Thursday, December 27, 2012

Malaria alert in Batam, Indonesia - Dec 2012

Just want to put up a health alert for those planning to cycle the Riau Islands, especially Barelang Highway in Batam. We have 3 friends who have been infected with Facliparum Malaria. Sadly, one is in critical condition and our prayers are with him. This is no ordinary Malaria as it can be 100% fatal if not treated and even with treatment, 20% still die from it.

We were fortunate to be given Doxycyline before the trip and it seems to have worked as none of our Dream Team riders got Malaria. So grateful to our dear friend Papa for saving our lives.

So please be vigilant when you ride to less beaten tracks, do your homework especially any health advisory and take any precautions necessary. Riding safe involves more than a helmet, lights and bright clothes!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Exploring the deep south of The Riaus - Day Five, Kundur at last!

KC putting up a brave front before battling the seas

I was surprised to see Roslan our taxi driver waiting for us at the Armanda Hotel lobby at 6am, ready to whisk us to Jago to catch our ferry. It was a miserable morning, with rain pouring and the sun still in bed. Somehow, putting our foldies in the back was a bit more difficult than the last time, but with a bit of jiggling, everything was good. Guess we were still not fully awake yet. Neither was my camera.

The early morning drive was very special as the sun fought to break out of the dark rain clouds. Both Matt and Darren were still catching up on their Zzzs as our Kijang made its way northwards. KC and I seemed bright eyed and enjoyed the beautiful coastal views.

At Jago, we had a simple breakfast hoping that Ms Grabby, yesterday's pretty waitress, would offer us some bright smiles to start the day. It was not to be as she seemed like the weather, gloomy and a tad crabby. Matt had his theories for the change in behaviour but I rather not write those down. It was straight forward to get the tickets and at 725am, we boarded the familiar ferry with our foldies once again, on the roof. Bad weather meant that the ride was a bit slower and rougher but we didn't mind it one bit. We clowned around until we got tired. I had a good snooze on the ferry and at 1140am, the bustling port of Tg Pinang appeared.

It was pouring cats and dogs when we got out of the ferry and my first agenda was to decide where to go next. I enquired from a friendly ferry employee who spoke Chinese what were my options. My heart sank when he said the ferry to Tg Batu, Kundur had left. We were too late. It was 1215pm already and no ferries were going anywhere for the afternoon. We had to stay here for the night. However, instinct and experience taught me not to take such advice as Gospel truth and I went to the ticket counters to enquire once more.

As it turned out, God's angels were in front of us. I just shouted "Tg Batu, Tg Batu!" and one ticket seller responded if I hurried, I would just be able to just make the 1230pm. With a loud halleluah, I happily paid for the tickets and she called the captain of the boat to wait for "empat orang naik sepeda" (4 blokes with bikes). Seemed the bad weather caused the small ferry to be delayed till 1pm and that gave us adequate time to go get some takeaway lunch and do the necessary. I always know that God loves us so much, but this is yet another co-incidence, or God-incidence to affirm this.

This 1230pm ferry to Tg Batu has 2 stopovers. First one at Galang which is the southern tip of the Barelang Highway and the second at Moro, a very tiny fishing village on an even tinier island. With four 200bhp engines, this ferry really flew and with the bad weather and choppy seas, we felt like we were on a rough bombing mission over Germany on a B17. The pounding of the waves made it sound like anti aircraft fire were exploding all around us and it was most exciting!

Foodie Matt outdid himself as our humble packet lunch of rice turned out to be finger licking good. He had opted for the premium class which had everything in it. Fried chicken, veggies, potato cutlet and egg. We gobbled it all down hungrily as though it was our last meal, before the leap into battle. It was hard though to eat with the boat bouncing away.

While enjoying my 5 star lunch, the famous bridge #6 at Batam showed up and that got us really excited. It was nice to stop at the Galang pier, where I visited 5 months ago and an old man with a songkot got out. He was the only passenger to get off.

