Swings and dives

Photo courtesy of Zoe Danielski, a future professional.

High Times in Jakarta

Sitting next to one of Jakarta’s most eminent food critics, at one of the city’s finest restaurants, I dredge up a memory from the week gone. Just days ago we made a go of slumber on the earthy floor of a tumbledown plywood hut, layered with fire ants, where a panicked chicken had the run of our recumbent, rigid bodies. I pop another morsel of Javanese cuisine into my mouth and think of how, that night, our bellies churned with hunger after another snack-dinner of MSG and salt under the guise of ‘noodles’. I rub my bites from the fire ants, still fresh. It fascinates me – the violence of the contrast, forged by fate. A travelling life is glutted with swings and dives like this, and tomorrow is always a mystery worth turning up for.

Java is home to 115 million people, all jammed together in a land the size of England. There are temples and volcanoes to gawk at, but mind-boggling population density brings smog, gridlock and the quintessentially Indonesian shout-a-thon we’re beleaguered by. Instead then we flew straight to Jakarta from Bali, and our departure airport was heaving with the bedraggled human remnants of the island’s famed hedonistic side, one we’d ducked. A train of oddballs shuffled past our airport seats, bedecked in enormous sunglasses, leather singlets, backward caps, dishevelled in their now-inapt party garbs, broken insomniacs nursing rum hangovers.

My bike box might have been the rattiest, most unwieldy thing in Bali airport, punched by holes and flailing tape. The magnitude of its shabbiness was matched by that of its weight, and we had easily maxed out on our baggage allowance. Hoisting it onto the scales at check-in, I clocked the 33 kg flashing on the electronic screen before the clerk did, and surreptitiously planted my foot beneath the box slashing the record of its real weight by 8 kg. My half-taunt calf muscle though sent the scale wavering madly between 23 and 30 kg so I leaned an elbow on Claire’s shoulder to steady myself, feigned nonchalance, rolled off pithy answers to the clerk’s questions and hoped she didn’t notice the band of Indonesian business men behind us who had discovered our ploy and were all pointing at my foot and hooting with laughter. Finally she penned ’27 kg’ on the box side – we were off to the capital.

A man emerged from a swirl of ambling travellers at Jakarta’s airport, hand outstretched, smiling broadly. Months before an email had arrived from Simon offering us a bed and shower when we got this far, things had snowballed since then though and the well-connected CEO of an insurance broker, and one-time mountain adventurer himself, had instrumented media interviews, fancy meals out, presentations at the British Chamber of Commerce and the British International School, and accommodation with his friends. A five day tornado of action twisted into life.

Our kind hosts were a family living in Jakarta – Anne, Phillip and Zoe, and they took us out on our first foray into the city by bicycle. Every Sunday Jakartans wend to the central business district where the roads are closed to traffic. The smog cast dim hulks of the city’s superstructures, music boomed from roadside speakers and kids ripped through the milky light on all manner of wheeled contraptions.

During our five days in Jakarta I might have eaten better and more than anywhere – all-you-can-plunder buffets, sushi, barbecue, local cuisine and more. Interviews and presentations broke up the feasting, and Jakarta’s legacy became new friends, money in the coffer and some extra blubber that the coming miles on Asian roads will slowly rob me of.

The girl and the mattress 

Courtesy of Zoe Danielski

In Jakarta I was invited to speak at a donor-funded school for the children of the city’s rubbish pickers who live in a vast slum on an unmanaged dump site where their families sift, sort and sell waste for recycling. The school itself was a tidy sanctuary, with open spaces, a wooden pavilion and donated aids for learning all about. The children sang a welcome song for us, ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong, others played an accompaniment on traditional instruments; they made hearts out of their fingers and thumbs as they chirped the words ‘I Love You’. I didn’t know it then, but Louis’s lyrics were about to haunt my foray into the hard reality of the children’s world next-door.

