26 - Island Cruise (Sumbawa, Indonesia)
“Drive on, it don't mean nothin'. My children love me, but they don't understand. And I got a woman who knows her man. Drive on, it don't mean nothin', it don't mean nothin' Drive on.”
by Mr. Nos T. O’Maniac
THE DRIVE FROM SUMBAWA BESAR to Bima was superb. Six and a half hours, two hundred thirty-three kilometers. The longest stretch to date. Mountain backdrops, seaside views, and emerald-green rice fields. I thought, This, you silly bastard, is why you bought the bike. And it was. Wide-open expanses allowed me to relax and enjoy the ride. Refreshing.
The Lonely Planet described the main road as “surfaced all the way and in generally good shape”. Close. Mostly surfaced. The sections that weren’t really weren’t. If I was lazy, I’d describe it as lunar in spots, but I’ve never been to the moon, and the cliché is, well, clichéd. Sections were bad, but they were the exception, not the rule.
Here’s my non-exhaustive list of perceived hazards: Potholes, bigger potholes, rock piles, sand piles, goats, horses, cows, monkeys, chickens, more goats, shadowy corners, potholes in shadowy corners, people sitting in shadowy corners, cidomos (horse-drawn carts), women on bikes stopping abruptly in potholes…in shadowy corners, and vehicles decelerating so occupants can wave hello.
The last one is a curiosity/smiling hazard. A small car with a family pulled up on my right (two-lane road, left-hand traffic) as if to pass, but shadowed me so everyone in the car could wave and snap a pic with the camera phone. It wasn’t the ill-advised maneuver that disturbed me (it should’ve); it was having to quell uncontrollable laughter that might lead to a “Dukes of Hazzard” catapult into oblivion. But you just can’t get angry when you’re smiling like the Cheshire Cat, can ya?
At a fuel stop, I inadvertently reactivated my cultural stun cannon. While waiting for an employee to refill underground fuel tanks, five locals (all male) stared vacuously for the ten minutes it took to complete the process. Pin drop. Record scratch. They stared. They kept staring. Not a smile to spare. It was as uncomfortable as it sounds. American on a Honda Phantom? Don’t see that shit every day. One gentleman broke radio silence long enough to answer my inquiry on an ETA for Bima, but only just. And then he kept staring. Were they curious? Indifferent? Homicidal? Dunno, but I kept my Spidey Sense in alert mode in case. Harmless? Probably, but I can’t say for sure.
The drive was so pleasant I couldn’t be bothered to stop for photos. And there were many, many opportunities. Only Mother Nature and a need to stretch my legs halted me on two occasions. I was enjoying the flow too damn much and didn’t want to pollute the mood by trying in vain to capture it. It’s too fucking easy to let reality unfold through a viewfinder.
My Sumbawa Surrender Protocol prescribed one night in Bima followed by a ferry to Flores the next morning. Fate intervened. An employee I befriended at the hotel in Senaru (Rinjani trek) referred me to his college friend living in Bima. He made the call while I was in Senaru and told him I’d get there eventually. After I arrived, I made contact and will be forever grateful.
Imin on the left.
The whole thing sounded a smidge dodgy, but I went for it anyway. Of course I did. Enter Imin, a twenty-three-year-old English teacher (primary school). He kindly offered to take me to his village, meet his family, and give me the local tour. I was reluctant. Not only because I had no clue what I was getting into, but because I had the persistent nag of forward motion. I had to get to Flores. And then I had to get to Komodo so I could hump a dragon. And then a boat to Java. And then back to Bali. And then on to…and then…and theeen……On my way. No time for delay. Can’t stay. Can’t play. Seize the day…hey, hey.
This sentiment is patently ludicrous. I knew it then, at least intellectually. A few days earlier, I was bummed about not being able to explore more of Sumbawa (terrible rural roads, somewhat fragile Phantom, etc.) and now I had a golden opportunity to do just that…with a guide…who spoke English. Wasn’t this the fucking point of it all? Dumb. Super dumb. Even half-way across the world and light years from reality, I couldn’t shake the civilized pressure to do and do and do. Less “do”, more “be”...mutha fucka! I was still a prisoner. Though invisible the shackles may have been, they were still there. Sound familiar? No? Open your eyes. Look around. Is this not how modern life has taught us to function? Auto-pilot. Default-mode network. We miss all the moments in betwixt. Pathetic, is it not? All those “in betwixt” moments constitute the bulk of our existence and yet we let them pass without a second thought. Dumb. Super dumb.
Back then I didn’t frame it this way, but the gist was there. I fought the compulsion to move on and agreed to Imin’s proposal to rent a car so he could chauffeur me around the area. I’m not sure which of us was more excited.
The night before my tour Imin brought me to a food stall for dinner. I have no idea what I ate. He wasn’t sure either. Mystery dinner with someone you’ve just met? Nice. In the dining area, there was a mirror and two combs hanging by the entrance. Ya know, in case ya need to primp? Imin felt the need. I cringed a little on the inside. Imagine the hygienic ramifications of a public comb hanging on the wall in a restaurant. Perhaps, I’m showing my ethnocentric colors but that doesn’t seem like a great idea…like ever.
I had yet to encounter another western tourist or any tourist for that matter. You might say I stuck out like a sore thumb—a six-foot, four-inch sore thumb glowing neon and covered in sparkling sequins. The attention was intense but nothing compared to what occurred the next day. Everyone was exceptionally friendly, but it was still a teensy unnerving.
By then, I’d come to understand describing Indonesia as “the most populous Muslim country in the world” can lead to certain assumptions. Considering recent history, many of those assumptions would not be favorable. It’s true, outside Bali and other random pockets, Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, but Islam is often just one layer in an intricate belief system that changes from island to island (Parts of Java and Sumatra being notable exceptions). It’s there, but not in your face. Maybe just a little in your ear. Prayers bellow from local mosques five times a day—the norm throughout the Muslim world. I’ve always enjoyed that sound.
My first exposure was in Bagdad while living on Victory Base Complex (Camp Slayer) near the airport. When I arrived in March 2006 the situation was particularly dire. The civil war was in full swing. There were constant IED explosions and reports of unspeakable atrocities, but you could still hear the imam sing. Poignant. Haunting. Beautiful. Tragic. You could close your eyes and almost pretend there wasn’t a living hell outside those walls. I wondered about the man singing. What was he like? His worldview? What about his followers? I would never know but that feeling of unrequited curiosity stuck with me, I think. I found it oddly comforting to hear that sound again, especially in a place not torn asunder by war and ethnic hatred.
After dinner, I gave Imin the money for the car rental and bid him good evening. Part of me thought, only half joking, Buh-bye. Never see him again. But I did. And what a day it was, an Election Day no less.
*Drone footage courtesy of Kamera Udara.