Posts Tagged ‘islands’

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.

Rising up, back on the street

A three part story this time: Komodo, Lombok and Bali.

Komodo castaways

‘Um, excuse me, how many tourists have been attacked by the dragons? You know, badly

Confident that everyone was itching to ask our guide the same question, I played trailblazer. Sure, it was interesting to learn about the average litter size, or the arboreal habits of the younger Komodo dragons, but I wanted more, I wanted drama, I wanted death. ‘About 16’ offered the guide, smashing asunder the flood gates to a hunt for morbid secrets, and all because Komodo Dragons are the very embodiment of ferocity and predation – the wide, Jurassic maw, the trenchant claws, the bleak stare, the creature’s glorious epithet itself. ‘If you get bitten by a dragon, how long until you die of infection? Is it a slow death?’ We might as well have licked our lips, rubbed our thighs, the guide though seemed used to indulging the collective want for predator porn. ‘You would die in around two weeks’ he leveled with us, and then sidetracked into breeding habits before fielding another interruption ‘Who would win in a fight to the death, a crocodile or a Komodo Dragon?’

We boated out to the diminutive island of Komodo to see these beasts, among the posse of voyeurs were Dave and Karen, a Canadian couple who flagged me down in the street the day before with ‘Steve! It’s been ages! You remember us – from Santiago!’ My third chance encounter with those I’d met before on another continent. It would be occasion to remark ‘small world’ if I didn’t know better.

We were soon shuffling, cameras poised, drafting two stick-wielding guides – our protection. Evolution had tried a bit harder with the Dragon’s weaponry than our guides had with theirs, they might as well have ditched the sticks and handed around toothpicks and lucky charms. A dragon, at least two metres long, stirred from a doze and slunk into a fluid-like easy crawl from one shadow to the next, sluggishly sweeping it’s monstrous tail through the dust. The renown of Komodo Dragons, the world’s most exalted and prodigious lizard, is no doubt embellished by their niche range, they are endemic to just five tiny Indonesian islands and number just over 5000. Other facts embolden their reptilian celebrity status though; especially impressive is that a 50 kg adult Komodo Dragon can devour a 40 kg prey in one sitting, bones, blubber, mobile phone and all. Even compared to my effort three weeks later at an all-you-can-massacre buffet in Jakarta (which almost culminated in a lifetime ban and a Monty Python-esque gastric explosion), that’s a good effort.

A small boy emptied a bucket of water collected from the depths of the wooden hull overboard. I settled back into my seat and decided not to indulge the lurid fantasy of a night swim to shore. The sunset was swift, a thick equatorial dusk had sunk in. Beyond the churning wake of our craft brooding green humps of land broke up the sea – a complicated scatter of islands that represent a pinch of the roughly 17,500 that embody Indonesia, a statistic I’d known for weeks, but one still impossible not to be constantly wowed by.

Engine killed, we drifted listlessly towards a dim stand of trees, the backdrop to a spaghetti of mangrove roots. A shrill screech lifted from the murk. A thumbs-up from the captain. More screeches. With narrow eyes I could make out an array of dark specks in the upper reaches of the trees, like hanging fruit. One of them twisted off a branch, plummeted, swooped in front of a shard of low cloud and escaped into a navy sky, bespeckled with scores of glinting, early stars. It’s for a sight of these gargantuan fruit bats that I had made the boat trip. More and more left perches every minute to begin their nightly foray, they wheeled above us, their shrieks mingled in a chilling chorus, foisting shivers. A few took sallies to the far side of our boat, flapping close enough that I could glimpse their pointed snouts, hear the beat of their metre-wide wings.

The bats thinned out, scattered to the seascape, some venturing up to thirty miles away to feed. We swung around and chugged back to Komodo village towards a line of bright white shining motes – the lights on out-riggers that the fishermen use to attract their quarry. A village soon segued into view, the houses levitating like the murky mangroves, their stilts consumed by gloom. We sputtered closer – until the shapes of broken boats dissolved out of the mud flats and I could smell the fish laid out on wooden slats that dashed the harbour. I surveyed a muddle of beshawled women, shambling goats and ragtag children, the latter gawked at us, moon-eyed, as our boat slid neatly into the wharf.

As I debarked one young sailor put a hand on my shoulder and pointed skyward, my eyes followed. The sky was charcoal, but I could just spot a few travelling, ragged silhouettes. Soon they would melt completely into the night, their haunting shrieks the only hint that they ply these skies.

Lombok loonacy

The kick across the island of Sumbawa was motor-driven, not pedal-powered. The VISA is ticking, and we have to pick favourites. Lombok, next in the chain, won out. Bus travel is fraught with the types of troubles I’m not used to – beginning with unintelligible schedules and self-styled vociferous ‘facilitators’ at the stations who take a wodge of your inflated fare and who facilitate nothing, bar my disdain for buses in Indonesia. Later, much later than scheduled, my nose and knees become closely acquainted for a jarring expedition, further marred by my certainty that the thud I heard two hours ago was my rear pannier falling off the bus roof, the contents of which I imagine being disseminated via local markets, which makes me wonder if some kid is modelling my padded cycling shorts, perhaps deciding if the one-time owner had an incontinence problem.

Sumbawa, via bus window, looked a poorer place. Sinewy horses lumbered along crumbling asphalt streets, drawing carts loaded with wares. Another ferry took us to Lombok, we arrived late at night at a run-down hotel where our room’s paint job was modelled on a patient with mild jaundice and severe eczema, and where mosquitoes danced and stale fag smoke cloyed. The owner was wearing a t-shirt which depicted the face of Osama Bin Laden in the foreground to an image of the burning twin towers and the emblazoned words ‘World trade centre 2001’.

Our northern route across the island began next to a stand of giant Kopok trees,and soon the looming cone of Mount Rinjani lurched into view along with its micro-climate of gauzy cloud. We breezed through fishing villages peopled by women in multi-hued wrap-around skirts and their tribes of smirking, shabby-clad kids, far from the sand-splayed holiday-ers who chilled on the southern side of the island.

Travels with Bali

Bali, with its unique interpretation of Hinduism, represented the fourth prevailing religion we’ve met in as many months –from the predominantly Christian islands of Timor and Flores, to Islamic Sumbawa and Komodo, and of course Australia whose less sombre religious traditions involve the ceremonious slugging of liquor, meat-eating and violent ball sports, simultaneously if occasion permits.

The type of moss-consumed stone temples I would usually expect to find at the end of a week long trek through remote jungle and have to exit via commando roll as a boulder drops, Indiana Jones style, are everywhere in Bali. Over 10,000 religious shrines and temples scatter the tiny island. We cycled into the town of Ubud by night – gaunt, leather-skinned men propped up shop fronts and eyed us ride in. We found a café and watched white thirty something men float by in full Bali uniform – sarongs, wispy beards, giddy in their new found spirituality, swinging Durians – a fruit which look like what I assume a land mine might look like, smell like the aftermath of a hippo detonating a landmine, and that tastes like an extra rare piece of the exploded hippo, smothered in cold custard.

We took half a day off to visit the monkey forest set amongst more of those mossy sun-mottled temples. The simian residents were king – they terrorised the tourists at every opportunity, stealing anything that might be food. One of the Balinese macaques nicked a bottle of sun cream and was busy rending the plastic with its incisors whilst a glum soon-to-be sunburned Swedish girl looked on feebly. Two jumped on the head of a quickly frantic Japanese girl whose friends could only watch her leap around in clumsy panic as the monkeys clawed at her scalp. Eventually an American lady, who clearly had some experience in de-monkeying people, raced over, snarled at them and they spidered away to strip someone else of their cosmetics. There was a first aid area, probably because this happens a lot. A couple of exhibitionists in the troop gave a show of monkey-sex, some of the more puerile sightseers reached for their cameras, their girlfriends groaned.

Bike time – and we had an audacious plan to avoid Bali’s number one turn-off : the traffic. Moseying through Ubud, a slew of motorbikes traced our outline, so we picked out some of the skinniest roads on the map to journey instead. Before we left I got at least three quarters of the way through a piece of chicken before realising that it smelled overpoweringly rancid, such is my voraciousness, so I downed some antibiotics and steeled myself for a gastrointestinal Armageddon that never came. My guts have dealt with grub from six continents, they are not easily insulted.

For anyone who believes in the old adage ‘A dogs is man’s best friend’ I invite you to ride with me through Bali. Better – I would like to tie a rope to your ankle, the other end to my rear rack, and pedal hard, dragging you behind me through Balinese back roads, like shark bait. Friends don’t forge a mangy, snarling, snapping gauntlet of joylessness. It’s not just a daytime blight either, wherever we slept in Bali dogs harangued us most of the night, the roosters joined in at 2 am. When they gave chase though, I delved into my pocket of stones: generic rules apply – 5 points for a body shot, 10 for the head, 20 for a snout. It’s easy to forgot, in the heat of battle, that dogs have backgrounds, so deduct points if your wayward ammunition strikes parked cars, people, or religious shrines. Sometimes I stood back, sniper-style,drawing the heat as Claire edged through the barking mutts and made army-like hand gestures to me, yelling out my targets ‘Fido, 2 O’clock, fire at will!’ There is little in life so satiating as the oh-so-sweet timbre of a stone clonking off a snout, the sharp yelp and fading patter of paws of a rushed retreat. And so my stones got bulkier, my aim smarter, my lob ever stronger.