The B17 then powered its way to Moro and first impressions were not favorable. This small town seem to be infested with those swallow farms, huge angular grey buildings with loud bird sounds. They were there to harvest the bird's nests that fetch a prince's ransom, at least in China. A whole load of people came on board and we headed to our final destination - Tg Batu. The rain was still present but thankfully getting lighter. When we finally got to Tg Batu, we have been on the boat for nearly 7 hrs! It was great to be on terra firma at last.

Tg Batu is home ground to me and we made our way to the usual Gembira Hotel. However, I remembered the karaoke that blasted through the night and decided to try another newer place, Berlian. For US$18, they offered us a huge VIP room and that sealed the deal.

As we checked in, we went for a bite and had some fried noodles. The famous wanton mee stall was closed so that would have to wait. We toured the 2 horse town of Tg Batu and ended up at the old jetty. Here, the hull of a disused 007 police boat laid since the 1990s. Itching to get our legs moving after sitting down in 2 ferries for one whole day, we took a ride to the countryside.

After Sengkap, the views were nothing to shout about but after 3km along quiet roads, we spotted a group of boys playing soccer. This provided for live entertainment and we marvelled at the simple joy of friends coming together to have fun. Some came by bicycles and even though the price tags of our bikes were on different end of the pole, we were one.

Returning back to our hotel, we noticed a big celebration that was about to begin. The Vihara Dharma Shanti Buddhist Temple was having a Getai show and there was a big stage put up, loud sound system set up and roads blocked off. We bumped into a very famous actor/getai performer in Singapore, John Cheng. He was having dinner with his group in a coffeeshop and when he saw that we recognised him, he cheekily said, "Wa si Kandang Kerbau sa-e a (I was born in KK Hospital)." 

As we were still early for the show, we took a ride to explore the northern part of town. Interestingly, another event was happening, though on a much smaller scale. The HKBP Batak Church was having their Christmas celebrations and a bunch of adorable young teens all decorated like Christmas trees waved to us as we cycled by. They kindly invited us to join their service and when I asked how long it lasted, she said till midnight! It was fun to talk to them and I was surprised they knew the Gangnam dance from Korea. That got everyone prancing around! We took photos together only to discover later that one of the girls was rather cheeky with her middle finger. She needs reporting, she does.

The Getai show drew practically everyone in Tg Batu and numerous stalls selling pop corn to trinklets sprouted up. It was certainly a carnival atmostphere and seems like everyone had pots of fun, from kids to the seniors. There was a performer belting out chinese songs gyrating in her black tights, and she captivated the audience, particularly the older men.

Then John Cheng appeared and the two got along like a house on fire. Preferring a quieter type of environment, we left the Getai and had a nice dinner at the town's hawker center which I named "Newton Circus". 

We had all sorts of great food like Satay, Fried Chicken that tastes better than KFC, Mee Goreng, Curry mee and of course, the obligatory Avocado Shake that we grew to love.

At this stage, poor Darren was not feeling very well so it was to be an early night for him. We later discovered that his trip to Barelang a weekend ago saw 3 of his mates infected with Falciparum Malaria, and sadly one of them is seriously ill. If Darren was still sick tomorrow, we would just take a ferry back to Singapore and end the ride. So with some medication given, Darren went to bed and the rest of us followed suit. Bouncing off the waters the whole day can be rather tiring... we slept with prayers in our hearts for Darren that he would make a full recovery.

Exploring the deep south of The Riaus - Day Four, Rounding Singkep

We decided to wake up a little later today at 8am but at 730am, everyone was ready and fresh. The excitement of discovering a brand new island cannot be contained with this enthusiastic team. But first business of the day was to look for breakfast, and we hopped on our bikes to prowl the streets of Dabo. The first joint we spotted was a Roti Canai place but it didn't appeal. Another 5 mins we struck gold. There was a Chinese coffeeshop with an elderly lady preparing piping hot minced pork noodles, and it was packed to the gills with people.

