The joys and tribulations of cycling isolated Sumatra
Sumatra is not one of the ‘must go’ places for most Western tourists, though there certainly are places on this, the largest of Indonesian islands, where Westerners are not a rare sightings. But there have been quite a few areas in the last two weeks where it is obvious that the locals are not used to seeing foreigners, especially not foreigners on bicycles.
One such region is the province of Bengkulu, which is known to be the most isolated province in Sumatra. It is this province where we have been cycling for the last few days. But how do you know you are cycling in a region in which western cyclists are rarer than volcanic eruptions? After all, on the surface, not much is different here than in other areas we have cycled.
Well, for one, there are endless greetings of one kind or another from drivers, motorcyclists and people on both sides of the road. Periodically there is a shout of “bule”, – a word similar to muzungu in Swahili, ferenji in Ethiopia and gringo in other parts of the world. It originates from kids but it can also be heard from others. Bule, foreigner or white face is what we are and the locals are fascinated by us.
More to the point, every time we cycle by a school we become instant celebrities, with screaming kids getting dangerously to close to the bikes. When we stop for refreshments it does not take long time for the owner of the shop or a restaurant, male or female, to pull out their phone camera and then it is time for pictures.
But even on the more isolated areas of the route between towns and villages, a motorcycle will pull out and an attempt at conversation is made. Surprisingly, at least to me, this happens as often with young female drivers as much as from others. The curiosity about us is pervasive, even though the language exchange is usually limited to very few basic words. Sometimes, however, there is a surprise. Today, for example, an elderly man with only a couple of teeth left in his mouth stopped to ask me if I needed any help.
Then, of course, there are the inevitable celebrations such as weddings, which unlike those at home are not done in halls. Instead a large tent is built, often partially blocking the main road, music is set up and a celebration is soon in full swing. If any of us decides to stop and perhaps take a picture, well, it will not be long before we are invited to be part of the celebration. Today a couple of riders were not only invited to be part of the wedding; Andreas, the sweep, ended up making a speech congratulating the newlyweds, followed by a dance featuring himself and Joachim that, without any doubt, will go into local folklore and be retold for generations to come.
Such is the life of cycling where others fear to pedal.