‘Kiri-kanan, kiri-kanan, kiri-kanan, kiri!’
It’s 0530, dark still. Ceci & I have stopped cycling to spy on a schoolyard. A sergeant is yelling in Indonesian, but the military singsong is impossible to miss. It’s the classic ‘Left-right, left-right, left-right, left!’ of a marching drill.
The kids marching in line chant back in unison, matching the rhythm: ‘He-llo, Mis-ter, He-llo, Miss.’
‘Kiri-kanan, kiri-kanan, left-right, left!’
‘He-llo, Mis-ter, He-llo, Miss.’
‘So that’s how it works!’ I whisper excitedly to Ceci. But when I turn around to look at her in the dark, she’s dressed up like a rooster and when she opens her mouth, out comes the morning call to prayer: ‘ʾAllāhu ʾakbar!’
I wake up with a start, drenched in sweat. I look at my watch. It’s 4:30 in the morning and outside, Islam’s holy war against sleep rages on.
We’re in Sumbawa now, firmly back in Hello-Mister land, and the thing is, I can’t explain it. The more I hear Hello-Mister, the more confused I get. It should be the other way around, I should be well-versed by now. And I am, in a way. In terms of emotional texture and the consistency of the intention behind the Hello-Misters? I’m a post-doc.
The Sumatran Hello-Mister and the Sumbawan Hello-Mister exist in entirely different dimensions. The Sumatran Hello-Mister in its natural environment is an exclamation of wonder, bafflement, more tender-hearted, almost a welcome. The Sumbawan Hello-Mister is another beast entirely. Brusk, hard-edged, the Hello often discarded in favour of a harsh Mister with the ‘R’ extended to the fringes of an aggressive growl, it often sneaks up on you from behind, catches you unawares and rattles your eardrums as it speeds off on a motorbike laughing derisively and never looking back.
A meowing cat vs a crowing rooster.
No, what baffles me the most, more with every island we traverse, is the patient-zero of it and the method of propagation.
How can 274,000,000 Indonesians suffer from this weirdly specific compulsion to Hello-Mister? At the merest glimpse of a tourist. How does anything reach such a supreme state of unanimity? Furthermore, how does an entire island reach a common consensus that their island’s Hello-Mister will be a symbol of admiration and another island’s, a military-grade projectile hurled at tourists?
As of yet, unknown.
Maybe you think I’m hyperbolizing here, but let me say this: we get yelled at so much, here in Sumbawa, that by the end of the day, I feel like I did something wrong. Like I should go and stand in the corner. Or go to my room to think about what I’ve done.
So, me being me, I made a rule of thumb for it. Henceforth, I only answer the Hello-Misters that remind me of Sumatra.
Sumbawa, for us, was always going to be a scenic conduit to Flores. And as it turned out, a useful reset for all the things we’d begun to take for granted. Most notably the genuinely kind nature of the Indonesian people.
There are undoubtedly many worthwhile experiences to be had on this Island, but given the time we have left and—it must be said—the intensity of Hello-Misters, we opted to invest our time in Flores and Sumba, instead. So we cycled big days, enjoyed the gorgeous scenery, slept in so-so towns and suffered the constant hollering, as patiently as we could.
And Flores immediately rewarded our decision, healing our relationship with the Hello-Mister greeting. Because that’s what it was once more. A greeting that says: Hey, you’re weird looking, be welcomed.
‘You know what this feels like?’ I ask Ceci as we lay down to sleep in a puddle of our own dirty sweat.
‘No. Que?’ Ceci answers, counting roaming cockroaches on the walls like one counts sheep, to fall asleep.
A silence falls between us as the full meaning locks into place. The rooster-in-a-bag crows. We’re settled next to the toilets, but the stale urine smell doesn’t outmuscle the stench of humanity down here, in the bowels of the ship. Some rough median between Essence of roadkill and Eau de chicken poop.
And we would know. Roadkill and cyclo-tourists are long acquaintances on the shoulder of the road. In fact, the sheer bio-diversity of roadkill often outcompetes what can be glimpsed in any jungle. Every seen a civet in the wild? Or snakes the girth of your upper-leg? Me neither. Only as flat leather, on the edge of the road. And it all smells the exact same. I.e. To the high heavens.
