I am in the jungle in Indonesia riding on the back of a motorbike over rough terrain. Numerous wet stones and mud create the obstacle course that is our landscape to traverse. What makes the situation even more dire is that it is dark and raining and the headlight on this old motorbike keeps going out. I wonder how he can drive through this at night with no head light?
This should not really scare me. I’ve done far more dangerous things traveling than riding on the back of a motorbike…but it does. After wrecking a bike in Tuk Tuk on my own last week, I had hoped it would be the last time I would ride one.
But I am learning that in Upper Sumatra it’s often the only mode of transportation. Especially here in Batu Kapal, where unlike in Tuk Tuk which has roads, there are only small trails to get you from village to village. As usual I had arrived to my destination not knowing what to expect. I like it that way because it keeps things exciting but sometimes it’s more nerve racking than I care to admit.
A few days ago, I decided to rent a motorbike to visit some sites in Tuk Tuk on Lake Toba, though I had never driven one before. I never thought it was a good idea before but it was the only way around.
Tuk Tuk does not take after its namesake as I had assumed. In most countries I have been to, I have been able to hire tuk-tuks to get me short distances. But the small three-wheel vehicles which are similar to a rickshaw but with a driver’s seat and a motor, were nowhere around. There are no tuk-tuks in Tuk Tuk I learned. Only motorbikes. Many carrying entire families. Some could be seen carrying a wooden structure the size of a small room, stacked with merchandise and parcels.
After a quick five-minute driver’s course, the motor bike owner sent me off saying, “Drive slow. No insurance!”.
I did great the first day. I thought for sure I had a handle on it. The next day I drove twice as far, almost an hour, eager to see the traditional Batak Dancers in Simanindo.
I arrived to what was usually a popular tourist attraction for such a small place, but today there were only three attendees. The musicians sat atop the second-floor balcony of a beautiful Batak building, framed by ornate wood cuttings painted red. Elaborate wood carvings hung all around them. The building was topped by the iconic sloped roof shape that all traditional Batak homes and buildings have. They played beautifully, one on a set of large drums made of bamboo, the other, on a horn of some sort. The dancers seemed bored. They made silly gestures to each other and smiled half-heartedly through it. Clearly, they had performed this dance hundreds of times. Their beautiful woven skirts and sashes were starting to fade from over use. It must not be fun to perform for such a tiny audience either. Even though it was slow season, it was much slower than usual. Many tourists were afraid to travel anywhere in Asia due to the scare about corona virus.
When the performance was over, I got on the road again, ready to head back to my home-stay to rest. I was only driving for a few minutes when I turned a corner and saw a bus stopped in front of me. I squeezed the breaks hard but could not get them to work. There was nowhere to go but straight ahead so I just braced myself. Seconds later I found myself with the wheel of my motor bike stuck up under the bumper of the bus. The bike was still standing upright and I just stood up and got off. I was pretty shaken up. The bike’s fender had broken off and the headlights were smashed. Even the fiberglass casing around the seat and the back reflectors were busted, having felt the impact all the way around the bike. But I was lucky not to be injured. It could have been so much worse.
Several men came to make sure I was ok. It took two of them to pull the bike out from under the bus. The bus was unharmed. They called the owner of the bike and when I got on the phone, I was surprised to hear that she really was more concerned for me than the bike. Actually, she did not even sound upset about the bike. She asked if I could drive it home. We started it up and the bike could still run, no problem. Once my heart rate calmed down, I felt okay to drive again. I just wanted to get back now, and never get on a motor bike again. I took it very slow going back.
When I got there Isabel, the owner, asked me to go with her to the mechanic to see the cost of the damages. Reluctantly, I got back on the bike and endured the ride. The cost was one million two hundred thousand rupees to repair, equal to about two hundred forty US dollars. I agreed to pay, a small price for being alive and unharmed. The breaks were somehow working fine now. The crash was my fault.
I bought Isabel and I lunch after that. Then we went back to her house and sat talking about the accident over tea. We were both amazed that there had been so much damage to the bike and that I was perfectly fine. I still could not understand what happened with the breaks. She was just glad I was ok. She smiled at me and I could see I had made a new friend.