Before the talk, from the school gates, I had only glimpsed the threshold of the slum – a mud-whipped track that slipped around a corner and skirted a few run-down plywood and tin shacks. After the presentation we padded cautiously up the trail, women sorting through the rubbish squatted on their hams inside hovels built of and blended with the self-same waste, their lifeblood. Their drawn faces lifted only briefly to catch us, and soon set back to their industry.

The trail opened onto what was once a football field but now the malignant tide of litter had encroached so that only mud and puddles commanded ground that the infection of rubbish had yet to claim. The space was rimmed by more shacks which themselves were cut by alleys, and there were more fields beyond my ken, occluded by a vast stadium of rubbish which towered over the squat cave-homes and where a few pickers loitered, grubbing for salvageable extras, straggly dogs too. The sugary smell of decay pervaded, occasionally trumped by a drift of acrid smoke from rubbish that couldn’t be recycled and burned on the fringes on the settlement. Two men tugging wooden carts trudged past, backs low, sweat-soiled and shirtless, bringing fresh wealth and rot to their families. A plane roared low overhead, being on a flight path probably didn’t jar as much as it might though – they lived with a constant clamour of traffic because the site was hemmed in by highways on which more fortuitous Jakartans voyaged day and night, oblivious or not to this underbelly, home to the dispossessed whose lives depend upon what others purge.

The transient families here are not recognised as citizens of Indonesia, and have few rights. What’s more, the government had issued an order for them to move on, though where to or when remain mysteries. The slum works on a boss system – the newbies, those on the lowest rung of the ladder, sell their recyclables to another collector, a boss, who buys from perhaps 4 or more other families, and then this boss sells to another boss and on and on, each boss taking a bigger cut until the bottles and glass and such find their way to a recycling plant.

I expected to find the residents downcast, but plenty of people smiled our way. Despite the welcome, I couldn’t shake the heavy disgrace of our voyeurism. An elderly lady approached us, tiny, wrinkle-rich, with great flapping ears, clad in clothes obviously once dragged from the quarry. As she nattered away with us, batting away flies, a local boss rocked up – an eye clouded by a cataract and the leopard-like blotches of some skin disease both testaments to the hardships here. A young mother approached us too, married at 12, infant in arms.

Something caught my attention, it grated with the tableau. Three girls trampoline-ing on an old mattress all-sided by garbage, jubilant yelps, starring their arms and legs, breaking every so often to hug and giggle and peek at us through their fingers. Children, I thought then, can be children anywhere – the stench, the din and the decay don’t quell the instinct to find fun. The have-nots aren’t defined only by their circumstances.

Louis’ lyrics seemed to me at first to hold a bitter irony for the slum children – ‘I see trees of green, red roses too’ they sang, nothing as pure or fetching surrounds the residents in the confines of the dump. But maybe it’s a good fit too – babies cry here, children grow, friends shake hands. Perhaps the school helps these hard-up kids see a measure of truth in the lyrics when they sing ‘it’s a wonderful world’.

Cycling Sumatra

The poster puzzled me. An advert for Dunhill cigarettes, the image showed three white men attired in rakish waistcoats, reclining, perhaps in post-laugh lassitude, backdropped by a blur of street lights from some distant western metropolis. Words were overlaid: ‘Gentlemen, this is taste.’ As I studied the sign an old hunched Indonesian man dragging a wooden cart heaped with wares shambled past, a fag limped from his swarthy sun-beat face, completing the ‘what the fuck?’ sentiment that had been building in me as I mused the work of marketing misfits. Even if Indonesians could read and understand the English tag line, just what are Dunhill suggesting the average cart-tugging rural Indonesian should aspire to? There are some questionable qualities – a waistcoat probably would look a little incongruous if worn by an Indonesian rice farmer and he would be unlikely to wake up one day as a clean cut, chiseled young white man. The only qualities Dunhill are likely to impart are sputum-hurling coughing fits and chronic lung disease.

