Indonesia – Merak to Merpas, Sumatra

Indonesia – Merak to Merpas, Sumatra
November 29, 2017 Tom Jarman

I’ve been travelling for over 3 years now and I have often received safety warnings from local people about a neighbouring city or country which as a rule I take on board, but don’t take too seriously. I usually find there is some underlying petty dislike between the areas so they try and downplay each other as areas not worth visiting. East Java was the first time that somebody looked at me a little funny when I told them I would travel through Sumatra on a bicycle, and then multiple times in Central Java and West Java. I was told of giant pythons capable of eating people, bears, tigers and pirates and it all seemed like the classic scaremongering. Whilst in Yogyakarta though, I had been flicking through the news when a story flashed up of a giant python being eaten in a Sumatran village after a man had managed to kill it when it attacked him, and Laura, the owner of the hostel in Jogja who used to work for a palm oil company urged me to be very cautious, saying she would never attend Sumatra without a security team. I decided I should probably listen a little more and do some research. After all, I aren’t cycling around the world with any intention of putting myself in danger.

I read of the wild wildlife, of a palm oil worker being found inside a giant python only a few months ago and even of multiple times that people had been held up and had their belongings stripped from their possession by the so called pirates. I asked each person that I met in Java for advice and the long and short of it seemed to be to avoid the North route, and avoid cycling at night which were two things I could definitely do. As well as this, there is something strangely enticing to an adventurous traveller about an area that somebody tells you is a little different or dangerous so I was looking forward to my journey into Sumatra although approaching it with more care than usual.

Sunset aboard the Merak – Sumatra ferry

Approaching Sumatra

The ferry took 2.5 hours to reach Sumatra in which time I reflected on what had been a wonderful adventure through Java and watched the sun rise beautifully over the island that I left behind. As we coasted in to Sumatra, several tiny islands with deserted beaches could be seen out to sea, surrounded by beautiful turquoise ocean. I disembarked and pedalled straight to the mini market. For the previous few days, I had been suffering from a bout of diarrhoea which had reduced my energy levels considerably and left me feeling very hungry. I bought a loaf of bread and some fried banana in a street stall with the hope that something would stop the rot and ate the lot before beginning up the steep hill that lead away from the ferry terminal.

It was only 8am but already very hot as I pedalled up the steep hill and struggled to top 8kph with my legs running at less than full power. What was much more pleasant though was that I had already noticed Sumatra is extremely quiet in comparison with Java and the air quality is a lot higher. There are gaps between the buildings, more jungle surrounding the road and fewer cars racing their way by which all makes cycling easier. Despite the fact I was sweating a lot, I was really enjoying riding through Sumatra and feeling a sense of adventure that had been there in rural Australia, but diluted in Bali and Java. The downside to the reduced population seemed to be a reduced need to build a decent road. I had finally completed the first steep climb coming out of the ferry port along a concrete panel road which had been constructed so that each panel didn’t quite butt up to the other. When I descended the other side at speed, I realised that the small gaps in the panels and the fact that they weren’t laid to allow a smooth gradient, meant that the ride was very bumpy and I was forced to slow down on the downhill sections which was unrewarding after a long climb.

Quiet Sumatra

The large hills soon retreated to the backdrop of the landscape and I pedalled through small villages along flatter terrain on a bitumen road surface. Unfortunately, the bitumen surface seems to have been getting pounded by trucks for many years so is either pot hole ridden or in other areas, patched up like a school boys first pair of trousers. I was greeted by the locals with a warmness I had not yet experienced as if they sort of appreciated my efforts of embarking on a journey through Sumatra on a bicycle as I bounced over the rough surface and I was made to feel very welcome and returned all hello’s with a wave. The retreating of the hills had also allowed a crosswind to blow which I had not experienced in Java. Even though this made pedalling slightly harder, it made the whole effort of cycling easier because it kept me much cooler than I had previously been which was much appreciated.

