Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Ghosts, sharks and pirates!

12nd - 18th January 2012, Budget bliss on Bintan
Kijang – Tanjung Pinang – Trikora
Total distance: 1825 – 1945km

If you ever find yourself inhabiting the mind of a fifth century Chinese merchant seaman, once you've recovered from the initial shock you will no doubt be inclined to get out a map and scope out the best route for your vessel to take to India. You could go all the way down to that massive, dry, kangaroo inhabited island to the south, and then up and round to the subcontinent, but it's a very long way. But... what's this? There's a little gap between Malaysia and Sumatra, the shortest route possible and wide enough for a ship with a good captain to take. Plot a course! Haul the anchor! Yarr! Et cetera, et cetera.

And that is exactly what happened; the islands around what is now the Malacca Strait became a very significant section of the silk route – linking India and Asia by sea. What this meant is that those few little islands scattered in the narrow strait between Malaysia and Sumatra, where the ships had to squeeze through, were destined to get very busy, and remain so – with 40% of the world's shipping trade moving through there even to this day.

This is not a pirate.
Spanning nearly a thousand square miles the island of Bintan lies just an hour's ferry ride south east of Singapore, but is three times the size. To it's friends it is known as the 'Pirate island' thanks to some forceful trading enacted by its inhabitants in those days gone by. Accounts tell of pirates who did not hijack vessels, but instead made them dock in their port and then insisted that they trade. A bit of a watered down piracy in my opinion, if you'll excuse the pun, but at least a few of them cottoned on that if they made the best of their situation: expensive cargoes, weapons in hands, sailors at their mercy, they could forgo the exchange of gold, and just pinch the stuff. So they did.

Riding along the quiet roads of Bintan, with dry shrub land all around, and an occasional smattering of houses, it is obvious that Bintan did not flourish in the same way as neighbouring Singapore – and I'm afraid we can't pin the blame on the pirates. After various wranglings between the Malays, Dutch, and British, the British took Singapore in 1824 and it became the major trade node in the area, and Bintan's popularity waned. Today it is sedate, unhurried, and nothing like the mega city of Singapore just across the sea. As a destination for the casual tourist though, it is lovely. Drier than mainland Java – it only managed to spit during the afternoon, where mainland Java would have emptied a few litres over us. We noticed the absence of rain forests too, but learnt that this has more to do with human activity than the weather. While riding across the island we passed several large building sites, carving out the foundations for hotels for holiday makers on land cleared of any trees. Apparently Bintan is priming itself to be the next big tourist centre in the region, although at the moment much of it's centre looks like a building site.

After only a couple of hours' pleasant cycling along these quiet roads we arrived at Tanjung Pinang, the island's capital, and the island's history as a crossroad of cultures became immediately apparent. Taoist temples peeped out between restaurants, with sharp curved roofs and walls painted deep red and yellow. Enormous colourful minarets rose high over the roofscape, with bright green and blue domes bulging at their bases. There were red and gold decorated Chinese market stalls down the side streets too, selling all kinds of fruits and sweets and clothes, with red paper lanterns bobbing above them that lit up when the sun went down. It was a nice place – it felt calm compared to Java. Traffic was fairly thin on the ground, and we don't remember hearing many horns. Clean too, in it's own way, since it apparently makes a buck from weekend holiday goers from Singapore who might go elsewhere if there were piles of burning plastic on street corners. Since the island is well used to tourists our appearance in town was of entirely no consequence and we could roam around like ghosts without being bothered for photos, or hassled by touts.
The view from our hotel balcony.

Once we secured a room for the night – a cheap third floor place in a prime location for the devout Muslim; right by the massive, colourful and loud minaret – we set out into the town and picked our way through the side streets and down the lanes that crept over the waters edge. I say Tanjung Pinang is clean “in it's own way” because once we got to the sea we discovered that the whole water side edge of the town is built on stilts to avoid the twice daily rise of the tide, but as it recedes it leaves a wealth of debris that forms a thick sludge of rubbish that sits beneath all of the houses, exuding the unmistakable aroma of human excrement.

And yet we loved it. It creaked and splished with old port town atmosphere. An authentic Nantucket of Asia. The houses were made from old wood that wouldn't have looked out of place on a pirate's galleon. Traders hung around carts by the dock laughing boisterously with each other, their pet macaque eyeing us as we walked by. Springing out of the backs of some of the houses were gardens of pot plants, and many of the houses were painted cheery pinks, blues or whites in defiance of the tide of detritus that muttered in the shallow water below, with rats clambering the stilts and acting as the go-betweens of the two worlds.

Spot the rat!
As the evening set in, the place settled into a calm sea of orange light, with the sunset reflected back on the still water that rose up the estuary, sea eagles watching it from a slow, spiral course above, and lanterns twinkling in windows and along the streets.

