Overnight Wackiness in a Wonky Hotel
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Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Small town in Sumatra
I’m still in Sumatra. My current tourist visa is expiring in a few days, and I’m on my way to a town called Siantar to visit the immigration office and apply for a 30-day extension. This may or may not go well. You need official documents from a local sponsor in order to get a visa extension. I have a sponsor and the documents already prepared, but this sponsor lives in the town of Kisiran, not in Siantar. And Kisaran is closer to a different immigration office. So there is a chance the office in Siantar won’t accept my application. However, I did it there once before and it worked out. The problem with this office is that they take a long time to process things.
On my last visit to the Siantar immigration office, my smartphone was stolen. Since then, I’ve purchased a handlebar bag. The idea is that I can put my phone inside the handlebar bag. It is still easily accessible for me but also safe from thieves.
Yesterday, I rode my bike to a small town near the slightly larger town of Lima Puluh. I describe it that way because I can’t remember the name of this place. This is also my second visit to this town. I’ve had a few adventures here. I think on my first visit, I described it as one of the worst places in the world. These small Sumatran towns strike me that way. I remember walking down the main street on my first visit and marveling that people live their entire lives in places like this. It’s ugly beyond description. It’s dirty. It’s noisy. The streets are hot and crowded and dusty. It’s hard to describe. I just got a very bad vibe from this place.
On this visit, my impressions are largely the same. The only difference is that I haven’t done any exploring. I wasn’t in the mood upon my arrival. I ended up in this town on my first visit and now on this second visit because there is a hotel here. Hotels (and many other things) are quite variable in Sumatra. There doesn’t seem to be a standard across towns. In one town, you can find a reasonably priced hotel with friendly staff and very nice rooms. In the next, you find a crumbling hulk for which they charge astronomical prices. This particular hotel is somewhere in between. It’s called the Wisma Idola, and I was disappointed on my first visit to find that their rooms were all priced significantly north of 100,000 rupiah, which I think of as my upper limit. That’s about ten dollars Canadian.
The reason for the higher price range is that all their rooms come with some amenities – a private bathroom, an air conditioner, and a TV. On my first visit, I was upset that I had to pay so much, but I enjoyed the heck out of the air conditioner. Having cool and DRY air in my room had a tremendous positive effect on my mood and overall physical condition and that of my clothing and gear. I also got a single room, which is their cheapest room at about thirteen dollars a night. And it was on the first floor, so it was easy to roll my bike and my new trailer right into the room. I quickly unpacked and arranged my room and rinsed all my sweat-drenched clothes. I was also very pleased to find that each room had a separate one gallon dispenser of purified water. And in the hallway, there was a much larger dispenser. Therefore, I could drink all that I needed (which was a lot), and then I could refill all my bottles for the next day of cycling. It was very convenient.
I had an amusing time on my first visit because a stream of strangers kept knocking on my door. They were looking for friends or something, and they constantly got the room wrong or had no idea where their friends were and just knocked on every door in turn. In any event, they were very surprised when I opened the door. The door couldn’t be locked from the inside, so I had men walking right inside my room. This even happened while I was sleeping, and I found myself staring up at the face of a strange man who had wandered into my room by mistake. The staff of the hotel also made a habit of knocking on my door. They were on the hunt for a tip, or what they think of as smoking money. They make a smoking gesture to indicate that they would like me to give them some money so they can buy cigarettes. I generally choose to misunderstand this gesture and explain that I don’t smoke. I wasn’t totally against giving a tip, but at this hotel, the level of service is extremely bad. I can understand asking for a tip if you are actually helping me in some way. But the people here couldn’t be less interested in doing anything.
My experience of this hotel on my second visit has been consistent with the first. This time, there wasn’t even a single room available. I had to spring for the more expensive double room at 165,000 rupiah (or about sixteen dollars and fifty cents). That’s a lot of money for me. It was disappointing on many levels. The room they showed me was the same size as the single room I’d had before. They’d just crammed an extra bed into it, one that I had no use for, so it actually had less usable space. It was also on the second floor, which made it harder to carry my stuff inside. Finally, upon getting organized inside the room, I discovered that the main light didn’t work.
