Even in paradise, the world eventually reaches you.
I knew that the coronavirus would be in Indonesia long before its presence was recorded. In the villages, people simply become ill and die. Dengue, typhoid, bacterial pneumonia, septicaemia, influenza, caronavirus – in most cases, you will never know which one.
At first I heard rumours of the virus in Sumatra, far to the west. For a long time, though, the official numbers remained zero, because who was testing?
I picnicked on a remote beach in central Sulawesi.
Just me and my motorcycle, and then an extended family who arrived to spend the morning at the beach.
The kids and women all splashed in the perfect shallows, and later an enormous spread of food emerged from carefully packed containers – home cooked yellow rice, chicken and vegetables and sambal, fresh tempeh fried with chili jam.
As ever in Sulawesi, I was immediately adopted. The kids wanted me to play a crazy game of marine dodgeball, and grandma kept telling me to eat more, eat more until I needed a siesta solely for the purposes of digestion.
It was like the last days of summer – idyllic, bountiful. Characterised by generosity and joy and sharing.
Tragically, the virus was coming to turn all these acts of kindness into vectors of disease.
* * *
I watched the borders closing all over Asia, day by day. The provinces and cities and towns all starting to lock down.
It is not the time to be travelling overland: I am not especially concerned for myself, but of course I am concerned for others. For the elderly; for the medically vulnerable; for the poor. It is a time to be patient.
The world is locking down, and so I must choose where – and with whom – I want to be locked down while we wait for this to pass.
Everyone talks of “going home”. In the cities, the people talk of going back to their villages, back to their kampung halaman. I understand the impulse, but I worry that they – the young people, the workers – will bring the disease back to their old people. Perhaps it is better to stay away.
The foreigners, too, talk of ‘going home’. Everyone is scrambling for international flights, frightened and frustrated as they struggle to be allowed to traverse the world again, in reverse. Back to where you came from. Back to the theoretical comfort of world class healthcare, a public hospital with an ICU. The Australian and New Zealand governments have both told their citizens to ‘come home’ immediately, issued warnings against all international travel. This means my health and accident insurances are completely void. I am on my own.
So of course, people ask me if I am going to go home, and this is the point where you start to see the difference between taking a holiday, or a trip, and choosing a different life: I have no home to go back to.
Since the day I rode out of Sydney three years ago, I have never been back. My resources are limited, but moreover they are focussed on the road ahead. On fuel in the tank, on food in my belly, on buying time and buying kilometres. I am all in.
So now the world’s temperature is rising. When I signed up for an adventure, I didn’t imagine that this is how things would transpire; but I signed up for everything, whatever may come, and it turns out that this is it.
So I checked flights, and I checked the fast-changing border regulations. And I flew into Thailand to wait it out.
* * *
Flying in the time of Covid-19 is a reality check. I came from a place where everything felt normal – the people on the streets, the food in the restaurants, ordinary chaos. But once you enter the airport you feel the apprehension. The halls are deserted, the shops shuttered. Everyone you see is wearing a mask, tense. The flights are mostly empty.
As ever, it is the poor people will be most harshly impacted, but now it is the rich people who are the most afraid. The poor are accustomed to dying from infectious disease; the rich have grown conceited and think we are above such deaths. The novel coronavirus reminds us that we are not.
* * *
I am separated from my bike, but only by a little distance, a short flight. Now is not the time to be riding from place to place. She is locked up, securely. As the weeks go by, I will have problems with paperwork for the bike, and visas for me. I will endeavour to resolve them. Better this, than clamouring for shipping and paperwork and long haul flights, and trying to cross districts and islands and borders now, when what we all need is to be calm and quiet and still.
I remain in Asia, and we will wait it out together.
* * *
In the meantime, I have so many stories to tell, which I have not told yet. More stories of Sulawesi. I ride faster than I tell write; so now that I am still, let me tell you more of those stories that have nothing to do with a pandemic. Let me tell you stories that have nothing to do with global disruption, selfishness, hoarding, contagion or despair. Let me remind you of this beautiful world, which is waiting for us all to explore again.