On our first day riding out of Padang a posse of police waved us down – I waited for the demand for our documents, instead there was conspiratorial muttering before one shyly asked whether we would pose for a photo with them. This is the way of it in Indonesia, a nation of camera-phone wielding snap-happy ambushers, but I don’t mind. We pedalled past hoards of young girls in white chowders – tall and thin mushrooms on their way to the mosque. The hospitality we’ve grown used to continued, wherever we camped someone would sidle up to our tent with coffee for us the following day. By day we rode past rice paddies and traditional Rumah Gadang houses with scores of gables and upsweeping roofs. By night we rolled the dice – we never make plans or know where we’ll sleep until the sun sinks and we have to hustle for options. Then, we play what we have, slink into a murky corner, or rap at the door of someone’s home. If locals put us up we trade fair – posing for scores of photos, playing with kids, sometimes commanding English lessons.

An improptu English lesson

The trans-Sumatran highway tied town to town – urban knots with not much in between, home to too many people, too much waste, and too little of the exoticism ‘Sumatra’ conjured. We made forced surrenders to swarms of motorbikes, trucks chugged past, their bonnets open to stem overheating, like the men who hoisted up their shirts, airing their paunches for the same reason. Kids screamed the only English word they knew: ‘MONEY!’. I wanted out of this clutter and grot, I sealed myself off from the world with an IPOD and sunglasses, my head dropped, I pedalled harder and braced against the intensity, dreaming of the jungle, hoping to quash the reality of palm oil crops and unfettered swathes of humanity.

Things began to look up after Bukittinggi when the road spiralled down through jungle proper. Sudden shaking of trees told of tribes of monkeys that scattered from the road, dropping like coconuts through the branches, and every so often the jungle was rent asunder by tracts of bright green rice paddies, dashed with palms and speckled with pointed rice hats topping their beshaded owners. We chowed down on fried food, finished off with avocado juice mixed with chocolate sauce (trust me, it works.)

There is a genuine softness to Indonesia – the quality blooms in the scores of smiling faces that share our road, and shows itself when kids touch their forehead to my hand as we shake hands, or when someone places a hand over their heart after a handshake, or bows their head. Or even when we laugh as we compare noses – ours pointy, theirs flat. ‘Losing it’ for whatever reason is considered very bad form here – in all the time I’ve been amongst the great tumult of traffic and people, I’ve never once been witness to an argument. When we ask for directions, most often we are escorted there by a motorcyclist, in one case for 11 km. But it’s a country with jagged edges too – children splash about in the same stone canals that litter rolls in and sewage seeps. It’s this baffling absence of ‘A leads to B’ that grates the roughest.

Claire got sick, so we holed up in a lime green hotel room (the international colour of crumminess), which was run by a bunch of sweaty gangsters. One night the police arrived suddenly to search it, asking about whether we were married, and not for the first time I turned to Claire to ask ‘Are we in a brothel?’ Whilst she recovered I ventured into the town to get online, as soon as I sat behind a computer in the cyber-café the entire legion of 8 year old boys in the place left their terminals and stood behind and aside me, feet and inches away, openly staring at me and my computer screen. One of them drew on a cigarette, blowing the smoke into my face (cheers Dunhill). An appeal to the owner was fruitless so I continued this uneasy communal Internet browsing and one-sided staring contest for a time before capitulating and scouting for coffee.

The men in the warung asked me the price of everything – my bike, my airfare from Australia, my clothes. When I asked for the price of the coffee though the men couldn’t mask artful grins and the owner made a give-away pause before answering – first points to me, I had found them out, and knew now the price wouldn’t be the local one. ‘20,000 Rupiah’, he chanced. ‘Oh Come On!’ I beseeched theatrically, raising an arm like a fast-bowler’s appeal. ‘I have 15 children, they need food!’ There was an uproar, this is how to play, with a gamely grin and a quick tongue. I pointed to my bicycle – proof that I’m impoverished, exploiting the fact that to him nobody would ride a bicycle if they could afford a motorbike. I showed him a rip in my trouser leg, they loved this too, the premise that a bule (a foreigner) can’t afford to dress properly is ridiculous. ‘OK OK’ he conceded, ‘10,000’. I paid even though it was still a bit steep, I’m rich here, and I’d had fun.

