The Gunn Log: Bali and Beyond, Part II
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.
Last installment: After observing a traditional Balinese cremation ceremony, Rick Gunn continues across Indonesia, enduring the frustration of repeated mechanical breakdowns and accepting a man’s offer to stay overnight in a private room. Observing the rampant poverty on the island of Sumbabwa, Gunn writes: “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 next morning I thanked the man, then resumed my ride across central Sumbawa. That afternoon, after my stomach commanded me to stop at a small roadside cafe, I was plowing into a plate of fish and rice when my meal was interrupted by the squeak of swinging doors.
A shadow filled the doorway, and for a moment I felt as though I was trapped within a scene from a spaghetti western.
But instead of a cowboy hat and a six shooter, the man in the doorway sported shoulder-length hair, a sleeveless heavy-metal T-shirt, and a 2-foot sword hanging off his right hip.
“Sweet blade,” I said sarcastically as he walked in, knowing he wouldn’t speak a lick of English.
“It’s called a Parang,” he returned, “I use it to cut my rice fields.”
“My name is Saeful Arief,” he smiled, extending his hand, “But my friends call me Air Force.”
I slipped my hand into his. “Rick,” I replied.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“New Zealand,” I said.
“On a bicycle!?” he laughed, seemingly waiting for the punchline. “Yes,” I replied, “on sepeda.”
He turned his attention to my bike for a moment, then back toward me.
“My father’s house is 60 kilometers up the road in the village of Empang,” he said. “I’m heading there myself. Would you like to come and stay for the night?”
Three hours later I pedaled into the city limits, then turned onto the main street in Empang. At first glance it looked less like a village than it did a well-used bomb target.
The roads were broken, and the buildings failing. Pigs ran near my feet, and a large crowd of people began to gather around.
“Money,” someone said before I pushed him away.
“You made it,” I heard someone else say, then turned my head to see Saeful on his motorcycle.
“Man, I’m glad to see you,” I returned.
“Follow me,” he instructed.
I stepped onto my pedals and chased him across town, following him past a crowd, over the bumpy village road. We turned off into a smallish neighborhood.
That’s when a large group of children spotted us. When they did, they went berserk. Pedaling quickly through the last hundred yards, the kids began yelling through the neighborhood, screaming and chasing us on foot until we came to a stop in front of a simple cement dwelling.
When we stopped, a man wearing a sarong and a Muslim pillbox hat stepped out of the house.
“This is my father,” Saeful said.
I shook his hand and he said, “Welcome.”
Ten minutes later, we were still in front of Saeful’s father’s house, when a large crowd began to gather – nearly every child, and what seemed half the neighborhood. Perhaps 50 people in all, moving in to get a closer look.
Some giggled, others pointed. Most looked upon me like a circus freak. A few approached and touched my skin.
Then one of them gestured about the length of my nose, and the whole crowd giggled again.
“You’re the first tourist they’ve ever seen,” Saeful told me later.
After carrying my bags inside, I looked around the house. Hanging in the center of the room was a poster of Mecca, near another sign that read, “God is great.”
Near that were a few old photos next to cracks in the cement. Between the cracks, just above the furniture, the walls were bruised with smudges, perfectly outlined grease spots, where the same heads had leaned for years.
“Make yourself at home.” Saeful said, pointing to the couch.
Two hours later, I was still sitting on that couch, stuffed on rice and fish, staring at the TV, while the other 25 people in the room stared at me. Inevitably, one of them would see a friend walking by out front and yell something like, “Hey Ishmael! Come and see what Saeful brought home!”
And just for that night, I felt like a movie star.
(Albeit one without the money or looks.)
Later that evening, when it came time to sleep, I was shown to a room where I crawled into bed. Just moments before I met the sandman, I opened my eyes to discover another 15 people, standing, pointing, whispering, staring. Then Saeful came in and shooed them away, smiling before he turned off the light.
“Sorry,” he said. “They’re just curious, you know … goodnight.”
The next morning came quickly, and Saeful followed me to the main road to make sure I got off safely.
“Thank you,” I said extending my hand. He ignored it, opened his arms, and gave me a hug.
“Be safe,” he said, with one of his classic smiles.
“I will,” I replied, and then climbed onto my bike and rode away.
A week later I’d completed my ride across Sumbawa, and then took another week to cycle across the mountainous interior of Flores. When I was done, I boarded a final ferry bound for the city of Kupang in West Timor.
There I prepared for my entry into the war-torn borders of the world’s youngest country, East Timor.
During my last day in Indonesia, I was walking down the street, my mind in deep contemplation of the journey ahead, when I came across an elderly Indonesian man. He was moving slowly through the dirt, dust, poverty and despair.
When our eyes met, he looked up at me and smiled, as if he’d known me for a hundred years.
That’s when I recognized that certain something that glittered beneath it all.
It was the people. The Indonesians themselves. They were the gold. And I was all the richer having met them.
Recognizing this, I took a moment to envision them all, then mouthed a simple prayer.
It was one of the Bhuddhist Metta Sutras that states simply:
“May you be safe from harm.”
“May you be happy and peaceful.”
“May you be strong and healthy.”
“May you take care of yourself,
(and those that surround you),
with love and joy…”