I rode into Java with an afternoon storm looming above me. Riding out of the port, I turned left onto the south coast road: Java labours under the density of its population, and the main highway – heading for Jakarta – was something that I was keen to avoid.
So I rolled through the small city of Banyuwangi, winding through the traffic, all normal enough until I touched a car with my pannier while weaving through a gap. It caused no damage, no noise, no drama – a hundred and one reasons to run soft panniers – but it jolted me physically and mentally. I realised that I hadn’t had any lunch.
That’s never a good idea.
By the time I’d followed a narrow road into the hills, the promised rain started to fall.
Just a little, at first, and I was hopeful that it would be nothing more than a cooling sprinkle, not requiring waterproofs. I was wrong. Soon water was thudding from the sky and visibility plummeted; I was hungry and starting to feel light headed.
I dropped a few gears and started looking around for food and shelter, peering through the sheeting rain. There wasn’t much to be seen. Five, ten minutes; still nothing. I rode until I saw a largish building on my right, freshly painted with an open front and some benches for sitting down. It looked promising.
So I pulled off the rough edge of the bitumen. The roadside was all softening mud and large round rocks, and as I slowed to a stop, I fell on my face in the rain.
A middle aged man and a boy who had been watching from the shop ran out into the rain to help me. Within moments we’d hoisted Beastie upright and I stuck a good sized rock under the side stand.
Together, the three of us dashed back to shelter. Wiping the water from my face, I realised it wasn’t a restaurant at all; it was a jamu shop, selling Indonesian herbal medicine. The older man was the owner, and the boy – a young man with glowingly beautiful skin and angelic smile – was his apprentice.
I thanked them for their help, explained my search for food, and went to make my way across the road to a bakso stall that I’d spied under the eve of a ramshackle building opposite. But they wouldn’t let me go. No, no, they said, you can’t go and eat that bakso, it’s not good! You have to have the other bakso.
But the other bakso was up the road and around the corner somewhere, and I didn’t want to get back on the bike again until I’d had something to eat. It’ll be fine, I said, shrugging, but they weren’t having any of it. The man insisted that I sit down. His name was Alwi.
I was too hungry to argue, so we sat and Pak Alwi told me about how he’d had a jamu shop here for 12 years, how he’d built it up from nothing, and how he’d just finished the new building. His wife came and fussed over me: was I wet, did I want to wash? I think they might have been inviting me to stay the night with them, but my bahasa Indonesia was a bit vague around the edges.
Then the young apprentice came back, re-emerging from the rain with plastic bags filled with bakso.
Now, as far as I’m concerned bakso is Indonesia’s food of the people. No matter where you are, or how poor you are, you can probably eat bakso. Somewhere, not far away, will be a guy with a couple of pots and a gas bottle attached to the back of a scooter, and you can eat bakso. Now the bakso themselves are actually processed meatballs of any description, but this being a food of the people, you usually find that there’s more flour than meat in your meatballs. No matter. You most often eat your bakso in a clear broth with a few bits of vegetable matter, a few noodles, sometimes a boiled egg, and always lots of sweet soy and that brilliant red chili sauce that’s loaded with enough MSG to make your brain go ping.
Today, however, I was in for a treat. The jamu man’s apprentice brought out bowls and we decanted the food into them. Instead of the many small bakso balls that I was accustomed to see floating in my soup, there was just one large meatball in each bowl. The jamu man and I sat down together to eat. The giant bakso was like a babushka doll, multiple layers laid over one another. I pulled off pieces, dipping them in sauces and slurping them with soup until, right in the middle of the bakso ball, I came to the piece de resistance: a tiny, ovoid quail egg.
I had pretty much exhausted the extent of my Indonesian language skills by this point, so the man and I ate in companionable silence; then we sat on the benches in front of the store and drank excellent black coffee.
The rain stopped. I figured that I had a few hours of daylight left, and made to leave. The man and his wife didn’t want me to go – they were worried about me alone on my big bike as night fell, and who could blame them since they’d just watched me fall on my face in a ditch. But with the skies lightening and glucose back in my veins, I was ready to make some more miles before the end of the day. Perhaps more importantly, though, the kindness and companionship of the people at the jamu shop had given me back my optimism and my energy and my smile.
They wouldn’t let me give any money for the food that Faouzi, the smiling young apprentice, had gone out in the rain to get me.
So I was back on the road, exploring again, because people are kind and wonderful, and it’s an exciting world out there.