Back on the road, I’m heading for Riung. It’s a little town on the north coast of Flores, picturesque, overlooking the corals and peaks of the Seventeen Islands national park. I’m suddenly impatient to ride.
I leave early but the sun is hot, hot, hot. I’m wearing my cooling underlayers under my protective gear, but sweating hard already.
I take a quick selfie before hitting the road – good morning world – and then finish gearing up: kevlar jeans, armoured jacket, a buff to keep the sun off my throat, a buff to cover my hair, then boots, gloves, helmet. Before I’ve even got the bike in gear, the internet spits back its response: I hope you don’t go to the shops like that. Apparently I’m a terrible slut because you can see my shoulders in this photo; but never fear, the keyboard warriors of the Western world know what women should be wearing in Indonesia, and they’re here to correct me.
There’s nothing quite like having appropriate dress standards for women in South-East Asia mansplained to you by a white man on the internet in Australia – except, of course, when they then proceed to also explain to you matters of female personal safety.
As if I don’t spend my whole goddamn life with one eye on my personal safety. They seem to think that I’m oblivious; that I swan around in a bikini feeling safe all the time.
I wonder if they ever stop to imagine what it’s like to never be able to let your guard down. Not in Australia, not in France, not in Indonesia. Do they ever consider how tiring it is, to be trying to live an independent life while always watching your own back, always trying to make sure that you didn’t ask for it?
I suppose they mustn’t ever consider this, if they think I need to be reminded.
For fuck’s sake.
So I put on my goddamn jacket – like I always do, because funnily enough I don’t ride around Indonesia in my underwear – and I get on the road.
I’m in a bad mood. Why do I even internet.
* * *
But the road is beautiful. Winding around the jagged edge of Flores, the road gives you sweeping views of sea in all the different shades of heartbreak blue. The beaches, the coconut palms.
I buy a couple of litres of roadside petrol on the way and cool(ish) drink. The younger kids are on their way home from school, and suddenly I’m surrounded by a miniature curious mob. They seem oblivious to the midday sun that keeps beating us all around the head. There are photos are laughs and eventually I’m on my way again, the wind drying my sweat and sending pleasantly cool shivers down my spine.
* * *
When I get into Riung, I ride until the road ends at the sea.
Behind me, there are houses on stilts, hovering over mudflats that flood during high tide. In front of me, the beautiful outcrops of the Seventeen Islands National Park.
Later, I will learn that the people living on the mudflats behind me used to live on the island in front of me, until the government decided to make it a National Park and evicted them all.
* * *
I have a recommendation for a cheap homestay but I can’t find the place. I ride the handful of streets in Riung again and again, but come up empty handed. I’m tired and frustrated now. It’s still hot and all I want to do is pour some cold water over my head and put my feet up.
Instead, I pull into Cafe Del Mar. It’s a chilled rasta cafe set back into a chilled garden. It belongs to Itchan, a friend of a friend, and he’s heard that I’m coming. Apparently the DR boys were here recently too, and they said I was on my way.
Itchan doesn’t disappoint – if you were trying to imagine the chilled out, poised, reggae-playing proprietor of a rasta cafe by the sea in Flores, you’d imagine Itchan in all his elegant equanimity.
He’s good to me, and I’m so sorry – because he doesn’t see the best of me. For reasons which we don’t need to examine, I’m almost in tears by the time I arrive at Del Mar. I feel like my identity is being taken apart and thrown away, piece by piece, and I hardly know what I’m fighting for anymore. I feel like I’m disintegrating from the inside out.
So I’m sweating, and struggling, and I’ve stopped on an uneven patch of ground where I can’t get my sidestand down. I need to back the bike up, but the surface is uneven; I need to get off the bike so that I can put my hip into it and get some proper leverage. But I’ve already taken my helmet off, and I need to put it back on so my hands are free, but people are talking to me now, and I can’t hear them properly with my helmet on, and… ugh. Sometimes the simplest things are so pathetically hard.
I eventually get the bike parked, and I’m asking Itchan where the cheap homestays are. I can’t relax until I’ve got that sorted. I know he has lovely air conditioned rooms here at Del Mar, but I also know that my budget is way too hobo for that kind of comfort.
You can stay here, says Itchan, you don’t have to pay.
May all the good things in the world come to you, Itchan.
* * *
For a couple of days, I take refuge at Del Mar. Out the back of the cafe, I sit with Itchan’s friends as we barbecue fresh reef fish over coconut husk coals, ikan bakar better than you ever dreamed. At night, I am safe and comfortable in a nice bed as I wait for the restful sleep that refuses to come.
We go to a wedding of a member of parliament: she’s from Riung and the whole town is invited.
I dance strange choreographed dances to the dangdut music, trying to mimic the footwork of the people around me as the bride and groom stand on the stage for hours and hours on end, greeting guests in elaborate head dresses and makeup that leave them veiled in sweat. Getting married in Indonesia is hard work.
In my torn kevlar jeans and Giant Loop shirt, I feel ill-attired for a wedding, but I’m welcomed anyway. In recognition of the special occasion I wear the hand-woven tali given to me by my friends in Marobo, Timor Leste, all those miles ago.
Towards the end of the night, plastic water bottles filled with arak appear around the dance floor, but it’s not my thing. Still, by the end of that night, I have I drunk enough beers to finally sleep.
Selamat berbahagia, and goodnight.