Rooms like this are confusing for me. Normally, I don’t worry about anything. If you pay five dollars a night for a room and it is dirty or the lights don’t work, you don’t worry about it. You get what you pay for. I generally have enough of my own gear with me that I can fix things or make things work. But when you are forced to pay for the over-priced luxury room and now the lights don’t work, it feels like a bit of a slap in the face. I doubted anything would happen, but I decided to tell the staff about the light and see what happened. I didn’t expect them to fix it, but if I didn’t at least ask, I would feel like a sucker. It seemed like it was time to stand on my rights.
I felt this way also because the staff were so unhelpful. I wouldn’t call them unfriendly, but they were simply not present. They spent all their time starting at their phones and seemed to want me to just go away even when I was checking in. Nothing was their problem or their responsibility. When it came time to pay, I offered up two 100,000-rupiah notes. The girl simply waved them off. The problem? They had no change. And as far as she was concerned, she had done her job by waving at me. That was the end of the issue as far as she was concerned. The wave told me that they had no change. What I did after that was my business. If I wanted to stay at her hotel, I had to produce exact change. If I wasn’t able to, I was free to leave and go somewhere else. And her eyes and swiping finger went back to her phone.
Luckily, by going through all my pockets and all my bags, I was able to scrounge up 165,000 rupiah in exact change. But with that experience fresh in my mind, I felt in my rights to cause a little bit of trouble over the broken light. Since they spoke no English, I got out my smartphone and used that and Google Translate. Our exchange was pretty much what I expected. I told them that the light in my room was broken and I asked them if they could fix it. She wrote back – through Google Translate – that the light in my room was broken. And that was it. She ignored me after that. I then pushed it a bit farther and asked if I could then get a discount. I knew that was impossible, but I just wanted to cause some trouble. I kept it friendly, but I made my point. And then I felt better. Had I just let it go, I would have felt weak and a sucker. I was particularly happy I’d stood up for myself a little bit when I returned to the room and discovered all the other things that were wrong with it, including disgusting cigarette butts floating in the water of the toilet bowl. Again, that would be par for the course for a cheap room. I’m not bothered by dirty rooms and cigarette butts and spiders and spider webs in all the corners and broken lights. I’m only bothered by stuff like that when the room is expensive.
To my surprise, the other pattern carried over from my first visit. I was back in my room for only a few minutes when there was a loud knock on my door. I happened to be stripped naked at the time, and it took me a minute or two to find some dry clothes. As I dressed, this person kept banging on my door, and I kept shouting back in English. At the time, I thought it might even be someone from the hotel who had come to fix the light. But when I finally opened the door, I found myself staring at a strange and rather shocked Indonesian man. He was looking for his friend, apparently and did not expect a giant foreigner to open the door. I was confused, of course, since I had clearly shouted English words through the door. I have no idea how he couldn’t have figured out his mistake BEFORE I opened the door. Had his friend suddenly learned English and changed his voice?
The roughness of this town also made itself known. After this man left and I closed the door, I heard a lot of shouting and crashing. I opened my door and witnessed one man racing down the stairs while another man chased him with a plastic stool. They were shouting angrily at each other, and the chaser tried to hit the chasee with the plastic stool. I went back into my room to mind my own business, and then I just listened to the donnybrook that continued for well over half an hour. A woman’s voice joined the chorus, and she screamed and wailed while the two men shouted. There was crashing and banging. It didn’t surprise me at all. That’s just the kind of town this is.
I had carried my gear and my new bike trailer up the stairs to my room, but I had left my bike in the lobby. I thought I might use it later, so I just used my cable lock to lock it up to the stairwell. Later, however, another knock came on my door. It was a man I hadn’t seen before. He pulled me outside my room and then pointed down at my bike and made a cutting gesture. He was telling me that I shouldn’t leave my bike there. With sign language, he told me that thieves would cut the lock and then they would ride away into the town.
