Cycling Sumba + Wrap-Up 2023

‘Well,’ Ceci says, as we ride along a peaceful seaside road. ‘I don’t think today’s going to add much to the overall uphill of the trip…’

Two minutes later, the road ends.

‘Huh.’ I say.

On paper, the day was all downhill. All of 34kms with 600 metres of cumulative downhill. We even slept in to catch the hotel breakfast. So that now, instead of simmer-with-the-lid-on, the day is set-broil-until-the-desired-crispiness-is-achieved.

Sweat in my eyes, I squint down at my phone, at the gmaps driving instructions telling us to keep going straight.


Funny because, when I look straight ahead, all I can see is a cliff and some trees; the paved road ending like someone took a really sharp knife to a marshmallow. A small crowd is gathering around us now, everyone shaking their heads, waving their arms, chatting excitedly amongst themselves. We don’t understand a word, of course. There are 700 living languages in Indonesia, 8 on Sumba alone. But, unfortunately, what with the shaking heads and waving arms, it’s hard to ignore their message. However much we might want to.

There is no way through. Only back the way we came.


Ceci and I squint back at the tarmac shimmering in the heat behind us.

We turn to face the cliff, again. The end of the road.

Then, backwards again, at the 16 kilometres of steep downhill we just cycled.

Forwards at the 18 flat kilometres that our map says are left until our destination.

Backwards at yesterday’s huge day of 134kms with 2,064m of cumulative uphill. The 7th biggest day of the trip, 4th in uphill.

Forwards at the 3 puny little cycling days left to the whole trip.

Backwards at the 4,000+kms with 54,000m of elevation that led us here, to this end of the road.

Forwards at almost pulling off the wildest most challenging cycling trip of our lives. Backwards at Ceci saying, ‘I don’t think today will add much to the overall uphill of the trip.’

‘Ho-ho-ho.’ I say, but not like Santa. More like someone who locks his car keys inside his car, and they’re right there, on the seat, in plain sight, and out of sheer faith in a better world, tries the doorhandle, only to set off the car alarm at 3am in a family neighbourhood. ‘Ho-ho-ho…’

Que?’ Ceci asks.

‘You just had to say something, didn’t you..?’

‘What? How is this my fault?

‘I don’t think today will add much uphill—’

‘I know what I said.’


‘How is it always my fault?’

And, she’s right. It’s not. Really, it isn’t. What? You think the road kept going before she said what she said? No. However much this smouldering volcano of rage inside me wants to make me briefly embrace such superstitions. See, because there’s a greater trend at work here.

Ever since our first breath of Sumba air, we started looking back. Which is an easy mistake to make. But no less costly. I guess we’d never quite realised how little we believed in our chances of ever making it to Sumba, the last island of our trip. So that, as soon as it dawned on us that we might just pull it off, the idea was so inebriating that we started looking back at everything it took to get here.

And, cycling backwards is about exactly how Sumba felt. Every day hitting us in the back like a betrayal. A day with an expected 1,400m of uphill turning into 2,064m. The pavement ending in the middle of nowhere. The map telling us to cross a raging river where no bridge even exists. Getting surprised by a full day of off-road cycling. Getting attacked by dogs, one of which chewed a chunk out of Ceci’s cycling shoe.

Not entirely Sumba. Ok, a little bit Sumba, too. But more likely? Us. Cycling backwards.

So, standing here, looking at the cliff where the road unexpectedly stops, looking back through a crowd of people discussing us in front of us, at the road we travelled to get here; it all felt a bit like a betrayal. But also, our just deserts for underestimating Sumba’s capacity to add suffering to the trip.

Cycling back, of course, we instantly opt to make that classic doubling-back mistake whereby you don’t want to double-back exactly the way you came, so you try to find another way, any other way, and end up trying a short-cut that ends being steeper and slower than doubling-back would ever have been.

Thus adding 700m of punishingly steep uphill to the day and fulfilling Ceci’s wish of adding uphill to the trip.

Finishing with 56,679m instead of 56,000m. Woohoo. Yay.


‘Fuck you, Mister!’

Que dijo?

Creo que dijo Fuck you, mister.’


Sumba was a bit of a bully to us.

We landed in Sumba the day after the Pasola, a many thousands of years old war-like ancestral tradition, turned festival, during which men ride around on horseback throwing spears at one another in order to drench the earth in blood, so as to thank the gods for a good rice harvest. Over time, the spear tips were removed, the javelins blunted and the human blood replaced by sacrificial-animal blood. But the celebration is no less violent for all that, and deaths are not uncommon, fights often breaking out between the various tribes after the equestrian bout is over.

The word Pasola is derived from the Sumbese word Hola, meaning spear. Which explains everything. Everything. Getting greeted in Sumba can be quite the brusque affair. And if most of the greetings thrown our way were not exactly spear-headed, they were certainly no less blunt. And if perhaps not exactly meant to draw blood, allow me to assure you, we felt no less intimidated.

On the whole, it’s difficult for us to decipher whether we simply reached Sumba at a bad time or whether the intensity of our interactions with the Sumbese people is more generally due to tourism and tribal life being viable candidates for merriam-webster grade antonyms.

But intense it undeniably was. Really intense. Just ask Ceci. Ceci is by far the most patient person I know. Enough said that she married me! I am possibly the most annoying person in the whole wide world. Growing up with two older sisters, trust me that I learned the tricks of the trade. So, when I say that, with 2 cycling days left to the trip, Ceci started wanting to take refuge in our homestay, you’ll understand that we reached a crisis point. Ceci, who finishes a 7hr cycling day, showers and is out the door for another 10-20km of exploration.