The retreating hills exposing rice fields and the beginning of palm

I stopped frequently for water in a bid to combat the effects of a dodgy stomach but still found myself with a perpetual dry mouth and general sluggish feeling. I stopped in at a mini mart again after 70km of scenic riding in strong sunshine and bought myself a sports drink, some more bread and a packet of spirit lifting mentos. I sat there for around an hour, taking in the views of the jungle and struggled to bring myself to pedal again. I had around 30km to go but it seemed like a long way and the usually uncomfortable steel chair I was sat in had begun to feel like a lazy boy recliner! I was eventually forced out of my chair by a dark black cloud on the horizon that could be seen lashing the mountainous land with heavy rain that I decided I didn’t fancy cycling in. As I pedalled towards the city though, the clouds caught me up and I began to get a cooling yet unwanted shower. Fortunately, as I climbed away from sea level, the rain relented and I soon dried off. I checked my map to see that I was 15km from my warmshowers hosts place and pedalled as hard as I could so I arrive and shower. Many people called out at me but I put the blinkers on and focused on getting the kilometres done. At one point, I saw somebody video recording me and calling out but again, I raced by. Fast forward 3km and a sweaty Rio turned up at the side of me shouting “Tom, Tom, Tom”. It had been my host waiting for me who had been shouting and I felt so guilty as he had been pedalling very hard in the heat to try and catch me up!

Once Rio had caught his breath, we cycled to his part of the town and to his friends shop where we drank coffee. I really wanted a shower but over the next 2 hours I was introduced to Rio’s large network of friends and the Bandar Lampung cycle community who would turn up and demand a lot of photos. I must have seemed like a poor guest but after pedalling 100km on a few days worth of bad stomach, I really wanted to rest and I was struggling to maintain enthusiasm for meeting more people and have more photos. I let Rio know and he then showed me where I could shower and sleep so I went to freshen up. It was only mid afternoon but before my head had hit the pillow, I was fast asleep.

I was woken by Rio at around 6pm and felt a good bit better. Rio brought me a really tasty but spicy dinner that I felt obliged to eat despite knowing that I would soon be feeling the consequences. We spent the evening in the same workshop and I decided that I would have a day off the following day to try and give my body some proper rest. I went back to bed again at 10pm and had no trouble in falling asleep, totally exhausted from the road.

Some of the Bandar Lampung cycle community. Rio on the left

After a day of limited rest in Bandar Lampung and still feeling a little ropey, I got back to it and headed towards Kota Agung where I would stay with a friend of Rio. I pedalled the first 15km with the Bandar Lampung cycle community before saying goodbye and leaving them on the edge of town. I was now heading to the West Coast of Sumatra and the cross wind I had experienced whilst riding to Bandar Lampung had turned into a relatively strong headwind with my change of direction. I descended a steep hill but was held up by the wind at 40kph and by the time I reached the bottom and the flat ground I was struggling to maintain 15kph. Fortunately the ride was beautiful, running through dense jungle with sparsely populated settlements and I got a good indication of what Indonesia would have looked like prior to people arriving. I concluded that in Sumatra, it is a road that runs through the jungle whereas in Java, it is more like towns that are backed by jungle as the trees have been cleared for the buildings.

Volcano in the distance waiting to be climbed

After a short section on flat road, I began a 60km climb over 4 and a half hours on a road that got gradually steeper as it climbed a volcano. The summit and higher areas of the volcano were out of view because a thick cloud hovered above the land and I knew that there would be a good chance of me getting wet as I continued to gain altitude. At the steepest part of the climb, the road was built in switchback style to reduce the gradient of the volcano sides and as I rode into the mist, the rain began to fall. At it’s heaviest, I took refuge under a shelter outside a mini market and when it lightened again, I put on my rain jacket and headed out. Only 1km up the road I saw a Nasi Padang and stopped in for lunch. I took a long lunch, knowing that I only had to go downhill to reach Kota Agung and hoped for the rain to stop. Unfortunately it didn’t and I left the restaurant in moderate rain. I quickly rolled away from the top of the volcano on a steep descent and for the first time in a long time, I felt a proper chill on my skin which was a welcome feeling. It didn’t last long though and I soon left the thick cloud at the top of the volcano and cycled in clear skies, seemingly hitting walls of air that got hotter as I approached sea level.