Tanjung Pinang harbour.
Now we had made it to Bintan the pressure was off to get anywhere fast. We had a whole week left on our visa, and the port at Tanjung Pinang had five daily ferries running the short distance to the Malaysian mainland. We were excited about heading off to a whole new country, and the splash of Chinese culture in the town had whet our appetite for new places, but there was no way we were going to abandon Indonesia prematurely. A quick check on the internet revealed that there were some stunning looking beaches close by - really stunning - but the problem was that the price of accommodation was really high too. To the north of the island are dozens of shiny new resorts built with money from Singapore, with beautiful white sand beaches and room rates higher than we could afford. To the east lay the budget option, a run of cheaper resorts along lovely looking beaches, but all the price tags were at least $25 a night. Looking at the clean sand and the clear turquoise waters on the ads most people would leap at the chance to only pay $25 a night to stay there. But we were trying to live the lives of budget travellers - $20 a day travellers, and short of not eating for two days there was no way we could afford to stay at these places.
Tanjung Pinang's beach huts weren't quite so appealing...

We did, however, have our tent. Our poor neglected tent. The last time she'd been out was all the way back in Darwin, at the Banyan campsite with the ropey pasties more than two months previous. It was high time we gave it a go in Asia. So on the morning of the fourteenth we saddled our bikes up, and pedalled east out of town in search of Trikora beach. We figured that we'd take a look at it, see if we could find some cheap accommodation, or some accommodating camp site, and enjoy our last few days in Indonesia lying around doing as little as possible. In fact, it went better than we could have possibly hoped for.

The ride out of Tanjug Pinang was pleasant, if uninspiring. Quiet highways became quieter roads; gently rising and falling past diggers, small towns and large signs promoting the island. We had broken away from the busier roads, and hadn't seen a construction site for some time when we decided to pull over for a quick lunch. It was a small cafe in a little coastal town on an estuary. Outside several people were working in a factory line making some kind of banana leaf snack – folding ingredients into a leaf and stapling it together before barbecuing it. We had some left over bread, jam and fruit in our bags though, so we bought two fruit teas and began eating. Outside, there were strange sounding birds calling - loud, but hollow and distant, like they were all chirping through gas masks, or had taken up residence in a series of drain pipes. We'd heard the same thing when we'd been wandering around the town the evening before. But what on earth was it? (Hint: it was not birds wearing gas masks)

We were no closer to solving the great slightly-abnormal-sounding-birdcall mystery when we noticed a flock of cyclists pull in at our cafe. With shades, lycra, and panniers these folks looked like they meant business. One of them particularly, with front and rear racks, waterproofed panniers and GPS certainly looked like he was well equipped. His name was Rahim, and he had indeed been on an adventure – riding from Malaysia into Sumatra, up lots of hills, and back down into Singapore. The group were from Singapore on a weekend away, and were heading for Trikora beach as well. Rah was as thrilled as us to meet fellow long distance tourers, and we spent a while exchanging tales, comparing notes, and sharing mutually felt grudges towards traffic and hills. Rah told us that he knew the owner of a resort on Trikora, and he didn't think it would be a problem for us to pitch a tent there. After lunch we left, rode up the road, turned around and rode back to pick up a forgotten water bottle, and then joined the group as they made their way along the glorious, flat, hot road with the glorious, flat, blue sea laid out to our right. This was white sands, palm trees and island studded horizon territory. Absolutely cracking cycling – it was almost a shame that it was so brief, as within the hour we had arrived at our destination.

The resort lay in the middle of a small town that stretched a few hundred metres along the quiet road. A few houses, a few shops, a corn plantation and a fenced football pitch, watched over by a few resident dogs that sauntered about between the houses. Jutting out into the water was a wooden boardwalk that ran about two hundred metres out into the shallow bay, and then split two ways, and rejoined again to form a large ring. The planks rattled and creaked uncertainly as we ten or so cyclists carefully rode along them. It was just like riding the ghost levels in Mario Kart, except if you fell off you'd land in turquoise water, and probably wouldn't be fished out by a turtle flying in a cloud.

The large circular ring at the end of the board walk was studded with smart looking huts, and draped under the walkway was an unbroken line of netting that formed the basis for a fish farm. What is it with Indonesia and hotels and fish farms? I glanced over at the perimeter, and caught sight of an enormous fin about five inches high and ten inches long before it sank silently away into the water. What the hell was that? I thought, but didn't say anything to Liv in case she thought I was making up excuses not to go swimming later.

