I am a 49 year old gypsy cyclist. I am cycling around the world absorbing what I can from the experience of traveling through countries that are so foreign to what I know. While I am limited by language—meaning that I do not speak local languages—I learn so much just by taking the journey.
The advantage of cycling, is moving through a landscape at a slow pace which allows for adventure because I have the opportunity to access areas untapped by tourist development. It forces me to be more creative and allows me to feel like I am forging my own path. Cycling at a slow pace, feeling elements without the shield of a bus or car allows me to experience things that might be uncomfortable but almost always interesting.
In February, my partner and I entered Sumatra from Malaysia on the 30 day visa that is available to tourists.
Sumatra is an Indonesian island. It is the sixth largest island in the world. It is raw and simple with a twist of creativity that happens in primitive areas—lack of finances and modern convenience and less health and safety rules simply allows for my flexibility in the way people build and move around.
The architecture is very minimal—necessity based. The transportation is largely by scooter—also necessity-based. It seems that anything can be attached and transported by this small vehicle—people and goods. It is not uncommon to see a family of 4 or 5 on a scooter. I have seen 2 and 3 goats transported on one scooter. Many run their business out of their scooter—whether it is selling clothing, produce, or even balloons—contraptions are built to accommodate the goods. These are not factory designed contraptions. People are forced to be creative with what they have and they build attachments to carry their goods. Scooter taxis are common and so are carriage-type attachments to carry more than one passenger.
Very little of the original landscape is apparent in most of the areas we rode through (the exception being Lake Toba and Bukit Luwang). Nearly 50% of the forest has been cleared by agri-business. Palm oil, rubber tree, and beetle nut plantation dominate the landscape that we rode through.
Despite the lack of aesthetic and modern conveniences, I find myself at peace in this country.
Our cycle journey was placed on pause because I went back to America to spend time with my son. We backpacked in the Catalina Mountains in March and made a longer journey in June—hiking the entire 400 miles of the Oregon Coast Trail. Read more about these journeys.
My bicycle was parked safely in Melakka, Malaysia waiting for my return in July with a plan to go to Java by bicycling through Malaysia, Singapore, and ultimately a ferry to Java. We heard this was possible but did not research the logistics.
When we returned in July to continue the bike ride, we learned that the ferry to Java was more expensive than what we wanted to spend in order to stay in a cabin that felt “safe” on a potentially unsafe journey. Suddenly, our plan seemed like a poor choice.
Always considering alternatives, Rene and I went to work. Our research online suggested that we could fly from Singapore to Jakarta with our bicycles. This was not a good option for two reasons. Flying meant that we would have to pack up our bicycles which always adds a risk of damage. Also, and more importantly, it is a cop out because it feels like the easy way. It skips the journey.
There do not appear to be any other options online. However, Rene insisted that we could take a ferry to a smaller island and slowly make our way to Java. I think he hoped that the islands along the way would be beautiful with crystal clear water and white sand beaches. Mostly we both wanted an adventure. Adventure for us means opening ourselves up to the unknown..
Rene is my role model for adventure. Sometimes he challenges my sensibility which wants to take the easier route. The route with all the answers. But because no one spoke English, we were unable to communicate with anyone at the ferry station. We did not know for sure if we took a ferry one place that we could get a ferry to another place in the right direction. We also did not know how often the ferry went. This meant we could end up somewhere and be stuck for several days.
But this is where true adventure happens. And because I completely trust Rene (and myself), I knew we would be okay. It might not be fun. It might be hard. Maybe annoying. But it would be memorable—that I knew.
So we got on a boat that was leaving for the island of Durai. We had very little information on the island. Rene read there were white sand beaches and only two people living on the island to monitor sea turtles. I was worried about food but I was ready to camp on the beach.
It was a smallish speed boat. Our bicycles and bags were tied to the roof and off we went. We passed many islands on the way. And we also stopped at some. The islands were built up on stilts, well populated, heavy with plastic trash, and where there were not stilt buildings, there were mangroves. Plus, the water was a milky brown. This was not the white sand beach with the crystal blue water.
After 2 hours, we pulled up to the pier at Durai. It was clear that this was a populated island with an infrastructure. Apparently there are two Durai’s. This Durai contained many more than two households. It was primitive and somewhat dirty. Lots of plastic trash. We got off the boat at a pier that also had a little restaurant and lots of people.
