The first time I drove a motorbike in South East Asia I was robbed. I had just learned to drive a scooter during a holiday on the island of Lombok, next to Bali and one day I was scooting along one of the main roads, in the middle of a beautiful day, and boom–two local guys drove me off the road and threatened to stab me.
I’d been in Lombok a week when it happened. Two weeks into my work contract and the start of my “new” life in Indonesia I went on holiday during Lebaron, the two-week celebration that follows the holy, fasting month of Ramadan in Islam. For the first couple of hours I idled along the beach, which was deserted but for a handful of locals scattered some distance away. The sky was a deep blue, the water turquoise and the palm trees were those really tall ones that bend over the sea. I saw green peaks off in the distance and watched boats days away dotting the vast blue sea, like stamps on the horizon. The bright, white sand scorched my bare feet. I pulled my sunglasses off my head and over my eyes. I walked a while and twirled my hair, wondering why I’d moved there and what life would be like for the next two years. Then three travellers came up alongside me and we started to chat. We spent the next four days together, scooting around the island, hitting the beach bars, and just having fun in another of SE Asia’s playgrounds. One of the travellers, a young man from Belgium, taught me to drive a scooter that week so on my final day when he and the others left I happily scooted to all my favourite surfer beaches, not because I surf but just to be in the open air of the rugged natural beauty of a tropical paradise. And I loved driving that thing, knowing I was breaking about five North American laws. But when something feels too good to be true, it probably is.
I passed Muslim women on motorbikes, their hijabs flying behind them in the wind, like the tails of colourful kites against the blue sky. They were fuchsia and orange and lime green flags of a female Islam. I spotted a wooden sign with the handprinted words “beach 100 m” slapped on it. I cut a quick left and as I did my front tire hit ankle deep sand and I softly wiped out. It was a premonition, a warning not to get too comfortable or overconfident in both that given day or the next two years in Indonesia. When you do bad things happen. It’s a necessary balance in the universe. I picked up the scooter and wheeled it down to the shore and there before me sprawled a beach like I’d never seen before. It was deserted. The bright blue of the day was deepened by the vast ocean, sectioned into turquoise, aquamarine, and midnight blue, contrasted by the white crests of waves. The sun tossed jewels on the surface of the sea. This beach promised paradise and simple escape from ordinary life. Two local men arrived and I suddenly became very aware of their awareness of me, alone on a beach with no one around for miles. I felt their eyes bore into me like the hot sun on my back. I know I looked bedazzled, like a giddy, reckless tourist. But I was exposed and vulnera-ble, a woman alone, lacking the physicality to adequately protect myself. I quickly took a photo of the beach and left.
I continued on down the main road. To my left were palm trees and mountains, to my right were palm trees and sea. I drove along the pristinly paved road, set high upon a cliff towering over the sea. I was in Indonesia, alone, riding a motorbike through a tropical paradise. I had money in my wallet, a good job, and freedom from winter, mortgage payments, and mediocrity. I was free and I absorbed every little bit of that feeling the same way my skin soaked up that brilliant afternoon sun.
And then out of nowhere, two local men on a bike appeared (was it the same two I saw at the beach?). They drove alongside me for a few seconds and then cut in front of me. Their rudeness annoyed me. I passed them. But they did it again and I thought, those dumb fucks, they’re just fucking around, trying to unnerve me, picking on the fucking tourist (my inside voice has a filthy mouth, especially when she’s nervous). We played this silly, dangerous game a few more rounds until they changed the rules. They got up beside me and matched my speed. I peeled my eyes from the road for a minute to follow their eyes and I saw what they wanted. I watched as their gaze fell upon my bag. Oh shit. Well at least they weren’t looking at ME. My heart raced and I felt a chill amidst the hot, humid day. The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ swam around my head and out through my lips as it often does when I feel anxious and need to self-regulate.