A black car trailed me, pulled alongside. The driver belched out his offer.


‘No thank you’


‘Because I’m riding my bicycle’


‘But I don’t need one’

‘How much you think?’

‘I don’t care’

He thrust forward and parked, blocking my path so I was forced into a stop and he could serenade me with new offers.


I bellowed, exasperated.




‘Please go away’

He asked quietly this time, eyes darting ‘Marijuana?’

He looked amazed by my apparent need for nothing, my contentness in my humble fare and chimeless, unsmokable possessions. Next he wanted to know how much I paid for my bike, I hear this all the time, I resent the question and never answer truthfully. This time, I offered it in exchange for three of his mangoes and the wind chime, he raised an eyebrow, I pedalled off. Afterwards I made a decision not to take umbrage or even engage these rankling hawkers, IPOD in and pumped, I just smile a dumb smile and watch, unruffled, as the hectic mime plays out.

I don’t want to recall how it came to this. It was probably my fault.

I’m singing a tuneless, lyric-jumbled rendition of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Eighties rock band Survivor. Claire told me it would make her feel better. ‘Rising up, back on the street…’ My wheels spin, but I don’t know how my legs are still wheeling. ‘Did my time, took my chances…’. I’m drunk on exhaustion. Brain dead. I could laugh about it all – the farce, the failure, the shit and the fan – but I passed the inappropriate hilarity stage three hours ago. Now, I want to cry. ‘Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet’… I’m finished, and if there’s another hill I’ll give up, hitch a ride, drop to my knees in front of an approaching eight wheeler, anything not to ride it. I can’t even find mirth in my desperate crooning of cheesy rock ballads or their incongruous lyrics. I am a pitiful, pedalling, splintering, karaoke-whining failure. And today began with so much promise.

We woke in a very rare Indonesian wild camping spot, aside a shrine, amid pine trees, and under yellowing clouds, combed by a thin breeze. The type of morning that makes you want to make a show of your contentment by giving a theatrical arm stretch. No dogs, no cockerels, no vocal orgy – Indonesia is rarely this cruisey, this forgiving.

We got to riding, soon though the road skinnied down to a thready trail, peppered with head-sized rock, becoming as steep and pointless as a snow-less black run, and working up a lather of despair. Looking at a new roll of it, I wondered whether someone had just painted a portrait of a road onto a cliff face. After hours of toil, bike-dragging mostly, we couldn’t face a turn around, but I had no trust left in this road. 35% boulder-strewn grades were behind me, pot holes that might have connected with the earth’s mantle. In three hours we moved a measly 10 km. Adding to our woe was the weather – the air ripped with thunder, the land eclipsed, pushed beyond my ken by a clotting fog, rain beat down unendingly as small boys scampered below makeshift banana-leaf umbrellas. As we’ve been pushing north so has the wet season, rain clouds are forever overhead, we’re like the clichéd depictions of unlucky cartoon characters.

Claire’s face was set in an anguished grimace and she expelled great, antenatal huffs. My legs quivered in short stride. We dragged our bikes down the mountain.We had battled up to 1700 metres above sea level, but the battle down was proving even more formidable and our remaining brakes squealed like tortured piglets. My back brake was shot, worn to the metal, and I had to push down the steep bits, which was almost everything. Once I looked back to find Claire had collapsed, somehow the bicycle was 90 degrees to our direction of travel, and on top of her. Inadvertently she had become a whimpering kickstand. I ran back to help but she refused, Claire is determined, she wanted her wins to be hers, her kickstand impressions too. This was no longer bicycle touring, it had degenerated into an as yet undefined sport which combined the brutish power of Sumo with the grace of care-home palates and the pointless cruelty of bear-bating.

The road flexed around another escarpment to reveal a small clan of musicians sitting outside some wattle and daub huts, one blowing into a wooden flute, his warbling melody dancing over the rhythm of the Gamolan, a kind of bamboo xylophone, bonked by two companions. I stopped to wait for Claire, this was exactly her bag. They invited us to sit, offered us Arak, played their music. Claire brought out her long metal flute she stows in a rear pannier. There was caution in the air, they didn’t see this working out, but when Claire played by ear the same wooden flutist’s melody, she pretty much nailed it straight off, leaving everyone slightly agog and nodding incredulously. They jammed for a time before we said goodbye, silver lining scored on a washed out day. ‘Sorry about our broken road’ they said.

More hills, more pain, more mental deflation. At last though we hit the town and although hotels are not our staple, that night we needed one. I had very exacting standards, in that it had to call itself a hotel. Nothing else. A brothel would have done if it has a bed to rent by the hour, though staring at my mournful reflection in the mirrored ceiling would probably only add to my torment, especially if that reflection was belting out ‘Rising up to the challenge of our rival…’

The day though was a sadist, not quite done with us. We cycled out to the beach only to find luxury villas, three million Rupiahs a night. About turn, rats scurried from our wheels, post-traumatic slumber evading us. ‘More Pain!’ growled the 11th of March, grinning down at us, reaching for the pliers.

Rested, able finally to chortle away our misfortune and my navigational optimism, we pressed on to Jatiluwih, the heritage listed rice paddies. Lush terraces lined the hills, a giant amphitheatre of brilliant green. It was the perfect opposite to the day before – jubilant freewheels, sublime scenery, sunshine spilling onto the cones of nearby volcanoes, mist idling in valleys. We spent the hours flashing one another horseshoe-grins. 

Later we chanced on a Hindu ceremony playing out at a temple. We sat serenely to marvel at the rows of women dressed in magenta silks, the Gamolan orchestra, hammering out their collective tune. The way the Russian tourists arrived reminded me of how the SAS might storm an embassy. They bowled in, snatching glances, devoid of the smidgen of trepidation that you might expect from anyone visiting a sacred place, mid-ceremony. The girl was in hot pants and took some convincing to don the obligatory sarong. They charged onto stage, ordering their guide to take photos. The ringleader grabbed the women’s instruments, the others hooted with laughter before a final act of indignity – he half wrestled two of the women by wrapping his arms around their shoulders, once again ordering photos. There was laughter from the Hindu women but it was awkward and forced, we cringed harder than anyone.

So much has gone down of late that my blog is running a little behind my wheels – I’m in Sumatra and tales from this island, Jakarta and Singapore will come with the next issue which will arrive earlier than usual.

Thank yous for this leg – Dave and Karen

The death-defying meesters

A windshield was just a slant of glass until East Timor.

Deep, aching regret chased my decision to add myself to the human-stuffing inside this microlet – the local bus – whipping through the clamorous streets of Dili, the country’s capital. I had bagged a front row view along with three other men whose buttocks also vied for a share of the two front seats. Despite the unyielding terror my perspective endowed, I was fascinated. I snatched a glimpse of a motorbike as it disappeared behind a two foot long yellow caterpillar. An ambulance, plowing so fast through traffic it was surely going to maim more people than it could ever save, flickered in and out of view amid plastic yellow birds and a limp Manchester United jersey. Where I expected sky, there was only yellow fur.

Almost every inch of glass was covered with cutesy toy animals and football paraphernalia, suckered on, through which the teenaged driver peered. His head jerked left and right to counter the motion of the dangling zoo. His red tinged Mohawk jerked too. And it went on like this – lurching past invisible vehicles, Daffy Duck consuming a gaggle of pedestrians, fleeting thoughts of my family and early life, a vision of a crumpled bus and a blood-stained Winnie the Pooh. Was it my audible whimpering that invited the driver to wink at me and offer a double thumbs-up? Maybe, but considering a Darwin Award was on the cards it seemed a perverse way to offer reassurance, all I could do was fake a smile and will those thumbs back to the only place thumbs of visually impaired drivers should be – on the steering wheel.

Given the circumstances, it was hard to imagine adding another dynamic more crippling to the driver’s ability to concentrate, bar a passenger launching a bucket of ice and another of fire ants onto his lap. For starters the Indonesian pop music that blasted from speakers was jet plane loud and each bass note sent tinny rattles through the chassis, bounced the vast array of juxtaposed cuddly animals and inspired violent head bopping from the front row, me excluded, though I was often jolted involuntarily roof-ward when we smashed into Dili’s cavernous potholes. A weave of scents – petrol fumes, cooking meat, and rank vegetables – gushed through the open windows. Between songs the noise of the streets clawed back, caged roosters crowed, the tangle of careering motorbikes revved and backfired.

I recognised my hostel (superimposed by Tigger) and tapped a coin on the roof to signal my stop. Disgorged now, a jumble of insouciant school children in the back of the bus stared out at me on the pavement. Perhaps only a front seat had offered full appreciation of our breathless foreplay with providence. The driver winked at me once again, yelled ‘See you next time meeester!’ and as he jerked the vehicle back from kerb to chaos I could only stand, watch and ruefully mouth those parting words – Next time meester. Next time. If we did meet again I might be on a bicycle, and on the less survivable side of the windshield.