I ended up a little bit unsure of his message because I figured out that he was part of the hotel staff. He wasn’t warning me purely out of the goodness of his heart. In fact, after he warned me about the thieves, he then pointed to himself and his eyes and made reassuring gestures. The message was that there were many thieves who would steal my bike, but he would protect it. Of course, this protection came at a price and he asked for money. I deliberately misunderstood his sign language, and I just thanked him for his warning. It was still daylight and I didn’t feel like my bike was in too much danger, and I didn’t want to become indebted to him.
Later, as the evening settled in, I went down to the lobby to unlock my bike and bring it upstairs. I was doing this quietly, but somehow the man spotted me and he came rushing into the lobby. He didn’t help me carry the bike, but he did come upstairs and made lots of helpful pointing gestures. My plan was to bring the bike into my room, small as it was, but with this man stuck to me like glue, I didn’t want to do that right away. I didn’t want him to come into my room with me and stick his nose into my business even further. So I put my bike in the hallway outside my room in the spot where this man was pointing. This man then went through the routine of asking for smoking money. It’s weird, though, because I get the smoking gesture all the time. Men ask me if I smoke all the time. They want me to hang out and smoke with them. So I’m always telling people that I don’t smoke. This man was making the smoking gesture, but he was actually asking for money. I chose to misunderstand again, and I just told him that i didn’t smoke and I smiled and waved and slowly went back into my room and closed the door. I waited an appropriate amount of time, and then I went back out and carefully brought my bike into my room. The room is so small that there was no room for the bike and the trailer. I had to take the wheels off the trailer and put it on top of the second bed in order to have just enough room for the bike. Even so, it became nearly impossible to move about the room with my bike inside. I felt better, though. It was safer there than outside in the hallway
Still finding the streets of this town rather unfriendly, I was in no mood to go in search of a meal. I decided to just have spaghetti in my room. I can do this because I have been able to find alcohol fuel and I can cook with my Trangia. I also have a regular stove – an MSR Whisperlight Universal – but that uses gasoline, and it’s too dangerous to use indoors. Even the Trangia is dangerous because of the risk of fire and the fumes, but I’m extremely careful. I usually only do this when I have my own bathroom, and I can cook in there on tile floors and there is lots of water around.
After that, I simply basked in the cool air produced by the air conditioner and listened to podcasts until it was bedtime. The plan was to wake up as early as possible and hit the road when it was still a bit cool. I don’t know how early I will hit the road now that I’ve started drinking coffee and writing in my journal, but it should be okay. My destination for today is Siantar, and it is only 40 kilometers away. It is uphill most of the way, however, with the last few kilometers being steeply uphill, so I’m not taking even that 40 kilometers lightly. The last time I made this trip, my timing was terrible. I didn’t leave until ten or eleven in the morning, and so I cycled through the hottest part of the day with no relief, and I arrived in Siantar just in time to be embraced by the afternoon traffic crush as the schools let out. Whatever I do today, I plan to arrive before the schools let out and so I can avoid the worst of the gridlock.
My cycling gear continues to be an issue if not a total obsession. I’m using my new trailer, and I’m constantly wondering if the purchase of the trailer was a mistake. Ever since I left Taiwan, my gear has been a problem. I’ve always been a bit nuts about this sort of thing, but it has become much worse. No matter how many times I rearrange things, I can’t come up with an arrangement that feels right. My gear used to fit nicely into all its normal places. It was heavy, but organized. But it’s been chaos ever since Taiwan. I think the main problem is the addition of the electronics – the laptop, the Kindle, and the digital camera. Adding this gear has had a domino effect, and now nothing ever fits properly.