And as for chicken poop? Ceci & I hold the dubious world-record of cycling the most kilometres behind a truck carrying hundreds of hens in Thailand, all stacked in too-small cages, pooping/peeing on top of one another. 53. Kilometres. And every time the truck would stop at a traffic-light, then accelerate, the murky watery filth accumulating on the flatbed would slosh and start trickling from the corners onto the road.
Wet, foul-smelling streaks we were destined to follow for hours, crossing over them only with extreme reluctance whenever the shoulder disintegrated into gravel or traffic muscled us off the road altogether.
Roadkill & chicken poop. It’s a spectrum. And somewhere in there, exists this stifling, airless, ferry basement we now inhabit.
The rooster-in-a-bag crows again, which makes us look around the corner, which sets the convention of Indonesians a-whispering about us. Whispering about us whispering about the crowing rooster. Their eyes studying our every cough, our every expression, interpreting us. Like we’re the latest victims of an elaborate scheme that forces you to willingly pay for your own indefinite incarceration.
The detail here, amongst details, is that they were already well installed when we arrived. Which plays boggle with our already oxygen- and sleep-deprived minds. We arrived at 8:30pm for a midnight ferry that turned out to be a 4am ferry. A 4am ferry that was meant to make the journey between Bima, Sumbawa, and Labuan Bajo, Flores, in 6 hours. And ended up making it in 12.
So how could they already be settled-in at 8:30pm. Settled-in settled-in. A long extension-cord running from the only socket available all the way to their encampment, where a powerbar blinks a feeble dying-ember red, as it is further and further divided by multiple multiple-outlet adapters to feed a spider-web of outgoing cables connected to a whole range of electronics and appliances that include mini portable fans, a rice cooker, and a whole slew of semi-smart phones.
‘Navidad…’ Ceci says absently. Then, we gaze into each other’s eyes and smile the pitiful smile of those who share a secret best-forgotten. United, perhaps, by having shared this best-forgotten experience, but not entirely stronger for it, living, as we do, with the only other living person that can remind us of said best-forgotten experience. Or in our case, experiences. Plural.
Our travelling Christmases are notoriously evil. In Thailand, we spent Christmas night in a hostel we nicknamed “La Carcel” where we both slept in the girl’s dormitory with all the lights on, after my narrow escape from the boy’s dormitory where the lights were out and the beds were alive with hoards of crawling bedbugs.
In Cuba, we spent Christmas in a Motel, which in the Latin-American world, never doesn’t mean Love-Motel, as in Love, as in the making-of, a misunderstanding we were made to pay for, for multiple half-hour slots all through the night. There are a lot of half-hours in a night.
Now, this. Which, although it is February 27th, just has that Christmasy je-ne-sais-quoi.
Especially if you consider the whole 27th. A few hours before this, we were in the Bima harbour after dark, having just handed a wad of money and both our passports to a stranger who immediately left on a motorcycle. Name a country. I dare you. Name a country where you would want to stand alone in a harbour after dark seeing your money and passports go bye-bye. Not a fun game to play, is it?
How did we get here? Well, rewind 3 hours more and we were on a pristine beach, walking a shallow sand bar to a nearby island, taking photos of baby goats, cycling around, drinking coconuts… On our return home, before calling it a day, we decided to visit the ferry office. In the morning we’d been told that the ferry never arrived from Labuan Bajo, because of bad weather. Ceci & I studied the skies for a moment, studied the sea; bluebird and mirror-like. We shrugged with our eyebrows at each other. But it would be here come 8am. No 10am. Anyway, a ferry would leave in the morning.
So, somehow, before consigning ourselves to fate, inspiration struck us to doublecheck.
We found someone sleeping in the ferry office, who knew someone, who knew someone that worked for the ferry. After much shouting and WhatsApping, we were duly informed that anyway a ferry would leave in dua hari.
The day after tomorrow.
But, see the bus right there?
Christ on a bike!
We ran back to the hotel, packed all our stuff, abandoned a room we’d already paid for, payed for the bus, put the bikes on the roof, payed for the bikes, hoping they wouldn’t get too banged-up on the way, hopped on and headed to Bima to catch another ferry that supposedly departed at midnight.
Bima? But I thought that…
Well, yes. At 6am that same morning, we were still in Bima. Then we left for our last cycling day on Sumbawa to the port of Sape. Sape, where the ferry never arrived from Labuan Bajo. Sape, where at 8, at 10pm or anyway, in dua hari the ferry would surely arrive.
