9. Sungei Penuh (Full River)

Posted: April 6, 2015 in Mountain Bike Touring West Sumatra 1998
Tags: , , ,

You would think that by looking at Mr Subandi’s rustic little guest house and my dingy room that I had a great time in (the living room and veranda as well) for the past 2.5 days, nothing could get dingier?

The hotels in Sungei Penuh somehow managed to top that. I don’t need to go into further detail, but in keeping with the town’s main attraction of a century old mosque made out of wood, the place I stayed at seemed older than the mosque, even though it was made of concrete from Padang semen. I was missing Mr S’s linoleum floors already, where we sat cross legged for 2.5 nights brainwashed (Mr S at least) by CNN and the BBC.

OK one slight detail. The toilet was an after thought as it and the bath were higher than the room floor itself. A foot higher. Of course it leaked and water flowed into the room. I had to repair the bed, as the planks holding it up were falling onto the floor. I chose to sleep on the planks as the thin mattress was, well thinner than the 3/4 inch planks, also by now my back muscles are harder than any wood. Changing rooms didn’t matter as the place was full, being a Saturday. Imagine if you can, Leonardo de Caprio in The Beach, staying at the run down On On Hotel, 19 Phang Nga Road, in Phuket Town. He didn’t have a toilet that leaked. They were downstairs. At least he had a ceiling fan and all the Thai massage that was within spitting distance from the hotel. I didn’t.

Ah well. I did survive an earthquake, and finished 30 months of military service without having a girlfriend.

My mega dollar ti bike was minimally locked to a banister near reception if you could call it that. One saving grace in this hovel with no name, the sign board was too faded, was the 10 year old kid who seemed to be doing all the work here. I told him to keep an eye on my cheap looking unpainted bike as there would be a present for him the next day if no one stole it.

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I had the good fortune to meet a Chinese looking couple staying at the same hotel, who asked around about dinner and we actually drove in their car out of town to a little eatery that had the best food in as many days. What a gem it was. Fried Hokkien noodles with NO potatoes. They too knew that the choices in town were grim and were adamant that SP has a small Chinese community, so stir frys here are not a dream but a small God sent reality. They were headed to Padang on the same scenic inland route that my bus 008 took. They were not enthusiastic about that, as that way had no services at all, compared to the coast road. Apparently the road across to Tapan on the coast had been closed for months from landslides, the road that I needed to ride on tomorrow. Drats.

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Surprisingly sleeping on bare planks turned out pretty well. I slept like a ….. log. While packing, there was a knock on the door and ‘the Kid’ as I fondly remember, appeared with breakfast in hand, French toast and piping hot coffee. Now that was a good start, and as promised I tipped him in the thousands of Rupiah. The country has legions of such children working in servitude without a hint of any income, just food and board, and sadly with abuse thrown in. Without his masters around that early in the morning, we managed to talk a lot about life in SP and he said that if people were coming from the coast at Tapan to SP on motorcycles and on foot, surely a cheap unpainted bicycle could go the other way. Now this kid, I hope he has a brighter future. He wasn’t sure about cars, but who cares about cars?

The road started to defy gravity just as it left town. I was in a happy mood, the air was fresh and cool and the shallow inclines didn’t tax my legs so much. I kept thinking about the kid who in another place and time would achieve so much more, but he looked happy in an earnest sort of way, folding the notes that I put into his small palm to quickly tuck them into his front pocket, at the same time keeping a wary glance to his left and right for busybody eyes nearby. In no time, I had ridden most of the 15 kms up to a ridgeline which I had seen from the valley floor yesterday.

There were a few interesting moments when a truck tried it’s level best on very un level ground, zigzaging it’s way up a slope. An assistant, with rocks in hand had to place them under the rear wheels, each time the driver hit the pedal. Really slow progress at a snail’s pace. After being sufficiently entertained, I moved on to the top of the long broken road with stunning views of the valley and Mt Kerinchi for the very last time.

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Seeing some faded signs for a park ranger’s office , I had high hopes in confirming my directions for today. Alas I came upon an empty wooden shack with burnt furniture, probably set alight for some warmth in the night. It seemed that there was little chance of getting lost, as this was the only road for miles around, and it was headed west on a welcome down hill. It carried on for at least 20 kms without so much as a motorcycle passing by. Dense jungle, with water flowing onto the broken tarmac and a lack of litter suggested that there wasn’t much traffic for months. Instead I was rewarded with the sounds of nature, flowing water, whoops of giant hornbills flying above and screaming monkeys in the trees. Wait, no, they were gibbons with their distinctive calls. It was fun returning those calls, there would be silence for a while, and then more screaming from small white faces in the trees. In gibbon speak, it could have been. “Hello Misterrr!” or “What a nice bike you have” I don’t know.

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The first signs of human life thereafter were whole families on motorcycles heading to SP. I must admit that I felt relieved after hours being by myself. It was Sunday after all and upon hearing them, I’d stop and wait in the shadows like a gibbon wearing lycra. Some did a double take, first noticing the bike, then I’ll step out into the light. More screams of surprise and a bike or two even stalled as they had to keep throttling uphill. 65 kms from SP, I rode into Tapan, or at least the outskirts. It was still a long ways to the Indian Ocean, but here was the turnoff NW to Padang. 212 kms read a road marker. 212 kms ???!!!

Time for an ice cream, while planning the next move. Within minutes an ice cream loving taxi driver pulled up at the warung, I was at, and we started talking, while I weighed my options in the back of my mind. The same ol questions, where you’re from, where you’re going ensued. Now a metered taxi in the middle of nowhere is a rarity. They seldom travel alone in the countryside. Who would hail them down? Not me, but the 212 kms played in my mind. It was only a question of getting ripped off, and by how much. He had driven 400 km from Padang the day before, as someone had a medical emergency, and now had to head back empty, before his boss sends out a search party. City cabs aren’t meant to do inter provincial rides. The opening offer was about US$25 then dropped to $20 or 10 cents per km. I felt that I had a slight upper hand, also as providence would have it, the taxi came to me. By now half of Tapan had gathered around us and I did some magic tricks like quick releasing the wheels without any tools to put the bike in the boot (English) trunk (American).

The coast road though flat was narrow, hot, shoulderless and monotonous, with Painan being the only town before Padang to stay at. During the 4 hour ride I did what I couldn’t do on a bike ride. Doze off in the humidity at sea level. Well rested I asked to be dropped of at Bungus Bay, an idyllic fishing village about 20 kms south of Padang. There were possibly a few disappointing beach huts to stay at, the kind Leo likes, but I think I was more than ready for the big city.

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