“You stupid! You stupid! You stupid!”
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Thursday, September 29, 2016
6:00 a.m. Room 9, Tamariah Losmen, Siantar, Sumatra
Today is the day that I go to immigration to apply for a 30-day visa extension. I hope it goes well. If there is a serious problem, I still have options, however. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I could probably go back to Tanjungbalai and take the ferry back to Malaysia. Then I could make my way up to Penang and apply for a fresh 60-day visa. I’m confident I could get that. But it would be better at this point to get the 30-day extension locally.
My bike ride to Siantar yesterday did not go particularly well. It wasn’t terrible or anything, but I had some problems. The biggest problem is that just after I turned off my computer and got ready to get on the bike and leave, I was hit with a bout of diarrhea. Stomach problems are still the bane of my existence. I was delayed for quite a while by this, and I even considered staying another day in that horrible little town. But when the worst of the stomach cramps abated, I found the strength to start packing up and leave. It was then quite a bit later, and I’d missed the cool morning hours, and the crazy traffic of Indonesia was at full strength.
Packing up was a bit dilfficult in that I had a large audience, and these men had nothing better to do than laugh hysterically at me. I’ve encountered this a lot in Sumatra. People are friendly, but they are very direct. They tease each other and they certainly tease me. They also tease each other THROUGH me. I was feeling self-conscious to begin with as I carried my bicycle and my giant trailer and my other bags down the stairs. To have these men pointing and laughing throughout made things that much more difficult.
To start the day, I took my two pannier bags and put them on the front pannier rack as an experiment. They don’t fit there perfectly by any means, but they do attach. That arrangement distributed the weight to my liking. Most of my gear was in the trailer, and this weight was supported by the trailer’s wheels. None of it was on the rear wheel of the bike. The rest of my gear was on the front wheel. And my body weight was split over the bike’s two wheels with the majority of it landing on the rear wheel.
It was an interesting experiment because later in the day, I decided to move the pannier bags back to the rear wheel and see how different it felt. I had stopped at a little shop in a small town to get a cold drink, and while I sat there, I moved the bags. I was surprised to find that it felt FAR, FAR better. The difference was extraordinary. With the two pannier bags on the front wheel, the bike was significantly harder to control. I had to work very hard to keep the wheel straight. It felt like I was driving a tank. It was the familiar feeling of a fully loaded touring bike. It was difficult to turn the wheel, and then I had to be careful to make only small adjustments. The weight of the pannier bags could push the bike far to one side or the other. Not only that, it required a lot of upper body strength to steer the bike. It was tiring and I felt somewhat oppressed by the weight psychologically. When I looked down a rough sideroad that probably led somewhere interesting, I resisted going there. Just the thought of turning the handlebars and then muscling the front wheel through all the rough rocks and potholes seemed too much. Once I moved the pannier bags to the rear, the bike felt like a nimble racer. I could steer with ease and I felt lighter and more at ease. It was a huge difference, and I was much happier. I was physically moving the same amount of weight, but it felt totally different in a better way. The problem now was that all of the non-trailer weight was back on the rear wheel, and that put stress on the spokes, tires, rims, etc. This is the very thing I was trying to avoid by using a trailer in the first place.
I came to the realization that I should commit to one or the other. I could use the trailer or I could use pannier bags. It made little sense to use both. Given a choice right now, especially considering that my pannier bags are outdated, heavy hulks, I would go with the trailer. So perhaps it is time to finally and fully retire my beloved Arkel pannier bags. I thought about it as I rode along, and I came up with a reasonable solution. What I can do is get rid of the two pannier bags completely. This means putting the computer and camera gear into the trailer. But I think I can do that somewhat safely. To make room for all of my gear in the trailer, I can take some of the bulky lightweight things out and simply strap them to the rear pannier rack as I would normally do with a full pannier-bag touring setup.
This makes a lot of sense. The idea is that in order to carry any gear inside pannier bags, you have the weight of the pannier bags to deal with as well (not to mention the pannier racks themselves). I’m currrently using one rear and one front pannier bag. Together, they weigh nearly eight pounds. The rear pannier bag alone weighs nearly five pounds. And I’m using it only because I want a safe place to store my computer, which weighs only 3.75 pounds. So I’m essentially using a 5-pound bag to carry a 4-pound item. That’s not very logical. If I move my computer and camera gear to the trailer, I do three things: I save eight pounds of total weight by getting rid of the pannier bags. I remove that weight from the worst possible place – over the rear wheel. Finally, I’ve reduced the number of bags I have to carry in and out of my rooms.
Anyway, I think I’m going to try it out. The big question is what to do with the pannier bags. Despite being seventeen or eighteen years old, they’re still in great condition, and my instinct is to keep them somehow. But is that worth it? Why ship them to Canada to go into storage when that would cost a lot of money and I will probably never use them again? Even if I decide to go back to pannier bags, I will certainly buy new, lighter bags. I’ve got my eye on the new Arkel line of Dolphin waterproof bags.
