“Hey man, I’ve been following you for the past three blocks” said the lad riding an aging Honda 125 as he pulled up next to me in the dark.
I was trying to figure my way around Amritsar (India), after crossing the border from Pakistan, it was getting late, I needed to find a place for the night and I felt startled.
“Really?!” I replied feeling a sting of uneasiness.
“Yeah, I recognise you. I know who you are” insisted the lad.
“Cool, tell me” I stiffened, trying to anticipate what might be coming next.
“Come on man, I’m your fan! I saw you on the Discovery Channel…. please, selfie?”
I discovered on my route across Asia that as a solo traveller on a motorbike I was in many ways as much of a curiosity to the people I met on my path as they were to me, often even more so. Also, riding an “exotic” machine with weathered riding gear just added to my alien carisma and helped boost my standing pretty much to celebrity status. There were countless times by the side of the road in which I was approached by locals with smiles, hand shakes, words of appreciation and eager offers of hospitality. I was treated like someone in a position of eminence, of ranking, a star, or at least it felt as though I were.
Just a few moments stop and I’m the centre of attention on my way to Sultan, Pakistan.
The attention however, caught me off guard. It was flattering initially and I felt encouraged to engage with my new found friends and pals. People seemed authentically welcoming, kind and concerned. I was a guest in their country and a flag bearer for the world I had come from. But, it soon became apparent that dealing with the interest and attention from the locals was a repetitive routine that gradually turned into a chore. I was often surrounded to the point that I had no space to manoeuvre my machine, people would start to touch bike and equipment and I was asked the same questions time and time again, five, six, ten times a day. It became hard to bare, a bit of an annoyance and in the long run I found it less stressful to avoid any unsolicited attention as much as possible in pretty much the same way I think real celebrities do too.
It all began as in Chechnya, the rebellious Russian republic just north of the Caucasus. Since the end of the clashes for independence (fifteen years ago or so), this area has seen few tourists and even fewer foreign registered motorbikes venture across it’s borders.
As I idled at a traffic light in Grozny (the capital) admiring the gleaming new town centre I noticed a little commotion reflected in my rear view mirrors. A group of lads hurried to my side from the cars behind.
“Mister, where are you from?”
I explained that I had travelled from the UK.
“From UK to Grozny with moto?”
I nodded, and acknowledged the looks of surprise on their faces.
“….welcome to Chechnya, thank you for visiting…..selfie!” and before I knew it, half a dozen smartphones were at work.
First stop in Iran and a young family comes along to enquire about my trip.
In Iran things really took off. I was regularly honked at on the roads by truck drivers and given the thumbs up sign of approval. I noticed smartphones pointed at me from passegers inside cars, either filming or taking a sneaky pic with waving hands and at many road side stops I was regularly approached by curious passers by.
I stopped at a beach side eatery one afternoon, on the Caspian coast. As I pulled up I caught the attention of some youths lounging near by. While I sat at a table and sipping at a hot drink the youngsters gathered around me and one by one politely asked questions. What was the reason for my trip? What I had seen so far? What did I think of Iran? There were some particularly telling ones as well:
“Is it true that people in Europe believe that everyone in Iran is a terrorist?”
“What’s it like to travel to a foreign country?”
“How many countries have you visited?”
“Do you have problems with the police?”
“Can I take a selfie?”
Students surround me when I stop for a sip of water in rural Pakistan
In Pakistan it continued. An overnight stop in the village of Dalbandin on my way to Quetta, attracted a few locals to the guest house I was staying at. I was a foreigner and an opportunity for students to practice their English. So, converse we did.
“Sir, are you married? Sir,why not? Do you have a job, sir? You have children, sir? Sir, will you be travelling to India after Pakistan? Please sir a selfie, yes?”
Further East, through Punjab and beyond to valleys of Gilgit and Baltistan in the Himalayas, every road side stop close to a village drew a small crowd of inquisitive folk .
“Sir, where you from?”
“Sir, you married?”
“You have children Sir?”
I was an eccentric, an oddball, a weirdo on a strange looking machine, someone that clearly needed to be checked out. Although the attention was occasionally massive with maybe thirty to forty people crowding around me I can’t say that I ever really felt under threat, far from it.
