The first tourist
September 12, 2007
The corpse was handled impeccably.
Passed along a wave of gently caring hands, I watched as a father’s life-journey ended in the arms of his three eldest sons.
Words were spoken and songs were sung. Family members gathered and whispered their last good-byes. A moment then passed and offerings were made. The deceased was kissed, blessed, then quickly set aflame.
The fire leapt quickly, filling the air with the scent of burning flesh. The wind shifted, and the odor began to drift, mixing with that of orchids, incense and the ever-distant hint of the oncoming rain.
I’d attended this traditional Balinese cremation ceremony during my last day on Bali.
This ending marked a new beginning. The start of a 600-mile ride across three remote islands in Indonesia’s eastern-most region of Nusa Tenggara.
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Retracting the bow of my desire, I shot like an arrow across the Lombok straits, through the island’s sleepy backwaters, then boarded a ferry bound for the remote Island of Sumbawa.
Six hours later, the island appeared on the horizon, then grew within my vision.
With few huts, and even fewer trees, most of Sumbawa’s hillsides were a checker-board of random burnt spots. An other-worldly place that looked as if Godzilla had passed through in a fit of burps.
In reality, I’d crossed the Wallace Line, a boundary that separates the greener-lusher geographical regions of Asia with it’s dryer neighbor Australasia.
What most people don’t see and couldn’t know was that they were missing something. Something amazing. Something you’d never see if you are just passing through.
Something I’d failed to recognize until I’d suffered a breakdown on many levels.
The first of those breakdowns was mechanical.
I’m sorry, did I say the first? I meant the 21st.
Twenty-one times previous I’d broken down on the side of the road in Indonesia.
Then, on Sumbawa, somewhere along a rice field on the outskirts of Utan, as the sun clung low to the horizon, I experienced “breakdown number 22.”
Nearly an hour later, after I’d reloaded my bags and prepared to go, I heard that tell-tale sound – that “pftssssssssss” sound of air leaking from the tire.
That’s when I lost it.
“What? WHAT? WHAAAAAAAAT?!” I began shouting at the wheel.
“You” I said, gritting my teeth. “YOU!” I said louder, “YOU CAN BREAK A MILLION TIMES. I WILL NOT GIVE UP!”
“EVEN IF I HAVE TO PUSH,” I wailed, tilting my head toward the sky, “I WILL NEVER GIVE UP!”
I cannot say for certain if it was the universe testing my resolve that afternoon, but when I repumped the tire, the patch held, and mysteriously I was on my way.
By the time I’d got back on the road, day had turned to night.
The next morning I resumed my ride across central Sumbawa. That afternoon, after my stomach commanded me to stop at a small roadside cafe, I was plowing into a plate of fish and rice when my meal was interrupted by the squeak of swinging doors.
A shadow filled the doorway and for a moment I felt as though I was trapped within a scene from a spaghetti western.
But instead of a cowboy hat and a six-shooter, the man in the doorway sported shoulder-length hair, a sleeveless heavy-metal T-shirt, and a two-foot sword hanging off his right hip.
“Sweet blade,” I said sarcastically as he walked in, knowing he wouldn’t speak a lick of English.
“It’s called a parang,” he returned. “I use it to cut my rice fields.”
“My name is Saeful Arief,” he smiled, extending his hand. “But my friends call me Air Force.”
I slipped my hand into his.
“Rick,” I replied.
“Where are you going,” he asked.
“New Zealand,” I said.
“On a bicycle,” he laughed, seemingly waiting for the punch line.
“Yes,” I replied. “On sepeda.”
He turned his attention to my bike for a moment, then back toward me.
“My father’s house is 60 kilometers up the road in the village of Empang.” he said, “I’m heading there myself, would you like to come and stay for the night?”
Three hours later I pedaled into the city limits, then turned onto the main street in Empang. At first glance it looked less a village, than it did a well-used bomb target.
The roads were broken and the buildings failing. Pigs ran near my feet, and a large crowd of people began to gather round.
“You made it,” I heard someone say, then turned my head to see Saeful on his motorcycle. He dawned a huge smile.
“Man I’m glad to see you,” I returned.
“Follow me,” he instructed.
Following him past a crowd, over the bumpy village road, we turned off into a smallish neighborhood. That’s when a large group of children spotted us. When they did, they went berserk.
When we stopped, a man wearing a sarong and a Muslim pillbox hat stepped out of a simple cement house.
I shook his hand and he said, “Welcome.”
A crowd gathered. Some giggled, others pointed. Most looked upon me like a circus freak. A few approached and touched my skin. Then one of them gestured about the length of my nose and the whole crowd giggled again.
“You’re the first tourist they’ve ever seen,” Saeful told me later.
Two hours later, I was sitting on a couch, stuffed on rice and fish, staring at the television set, while the other 25 people in the room stared at me.
When it came time to sleep, I was shown to a room where I crawled into bed.
Just moments before I met the sandman, I opened my eyes to discover another 15 people, standing, pointing, whispering, staring. Then Saeful came in and shooed them away, smiling before he turned off the light.
“Sorry,” he said. “They’re just curious, you know. Good night.”
The next morning came quickly and Saeful followed me to the main road to make sure I got off safely.
“Thank you,” I said extending my hand. He ignored it, opened his arms, and gave me a hug.
“Be safe,” he said, with one of his classic smiles.
“I will,” I returned, then climbed on my bike and rode away.
A week later I’d completed my ride across Sumbawa, then took another week to cycle across the mountainous interior of Flores. When I was done, I boarded a final ferry bound for the city of Kupang in West Timor.
There I prepared for my entry into the war-torn borders of the world’s youngest country – East Timor.
• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.
To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or http://www.nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.
Where in the world is Rick Gunn?
WHERE: Bali, including Negara, Kuta Beach, Ubud; Lombok, including Segigi, Gili, Meno, Transat; Sumbawa, Utan, Sumbawa, Besar, Empang, Dompu, Sape; Flores, including Lubuanbajo, Lembar, Ruteng, Nangaroro, Ende; West Timor including Kupang
WHEN: Aug. 1-26
MILEAGE LOG: 18,043-18,840
ELEVATION: Sea level to 4,000 feet