Not only was there these great noodles that Chris Wee would instantly approve, there were other goodies in store all wrapped up invitingly in banana leaves. Nasi Lemak packed with different ingredients! I love these coconut steamed rice with a rich, fiery chilly paste. 

We managed to park our bikes on the side alley and found a table. Foodie Matt went on a recce and reported wok fresh Char Kway Teow (fried noodles) at a nearby coffeeshop but we were already too full to go for seconds. Looking back, we should have but this would mean a very good reason to visit Dabo again.

Armed with Jan Boonstra's excellent map of Singkep, our first destination was Batu Ampar where the promise of a cool natural waterfall or Air Terjun beckoned. The ride out of town was pleasant enough as we cycled past Dutch styled houses, vestiges of its colonial past. Passing through a row of shops, KC stopped to ask directions from a friendly mid-age guy who rode a brand new Hello Kitty bicycle. A most interesting combination! When he spoke very good English and said he worked in the shipyards of Singapore, he instantly became KC's adopted brother as they both were from the same industry.

This short distraction got lengthened when we discovered a delightful bicycle shop with even more delightful owners. I am one who believe in chemistry when it comes to relationships and this is one of those moments. The young owner himself is an avid MTBiker who took part in many competitions. He was fascinated at our adventure and just wanted to know more about our bikes and our journey. So we all chatted like old friends and when I wanted to buy a mosque-design bell for my Muslim friend Hardy, he very kindly gave it to me! I couldn't believe his generous nature and it sealed our newly formed friendship. 

We got to meet his parents who ran a very successful motorcycle shop next to the bicycle shop as well and met his lovely assistant Dewi. The fully stocked bike shop meant there were many things for us to buy. I ended up with a much needed brand new yellow rain jacket and Matt had a neat front fender fixed on on his KHS foldie, personally fixed by the owner.

We had to pry ourselves away from the shop and it was hard to say goodbye. Continuing on the journey on the lovely road, we came across another wonderful distraction. Due to mining activities done on Sinkep years before, the landscape that appeared before us looked so much like the Grand Canyon of Arizona. KC and Matt had fun taking pics of Storm Storm and Ollie until a freak accident saw Ollie plunged down 10m into a ravine. Our efforts to rescue him were hampered by the soft sandy walls, and Darren and KC tried their best but could not scale them to reach Ollie. Thus, we had to leave poor Ollie behind and move on. There was a tinge of sadness to leave behind one of our mates... but this would be the second reason to return.

At the 11km, the turnoff to the waterfall appeared and that lifted up the gloom we all had in our hearts. It was 1km along a small road before the magnificent sight of flowing water appeared. We wasted no time to change to our swimmers and jumped in. The icy cool water really was so heavenly!

Everyone just took the plunge and we played like little boys in the natural shower. What struck me was how clean everything was, no sight of any litter. Was this really Indonesia? We mucked around and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Some great pics were shot here and we had our morning tea here as well. The hour past real quick and when the hordes of students came, we knew it was time to vamoose.

We continued our ride northwards and it soon started to pour - a time to test my new rain jacket. It worked very well but soon I got too hot, we all did. I rather ride soaked than get steamed up...  As the rain was easing, we all took off our rain gear and enjoyed a much cooler ride. The Pengambil T junction at about 30km appeared, and this was where we turned right. It was great to see the sea again and I was struck at the emerald green colour of the water. We cycled toward Sungei Buloh which was a very quiet road through a nice kampong. Some kids came along on their bikes to join us. The rain clouds threatened again and we soon found ourselves getting pelted, so we took shelter in a sundry shop at the Y junction.

Poor Matt was nowhere to be seen. The last we saw of him was that he told us to go ahead, as he was taking pics. We waited until we got real hungry. Meanwhile, the shopkeeper was fascinated with my Speed Pro and could not help molesting it. 