Arriving in Kota Agung, I received many long stares from the adults and screams of joy from the children as I cycled by. I found Johan’s home, situated deep within the town and was welcomed in by his wife. 2 hours later, Johan arrived home from work. He is a police officer and the first thing he asked me was if I had faced any trouble along the way. The only trouble I had faced was worrying that I was going to make a mess of my underpants but decided that this is probably not what he meant so told him that all had been fine, to which he looked a little surprised.

Johan and 2 of his children

Johan’s family were really light hearted and we enjoyed a good evening together, sharing dinner and then playing games in the living room along with a little musical jam session. The next morning, I left feeling a good bit better after a solid sleep and Johan travelled with me for the first 5km, following me on his motorcycle to work. When he reached his turning, he pointed out areas to be extra cautious on my map, thanked me for staying and wished me the best for my trip. It had worried me a little that even the local people were concerned for my safety rather than just people from other islands and I set out for the day with my guard up.

Leaving Johan’s

Doing that meant that I didn’t really interact with the locals as I cycled which has become one of my favourite things to do. Instead, I focused solely on getting the kilometres done and found the riding to be a bit of chore as the beautiful scenery went by almost unnoticed. After 30km along flat ground, surrounded by dense jungle, I began climbing into a national park. The first 10km were very steep and I slogged extremely hard on my pedals, not reaching over 6kph. My drive chain creaked at the high level of force being put through it yet my new found strength through a strict training regime set by the volcanoes of Java allowed me to power up the steep slope. I stopped regularly to catch my breath and was impressed by the scenery which improved with every metre of vertical gain. The climb into the national park though had meant that there were no houses around, no people at the sides of the road and very limited traffic. This was the area that Johan had told me to be extra careful in and I concluded that if I were to meet a “pirate” in this area whilst travelling at such low speed, there was not going to be very much that I could do about it. I kept my eyes peeled but wasn’t really sure what to look for because the only pirates I have ever seen have been on the front of cereal boxes and have a wooden leg, an eye patch and a couple of teeth missing and I couldn’t imagine them being like this!

Settlements reducing and the jungle growing

Climbing into the national park

The slight concern for my safety spurred me up the hill, so that I could feel at ease about exiting the national park and reaching civilisation. At one stage, a truck went by me tooting it’s horn and pulled up around 500m ahead. As I approached, one man stood facing me taking a pee and the other strolled around his truck with a machete and I thought to myself, “here we go”. Instead, as I got closer, I was greeted with a big smile by the man with the machete which I returned but chose not to return the full frontal that had been on view from his friend.

Towards the highest part of the national park, I cycled in very heavy rain which meant that even when I began to descend, I needed to travel slowly so that I could see where I was going as a wall of water scuppered the view. I gingerly made my way down the steep hills and finally reached the end of the national park, being greeted by a village full of smiling people, waving at me and shouting “hello mister”. I stopped in at the first Padang I saw for lunch and was feeling very hungry so ordered a lot of food as well as treating myself to a Sprite. The treat I didn’t order was the straw that came with the Sprite which was full of mould and I decided that the extra nutrients wouldn’t be necessary.