Of course, it’s not just Sumba. Rather it’s the culmination of 3 months of having every single eye on us, the moment we step out of doors. Not a second of privacy. Everyone yelling hello-mister, running towards us, away from us, laughing with us, about us, at us. It is the culmination of 3 months of being the absolute centre of attention. Of showing up to Indonesia’s most extraordinary touristic attractions—volcanos, lagoons, valleys, temples, panoramas, waterfalls—and every eye/camera turning away from the attraction and being pointed towards us. And if in Sumatra, when the attention was curious and loving and friendly, it could become a bit too much, at times; when the attention became intense and not altogether hospitable, our fame and complete lack of privacy, became incredibly taxing, mentally. A resource we were already short on, by this point in the trip.

And of all days, there is absolutely no debate between Ceci and I that cycling day 44, Pantai Kerewei to Pero, was the most intense of the trip. We left late-ish in the morning because breakfast was included with our rustic bamboo hut homestay and if we didn’t take advantage of it, we wouldn’t find food for almost the whole day. Just one more of those days with 25-30% grades right out the front door, with about 1,000m of uphill more than we’d forecasted. And, just to spice things up, there was about 7% of pavement at the start and 3% at the end. The other 90%? Off-road. And when I say off-road, I mean mountain biking with a gravel bike. Wheels skidding on the ups, jamming the breaks on the downs. And by this point in the trip, we were carrying the monsoon with us, everywhere we went, in the form of rust. Most notable of all? Our pedals and clips. Jammed so thoroughly that when I say wheels skidding on the ups, I mean, if you lose momentum, there is no physical way for you to unclip in time to prevent a fall. And given the 20% grades we were cycling, meant a fall and a slide.

Day 44 was also the day of the first and only flat tire of the trip, within the last 7kms of the day. Which I absolutely refused to change. Categorically. In fact, I distinctly remember yelling at the top of my lungs: ‘Odio la vida!!’ Which, if you read Spanish, tells you a little something about how happy I was at that moment in my life. If you don’t, how the hell did you make it this far? Anyway, I ended up having to reinflate my slowly leaking tire several times in the last 7kms. We also ran out of water early in the day, and had to push on until nearly the end to find a place to fill our water bottles. So that, by the time we reached our homestay, we were both about ready to cry. Luckily, Merzy, our aptly named host, whose home we chose as a shelter, proved to be the nicest most motherly woman. And she immediately took us into her care.

Alms quickly took the shape of fried bananas and some delicious tea, which we vacuumed while she busied away fixing up a lunch for us. We then showered, ate a plentiful meal, which included little fried cakes stuffed with little anchovies. After our meal, we were so very confident in the reset we’d achieved that we immediately set out by bicycle to visit the most famous traditional village in Sumba: Ratenggaro.

However, from the first foot we set outside of the safe haven of the homestay’s garden, it became immediately apparent that all the reset in the world couldn’t have prepared us for the level of intensity awaiting us.

Sumba is still very much a tribal place. And while it’s very tricky to use loaded words like tribal, without their colonial connotations overshadowing their dictionary definitions; it is nonetheless impossible to describe the phenomenon we experienced without using them. In the same way Ceci and I used the word orthodox Islam, instead of extremist Islam, in Sumatra, to describe more accurately our experience; here in Sumba, we found ourselves naturally shifting in favour of the word tribal for its relative proximity to the dictionary sense of the word, (of, relating to, or characteristic of a tribe) and forgoing others like primitive for their proximity to the colloquial usage of the word, which generally connotes towards: uncivilised, crude, backwards and antiquated.

And so, in using the word ‘Tribal’, let us agree to understand that we are referring, here, to an island whose people are very much still divided into tribes and where ancient tribal traditions are still very much alive and practised. A way of life that still, to this day, includes inter-tribe warfare, but also challenges for status within the tribe. All of which lends to parts of Sumba a charged atmosphere, one of volatile moods and intimidation as a way of asserting domination.

From the moment we stepped into Ratenggaro, we felt like intruders. Despite it being one of Sumba’s foremost attractions, there is a certain type of mismanagement of cultural and geographical resources by the government which seems to antagonise the Sumbese people from the off-set. The tourism potential being fully extracted at the detriment of authenticity. The word on the street being that little-to-none of the entrance fee reaches the actual tribe, it is of little wonder that the village adapts by turning every hut into a souvenir shop. Add to this the Covid years, when Indonesia shut down its borders, and it is of even less wonder that everyone crowds around you expectantly, children rubbing their thumbs and indexes together, asking for money, the adults pushing their wares on you. And when it became clear that the entrance fee was as much as we could afford, our brief stay slowly started gathering an uncomfortable tension. To the point that we eventually decided to cut our visit short and leave the village, in favour of the nearby beach.

As soon as we arrived at the beach, however, people were already yelling to one another to come and see the two Bules on Sepeda, (güeros on bikes) and we were yet again swarmed by local people of all ages. The word Bule being shouted back and forth so much that it began sounding less like Güero and more like a self-declaration. An auto-diagnosis of their general attitude towards us. Like Moe in the Simpsons calling out Seymore Butz (See More Butts) or Mike Rotch (My Crotch), unconscious of the hidden meaning; everyone was yelling Bule! Bule! unknowingly identifying themselves as Bully! Bully!