We're gonna need a bigger boat.
While the rest of the group went off to find their rooms, Rah spoke to the owner for us and confirmed that we could pitch a tent on the beach. We then spent an hour with Rah, sat at a table with a couple of beers. Rah is exceedingly agreeable company, with round cheeks propped up by a perennial joker's grin. He asked us if we planned to go to Singapore on our trip, and we confessed that we did not. Not that we hadn't looked into it. It is, after all, right there – closer to us than Malaysia even, with regular, easy access by ferry from Tanjung Pinang. Before setting out from Australia we had looked into it, but had read that we couldn't cycle across the bridges that linked Singapore to the mainland. This we now knew was untrue, but when we had looked into accommodation costs we had found nothing cheaper than $50 a night. Once again, when grappling with a combined $20 a day budget, $25 if we're feeling crazy, $50 a night is really out of the question.

“Why don't you camp?” Rah asked.
“Hur?” we said. Surely Singapore is just a big crop of skyscrapers, right?
“Yeah, you know there are parks all over the place and you can camp in them for free no worries. You just need to get a permit from a machine, it's no problem.”

Just like that, a whole new country opened up for us. It was fantastic news, and what better way to get back into the habit of camping.

After we had probed Rah on the details, he showed us down to the area where we could camp for the next few days, it was right on the beach in a clump of coconut trees by the footie pitch, and he asked us to join the rest of them for a beer later in the evening - an offer we eagerly accepted. We whipped out the slightly musty smelling tent and got to work setting it up on sand, chatting excitedly about the possibilities of Singapore, the next few days, and the night ahead. If all of this wasn't exciting enough, as the sun went down we were visited by a gargantuan centipede. An armour plated train of a creature that scuttled about around our bags and along the sand, welcoming us to the delights of camping in tropical countries.

We spent that night with the cycling group; lying on blankets out on the board walk, and drinking beers that Rah ensured we were always in ample supply of. My ignorance of all things Singaporean was evident since I thought that everyone was talking in English for our benefit, until I discovered that not only do most people in Singapore speak English fluently, but many of them speak it as a first language. About the only other thing I knew about Singapore was that it had a few strict rules – you're not allowed to spit, or chew gum, or fart - something like that. That night we learnt that it was also illegal to jay-walk, use fireworks, and sell Malaysian newspapers. From outside appearances Singapore sounded suspiciously like an authoritarian state, but it was obviously not cramping the souls of its populace because Rah, Shireen, James, William, Yuong, and all the others were as easy going and open minded as anyone we know. We lay around under the galaxy of stars sprayed up above us, and then turned waterwards and watched as it pulsed with specks of blue light as phosphorescent squid rose to the surface to feed. Time ticked by, the moon rose like a beacon behind us, and the empty bottles mounted up. Some time after 1am Liv and I took our leave and said goodnight. We wobbled back down the length of the creaky board walk, and clambered into our tent. Both of us fell asleep almost immediately.

We ate breakfast with our cyclist friends the next morning before they all headed off to catch their ferry home. They were a lovely, generous and friendly bunch – impeccable ambassadors for their country, and we were very happy that we would be catching up with them again in Singapore. We waved them off down the road, and then returned to our den on the beach, and settled down to three very lazy days there; cooking up food, lying around reading, taking a swim, and watching the tide rise and fall.

Floating houses built on wooden rafts bobbed about on the water, or rumbled into life and slowly motored their way off towards the open ocean. In the shallows in front of our tent locals walked past at all times of day collecting shellfish into buckets. The local dog gang occasionally galloped by, but never stopped to sniff or cock a leg. We explored the fish farm, and discovered that the fin that I had seen belonged to a diamond head shark that inhabited one of the outer pens, and who lived beside a couple of other monstrously proportioned fish. These were fairly normal looking silvery plump fish with thick cod lips, except they were about four feet long - absolutely huge! The kind of things you only ever see on the front of angling magazines, or during fish related night terrors – although they could never replace Jaws.

Over the days we made friends with another guy from Singapore, a retiree who owned a property at the end of the fish farm ring, complete with a bath out on the veranda with 270 degree tropical sea views. He was extremely hospitable but a private man, and not so keen on the internet, and requested that we don't mention him on here. So I'll just say that we enjoyed a couple of evenings eating food round his place, with glasses of top shelf whiskey, looking out at the sea, and up at the clear night sky. As well as feeding us and keeping us company, he also solved the mysterious bird call conundrum. Those bird calls we were hearing were recordings, blared out through speakers set in lofts and roof spaces with the intention of attracting swifts in there to nest. And why would you want to attract swifts into your loft? Why, to sell the nests to restaurants that make birds' nest soup of course, that most famous of Chinese dishes that can sell for $100 a bowl. The export of bird's nests is so profitable in fact, that it accounts for 0.5% of Indonesia's GDP. The things sell for $1000 a kilo. Well worth installing some speakers and tuning to radio cave swift then. Not suitable for vegetarians(?)