The reappearance of buildings

After lunch the riding was really tough. My endurance had been greatly reduced by my lack of ability to keep food in my system these last few days and the hard morning riding up into the national park had taken a lot out of my legs. The road was a collection of steep descents and ascents but I found that because of the very poor road surface, I had to travel slowly downhill which meant I had no momentum for the uphill sections and had to pedal the whole way. After a lot of complaining from my legs over 3 hours, I finally made it down to sea level and pedalled alongside the palm tree backed surf beaches in Lampung province. It was a welcome sight to see the ocean with the long surf waves and I felt energised by the views. I was greeted by most with a welcoming wave and “hello mister” or “bule” which was accompanied with a big smile and the bule shouts are definitely not made with the same intensity of Java. Here it almost feels like a term of endearment from most people. I even passed a football field with two teams of young children playing football, all in full kit. One saw me and began charging over to the edge of the pitch and with one, came the whole two teams, leaving the ball in the middle of the grass! All the children lined the side of pitch waving and shouting hello at me and I could do nothing more than wave back with a huge smile on my face at that special moment.

There were a minority however who’s mission seemed to make me feel as unwelcome as possible. I passed 1 family and a man pointed me out to his 2 son’s before they both threw stones in my direction and I also received two shouts of “fuck you mister” along with a middle finger gesture. Fortunately, these experiences were heavily outweighed by the warm greetings I got and I continued for the last 30km to Biha with a numb sensation in my legs, just spinning the pedals without feeling as if it is all my legs know how to do after months of riding most days.

I arrived in Biha feeling totally worn out and made my way to the police station. Upon arriving, the officer I first spoke to sort of sighed before saying “ok, so what’s happened to you” as if he expected I had a problem to complain about. His tone changed completely though when I told him I was fine and just looking for somewhere to sleep and after saying “welcome”, he pointed me in the direction of his boss. The boss was a very friendly man who said it would be no problem for me to rest there and whilst I took a bucket shower, he went off to the Gorengan (fried food stall) to pick up some snacks for us. On his return and with me feeling a good bit better after a wash, we polished off a huge bag of fried roti (similar to a donut and stuffed with sweet coconut), fried tempe, fried tofu and fried banana. We chatted about my trip and I also asked him some questions about working in the police here. He said that there is a minimum height requirement of 165cm for police officers in Indonesia and laughed at his friend who was apparently 164cm but somehow managed to sneak a 165cm measurement to qualify, at which he looked a little embarrassed.

Inside the station at Biha

Being in the police force in Indonesia seems like a pretty steady job. I find that most communities work together and I heard from people here that if a small problem is reported to the police, they question the person on whether or not they have talked it over with their family. If not, then they send them away to do so and will only act if the family cannot solve the problem between themselves. So, a lot of the times, disputes are settled without police interference which means that the police don’t often have too much work to do. They do however work long shifts and in this station, the officers I was with work three 24 hour shifts per week with those 24 hours being spent eating, drinking coffee, sleeping and laughing.

In the evening I became hungry again. I told the boss who took me to town on his scooter after telling me that going alone wasn’t the best idea. We went on the scooter without helmets as is often done in Indonesia and I asked the officer if it was law to wear helmets here. He said that it was the law, but because we were the police, it didn’t matter. Classic! As we rode down the road, other people on scooters could be seen riding with a helmet in hand and as soon as they saw us, they would quickly put it on their head and we would cruise by with our hair blowing in the wind.

The restaurant that the officer wanted to take me to was closed so he insisted that we go to his house for dinner instead. Here, I met his wife and two children and we all sat down on the ground eating together which was really nice although the young boys did struggle to eat with the distraction of a white person in the house. As always in Indonesia, there was no time to let the food settle and we set off straight away and headed back to the police station. We spent the rest of the evening with the other officers, crowded around a small TV watching a local game of football and then I went to bed around 9pm, sleeping like a log on the floor of the office.

The police station shower. This was quite a posh one compared to what i was used to!

I woke up around 5 and took a shower to freshen up before a day on the road. When I left the shower, the police officer had been out and bought breakfast for everybody along with some more fried goodies. We all had breakfast together and I left around 6.30am after a really pleasant night in Biha. I pedalled to Krui along a flat road and saw my first Western tourists in weeks! They were all surfer dudes and dudettes with their shaggy beach hair and surf boards tucked under their arms heading out to catch some sunrise waves and I got a few “g’days” as I rode past which was a pleasant change from hello mister.

