Guest Post: Hitchhiking in the land of dragons – Bali – by Rich McCulloch (therichmikehitchhike)
In this week’s guest post…we join one of our favourite story-tellers Rich McCulloch (and of course his friend Mike) as they hitch-hike on the island of Bali. So, join Rich experiencing what it’s like hitchhiking in the land of dragons, singing some Mambo No.5 and posing the burning question, what is in the back of Ketuk’s truck??? …
There are few places on the entire Earth that can rival Indonesia as the most perfect place to begin an adventure. For a start, over half of the surface area of the archipelago’s 17 000 islands, haphazardly scattered across the equator between Australia and the Indochina Peninsula, is covered with impenetrable 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 in the Indian Ocean, daring Australians to get to Asia. Since the year 2000, Indonesia had endured 45 incidents of major seismic activity averaging 7.2 on the Richter scale. In fact, as soon as we set foot in Denpasa 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 6000 km away, caused a 2-day sunlight blackout as far as 600 km away and even changed global temperatures for the following year.
As if the natural disasters weren’t enough to contend with, it could also be said that the local population have to some extent absorbed some of the personality traits of the tumultuous isles they live upon. 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. For example, what the CIA has called “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century” was perpetrated here during the 60’s when as many as 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 whose death toll reached 202 people. On the day we departed Kalgoorlie, the Australian government’s tourist advice website, www.smarttraveler.gov.au, recommended travellers to “reconsider the need to travel” to Indonesia and gave the country the second highest possible danger rating, just below “DO NOT TRAVEL”.
Having decided to hitchhike back to England 20,000 km through 20 countries in 100 days, we were eager for adventure, intrigue, culture, diversity and even a bit of danger. This was the beginning: day 1. What better country to start in than the one place where the great explorer Marco Polo, so often charged with exaggerating his tales, didn’t have to do so. There are literally dragons that live here.
Half expecting a delegation of earthquakes, volcanoes, terrorists and dragons to meet us as we stepped off the plane, the first thing that struck us was a wave of heat so thick I almost had to chew the air before I could breathe it. My sweat glands seemed to have been caught off-guard, lulled into a false sense of comfort by the on-flight air-conditioning, and were panicked into a torrential overdrive. I looked over at my Irish companion. His usually voluminous buffon of hair had already started to sag under the weight of the moisture in the air.
“Oooffffff,” he wheezed. “It hurts to breathe!”
“Even my eye balls are sweating”, I said, rubbing my eyes, feeling slightly self-conscious about the snail trail of sweat I’d left in my wake.
We were shepherded out of the airport and into the sweltering streets. Our first challenge was to dodge an approaching swarm of taxi-buses who had gathered around us like wasps to jam.
“No thank you”
“Hello Mister! Taxi-bus?”
“No thank you”
“Tuk-tuk Mister? Tuk-tuk yes please!”
“No thank you”
In order to evade our pursuers, we broke out into the song we’d spent the entire four hour flight writing and rehearsing.
“Hi hooooooooo,” I called to Michael
“Hi hooooooooo,” he called back.
“It’s off to hitch we go”
Upon seeing a couple of hobbit-like creatures, practically skipping down the streets whistling and singing, the local taxi drivers must have been struck by the contrast to the usual western stereotype (“We are Brits and we are here, to shag your birds and drink your beer”) and eventually they left us to it.
To be honest though, the attention had been a welcome distraction. We had been secretly glad to have had something to take our minds off our daunting journey. It was a strange, slightly uncomfortable, and yet exhilarating feeling to have half the world ahead of us.
After walking 15 km from the airport, into Depasar, down a busy road full of little else but dust, heat and traffic, we found ourselves in the large forecourt of a petrol station.
“This looks like a perfect spot to hitch from”, said Michael, getting frustrated that we hadn’t started yet.
“Yeah, ok.” I replied, “Look, it’s even got a stage for us to hitchhike from!”
In reality, having had so little experience of hitchhiking in the past, I had absolutely no idea about what constituted a good spot. Everything from this point on was unchartered territory. Michael asked a bemused shopkeeper for some cardboard so we could fashion a sign and thus a new routine we were to repeat on countless occasions was forged. In order to form a successful partnership when two people travel together, I think they usually fall into their roles due to their natural abilities, their key skills, what they are good at. Michael’s job, on account of his affable charisma, was to ask shopkeepers for cardboard whereas my job was to write out the sign because I could remember to put the marker pen back in my bag. I scrawled “GILIMANUK”, a town on the west coast of Bali, about 130 km away, in big, thick, black letters.
I don’t know why, but as we approached the busy road with our sign, knowing for well that few of the locals would have seen anything like this before, I felt an unexpected prang of self-consciousness. Everything we’d read and researched about hitchhiking in Indonesia had suggested that it just didn’t happen here. This was it. We had meticulously planned this adventure for the last few months. We’d published our intentions to everyone we knew on Facebook; if we failed at the first hurdle, on the first day, we’d surely return home as the same losers as when we had left. If Michael also felt a bit ill-at-ease, he certainly didn’t show it. He stood up on the elevated platform, between the petrol station and the road and, whereas I must have looked as assured as a librarian trying to earn a bit a cash on her first night dancing in a strip club, Michael held the sign high above his head with the brazen pride of a ring girl in between rounds at a boxing match. I took a step back from the platform in admiration and thanked my stars that he was with me.
