My second attempt to leave Tana Toraja features wild amounts of sunshine. The birds are singing, the chickens gleeful; the only reminder of yesterday’s downpour is the damp ground spongily giving way under each booted footstep.
Goodbye to Tony again – this time, I promise I’m really going. The destination is Lake Matano – I looked at the map, saw a blue shape in the middle of the green, thought why not? It looks like it might be in the middle of nowhere, and I like the idea of camping next to a lake.
I retrace my passage from the previous day. Under sunshine, the skinny mountain road has a wholly different character. I swoop through the corners, down the mountain range, brilliant green on every side. It gets warmer and warmer, and then the humidity rises up from the coast to meet me.
At Palopo, I am reunited with the sea. Despite being on an island, I’ve been landlocked for weeks now. Up in the highlands, you could almost forget it was so near.
Palopo is not a big town, but it has a few scooter dealerships, a few banks and government buildings, two petrol stations. I ride out to the breakwater. It’s clearly the place to be in the evening – it’s lined with closed up food stalls and cutesie selfie-spots.
Right now, it’s the middle of the day and the sun is beating down. Almost everything is closed, except for one warung. There’s a couple there, middle aged. She is doing the work, he is sitting around, occasionally giving instructions. They seem confused by my presence, but once they get over their surprise that I can speak enough Indonesian to order my lunch, the lady rustles up some food for me.
It’s the same plastic table cloths, plastic water cups, plastic chairs as you’ll find in warungs all over Indonesia. These days it’s delightfully familiar to me; feels like home. Maybe you too, recognise these features from all the other photographs I’ve posted of food stops along the way.
While I am sitting there a few men wander past, ask questions about the bike – how many ccs? How many litres of fuel? The usual. But one man comes and sits down at my table, starts firing off questions at me. He’s mid-thirties, tall – far taller than most Indonesians, which seems to make him think he’s all that and a bag of chips. He is pushy. I answer his questions shortly, keep looking away; waiting for him to get the hint and leave me alone. He doesn’t. More questions: where are you from what are you doing how old are you where is your husband why don’t you have a husband what is your job how much does your motorbike cost. Generally, I am happy to answer the local twenty questions, even the one about how many children I have, and why not, and where is my husband, and what is my religion; I understand that these are normal questions to ask here, and that people are being friendly and not impolite. Usually, I happily serve up my responses – it’s my quid pro quo for being welcomed as a guest in someone else’s country.
But this guy is not showing respect; he’s rubbing me up the wrong way. He asks, do you have a phone number? Yes, I say. I don’t tell him what it is. He asks again, do you have a phone number? Yes I do, I say, and turn away. Well what is it, he says? Now he’s really pissing me off: he’s forcing me to be rude. Probably thinks he can embarrass me into giving him my number. He makes my skin crawl. I’m not giving you my phone number, okay? I say. Why not? he says. Because I don’t want to, I tell him, looking him in the eye.
I pay the lady, get up to leave. He’s walking around my bike. He says he wants a photo. Okay, fine, I say, but my helmet is already on. I’m not taking it off for him. He walks around to my side of the bike, puts his arm around me. I push him off. Don’t touch me, I say. He laughs, tries again. I push him off again. I’m simmering with anger. I put my head down, back the bike out of its shady spot, ride away. Some men just have no respect for women – even while he’s pretending to admire me, to my face, he’s insulting me and disrespecting me. And he clearly expects that this will result in him getting what he wants. He’s trying to use my politeness against me. And he’s leveraging the fact that women are taught, for their own safety, to avoid outright confrontations with strange men.
People like that are parasites on the social contract.
I’m pissed off when I ride away. I imagine pushing him over the side of the breakwater, the ankle-high curb catching his feet and sending him tumbling down into the oily slop.