A man came up to us and asked us where we planned to stay. We said we did not know. He said his mother had a room—right there on the pier. We looked at it. Super basic. A bed, a fan. And a bathroom with a bucket and hole in the ground for a toilet. $6. Perfect. We will take it, we told him. Then we got on our bicycles and started to ride around. The friendliness of the people is indescribable. It was as though Kim Kardashian just arrived. There were small roads and as we passed, people stopped us for selfies.
We were pleased to find a place for dinner; more of a stand with tables. Typical Sumatran—pre-prepared food stood out in stainless steel bowls. Different kinds of fried chicken and fish served with rice. It seems that if it is not used one day, then it is just re- fried for the next day.
The next morning I was up early and when I stepped out there were already local people waiting for different small ferries. I ordered coffee and just enjoyed the environment. That day we cycled around the island (it is only 9 km from one end to the other) —off road through a forested area to the mangroves.
When we returned, to our surprise, a woman who had a small restaurant next to the pier, took Rene to a back room and showed him a container filled with live lobster. Rene absolutely loves fresh lobster. She prepared an entire lobster feast. For under $10 we sat in a small village with dirt roads, and extremely primitive living standards eating delicately prepared lobster.
This was since a nice deviation for the obligatory room temperature fried food, mie goreng (noodles) or nasi goreng (fried rice) that we usually find along the way.
In the late afternoon, we caught the ferry to Pulau Burung on mainland Sumatra.
Our arrival on the mainland was a shock. I had already cycled 2,000 km through Sumatra so I felt pretty comfortable with this quirky country. But nothing could have prepared me for this.
Remember, we did not know anything about where we were landing; just that it was mainland Sumatra. We got off the boat and started riding to find a place to sleep. It was built on a swamp —mostly on stilts. Except for small paths/roads, there was not a dry spot. Plastic trash dominated the entire area—surrounding homes, businesses, floating in the water. Goats walked around freely. The people were not friendly and no one knew English. I was a little spooked. It turns out that this place was only accessible via boat. We could not leave on bicycle. We would have to find a place to sleep in this slum.
Somehow, we found an unmarked hotel. We waited a while because no one was there. I do not usually care if I can find accommodation because I can always sleep outside. But it did not seem possible to get out of this slum.
After providing our passports, we were led to our room. It was surprisingly spacious and simple with a nice big window and flowing curtains. It felt like traveling back to the 1960’s.
As we were settling in, there was a knock on the door. The person in charge asked us for our passports again.
I have read several instances of travelers arrested for no reason or kidnapped for ransom but have never let it bother me. But this environment was so foreign. It seemed that no one knew English and there was not a foreigner in sight. Plus, there was no road out of here. I became convinced that we would either be kidnapped for ransom or arrested without warrant. It was not a matter of “if” we would be kidnapped, just “when.”. I read one story about a couple in Myanmar who were deported in the middle of the night.
I was even scared of these policeman as they approached. But it turned out that all they wanted was a selfie.
It all turned out lovely. We got a room. It was really nice. And cheap. We found a good place for dinner. Primitive, but good. We met nice people who spoke a bit of English. At the barber where got his hair cut, we met a priest who told us he had lived there five years and never saw a foreigner. The lack of friendliness we experienced was probably just due to wonderment—who were these strange white people on bicycles and why are they here?
In the morning, we went to the ferry early. It did not leave until noon. We sat at a little store with coffee and Indonesian pastries at low tide watching the goats scavenge around in the plastic trash. And yet the environment was also charming on the pier. We played backgammon and became the center of attention. The crowd was mostly men. They wanted to know where we were going. Where we were from. It was a weird, sweet, dirty, and an extremely authentic environment.
After drinking coffee for a couple hours, I asked for a toilet. The shop owner pointed around the building that stood on stilts above the sea. I opened the door. It was empty. Completely. The floor was made of wood slats. There was a space between the middle slats and when I looked down, it was about 150 feet down to the sea. Did he want me to pee in this space? I went out to find Rene. He confirmed this to be true. So I peed in a space between two wood slats down to the sea. Hygiene has so many standards!
We took a long ferry ride to Tungkal, found a basic hotel, and started off cycling again. This would be a 130 km ride to a city that hopefully had a good bed and a nice shower. It was a typical Sumatran city but it seemed luxurious compared to our recent experience. Since then we cycled 1,000 km along the east coast of Sumatra—a part of the island that is heavily populated, dirty, and hot toward the ferry to Java—Bakauheni. From there we took the ferry to Java where we are currently cycling.
Sumatra was challenging but it was an amazing experience. Thanks to all the Sumatrans that have sent smiles, hellos, and thumbs up!! We definitely felt welcome everywhere we went.