And although it is true that we couldn’t understand a word, you’ll just have to take my word for it that some things convey beyond language. Ridicule is hard to miss, especially when followed by outbreaks of wild, derisive laughter. About as hard to miss as the body language of intimidation, the crowding, the bulging eyes, the high-pitch shouts, the mimicking, the hands resting on the pommels of the Kabeala, a traditional short sword worn at the hip, every mouth red, betel-stained, half-full of rotting teeth. Within a few moments, the energy was so tense that a sneeze would have sufficed as a catalyst for the crowd to shift into a mob. That perilous threshold after which things get out of control fast. So, for the second time within a half-hour, we found ourselves having to take our bikes and leave.

On the way home, we decided to stop for something to drink at a small shop, and in the few moments while I was waiting for my change, Ceci who was minding the bikes, was drawing a crowd again. A few neighbourhood kids were shuffling amongst themselves to be the closest to Ceci, the shuffling became rougher, became pushing and shoving, until one girl slapped another in the face so viciously that Jean-Claude Van Dam would have winced, and when the crying began, even more people began crowding around, until we, for the third time in one hour, had to say thankyoubye, and leave the rapidly escalating situation for the shelter of the homestay and the mercy of our motherly host.

Writing about these more difficult experiences leaves me with conflicting feelings. Not least because there are many places in Sumba where our experience was nothing near this level of intensity. But especially because in all of Indonesia, people were the absolute highlight. Which in turn left us misadapted for the rougher-edged interactions of Sumba. In Sumatra, Java, Bali & Lombok, we would leave our bikes everywhere, walk alone at night and feel overwhelmed by the loving attention we received. No one was pushy, nothing was forced. Until Sumbawa. Where we started feeling the need to lock the bikes, every so often. Where, every so often, people would follow us a bit too long on their motorcycles as we cycled. A feeling replicated in Ende & Maumere, on Flores. The odd obscene hand signals and language became more common. Still, we treated these events and signals as what they were: exceptions. Then Sumba came along. And the exceptions grew perilously close to a rule. Kids asking for money instead of saying hello. Adults yelling at us, laughing at us, intimidating us. So, it’s with a conflicted heart that I report that our experience, on the whole, as cyclists, was somewhat demoralizing and certainly exhausting. We’d fall into bed at the end of the day, mentally drained.

Our experience. In a remote, isolated island. A few days after Pasola. Not in the least a judgement on Sumba. Objectively, the state of things is wholly comprehensible. Sumba is one of Indonesia’s most beautiful islands, its landscapes unique and breath-taking, its coastline endless and sublime, huge swathes of which are being offered to whichever developer happens to drop by. Tourism is being forced down Sumba’s throat, creating an unfathomable gap between the rural villages with their straw huts and the world-leading, 1,600$/night luxury hotels currently in operation. Retreats that are so exclusive that everything from the world-renowned chef to the gold embroidered slippers is imported, making sure that no benefit whatsoever reaches the Sumbese people beyond the original and ruthlessly underpriced purchase of the land.

Throw a couple of cyclists into the mix and it’s easy to grasp why Sumba was as confused as we were about who we were and what we were doing there. Nonetheless, in just a few days, Sumba left its unique and indelible imprint on our trip. Adding its own texture, even if soft on one side and abrasive on the other.

Wild and unforgettable landscapes on one side. And on the other…

‘Fuck you mister!’

Que dijo?

Creo que dijo, fuck you mister.’

Now, remember how I said Ceci is the most patient person I know? Well, for the first time in our life together, I saw this formidable patience of hers fraying a bit at the hem. Oh, nothing cataclysmic. See, because I lied a bit, at the beginning. You weren’t exactly where you needed to be to understand. To understand the intensity of Sumba, yes, but also to understand that if Ceci ran out of patience, patience was out of stock. That for Ceci to run out of patience, Sumba had to somehow outperform even my most prodigious and lifelong efforts at pushing and pulling and poking and prying and generally wearing down a person’s patience until that person implodes from sheer and inhuman excesses annoyance. So I lied. A bit. Because when the man yelled ‘Fuck you mister!’ what Ceci really said, and you have to lean in to hear it, because she only really says it under her breath, like a mother who jams her finger but still somehow manages to keep her voice low so that her children can’t hear. What she whispers is this:

‘Fuck you too asshole.’

And it’s so small you can barely hear it. But it’s there. And that’s the moment I knew it was love. Yes, we’ve been together for ages. But this tiny little outburst of obscenity, it does it for me. I will cherish it forever and ever Amen.



Waingapu -> Air Terjun Tanggedu 103km 1,444m

Waingapu -> Waikabubak 133km 2,064m

Waikabubak -> Pantai Kerewei 47km 696m

Panta Kerewei -> Pero 63km 1,188m

Pero -> Tambolaka 44km 327m

Tambolaka -> Waikuri 100km 511m


‘I didn’t do enough…’

‘You did so much.’

‘This chocolate milk, why didn’t I drink this chocolate milk…’

‘Etienne,’ Ceci says, holding my hand, ‘Thousands of Indonesians have been greeted because of you…’

‘This chocolate ice cream bar, the one with the hard chocolate at the centre…’ I say as I begin to sob. ‘I could have said two more hellos. Or just one. I’m sure I could have waved at least once more.’

A crowd is amassing around us now.

‘Look at them,’ Ceci says. ‘All these people had their Hello-Misters answered thanks to you.’

‘I could have done so much more… This bag of chips, this can of Vitamin C juice. I could have answered so many more.’

‘You were exhausted, it’s okay. They understand that.’

‘Just one more Korean Coffee juice box, one more SilverQueen chocolate bar. I could have had the calories enough to say Hello back to everyone who Hello-Mistered me.’