I visited with her over the next couple of days. The day before I left, I needed to get to town for a couple of errands and I asked her to take me. She said she would but we needed to make a stop at a wedding party in Samosir first, eat and then we could go to Tomok. I was so excited to be seeing more of the culture, I did not mind getting on the motor bike again. Isabel finished a plate of food and I thought, “She’s going to be really full if we eat again in an hour”. Then she quickly changed from her stained daily clothes into a nice green satin blouse, batik skirt and sequined slippers. I asked her, “Is this your family whose wedding it is?” and she smiled and replied, “Here, we are all family.”
Thankfully the wedding party was only a couple of blocks away. As we drove up, I could see other women walking toward the party, putting on their nicest batik sarongs over their everyday clothes as they walked.
The newlyweds were gorgeous. The bride wore an ornate white beaded lace blouse over her traditional red Batak skirt and red sash across the chest. Her head was crowned with gold metallic appliques on rich red fabric, held on by thick rows of pearls that stretched around the back of her head, with many more in perfect lines clipped into her hair below. The groom wore a smaller red sash over his suit and a triangular red crown with similar gold appliques.
The women of the wedding party were all dressed in traditional Batak skirt and sash with ornate lace and beaded blouses, the men in suits and sashes of varying colors. They were all beautiful. Isabel had nudged me off, telling me to go take pictures, as soon as we arrived and I could not stop shooting. Delighted women danced in groups together. The wedding party made rows and danced back and forth to upbeat Indonesian rhythms, played by a stylish band.
A line was formed in front of the newlyweds. Guests holding Indonesian cash rupees and women with tall colorful woven baskets of rice on their heads, each took their turn congratulating the couple and giving them the money. The line of women ended beside several large bags that the rice was poured into. I did not know anyone or speak the language but I was having a terrific time just to be watching.
When I could see that the wedding party was moving to the banquet tables I went over to sit with Isabel and her friends. All of the guests sat in randomly placed plastic chairs or on the ground on tarps. There were probably two hundred guests in total. That’s when I noticed that several of her friends wore the same outfits as Isabel. She told me, “We eat and then I sing and we go then.” She explained that she and the others were there to perform and she wanted me to photograph them. Of course, I was more than happy to oblige my friend. Besides I was already so enamored to be able to photograph the wedding party.
A table was set up with large buckets of food which was scooped up with a bowl and put onto plastic plates. We were given no utensils as everyone eats with their hands in Samosir. The plates were passed out and as soon as Isabel got hers’, she opened up a plastic bag and dumped it in. She waited for another plate of food and put most of that in too, saving herself a small portion of rice and meat to eat for now. That’s when it dawned on me why she kept mentioning eating at the wedding party. How naïve of me not to realize before how poor she really was, which is why this meal was so important. I suddenly wished I could do more for her. There was a lot of rice left on my plate when I was done and after setting it down on the ground, I thought perhaps I should offer it to Isabel. But before I could, another woman came along, picked it up and dumped it into her own bag.
Sometimes I surprise myself. I visit so many countries where the people clearly live on so little, yet I am still clueless about just how little that actually is. What if the wreck had happened to another tourist and they had refused to pay Isabel? It would be a huge loss and there would be no course of action she could take to get her money back. The fact is, if anything happened to her bike or her home, there is no insurance to cover it to be able to rebuild. Thinking about this I worry about Isabel.
Millions of people live this way. Millions of hard-working people who may bring home a few dollars of income a day, if they have the means. Yet, I can afford to travel and carry a camera that is worth what is perhaps a year’s salary to one of them. It makes me sad to think about. When reality hits me like this it can be really depressing. This is the way it is in most of the world though. And there is really nothing I can do to change it. What I can do is just be Isabel’s friend and support her when possible. So, when she asked me to donate 100,000 rupees ($7.50 US dollars) to her singing group, I was happy to do it.
One thing I do know. When I look at their smiling faces, I am reminded that there is something they have more of than most people I know- love and happiness. They have communities where everyone is considered family. Most underdeveloped places I visit in other countries, I find that the people are genuinely happy. They smile and laugh often. They rarely complain. They seem content with what little they have. Even the babies are almost never heard crying because they have the attention that they need to thrive. They are well loved. It’s more than a lot of people in the US have, even if they are rich. And that alone gives me hope for Isabel.
Now riding through the jungle, I realize that maybe my motorbike driver cannot afford a new headlight? I decide to pay him enough for the ride to also get it fixed. I know that this will not be my last motorbike ride because there are no tuk-tuks in Batu Kapal either.