There was always someone that would come and enquire about my well being in Pakistan
Eventually I had enough of the attention I seemed to attract everywhere I went and decided to blend in with the locals as much as possible. Camouflage seemed like a good idea so in Islamabad I procured myself a Salwar (trousers) and a Kameez (shirt) as is customary for a man to wear in Pakistan.
Confident that I could now mingle and not stand out too much from the crowd I put on my new outfit and walked into a small restaurant not far from my guest house. I had never been in before. The cashier spotted me immediately:
“Ohhh, Pakistani style today. Very good. Nice colour. ….You American Sir?” he asked, as him pick up his smartphone ….”Selfie?”
Discovery Channel or not, there was nowhere to hide.
(I have never knowingly been featured on the Discovery Channel either.)
Kamez and Salawar for camouflage
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
I doubt anyone could travel through Sumatra and not be totally taken by the beauty of the spired roof houses (the “Rumah Bagonjong”) typical of Minangkabau culture. These iconic looking long house homes have become a well known symbol of Indonesian heritage to the point that they are often mimicked in style by the architecture of Indonesian embassies around the globe.
Minang home decor is like no other. The constructions, with their prominently upswept gables, are mainly made of wood, ooze a sense of tradition and are forged by the capable hands of experienced carpenters. Some stand out more than others with brightly coloured carvings painstakingly maintained by their proud owners (women of the household most of all).
It can be said that design of these dwellings gives the impression that the buildings are somehow partly suspended in air, via invisible threads of some kind. It’s easy to keep gazing admiringly , transfixed in awe, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with the roofs of these constructions (I certainly did anyway).
Solok is close to Padang on the central western coast of Sumatra ( licensed, Creative Commons )
The village of Solok, not far from the port town of Padang (west coast of Sumatra), is well known for its abundance in Minang style structures, some of which here are over sixty years in age. Big hoses, small houses, shops, school, few buildings here fail to incorporate the features of traditional design. Some are plain with no adornment and perhaps in need of a little attention but others are definitely well maintained.
Traditionally Minang houses are intended for large extended family groups just like the Long Houses found in other parts of South East Asia (Borneo in particular). However, in more recent times elegant spire designs feature in smaller individual homes not to mention government buildings too.
Minang Long House
Riding past these homes on my motorbike I couldn’t help feeling as though I had been plunged into some sort of a fairy tale. “Hansel and Gretel must have happened in this part of the world” I remember thinking to myself “…and no doubt the evil witch in there story lived around here, too”.
My curiosity got the better of me at one point, I simply had to find out what these homes looked like inside. I pulled over and parked in front of a larger Minang home where a lady sat on the porch just in front of the entrance. I used the politest half broken Bahasa I could conger and ask if I might peer inside her home. To my astonishment, I was given kind nod and made welcome to take look.
Creecking floor boards, and dim lighting accompanied me through the entrance of the old home. As I lifted my gaze inside I found a beautifully kept “log cabin” with leather armchairs, pictures, hanging on walls, mats and rugs. A kitchen at one end of the open plan space and individual sleeping compartments behind the living area. Everything seemed meticulously taken care of and gleaming.
I was amazed to be invited inside…
Kids rushed towards me from the kitchen to great with smiles and surprise. Another elderly laydy at the kitchen stove also smiled and watched me as I strolled around. It felt homely, warm and cosy. It was beautiful, certainly a place I would have eagerly spent spent a night at.
Local society in western Sumatra is matriarchal meaning that it’s a mother’s name (blood line) that is passed to the children of a family. This has implications on inheritance laws, too. Minang houses are in fact passed from mother to daughter, from one generation to the next almost like a dowry.
Beautiful Minang House on the outskirts to Solok
The costs involved in building a Rumah Bagonjong have increased over the years along with the price and availability of quality timber. Today a new Minang style home is no longer affordable for many locals in a rapidly developing Sumatra and Indonesian nation but there are still many old style homes to admire and perhaps restore. Some have been transformed into guest houses that offer lodging for the occasional tourist.