‘There are 270 million people in Indonesia. No one alive could greet them all.’

‘Just one more…’ I cry out as the crowd moves forward, everyone extending an arm out to me as I crumble onto the ground sobbing.

‘I could have done so much mooooore…’

Aaaaaaaaaaand CUT!!

Schindler’s list? You haven’t seen it? Schindler’s list?

Doesn’t matter. The point is, arriving in Mexico after 40 hours of travelling felt like we pulled off the heist of the century. Like we got away with something. You have no idea how many times we’ve prayed to Borobor during the trip. Which, although it may sound Indonesian, is actually a Mexican god. Or more precisely a Oaxacan god. Or at least we think it is.

Living in Oaxaca for a whole winter, last year, we’d go down the main pedestrian street once a week and distribute the monedas we accumulated over the week, to the various accordion players, to the grand-mothers sitting on the cobbles with their grandchildren asleep in their arms, to the little girls selling bracelets, to the little boys selling hand-drawn doodles… And one of these was the Borobor man, who’d give one half-hearted push-pull on his out-of-tune accordion and say Borobor. One push-pull, Borobor. And while it took us several weeks to decipher that what he was saying was in fact Por Favor, by then it no longer mattered. Borobor had already stuck.

Borobor, whose temple might as well be airports around the world, for how often we stand there, rocking back and forth, hugging each other next to the luggage belt, saying ‘Borobor Borobor Borobor…’ under our breaths. On this trip alone? San Francisco, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Medan, Yogyakarta, Waingapu, Jakarta, Mexico City. And although most of our prayers to Borobor concern our bicycles making it safe and sound to whatever airport we happen to be visiting, Indonesia made sure Borobor never left our hearts and mouth for too too long.

And of all the Borobor moments of the trip, the award of the #1 most nail-biting Borobor moment of the trip goes to….

Standing in line at Immigration in the Denpasar Airport, in Bali, 15 hours after flying out of Denpasar Airport, in Bali. You wouldn’t think there would be so much space between the Denpasar Airport and the Denpasar Airport, but it took me two flights to get to stand here again. One flight to Kuala Lumpur Airport, Malaysia, a 2-hour wait at Immigration, a mad dash through the airport to catch a flight back to Denpasar Airport, Indonesia. And all this, only to renew my Indonesian Visa. But the crux of the whole Visa Run has yet to take place. So even though it looks like I’m just one more tourist waiting in line to enter Indonesia, I’m not. What I am is counting heads. Performing some complex mental arithmetics. Dividing the amount of tourists in line by the amount of Immigration Officers. Taking the amount and multiplying it by the 6 minutes each transaction takes on average. Then, taking this new total and adding it to the time on my watch, plus 1 hour to account for the difference in time zones between Malaysia and Indonesia. And all this to see if I will make it even just 1 minute, Borobor Borobor, even just 30 seconds, Borobor Borobor, after midnight, so that it is theoretically the day after the exit stamp on my previous visa. Which pretty much amounts to hocus-pocus. Because, theoretically, in performing a Visa Run, you are meant to stay out of the country for a few days until your Visa expires, so that they don’t just let you in on the old one. But while we’re in hocus pocus land, I decide to work some further voodoo. Pretending like I’m just trying to kill time, I subtly open my passport and riffle through the pages until I reach the page with the old Visa sticker on it. Then, yawning like I’m just trying to kill time, I start to scratch with my thumbnail to unglue the edge of the Visa sticker. Not too too much, though. No. I don’t want it to look like I did it on purpose, see? But also not altogether too little, so that it won’t stick. And, using the sticky exposed corner, I carefully press the two pages together. Then, I fold my passport closed and use all the strength in my fingers to compress the two pages together. All this while making a normal face, like ‘This is just how people hold a passport in my country.’ even though, the veins in my neck and forehead are probably popping out with the tremendous pressure I’m applying. Anyway, by now, I’m in that sleep-deprived sweaty adrenaline limbo wherein everything seems to enter the category of ‘Can’t hurt.’ That limbo wherein nothing makes sense, which means anything goes. So, fuck it, I’m also rehearsing scenarios in my head. Rehearsing what I’ll say if I get caught. Rehearsing as though I have to walk through the living room of my house with my parents sitting on the couch watching a movie and I’ve smoke just enough marijuana not to notice how painfully obvious just how much marijuana I’ve smoked is; but also not too too much marijuana that I’m not also feeling daring, wild, and generally footloose.

And all the while the line in front of me is moving, and I have to wipe sweat out of my eyes to read the numbers on my watch, which, despite all odds seem to indicate that midnight might just be mine. But by now, another calculation enters my mind. This is the calculation: Of the 5 Immigration Officers, 4 look like what you’d think they look like. Like someones so in love with their own power that they have to counteract it by looking extremely bored, so as not to accidentally break out in bouts of wild maniacal cackling.

Meanwhile, shining like a golden penny at the bottom of a murky well, is Immigration Officer #5. A man of slightly flamboyant character, a bit dopey and with an auntly streak. And that’s when it starts. There’s only really a handful of tourists in line in front of me, so every time he says ‘Next’, with a smile, Borobor Borobor; every time he flips distractedly through a passport, Borobor Borobor; every time he spends too much time on an anecdote he thinks is really funny, Borobor Borobor.

I look down at my watch. Borobor Borobor. Midnight. Borobor Borobor.

‘Next please!’