Barely two hours into our ride to Sape, while cycling up a relentless mountain, we got attacked by a streetgang of vicious Macaques. Ceci, who loves monkeys, screaming for her life, the monkeys barking and snarling and galloping after her, Ceci screaming, cycling for dear life, just barely managing to pull off an uphill sprint with a loaded bike, barely just fast enough to pull away and to not get mugged for all she’s worth.
We saw the sunrise on the road from Bima to Sape and now we’re watching the sunset on the road from Sape to Bima, Ceci flipping the bird to the Monkeys as we drive past. And the punchline of this sad joke is that we cycled the 48.59km there, faster than the bus is driving back.
‘No es tan grave.’ Ceci says. But, the way she says it, it’s like Oliver Twist. It melts your heart like spilt porridge because she reviles cockroaches. Absolutely blatophobic (had to look it up) and the cabin is a-live with the little creepers. ‘See,’ she says, ‘it’s just the little ones.’
Which is absolutely true, so far and from her angle.
See, it’s only on the bike that I point at gross disgusting carcasses and poop and stuff, and then only so that Ceci doesn’t accidentally roll over them. So, I keep mum. Because from my angle there’s a big cockroach parading right by her pillow, and by pillow, I mean her dirty pink backpack stuffed with dirty laundry for added comfort.
The rooster-in-a-bag crows. We glance around the corner. The convention whispers. Now, I’m not sure if it’s just roosters in bags or if roosters out of bags also do this, but it’s not exclusively a sunrise thing. Crowing. It’s a twice-an-hour or however-many-times-it-feels-like-it, kind of affair. All live-long day. And night, as we were soon to discover.
‘Nope.’ I answer back, ‘not that bad at all.’
And it’s only self-persuasion, thereisnomonsterunderthebed-ism, by that point. We’ll be repeating that phrase a whole lot over the next few days. “Not so bad.” Until a week or so of compulsive daily showering later, while bathing in some hot spring or other, a psychic knot will suddenly loosen and only then will we feel safe enough to glance at each other while lying in bed and say, ‘It was bad, wasn’t it? Like really really really bad, wasn’t it?
But for now, it’s still Oliver Twist and Ceci’s last words before we close our eyes on another truly infamous Christmas, are: ‘No es tan grave.’
Of course, we didn’t know about the bedbugs, yet.
‘Wili Wali, no te va a gustar esto…’
It’s 9am for me, 7pm for Wili in Mexico.
‘A ver,’ he says in his characteristic nonchalance.
But I chicken out. ‘It’s bad.’ I say, and launch into an involved description of the symptoms and the probable cause. Which in this case is a broken front brake and the road to Wae Rebo, respectively. A road that progressively became not a road at all. The thin wafer of pavement having long disintegrated, what we were left to bounce on were these large rounded stones from a nearby beach, fat in the middle, thin at the edge and planted into the earth on their edge. Like… like pot-bellied men, hugging one another, stomach to stomach, leaving their bald heads far apart. The point is, we’re biking on the bald heads, or trying to. An experience I can only liken to something somewhere between the Paris-Roubaix and chucking your bike off a cliff.
And, it being Indonesia, we’re navigating near vertical walls of this stuff, up and down, up and down.
The thing is, when I say ‘Wili Wali, you’re not going to like this…’ it’s only partially a joke. It’s much more like an act of deference owed by those who enjoy/massacre the bikes, to those who fix/care-for the bikes.
I say it like the bike is his. And in a way, it is. Its smooth functioning is the very backbone of this trip and we’ve really gone and done it a disservice the day before near Wae Rebo.
Having run out of things to cluck about, I switch from the selfie camera to the outside camera and point it at the little ball bearing sticking its bald head out from under of front brake pad. And, here’s the thing: Prior to this disaster, I didn’t even know ball-bearings lived inside there.
Wili keeps his cool. Me? I’m sweating, because it’s a million degrees already. But also, because this is Flores we’re talking about: the island with the most up/downhill of the whole trip. There is enough cumulative downhill left to the trip to reach Mexico straight through the core of the earth. And without a front brake, the trip is pretty much over.
No, the true pickle is that the closest place to replace my front brake is probably Australia.
