One foot on the brake


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.

Mike on Bike with border guards in Batam as part of bicycle tour of Indonesia.

Entering Indonesia via Batam

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 asking me to share their fear – and I won’t. That feeling would keep me from a lifetime of memories, from 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 so 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?”

Bicycle on road to Rengat as part of cycling tour of Indonesia and southeast Asia.

The road to Rengat

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.

Mike on Bike with police officer near Kerinci as part of bicycle tour of Indonesia.

At the police station near Kerinci

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.


9 responses to “One foot on the brake

  1. HI,

    welcome to indonesia 🙂
    Sumatra island is quite undevelop compared to java. that’s why most of the people you’ve met will say that sumatra is dangerous and teeming with thieves and radicals. But some of that are based on facts of trucker being robbed on their way through remote sumatra roads. Just be carefull and keep an eye on your surroundings.
    Hope you have a great Journey here.

  2. Mike… pssst… mike… a bicycle doesn’t have a foot brake.
    I bet the SOB who told you those words of wisdom was hoping to see you careen into the side of a car while cycling down the street looking for the brake pedal on the bottom of the bike frame.

    Just thought you should know.

    Having said that, when I was a kid I used to jam my foot in the space between the top of the front tire and the back of the front fork while trying to ‘whip’ the frame of the bicycle 360 degrees around the stationary front tire. This move is called a “tail whip”. Look up a video online… It takes practice, but if you post a video of you doing it on your touring bike (with or without panniers), the first round of drinks when you are in the Yukon is on me.

    • Maybe *your* bicycle doesn’t have a foot brake. My ride is crafted from galvanized cheetah bones and assorted DeLorean parts. Foot brake, surround sound stereo, flux capacitor – it’s all there.

      • A bike made out of galvanized cheetah bones can have a brake any damn place it pleases.

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