Not the right Immigration Officer. Immigration officer #3. Desperate, I keep my eyes on #5, like I never heard the call. Like he’s a wooden skewer and I’m a desperate little piece of chicken that really wants in, that really thought it through and wants in on the whole Satay experience; a little piece of chicken that wants to belong, for just once in its life, to something, anything; a little piece of chicken that’s already seen 4 skewers go by and knows that #5 is the one, because a plate only just contains five skewers, so if it could only just hop on #5… The guy behind me taps on my shoulder. I turn around. Real slow. He points at the next-please officer. Officer #3. And I know I’m done for. Borobor Borobor. In that moment, I know I’m done for. Borobor Borobor. But there’s nothing for it now. Borobor Borobor. So, I turn back and take one last look at my #5 guy. Borobor Borobor. And see him smile back at me. What? Yes. Making a face like Dumb and Dumber had a baby and that baby was me, I step forth, ignoring Officer #3, and head straight for #5. And with every last milligram of charm I possess, or at least, juju powers of distraction, I start working on him. And I work him good. Or at least I think I do, because all I can think is Borobor Borobor. He accepts my passport, riffles through it. ‘Wow, whoowee, is it always this hot in the Airport?’ Borobor Borobor. I see the two pages stay stuck together. ‘Oh my, that’s about the best most funny thing I’ve ever heard!’ Borobor Borobor. He finds the new Visa Sticker I just bought, stamps it. ‘Oh wow yes, we wouldn’t want that to happen now would we?’ Borobor Borobor. ‘I’ll certainly keep that in mind!’ Borobor Borobor.

And then, I’m through. What just happened? Just like that. And it feels like I pulled off the heist of the century within the heist of the century. Like I got away with something within something. At 1am, I open the door to our hotel room. Sit on the edge of the bed next to Ceci. The wincing springs in the bed wake her. And I must still have my Dumber than Dumb face on because she sits up and asks, ‘Qué pasó?

‘Remind me to give a few monedas to the Borobor man, next time we’re in Oaxaca.’


There is so much generating of momentum involved in getting these trips rolling. All there really is is an idea, at first. Which is no mechanism at all. Only fuel. The endless planning, logistics, and problem-solving are only just the blueprint. It takes relentless faith and hours of work to turn this blueprint into any kind of workable trip. And by the time the trip starts, nothing is yet won. In Sumatra, the entire trip lay ahead of us like an immoveable weight, like an overloaded handlebar bag, like a headwind. We needed to push and push and push constantly just to get the journey out of inertia. But it’s such a mammoth of a thing that, at first, it only barely budged. But then, for brief interims at a time, it would let itself be coerced, so that by mid-Sumatra, we could hop on, from time to time, ease off a bit and still move along. By Java, the trip really began to garner a momentum of its own. Our physical condition began to match the challenges thrown at us. The experience of cycling across Indonesia switched from ‘Can we do this?’ to ‘We can do this.’ Our capacity to enjoy, to assimilate, to control, to adapt, all reached their peak in Java and in Bali. By which time, the momentum the trip was gathering was such that we barely noticed, in Lombok, when, ‘We can do this.’ changed to ‘We’re doing it!’ We were still throwing extra challenges in the mix, here and there, like crossing Lombok in a day, just to test ourselves, and to enjoy the fitness we’d invested so much effort into achieving.

By the end of Lombok, we were still cruising, but a shift began to occur, whereby our capacity to zone out effort, to zone out the suffering, to zone out the miles, began taking over for the energy and verve we no longer possessed. Although we couldn’t have known at the time, we were rolling mostly on momentum. So that, by the time we crossed into Sumbawa, still confident in our capacity to ride on pure fitness, we were unknowingly digging ourselves into a hole. This was to be our biggest cycling week of the trip: 684km with 7,345m of uphill. But, what’s a 7-day week when you no longer take any breaks? By the time we finished Sumbawa, we hadn’t taken a day off since Bali, 9 days before. When we hopped on the ferry to Flores, we were running on mere fumes. And the ferry misadventure was the perfect experience to milestone the lowest point of the trip.

By the time we got rolling in Flores, the momentum of the trip slipped out of our hands, entirely. Most of the trip lay behind us now, pushing us along like an unstoppable force, like an overloaded saddle bag, or a tailwind, and we were only just hanging on by our nails and teeth. We had no other choice but to relinquish the reins and enjoy the ride as one enjoys a wild dream: as though it’s happening to someone else. By the time we rode from Riung to Ende, a 129km day with 1,666m of uphill, and the hottest day of the whole trip, the hole was at its deepest. It became hard to process things in real-time. Survival mode kicked in. Type 2 fun started to slip into type 3 (I.e. Only worth the anecdote afterwards.) We began accumulating experiences at a speed far greater than our capacity to assimilate them and adapt. The trip started to compress into a denser and denser experience, succumbing to the extreme pressures of momentum. It soon became merely a matter of aligning the trip in the right direction so as to achieve what we wanted to achieve in the time we had to achieve it.

In Sumba, we relaxed a bit and began looking back, which was a tremendous mistake. ‘We’re doing it!’ became ‘We did it!’ a bit too prematurely, a fact we would soon pay for in spectacular fashion. No longer able even just to hang on, the momentum of the trip began dragging us behind it, like Hector behind Achilles’ chariot. Like our bikes somehow flipped and now we were careening backwards, stupefied and stumped by even the smallest obstacle in our way. Sumba became the harshest mistress of the whole trip. Most days having twice the uphill indicated on the maps. The roads in impossibly challenging conditions, or ending in the middle of nowhere, dogs attacking us at every turn, locals becoming increasingly intimidating. By day 3 on Sumba we were out of commission, being dragged by our bikes through the gravel and the mud. By day 4 we could not even sit. We could not even sit. Never mind on our bike saddles. We couldn’t even sit on a chair. On a chair. That’s how little we could support the weight of our bodies. And by day 5, we were done. Mentally, physically, and geographically. We went down a runaway lane of exhaustion, that even still, as I write this, 2 weeks later, we’re still trying to dig ourselves out of.