‘A ver.’ Wili says, and together, over the next hour and a half, we dismantled the complex system of a bicycle brake. And while I’m unscrewing, we chat about the trip a bit. About Ceci who is, as we speak, puking her guts out on the side of the trans-Flores highway on her way back to Labuan Bajo to retrieve what is certainly a solid contender for the most expensive and annoying sticker in the whole wide world: The Indonesian visa.
Despite our very best efforts, the 5-day process took us 7 days, because of the intervening weekend, so we decided to move ahead with the trip. Ergo, forcing one of us to volunteer to hop on two 4½ hour buses back and forth on the most serpentine road in the world to fetch them. Plus having to find a way from Immigration to the hotel, 6kms+ away, to retrieve a backpack we’d forgotten, plus to the pharmacy for nausea-pills, and a poké bowl as her only meal of the day; all within a 2hours hiatus before the bus ride back.
Let me just say, for the record, that for Ceci to take this one for the team is truly heroic and means a whole lot to me. But for her to have volunteered? Let me just say that the next time she wants something from the bathroom when we’re both in bed, I’ll go and get it with a smile. Or, if not exactly a smile, at least, showing some teeth. And, if not exactly some teeth… anyway, I’ll do it, is the point. Or, at least, have the intention of doing it.
Her volunteering for this suicide mission is the reason you’re reading these articles in real-time, instead of after the trip. Or, it’s the reason why you’re not reading these articles in real-time, because there’s too goddamn many of them, and how can anyone be expected to read and re-read and re-re-read over and over again, and edit and correct and all this while travelling on a bike through Indonesia… Oh no, sorry, that’s me. But I mean, you’re busy too.
By the time I’m done relating all this, my brake is in pieces all over the table. But! It looks like it was just a case of the sticky TicTac. You know, when the last TicTac sticks at the bottom of the plastic box, maybe it’s been left in the sun or something, I don’t know, and you’re tap-tap-tapping to get it out but it won’t budge so you go out to the street and bludgeon the plastic box against a cobblestone, like it’s the Paris-Roubaix, and all the while the little trap door is wide open, maxed-out actually, and then, as a last recourse, you chuck it off a cliff and then the next day you find the TicTac box again and despite it being smashed to pieces, you can see the very edge of the TicTac sticking its bald head out.
All you really wanted in the first place was to loosen the damn thing, because, well, who has honestly eaten a TicTac in the last 20 years anyway?
So now, all you have to do is flick it back in. Just like the little ball-bearing poking out my front brake. Easy as pie.
After remantling my front brake and taking it for a successful test spin, I call Wali back and say to him, ‘Que bueno que no estás aquí, si no te daría un beso.’
Which basically translates to, ‘Well, essentially I did all the work, so why should I pay you?’
‘Buleee!!!’ Ceci & I break out laughing. The little girl who screams this, can’t be more than 4 years old. There’s been a progressive game of telephone whereby our presence is shouted forward by those who were caught by surprise by our passing, or those too slow on the draw to react. Until the word reaches this little 4 year-old girl, who turns around just in time to catch sight of us, gather her wits about her, suck in a huge theatrical breath and then proceed to looe her marbles altogether. We’re not sure what the word started as, at the beginning of the chain, but now it’s ‘Buleeeeeee!’
The army of uniformed school kids, spread along the road like little ants in their identical red & white uniforms, spin around in shock at the ear-piercing scream and by then, they’re knobbly knees buckle. Some recoil in fear, others suck in a huge theatrical breath. One thing is instantly clear, the 4 year-old girl gave them all license to lose their minds by losing hers first. Lose their minds lose their minds. Like we’re The Beatles at the Shea Stadium in New York City in ‘65 or Elvis in… well, at any point in his career. From one second to the next, they’re running, tearing their hair out, jumping up and down, waving their arms, screaming…
Every single morning of the trip begins with a variation on this ritual. Hoards of schoolchildren walking their way to school as we cycle past. And there has to be a rotation in the classrooms, because from 6am to 9am, we’re positively floating through wave after wave of hundreds if not thousands of schoolchildren. Only for the ritual to be repeated from noon to 3pm again. It’s easily one of the best, most endearing moments of the trip. It lifts our spirits at the two most crucial points of the day, the first few sleepy stiff-legged kilometres and the last few exhausted stiff-legged kilometres. And we get to live it over and over every day.
