Cyclist’s resolve tested in Indonesia
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to http://www.wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to http://www.rickgunnphotography.com.
The corpse was handled impeccably.
Passed along a wave of gently caring hands, I watched as a father’s life-journey ended in the arms of his three eldest sons.
Handling their father’s remains in strict Hindu tradition, the men circled his body thrice around a pyre. After the third pass, a crowd joined, then gently lifted the body into it’s ornate sarcophagus — a great winged lion.
Words were spoken and songs were sung. Family members gathered and whispered their last goodbyes.
A moment then passed and offerings were made. The deceased was kissed, blessed, then quickly set aflame.
The fire leapt up the velvet beast, filling the air with the scent of burning flesh. The wind shifted, and the odor began to drift, mixing with that of orchids, incense and the ever-distant hint of the oncoming rain.
Having fulfilled his duties stoically, the emotional weight of the moment seemed to descend upon the eldest son. He broke down in tears, folding into the arms of a friend.
From the heart of the fire, an ash began to ascend — rising and falling like a simple prayer.
When the ceremony ended, the crowd dispersed, and I stood for a moment and watched.
Standing, watching, thinking, while the existential dust of one man’s lifetime settled upon everything that surrounded: the trees, the butterflies, the children as they played. Life unto death, death into life, mixing and stirring within the river of what is.
I’d attended this traditional Balinese cremation ceremony during my last day on Bali.
This ending marked a new beginning: the start of a 600-mile ride across three remote islands in Indonesia’s eastern-most region of Nusa Tenggara.
Retracting the bow of my desire, I shot like an arrow across the Lombok straits, through the island’s sleepy backwaters, and then boarded a ferry bound for the remote island of Sumbawa.
Six hours later, the island appeared on the horizon, then grew within my vision. I moved to the front deck, then gazed upon a landscape that looked more African than Indonesian. It was dry, barren and sparsely populated.
With few huts, and even fewer trees, most of Sumbawa’s hillsides were a checker-board of random burnt spots — an other-worldly place that looked as if Godzilla had passed through in a fit of burps.
Having left the tropics behind, I felt as if I’d reached the ends of the earth.
In reality, I’d crossed the Wallace Line, a boundary that separates the greener-lusher regions of Asia with it’s drier neighbor Australasia.
Rolling from the dock, I passed the port town of PotoTano, a rickety-stilted fishing village where a bustle of gruff-looking fishermen claimed their bounties by hurling dynamite into the sea.
Two hours later, the sun struck my head like a hockey stick. Bumping over a crumbling strip of asphalt, I passed through what seemed a re-occurring scene of poverty: bony dogs nosing through piles of trash, women washing clothes and dishes in rivers saturated with sewage and gray water, small groups of toddlers in filthy clothes playing in wind-blown excrement, near large groups of unemployed youths, lounging in the shade: sitting, staring, listless.
Current statistics put 17 percent of Indonesia’s 220 million below the poverty line.
To me this was shocking.
To them, it was just another day.
Though most wouldn’t tell you outright, it was just this poverty that prompted tourists to skip Sumbawa. Most crossed the island via a 12-hour night bus.
But what they couldn’t know was that they were missing something. Something amazing. Something you’d never see staring out the window of a bus.
For among these fetid waters and tumbling buildings, amid the pigs, dust, and trash, I would find something glittering. Something I’d fail to recognize until I’d suffered a breakdown on many levels.
The first of those breakdowns was mechanical.
I’m sorry, did I say the first? I meant the 21st.
Twenty-one times previously I’d broken down on the side of the road in Indonesia. Twenty-one times I’d stood helpless, stranded with mystery-flats and broken spokes. Twenty-one times I’d disassembled, repaired, and re-assembled my bike.
All of this taking place after I’d purchased my “new” back rim.
Then, on Sumbawa, somewhere along a rice field on the outskirts of Utan, as the sun clung low to the horizon, I experienced breakdown No. 22.
Pulling my bike to the side of the road, I pulled my bags from the bike, then once again removed the wheel, the tire, replaced a spoke, pulled the inner-tube, found the puncture, searched in vain for the cause, glued a patch, re-assembled the tire, then refilled it with air.
Nearly an hour later, after I’d reloaded my bags and prepared to go, I heard that tell-tale sound — that “pftssssssssss” sound of air leaking from the tire.
That’s when I lost it.
“What? WHAT? WHAAAAAAAAT?!” I began shouting at the wheel.
Just then, a previously un-noticed farmer stood upright and looked upon me with a curious stare.
I turned my attention back to the tire and squinted in a super-heated glare.
“You …” I said, gritting my teeth. “YOU!” I said louder, “YOU CAN BREAK A MILLION TIMES! … I WILL NOT GIVE UP!”
“EVEN IF I HAVE TO PUSH!” I wailed, tilting my head toward the sky, “I WILL NEVER GIVE UP!”
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught something moving.
It was the farmer — bolting away from me quickly — checking intermittently over his shoulder as he ran.
I cannot say for certain if it was the universe testing my resolve that afternoon, but when I re-pumped the tire, the patch held, and mysteriously I was on my way.
By the time I’d got back on the road, day had turned to night.
Continuing through the inky darkness, I pedaled past a host of dark eyes, all of them staring back from a succession of small roadside fires. The whole experience was Creeps-ville to say the least.
“Where are you going?” a Muslim man finally asked after I’d reached the town of Utan.
“Sumbawa Besar,” I returned reluctantly.
“Sumbawa Besar?” he scoffed. “That’s more than 50 kilometers away!?
“I know,” I replied. “but there’s no guesthouse here.”
He held up his index finger, and said, “Wait here.”
Two minutes later he returned and said, “Come with me …”
Just after that, I was shown to a private room with a full-sized bed. Above it was a singular sign on the wall that read, “God is Great.”
The man smiled, shut the door behind me, and asked for nothing in return.
Next: Gunn continues through Indonesia, meeting up with a mysterious, sword-bearing man, and encountering children amazed at the length of his nose.