As with any cycling trip, the incredible density of experience takes often longer to parse through and decipher than the length of the trip itself. And as the memory of suffering fades with time, it often happens that Ceci and I look back and struggle to understand just why the trip was so incredibly challenging.

Which, consequently, is usually about as much amnesia as we need to start thinking: where to next?


Take a ladder. Any ladder will do, but it has to be long. Plant it into the ground at sea level, and make sure it stands straight up towards the sky. Strap a 20-kilogram bicycle to your back, loaded with about 30 kilograms of stuff that you’ll need to survive the journey. Now, spit in your hands and start climbing. Every rung is about 30 centimetres apart so it takes about 1,276 rungs to reach the top of Autograph Tower, the highest building in Indonesia. Don’t get too attached, however, because we’re only getting started here. It takes 7,763 rungs to reach the height of mount Bromo, in Java. Another 1,467 rungs will get you to the rim of Ijen where the sulphur miners work. But, let’s say today is a good day and you decide to make a push for it. Climb, climb, climb. And by 29,496 rungs, you’ve reached the summit of Everest. Quite the accomplishment, indeed. But, now that you’ve come this far, there’s a little voice in the back of your mind that itches to know how high you can reach. Taking it one rung at a time, you soon find that you’re able to get into a trance-like state that allows you to zone out the tedium of repetitive work. And besides the views are breathtaking. Literally. The air is getting thinner and colder with every rung. Luckily for you, most of the 30 kilos of gear on your back is occupied by a top-of-the-line Allegorical Suit 3000. Which will come in handy because by 40,000 rungs you’ve reached the highest point at which commercial flights can fly. So pull it out, pull it on, pressurize it, and climb on. By 50,000 rungs you leave all clouds behind, even the highest cumulonimbus formations. You reach the Armstrong limit at about 63,333 ladder rungs, the point beyond which humans officially cannot survive without a pressure suit. And now, it’s time to say farewell to the Troposphere and Hello-Mister to the Stratosphere.

As you begin your journey through the ozone layer, a weird phenomenon occurs. The weather starts to warm up. Your stiff muscles start to limber and you push on upwards, past weather balloons. By 176,666 you’ve reached higher than any balloon soar, manned or unmanned. You are buffeted by winds of up to 220km/h and whatever air that reaches this high literally freeze-dries. Time flies and the rungs blur into one. And soon, the temperature having risen from -51℃ to -15℃, you’re on your way out of the Stratosphere altogether.

You cross over into the Mesosphere, and it’s about all you’re able to give. The temperature plummets, it’s about -100℃ and you’re about halfway to space by now. And still, you push on with the last crumbs of energy you can muster. And then out of sheer stubbornness. Giving it your absolute best effort you reach the high water mark of 188,930 rungs.

Okay. Now, look down. The earth where your ladder is anchored is 57 kilometres below you. Fifty-seven kilometres. That’s how much closer to the moon and stars Ceci and I got during the trip. Yes, metaphorically. But still, 57 kilometres! Now, take a deep breath and take it all in. When you feel ready, unstrap your bicycle, straddle it and…

Let go.

Fifty-seven kilometres of free fall.

Fifty-seven kilometres of floating down mountainsides.

Floating down mountains is one of my favourite things we do together, Ceci and I. The whole trip, we would always make sure to wait for one another before the downhills began, so that we could ride together. Leaning into a curve, switching from leaning from one side to the other, lifting one foot and sticking out the knee, then the other, passing one another on the downhill, chatting, letting go.

We’ve soared to spectacular heights during this trip and glided down, weightless in the wind, drifting through Indonesia like clouds for 211 hours together, alighting our burden here and there across the land, then moving on. And even though eventually our feet met the ground again, and the trip came to a close, we can always look up at the clouds, like one looks up to a friend, and wave.


The rain. The rain.

There is something inherently moody about the rain. Atmospherical, with its variations of rhythms, the smell of worms, of petrichor, the shifting temperatures, the shifting winds, the shifting light, shifting textures, the resounding thunder, the flashes of lightning. Memories of rain take root in all the senses.

We met under the rain, Ceci and I. Walking in opposite directions, our paths were set to cross. Perhaps we would have simply waved to one another, perhaps not. There is no way to know, because at that precise moment, a torrential deluge fell from the sky and we both took cover under a pedestrian bridge. Huddled there, we exchanged a few words. How I was just arriving in Squamish, how Ceci was thinking of leaving Squamish. And then, as suddenly as the rain fell, the rain ceased. As though that was all the gods could manage to twist fate a little, to see what would come of this chance meeting. Then, we parted ways.

I’ll always remember that day, the smell of the rain on hot pavement, the swishing of the cars zooming past, Ceci’s accent, her chestnut eyes framed by her purple raincoat. And thinking to myself ‘She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Why does she have to leave?’ What Ceci thought, at that moment, is still the subject of much conjecture amongst the leading historian of our times. But I think it’s safe to say, it was something along the lines of, ‘I wonder what I’ll have for lunch.’ It would be my guess anyway.

And so, the moment came to pass and we parted ways.