And so, if I say that nowhere in Indonesia have we been more popular than in the outskirt of Ruteng at 6am, you’ll know I’m not just shooting the fat. We’ve been famous for months now! But here, it’s like Ceci’s Santa Claus and I’m Rudolph the rednose reindeer but we’re also made of candy. The reaction is so nuts from these hundreds of kids that we can’t stop laughing and waving and shaking our heads in disbelief the whole morning.
The juxtaposition of Sumbawa and Flores could not have yielded a deeper renewal of fascination for this country. After the rougher-edged Sumbawan character, Flores is a return to Indonesians marvelling at us. And the marvelling is 100% mutual.
And, inasmuch as it is virtually impossible to choose the best cycling day of the best trip of our lives, especially after so many unforgettable days; this day is certainly top 5. After 400ms of uphill, through smiling, laughing and playful kids, we glide down 30kms+ of gorgeous mountainsides. The roads here in Flores are easily the country’s best-designed roads. The grades are nice and progressive despite the fact that we’re racking up anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000ms of uphill a day. Most of the steep inclines are in the switchbacks which break the uphills in manageable chunks and makes the downhills extra thrilling. And the best part? We barely ever even touch our brakes!
But the #1 reason why Flores is the #1 island to cycle in Indonesia is this: The roads are empty. In the whole day, we perhaps cross 12 motorcycles and 4 cars.
And so, after little to no effort, 96 kilometres and the mandatory 1,000m+ of uphill, we reach our seaside stop feeling like we cheated. We glide through more schoolchildren returning from school, jump in the sea and have a nap.
Now, I can’t speak on whether or not heaven exists. But after today, it seems to me reasonable to assume that the path to heaven is not a stairway but a 2-4% endless downhill slope. And what awaits you upon arrival is a coconut curry with fluffy white rice and a nap.
Travel Log #75 15/03/2023
Showing up at Maumere with our bicycles wrapped in tarp, duct tape and the benediction of Christ. Showing up. The rest is out of our hands. The rest is—if you’ll allow me to quote a pair of underwear Ceci bought in Thailand—“Trusting to Luck”.
Once more into the breach. What a way to start a day. Not a single idea between us how the day will pan out. In fact, here’s the extent of what we don’t know.
We don’t know (1) if they will allow the bikes on the plane or (2) what to do if they don’t. Sumba without bikes? Try to fly somewhere else?
We don’t know (3) if we just threw a whole bunch of money to the wind, (4) we don’t know if the bikes will survive the trip, don’t know, consequently, (5) if the trip will be over upon arriving in Sumba to find our bikes in pieces. We don’t (6) know where we’ll sleep yet because we don’t even know (7) if we’re travelling. We (8) don’t know where we’ll find the internet to book a place.
We don’t know.
The only thing we do know is this: in the whole World Wide Web, there is no information about flying bikes from the little house that is the Maumere airport; aboard the tiny aircraft; into the little shed that is Waingapu airport. Not from fellow travellers, not from the airline, nothing. Everyone takes or recommends the Ende ferry. The now broken Ende ferry.
So, here we are, with two Frankenstein-looking garbage bags full of broken-down bike bits tied together with tie-wraps and the modus operandi of a 5 year-old pair of Thai calzoncillos. Trusting to luck, indeed, we show up to the counter with our best smiles. Which, given our state of anxiety and exhaustion, probably looks like one of those taxidermied foxes or raccoons caught mid-snarl to scare people when they come out of the bathroom at pool parties at someone’s grandfather’s place. We show our passports, our ticket reservations. When the lady asks us to put the awkward blue and grey bike “bag” on the scale, we suck in a huge breath and the apnea begins.
An animated discussion ensues. The words “Turis”, “Sepeda” and “Tidak” are repeated over and over, and seeing as we know they translate into “Tourist”, “Bicycle” and “No”, we start sweating profusely. Not that our pores need encouraging. I can count on half my fingers the brief hiatuses from sweating, in the last 3months of the trip. And, Maumere Airport having about the budget of a stapler, is not one of them. Stepping into its front door is like stepping into my cycling shoes every morning. Wet, hot and olfactorily challenging. Tourist, bicycle, no, tourist, bicycle, no. The words loop in my mind, acquiring a beat, as I watch people being sent for. Only for them to do a whole lot of studying our craftsmanship in wrapping the bikes, a whole lot of blank staring at the computer screen and a whole lot of Turis, chipupum clap, Sepeda, chipupum clap, Tidak, clap clap. Turis…
‘So sorry…’ the lady says, at last. Ceci & I snap to attention, we’d already started our free-diving down into the depths of despair. Pointing at the bikes, she says it again.