It seems unforgivable to label anywhere in the world’s largest continent as quintessentially Asian but on the streets of Dili the clichés added up. Meandering roosters, pots of bubbling broth and dumplings, careering motorbikes adding to the heavy fug of hanging smog. These streets belonged to the people, they worked them and they lived them. For almost a year I have pedalled through sanitised, au fait, developed nations. My eyes are wider now, I’m leaning forward, senses piqued, and content because we have a new border to our back and a torrential rain of differences, drenching me with questions. We went in search of some history to help bring to life the newest country of the millennium, one of the poorest in Asia and a land without tourist information, a British consulate, or even a purchasable road map.

Rubble was one of those unanswered questions. In Dili piles of it spot the city, it’s a playground for children, and casts refuges of shade in the late afternoon for the city’s many stray, mangy dogs. It tells a story too – of a wretched history, branded by war and rebellion. The former Portuguese colony was heading for full independence in 1975 when Indonesia invaded with backing from the US who at the time were making warmongering something of a hobby themselves having just ravaged Vietnam. Indonesia was the most important non-communist state in SE Asia and the US wanted them on side. One inconsequential point I should mention: the Timor sea has massive oil reserves, though I’m sure American military strategists and politicians never once gathered around a map of East Timor, rubbed their hands and gawked with glee. That would be wholly unprecedented.

Australia were complicit in the invasion too, and their actions since East Timor’s independence have marked them out as guilty of coveting Timor’s black gold. They have acted in the classic bully boy style rich countries deal with poor ones, at best protectionist and deeply cynical, at worst corrupt and in violation of international law. It’s notable that Australia, in the the midst of a lucrative mining boom, enjoyed negotiating with East Timor only when the fledgling country was particularly desperate, at its lowest ebb, and would take whatever was on offer. More recently East Timor has accused the Aussie government of spying. It is all quite complicated, but there is anger on the streets of Dili, and the walls of the Australian embassy speak of the outrage…

The crocodile is the national animal of East Timor
After East Timor we’d cross into Indonesia and every emerging fact about the nation left me further incredulous. With 250 million people the population of Indonesia is larger than that of Brazil, 3.5% of the world’s people are Indonesian. The 19,000 islands (you heard right) have a land area about on par with Mexico. With 60 days on our Indonesian VISA the plan was an island hop, seven in all: Timor (where we’d cross into Indonesia), Flores, Sumbawa, Lombok, Bali, train through most of Java (to bypass the busiest Indonesian streets and a particularly cantankerous volcano) to Jakarta, Sumatra and finally exiting the nation via a boat to Singapore. 60 days was double what we might have been granted, though I like to think our letter in Indonesian to the attaché helped in that regard (Dear Sir, we are so excited about visiting your beautiful country, which whilst we have never been there, we are certain it will be the most beautiful in the world…)

We rode the coast road first which passed by thatched huts clumped in small villages, scented with wood smoke and teeming with shambling goats and tribes of popeyed children who chased at our wheels yelling ‘Bon Dia!’ – a Portuguese welcome that lives on. Our welcome rippled through villages and the smiles seemed to leap out at us, full-faced, awe-inscribed, made with great red-stained lips from chewing the Betel Nut and which made their owners look maniacal, like the Joker from Batman.

I hate to make naff comparisons between countries but there was something of Ethiopia in this part Indonesia, specifically the attention we were gifted, or as was often the case, stabbed with. The polite ‘Bon Dia’ was replaced in busier West Timor by a verbal orgy dominated by screams of ‘MEEEESTER!’ (aimed at both myself and Claire) as in ‘I LOVE YOU MEESTER!’ a favourite, or ‘I NEVER FORGET YOU MEESTER!’. Occasionally ‘I HATE YOU MEESTER!’ or ‘FUCK YOU MEESTER!’ and chased by a hysterical scattering of children. Often though it was just ‘HEY! HEEEEYYY! HEEEEYYYYYYYY!’ The ‘Hey’ is not the kind of ‘Hey, hows it going?’ kind, it’s the kind of ‘HEY!’ that ordinarily is only used in response to a stranger stealing a newborn baby, sprinting off down the street with it under their arm and shouting ‘Dave, go long!’. It’s a ‘Hey!’ that’s not meant to engage anyone or kindle conversation, it’s self-serving, in your face and imbued with unnecessary violence. ‘HEYYYYYYY!’ is not screamed so much as vomited all over you.

The attention luckily isn’t always so affronting, and these islands are a hotbed of hospitality, actually after four years of bicycle travel around the world it’s hard to think of a country in which local people have hosted me as often. We camped outside churches and often in people’s homes where we chewed betel nut, played with kids and aired our flaky Indonesian. Every face threw smiles our way, they bounced off our own. Huts were upended to make space, food was cooked in our honour, children milled around us, adults crouched on their haunches, content just to watch and grin those sardonic scarlet smiles. One particularly benevolent man became so embarrassed after ants got into our panniers and his chicken ran amok and over our sleeping bodies in the night, that he refused our offer of money and we left with panniers choking with fruit from his meager garden. It was heartbreaking and our Indonesian couldn’t communicate our gratitude, so we just smiled a lot until he understood.

In Timor motorbikes often pulled up beside us, their riders question-ready and beaming. One man sat beside me on the grass as we took a break, he’d been giving me the eye. ‘Oh Meeester Stephen, I so glad I meet you, you’re so handsome!’ he piped up, his head lolling coquettishly to one side. Every so often he giggled and chirped ‘Oh Meester Stephen!’ as if I’d told the funniest joke he’d heard in years. He referred to Claire as ‘Meester Stephen wife’ a moniker which, to her chagrin, has stuck – I use it every time I need her attention, enjoying the implied sense of ownership and theft of her individualism. There was talk before of the possibility of Claire getting harassed by leering romantics in some countries, so we decided to pretend we are married, we didn’t foresee though my meteoric rise to gay icon-hood in Indonesia and I think Claire’s secretly a tinge jealous she hasn’t been wolf whistled as much as I have.

Here’s how it works on Indonesian roads: A vehicle pulls level, perhaps a car, most likely a motorbike. Multiply the wheel number by two and you have roughly the number of occupants, unless it’s a bus, then square it seven times and add infinity. The driver will drill me with an undeviating gaze, oblivious does not begin to describe it, for him the known universe has just vanished. He is like a shark in a shoal of mackerel, scattering horn-sounding oncoming traffic to ditches and crash barriers. After a dragging infinitude, amid the screams of maimed motorists and police sirens, the driver will summon the courage to ask ‘Hello Meester. What is your hobby?’ Indonesian drivers are ambidextrous lane users who rarely resort to trifling things like binocular vision, still, they are genuinely better than Australians, which really does say something.

Ahhhh Indonesian food. Cheap and gratifyingly ambiguous if not always wholesome. Warungs are local haunts where the food is served, and it’s best not to think about the bound slavering dogs that can be seen on the back of Indonesian motorbikes en route to some local restaurant. Coffee comes with enough sugar not just to make diabetes completely unavoidable but to actually caramelise your circulating blood volume. We went economy class for the boat to island number two, Flores, and for our thriftiness we received a fish head and a sprinkle of rice for dinner. Cockroaches and chickens had the run of our shared living quarters and when we returned from sallies to the toilets we had tales of stomach churning adventure. We shared with about 70 men who were stretched out on black mattresses amid botanical garden humidity and hanging body odour. Because this is Indonesia our 70 cohabitants were also 70 rampant chain smokers puffing their way to emphysema by our next dock, some were almost certainly going to be photographed posthumously for government anti-smoking campaigns. Our floating dorm mates had other traits in common too – they all owned mobile phones with the capacity to play bass-less music and had strikingly bad musical sensibilities, evidenced by the frequency with which ‘you raise me up’ by Westlife drifted through the cabin like the unwelcome smells. They were also all very enthusiastic amateur photographers whose preferred subject matter was white people attempting sleep. They too were karaoke enthusiasts, hawkers, stand-up comedians, wide eyed voyeurs, incessant hecklers, greeny-hacking experts and English language students who would from time to time shake one of us awake and ask ‘Hello meester. What is your hobby?’ 

We arrived in Ende, the largest city on the mountain-crowded island of Flores, and after gleaning route advice from another intrepid long-term biker, the wise and dreadlocked Jonno of ‘Homeless But Not Hopeless’ renown, we decided to visit the venerated lakes at Kelimutu. We left our bikes in Ende for the detour and so on the way I was endowed with a wind-blasted panoramic view because I was about about two foot taller than the child who drove the Indonesian motorbike taxi. We dodged slumbering dogs, up, past the infinity pools of flooded rice paddies, up some more, into a world of tree ferns. We both later confided that our thoughts had at times veered towards craniotomies and neurological rehab. We jumped off the motorbikes and our drivers headed off, presumably for warm milk, cookies and bedtime stories, and we trekked up to the three lakes – one a bottle green, another black watered and red rimmed and the third a kind of turquoise that ordinarily belongs only to exotic butterflies viewed after a hit of LSD.

