The taste of the city was on my lips. Our flipflopped feet were black from pollution, dust, dirt and grime. Another fleet of motorbikes zipped past us, like bullets in a warzone, and I took another breath of hot, smoky air. I looked over at Michael. He was holding our sign “GILIMANUK” behind him, as he plodded along, in the hope that a driver would feel some pity for a couple of reddened travellers, coughing on the exhaust fumes.
We had arrived in Indonesia from Australia seeking adventure, seeking danger, seeking stories to tell back home and forever after. Our challenge: to hitchhike home to the U.K in time for Christmas. That’s 20,000 km through 20 countries in 100 days.
On the day we departed Australia, the official government advice website for tourists, recommended travellers to “reconsider the need to travel” to Indonesia and gave the country the second-highest danger rating, just below “DO NOT TRAVEL”.
Over half of the surface area of the 17’000 islands, scattered across the equator between Australia and Malaysia, is covered with jungle. With 400 active volcanoes and an average of three daily earthquakes, it’s as if Mother Nature herself has set up an obstacle course across the Indian Ocean, daring Australians to get to Asia.
As soon as we set foot in Denpasar airport, Bail, we were but a few hundred kilometres from the great Mount Tambora, responsible for the biggest eruption in recorded history: an 1815 catastrophe that was heard in Perth 6’000 km away, causing a 2-day sunlight blackout as far as 600 km away. The great eruption changed global temperatures for the following year, the infamous “year of no summer”.
Proponents of geographical determinism, the theory that claims that the personality of a population is formed by the area in which they live, could point to Indonesia as a fair example. The tumultuous isles still bare the scars from what the CIA deems “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century” when 500,000 people were massacred in the wake of a political uprising. More recently, in the decade since the turn of the 21st century, Indonesia was subjected to 24 separate terrorist attacks, the worst of which being the 2002 Bali Bombings, the death toll of which reached 202 people.
Indonesia, the 4th most populated country in the world, is crammed with 500 ethnicities speaking 700 languages living among the second richest biodiversity on the entire planet (after the Amazon). Whilst “United in Diversity” is the national moto, it hasn’t always been so rigorously followed.
If you’re looking for adventure, danger and intrigue then look no further than the one country where the great explorer Marco Polo, so often charged with exaggerating his tales, didn’t have to do so. This is the one part of the world were the dragons are real. All we’d seen so far since we’d landed, however, was traffic and plenty of it. The island of Bali looks a bit like a stingray. Denpasar airport is in the south, the top of the tail. Our objective was to head west, to the port town of Gilimanuk, 130 km away, on the tip of the stingray’s fin. Although this was shorter than the 200 km per day we needed to get home for Christmas, we were happy to aim for 130 km on the first day. Besides, we’d be able to make it up the next day when we were due to be on Java, the main island of Indonesia.
“That’s not going to work”, I said to Michael. He was still holding the sign up behind him as we walked. Due to the fact that between us I had the most experience of hitchhiking (having done it once), I was the (self)appointed “expert”.
Just then a car pulled over.
“Rich! This could be it!” Michael gasped, nudged me.
“See, I told you it would work,” I said to him, as we scampered up to the car.
Michael stuck his head into the passenger window as I hummed “hi ho hi ho it’s off to hitch we go” (to the tune of the Dwarfs song in Snow White) behind him.
“Hello!” he cried.
“Hey, you wanna a ride to Ubung,” said a cool looking bloke, with tattooed arms, a big smile and a slight American twang to his accent. I clocked a Swastika hanging from his rear-view mirror and I hesitated for a second before getting in, but I twigged it must have the Hindu version and we jumped in the car.
“So, what’s your name?” asked Michael, sitting in the front.
“My name’s Mambo,” he replied, still smiling. Maybe the heat was getting to me because I embarrassed myself and Michael almost immediately.
“Ah”, I chuckled “….like Lou Bega! You know? Mambo Number 5?”
Lou Bega?! I cringed why the hell did I just reference Lou bloody Bega?! I saw Michael grimace at me in the mirror. I sat back in my seat, lips pursed in silent apology.
Thankfully, I don’t think Mambo heard me, or perhaps he’d just chosen to ignore my remark. Michael cleared his throat to break the awkward few seconds of silence.
“You speak fantastic English,” he said. “Have you been to England or America maybe?”
“Oh thank you very much. I haven’t been to England or America but I’d like to. I learned my English working on cruise ships”
“Oh really? I applied for work on the cruise ships when I was in New Zealand but I didn’t get the job. Must have been the hair!” said Michael, grasping a clump of his mangy locks.