We also heard a strange tale that unfolded during our stay at the resort. Apparently (and we have no reason to doubt the facts of this story, but it is pretty out there so, y'know, pinch of salt and all that) a group of workers and residents were playing dominoes one night when a woman came running in screaming for help. Something had possessed her husband! A spirit of some kind! They rushed in to the house to see what was going on and found the man wandering about rambling on in a fairly obscure Javanese dialect, claiming to be a spirit who had certain demands. And what kind of things do spirits demand? Well, a coconut drink apparently. So they fetched him a coconut and chopped it open so he could drink it, which he did “like a wild beast”. The possessed man then picked up his wife's mobile phone and proceeded to eat it, plastic, glass and all. Things must have got out of hand at this point because then the witnesses to this strangeness decided they needed to restrain the man, and it apparently took four of them – one on each limb, to subdue him. Eventually he fell asleep, and it was all over.

“Woah.” we said to the man who described the events to us, not quite knowing what to make of it. “Is he okay now?”
“Yes, he's just very tired, sleeping it off today.”
“I bet. How's his wife?”
“She's fine.”
“How's her phone?”

Our witness was a nice guy, who we don't think would lie to us, but he obviously believed in these ghostly kind of things, and while we're stumped at coming up with one of them pesky logical explanations for it, we find it hard to take too seriously. But power to him, it's great that we live in a world where people believe all kinds of interesting things, as our witness most certainly did. For example, he attributed the recent deaths by drowning of some tourists on the island to the spirit of a girl who died in the waters many years ago, and was now looking for a husband. He asked us if we had ever seen ghosts, and we said no, so he gave us a tip about how to improve our luck. In order to see ghosts and spirits you should rub dog's tears on your eyes. You heard it here first.

Sandy sunny days go quickly and before we knew it the 17th was upon us – the day before our visas expired. We packed up our belongings, and said farewell to the owner of the fish farm and our anonymous benefactor before cycling the 40km or so back into town, and checking back in at the hotel by the mosque.

Our last afternoon in Indonesia was not anything special, just a spot of late lunch, a trip to a travel agent to book the ferry tickets, and then to bed. But what a place to spend two months on a bicycle. Indonesia has been a pretty thorough challenge by most standards, but when it lets up its treasures it is a remarkable place – staggeringly beautiful and hospitable, and unlike anywhere else we have been. It's not all been roses though, and that's the beauty of seeing a country by bicycle. We feel like we've really experienced Bali, Madura, Java and Bintan – warts and all.

We've pushed ourselves to exhaustion on several occasions, run out of water, gotten sick, tumbled into flood water, found ourselves at the mercy of dogs, clouds of noxious sulphur and swarms of motorbikes; we've been drenched by the monsoon, had to fix a puncture whilst being drenched by the monsoon, had ants pour from our hotel walls, been laughed at, stared at, poked and prodded, eaten chicken innards, lived off two minute noodles for days on end, banged our heads against mindless bureaucracy, been honked at, pushed past, and pushed ourselves for days up never-ending hills.

But what a ride!

Getting to the top of those hills and tearing down the other side with the wind in our hair and feeling the thrum of the wheels through the handlebars; seeing enormous mountains rise up out of the horizon, and then grow larger, until we're upon them, climb them, and stand inside the crater at their summit watched over by the moon and the stars; finding ourselves being welcomed into the homes of complete strangers, who have fed us, let us shower, set us up with beds for the night – and all with less than a dozen words understood between us; cycling across a moonscape desert of ash; settling down for an evening and watching as thousand year old stories unfold on stages, or on fire lit screens before us; discovering little patches of paradise all to our selves, getting a feel for these places; ambling down market lanes under low tarpaulin as the sun sets and flocks of swifts dart about in the gloaming above; diving underwater and discovering the world below, bathing in volcanically heated water, watching steam blast out of active vents, and feeling the warmth of a magma chamber on our backsides as we sat down on rocks to rest; camping on white sand beaches and watching the goings on of a little coastal town unfold; watching the entire sky explode with branches of white hot forks of lightning, and watching as the days of pedalling add up, and we progress across our map; those far away cities finally coming into view, and then disappearing behind us, and then we get to turn our map over and pedal the other side, and then we made it, and now we're off again.

 Looking back on it now all the struggling and difficulties really don't count for much, save a few dinner time anecdotes, and we've got all of these memories locked away for good, along with a greater understanding of a wonderful string of islands called Indonesia, and the realisation that doing a crazy thing like taking a bike around Asia actually is possible. It's just a matter of doing it. Once you realise that, just about anything is possible. It's a nice mindset to find yourself in, especially with mainland Asia looming on the horizon.
Cheers Indonesia, it's been one hell of a ride.

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