This difficulty contributed to my decision to give a trailer another try. I purchased a very special trailer from Radical Design, a company in the Netherlands. The trailer is called the Cyclone IV. It has a number of distinguishing features that make it quite different from the BOB trailer I used in the past. As with all gear, these features bring both advantages and disadvantages. It is, for example, a two-wheeled trailer. That is good because it means that the trailer wheels bear all the weight. None of the weight is transferred to the bike. The trailer is rated for 90 pounds (which is a massive amount of weight). But even if you put 90 pounds of gear into it, the weight on the rear of the wheel of the bike is zero. With the single-wheeled trailers like the BOB, a lot of the weight is still put on the rear wheel. However, having two wheels means that the trailer is wider, so it doesn’t track perfectly behind the bike. I have to be aware of the two wheels behind me and where they go. Swerving to miss a deep pothole with my bike’s wheels doesn’t mean that the trailer will automatically miss it, too. And because of the trailer’s single tow arm for attachment, it has a wide turning radius to the right.
My decision to try out a trailer once more came after I experienced a series of broken spokes in the Philippines. Plus, the bike just seemed so heavy and unwieldy. It was weighing on my mind all the time. When I loaded up the bike, I would try to lift the rear wheel off the ground, and I could barely do it. It took all my strength. That just seemed crazy when I looked at the thin spokes that made up the rear wheel. And then I’d put another 190 pounds of my body weight on the bike when I climbed on. It felt precarious and the bike felt fragile. I wanted to get that weight off the bike and off the rear wheel in particular.
This trailer has another unique feature in that the wheels can easily be moved between two positions. The wheels normally sit in the middle of the trailer so it supports all the weight. But you can move the wheels in seconds to a second position at the rear of the trailer, and now it becomes a very convenient and mobile luggage cart. It’s great. You can just pick up the tow arm and wheel it around.
The final advantage of the trailer over a normal set-up with pannier bags is that it takes less trips in the morning to carry my gear outside to the bike and this adds to security. In the Philippines, I felt burdened by the number of bags I had. I had the usual six bags in total – four pannier bags plus the tent plus the stuff sack containing my sleeping bag, sheet, and mosquito net. Packing those bags and then carrying them out to the bike in stages and loading them up was a difficult process. I had to make at least two trips. Usually, I made three because carrying all that gear in two trips was really hard.
Also, on each trip, the gear on my bike was unguarded. So I had to make sure to bring out my bags and load up the bike in the proper order. I didn’t want valuable gear on the bike unguarded. That was very difficult to do logistically. Plus, I couldn’t just leave the bags on the ground. People could easily just grab complete bags and run away. I had to mount the bags on the bike and attach them securely as I brought them down. But for various reasons, that was hard to do. The bike would be unbalanced and it would fall over. Or, because of the nature of the process, I’d have to atttach certain bags first. Then I would return to my room and get the bags containing the valuable gear. But to attach these bags to the bike, I would have to remove the first bags, put on the new bags, and then put the other bags back on. Anyway, it was a big, complicated processs.
The trailer fixes all these problems. The vast majority of my gear goes in the trailer. The zipper on the trailer has a locking mechanism. So I can load up everything, lock the zipper, wheel the trailer outside, attach it to the bike, and then leave it there with some confidence. The trailer balances itself, so it has no effect on the bike. Nothing falls over. And no one can pick up the trailer and run away with it. The entire trailer is secured with just one lock. I don’t have to worry about the dozen unlocked pockets on my pannier bags.
Then I can return to my room to get my remaining bags – and these bags contain my computer, camera, money, etc. And I can take my time because I feel confident that my bike and trailer are somewhat safe. I can take a quick shower to cool down, apply sunscreen if necessary, check the room to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, return the key to the front desk, etc. In the past, I had to rush because I was so worried about the unguarded pannier bags.
