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Just like a Celebrity

Just like a Celebrity

In India

“Hey man, I’ve been following you for the past three blocks” said the lad r as he pulled up next to me in the dark on an ageing Honda 125.
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.
“Wow, 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. Riding an “exotic” machine with weathered riding gear also added to my alien charisma and helped boost my standing with many locals pretty much to celebrity level. There were countless times by the side of the road in which I was approached by people 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.

Crowd gathers around in Pakistan
Just a few moments stop and I’m the centre of attention

The attention 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. However, it soon became apparent that dealing with the keen interest 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 and fondle with my 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.

In Checnya

It all began 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 the young men’s  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 immediately I have someone that wants to know about my trip and my bike.
First stop in Iran and immediately I have someone that wants to know about my trip and my bike.

In Iran

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 inside cars, either filming or taking a sneaky pic of me 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 sipping at a hot drink the youngsters gathered close and one by one politely asked their questions. What was the reason for my trip? What had I 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
Students surround me when I stop for a sip of water in rural Pakistan

In Pakistan

In Pakistan it continued. An overnight stop in the village of Dalbandin on my way to Quetta (Baluchistan), attracted a few locals to the guest house I was staying at. I was a foreigner and an opportunity for for them to practice some 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?”
“Selfie!”

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 sometimes massive with maybe thirty to forty  people crowding around me I can’t say that I ever really felt under threat, far from it.

Always someone that would come and enquire about my well being in Pakistan
Always someone that would come and enquire about my well being in Pakistan

Counter Measures

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 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 there before. The cashier spotted me immediately:

“Ohhh, Pakistani style today. Very good. Nice colour. ….You American Sir?” he asked, as he 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
Kamez and Salawar for camouflage

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

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The Fairy Tail Homes of Sumatra

The Fairy Tail Homes of Sumatra

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 (the women of the household most of all).

It can be said that style of these dwellings give the impression that the buildings are somehow suspended in air, via invisible threads of some kind. It’s easy to keep gazing at them admiringly, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with the designs almost as if there were riddle to them somehow (I certainly felt that way anyway).

Solok is close to Padang on the centra western coast of Sumatra, map.

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 old. Big houses, small houses, shops, schools, not many buildings in Solok fail to include the traditional features of Minang design. Some are plain with little adornment and are 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 also feature in smaller homes not to mention government buildings too.

Minang Long House
Minang Long House 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.
Minang Longhouse in Solok Sumatra
Another Minang Longhouse in Solok, Sumatra

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 the 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 come up with and asked 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” style home 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 with pride.

Minang house interior
…to my astonishment I was welcomed inside.

Kids rushed towards me from the kitchen to great with smiles and surprise. Another elderly laydy at the 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 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.

Minag style house in Solok, Sumatra
Minag style house in Solok, Sumatra

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 even restore. Some have even 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, it really is like being in a fairy tale.

Minang Style houses in Sumatra
Minang Style houses in Sumatra
Minang house and Biker
Minang house and Biker

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

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Guide to military check points.

Guide to military check points.

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. People congregate around you at any road side stop with smiles or inquisitive frowns. Some offer hospitality, food, water, coffee, tea and inevitably ask the same questions, endlessly time and time again: “Where are you from?  Where are you going? Why are you here? How old are you? Are you married? Can I take a selfie?”. You are treated like like a fish out of water, like someone who has somehow gone incredibly astray and needs assistance.

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).

Picture taking with the boys in green
Picture taking with the boys in green

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 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 up trucks so an “exotic” motorcycle from far away is something of a welcome distraction from the routine of flagging down scooters or Chinese made lorries for inspection. Stop at a military block on anything bigger than a 150cc bike and smart phones appear, poses are struck and selfies are taken by soldiers to send to girlfriends, wives 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 the uniforms rather than trigger they authority that the uniforms represent.

So, whenever flagged down by the army guys I found it 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.

Check point in Pakistan
Check point in Pakistan

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 way 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.

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