With our stomachs rumbling, we told the shopkeeper to direct Matt left at the Y as we shall be having a bite at S Buloh. Later, we learned that poor Matt realised his bungee cord holding his rain jacket came off and he backtracked 10km to see if he could find it. Unfortunately, it was not successful.

Sungei Buloh is a nice small town with a small jetty, and a sprinkle of restaurants. We enjoyed a nice Nasi Padang lunch while we waited for the rain to go away. The owner, a lovely mid-age Malay lady just took very good care of us and made a most delicious meal. We got chatting and I asked her why every Indonesian male smoked and her clever reply was that neither her father or her husband smoked. Rare as a hen's teeth! 

Matt still did not show up and Darren tried to text him with no avail. As the rains started to ease off, we decided to start riding again, 8km towards Jago. It was a very pleasant ride passing through more small villages and we stopped to take pics of very colourful houses. This one matched Darren's bike and outfit.

Then, the killer stretch began. Hill # 1 & 2 appeared and we had to muster everything we got to climb it. These 2 were the worse hills on the island, and perhaps in our adventure. There was a lot of construction going on in this area so coming downhill, the roads were bad and we had to do so gingerly.

Soon, we came to a T-junction where Jago was but we decided to wait for Matt here. After 30 mins, he finally showed up but I was really giving the mozzies there a good feed. Poor Matt was hungry and exhausted. 

We carried on to Jago just 1km away and got some much needed sustaintence for Matt. There, we were given extra special attention by the waitress, who seemed very interested in Darren "Bond". If that was not enough, another attractive waitress from the next stall joined in Darren's fan club and grabbed him to have her picture taken! 

Satisfied, we saddled up to begin the journey that we took yesterday on Roslan's taxi to Dabo some 28km away. Somehow on the bikes, the big hills were strangely not so daunting and we overcame the first section with ease. After that, the road hugged the coast and it was a sight to behold. This is probably one of the most beautiful stretches of roads I have ridden for a long time.

We soon came to a very long jetty where we rode to the end. As usual, we attracted some curious children on bikes that came to check out who these colourful strangers on small wheels were. The view was breaktaking as we soak in the amazing scenery especially the island of Lingga opposite with its cloudy peaks.

As the sun was setting, we continued on our journey south along the coast and had a drink stop at Harry's sundry shop. It was really strange to be speaking to this very friendly and helpful Chinese man in nothing but a chinese dialect, only to find out his name is none other than Harry!

I enjoyed playing with his 2 kids and the 5yo boy was obviously helping himself too often to the myriad of goodies in the shop. Saying goodbye to Harry, we proceeded on and passed by this sign which made us nearly fall off our bikes in laughter! Jual in Bahasa is "to sell"... (some of us later found out that semen is the Bahasa spelling for cement)

As the sky was turning dark, we turned the cycling dial on to warp speed and it was fun whizzing through the quiet coastal roads at 30-35km/h. Pedalling as hard as we could, strangely it felt like we took forever to hit the airport turnoff, 3km fm Dabo.

When it finally came, we breathe a sigh of relief as it was already dark. Harry had earlier told us to go eat at his friend's Zhi Char restaurant so we made our way there, delighted to find it so easily. But then again, this is Dabo, not New York city. The food was excellent and we felt very glad to have had our evening meal here. Somehow, we were all so hungry as we have done 80km and for Matt, 100+ km due to his little search and rescue adventure.

A quick return to the Armanda Hotel for a must needed shower, and we were out again for coffee. We went to Smoky Joe's once again as it seemed to be the only joint opened at night. The smoke seemed to bother me less the second night but second hand cigarette smoke is something you don't want to get used to.

As our return ferry to Tg Pinang was to leave at 730am tomorrow, we needed to turn in early as we all had to be up at 6am. Roslan our taxi man would be waiting. It had been a most fulfilling day exploring Singkep and I reckoned we could possibly be the first foldies to have circumvented this remote island at the equator. I felt like Captain Cook, the folding bike version with his merry crew, and slept with a broad grin permanently plastered on my face.