As I continued, I pedalled through rice fields, backed by huge hills. The new rice paddies full of water reflected the blue sky and mountains almost perfectly and the fields that were ready for harvest glowed a healthy and lush green. It made for really nice pedalling but it was to be short lived as I soon left the ocean behind and began a series of sharp climbs and descents with a similarly rough road surface to that I had faced when riding from Kota Agung the previous day. As time wore on, the hills only grew and as the distance from the ocean increased, the breeze I received dropped making the riding feel very hot. I sweated a lot along the steep hills and saw a lot of construction work underway. At one point, I crossed a temporary bridge and then climbed a very steep hill on the other side. If it wasn’t hard enough, the road was currently being resurfaced and the tar was still hot and sticky so it was like pedalling with an extra 50kg on board! My tyres stuck to the road and the heat radiating from the ground was terrific. All of this provided a lot of joy for the workers who laughed at my situation but also cheered me on which spurred me to the top of the hill. Upon reaching the summit and the old surface, I found my tyres were still sticking to the road so I had to pedal on the gravel at the side for around 1km to dry the tar before I could roll freely again.

Rice fields leaving Krui

Shortly after, I was on my way back down to the ocean. The long and pedal free descent proved to be a real treat but nothing compared to the views that I was about to encounter. The palm tree backed beaches extended as far as the eye could see and long surf waves made their way to shore in regular formation. The scene reminded me of the Great Ocean Road in Australia but looked as though it had taken a beauty pill and then closed off either end so that traffic could not flow. It was a truly spectacular sight and a joy to cycle as for the most part, I was pedalling alone and cruising through tiny traditional fishing villages with small wooden shacks and people fishing out to sea.

The start of the really good stuff – happy days!

Beautiful sweeping bends

I coasted my way around 3 magnificent bays before once again pulling away from the ocean front. With a hill looming ahead of me, I stopped for a drink of water and to have a map check. It was here where I realised I had made a slight yet telling error with plotting the location of my warmshowers host on my map. Instead of having an expected 30km to go, I had 58km! On the map, it showed I was only 1 bay away but the road to get there went 20km in land and included 15km of climbing! I felt quite disheartened as my legs were already very tired but chose to sit and have 5 minutes of rest. I turned around and sat on a tree stump watching the turquoise Indian Ocean pounding away at the beaches as it has done for thousands of years. I considered how at the end of my climbing today, I would arrive at Harin’s place in his private beach resort and I would also not have to complete that climb when I continued my trip. It didn’t take long before my cares had been lost to the sea and I was feeling fine about the fact I had almost double my expected distance still to cover. I set off in good spirits to reach Harin’s place and get myself a spot on the beach.

 

 

Stunning views ocean side

Harin’ spot was more or less straight across from here. So close yet so far

I began the first of many climbs which went on for around 2km and then descended steeply for around 1km. I thought how over the course of that 3km, I had gained about 50m in height above sea level and lost what felt like about 50 litres of fluid in sweat! Upon beginning the next climb, I got overtaken by an older man and woman of fair size who were riding on a beat up old motorcycle which was heavily laden and making a raucous noise. They were now out of sight but I could hear the unmistakable racket of their bike and it was beginning to struggle. As I rounded a dog leg bend in the road, an extremely steep hill exposed itself and half way up was the struggling motorcycle. I stopped at the bottom of the hill to catch my breath and watched to see the progress of the pair. The engine note lowered and lowered. The man driving selected another gear and they got another 50 metres or so before they ground to a halt. Now on a steep gradient, they began rolling quite dangerously backwards because neither of them could reach the floor properly and the brakes on the bike weren’t strong enough to hold the weight. I could hear a skwawking coming from the front of the bike as the man ordered his wife to get off but she struggled to reach the ground. As dangerous as the whole situation was, it was very funny and I was only really missing a box of popcorn for the show. The lady finally got off and promptly ran to the side of the road, returning with a big rock to chock the rear wheel and then doubled over, catching her breath. Upon firing the bike back up, the man selected first gear and gave the little bike the beans but it did nothing more than make a loud noise. After more skwakwing from the man, it was clear that the ladies work was not done. When she was ready, she began to push up the incredibly steep hill, getting a face full of smoke as the man held the throttle wide open to try and encourage the bike up the hill.