‘So sorry…’ her “R”s rolling sweetly off her tongue, giving you this weird auditory illusion that what she’s saying is also sweet. Which it is not.
Our hearts sink. Sink ever deeper into darker and darker shades of ocean blue. After 3 months of problem-solving our way through Indonesia, we have nothing left in the tank. No more troubleshooting juice. No more brainstorming… juice. None of the enterprise, none of the ingenuity or débrouillardise. So, we float there, holding our breaths, watching our hearts sink into the deeps…
The woman, seeing us death-staring the floor, peeks around the counter, at the floor. And, finding nothing there, she adds, ‘Bicycle not airline luggage.’
Which is fine. It’s fine. Our philosophy for Indonesia is this: We will fail. Actually, our philosophy for life as a whole is this: We will fail. Which might sound like a pessimistic and bleak way to look at the world, at life. But, I assure you it is quite the opposite. As you will soon see.
‘Pay extra, yes?’
‘What?’ Ceci says, surfacing for a little sip of air. Then, plunging back into the tepid waters of our dread.
‘Bicycle not airline luggage. Tidak.’
‘No, no, the other part.’ I say, surfacing for a little sip of air. Then, plunging back to join Ceci, in our little airless world of apprehension.
‘Pay,’ the lady says, and bless her soul, she says it with such empathetic sorrow, like this is the surgical knife that sundered our hearts, ‘800,000 rupiahs. Satu sepeda 400,000. Dua sepeda delapan ratus ribu (800,000) rupiahs.’
Thumbs up. Still holding our breaths, we fork out. Almost a million rupiahs. Just over 71$ CAD. Which, all things considered, is not quite a bargain considering the spin of the wheel it is. As in, more money potentially thrown to the wind.
The bikes getting on the plane is one thing, the bikes getting on the plane, quite another. Twice, since we have a connection in Timor. 2(on/off) = A whole lifetime’s worth of carbon cracking and aluminium bending opportunities.
So, we relinquish our bikes to Madonna del Ghisallo, Patron Saint of cyclists. And then, something happens somewhere over the Savu Sea. Ceci & I both fall asleep. Sweating, mouth open, and yet, still holding our breaths, we sleep. And when we wake up, we wake up almost believing in this most unlikely of possible worlds. This fiction that the last leg of the trip, this last thing that can possibly go catastrophically wrong… is somehow working out.
Not quite gullible enough to dive after our sinking hearts, not quite cynical enough to abandon our hearts for the surface, for air; we land in Sumba, breathless. We step off the plane and step into the shed that is Waingapu airport, holding our breaths. Blue in the face, we glimpse the blue tarps getting offloaded from the plane, watch them arrive and pick them up from the supermarket checkout counter-sized conveyor belt, not daring still to draw breath.
Despite all the positive signs. We still can’t trust ourselves to breathe.
Our airport shuttle driver waves at us, we wave back like two shipwreck victims, holding our breaths so as not to drown in a swallowing sea of anguish.
He says, ‘First time in Sumba?’
We hold our breaths and nod.
Then he says, ‘Welcome to Sumba!’ and something happens.
Nothing major. Just a brief pss. A little escape of barometric pressure. A few bubbles floating upwards from our nostrils. We were caught by surprise, that’s all. Of course, we’re in Sumba, even though we’re not ready, just yet, to acknowledge it.
No, that’s not it.
We pss a little because who could possibly be this rude? Can’t the man see that we are purple in the face, as purple in the face as the tarps are blue, the blue tarps which already, as we speak, hold the secret to whether or not the trip stops or continues in Sumba? Whether or not the bikes survived the flight over? Flights, plural!
So, the whole ride to the hotel, we hold our breaths. We are shown to our room which only just insults us further, it’s so nice. Why would anyone be so cruel? Beautiful wooden cabins, everything so clean and so… functional, it has to be a trick.
Sumba is one of Indonesia’s most remote, inhabited islands. And besides, can’t the owners of the hotel see that we are now ghostly pale, as ghostly pale as the tarps are blue? That our trip is on the verge, or not, of being ruined?