A degree of personal intrusion is part and parcel of travelling many densely packed countries, India is famous for this sense that everything is everybody’s, it’s true in Indonesia too. People here don’t think twice about toying with bits of my bike, sometimes jumping onto the saddle, they peer over your shoulder to read what you are reading, touch your clothes, take your photo, push their friends at you – take both your photos, push their whole family beside you – take thirty photos, selfy after selfy, stare after stare, tug after tug. Students though I love sharing my space with, to learn from, and they always want to practise their English. Hotel owners in small towns often tip off groups of them when we arrive so that as we leave a whole classroom are there to proposition us: ‘Good morning Mister, would you like to make conversation with us?’ and then ‘Do you know Kate Middleton?’

Sumatran students who wanted to know if we had permission from our parents to travel

Sumatra has a habit of causing a fuss, geologically speaking. It’s home to regular quakes including the 2004 boxing day belter, the 3rd strongest on record, which led to the tsunami which smashed into the northern city of Banda Ache and caused massive loss of life. And for volcanoes, there’s Krakatoa, just off the coast, but its past explosion, audible in Perth, was dwarfed by that of Toba, an epic super-eruption that took place around 70,000 years ago. The event is thought to have been responsible for a ten year global winter and a bottleneck in the human population, perhaps chopping us down to only 10,000 individuals, hence the reason that genetic variety among human individuals is less than would be expected.

We topped a 2000 metre pass and rallied down to the site of this Armageddon, Lake Toba, SE Asia’s largest lake. Quiet roads took us across the volcanic island of Samosir and bounced us through lake-side coffee plantations, an area home to the Batak people who are Christian and harbour a particular love of jungle juice (local homebrew) and music, a Batak man is never far from a guitar. Sometimes they would play for us in the evenings, dancing the ‘tor-tor’, a ritualistic dance. 

We climbed away from the lake to the mountain town of Beristagi where I paused to fix my brakes and a man weaved up to me, bent low and murmuring something about a warung, the Bahasa word for a local restaurant. ‘We’ve got food’, I pointed to my pannier. No no, he corrected, Woman. 100,000 Rupiah. Wanita. He clasped his hands together and made a flapping motion and then pointed to a young girl straightening her hair across the road who tottered over in heels, offering a slim, lipsticked smile, she was the 8 US dollar commodity on sale. ‘My wife’ I said, and pointed to Claire, and took off.

The Death Road to Medan

Coming out of Beristagi I don’t remember seeing an appropriate warning sign for the road to Medan, though I’m not sure what would have been apposite, a skull and crossbones now seems a little understated.

The threat was everywhere, all at once, like an intense computer game, only with real life consequences. It’s played by the X box generation too – half the motorbike drivers looked as though they had graduated straight from something plastic and Fisherprice to Suzukis with more horsepower than they’d built blanket forts. I couldn’t just focus on the obvious threat of these child-racers though, because that would be to forget about the barking, gnarled dogs that bolt from alleyways, the old ladies on wooden wagons – anachronistic, edging through the melee, the scattered potholes, the brazen wrong-laned motorcyclists whose eye-whites I will probably recall months from now when I’m sweating and bolt upright in bed.

Every time I looked back at Claire she had lost a shade more colour and was shaking her head in contemplation of what the last moment’s drama might have been – usually an epic pile-up and the desecration of a Hindu temple with the blood of the 27 child-drivers and their younger siblings stacked up on motorbikes behind. Ramping up the stress were the air horns on trucks that are so unjustifiably loud that if everything else about the trucks was in proportion to the volume of their horns, they would have monster truck tyres and be driven by someone who belonged in the NFL.