Leaving Ende we cycled past a statue of two extended fingers, the international symbol of peace or victory, or at least that’s what those who arrive to the town get, when you leave you get the more unwelcome reverse, perhaps whoever commissioned the statue hadn’t thought of that, but I like to think they had. Rain fell, big, sopping drops of it, making the road ahead steam. Black beaches were laid out below us, and the coastal road was crumbling slowly into the surf. Villages were a jumble of palm thatched huts and heaps of coconut husks where raggedy children played and the balmy smell of humanity loitered. Dogs harangued us. Women collected blue-green stones on the beach and carried them on their heads. ‘MEESTER!’ – the chant ambushed us everywhere, firing in from the road’s mysterious margins like darts from blow pipes. Sudden cones of volcanoes appeared through billowing cloud. Tribes of children ran at our wheels, all eyes, giggling into their hands. Buses swept past, honking, arms flailing, music pounding, giddy screams. Indonesia never lost its heady pace.

Indonesians love music, they love it marginally more than sugar, football and hair-gel and less than unfettered noise masquerading as music, which is the national obsession. Indonesian buses, or bemos, zipped past on our way into West Timor’s main city, Kupang, hecklers hanging out of the bass rattling doors, their rear windows decorated with an image of a local hero – sometimes pop sensation Avril Lavigne, sometimes Harry Potter, sometimes Jesus Christ. I wonder if these celebs ever share other territory here, Harry Potter on stained glass perhaps, sexy miniatures of Avril Lavigne next to Buddha and Ganesha at roadside shrines.

On the roads motorbikes back fired and smoke billowed from burning litter, both added a flavor of ‘war zone’ to our surroundings. Occasionally a great cavalcade of big polished cars sped past us, led by siren sounding police cars. The occupants I imagined to be some important visiting foreign dignitary, perhaps the third uncle of the former vice attaché to Mali.

One night we stayed in a convent and visited the nearby school, led by Sister Selfie and Father Fluffy, and I promise those names are genuine. Last year a section of the sea front school collapsed into the lapping waves. Most of the kids we were told are just lucky to be in high school, they won’t go on to university or city jobs, most likely they’ll be stone pickers like the bent and languid old people we saw as we arrived. It was a sobering thought, and whilst the ecomony is growing fast here, so is the population, and many Indonesians have the kind of obstacles I never did. I never opened textbooks to find starfish and hermit crabs. The blackboard was never obscured by driftwood. History class never got cancelled because of high tide.

Claire and Oscar looking out of the cobweb rice paddies near Ruteng
As we travelled across the island I sunk into a black mood, mainly because I couldn’t fix my brakes, the hills kept rolling in and the attention we garnered was exhausting. I could say ‘hello’ and mean it the first 679 times, but by 680, which in Flores is around 2pm, it got hard to keep smiling. Also, I had a rubber chicken on my handlebars called Herb, and it’s impossible not to look like a giant douchebag if you’re miserable and have a rubber chicken on your handlebars. I hated myself for being so grumpy, especially after children galloped out of their homes, yelping exuberantly, joy written in their eyes, only in place of the fun and fascinating foreigner they expected they found a mopey, stone faced let-down. For those Indonesian children it must be the same as coming down stairs on Christmas morning to find Santa drunk, puking on his santa boots, sexually assaulting his reindeer and then removing his beard to reveal that he is in fact Bob, your dad’s drinking buddy from the Red Lion.

Herb the chicken is the newest member of team Cycling The Six
People often ask me whether wild camping is dangerous. I’ve never been robbed in my tent, though I’ve met scores of travelers who have been stripped of their money and gear and almost always the story is set on a bus or in a hotel. Unfortunately in Ruteng our own story unfurled…

After four nights rough camping or sleeping in villages we choose a cheap hostel to spend the night. The next day we left our room to have breakfast which was served on the same floor, about ten metres away, and so we didn’t think to lock the room, and yes, that does make us giant shamefaced douchebags. After about twenty minutes we realised someone had been in our room, rummaged through our bags and snatched a couple of million rupees (about 150 dollars). The usual emotions ploughed in – anger, disappointment in humankind, and a not insignificant amount of self-blame. We called on the hotel manager who had a single agenda, and it wasn’t sleuthing or sympathy. He wanted just to communicate how far from responsible his hotel was for our problem. Light years, apparently. I set off for the police station.

I explained the situation to gathered officers and spent the next half an hour repeating bits of the statement and agreeing with them when they reminded me that doors have locks and that locks stop bad people stealing your shit and that I’m a bit of a twat for letting this happen. Whilst I waited for something else to occur, perhaps a police report, though the prospect looked remote, one officer staring glumly at a ream of papers said to me ‘Ohhh, it’s terrible. It really is. Do people die like this in your country?’ He handed me a real life crime scene photo of a very dead, mutilated man, his face barely recognizable as a face. Before I could laugh insanely or puke, it may have been either, six armed police men tore through the station, jumped into a van and set out for our hostel.

Meanwhile back in Hotel Rima Claire was busy penning a letter for the insurance company whilst the hotel owner peered over her shoulder and cajoled her into changing the story: ‘Can’t you just say you lost the money on a plane?’ Then the agitated squadron and heavy artillery arrived to photograph the crime scene. Claire was ferried to the police station where together we gave a statement. On recording our details Claire was awarded an extra decade in age. They asked all kinds of pertinent questions like ‘religion?’ and ‘how many children do you have?’ to which we answered ‘none’. There was a brief silence followed by muttering. I filled it by asking Claire what she was planning for her 40th next May. The silence deepened. Claire asked the officer what was happening now. ‘Well, we are just wondering why you have no children’ he replied. ‘And no religion’ confirmed another. We left wondering if the report would get added to a dusty pile labelled ‘atheists’.

The dregs of Flores were starkly beautiful with rice paddies and vibrant green corn fields in every direction. Children sometimes ran behind pushing us up the hills but they soon got tired and ended up hanging on, wobbling the bikes and making it harder. Three times in Flores the road spiraled down to sea level and rose to over a vertical kilometer, the last day though – Lembor to Labuan Bajo – had some of the most protracted and brutal grades I had encountered for months, 30% on some turns. Every bend in the road revealed another tortured future of leg pain, wheezing and a torrent of sweat. I promised Claire the road would soon stop its incessant reach for the sky, but it didn’t, and we brooded. After hours of agony and small conquered targets we topped a pass and I joked a bit about Claire’s thundering promises of capitulation she’d made two hours ago. We laughed, but my jokes were premature, the road dipped and once again we were battling slopes Olympic tobogganists would wince at. Once we arrived in Labuan Bajo (which in our parlance had morphed into ‘Larry The Badger’) we were elated and swiftly laid waste to the hostel buffet as the sky purpled in the wake of a sunken sun and the silhouettes of bobbing boats scattered the harbor. The view would always have been a pearler, but we knew it was our grit and those lung-crunching twists of road behind us that made it extra special.

Thank yous – Oscar, Dave and Karen, Dave and Mary, Nahad and family, and scores of anonymous Indonesians in villages thoughout Timor and Flores who took care of us, hopefully the pleasure was reciprocal. Next up: Komodo, Lombok, Bali and Java, and a blog post from Jakarta.

Claire has recently interviewed several local artists and musicians in East Timor – part of her project to explore world music and its creators – here’s her piece.

The art of Island Bopping

What is that?

Long, thin, oblique; the island was a lone speech mark amid the wordless Pacific Ocean. I zoomed in until Googlemaps gave up it’s identity – ‘New Caledonia’. The name didn’t ring any bells but since Wikipaedia didn’t mention genocide, cannibalism or ebola, I booked a flight. Its anonymity to me just seemed like a good reason to do so.

The almost ticked out clock of my Aussie VISA meant I needed a border run, but this too was an excuse for an adventure – the spontaneous, half-baked kind. I had in mind an island, and the south Pacific bares 7500 to choose from. I scribbled ‘no bicycle, pack light, travel by foot’ into my journal and then canvassed the bespeckled ocean on googlemaps for inspiration.

New Caledonia is an archipelago and autonomous French overseas territory, and the main island, uninspiringly entitled Grand Terre, is 1200 km from Australian shores, or about half way to Figi. It lies like a giant frozen throwing knife launched from New Zealand and aimed at Papua New Guinea, and after those two, Grand Terre is the third largest island in the Pacific.

Hiking is not how the mainstream wile away hours on a palm-fringed Pacific islands, but I wasn’t planning on indulging in contented comas on surf-soaked white sand beaches, diving amongst coral reefs, or retiring to a resort to wash down the day’s hedonism with lobster and kava. I was going just to walk, hoping later to emerge blister-footed, laden with stories and contentedly beat.

On my way

Comfort costs kilograms, and I didn’t need it. To pack as light as possible I had help from Claire who turned out to be the most extreme weight reducing device known to humanity. She rummaged through my pack, frequently holding aloft an item of kit and demanding I justify its place. ‘Shoelace?!’ came one admonishment. In the end I left with no tent, just a tarp of unproven waterproofness and an unused bivvy bag (to an island in the midst of cyclone-season), a stove, one change of clothes and little else. The burden I carried now mostly psychological.