They got really close, close enough that I had to swerve, and then they got closer still so that I ended up off the shoulder of the road, skidding, hitting gravel and sending it shooting up as my scooter tipped sideways and I fell onto pebbles and dirt, cutting my knee. My front tire spun as I recovered and stood, immediately aware of my weakness. I didn’t dare look down at my throbbing knee. In a flash I remembered words spoken to me throughout the week: Don’t go anywhere alone, don’t stop on the road for any reason, and if someone approaches you with a knife, hand over your bag. FUCK. I was already down two points. As I was pulling my shaky self together to confront whatever was coming my way a mad man approached me. I knew what was about to happen but for a split second hope reigned over reality and I wondered if it was all an accident and the guy was there only to offer help. He was 19 or 20 or 25, skinny, wearing low slung jeans and a shirt open in the front. His eyes were wild, his teeth bared, and his hair stood out from his head, a dark mass of curls and snarls. Had he opened his mouth to speak, I’d expect to hear primitive, caveman-like grunts. He breathed heavily as his hand reached to his pants and jerked out a knife the size of Java, a curved sheath of shiny metal with a threatening point, gleaming beneath the bright sun. A machete. This could not be happening. Not here. This kind of thing happened in the middle of the night when one is stupid enough to walk home alone through dark alleys in dangerous neighborhoods. This kind of thing didn’t happen in paradise. But even in paradise lurk scorpions, reading to snatch and sting you when you’re most unaware.
He brought the knife to my neck. I didn’t hesitate. I squealed like a child avoiding the torture of being tickled and turned my face away, crushed my eyes shut, hiding in my mess of hair. If he was going to hurt me I didn’t want to be witness to it. If he wanted my bag he could have it. And I realised in that moment that in the fight or flight response I am a top gun. I thrust my bag toward him and he grabbed it. A moment later I opened my eyes and watched helplessly as he jumped on the back of the bike and the two of them darted away like rats in a sewer briefly exposed to light. I looked down at the scooter, lying on its side, engine still engaged. I sat and placed my empty hands in the dirt to steady myself and catch my breath. Shit. What just happened?! I did a mental inventory of the contents of my bag… everything, except my racing heart. Shit. They got my passport and work visa, $300, ALL my identification, an iPod, my apartment keys, hotel keys, a book, a sarong, a pair of flip flops, (yes I have one of those bags) and many, many sentimental little items that I’d collected throughout my travels over the years, one of which was a note from a sweet little 18-year-old Italian boy proclaiming he would marry me if he was 10 years older. Ha. But the worst part was that they took my beautiful handmade leather bag I’d bought in Spain the year before. That thing was like a limb. And yes, I considered this worse than having my passport taken. What made me think that I could just move to a tropical paradise, hop on a bike and ride into the blue like I was invincible? This is how life suddenly grabs you up and squeezes the youth right out of you, burns you like unprotected skin in the sun.
I dusted myself off and got back into town and found the police “station”. An open-air shack on the side of the road housing roughly 10 officers with diplomas in Apathy. We sat there a while, me still shaking and okay I admit, crying a little, them smoking and laughing, until I asked if they wanted my name or something of that nature. They pushed a pen and facial tissue my way and I carefully wrote, so as to avoid tearing the tissue, my name, citizenship and telephone number. The absurdity continued throughout the day as I had to type out my own police report and spend my final day cancelling bank cards and tending to my wounded knee. I drank an obscene amount of Bintang that night, just to add insult to injury.
Two years later I see the symbolism in that experience, that absolutely nothing was going to go according to plan but that everything, good or bad, happens for a reason. Everything can teach us something. And too much of Indonesia’s local beer can teach you that rat poison is perhaps not as toxic as you’d expect. If you have to replace your passport from within Indonesia, get your hands on whatever alcohol is available, because meditation and patience are not sufficient and marijuana is illegal.
Photo: On a beautiful beach in South Lombok just a few days before the robbery.