Of course I absolutely recommend a trip to Solok if you’re ever travelling through Sumatra. You will not be disappointed!
Minang grand house in Solok
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
An unfamiliar motorbike with a foreign number plate always raises interest from the locals of countries left out of the trodden path of mainstream tourism. Often, it’s the youth that quickly spot unusual vehicles and riders from beyond their nation’s borders and the attention that comes from being recognised as an alien can prove to be a bit of a challenge for the unsuspecting traveller.
The scrutiny and interest from the locals, although friendly and well intended, can be overwhelming. Usually, people congregate around you at any road side stop with smiles or frowns of suspicion. Some offer hospitality, food, water, coffee, tea but all eventually ask the same questions repetitively, endlessly time and time again: “Where are you from? Where are you going? Why are you here? How old are you? Are you married? Please sir, a selfie?” are amongst the favourites.
Sometimes however, interest can also come from those in a position of authority: the police, zealous border officials, traffic cops and of course the military, who to me are the most unpredictable of all uniformed officials.
From the eastern borders of Europe all the way to Thailand, soldiers play a bigger role in society than we are used to in the West. Soldiers can be found at borders between neighbouring districts, counties or municipalities and towns. There are soldiers in areas of political tension or affected by terrorism. There are soldiers in places of strategic interest such as mountain passes (even the remotest in the Himalayas), sea ports, railway stations, banks not to mention airports and govermnet buildings of various description. Men in green or kaki coloured fatigues are never too far away in southern Asia to the point that it’s not unusual to find yourself escorted by the same for sections of your itinerary, just like a minor dignitary might be (in Pakistan and Iran most of all).
Clearly, the biggest worry for any traveller is the risk of being harassed by gun bearing conscripts feeling bored at a road side check point in the middle of nowhere. Truth is, this kind of thing hardly ever happens, at least not in South Asia. I found the soldiery in this part of the world to be professional and respectful. However, that’s not to say that dealing with the guys in green is always straight forward.
There are two types of soldiers: subordinates and superiors. Dealing with superiors (the ones in charge) is generally less time consuming than the subordinates. Nevertheless, I discovered that there are plenty of assholes in both of the above categories, the sort of guys you occasionally come across who love to throw their weight around and make your life slightly harder for longer than necessary, just for a laugh.
The motorbike is a strategic asset that always helps when dealing with road side check points and soldiers most of all. Every young or youngish fella has an interest in cars, bikes, pick ups so an “exotic” motorcycle from far away is something of a welcome distraction from the routine of flagging down scooters or Chinese made trucks for inspection. Pull over on anything bigger than a 150cc bike and smart phones appear, poses are struck and selfies are taken to send to girlfriends, wifes and pals. The way I see it is that I’d rather soldiers take pictures of themselves sitting on or standing around my bike than deal with the inconvenience of being ordered to open my bags for a rummage of their contents. A little empathy goes a long way and generally helps to engage with the individuals wearing uniforms rather than trigger they authority that uniforms represent.
So, whenever flagged down by the army guys it’s best to literally prop the bike up on centre stand, take the keys from the ignition, bury them in a pocket and watch the picture taking routine unfold. Smile, be courteous, answer questions, perhaps use some local language, enquire about where to find good local food, water, fuel, women (always a good one) or a place to spend the night. I found that more often than not a sergent or a coporal would take control, answer my queries, sometimes even offer me tea or coffee and then dispatch me on my way whilst the rest of the crew were still checking out the pictures on their smart phones.
Only once, close to the Russian border did I come across a man in green who demanded I let him ride my bike. In cases like this an outright refusal is the only possible option to safeguard trip and motorbike. Make sure the keys are away from the ignition. Humour always helps and I found that comparing my motorcycle to a girlfriend or a wife, something no man would want to share with another, was enough to brake the impasse with laughter and send me back on my route without further adoo.
A huge thank you to the military and border guards of Iran and Pakistan who escorted me on my ride through the troubled areas of Baluchistan close to the border with Afghanistan. Their professionl attitude and timely organisation left me in awe of their good will and abilities. Thank You once again!
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.