5.30 am is the time penny pinchers fly to their destinations. The night before my flight I waved goodbye to Claire from the airport concourse hoping to find a quiet corner in the terminal to spend the night, unaware then my adventure was about to start early. ‘Sorry mate’ began the patrolling security guard, ‘airport closes at 12, looks like you’re out the street.’ Begrudging his fatalism, his ‘looks like’, I skulked out into the warm night. As I stumbled around, crooked under the weight of the pack, I wondered how I would hike across an entire island when traversing the departures terminal was amounting to an Iron Man feat of endurance. With the alfresco air as stagnant as swamp water my body’s main concern was not sleep but rather some kind of experiment into finding out exactly how much it was capable of sweating.

A form arrived from the neat air hostess and my pen quivered under indecision among the tick boxes. Where will you be staying in New Caledonia? Hotel? Rental home? Family or friend? There was no option for a bivy bag in the dirt, so I went with friend. The lady sat next to me smiled sympathetically when in reply to her quick-fire nasal gabble I committed conversational suicide with the few French words I could remember, a soon to be well-tested, contrite quartet : ‘Je ne comprend pas’.

I turned then more earnestly to my Lonely Planet phrasebook; which failed to include useful sentences like ‘I’m not entirely sure what I just said either’ or ‘I apologise for the ugly accent’. In their place were a host of purposeless one-liners. For example the ‘Romance’ section has clearly been devised by a womanless letch shipwrecked in the eighties and offers the French for ‘What star sign are you?’ Unfortunately it then leaves you hanging, and neglects to provide a translation to deal with any of the likely aftermaths such as ‘Excuse me, can I borrow a towel, that girl just puked all over me’ or ‘Yes doctor, the pain in my testicles is excruciating. Perhaps she was a pisces’. Things get dramatically weirder though on leafing through the ‘Sex’ section where there sits ‘Chouette alors!’, which we’re told translates as ‘Oh Yeah!’. Presumably the old romantics at Lonely Planet are hoping you keep the book on a bedside table so that you can call an abrupt halt to copulation, turn to the relevant chapter and express sexual gratification in grammatically and phonetically correct French. That’s where the pillow talk ends though as the authors clearly judge their readership to be composed of a more defensive than passionate brand of lovers and there follows ‘That was weird’ and ‘You’re disturbing me’. In the eating section is ‘I can’t eat it for philosophical reasons’ perhaps an appropriate line if you are served the decapitated head of a professor in philosophy. The art of camping is something of a mystery to the authors since this section includes ‘Can I borrow a spade?’ Having set up my tent I then enjoy engaging in mock early 20th century warfare. Finally though Lonely Planet, perhaps conscious of the potential for confusion after commissioning a book by a bunch of imbeciles, states ‘Lonely Planet accepts no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone using this book’. So if you nonchalantly order a ham and cheese sandwich from a waiter in a Parisian cafe but instead get bashed with a crow bar and later regain consciousness on all fours, clad in nothing more than a leopard skin thong and studded dog collar, watching through glass a leering trail of be-suited business men, with a ‘for sale’ sign around your neck, remember: Don’t even think about writing to the Editor.

Phrase book abandoned, I averted my attention to the likely honeymooners in the seats around me, and the unspooling infinitude of the Pacific that passed beneath. I wondered why I had made such a snap judgement about coming here and began to plunge, panic-stricken, down a dark cascade of what-ifs. Suddenly though I caught site of a lustrous ribbon of turquoise in the ocean – inside it the sea was spotted with islands and atolls; this was the world heritage listed coral reef, the largest after the Great Barrier Reef. More arresting though was what followed – a beige mesh of ridges and valleys which multiplied, greened and swelled into whopping mountains whose upper reaches were poached by hanging cloud. As I sized up the island every doubt I harboured about the possibility of adventure evaporated. Possibility sprawled. 


Like the landscape of New Caledonia, which consists of a central mountain range, mangrove swamps, torrid grassy plains, primary forest and shrubland – the skin tone of these mysterious New Caledonians milling around the airport was as richly various. The black indigenous Kanaks are the arrivals most far flung in time. About a third of the population are ‘Caldoche’ – European descendants, primarily of the French, many of whom were convicts shipped to these remote shores at the end of the 19th century. Contributing to the ethnic melange are migrants from other Pacific islands and East Asia. To meet me at the airport was Lyvia, fashionable, slender and dark skinned who claimed an ancestral pastiche involving most of the above, which in New Caledonia is in no way unique.

New Caledonia was christened as such by the British explorer James Cook who in 1774, when surveying its mountainous form, figured it was redolent of Scotland, Caledonia of course it’s latin alias. Now, outside the airport terminal, in 36 degree heat aside dusty lion-coloured scrub, I had to wonder why the well-travelled Cook was so off the mark with his analogy. Britain’s claim to the islands though didn’t survive, in subsequent years the French gained control.

First off Lyvia gave me a whistle-stop tour of the capital Nouméa. Sea front bars opened onto a main boulevard which nudged up against a beach. A thin spread of foreign tourists dozed and swam and rummaged about in the water. Kanak women in bright wrap-around skirts, pareos, with curlicues and floral motifs, shared the sand with younger Kanaks who preferred the Rasta tricolour and dreadlocks and who played zouk and reggaton from mobile phone. Bonjours and smiles were batted around between strangers and though once rather mawkishly known as the ‘Paris of the Pacific’, Nouméa seemed absent of the surliness the French capital is perhaps unfairly known for. We then scooted over to the next bay which was crowded with moored yachts, and the bay after that, home to a tangle of kite surfers. Some of this tableau seemed reminiscent of life on the Mediterranean, Lyvia though, perhaps having divined me making the parallel, explained ‘When there’s a cyclone, all these boats (she pointed an arc), end up in the street’ and with that I was abruptly transposed, right back into the midst of the wide, wild Pacific Ocean.

So far I had glimpsed two flags fluttering around the capital, the French tricolour and the Kanak flag, which is closely tied to the controversial idea of full independence. I’m here at a sensitive juncture, after some violence and turmoil in the 1980’s, 2014 marks the close of a peaceful period of growth and development and old agreements dictate a vote for independence could take place in the near future. The majority of Kanaks; historically often brutally repressed by the colonial power, seek full independence; the Caldoche and a slice of the Asian migrants though are less likely to share these politics.

I find a book in Lyvia’s parent’s house – Nouvelle Caledonie Sauvage : Wild New Caledonia. In it 511 pages tell of hiking routes, which was about 500 more than I had anticipated. A tiny village and former penal colony, Prony, in the far south of Grand Terre, marks the beginning of the Grand Randonnée (big hike) – an official brand of trail, scores of which crisscross Europe half a world away. This one, inaugurated some ten years ago, is a classic hike; at least here, and perhaps would be considered so outside New Caledonia if a more hearty number of the general public could actually pin the island on a map. It’s 120 km of hiking and scrambling through rolling scrub, forest and over steep mountains up to 1200 metres above the turquoise water glimpsed from the plane window. In all there’s almost 5000 metres of climbing, roughly the height of Mont Blanc.

Trail food stowed in my pack, I sat among Lyvia and her friends who collectively mused about my journey as we picked at cheeses, sliced baguettes and cold meats, a very salubrious and outwardly French affair, from the double kiss entrance and uncorked wine to the unhurried quality to our grazing. ‘We are not French!’ Lyvia remarked, somewhat defiantly, this lot consider themselves ‘Caldoche’ and make light of the old colonial power by referring to French visitors to New Caledonia as ‘les zoreilles’ which almost translates as ‘the ears’, an in-joke that refers to the way the tourists are forever pushing their ears forward in an effort to understand the local accent, though French proper is the lingua franca here, not the French-based creoles of the nation’s other overseas territories. Indeed as a tourist it’s hard to cope here without at least a smidgen of the language.

Over dinner my plan received a rebound of frowns. As usual each at the table had their own theory of how I will expire, heat stroke a top contender and presiding over cyclone-induced floods, being shot by hostile Kanaks for trespassing or simply getting irreconcilably lost. On past experience, my vote went to the latter.

Grand Randonnée in the South

As I searched in vain for the right change to pass the bus driver who would take me half way to Prony, a mess of arms and hands were extended out to me. Their owners, Kanak women, were offering me the money I needed for the fare. Soon the bus lurched through the outskirts of the capital where houses were half concealed by a jungle of mango, papaya and banana plants. 

The last language I used to any proficiency was Spanish and so as my brain hunts for a French word the Spanish is offered up instead. This is how my hitch-hike from the bus stop began, with an open car door and my speaking a strange soup of incongruent words from three languages ‘Hola friend. Je voudrais; um; go, with la voiture, hasta Prony’. Having rightly concluded I wasn’t up to conversation, my driver, a young businessman, let French rock ballads absorb our silence. I watched the crumpled landscape unfurl: green ridges and hillocks, a snake of wind turbines, giant handprints of rust-coloured earth. The spectacle was especially befitting on pondering the island’s ancient origins. Unlike many of the other Pacific archipelagos, New Caledonia’s beginning does not lie in recent volcanic activity, instead it’s a vestige of the supercontinent Gondwana. Before spending several million years beneath the ocean, it was once attached to Australia.