I did a lot of thought experiments before I bought the trailer to see if laying out the cash for the trailer made sense. And it did for the most part. But that was largely based on my experience in the Philippines. My hotel rooms there were often on the ground floor. They were often bungalows, too. So wheeling a trailer in and out would be a breeze. The bigger hotels in the cities often had elevators. So if your room was on the seventh floor, you could just wheel the trailer inside the elevator and then wheel it down the hall. Things changed, however, when I got to Sumatra. Suddenly, all my rooms were on upper floors and there were no elevators. Plus, the stairways were extremely narrow. Now I had to carry this giant trailer in my arms up these narrow staircases. Sure, it’s a problem to carry a multitude of pannier bags over several trips. But at least each individual bag is somewhat manageable. But if you put all that weight into one giant bag, you suddenly have a problem. So I have had some trouble with the trailer lately, and I’ve begun to rethink my decision to buy it.
I’ve babbled endlessley about gear in the past, so this is all very familiar. But I just can’t help it. I’ve never been truly happy with my gear on the bike. It is always a mess, and I keep rethinking things. I just can’t get it to feel right. Another problem – at least pscyhologically – is that when I had the trouble with the broken spokes, I originally didn’t consider a trailer. My goal at that time was to lighten my load and make it less bulky. So I spent a lot of money on new gear. I replaced almost everything with newer, smaller, lighter versions: sleeping bag, sleeping pad, mosquito net, tent, stove, stuff sacks, tires, saddle. But then when I bought the trailer, all that expense was largely unnecesssary. I suddenly had 100 liters of volume in the trailer, so it didn’t matter if things were a bit bulky. I could have kept my old, much cheaper gear. Still, it worked out in the end. Most of my gear was so old that it was falling apart. My tent was a disaster and needed to be replaced anyway. It was still the Marmot Peapod that I bought for Ethiopia. And it had reached the end of its useful life. I was glad to replace it anyway because it was so big and heavy. It weighed over eight pounds. My new tent weighed less than half that at 3.75 pounds. The same goes for my sleeping bag. All this time, I’ve been carrying around a huge and heavy winter-rated sleeping bag. You don’t need that kind of bag for the Philippines, so it was pointless. My new sleeping bag is half the weight at least. So I’m happy with the new gear overall. Finally, I don’t do much camping anyway. Camping is just too difficult. I urban camp in that I often use all my gear inside hotel rooms. But setting up the tent outside in this heat after a brutal day of cycling is crazy, especially when you are alone. So it makes sense to have a light tent. No point carrying a big, heavy tent if you don’t even use it that often.
But after all of this, I have to say that my bike still feels too heavy. I can’t help but obsess over it. One problem I’ve come across concerns the rear wheel. The main reason I bought the trailer was to reduce the weight on the rear wheel. However, I’ve noticed that the rear of the bike still feels heavy. The reason for that is somewhat complicated. Even though I have the trailer, I figured I still needed at least one pannier bag. I needed one bag to carry my computer and camera and passport pouch. I need one bag that I can remove from the bike and carry into restaurants with me. But one bag on a pannier rack is a bit unbalanced, so I ended up carrying two pannier bags in addition to the trailer – one on each side of the rear rack.
The next problem is that my old Arkel pannier bags are oddly shaped. I want to use my small and light front pannier bags, but they are tapered on the bottom. So my computer won’t fit into them. That means I can either carry the computer in the trailer or I have to use one of my big and heavy rear pannier bags. Those bags weigh 4.5 pounds each. And when I put my laptop and camera inside those bags, suddenly I’ve added a lot of weight. Yes, with the trailer, I took a lot of weight off the bike, but most of that weight was removed from the front wheel, and that wheel was never a problem. When I mount my two pannier bags on the rear rack, the back of the bike feels too heavy. It also feels wrong overall even when I just look at the bike.
Anyway, I’m still fussing around. When I get back to Malaysia, I’ll probably buy new, lighter pannier bags. But for now, I have a choice between moving my pannier bags to the front rack or putting my computer and other heavy gear in the trailer. Then I can reserve the pannier bags on the rear wheel for lightweight, bulky items. Nothing I do really makes me happy.
It’s almost seven a.m. now and time is wasting. I have to pack up and have breakfast and hit the road.