Saturday, September 23, 2006

Our Penultimate Road Trip

What I envisioned as being a tough, Lance Armstrong-y bicycle trek turned out to be more of a cruise with a bohemian young tour guide by the name of Vani. We took a taxi out of the city to a village and got some rickety bikes held in a family's shed. It was great to be seeing rice padis, dirt paths, farm animals and villagers again, and not from inside a moving vehicle (downtown Toronto or rural Indonesia - always prefer the bike!).

However, we didn't exactly get a good sweat in. You can't ride quickly on these rocky, uneven dirt roads. Plus, we made a lot of stops.

First we joined some men on the side of the road making bricks. Because of all the rebuilding in the area, bricks are in high demand. A man let us fill a tray mold with dirt and soil and pack it in to create some soggy bricks that would then dry in the scorching sun. Later, they go to a kiln that is made up of the very bricks that are being fired. They are all piled up, with rice husks in between each layer (they don't waste a thing!). The man baking the bricks surely had the worst job. He wore a t-shirt wrapped around his head and mouth. Everything is already hot and dusty everywhere we go, but with the fire smoldering inside the four walls of baking bricks plus all the fine dust of the rice husks, it was just too much to handle.

The neat thing is that somewhere in Jogja there will be a house made with six bricks that I made with my own hands. The men make thousands of these bricks, real back-breaking labour in the heat of the midday sun. Oh, and this is their side gig. They are full-time farmers.

Vani also took us to the bank. We thought maybe we were hearing incorrectly.

"Ok, now we stop at the bank."
"The bank?"
"The bank."
"Can I change my 50 000 Rupiah bill here?"
"Hmm, you'll see."

We leaned our bikes up against trees at the side of the road and approached pens full of cows and bulls. Again, I said, "The BANK?" Vani was having some fun with us.

She explained that the animals are the investments of the villagers and that they are their currency. Still, I must have asked her so many times that I was really testing her commitment to her own mirth and inside joke.

"The people in this village call this their bank."

She showed us their full-time security. A friendly old man who hit the alarm for me, a ketongan, a hollow piece of wood. If some untoward action, say a bank heist, is going on, the villagers would be alerted with a toktoktoktoktok!

Meandering along the paths next to the rice padis, all in different stages of growth, was really something. One field was so impossibly green that even Vani was impressed. We ran into it and had an impromptu photo shoot. I'm convinced that nothing quite this richly green grows in Canada. I've never seen anything like it!

We had lunch on a bamboo bench by the road. Lunch was a wicker basket full of martabak, my new favourite handheld food, right up there with pizza and sushi handrolls. They are fried little pockets full of shredded vegetables and subtle spices. The locals eat them with little chilis, but after nibbling about half a millimeter of one of these little green guys, I had a flashback to a fairly painful moment in a restaurant the other night and just handed it over to Anne. Anne licked it, yelled, "I'm on fire!" and put it back in the wicker basket.

Besides being able to walk and bike around freely in the countryside, a highlight of this bike tour would definitely have to be Vani herself. She taught me so much. She told me about the superstitions that her grandmother has passed on to her (never eat in front of a door as it means that future marriage proposals will fall through, pregnant women should never kill a living thing or it will harm their unborn child). She also told me that her boyfriend is Catholic while she is Muslim and they plan on LIVING TOGETHER. I was blown away. She actually tiptoed into the topic by asking me about my boyfriend and whether we lived together. I said, "Um, yes? Do you think I'm a bad person?" I had been careful not to volunteer this information with any of our new friends because I thought maybe our cultural differences were too great.

But our little 80-pound Vani, who works four part-time jobs besides being a university student and her boyfriend's manager (he's an artist) is pretty special. After the bike ride, we all got into a bis, a little minivan of a packed bus where the money collector hangs out the door (always open). It took us back into Jogja where we parted ways with Vani, came back to our hotel and jumped in the pool.

Then we went on a shopping spree and had dinner at our friend Mel's five-star hotel. What a send-off.


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