Then I walked, stamped really. Bent, huffing, wet with sweat, overwhelmed and underprepared. The path, marked by the red and white symbols of the GR treks that lace Europe (even the most hapless hiker would have to work pretty hard to get lost here), ambled along the coast and then climbed, skirting two waterfalls, until the vista sparkled as sunlight bounced off a wealth of waxy leaves. Below the shrubs were brain-like nubs of lichen, the colour of glow in the dark stars. An ecologist might know this as Maquis Shrubland – it’s an arid rocky terrain covered by a density of peculiar flora and sometimes it felt as if I were padding through a botanical garden. The feeling was well-founded – almost 80% of the plants exist just here and nowhere else on earth – only Hawaii and New Zealand can boast more endemic species. Unfortunately the nickel mining that bolsters the New Caledonian economy has destroyed much of the habitat – 25% of plant species here are considered at risk and at least five are now extinct. 

Dimness grew and when I spotted a refuge, rouged in light cast by a nearby campfire, I knew I had company. ‘We light the fire for you!’ called one of the trio sat loosely aback from the flames as I approached. The three French hikers, two guys and one girl – Aurelie, Oliver and Tibault – had met by chance days before and conspired to complete the Grand Randonnée together. Behind the refuge a river tumbled over rock and fell a metre into a now black pool I was assured was four metres deep, so in the dark, hoping distances didn’t get lost in translation, I jumped. Drying around the fire it was decided: ‘Tomorrow – we are four.’ 

The next day we hiked upwards through more brush and pockets of forest where palms diced the sunlight into thin slots. Replies to calls of ‘ça va?’ came later and later, in thinner voices, as we individually pondered whether we were in fact OK, decided probably not, and then mustered the energy required to manufacture a ‘Bien!’ that could pass as genuinely upbeat. The track eventually began to bound downwards, along the plunging axis of a ridge. Land to each side tumbled and then sprawled into a wide plain, dotted with shadow from the cloud-blotched sky above. We let gravity do more of the work until at last we threw off steaming boots and staggered through the open door of another of the tidy, wooden refuges which end each day on the trail. Soon chatter was mixed with the hum of gas stoves and the slurping of packet noodles and salted deer sausage scored from Noumea. The groans that followed verged on the sexual as we each flopped our weary legs onto thin sleeping mats as if they were goose down. 

Two of my comrades, like me, were not graduates of the Grand Randonnées of Europe, nor other multi-day treks. Nimble-footed Oliver though had battled perhaps the toughest, the Grand Randonnée 20 in Corsica, and was forever dancing spiritedly down steep descents and taking grand wading steps upwards. At the days close; metres from the refuge I needed ten miles ago, he remarked

‘Is like finger in zee nose, non?’
‘You don’t have finger in zee nose in English? Non? It means IT’S EASY! Like finger in zee nose!’
He demonstrates.
‘Oh right, I see. Yeah, that’s it.’ I fake a smile, ‘easy’ is not a word I would use. I think more of an elbow in my nose. A thigh in my penis.

In the burnt remnant of a forest victim to last year’s wildfires we came across a party of rangers who advised us to ‘Go between the breasts!’ Sure enough an hour later two prodigious bulbs swelled out of the forest, sweaty and breathless we made our way up through the metaphorical cleavage. From the col we spied a mist of approaching rain which blurred the far forest beyond our half-moon of ridges. It’s January, so the deluge that quickly beat down upon us was no big surprise, and we were soon cheered by vistas over Lake Yate and the Blue River which each owned a halo of russet earth and wheeling birds of prey above. Eventually our trail hit the riverbank where there were a stand of dead Kaori pine trees whose reflections stewed in murky water. A giant, living specimen trailside was almost 3 metres in girth, and a sign stateed that it began life a millennium ago. This fact though belies a less impressive one – primary forest like this is rare now in New Caledonia, only a fraction remains and the lion’s share of these fast growing Kaori trees have been long since felled for timber or wiped out in fires. 

We entered the Blue River Provincial Park which, like the shrubland before it, was home to strange and rare and plants and trees aplenty. It was the giant tree ferns that won my immediate attention, some of their trunks were over 50 feet in height and their umbrella of fronds, some of the largest leaves in the entire plant kingdom, conjured an impression of pre-history. It’s a well-deserved one – tree ferns were knocking around the Carboniferous swamps over 300 million years ago. It was these giant fronds that cast swords and daggers of sunlight onto the trail which was thick with fallen leaves, deadening my footfall. Perhaps it was this deftness that failed to startle the chicken sized white bird that strayed across my path. It’s a kagu, known among as the Kanak tribes as ‘the ghost of the forest’ and instantly familiar to me, despite its scarcity, because an image of the bird adorns the country’s bank notes, coins and tourist brochures. I froze so not to scare it away, though I needn’t have, the kagu is almost flightless, but it hissed at me as it waddled on orange legs, unhurried, into the bush.

The following day the dank forest grew much thicker, and kinked palm fronds clawed at us from the gloomy fringes of the narrow alleyway of foliage. Trees drooled moss and our feet faught for purchase on slippery stones among a smattering of carnivorous pitcher plants. Soon we were fighting for headroom as the path segued into a barely discernible trail, floored by a weave of roots where geckos scuttled, and warded by a toppling wall of fern. Often we crossed streams home to electric blue dragonflies where rainfall trickled between old debris – car-sized boulders and hulking trunks of fallen trees – heaved into a bygone torrent on the back of a visiting cyclone. 

At 1150 metres above the Pacific the trail wound up to another clearing and collectively we gave a gasp, of all the sublime vistas the Grand Randonnée had afforded us so far, this one was the best. Great waves of resplendent green ridges, riven by deep valleys, tracked into the far distance, and later, fire-side, there was an air of achievement in reaching the highest point on the hike, our contentment challenged only when a hairy spider crept over to share our warmth.

The ultimate day is a decent crescendo spent aside a yawning valley which dropped to a string of pellucid pools in the Dumbea River. We were not alone. Being a Sunday in the hottest month of the year, scores of families plied the banks. Having spent seven days in the wilderness our collision with humanity felt a rough one: children screamed, reggaton boomed, litter was strewn, and the satisfaction of a cool dip in the river ground against the suddenness of it all. But as we slumped, beaten on the river bank, entertainment arrived when local kids began to plummet at least 15 metres from overhanging trees into the water, and then a large family clustered around us, doling out barbequed meat and baguettes. 

Grand Randonnée of the North

There’s really only one quality the southern Grand Randonnée is missing, and the newly inaugurated Grand Randonnée of the north can supply it: an experience of local Kanak culture. The new four day 75 km trail journeys through the northwest of the island, a more populated and much wetter place. Back in Noumea locals half whispered about a sizable tropical depression that was moving in, as if the island was a testy relative and the storm one of their customary headaches. Perhaps it is Englishness which marks me loath to change plans for the weather, but I decided to set out anyway. Tibault, having declared hiking a new passion on the back of the previous hike, opted to come with me and kept me entertained with endearing malapropisms, suggesting for instance that if the weather turned we could ‘go hijacking’ which after careful questioning of my new friend revealed he meant hitch-hiking, to my immediate relief.

As we waited for a bus, palm fronds flapped maniacally in a punchy breeze and I wondered what was brewing in the Pacific and bound for New Caledonian shores. Our starting point was the village of Tchamba and we were glad to find a thatched hut which sat rather incongruously next to satellite dishes and solar panels. Instead of the refuges of the southern trek, this vernacular accommodation would serve as our shelter.

We began hiking through arable land where Kanaks waved to us from their crops of yam and groves of fruit trees. Then we passed into a dripping forest where dollops of light fell onto the cobweb-crossed path, unwon by a competing umbrella of foliage above. The rain began and built to a cloudburst. Hunched over, consumed by trawling ponchos, eyes hesitant to explore the world beyond the immediacy of the path, we missed quite an important junction. After retracing our muddy footprints, then tiny lakes of rain water, we decided to hitch-hike to Poindimie since the rivers ahead were likely to be impassable. En route we hit a tidal wave of local helpers including a Kanak man who gave us a ride, a student who offered us his phone and then Couchsurfer Thierry who supplied a bed and shower. Tibault, a tad disillusioned, then took a bus back to the capital. I decided to wait out the storm, one that had now grown big enough to put the island on Orange Alert and to earn the inappropriately tepid and rather delightful Christian name of ‘June’. The online weather tracker showed the extent of the hissy fit June was having over the Pacific – she was now an intense red, shaped like a spiral galaxy, and hundreds of kilometres across. And then the power went out. 

Over the next twenty four hours 160 mm of rain soaked my part of the island – twice the average total rainfall for London for the entire month of January. The wind speeds were not high enough to nudge it into the ‘cyclone’ category but even so a visit to the coast at the storm’s capstone – where there were wind-bowed palm trees and a giant swell – left an impression that it might be worthy of the title. In the wake of June I re-joined the trail which burrowed through murky mushroom-dotted forest and climbed up to ridges where it again rode humps of land and offered vistas of woodland awash with a motley of greens.

