Cycling Northern Sumatra’s Highlands
At 5am the sound of the alarm penetrates my dreams and tells me it’s time to get up.
I rise and walk, stiff kneed, to the bathroom. Taking a small bucketful of water from the tiled, concrete reservoir I tip it over my head. Cold water is the standard in cheap guesthouses and it’s normally a pleasant thing to have; on a 36 degree day who would want a hot shower? But at 1000m the water’s bracingly cold and it jolts me awake.
Hana’s up now too. We pour rolled oats into our bowls and eat them raw with cold water and bananas. Rolled oats are a luxury and for seven months breakfast has consisted of whatever has been available. In Laos and Cambodia it was yoghurt and bananas; in Vietnam baguette with bananas; in Thailand, bread from the 7Eleven with bananas. When we can’t find oats in Sumatra we drink chocolate milk, with bananas. Bananas are a constant. We flush down the oats with some locally made 3in1 coffee mixed with cold water. There’s not really enough caffeine in it to get us going, so it’s more of a placebo and a force of habit.
I smear hospital grade bed sore cream on the raw patches on my bum and put on my shorts, followed by a sleeveless riding jersey. At around 11am, when the sun starts to cook us I’ll put on a sleeved jersey and some UV barrier arm warmers. At sea level it’s sometimes as hot as 39 degrees, but here in the highlands it’s slightly cooler, especially at night. My gloves, sunnies and the wallet we share go in the back pockets.
We pack up and wheel our bikes outside into the grey morning. Town’s not really going yet, though most people have been awake since 4.45am for first prayers. We’re in a strictly Muslim country after all. The guesthouse owner photographs us with his mobile and shakes our hands. I don’t think he sees white cycle tourists very often – if ever.
By 6.15 we’re pedaling out of town. A noisy muffler-less motorcyclist passes and issues a loud ‘Hello Mister!’ It’s abrasive, and in New Zealand I’d take it as aggression. But I know he means well with it. ‘Selamat Pagi!’ We shout back. Good Morning.
On the outskirts of town a battered Vespa moto-taxi is parked by the river. It owner squats, shitting, in the shallows. Downstream people will be bathing in the same water and doing their laundry while kids splash and jump around naked. It’s a scene that repeats itself.
The sun starts to rise over the mist wrapped, jungled ridges above us and in front of me Hana is swallowed by amazing golden backlight. Our legs are stiff from four days of mountainous riding and we spin softly in a high cadence. It takes us an hour of riding to warm up, to reach the point where we can push harder without our muscles immediately filling with lactic acid. My knee has a strange sensation behind the kneecap and my achilles feels sore.
We ride in single file and don’t talk much; just the odd comment to each other about sights we pass. If the road’s flat or gently rolling we’ll draft closely and take 2-3km turns in front. It’s efficient that way, and seems to make time pass faster. Today it’s hillier and we pedal at our own pace alone in our thoughts, which are invariably stimulated by the unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds we pass day after day. In the mornings my mental ruminations are imaginative and creative. By the afternoon I’m daydreaming about lying down on a bed and wondering what dinner might look like.
The narrow road snakes through a jungle clad gorge, criss crossing a bouldery stream, diving and climbing. Traffic is infrequent: just the odd motorbike, taxi van, and occasionally a truck. Private cars are rare; people can’t afford them. The air’s filled with the sound of chirping insects, unfamiliar bird calls and sometimes the chattering of monkeys. Looking across the gorge I can sometimes see a solitary tree swaying as a troop swings and leaps in the canopy.
After two hours we stop on the roadside for morning tea. In the shade we drink more 3in1 and eat some biscuits and cheap cake purchased in a small shop the night before. If shops are likely to be scarce we usually carry a little food for the morning, but only the bare minimum. It’s only 8.15 and we’ve already ridden 35km of rolling road; a third of the day’s distance.
Pedalling again we wriggle on our saddles – like Homer Simpson finding his couch groove – to find the sweet spot on our seats. Our bums are sore. I might buy a Brooks next time. The doxycycline we’re taking for malaria makes us ultra sensitive to the sun and easily burned, so at 9am we chuck on some sunblock.
