Writing about this collection of 17,508 islands is going to have to be a generalisation. I am sure that many of the islands vary immensely from others, from idyllic mounds of sand in the sea, to slimy backstreets coated in the bi-products of modern day living. This slightly longer than normal chapter is about just five of them, but still, compressing the nation into just a few paragraphs is tougher than normal.
We spent almost three months in this sprawling country, beginning on the island of Sumatra, having taken a speedy ship from the Malaysian mainland. The town of Dumai looked just as unappealing as the port town we had just left. Development is certainly happening here too, but it seems with little consideration of the impact it may have on a once wild place shrouded in jungles, home to elephants, rhino and tigers. Little evidence remains of these, so we were very frustrated to see new, although to be fair, much needed roads piercing the last bastions of nature. Another place in the world where I worry about what I’ve been teaching kids about Economics. Have I been adding to this one-track advancement to riches and ecological collapse? I must put more emphasis on the alternatives and foster critical-thinking at every opportunity.
The main east-west Sumatran highway is little more than a few strips of tarmac in places, bulging in the heat and the overloaded trucks that hurtled passed us. We spent a month in Sumatra and we were rarely able to look around us for the traffic was unpredictable and the shoulders non-existent. There were brief reprises though; the highland town of Bukittinggi and the nearby Maninjau Lake were a welcome change from the industrialised villages and gas pipelines. The hair-raising descent to the lake, with its 64 switchbacks is used as a category 1 climb in the tour of Indonesia. Thankfully, we were going in the right direction and blasted downhill for two days to the ocean on the south of the island. We spent the next week or so edging along the coast towards Java, and occasionally enjoyed the off-road and back-road sections we chose to venture on, pausing to stare at a few quiet and undisturbed bays.
The island of Java is even busier than Sumatra, bursting at the seams with ‘progress’. Again, as people scramble to get their slice of the perceived good-life, little has been thought of the damage it may be causing the land, waterways and/or the people. Nor did we in the west at the time, so we are all to blame for the predicament we in.
I would not recommend cycling in Java to even my greatest enemy (maybe I would). It’s too late for this place, sad but true. There are still pleasant relics of times gone by though, such as Borobudur, some epic volcanoes and river valleys, all of which made it more worthwhile being here and a comfortable enough place to sit and wait for a visa renewal, amongst a cacophony of life.
Moving east to Bali was like entering a different country. Not just because we saw scores of tourists for pretty much the first time in weeks (a scourge in itself), but because people seemed way more relaxed and I got a full nights sleep away from the calls to prayer in every corner. Some of the places we stayed on the beach in the west and north were spot-on. It’s amazing how tourists seemed to cram themselves in on the peninsular south of Kuta and in the artisan town of Ubud. We wondered whether they knew about the calm bays and lush rice fields we were enjoying. Here, it felt like we were on a holiday, on holiday again. We could breathe again.
A second 30-day visa renewal meant that we needed to fly out of Indonesia and re-enter, so we chose Timor-Leste instead of the more obvious Singapore. That was like stepping back in time. The Portuguese port of Dili the capital was little more than a town. We liked it a lot, walking along the beach, choosing a Parrotfish to eat from the only restaurants menu, sipping good wine. This country was a great pit stop, albeit without the bikes.
Upon our return from ‘East-East’ as this is the direct translation of Timor-Leste, we decided to head to what we thought was the picture-perfect island of Lombok. It wasn’t. Ok, there were sections of quiet beaches and the occasional laid-back tourist town, but not a lot. We arrived on the public boat in the southwest as the speedboats could not take bicycles. The three-hour journey took eight, so we arrived in the depths of the night, but still optimistic about what we would find the next day. No doubt the majority of luxury package tourists would leave with a great impression of the place and this must have somehow transferred in to my preconceived vision of the place.
Our brief attempt at traditional holiday-making on the tiny island of Gili Air gave us a chance to sample the good-life that many westerners experience in this region. The tiny round and flat island was a mini-world in itself. Renewable energy production and lanfill sites made up the steamy interior which was flanked by beach hotels and and bars. Many of these had just been given orders by the government to be levelled as they were illegal structures, so much of what we saw was the perpetual cycle of tourist trappings. Nevertheless, we found some quietish bungalows and enjoyed kicking-back on the white sand.
When we returned to Lombok, we kept pedalling clockwise around the island in the hope that just around the corner paradise would appear. But more often that not it would just be a skyrise hotel on the west and north coasts, or a fishing port with beaches of rubbish. It made us sad; we quickly had enough of the mess and the contrast of tourist hotpot and neglected dusty roadways used to build them, with nothing nice in between. We made a beeline for the boat back to Bali, having done a full clockwise loop of Lombok in only a few days, and enjoyed the end of a year on the road in a relaxed and simple manner, away from the worst of the crazy busy cities.