The river was too high to wade when I arrived, on each attempt I got half way out but the current was dangerously fast and I hiked back up the foul-scented muddy banks, not long ago flooded and covered in decomposing sugar cane. A refuge was my home for a day, every few hours I made a new sally to the river to check the water level (I’d left markers) and weighed up my options. One had been to build a raft – I had plenty of felled bamboo, string and a knife to my disposal, but decided that the idea was probably a bit ‘Bear Grylls’ and also that I had none of the qualities that makes Bear Grylls Bear Grylls, that is to say: know-how, courage or any amount of good sense. Eventually I found an easier channel and trudged onwards. Startled deer ran from path, I munched on wild pineapples and at last made it to a pretty village with more thatched huts, bamboo forests and bright flowers. It was my last stop. 

Coming home

The three weeks I had spent in New Caledonia did not feature resorts, the venerated white sand beaches or the heritage listed reef. Yet surveying the verdant mountains from my departing plane window, and knowing of all those unwalked forest-buried trails I was leaving behind, I felt I had been privy to a vastly underrated side of the island. Why New Caledonia doesn’t then attract a similar-sized flood of tourists as other Pacific destinations, Fiji for example, which gets six times the number each year, is hard to know. On paper, New Caledonia has enticements in droves. Some may be put off because it’s French speaking, others perhaps because it can be a bit pricey, but for adventure-seekers it’s a place that perhaps only in years to come will get the props it deserves.

I love aeroplanes. Every time the wheels thunder down a runway I feel an inch wonderstruck as it occurs to me that air travel really is the quintessence of mankind’s inventiveness, collective genius and raw ambition. So when strolling out into Sydney airport to see an incomprehensibly pathetic number of customs officials serving a line of passengers so vast that the tableau was instantly redolent of some kind of religious pilgrimage, I abruptly experienced the complete anathema to this pride in humanity. We can safely fly millions around the globe, between every major city, every day, how then, can we fuck up routine screening so magnificently? I asked myself. The line twisted like some great malicious tapeworm throughout the enormous terminal building, occasionally bunching and circumventing knots of disillusioned ex-queuers. The inching, beleaguered passengers had been stood for so long that many had taken to shaving and personal grooming. I believe a section of kids were being home schooled. Those with elderly relatives were scoping out suitable burial sites behind the luggage carousel. The International Red Cross were surely not long from intervening in this humanitarian disaster by air dropping bedding and food packages.

So eventually I was reunited with Claire back in Cairns who had spent the last few weeks in Tasmania where she visited a number of music festivals and writes beautifully about the experience here. Unfortunately a knee injury curtailed much cycling and so we’ll be taking it nice and slow when we begin pedalling through East Timor in a week’s time. Next blog post then – probably from Bali.

Lyvia and Krystie, Thierry, Ian, Sarah and Simon – you are all lovely humans, thank you.

Paradise lost and found

Paradise Found?

A typical decision in my life circa 2009 –
Mr Jones is complaining of abdominal pain, should I rush him to theatre for an appendisectomy?

A typical decision circa 2012 –
If I buy some mayonnaise today, will it last until Tuesday?

For a time escaping the shackles of meaningful decision making was a cosy spin-off to life on the road though eventually it’s becomes nice to have a proper quandary to mull over, and one that doesn’t involve dairy produce. Whilst choosing the right boat and captain for the sea crossing from Colombia to Panama may not be on par with deciding the fate of Mr Jones’ intestinal system, it was not a decision to be taken lightly. An Australian girl I ran into in Lima had a tale of woe which went something like:

Incompetent, drunk captain = irreparably damaged boat = Titanic-like emergency in open ocean = evacuation into a life raft and loss of all possessions.

Rumour had it that El Capitan had sabotaged the crossing for an insurance pay out on the sunken vessel making ‘Disreputable Sea Dogs’ another on my evolving list of ‘Crazy Shit To Worry About’ right below hurricanes, tsunamis, pirates and shark attack. An even more common difficulty on the grapevine was that of boats running out of food mid-crossing, I added this to the top of my mental list, above tsunami, and wondered whether an enforced hunger strike would drive me first to suicide or to mutiny and cannibalism. Just in case I decided that choosing a boat with a chubby captain and tender looking first mate would be a sensible insurance policy.

After a year biking through Africa the name of one craft though steals my attention – The African Queen, a forty foot Catamaran. Tentatively I sign up and arrive early at the harbour, swiftly followed by my fellow sea farers, and after quick meet and greets we head to the supermarket for the much more important booze run. We return to stash our main luggage in the hold and each of us carry a small rucksack for the voyage, mine is 50% beer, 25 % rum and 25% stuff I probably don’t need. Our motley posse includes a lanky Dutchman, a Finnish honeymooning couple, a Swizz couple and a duo of hard drinking Aussie lads. Our captain is Rudy, a veteran sailor in his late 40’s with blond curly neck length locks and bronzed skin who is donning a black bandanna, Oakley’s and surf shorts – my first impression is somewhere between Garth from Wayne’s World and a beach bum with more than a touch of pirate thrown in. He’s quadriligual, although swears only in window-shatteringly loud Italian, and an incredible chef, a fact that comes to light as he serves up our first meal, Octopus Risotto and I make a mental note – always sail with an Italian Captain. The only other member of crew is Rudy’s Colombian totty – a curvaceous, spicy mamacita twenty years his junior who sports inch long bright pink nails, a host of bracelets, Gucci sunglasses (one of around twenty pairs hanging up inside the cabin) and has a penchant for marijuana. She is as ocean savvy as your average agoraphobic. All this makes her in my view simultaneously both the absolute best and absolute worst First Mate for an ocean voyage. Rudy, I’m guessing, senses no such dichotomy.

There’s something reassuring about the Darien Gap, the hunk of wild, indomitable territory that divides Panama and Colombia. In a world where people have driven cars to the North Pole, have jumped to earth from space and have cycled across the surface of frozen lakes, the Darien is still sin careterra and whilst there are rough trails, most consider the region impassible, at least for the rational of mind. It seems that if I did completely abandoned my senses and began an unsupported swim from Colombia to Panama I might have a slightly better time of it than a land crossing across the same frontier. People might even raise a glass and call me brave at my funeral instead of shaking their heads and muttering “What an idiot!”, the only label that could be sensibly ascribed to anyone who takes on the guerrilla-controlled, mosquito-ridden tract of dense jungle frequented only by the ruling drug cartels and the occasional loping jaguar. Unless a local drugs lord has your back, the Darien is the reserve of the careless and the insane. To get around the problem you could fly but for the more inspired there’s a better option – for years chartered yachts have made the crossing, ferrying tourists from Cartagena to the coast of Panama and stopping en route at the San Blas Islands, an autonomous region partly inhabited by the Kuna Indians (foreigners having been kicked off years ago) and, this is true, a place in which until relatively recently the primary unit of currency was the coconut. Which is just brilliant.

We haul up the anchor, set sail and stand out on the deck watching the modern stone henge of Cartagena’s high rise apartments glide by, like the gappy grin of a madman smiling us off. The send off party soon join us, a school of bottle nosed dolphins that slice through the surf and make brief loops into the salty air. Our enthusiasm for sea life though is soon quashed by the choppy ocean which renders most of us landlubbers aboard unable to walk, converse or move much at all. The Dutchman can’t eat fearing a post-prandial spraying of lunch over the ship’s side, back from whence it came. It’s like standing on top of a prone epileptic, which incidentally there is no good reason to do and is not comfortable, safe or fair on the epileptic.

That night we rotate through 90 minute shifts to watch for ships whilst rolling waves strike the boat at tangents as we wobble through the Caribbean propelled by a sail that puffs and whips and drives us at ten knots into the night. A phosphorescent algae lights up the churning wake of the Catamaran like a disco ball – it’s a spooky, surreal time where I hallucinate ghost ships.

Towards dusk on the second day I spot them first – a small grey bump on the horizon and then, like fresh mosquito bites, more and more segue into view. The sun spills it’s shine onto the ocean creating a linear blaze of cherry-red, like a celebrity carpet, the African Queen our limousine. The island we pass first is the anticipated vision of paradise – it appears we’ve been consumed by a computer and are in fact sailing through Windows wallpaper. The San Blas archipelago are so often assigned throw away and cliched labels – idyllic, picture-perfect, breath-taking – but then the islands are cliched by nature representing for many the archetypal tropical paradise. Yes there’s white sand, turquoise waters, palm trees, coconuts, yarda yarda, but I yearn for more than just the postcard imagery. Like friends, lovers, nature and travel itself, it’s the imperfections that can thrill and seduce the most, and so secretly I yearn for a serpent in Eden.

We are not alone here. Our first guest is a turtle breezing through the turquoise and stretching it’s neck to breach the tops of the waves and take the odd gasp of air. Minutes later a manta ray breaks the surface and dives back beneath the gentle ripples whilst a lone pelican inspects us from above, circling and dodging palm fronds. A communal dive and swim to shore ends in a quandary – to admire or to explore? I leave the others gazing longingly into the lustrous sheen of the sun-drenched Caribbean tide and head instead along the shoreline like a castaway exploring a new home. Visually the metaphor works as well.