By 10.30 we’re ready for lunch and stop in a small town. Sometimes we eat fried rice with an egg, or a bowl of noodles, but today we’re in luck and get to break the routine after we spot a rare bakery. We fill a cake box with assorted buns and sit on a bench outside, eating and sipping isotonic drink. When the box is empty I go back into the shop and fill it again. More to eat now and some for the road…
It starts to pour with rain and we sit on the bench watching people running for cover or covering their wares while water sluices off the gutterless rooftops onto the street. Soon the town’s dirt verges are pouring with water and washing garbage down the street. The rain eases a little and while we wait for it to stop I start to nod off, still sitting on the bench. We’ve got another 40km of climbing to do though and can’t wait forever.
We grind on uphill through occasional small villages and the afternoon passes with a million shouted greetings: ‘Hello Mister, Hello Miss, Hey Friend, What are you do?, Were do you go?, Whass your name? Groups of schoolgirls, clad in head-covering hijabs with only their faces exposed point, giggle, and say hello. They’re more confident to speak to us than the boys.
After 4pm we arrive in our destination for the day. Guesthouses only exist in the bigger towns here so we plan each day’s ride around the chances of there being a place to stay, or be prepared to rely on people’s goodwill to take us in. We’ve had to do that three times here already, and it’s a good way to get a deeper level of connection with the people in these communities. Tonight though we’ve got two to choose from. The default choice is always the cheapest looking one as after 7 months on the road our funds are low. There’s a prison cell room with no bathroom for 60,000 or a – palatial by comparison – double room with TV, a desk, and even better, a hot/cold water filter for 150,000. We offer 100,000 for the bigger room and in the end settle on 120,000. We’re happy to have some hot water for our oats and coffee in the morning.
Hana goes to wash with water from the mandi (water reservoir) in the dirty showerless bathroom and I fall asleep on the bed, still wearing my cycling shorts. It’s 4.30. At 7pm we’ll go and try to find dinner, after evening prayers are over. In the meantime we make use of the desk to upload our latest photos on the computer and work on the blog. Outside a monumental thunderstorm is raging.
By 7 the rain has subsided a little and we splash down the street in darkness, huddled underneath our solitary small umbrella. Someone tells us there is a restaurant down the street but after 500m and no sign of a place to eat we wonder if its yet another language barrier misunderstanding. Finally some lights emerge from the darkness and we scuttle inside from the rain. They’re packing up, but are happy to feed us. Like many restaurants here the food’s not cooked to order. We take a seat and the owner brings us a selection of dishes, a large bowl of rice, and two plates. We’ve got some beef rendang, chicken curry, fried chicken with coconut, dried up salty fish, some spinach-like vegetable and some searingly hot chilly paste. Usually there’s some fried fish too. Water is supplied for us to wash our hands, which are what we use to eat with. There’s no cutlery. You simply eat the food you want and reject the rest. It’s a trap for hungry cycle tourists though and it’s hard not to devour it all.
The owner takes a seat next to us and stares at us through the entire meal, watching in fascination. She’s either never seen westerners in her restaurant before, never seen such big noses before, thinks we’re greedy pigs, can’t believe how messy we are at eating with our hands, or probably all four.
We share some basic small talk, and establish some rapport with this jolly lady. She can’t hide her curiosity and is incredulous that we’ve ridden 1000km from Banda Aceh. Let alone from China. People here rarely leave their villages – if ever. ‘Remember me’ she says as we leave. We’re not sure if she means she’ll remember us, or if we should remember her. We definitely will though.
On the way back to our room we stop in a small shop to buy some snacks for dessert and morning tea the next day. Food has become an obsession and we pore over the shelves looking for the right nutrition level. I can look at food and practically visualize its uptake in my body. Anything ultra sugary or sweet is rejected, along with anything unsubstantial. Biscuit packets are judged by weight; if they feel too airy they’re out. We go for wheat, oat biscuits and anything bread-like and buy flavoured milk for a bit of protein.
We return to our room and tidy up for a quick departure in the morning. At 9pm it’s lights out. We need our eight hours.