a safe place for me and the bike is the number one priority. You get that sorted out first, and if it’s too late to find anywhere to eat after that – well, no big deal. I won’t starve to death from missing one meal, and bike security always comes before comfort. Priorities.
And the other thing is – you don’t want to be that nasty, dirty, sweaty foreigner who walks into a restaurant looking and smelling like you’ve rolled in old cooking oil. Indonesian people are extremely clean – whether they’re Muslim and performing wudu five times a day, or any other religion or creed, you’ll find that people are extremely clean and frequently washed in this humid environment. And I know that many times, I’ll be the only white person ever to wander into a particular warung to eat my dinner. I don’t want to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. So no matter how hungry I am, I always try to find a place to stay so I can wash and change my clothes before dinner.
But tonight – well, maybe I am just being weak. Maybe it is because I am a bit sick. But I really feel like can’t go on without some food. So I stagger to a table, asked for a martabak, and asked the people permission to use their bathroom. As always in small places like this, the room behind the restaurant is where the family lives, and the only bathroom is their bathroom, with all their toothbrushes hanging up in a row. So it’s an intrusion of sorts, and I thank them, and I take my shoes off and walk through their home and wash my face and hands as best I can, and try not to be a total savage.
* * *
I’m eating my martabak in a state of exhaustion, sprawled over the plastic chair, can’t lift my feet, and I’m sweating all over again because it’s so humid, when a guy pulls up on a motorbike.
He walks up to me and smiles and says, “Hello Grace, I’ve been looking for you!”
* * *
“Hi!” I say. Friendly, but – who is this person? How does he know who I am? Should I know who he is?
I guess I should be getting used to this by now. Of course someone on a whatsapp group somewhere told him that I might be heading his way. But the thing that amazes me is that he’s been actually looking for me when the prospect of finding me is so very low: when he has really no idea whether I’m going to stop here, or even what day or time I might show up, but he’s prepared to go out and have a look for me anyway, just in case. I wouldn’t do that. I’m impressed.
He asks me if I’ve anywhere to stay, and I tell him no, not yet, and then I follow him home to spend the night at his house with his lovely wife and baby and sister-in-law, because that seems to be how things roll here.
That night is super hot and I won’t open the window because of the mosquitoes, so I feel the sweat sliding down my flanks but I’m tired enough to sleep anyway. When I wake up the next morning, my ears hurt less.
* * *
Later, Rully sends me photographs from his phone, ones that he took during my stay. I am delighted. Often, I think, you are so absorbed in immediate concerns that you only perceive half of what’s going on around you. Seeing it again from a different perspective is special, and slightly disorientating.
* * *
The next morning dawns sunny and warm. Breakfast, egg and rice. Perfect.
When I pack up my gear again I’m feeling a little perkier than I have in days.
I’ve got a guard of honour for my ride out – I’m not the only lady biker in this town, and that rocks my socks.
See you soon, Buol. I ride on.