The Finnish couple have disappeared to a more secluded part of the island, if I was one half of a loved-up couple in paradise I’d be off to do the same, one for the bucket list, despite sand in places you’d rather it wasn’t. As I meander insouciently around the island a host of white conch shells appear, semi-submerged in sand like skulls in a mass grave. I move inwards to explore beyond the limits of this beach and my heart drops – behind the first row of palms resides a huge pile of litter and accompanying swarm of sand flies. They are as out of place as a punk in a yoga class.

We anchor up and sail to another island of the San Blas, it’s the size of a football pitch, the shape of an arrow head and hosts showy tourists on big budgets in expensive huts who are fiercely busy relishing the sloth of island life by doing exactly nada. There are 378 islands in the San Blas and somebody reminds me of the common dictum “one for every day of the year” which sounds to me like a tag line concocted by a tourist agency and makes me think two things – First, somebody can’t count, and second, wow, I wonder if anyone has tried that? The islands vary greatly in size, some precarious mounds of sand with room enough for just a couple of palms, the front line in climate change and centimetres away from extinction. Others, around fifty, are larger and inhabited by the Kuna Indians.

In the evening with settled bellies and surer legs the group bonding can begin, but the sun dashes for cover under cloud and an abrupt tropical storm unleashes it’s fury, so we rush out onto the deck to wash off the salt. “Is Raining!” Screams Rudy “Is Emotional!” and he dances around the African Queen babbling incoherently. Afterwards we sit shivering until someone suggests a cup of tea but is swiftly trumped by a call for rum for which we all assent. Rudy declines the mixer on the grounds that Coca Cola is bad for you.

The days progress – Cuba Libre for breakfast, Yellow Snapper (harpooned) and king crab for lunch, Italian cuisine for dinner with beer aperitifs and rum chasers. “Thanks for the food” we all chirp after another gourmet garlic-heavy delight, but meet Rudy’s retort “no no no. Thanks for the eat. I’m happy when you are happy”. Filling our bellies and the game of endlessly getting tipsy is punctuated by snorkeling and siestas and by now we are all sporting the rosy hue of England’s Away From Home Shirt. Exertion? Well yes, some, but here it’s relative – snapping coconuts, back flips off the deck, the tiresome chore of switching hammocks.

Relishing a tropical storm on deck
For our third night we anchor down and spend the evening on an island amongst a gaggle of ageing American hippies who’s diction is dominated by “heavy” and “far-out”. They’ve been mooching around the San Blas for more than six years, occasionally chartering boats for tourists, and there’s something cheesy and reactionary about them, or perhaps that’s just my instant distrust of those who openly market themselves with romantic tags. “Hey we’re wanderers man” insists one when  I ask where he’s from. “Yeah, we’re, like, nomads pipes up another. They are fine musicians though and keep us entertained with Bob Dylan and the rest, but it still feels like a Beach Boys reunion so we head back to the boat and have our own party which fairly predictably culminates in drunken skinny dipping, which is predictably initiated by the Finns. Rudy wears a huge African mask for most of the night and howls with laughter. The group are completely enamoured by his antics – its not that his jokes are belly-clutchingly, foam-at-the-mouth funny, usually in fact he makes no sense at all, but his reaction to everything is an infectious explosion of histrionics so ridiculous and cheering that you can’t help but join him.

On the last night Rudy announces that the Kuna Indians are having their monthly knee’s up on an island close by. We sail off and soon encounter a very different San Blas, these postcards wouldn’t sell as well. There are hundreds of thatched huts jammed into every inch of bustling land where women wash their children, men load and unload boats and children carry out their chores whilst wooden dug-outs ease through the surrounding sea – people living lives rather than escaping them. The Kuna are tiny in stature, spiritual in nature and the women are attired in traditional dress – a vivid concoction of bracelets and colours that scream and bellow and with a nose ring that completes the ensemble. We take the launch to shore, the scene that greets us is the result of one furious moonshine named chicha fuerte. ‘Totalled’ may not be a proper adjective worthy of the Oxford English dictionary, but its the best one. Sloshed, leathered, blind drunk – they don’t come close. Everybody over the age of 8 and not pregnant is off their head, neck and body. They can’t talk. Many are comatose. Women are being carried by friends whilst screaming and babbling drunk-speak and kids sway like slow motion boxers in the first round, but with a stagger and a bellowed drawl. There’s a religious component to this drunken orgy that I admit I know little about but even so the curious tableau is a touch menacing, a touch sad, a touch hilarious and more than a touch understandable. London at 7pm on any given Friday is much the same, add suits and boozers, though the British can evidently handle their grog better than the Kuna.

On the final day we sail towards the coast of Panama which assaults the sea scape I’ve grown accustomed to and the montaine spine of Central America protrudes like the fins of a fish, the mountain tops though are lost in the ashen smudge of distant rain. Behind us the freckles of the San Blas fade from view as the blue face of the Caribbean winks us a sly goodbye.

Paradise Lost?

Amongst those who know me well, it’s my manifest lack of any sense of direction that is the most illustrious and conspicuous target for mockery. The list of places and spaces I have managed to completely lose my bearings is infinite and tedious so I won’t recount it here, but it includes the hospital I worked in for three years, several supermarkets and department stores, most of London and every campsite and festival I have ever made my temporary home. Things are worse than bad – I once slept rough in a field in Argentina when I tried for hours and failed to find my hostel. When people remark “Don’t worry, it’s impossible to get lost” I sigh, for with that one-liner they have sealed my fate. In my early teens losing my house was a particular favourite pastime and brought much angst to the parents of my friends who drove me around in circles through Oxford and who must have been convinced I was having them on. “How can anyone not remember where they live!” The enduring words of one despairing father. It’s a disability, like colour blindness, club foot and Welsh-ness. A miracle then I have made it this far on my bicycle and were it not for that ingenious convenience of The Map, I would still be negotiating my way through Surrey muttering to myself “Now I’m sure I’ve seen that bridge before. No, wait… was it that bridge?”

So to Panama City, the world’s most losable-in city and me, the world’s most heinous of all lost wanderers who even St Jude can’t save. I set out with a simple mandate – to find a camping shop. And I walked. And I guessed. And I gorped, and I walked some more. And hours slid by, and continents drifted apart. My flip flops pounded the street for so long that erythematous streaks criss-crossed the dorsum of each foot. The oh so familiar feeling of lostness descended as the city segued into a oneness that jeered at my incompetence and repeated it’s garbled song. A trio of Kuna women (the same trio?) gabbing by a corner shop (the same shop?). An old lady sold single cigarettes and there were fat people, lots of them, and lots of MacDonalds too. And lots of fat people queueing up to eat at MacDonalds. Complicated maths, I know.

Then for while my misadventure took a more sinister twist – people thinned out, saucer-eyed men marked me out with an ireful stare and scanned the surrounds (for witnesses?). Toddlers sat in heaps of rubbish whilst drunks shambled by using drain pipes for support and houses became rubble-strewn gutted shells, unlivable in at first glance and then – not quite. A couple of drawn and haggard prostitutes slumped by the door of a brothel, one black eye a piece. The city’s stink was an overpowering layered assault on my nostrils with wafting excrement, fish, something musty, cooking oil and smog all making fleeting passes. Then back into the drama of a busier part where shouting hawkers out-screamed the taxi drivers who out-honked the roar of engines and a cacophony of Latin infused rhythms from Panasonic shops trumped everything. By now if you had traced my journey on a map you would come up with something similar to the creative stylings of a crackhead on an etch-a-sketch.

It’s a little known fact that the ability to give good directions when asked by a stranger in the street is carried by a single gene, located on chromosome 7, and resident in the cell nucleus of around 28% of the population. It is often inherited alongside the ability to find car keys (chromosome 13) and the tendency to wear odd socks (chromosome 8). In Panama though, by some fluke of genomic spread only 0.0000001% of the population possess the gene to give good directions, and he didn’t live in this part of town. Thus my task of getting unlost became even harder. Call it a Colombian hangover, but I was not instantly taken by Panama City, a sprawling competition of smells and sounds and clutter. Getting lost though can give you a fresh perspective and there’s beauty in the dark underbelly and the cogs of any city if you look hard enough. After hours trudging and mooning through her weird maze, she hadn’t won my heart but she somehow made more sense. There was a satisfaction to making the transition from skimming the surface to full body dunk, involuntary though it was, and as I have found many times, having no internal compass can be a blessing in disguise.

Eventually a land mark I recognised for certain this time and soon enough I was back in my hostel. After all that calorie-consuming vagabonding I was tired and hungry so after a quick rest I went out for food. I kid you not, within 15 minutes I was utterly lost once again.

Two weeks of contrast, from the vice-ridden slums of a central American capital to an equally vice-ridden island ‘paradise’. Next up is Costa Rica for New’s Year Eve with my friend Jess who’s coming out to visit me from the UK. And then north once again, always north.

New friends in Panama