From Riung I took the easy road to Labuan Bajo – through Ruteng, where I rode into a massive storm, and then onto Flores’ main ribbon of asphalt. There is supposed to be a dirt road that continues along the North coast all the way to Labuan Bajo, but no-one could tell me if the road had actually been completed yet. I heard reports that it went to deep sand, and then just stopped. So I chickened out and headed for the main road.
The cold and rainy reputation of Ruteng was thoroughly borne out by experience. I spent an hour and half sheltering from the downpour at a conveniently placed bakso stall, tent hastily thrown over Beastie to keep the torrents out of her electricals. I couldn’t be bothered dealing with shorting spotlights today, and by the time the rain had eased, I knew that I’d be riding in the dark.
It was a pleasant interlude. Just sit, and watch the torrents. I ate a bowl of bakso, because the broth was hot and the weather was cold. It was the worst bakso I’ve ever had in Indonesia – the meatballs were full of splintered bits of chicken bone – but it was no big deal because I had plenty of time to pick them out. About halfway through the downpour, we were joined by another drenched local. His village was only 10km up the road, but he was wet to the skin and sat opposite me, shivering violently over his dodgy basko biasa. I dashed out to the bike, retrieved my good Klim jacket, and put it on him. Soon, he stopped shaking.
Good deed for the day! But it was still raining. I was wearing my kelvar jeans which were only going to funnel water into my boots, so I did a quick outfit change in the bakso stand. The guys looked alarmed and excited when I started stripping off my jeans, but sadly for them, I always wear long underlayers. So, they didn’t get to see much. Soon I was kitted out in my fancy gortex, and got back on the road again.
Out the other side of Ruteng, I descended into flat fields; it wasn’t raining at this altitude, and the sun was starting to come out.
Then it was back into the mountainous twisties, and I was sorry that road was wet; I would have liked to have gone a little harder.
But, it was beautiful. At times, the afternoon light caught on the clouds, reflecting gold across paddy fields cut into the sides of hills.
I stopped at a rumah makan – a roadhouse, really – about half past four and drank sweet coffee, then pushed on. I was on the lookout for somewhere to stay, but nothing presented itself. So I kept riding the twisties, racing the fading light, then riding carefully once darkness had fallen.
I don’t usually ride at night, and when I do, I’m bloody careful. Not having suicidal kangaroos hurling themselves at you is a real luxury, but the old men transporting infant grandchildren on scooters with no lights make the stakes exponentially higher.
So I rolled off the throttle and settled in for a long, slow ride into Labuan Bajo.
* * *
My first chore in Labuan was to find a cash machine; none of the cash machines that I went to in Reo would accept my card, and it was two weeks since I’d been in Maumere; so for most of the day I’d been coasting on small change. It hadn’t been urgent up to this point, but Labuan is a port town and a tourist town, so I was going to have to pay for somewhere to sleep.
Not a big deal, and soon the right kind of refrigerated cash machine booth loomed out of the darkness. Achievement unlocked. But by this time, I was feeling pretty stiff and tired. It had been a long day on the road, with rain and darkness to deal with, and I just wanted somewhere safe for Beastie and I to rest up.
Unfortunately, like the Rolling Stones say, we can’t always have what we want.
I started combing the homestays on the edge of town for something I could afford. The less prepossessing the sign, the more promising to me. I found one place that was desperately dingy; I had a choice of several collapsing single beds amid dirty peeling walls, and an invitation to pay $12 for the privilege. When we couldn’t fit Beastie in the door, the man said that I could pay $10 to sleep outside on a bench next to her.
I don’t mind sleeping beside my motorbike, but I like to do it for free.
I excused myself and kept going. Next stop was a massive hostel on the hill, alluringly drenched in golden light. I could see people on the upper balcony, drinking beers and eating food while they looked out over the lights of the port far below. It looked delightful. It looked big enough that surely we’d be able to find a safe corner for Beastie.
I took off my helmet, my gloves, my boots to get to the reception desk. The staff watched me tiredly peeling off my gear, and waited patiently for me to approach the counter before telling me they had no beds. Where are you from? They asked in English, chatty and outgoing like a Sydney call centre employee trying to pay the rent on an incentive-based pay plan.
You know the vibe. After months in the villages, it felt supremely weird. I pasted a smile on my face in return – hey, we were all service staff once – and wished them a good night, but my heart wasn’t in it.
Back at sea level, it was hot and humid again. I was sweating, and lusting for wash and a sleep. I put my boots, gloves and helmet back on.
Eventually I ended up on the main street of the town, near the port, amongst the bars. Here were throngs of backpacker hostels. I stopped on the street, sweating now, overdressed in my big goretex jacket.