We hold our breaths as we eat dinner, which is easier said than done, and then it’s finally time. Soon, whether we dive after our sinking hearts or surface for air, we might just not make it. Yes, it’s time. Time for us to redeem travelling Christmases. Or carry on the travelling Christmas tradition. I.e., Time to unwrap our tarp and duct tape presents. Or to unravel a can of worms.
Jesus, what’s Wili going to say?
Both reluctant and bursting at the seams to know, to just once and for all know, something, anything, after so much unknown; we set about building the bikes. And, even when success seems at hand, even when our inevitable failure fails to manifest, we hold our breath.
It’s when we pump air into the tires that the tremendous pressure we’re under, at last, starts its release. Unleashing all the Flores air we’ve held-in for so long, we start to deflate like wet balloons. Uncontrollably, all across the room, we deflate, losing our clothes in the process. Deflating still, we dash madly, wildly, like two crazies high on distilled life, and land deep into the hotel pool.
There in the deepest quietest underwater corner, we find our extricated hearts and screw them back in. And, when I say ‘We will fail’ is an optimistic philosophy, it’s because, on those odd occasions when we don’t, we are rewarded with an experience that is inaccessible otherwise.
See, because it is an active philosophy. The inevitability of failure is not an excuse for surrendering prematurely. It’s just a humbling, a perspective; changing “we’ll do”, into “we’ll try”. It’s a valuing of a positive outcome above all else, so that even knowing that we will fail, we still subject ourselves to the process.
And so, when we surface, at last, heart in its right place, we feed it a huge gulp of Sumba air and it is the best day of our entire lives. Right here, right now. And we breathe and breathe and breathe it in, for the sweet elixir that it is. Because we made it! Because this little flight over from Flores to Sumba is a symbol for the whole trip. We’ve been holding our breaths the whole trip. Ready to fail.
Every single island we’d planned to visit, exactly in the time allotted. It’s hard even for us to grasp, and we’re the ones who’ve done it. Now, all we need to do is cycle 500km+ with 6,000m+ of up, and the whole trip will have been a resounding success.
A trip with so impossibly many opportunities to fail, lurking around every corner, that to pull it off is exactly one of those rare experiences accessible only to those brave enough to risk failure and fortunate enough to succeed.
And this time, in this place, that was us.
You know those plasticky picture-viewer toys? The little stereoscope ones you insert a white disk with tiny little photos along the rim, and then you look through the binocular side and chacklack change between the Eiffel Tower, chacklack Big Ben, chacklack Statue of Liberty? Chacklack you’re here, chacklack you’re there. View-Master! That’s what they’re called.
Well, this chacklack, this turnover, this transition between one reality and the next is one of the highlights of travelling a country as richly cultural and as naturally diverse as Indonesia.
So, grab your retro view-master, if you please, there are a few white disks I would like to share with you. The island of Flores is a place of unbelievable extremes.
Chacklack. Labuan Bajo, over-exploited, touristy town. Only here for Visa renewal.
Chacklack. Komodo Island. Komodo Island. The sound of a Komodo Dragon sighing makes your heart panic. It makes the soles of your feet sweat. It is, now in retrospect, the closest sound to the roaring heart of Bromo Volcano that I can imagine.
Chacklack. Still Komodo, but now we’re at a Pink Sand beach, underwater, in the most vibrant ecosystem of corral and fishes I’ve ever seen. You could spend years deciphering the complex relationships interlinking its inhabitants with their environment. It’s the sound of fish crunching on corral, it’s Nemo in his ananem… ananemone, it’s the weird creations that were fast-tracked straight from God’s sketchbooks into prototypes: fish with lips, fish with noses, upside-down fishes, kaleidoscope fishes, and the most improbable of them all, the Ceci fish, chasing everything around the neighbourhood with a GoPro in hand.
Chacklack. Wae Rebo. A tiny traditional village in the heart of the mountains. It’s a 7km hike with 1,000m of uphill to reach it. A slow quiet place where we watch the drifting of clouds across the grassy landscape, the mountainside, the huts. Each large enough to house up to 8 families on its circular ground floor, stretching upwards five floors, each used for the storage of grain and wool and skins and tools. Once you notice how the entrance is bent up into a mouth and the windows, perfectly placed to form eyes, it’s impossible not to see them as big friendly monster faces.