With the show over, I began the climb and it was superbly steep. Fortunately, it didn’t go on for too long and by the time I reached the top, I bumped into the two older people again who I found pouring water on their motorbike. I passed them, saying hello and smiling and continued up the slope. A few minutes later, I heard the noisy bike fire back into life and when they eventually took over me again 2 kilometres down the road, they gave me a beep and a big wave.

Over the next 3km the road was unrelentingly steep. The trucks in Indonesia are often overloaded and their centre of gravity becomes dangerously high so it was no real surprise to me to see a truck laid on it’s side on one of the steep and sharp corners with it’s cargo of furniture sprawled all around the road. A crowd of people stood and waved traffic to slow down although they obviously concluded I was already going slowly enough!

Getting there…

Eventually the gradient relaxed and I found myself chugging up the road at around 13kph. I stopped in for lunch at a Padang and considered how tired my legs felt. Usually I drink my coffee black and without sugar in Indonesia which the locals find strange but over lunch I had a white coffee and that comes with 2 desert spoons of sugar (the normal amount) and a good serving of sweet milk so is basically diabetes in a cup. I hoped though that this sugar boost would provide the quick energy I needed to get me to the top of the hill and well on my way to Harin’s beach.

I had been very hot when I pulled in for lunch after the steep climb but now that I had rested and cooled down, I noticed the reduced temperature of being at elevation. I pedalled without trouble to the top of the hill in thick cloud and a coolish climate. As the jungle became more dense, the sounds of the bugs and animals around me got louder and more fantastic. I was completely encapsulated by it all and the pedalling went on almost unnoticed.

A series of up and down sections dominated the first part of the descent but the downhills were slightly longer which meant I could gather enough momentum to get to the top of the uphill sections without pedalling which almost felt like cheating. I soon began a long drop all the way to the base of the mountain and the ocean side again. The road got gradually steeper and I passed 4 lorries that had surrendered to the steepness of the slope with their heavy load on board. By the time I reached the bottom and a river crossing, I was back in full sunshine and hot weather. There were to be no more navigational surprises and I pedalled the rest of the way to Harin’s beach, arriving at 4pm and feeling very tired. I was welcomed in and got to meet Harin’s family over a quick coffee before getting a tour of the stunning beach area.

First views of Harin’s laguna – struck gold!

Stunning!

I wasted no time in going for a swim and waded into the turquoise Indian Ocean. I floated around in the salt water with the sun setting and could almost feel mother nature breathing life back into my exhausted legs. In the evening, Harin and I went out for dinner and I found out he is a bit of a famous figure in the tiny village of Merpas. We sat in a restaurant and even the police officers were coming over to say hello to him and we were given free snake fruit by truck drivers. We concluded the night with coffee and Martabak whilst listening to the waves roll into the shore from Harin’s beach bungalow. Bliss!