There were spruikers, hustlers, outside each of the hostels and bars. I stopped at a few, asked for prices, asked if they had a safe place for Beastie. I could see that none of them did: the buildings were all joined in a row, fronting a busy street. No courtyards, nowhere out the back.
So I moved on a little further, stopped again, asked again. Visor up, still wearing my helmet.
One of the guys on the street came up to me, he was hustling to sell me accommodation, hustling to sell me a boat trip to the islands. Everything’s on commission.
– Come and stay in this hostel, it’s cheap, only ninety thousand.
– Is there somewhere safe for my motorbike?
– Yes, yes, park it in front here.
The busiest street in Labuan Bajo; lined with bars and hostels, frequented by tourists and locals and drunk people. Not a safe place.
– Don’t worry, he says, the staff will keep an eye on it. They will be there all night.
But I know how this works. He’s working for the commission; it’s not his business. Once he gets me in the door, nothing is his problem. For sure, the hostel would probably have a security guy, but that’s usually an old bloke who’s paid to sleep in the restaurant area. Staying awake is not part of the job description.
So I told the guy, no, no thank you. I also turned down the boat trip to the islands.
– I’m not looking for a boat trip, I told him. I just don’t have money for that. Not happening.
– 500 thousand, only. It’s beautiful. All the tourists go. Snorkeling and diving.
– No, thank you. I’m not looking for a boat trip.
He dropped the price.
– 400 thousand only.
– No, thank you.
I started looking around for the next hostel. Sweaty; still wearing my helmet. He was beside me now, continuing the sell. He dropped the price again.
– 300 thousand.
– Okay. Two hundred and fifty thousand, if you will be my girlfriend tonight.
Oh, fuck off.
I wonder if Klim know that people get mistaken for prostitutes when wearing their men’s Backcountry gear, size small.
* * *
Eventually I ended up agreeing to say at a hostel on the other side of the road. It was basic, a shambles really, but they had a shop downstairs. They said they’d let me lock Beastie in the shop when it closed for the night.
I went upstairs and washed; the bathroom was filthy, the bak mandi full of murky, rancid water. Had it ever been cleaned?
I went back downstairs, bought a small beer, and waited for them to close the shop. I was nursing a headache from hunger, but until I got the bike sorted and somewhere safe, I didn’t feel like eating. I sat with the tatooed owner of the hostel while he ate fried chicken. He told me about how his family arranged for him to be thrown in jail in Bali over an inheritance dispute and his European girlfriend took their two year old daughter back to Europe and he misses them and now he has a new girlfriend.
Drunk tourists wandered past.
Waiting, waiting for the shop to close so that I could lock Beastie inside.
Eleven o’clock. Exhausted. Don’t worry, they said, we’ll lock it up.
I went, upstairs, lay down, tried to sleep. There was an air conditioner in the bunk room, roaring away on the coldest setting. I shivered. I got up and took a second blanket from an unoccupied bunk. I was still shivering. There was no controller for the air conditioning unit.
I went downstairs. The shop was closed, but now the guys were playing cards in the front. My bike was still out on the street. One in the morning.
Don’t worry, the guys said, waving me away. I stayed. Eventually, they let me push Beastie inside the shop. I parked her there amongst the packets of chips.
I went back upstairs. Still too cold to sleep.
I went out into the unfurnished front room, windows open to the street, and lay down on the tiled floor. I’d just drifted off when the guys wake me up to ask me why I’m sleeping there.
Oh, in the name of all that’s holy, just let me sleep. I knew that there was a ferry to Sumbawa the following morning, but I didn’t know what time. I did, however, know that I wanted to get the hell out of this place. Just let me sleep.
* * *
I was up again two hours later. I carefully washed my hands in drinking water and put my contact lenses back into my dry eyes. They were so dry that the lenses stuck and made it hard to focus. It was only just dawn.
I needed to get the bike out of the shop. Finally got it locked in, now I needed to get it out. The guys who ran the shop and the hostel were all passed out. I could hearing snoring from the back. I knocked on the door; nothing. The snoring continued uninterrupted. I knocked louder. I didn’t want to wake everyone up, just one person. Please.
I went across the road and found a warung sleepily opening, asked them for coffee. Feeling twitchy. Didn’t want to miss this ferry. Didn’t want to have to spend another three days in this town. Two hundred and fifty if you’ll be my girlfriend tonight. Bye, Labuan Bajo.
I went around the back of the building, I could hear the sound of someone splashing water, so I loitered. A young bloke appeared – I pounced – he seemed sleepy and bewildered, but came and unlocked the shop.
Oh, Beastie. I wheeled her out unsteadily; so tired, like being drunk. I turned her around on the sunken porch – a five point turn – rode her carefully over the lip onto the road. Then we hauled for the ferry terminal.