Chacklack. Ruteng. We spend the morning navigating labyrinthine rice fields, then cycling near 2,000m of continuous uphill in the showering rain.
Chacklack. Ceci is puking on the side of the road on her way back to get our Visas in Labuan Bajo, while I’m dismantling my front brake with Wili on the phone.
Chacklack. East of Ruteng is the best downhill of the trip, 30km at 2-4% grade all the way to a quiet seaside homestay.
Chacklack. We’re going back up along the snaking highway to Bajawa. At 6am, we had precisely enough time to press play on our audiobooks before the deluge hit us. And never relented. Driving, pummelling, punishing rain. There is so much water cascading down the road that it creates an optical illusion, like we’re cycling against an airport conveyor belt or being dragged diagonally up the hill. Easily the most I’ve ever been rained on in my life and I’ve worked outside for the past 10 years.
Chacklack. An hour and 1,600m of up later, we’re zipping away on a rented motorcycle to reach far away traditional villages and a hot springs where two rivers meet, one freezing, one boiling, and we’re holding on against the current with hands and feet to find that exact sweet spot of temperature.
Chacklack. We’re crossing Flores, South to North to ride this epic highway with wide rolling hills and vast seascapes. We reach the remote seaside village of Riung and nap after eating the best Sate Ayam (Chicken Satay) of the trip.
Chacklack. The conditions align perfectly for this to be one of the most trying days of the trip. Heat, humidity, sun and way more uphill than anticipated. All of 129km 1,678m later, we’re drinking Pocari Sweat (Indonesian Gatorade) trying to hydrate ourselves away from heat stroke.
Chacklack. Half an hour later, after checking-in and showering and walking 600m uphill to drop off laundry, we’re hiking 4kms down to Ende’s port, where we’re looking to get info on a ferry to Sumba and buy tickets. Within two minutes, we’re drenched in sweat again, we’re each drinking electrolytes by the litre but it fountains back out immediately. I can barely walk because sweat pools at my feet and my flipflops turn squeaky and my feet slip&slide all over the place.
Chacklack. The ferry office is closed and it takes us another hour to discover why. The ferry is broken. But it’s hard to feel disheartened given how uneagre we are to risk repeating the last ferry misadventure.
Chacklack. We reach Moni after the most gradual uphill known to man. 1,354m of up but slowly slowly, like Indonesia is starting to feel bad about the savage amount of uphill we’ve been made to endure so far.
Chacklack. An hour later we’re hiking the rim of Kelimutu Volcano. Alone again. Three massive crater lakes side by side, all to ourselves. And whereas Bromo was a loud churning beast, whereas Ijen was constantly gushing dense volcanic vapours, Kelimutu is a quiet, peaceful place to be. A silent peaceful volcano to match the peaceful understated feel of Flores.
Chacklack. This morning in Moni, we woke up to soft Christian choir signing instead of a mosque. It was so… peaceful, that it almost felt fake.
Chacklack. Koka Beach, we’re swimming in our own private bay. The golden-white sand, plastic-free. The water so turquoise it almost looks solid. We spend the day and night all alone with our little adoptive homestay family.
Chacklack. Maumere. After cycling 49km with 823m of up, we check-in, shower and set off to gather the various ingredients to pack our bikes for the flight to Sumba. Despite all our doubts and the risk of buying plane tickets not knowing if they’ll allow the bikes on, we feel sooo grateful that the broken ferry took the decision out of our hands. The bikes all tarped-up and duct-taped look like something even a garbage truck would leave on a curb.
Chacklack. Labuan Bajo.
For further exploration, please insert Sumba reel.
Lombok Ferry -> Sumbawa Besar 100km 200m (vertical gain)
Sumbawa Besar -> Lampang 107km 777m
Lampang -> Bima 144km 1,590m
Bima -> Sape 49km 704m
Labuan Bajo -> Wae Rebo 100km 1,933m
Wae Rebo -> Ruteng 53km 1,851m
Ruteng -> Keli 96km 1,214m
Keli -> Badjawa 46km 1,607m
Badjawa -> Riung 71km 1,084m
Riung -> Ende 129km 1,678m
Ende -> Moni 50km 1,354m
Moni -> Koka 45km 661m
Koka -> Maumere 49km 823m