We got a lot of attention and a leasta few of the beeps that pierced the hum of the engine noise must have been for us but no one seemed keen or likely to stop for us. We couldn’t imagine a vehicle pulling out of the manic traffic to give us a ride. The attendants at the petrol station meandered over and advised us that Gilimanuk was too ambitious. We should try somewhere closer. So we changed our sign to read ‘UBONG’, a town only a few kilometres away. We left the petrol station in search of a better spot, perhaps one a bit more accessible for the passing traffic.
Two hours later we were stillwalking down the same road. Our flip-flopped feet were black from the pollution, dust, dirt and grime. I could taste the city on my arid lips. As another fleet of motorbikes zipped past us, like bullets in a warzone, I took another breath of hot, smoky air and looked over at Michael. He was holding our sign 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.
“That’s not going to work”, I said.
“Just trust me. Who’s the brains of this operation?”
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 our hitchhiking song behind him.
“Hello!” he cried.
“Hey, you wanna a ride to Ubong,” said a cool looking bloke, with tattooed arms, a big smile and a slightly Americanized accent. He had a Hindu Swastika hanging from his rear-view mirror, which, at first glance, could have been confused with the more modern equivalent.
“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 started chuckling and came out with “Ah like Lou Bega! Do you know ‘Mambo Number 5’?”
Lou Bega?! I thought with a cringe, why the hell did I just reference Lou bloody Bega?!
I saw Michael grimace at me in the mirror. I punched myself in the arm in repentance.
Thankfully, I don’t think Mambo heard me, or perhaps he just chose 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?”
“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!” Michael said, 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. I sat back again, folded my arms and looked out the window for a bit.
After explaining to Mambo what we were attempting to do, and that he was our first ride, he replied, “You will find it difficult to hitchhike here. The police fine locals who pick up foreigners”
“What is Indonesian for ‘hitchhike’?”
“Urrm, we don’t have a word for it here that I know of”
Although our optimism was slightly dented by Mambo’s ominous warning, we both felt great to have been picked up and driven the 7 km to Ubung. It wasn’t much but it was a start.
Once out of Mambo’s car, we continued heading west, humming the words to ‘Mambo Number 5’. On our way past a shop window, Michael and I caught a reflection of ourselves. My face looked so raw I may as well have spent the morning being licked by a pride of thirsty lions. I winced as I touched one of my reddened cheeks. I looked over at Michael’s reflection.
“Phew”, I said, quietly to myself, wiping a bead of sweat from my brow in relief. “It could be worse”
“Huh?” said Michael.
“Nothing mate. I think you may have a tan coming on. You’re starting to look like an Irish version of Antonio Bandaras”.
After about 10 km more, the bouncy pace of the first enthusiasm imbued half of the day had been replaced with a weary shuffle. A slow moving truck, the first vehicle I’ve seen to drive with a limp, creaked to a standstill ahead of us. The driver’s receding hairline belied his youthful face. His name was Ketuk and he spoke a bit of English. Thankfully, he was headed a lot further than we first requested, all the way to Petkutatan, 64 km away.
“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 asked his question again 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 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 is 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, once darkness had fallen, 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 that looked a bit like a teenage Gary Coleman. He could speak some English, so we were able to have a reasonably good conversation with him.
“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. What is in the back of your truck?’”
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 burning sense of apprehensive curiosity within me, but just when I was going to ask him again, the food that Gary had ordered before we arrived, an interesting rice dish with fried vegetables, was served.
“Come!” said Gary, offering his plate with twinkling eyes, “Sit with me. Eat with me”
We thanked Gary for his generosity, something we would get used to doing time and time again with Indonesians, but we declined his offer and went on our way to meet whatever fate Ketuk had in store for us.
We continued on our journey in silence. With the seeds of trepidation sown in our suspicious minds, they started to germinate when Ketuk’s rickety truck turned down a dark, deserted side-road. There were no street lamps anymore. The only light we could see were those from our old truck. They flickered in vain out into the darkness and we strained our eyes in an attempt to make out what was outside. Shielding my reflection with my hand on the dusty window, I peered out into the black jungle that bordered the road. All my weary eyes could see were sinister looking trees and bushes blustering restlessly in the hot evening wind. It had been a long day and my eyes felt hungry for sleep.
I sighed as we pulled up outside a house to see a gang of men were 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. Happily though, the only thing they were eager for was to greet us and our paranoia was instantly evaporated by their smiles. We shook the hand of every man there, sometimes two at a time, whilst offers of cigarettes and beer were shot from every direction. 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 smiled.
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 them from a room with a cold tap in it. We sat down on our creaking beds and a thing, an insect I guess, it looked like a cockroach except far bigger, scampered out from under my bed and outside into the muggy night.
It begins, we thought, as we dabbed our filthy, sunburnt faces. The adventure begins.
written by: Rich McCulloch
In 2011, Rich and his best friend, Mike, attempted The Rich-Mike HitchHike – 20,000 km through 20 countries in 100 days. Starting in Bali, they hitchhiked through Indonesia to Singapore, through Thailand, Laos, China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and into Europe to England.
Visit their blog at: therichmikehitchhike.com