I took a rest day the following day and set about giving my bike a little TLC after a few tough weeks in Indonesia. My brakes had been getting gradually worse as time progressed and it really told on the steep descents which had grown to be a bit of a concern. I removed my brake blocks to find that the surface had become shiny, I think from the intense heat they had been subjected to. I filed off the shiny surface and reinstalled them along with cleaning the wheel rim and changing the chain. I then left my bike to one side so that I could fully concentrate on relaxing on the beach and swimming in the ocean – what a life…

Sunset in Merpas

I consider some of the Australian sunsets I saw to be the best of my life but the sunset in Merpas on my second evening was in close comparison. The bright sun turned into a deep orange circle as it neared the horizon and when it had set, it gave one last show by igniting the clouds that hovered above. I sat in one of the beach huts listening to my favourite music as the light dimmed and felt very lucky and happy to be where I was. Later in the evening, Harin said that he would like to take me to a traditional Bengkulu wedding that was happening around 10km away. I of course obliged and we set about raiding Harin’s wardrobe to find me some suitable clothing for a wedding. I ended up with a nice Batik shirt and some hiking pants which were an odd combination and Harin’s small size in comparison to me meant that the clothes were a little tight but beggars cant be choosers!

We set off on Harin’s scooter and after 5km I could hear music so thought we must be close. However, it was another 5km until we arrived and it was no wonder the music could be heard from so far away because it was deafening! The wedding was in a large tent and the bride and groom sat on stage on a grand sofa looking well made up. The groom had a maroon coloured suit which was decorated with sparkly pieces and a matching Peci. The bride had a dress of the same maroon colour which was decorated with golden patterns, sparkly bits and a matching Hijab. The bride wore a heavy amount of make-up which made her skin very lightly coloured and both people looked beautiful. Behind them were flowers that ran from one side of the big stage to the other and in the corner was the vast stack of amplifiers which provided power to the gigantic sound system.

On entry we were given a small plate of cakes then shook hands with all the family members who lined the walkway into the venue. Afterwards, we went to sit on the chairs in front of the stage and ate our cakes before then going to get the main course of food. As with most weddings in England, there was a gigantic buffet and my eyes lit up. I filled up my plate and Harin and I went to sit back on our chairs close to the stage. The music went silent and family members came up to give speeches which were greeted with applause by most. I say by most because around half of the front row were fast asleep! Then, the music fired back up again at it’s outrageous volume and shocked those sleeping into consciousness. The hair in my nostrils tickled as the sound waves entered my body and to my despair, karaoke began. People came up one by one to publicly butcher their favourite songs but there only seemed to be me who was finding the wailing difficult to listen to. Men got up to hilariously dance together to the Dangdut music which is traditional in Indonesia. Interestingly, the men and women would not dance together and would take it in turns on different songs to have a jiggle.

The karaoke reached its peak when the father of the bride came up to sing. Within the first couple of words, there was not a dry eye in sight as emotions ran high and the father showed strength to get through the song although was clearly struggling with tears streaming down his face. It was quite a nice moment though and it felt as though everybody was a lot more connected during that song.

We had only been at the wedding for around 45 minutes but Harin already said it was time to leave. It turns out that there are few people attend the wedding for the whole day. It is courteous here to just turn up and show your face and anybody passing by can attend if they wish and pass on their congratulations to the newly weds. We got a photo on stage with the bride and groom and then made our way back to the beach following an interesting evening.

Plucking fresh Jambu Biji (Guava) from the trees in the coffee plantation

Another day off the bike followed and this time Harin had coffee in mind. We filled up the scooter with fuel and headed off into the hills. After 45 minutes of cruising up steep mountain roads revealing wonderful views, we came across one of Harin’s police man friends. He escorted us up an incredibly bumpy path for the next 5km until we reached our destination which was the office of a coffee plantation. The owner was of course one of Harin’s friends and he took us into the coffee plantation. I sat on the back of a rickety old motorcycle which had been modified with a huge sprocket at the back to cope with the steep hills of the plantation and also knobbly tyres. We dropped into the plantation down a fantastically steep and narrow concrete road before climbing the other side on a similarly steep road. At the top we looked at the plantation and plucked Guava fruits from the trees. We then sat in for coffee in the middle of a tiny wooden shack village which looked just like the village I had seen on the news where a giant python was found! I felt obliged to tell the plantation owner how tasty his coffee was to which he looked very proud.