Swarms of motorbikes at junctions made short punches into the vein of careering vehicles. Many just zoomed onto the highway, unlooking. Motorists appeared to possess roughly the same level of fervent, unquestioning belief as a Buddhist monk dowsed in petrol reaching for a lighter, only the drivers appeared slightly more suicidal. Their faith denies the possibility of collision. Drivers watching this spectacle know, completely, that those joining their highway will not look, signal, slow down or deviate for anyone, even if that ‘anyone’ appears to be driving directly at them, and thus they move and the system kind of works. Only doubting Thomas’ here get ketchup-ed, but I suppose therein lies the rub, the rate of human roadkill in Indonesia is eye-watering, proving that air horns and blind faith amount to a pretty abortive highway code.

The buses on this road were the craziest though. They looked as though they had been designed by someone whose only instruction was ‘bus’ and ‘overstatement’. Garish colours swirled across the chassis, broken by racing car numbers, an image of James Bond or the words ‘VIP Class’. Up to 20 lights were usually arrayed on the roof, tucked below various fins and detonating air horns. Men crammed the roof. The drivers, caps turned backwards, were usually turned in any direction other than towards oncoming traffic, often gabbing to friends or scanning the side streets because the most important thing in the universe to a Sumatran bus driver is the collection of new fare-paying passengers, and an almost certain pile-up is no reason not to make a violent turn for the curb, in fact it’s the only time emergency braking is appropriate.

The central road markings are there presumably in case the driver is a stickler for the rules, for most they represent a vague suggestion, not any kind of mandate. Over-taking is at high speed and usually ends milliseconds from tragedy, though the regular spectacle of crushed, steaming cars suggest it doesn’t always work out that well. At first the inner voice quivered ‘wait, he’s not gonna…, that would be ins… but he won’t make it… AHHH!’ and I jerked the handlebars, hit the rough and battled back onto the highway, heart thumping, hissing and cussing.

After a time though we opened ourselves up to riding Indonesian style, and it is liberating. Missed a turn? No worries, just pull an unannounced U turn across three lanes of heavy traffic, wave serenely at the looming screeching metal-encased mad-heads, nobody will judge you. Then you can ride against the flow, grinning and gesticulating wildly, until you find your turn. Problem solved.

I’m in Singapore now – on the home straight, westward to people I care about, to soggy chips in newspaper, and to utter disdain for this kind of sentimentality. Claire flew off a few days ago to ride Japan and South Korea, so for now I’m back to solo travel.

Thank yous this month – Simon McCrum, Anne, Phillip and Zoe – without whom Jakarta would have involved instant noodles, lime green rooms and loneliness. I can’t say thank you enough.

Liz and Miles for hosting the great evening with a video / presentation and copious booze, and to everyone who generously came and donated.

The British Chamber of Commerce and corporate sponsors for my presentation in Jakarta – Willis, International SOS, AEGON and AIG. You’re all boss.

Dylan and his amazing bike touring company Ride and Seek – for anyone considering an organised group bicycle tour you can’t do better than these guys.

Finally I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who donated to Merlin, the NGO I have been raising money for over the last few years. In all over 20,000 quid was raised for their important work. Merlin merged with another larger charity, Save the Children, a few months ago and I have therefore had to bring to an end this fundraising campaign.

Next up – peninsular Malaysia and Thailand.

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Comments (8)

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    I've been following you since the start (linked from Merlin) and have always enjoyed your blog. Fascinating stuff. Will you choose another charity for us readers to donate to for your final stretch home?


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    It's nice to know your still continue your adventure. Greetings from Dublin Jack


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    Awesome post Steve, I'm now in india and can sympathise with the heart stopping adventures by road. Your right though, its best to just let go and cycle like a nutter!


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    You remain entertaining, enchanting, and snort-inducing. Could the name of your book please be CHEERS DUNHILL?

    Sitting here in Northern Minnesota with snow still covering the grass, ice on the lake, I find I quite needed a quick trip to chaotic, heart-wrenching, heart-warming Indonesia.

    Be safe.


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    Fusspot A


    Peninsula Malaysia, east or west coast? Either way I think you'll be very familiar with the sight of palm oil plantations by the end. I was there May last year. Feck it was hot. I don't know how you can stand it in a tent.

    Well done!


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    Derek Spanfelner


    Another wonderful, thought-provoking entry. Is there a book in the works? There better be!


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