The ferry out of Labuan Bajo leaves around 9 or 10 in the morning; I’m at the dock by 7.30am and Beastie’s loaded on the boat – chilling by the chilled fish – shortly after 8.
I buy some rice and vegetables from the warung on the dock, and try to snooze as we slowly cruise away from Flores under cloud streaked skies. I’m still groggy from fatigue after the previous night’s fiasco (shoulda just slept in the carpark) so I find some metal seats and try to rest. It’s not a big ferry and there’s no shaded space on the deck, so I’m sardined in the indoor-outdoor lounge area with all the other passengers. People are picnicking on the floor on bamboo mats, and when I get up my seats are promptly invaded. Another traveler offers me Dramamine and I gladly take it, this time managing to nap properly for an hour or so.
By the time we dock at the port of Sape, Sumbawa, my head has cleared. Down to the hold, get ready on the bike as the ferry docks: it’s the great mad RORO race. For some reason – irrespective of the personal patience or tranquility of the drivers involved – disembarking a RORO ferry is always like a scene out of Mad Max. Everyone’s down there with their engines running long before the boat contacts the dock, and by the time the hydraulic ramp starts to drop, you’re jostling for place closer that slowly expanding wedge of clean air. Once you hear the metal bang the concrete, it’s on for young and old: she who hesitates will be run over.
Today, in Sape, someone has forgotten to control the traffic waiting to board the ferry that’s just docked. The quay is high – or maybe it’s just low tide – and the ramp is unusually steep and slippery and now it ends in bedlam: tangled cars, trucks, scooters, and nowhere to go.
In a perfect world, I’d like to be able to go fast enough up that ramp to fully engage first gear, and not have to stop; but it’s not a perfect world, and the trucks and scooters behind me are pushing me forward. Ah well. I mentally apologise to my clutch and climb the ramp in three short bursts; miraculously, I don’t run over any scooters and each time, manage to stop the bike slightly across the slope in the midst of the crush, so that I can get one foot properly down. Sliding backwards down a hill is never fun, and haven’t we all done it.
As I fight my way through the crush at the dock, I see a small truck with three shiny new Ducatis on the back. Where the hell are they going? There’s a Diavel and a Monster Evo, and something else. As always, I have my instant lust reaction that happens when I see a sexy bike – I’m sure you’d see my pupils dilate if you were watching closely – and the guy sitting beside the truck sees me and laughs. I give him the thumbs up as I finally make it to the road.
In hindsight, I reckon those bikes probably belonged to some well heeled people from Java or maybe even Malaysia, and they’re shipping them across to ride the main asphalt in Flores. Meanwhile, welcome to Sumbawa, where a good proportion of the traffic consists of horsedrawn buggies.
I’m surprised when I see the first one, but then I see another, and another, and it starts to become normal. I tell you, these ponies have nerves of steel: scooters and vehicles are sweeping past them, around them, all the time, and they never even flinch. Some are wearing blinkers, but not all. They’re just used to the chaos.
It’s just after three in the afternoon, and I’m heading for the city of Bima. Judging by the squiggly line on the map, it’s about two or three hours away.
At first, Sumbawa seems flat and dry – it’s the end of the dry season, after all – but soon I find the mountain and the swooping bends that the map suggested. It’s a surprisingly nice bit of bitumen for Indonesia, and I watch the valley views emerging on my left as I ride. There are lots of small warungs – closed now, it’s getting late and looks like rain – and lovers’ lookouts. There are a few lovers around, young couples lounging on their scooter or on the guard rail, taking selfies and looking at the view.
When I get to Bima, it’s a proper city. Commercial, bustling; businesses and schools and government offices. Big roundabouts with statues. No tourists. Everyone’s on their way home from work.
I have no idea where I’m going so I just ride for a bit, until I realise that I’m starting to come out the other side of the city; I turn around and head back, randomly a hotel sign. I can smell rain in the air; it’s coming.
The hotel turns out to be quite modern, and out of my budget; about $35 a night. But the receptionist is friendly, and she likes my motorbike. I ask her where a hobo like myself might find budget accommodation with somewhere for my bike, and she points me up a nearby side street.
I leave the bike under her curious eye and find the cheap hotel in question – there are a number, sandwiched together in tall, narrow buildings, but this one is the cheapest. It’s still more than I usually pay, but they have secure parking for the bike. The first drops of rain are starting to fall.
I cough up my $17 and get Beastie under cover just as the heavens open.
* * *
The hotel is a four stories tall, with rows of rooms looking onto internal mezzanine levels that circle the massive central light well. The first level of stairs is quite grand; a very nice imitation marble. I’m going to guess that the hotel was built in the eighties, and was initially quite flash; but it hasn’t been maintained since.
There are no external windows, because the narrow building is sandwiched between its neighbours; the rooms have big glass windows looking into the internal mezzanine. If you open your windows, the sound is like being in the same room with everyone in the hotel; if you open the curtains, it’s like being on TV.
So, no ventilation. There is an air conditioning unit in the room, but it is broken; I requested this, so that I could pay less. I turn on my little pedestal fan. The sheets are clean, but the mustiness is extreme.
The bathroom has a shower head, in addition to the usual bucket of water. The shower has two taps, not one. Could it be….? I tentatively turn on the taps… HOT WATER.
Yes oh yes oh yes.
* * *
By the time I’ve had enough hot showering, my skin is pruney and the room is full of steam. Also, darkness has fallen and the rain has stopped. Wandering the nighttime streets of Bima, I find myself in my first very Muslim city in Indonesia. In the shop windows, many of the mannequins sport hijabs. Still, on the streets, only some of the women do.
My mobile internet has mysteriously stopped working, so I go to a large Oppo-branded phone shop and sit with the young women for an hour while we try to get to the bottom of it. In Indonesia, the Oppo shops are usually the most modern, shiny, brightly light place in a dirty city street or dusty village. Whereas everyone else is getting by with the palid white light from cheap energy saving bulbs, or fluorescent light bars, the Oppo shops have this glowing expensive light that reminds me of Apple stores. All shiny glass counters and spotless white laminate benchtops; so much light.
I don’t know what’s up with my phone or why it’s suddenly decided not to work, but I’m not in a hurry; I am happy to hand it over to one of the girls and just sit and cha,t and watch the world go by. I’m working on my bahasa Indonesia; painstakingly managing to construct a conversation, and explain where I’m front, and where I’m going, and why. It’s satisfying.
Eventually my phone is fixed, and I go back to the martabak stall on the corner, where I’d stopped earlier to watch the young man’s smooth, poetic movements as he stretched the martabak pastry and folded it and oiled it as it simmered gently. The savoury martabak are a sort of filled panfried bread: filled with savoury meat and vegetables, then folded over and over and fried, floating, in a wok full of oil. It’s street food, a dollar or two for enough protein and fat and deliciousness to feed a family.
The young man fetches me a plastic stool so I can sit while he cooks; sends me off with a brilliant smile.
I buy mangoes from a woman on the street, and I’m set: an absolute feast. Soon, I am unbelievably full, incredibly exhausted. It’s a good feeling: too tired to think superfluous thoughts. I go up to my musty room, take another hot shower, and sleep long, and deep, and late.