Oceans apart 10/31/2011Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bad drivers, bule, indonesia, pollution, traffic
It occurs to me that the only real danger in this world is wanton stupidity, and by that measure Indonesia truly is perilous.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been blessed to cross paths with some wonderful people, forming friendships that will last long after my trip has ended. To be invited into their homes, to be showered with gifts and well-wishes has been a privilege. But an incidental one.
All I wanted, all I ever asked of anyone, was to be treated with respect. They did, and it’s for that reason that I’m forever thankful.
I met these people every single day and I’ve no doubt they represent the majority of Indonesians. More the pity, then, that their kindness has so often been stampeded by the cretinous few.
Usually I find these louts lazing away entire days by the roadside, their stained shirts pulled over doughy midsections like some sort of halter top perversion.
When I bike past, they raise their heads just long enough to shout, “Bule!” – the Indonesian word for albino. A chorus of laughter then erupts from whatever sad company has congregated around the town crier, and I’m left wondering what on Earth I’m doing here.
I’ve travelled 40,000 km through 35 countries and only in Indonesia has anyone had the audacity to remind me of the colour of my own skin.
I refuse to ascribe this to a cultural quirk, like the Indonesian propensity to point and stare or the general disregard for personal privacy and space. My eye may twitch on occasion, but I can accept and even embrace these differences in etiquette.
Harassing a visitor with “Bule!” is something else entirely. It’s not cute and it’s certainly not funny.
It’s a blemish of monumental ignorance, and until Indonesians wipe it clean their country will never find a seat at the grown-up table on the world stage.
Equally frustrating and more imminently dangerous is the idiocy on Indonesian roads. Not a day goes by that I’m not forced off the pavement by an oncoming bus or lorry. I’ve literally been squeezed between two cars and nearly flattened by vehicles ignoring stop lights.
I get it. The highways are crumbling and traffic is extreme. Drivers can almost be forgiven for their treatment of the lowly cyclist. But what I cannot fathom is why no one behind the wheel seems to have any respect for themselves.
The risks they take defy all logic. There’s nothing adventurous about overtaking on a blind corner or skidding onto an opposing shoulder, nothing macho in screaming a motorbike through city streets choked with pedestrians.
It’s selfish, stupid, and the countless burnt-out wrecks that litter the ditches are a sad testament to the consequences.
But Indonesians never seem to turn their heads. They see only what is in front of them and their capacity to sever the link between today’s actions and tomorrow’s results is frightening.
It must be this feat of moral gymnastics that allows Indonesians to gleefully poison themselves. The callous indifference people have towards their environment is staggering and it has left the country on the verge of ecological collapse.
I’ve cycled through Lanzhou, the most polluted city in western China, and even it seems like lollipop land compared to this place. Here, thanks to puking vehicles and unchecked industry, the air is scarcely fit to breathe.
Garbage is thrown over shoulders and left to rot in the streets. Entire cities have become slop buckets of excess and waste. At night, when the stinking mass is set aflame, the sky takes on a nightmarish haze of yellow and death.
Whatever can’t be burned is dumped into the water or left to blow away. Inevitably this filth finds its way to the sea where it spreads across the shoreline, stitching a devil’s quilt of plastic bags, empty bottles and bloated fish.
That’s what I see. I don’t pretend to be an expert and I’m not about to start an argument on ethics. I’m just a guy on a bike, free to think about what lies ahead for Indonesia and its people.
Sometimes I wonder if the locals don’t have it right. Eyes forward is easier. Otherwise all I see is a shameful little footnote from an already toxic time.
One foot on the brake 09/20/2011Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: camping, indonesia, sumatra
Advice, a warning. I hear it from everyone. The day I arrived, a worried old man put his arm around me and whispered it in my ear. It was the first phrase I learned in Indonesian: be careful.
I’ve heard the same thing all over the world. That’s probably why I still struggle with it.
Too often people aren’t telling me to be careful at all. They’re only asking me to share their fear.
They’re mongers and I make no time for them. They would keep me from a lifetime of memories – faces and places stretching halfway around the world.
But there is another type of person, the one who isn’t afraid. They warn of real danger and are genuinely concerned for my safety. That’s advice I take very seriously.
In southern Thailand I was urged to avoid provinces racked by an insurgency. Car bombs are killing locals and foreigners. People show up in fields without their heads. Everyone told me to stay away, and I did.
The trouble with Indonesia is that I still don’t know if I’m dealing with fear or danger.
I asked a shopkeeper if wild camping was a good idea and he gave an emphatic no.
“Why? Will I get robbed?”
He nodded. “Maybe.”
“Oh. Will I get beaten up?”
Another time, a man grabbed my map and pointed out the roads I should take to avoid “the crazy people.”
“Like funny crazy?”
“Like Jihadist crazy.”
The fact is, most people here seem to think Sumatra is teeming with thieves and radicals. It makes an interesting story, entertaining in an Indiana Jones kind of way. The only problem is that nothing I’ve seen makes it true.
Most folks break into huge toothy grins when I wave hello. They arrange their friends around my bike for cellphone photos and happily sign their names on my pannier covers.
Almost daily, people surprise me with gifts of food or cold drinks. All I find out here is curiosity and kindness.
That’s my daytime experience. I know things can change after dark and I’m still not convinced that camping is wise.
To be safe, I’m asking to spend the night at police and fire stations along the way. I’m never refused.
A good friend once told me to have fun on this trip, but to always keep one foot on the brake. Right now, I think that’s the best advice of all.
Highway’s end 09/08/2011Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: camping, ferry, indonesia, singapore, visa
Spotlights on cold concrete and traffic to the sky – that’s how I imagined Singapore. In my head it looked a lot like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
On the ground, in the real world, Singapore is no less fantastic. All it lacks are my noir imaginings.
It’s ultra clean and efficient. Public transit is everywhere. Green space abounds and crime can’t be found. The people are often nerdy, always friendly and seem genuinely happy.
They’re also hell-bent on racking up karma points. I’ve had stacks of invitations for dinner. One kid plopped a bag of groceries in my hands because I let him take a picture of my bike.
And the best one, the kicker of them all: a few days ago I caught two guys stuffing money into my pocket. I protested but they flatly refused to take it back. They told me to buy new bike parts and then had me follow them to the nearest shop, just in case I got lost.
All they wanted was a handshake and a photo.
After some of the places I’ve been it’s hard to fathom a spot like Singapore. But it’s here and very much rooted in reality. Good thing, too. These days, that’s exactly where we need it.
I’ve stayed for a week, camping on the beach, staring at the water. Now it’s time to go. I have a two-month visa for Indonesia and a ferry waiting in the morning.
Wish me luck!
p.s. Thanks to my friend Juay for creating the YouTube video. Very cute.