We got back on our way and Harin decided we should take an alternative route back that wasn’t so bumpy and would pass through dense jungle. The first few kilometres were fine but the approaching rainy season had meant that the lower parts of the road were very wet. Because it had no surface, the mud was extremely soft and the scooter regularly got bogged down. Harin and I wrestled his scooter out of the mud time and time and we both sweated a lot. Harin feared incoming rain would make it almost impossible to pass the road at all so when we did hit a dry patch, we drove at a frightening speed along a bumpy and slippery dirt track. Eventually we made it to the bottom with me having to walk for around 500m because a landslide had taken away the road. At the end of the track, we were both covered in mud and the scooter had suffered the loss of its bashguard. We stopped in for ice cream to cool down and reflect on our adventurous afternoon before heading back to the beach. I told Harin of my plan to leave the next day to which he said there would be a wedding in Merpas the following day that I may like to attend. Again, I said that sounded very good and another day off the bike was confirmed.

Harin and I, wedding ready

As we would be attending the actual wedding ceremony, it was important that I dressed appropriately. Harin and I once again raided his wardrobe and this time I ended up in a sarong, Batik shirt and black Peci. We arrived at the wedding at 8am to a number of surprised faces. All the women were out at the back cooking away in gigantic metal pans filled with meat whilst inside and the men were inside drinking coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette. I once again made the most of the cake that was on the table and realised that I recognised a lot of faces from the wedding 2 nights before. As we waited for the bride and groom to get ready in their separate houses, a group of men played drums and chanted words about Allah which was being played through another huge sound system. I felt like I was very fortunate to be sat in the centre of a very rich cultural event and something that tourists rarely get to experience.

Women preparing the food. Curried chicken

Around 10am, we walked to collect the groom. A group of men walked to the groom’s house carrying flags and the sunshine beat down hard on everybody. The groom exited the house wearing a red sarong, black suit jacket and red headpiece along with having a covering of make up on his face. We walked down to the brides house with the groom sheltered from the sun with an umbrella. The bride exited the house with a red dress on and large red veil on her head, covering a huge golden head piece. The two held hands and walked to the wedding area where they sat down to exchange vows. Once the wedding was complete, it was buffet time again which I was very excited about and I sat down to another good wedding feed. At around 12 noon, Harin and I headed back to his beach to escape the mid day heat. We returned in the evening after a sunset swim to watch the Dangdut dancing again, some karaoke and to congratulate the couple on their marriage.

The bride and groom on their way to the wedding tent

The lads getting stuck into the buffet

The following day I had decided that I would definitely leave Merpas and told Harin of my plan. He mentioned how nice it had been to get to know me and I thanked him sincerely for the unique experiences he had given me and giving me a wonderful place to rest. I came to Merpas thinking I would just find somewhere to sleep and ended up leaving with a good friend.

Prior to arriving in Sumatra, I had only been told of the things to be worried about and careful of when I cycled here. However, in my experience so far Lampung province had been a real gem. I had received fantastic hospitality, a reduction in traffic, an increase in air quality, beautiful scenery, wonderful wildlife and some of the best food in Indonesia. The travelling world often rewards an adventurous spirit and I feel that I have struck gold by deciding to throw caution to the wind and cycle through Sumatra. I will continue my journey through Sumatra, still taking care but making sure that I allow myself to experience as much of this wonderful island as possible in the time that I have.

2 Comments

  1. Alan 2 months ago

    Hi Tom,

    This is simply a great read! No doubt you’ll have experiences that top this, but they’ll have to be pretty special! Have a good Christmas wherever you end up on the 25th! Cheers, Alan H.

  2. Mum 2 months ago

    Once again I feel I have lived your journey, particularly liking the no helmet scenario for the police,yet the locals quickly put theirs on when a police bike is visible.. hilarious..
    Someone suggested you should write a book of your journey..I believe you are doing this.
    I look forward to the next great read xx

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