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 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?”
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.