The ride to Siantar was not an easy one, but it wasn’t terrible either. The difficulty lay largely in dealing with the traffic and the noise of that traffic. There was a lot of horn honking in addition to the roar of the engines. I occasionally listened to podcasts to drown out the roar. It was also very hot and I sweat like crazy. The road was in fairly good condition, but there were a lot of very dangerous potholes, and I had to be on my toes. People were friendly. I got a lot of gestures of support. People would give me a big thumbs-up as they raced past on their motorcycles. Trucks always have at least two people in the cab – the driver plus the assistant. And the assistant would always lean his head out the window as they passed and shout things. I went the entire day without a single person giving me the finger or shouting “Fuck you!”, so that was good. The worst encounter was with a group of teenage schoolboys as I entered Siantar proper. I had stopped by the side of the road to check Google Maps for my position, and these boys took it upon themselves to tease me. The ringleader demanded that I give him my phone. He also demanded money. And then the boys set up a chorus of “You stupid! You stupid! You stupid!” in English. This was directed at me with lots of laughter. Teenage boys are really the worst form of humanity in every country in the world.
I found a room at a low-budget hotel called the Tamariah Losmen. I’d stayed there on my previous visit to Siantar, and it is a reasonable sort of place. They charge 80,000 rupiah for a large room on the second floor with shared bath. My hotel in Kisaran was a much better deal. Their rooms are also 80,000 rupiah a night, but that includes a private bathroom, a TV, a telephone, room service, and Wi-fi. However, that room in Kisaran had zero ventilation and it was unbearably hot. I had to keep the door open all the time just to survive. Even with the door open, it was uncomfortable and sweaty. With the door closed, it was unbearable. This dumpy room in Siantar has a big set of windows that I can open. Siantar is also at a slightly higher altitude and therefore a couple degrees cooler. Of course, the big windows open onto the noisiest and busiest intersection on the planet. The roar of traffic and the honking of horns is non-stop and somewhat mind-numbing. You just learn to deal with it and accept it.
My experience in Siantar is somewhat indicative of the local mindset. For example, when I arrived on my bicycle, the staff at the hotel were happy to see me. They remembered me very well and they greeted me with huge smiles and they called out to each other to announce that I was back. Everyone was friendly and welcoming and really nice. And I appreciated that. However, after I’d checked in and gotten my room key and moved all my gear up to my room, I noticed that the room wasn’t made up. That’s not a big deal since I have my own sheet and my own towel and my own soap, etc. However, it’s always better to use the hotel’s towels rather than use my own and have to wash it. So I had to go downstairs and track someone down and with the help of Google Translate ask them for a towel and the bedsheets and pillow cases. My point is that I was quite pleased that everyone is so friendly and nice. But I would have been even more pleased if some of that energy and friendliness translated into doing their jobs effectively.
A similar experience occured when I went out in search of water. I normally take my 10-liter water bag to a place that sells purified water and I just fill it up there. But I noticed that the convenience store beside my hotel had a big display of the giant 5-gallon water bottles of purified water. I wondered if it would make sense to buy that, and I inquired about the price. The problem came when the woman told me (after much chaos and confusion) that the water cost 20,500 rupiah. I knew there was more to the situation than that. The price, whatever it is, has to include two parts – the price of the water and the cost of the deposit on the bottle. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not get anyone to break it down for me.
I know that if I told this story to people, that nine out of ten would say that it was a language problem. I don’t speak Indonesian and they don’t speak English. But I disagree. If I worked in that store and a customer came in to inquire about the water in any language, I would automatically tell them (by writing it down) how much the water cost and how much the deposit was. It just makes sense. It’s part of the deal. You can’t buy the water without the bottle. And they’re not giving away these bottles. So I would break it down for them. It’s totally obvious what information should be given, but the people in the store didn’t see that.
At the time, I didn’t have my phone with me, so I just left. Then I went back with my phone and I used Google Translate to ask them specifically about the deposit on the bottle. But even then I only got one price, the aforementioned 20,500 rupiah. Nothing I did could convince these people to break it down for me. And I think this is a conceptual problem. It’s a problem with a thinking process. It has nothing to do with language. I encounter this all the time on my travels in Asia. In the end, I decided to just do it and see what happens. I told them that I wanted to buy a bottle of water. And what was the price? Yep. The price was 55,500 rupiah. It was 20,500 rupiah for the water and 35,000 rupiah for the deposit on the bottle. But it didn’t occur to anyone to give me this information beforehand. I wanted to also know if I got my deposit back when I returned the bottle. Was it in fact a deposit, or was I buying the bottle? I assumed it was a deposit, but I didn’t know that for sure. However, I didn’t even bother to ask. I knew it would be impossible, and that WOULD be a language problem. Without speaking the local language, I just couldn’t get that information. I paid the 55,500 rupiah and hoisted the massive bottle to my shoulder. It’ll probably end up being a waste of money as I won’t get my deposit back. Five gallons also might seem like a lot of water, but I go through a lot of water very quickly.
I guess those are all my thoughts for the morning.