Cycling through the Indonesian monsoon, under so much rain, 7 years later, felt like looking in on that fragile moment, again, as our paths were about to cross. A chance meeting from which, cycling together through the monsoon in Indonesia is by far the unlikeliest outcome.

And the rainier Indonesia got, the clearer our window into the past became, allowing us to look down on that most improbable of beginnings. Our beginnings. Until one day, the monsoon rains fell with such force that our window into the past swung open, allowing a brief deluge to fall down upon the scene of our first meeting. Forcing us to huddle under the bridge.

The rain. The rain.


Abi te lo regala.

We take it too far. It’s the thing we exceed in. Taking it too far. Not that it’s something we ever chose, or even entirely desire, but there, it’s the fruit of our conjoined characters. The trouble is these cycling trips strip the rust off the old machinery of taking it too far, and once you see all its moving parts in action, it’s really quite terrifying. There is no way of programming parameters into it. It just goes. Without it, there would be no crossing Indonesia. But once it gets going there’s no no crossing Indonesia. And we’re the ones that forget, the ones that press that shiny-looking button. After which, wheregoing is simply not something we control.

However, there’s taking it too far and taking it too far. That is to say, there is a way of taking ‘taking it too far’ too far. See, because it’s one thing to train for an event. But it’s quite another to return physical exercise to its ancestral role; that of survival. But these trips… they somehow manage to be the opposite of both. They slowly build up the body only to see how pretty it smashes. Like a piggybank. Or… or a soapbox race. Or like two piggybanks riding on soapboxes. You put so much into it, just to see what comes tumbling out.

Getting up every day before sunrise, regardless of how we feel, to pedal an average of 90kms with an average of 1,232m of uphill, to reach a destination regardless of the challenges in the way, regardless of adverse weather or road conditions; it has a way of swiftly turning some days into something altogether no conducive to health or well-being. On some extreme days, against all odds, you might just have enough small change in you to meet all the challenges head-on. But, more often than not, these extreme days take a whole lot more pennies and dimes out of you than what you have to give.

Until you are entirely too small for your own boots, and shrinking fast. The day chipping away at your inner-fortitude, until all that is left of your inner-self has been whittled down to the size of a little child. A little inner-child, operating a huge, rapidly failing soapbox. An inner-child whose moods are highly volatile, and who is as likely to ball-up and cry as to lash out in anger.

And sometimes, sometimes, it would happen that our empty piggybank and failing soapbox would be matched with an opportunity to better our circumstances. As modest, at times, as an Avocado Milkshake or a finely crafted bar of Indonesian chocolate; and as grandiose at times as a guesthouse whose sheets were not stained or torn or wet, exposing a mouldy bed or a mouldy pillow underneath.

These crossroads moments between the worst of times and the best of times, these opportunities to fix up the old soapbox and insert a few more coins in the piggybank, would often stretch on as we glance at each other with sad puppy eyes, humming and hawing all the while. Our inner-children unable to make up their minds. Unable, in fact, to do little else but look on in silent wet-eyed yearning or start fighting amongst each other. These luxuries, modest or grandiose, would often start by being simply more than our budget allows, and swiftly progress into a cause for divorce.

On every previous trip, anyway. On this trip? I would simply smile and wrap my arm around Ceci’s drooping shoulders and say, ‘Abi te lo regala.’

As simple as that. ‘Abi gifts it to you.’ A few magic words that never failed. Abi, in those moments, transcending from being Ceci’s fabulous grandmother, into something altogether saintly or guardian angel-like. In one fell swoop, saving our matrimony and taking our exhausted inner-children under her motherly wing.

Yet one more way Ceci’s grandmother manifests in myriad little details of our lives. Little details such as newspaper clippings of specific interest to Ceci and I. Or a long-lost pin of Ceci’s grandfather, sporting both a Mexican and Canadian flag, thereby foreshadowing our eventual and, indeed, inevitable meeting. Or a little message saying that she read all my stories and has written down some questions to ask me next time we see each other. Or a photo of a painting in her house, a Cuban landscape with a small house with a triangular roof in the bottom-right corner, which she sent us on a mission to find during our cycling trip to Cuba.

And now? These tiny little details to save us when we take it too far. Abi’s generous patronage of our trip coming in handy in the most crucial moments. Every time our little inner-children, operating the oversized soapboxes of our broken-down bodies, were on the point of complete mental and physical collapse; we would find ourselves suddenly in a halo of light. And, looking up we would find Santa Abi, Patron Saint of Lost Inner-Children, smiling down on us.

Every single sigh of relief in the whole trip, every bed with clean sheets, every good shower, every time a hotel would surprise us with a buffet breakfast, every express laundry, every kiosk that sold coconuts to drink in the middle of nowhere… were Abi’s little details at work. Which means Abi’s also behind every single time we had enough small change left in our emotional piggybanks to say, ‘You’re right, I’m sorry…’ or ‘Don’t listen to me, I’m just tired, that’s all.’

But, you know, I also suspect she somehow had a hand behind every spectacular sunset, every time the rain would hold off to grant us a view, every time the rain fell to cool us off, every time our destination was closer than we thought and every time Ceci was more beautiful than ever. All Abi’s little details. And every last one we sent a little prayer up to our Patron Saint, to our guardian angel, to our Abi.


‘At least they’re not lazy.’

These, are my grandfather’s words.

Making sense of the lives my brother and I chose to live is not an easy task for anyone. Including me. The world changes a lot in a lifetime, and the fifty-five-year gap between my grandfather and us, his grandsons, could not have produced a stranger earth. And yet, somehow, ‘At least they’re not lazy,’ sums it up perfectly for me.