“You look like John McEnroe!” replied Mambo, laughing with Michael.
“You cannot be serious!” I said in my best American accent, as I leaned forward, but the car fell deathly silent once more.
Tough crowd, I thought, folding my arms. I took the opportunity to check the map. Ubung was only 26 km from the airport and we’d already walked 15 km, so it was only a short trip. Ubung sits on the main road in Bali though, the road that connects the south to the west.
My ears pricked up and I joined the conversation that Michael was having with Mambo. Having explained what we were attempting to do, and that he was our first ride, Mambo thought about it, raised his eyebrows and replied,
“You guys will find it difficult to hitchhike here. The police fine locals who pick up foreigners”
“What is Indonesian for ‘hitchhike’?” Michael asked.
“Urrm, we don’t have a word for it here, not that I can think of”
Although our optimism was slightly dented, we felt great to have been picked up. Sure, hitchhiking was apparently illegal in Indonesia but the fact that we’d just been picked up confirmed that it wasn’t impossible…
We hoped out at Ubung and joined the biggest road in Bali. The amount of traffic intensified ten-fold. It was all bumper-to-bumper, stop-start, except for the motor bikes, which darted around the bigger vehicles. The noises of the beeping horns, roaring engines and screeching brakes were incessant, as was the heat beating down upon us.
We felt confident, though, that with so much traffic, statistically at least, the odds were in our favour. I was sure that someone would stop, out of curiosity, kindness, perhaps pity. But noone did.
We walked with our sign for Gilimanuk, imploring the slow moving vehicles to pull over but to no avail. After about 10 km more, the bouncy pace of the enthusiasm-imbued first half of the day had been replaced by a weary shuffle. The sweet chill of Mambo’s aircon was a distant memory and I was starting to think about accommodation for the night. The traffic had thinned by now. Though heavy, it was no longer bumper- to-bumper. We were walking up a hill and I heard an engine straining, approaching us from behind. I turned around and saw a slow moving truck, the first vehicle I’ve seen to drive with a limp, edge past us and creak to a standstill a few metres ahead. The exhaust pipe spluttered and hacked black smoke. A dark viscous liquid oozed out. As the driver had pulled over, a huge tailback of traffic, which had been following up the hill, overtook him.
“Do you think he’s stopped for us or do you think he’s just letting the cars past?” I asked Michael.
“Let’s find out” he replied.
We caught up and saw the driver. He waved us in to his truck and we both hopped in the front, exchanging covert low five as we did so. The driver’s name was Ketuk and he spoke a bit of English. A receding hairline belied his youthful face. He was headed to Petkutatan, about half way between the airport and Gilimauk.
“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 repeated the question 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 somewhat 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, darkness had fallen and 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. He could speak some English, so we were able to have a reasonably good conversation with him. He said his name, but I didn’t quite catch it. I think it was close to “Gary”.
“Come!” said Gary, offering his plate with twinkling eyes, “Sit with me. Eat with me.”
We politely declined his food, but sat with chatting nonetheless.
“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”.
Gary did so and Ketuk bowed his head for a second in recognition.
“Could you ask him what’s in the back of his truck?” asked Michael.
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 feelings of apprehension and curiosity within me, but just when I was going to ask him again, another plate of food, an interesting rice dish with fried vegetables, that Gary had ordered before we arrived, was served. We said our goodbyes and jumped back into the van. We continued on our journey in silence, magnifying a mounting suspicion I had in my mind. Ketuk’s rickety truck turned down a dark, deserted side-road. There were no street lamps anymore. The only light we could see were the headlights of the truck. Shielding my reflection with my hand on the dusty window, I peered out into the black jungle that bordered the road, straining my eyes to make out what was there. All I could see were trees and bushes blustering restlessly in the hot evening wind. It had been a long day and my eyes felt dry and ached for sleep.
I sighed as we pulled up on a driveway of a house. There were no neighbours, just the house. In the garden, I saw a gang of men 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.
Never before have I felt anxiety evaporate so quickly. We shook the hand of every smiling man there, often two at a time, whilst accepting offers of cigarettes and beer from all angles. 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 laughed.
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 the beds from another little room with a cold tap. We sat down on our creaking beds and a thing, an insect I guess -it looked like a cockroach, except far bigger, big enough for me to able to see the expression on its face -it scampered out from under my bed and outside into the muggy night.
Micheal and I exchanged a glance as we dabbed our filthy, sunburn faces.
It begins, we thought, The adventure begins.