After about 10 km more, the bouncy pace of the first enthusiasm imbued 11 half of the day had been replaced with a weary shuffle.
A slow moving truck, the first vehicle I’ve seen to drive with a limp, creaked to a standstill ahead of us. The exhaust pipe spluttered and hacked black smoke and a dark vicous liquid. As he’d pulled over, the huge tailback of traffic overtook him and we weren’t sure at first if he’d pulled over for us or to let the multitude of cars pass.
The driver’s receding hairline belied his youthful face. His name was Ketuk and he spoke a bit of English. Thankfully, he was headed a lot further than we first requested, all the way to Petkutatan, 64 km away.
“So what´s in the back of your truck?” asked Michael, trying to make some conversation. Ketuk´s countenance seemed to change: his cheerful disposition darkened and his lack of response hung heavily in the air. Thinking that perhaps he hadn’t been heard or understood, Michael asked his question again but the driver´s grizzly gaze remained on the road ahead. We left the subject alone for the time being, but whenever the conversation returned to the contents of his truck, or indeed the purpose of his journey, Ketuk’s grasp of English seemed to mysteriously dissipate.
“Guns or drugs“, I whispered to Michael from the corner of my mouth.
“Sex slaves,” he replied, looking happy at the idea. He even showed me he had his fingers crossed.
I nudged him with my elbow. “What the hell would a sex slave dealer want with a couple of random hitchhikers who are 20´000 km away from home?” I hissed.
“Maybe he needs some guys to test out the sex slaves?” said Michael.
“Maybe we are the sex slaves” I countered.
Michael cleared throat and directed my attention away from him with his eyes. I straightened my posture away from my friend and realised that Ketuk´s eyes were fixed firmly upon us with the kind of look a disgruntled father would give to his misbehaving children.
When we were half way to Pekutatan, once darkness had fallen, we stopped off for a drink at a cafe on the side of the road. It had an open shop front with an array of colourful foods and drinks on offer.
We met a young lad of about 17 or 18 that looked a bit like a teenage Gary Coleman, mainly on account of his huge smile. He could speak some English, so we were able to have a reasonably good conversation with him.
“Could you translate something for us to Ketuk?” I asked him
“No problem,” he replied.
“Could you say ‘thank you for your generosity, you are very kind. What is in the back of your truck?’”
Gary asked Ketuk what we wanted but instead of giving us the answer, the two Balinese had an animated five minute conversation in Indonesian. Their elaborate, inexplicable hand gestures incited a burning sense of apprehensive curiosity within me, but just when I was going to ask him again, the food that Gary had ordered before we arrived, an interesting rice dish with fried vegetables, was served.
“Come!” said Gary, offering his plate with twinkling eyes, “Sit with me. Eat with me”
We thanked Gary for his generosity, something we would get used to doing time and time again with Indonesians, but we declined his offer and went on our way to meet whatever fate Ketuk had in store for us. We continued on our journey in silence.
With the seeds of trepidation sown in our suspicious minds, they started to germinate when Ketuk’s rickety truck turned down a dark, deserted side-road. There were no street lamps anymore. The only light we could see were those from our old truck. They flickered in vain out into the darkness and we strained our eyes in an attempt to make out what was outside.
Shielding my reflection with my hand on the dusty window, I peered out into the black jungle that bordered the road. All my weary eyes could see were sinister looking trees and bushes blustering restlessly in the hot evening wind. It had been a long day and my eyes felt hungry for sleep.
I sighed as we pulled up outside a house to see a gang of men were sitting around a flickering fire drinking beer and laughing with each other. Four or five motorcycles were scattered nonchalantly in the driveway. I shared a quick look with Michael and we hopped out of the truck. The men saw us and approached our vehicle.
Happily though, the only thing they were eager for was to greet us and our paranoia was instantly evaporated by their smiles. We shook the hand of every man there, sometimes two at a time, whilst offers of cigarettes and beer were shot from every direction.
It wasn’t long before we were motioned onto the back of a scooter, the three of us, plus luggage.
“It’s a good job we packed so light”, Michael smiled.
We wobbled along on the struggling scooter, back up the deserted road and into Pekutatan, a small town right on the beach. Ketuk took us to a tiny guest house owned by a little old laughing woman. She had a rag tied around her head like a rapper and when she smiled, which was always, the creases of her face closed her eyes.
Our humid room had two single beds and a curtain separating them from a room with a cold tap in it. We sat down on our creaking beds and a thing, an insect I guess, it looked like a cockroach except far bigger, scampered out from under my bed and outside into the muggy night.
It begins, we thought, as we dabbed our filthy, sunburnt faces. The adventure begins.