There is something oddly comforting about finding just the right meaning for what you make of your life. Or perhaps, more accurately, what your life makes of you. Like pieces falling into place. All the incessant noise of existence, all the words we waste trying to make sense of life. All the inner-dialogue, the doubts, the anxieties of choosing an alternate path. They all suddenly fall away like dust. All the possible paths that life could take, become like silent trees next to a roaring river.

Finding just the right words, the few meaningful words to sum up everything neatly and concisely is the main reason people swim through the endless swamps of Tv series. It’s why we listen to the same song over and over and over, it’s that deep and satisfying feeling of someone somewhere putting their finger on exactly who you are. That inner-part of you that no one knows, perfectly expressed.

For me? ‘At least they’re not lazy.’

It might not sound like it to you, but there is a lot of love in these few words. It’s an acceptance, of sorts. Despite not quite understanding. It’s a sort of commendation, too. In a way, there’s a certain kind of faith in there also. However, what intrigues me most is how these few words, first meant as a concession to the wayward past and present selves of his grandsons, soon transcended into something altogether prophetic.

All my life, I can’t think how many times my grandfather would whisper to us, ‘Go and give the man over there some change.’ Street musicians, homeless people, man or woman, young or old; he would never pass on the opportunity to give. It was one of the many ways the world of before spoke to us through our grandfather. This humble nobility of his. His good-manners, class and intricately crafted code of honour.

All these virtues are present in ‘At least they’re not lazy,’ although I know that perhaps only I can see them. Because the truth is, with the years, my brother and I have always leaned closer in identity to that street musician or homeless man over there.

And when my grandfather passed away, we became the man over there. The recipients of his last nobility. Indonesia was a direct result of this last nobility of his. Indonesia was Ceci and I continuing the tradition of ‘At least they’re not lazy.’ in our own way. Willingly doing things that would make little sense to my grandfather just to make sure that, wherever he is, he’s still thinking, ‘Well, at least they’re not lazy.’

Last and perhaps foremost, Indonesia became an opportunity for Ceci and I to carry on the tradition of giving to the man over there. Paying his nobility forward, across the world, to the Wanita or the Pria over there.

Making all the Terima Kasih-s (Thank you-s), we’ve received throughout the trip, his to keep.

Throughout these articles, it has been my intention to explore different symbolic interpretations to the mega-diversity of experience possible in Indonesia. There are an infinite amount of little meaningful moments in a 3-month cycling trip. And every one of them is a worthy prism, offering different perspectives on our experience. Ceci’s reactions alone to the daily wonders we witnessed, on and off the bike, offer me infinite keys to unlocking the various complex themes of our trip. Indeed, most chapters begin with an exclamation of hers, as you’ll no doubt have noticed. But you’ve also lent me your imagination to contemplate life through the wheels of a shrunken bicycle, remember? And through a view-master. Through our star mechanic, Wili Wali’s point of view, through travel logs and—you’ve probably guessed where this is going—through Hello-Misters.

It was never exactly my intention to find an answer to the enduring enigma of the Indonesian Hello-Mister. Asking a question is often more interesting than answering one. Asking ‘Why Hello-Mister?’ was an open invitation to share in our daily confusion on the matter. And yet, writing this last chapter about my grandfather, allowing him to become the last prism of meaning for the trip; the truth, as often happens, arose naturally.

See, because Hello-Mister was my grandfather’s old trick. Being a man of the world, and well-educated, when meeting someone whose face or name he could not remember, he would always say, ‘Bonjour Monsieur, comment allez-vous?’ Hiding his temporary lapse of memory with a well-placed and indeed, respectful, Monsieur.


So, if you’ve made it this far with us, along the journey, please lend me your imagination, one last time, to allow this tiny little symbolic truth of mine to take shape in your mind. Hello-Mister. All those tens of thousands of smiling faces greeting us all along our challenging journey, lifting our spirits at the most difficult times, making us smile back, in return, making us laugh… All those Hello-Misters were his. Were him. My grandfather’s old trick at work again. His way of politely skirting the fact that he’s not sure which one of his twin grandsons I am, with a handy and well-placed Monsieur.

Classy, to the very end. And, although it’s difficult for me to understand the path you’ve chosen, as a last goodbye, these tens of thousands of greetings; I will say this: at least, you’re not lazy.

Au revoir, Monsieur Provost.

Merci pour tous les Bonjour-Monsieurs.


Island Totals (Uphill-Distance-Uphill/100km)

Sumatra: 10,960m – 1,066km – 1,028m/100km

Java: 9,560m – 693km – 1,379m/100km

Bali: 6,747m – 423km – 1,595m/100km

Lombok: 4,363m – 304km – 1,435m/100k

Sumbawa: 3,271m – 400km – 817m/100km

Flores: 12,205m – 639km – 1,910m/100km

Sumba: 6,230m – 490km – 1,271m/100km

Trip Totals

Indonesia: 56,679m of uphill/downhill – 4,155km – 1,364m/100km

Average Uphill: 1,232m/day

Average Distance: 90km/day

Total Time on the Bike: 211hours

Daily Time on the Bike: 4.6hours/day

Most Notable Days:

Most Uphill:

Day 2 – 2,582m – Bukit Lawang -> Berestagi
Most Distance:

Day 30 – 144km – Pantai Aqila -> Bima
Longest Uninterrupted Climb:

Day 14 – 1,919m – Malang -> Bromo

One Comment Add yours

  1. Maarten says:

    Thanks for sharing! A good mental preparation for our next (slightly less hardcore) bike trip starting in 2 days : )

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s