Tag Archives: bicycle touring

A Collection of Tales from the Road: #4 Austria

Austria was the second country of nine cycled across in six days during the world record attempt called ‘9in9’.  Here’s a newspaper article about it. I remember whizzing down sunny mountain valleys from a high lake at the border with Italy, north and then west to Liechtenstein.

I was joined by two teaching colleagues and a friend. It was the springtime in the Alps and after a rough patch in my life, I had just learned that I would be moving to teach in West Africa, so I was full of optimism and excitement. We crossed the start line in a ceremonial roll-out in front of some press and many red uniformed students at the Priory School in Hertfordshire, before getting into a packed minivan support vehicle and heading to the English Channel. I also felt good embarking on this serious physical challenge with a purpose having raised a lot of funds for the Children with Cancer charity, as one of our students had been battling the disease.

Austria, in hindsight became the cause of the reason why I am not an official Guinness World Record holder. We had meticulously prepared the paperwork and the necessary details as stipulated by Guinness in advance of the ‘Epic Journey’ attempt. However, the official record still stands at seven countries in a week, not nine as we had covered. Guinness told me in retrospect that we required police testimonies from each town stating that we all arrived and left by bicycle. This was a horrible surprise to say the least. It was the first mention of a need to involve police in the attempt. It would certainly have been time consuming and a headache to have done so, and therefore may be one of the reasons why the old record still stands.

Whenever I think back to our ride through Austria, one split-second springs to mind. As we approached a tunnel on the mountain road, surrounded by packed snow and ice, we noticed a policeman in his car in a bay by the road. I had researched ahead of time, and knew that it was legal to cycle through this tunnel, but this tunnel looked a bit too dark and tricky, so a flashing thought about stopping came to my mind. But we did not stop to ask the policeman for an escort. Had we done so, and had we known to ask for evidence from him that we had cycled through, maybe I would not always feel angry when I hear any mention of Guinness World Records. Maybe I would be one of 4 official record holders. We know we rode the entire way, and we know that it makes us record breakers, but alas, our names are not carved in stone.

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A Collection of Tales from the Road: #3 Argentina

During a whistle-stop tour of South America I had the good fortune of meeting a guy with a bike in El Calafate, a town on the southern edge of the Patagonian Icefield.

Although brief, the day ride out and back from the edge of the town into tundra like flatlands, certainly gave me a taste of the place. I struggled all morning mainly because of the persistent winds upon which 3 metre wide condors soared above carrion, and worryingly, me.

I was in the region mainly to visit the vivid blue Perito Moreno glacier. One of the few in the world to not be receding. It was like a huge living creature. Creaking and cracking it’s chilly way down toward the lake. The relative calm of the noises that it made during the day we were there, were occasionally interrupted by a splash, as chunks from its face dropped off into the dark blue water. It was a pretty serene scene, but in 2016, a huge section of the face and the ice bridge it had created collapsed causing a tsunami.

On the way back into town I prepared myself mentally for the battle ahead against the dogs.

I’m not a big mutt fan, and being a cyclist I often feel that I am little more that two spinning dog treats, as far as they are concerned. I have never seen so many dogs and clearly the authorities were concerned by the numbers too, but I should never have been worried here. Although locals say that they belong to the town, none of these dogs seem to be owned. They do however remain well looked after, and are all coded by a coloured collar depending on their physical status, shall we say. They seem to be totally at ease, if anything, they seem to own the town, and as I pondered this over my Mate tea in a high street cafe, I remember realising what a remote part of the world I was in and how nature is nature, so maybe the balance of power the swaggering pack dogs have here is a good one.

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A Collection of Tales from the Road: #2 Armenia

The birthplace of wine and the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion is Armenia. An intriguing place that I almost didn’t visit. But as I pedalled south from Tblisi at short notice, I felt that, although hurried, I had recently discovered just enough about it to have a desire to see some of it. I’m pleased I did.

On arrival, gold-toothed ladies selling fruit, yards from the border, probably got a good deal from me. I can tell when this happens because often sellers belatedly give you a few free bits as the realisation that they have just shafted an Englishman starts to play on their conscience. No, maybe not. I like to think that what they chat about with their mates around them is that this harmless cyclist could do with some extra energy. So as I rode off to cries of laughter behind me, I took it is a positive first interaction and felt welcome. My target was a bar with some rooms and a TV, so that I could watch England play football. I was foiled yet again, they had no TVs, or doors.

When I woke, pointlessly sulky as I was alone, I soon realised that I would be following the enormous green Debed river canyon for the day as it grew deeper and darker. Soviet mines, cranes and gargantuan structures that I did not know the purpose of, loomed over me like a scene from the Lord of the Rings. I was excited to see a chair-lift, to what is probably a good viewpoint over the valleys, but it was closed. So I continued to pedal further south towards Turkey, only to find out that I had not done my hurried research very well at all before I left Georgia, as there has been no border between Armenia and Turkey for decades.

I won’t get into politics, suffice to say, there is a lot going on in this part of the world and they are not on friendly terms. To my east the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continued between Armenia and another neighbour, Azerbaijan. Totally stumped, I re-routed in Vanadzor so that I could get into Turkey after going north-west back into Georgia. This process of figuring out the situation and riding all had to happen pretty quickly, or I’d be stuck on a hillside somewhere near a border, riding eagerly in a circle, knowing that I had a flight to catch at the end of the tour. Adding to this unusually confusing tour section, is that Armenia is not recognised as a country by some of its neighbours. This means that any local currency I had at the time, had no value outside and cannot be exchanged. So I decided that there was only one course of action; to have steak and wine for dinner for the last few nights. Any other memories have been rather blurred.

Previous story: Albania

Next story: Austria

(Cover photo: Looking towards Turkey and Mt Ararat, Armenia)

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A Collection of Tales from the Road – Introduction

In this series of blog posts, I will record and share some stories of a rather long bicycle ride of 40,100 kilometres through 60 countries.

This post is a shortish introduction detailing some facts and figures and how I have structured the large task of compiling so many stories.

Some of the accounts you can read in this series are of things that were meant to be a little bit of fun but turned out to be shockingly bad. Some are sad stories that turned out to be funny (in hindsight at least). Many are just things that happen on a tour, the kindness of strangers, the thrill of the ride. Some are of times when I was desperate, others are accounts of diamond moments.

I want to do this partly because I do think that some of these stories might entertain you. They may seem far-fetched and hard to believe, but are true nonetheless, as I recall them. Mainly I just want to put them into writing. Memories of these things will always pop-up in my mind’s eye, but this document is immortal, so will forever be a place I visit as a bank of fond memories, even when I’m losing my marbles.

People keep telling me that I should write a book one day, and I immediately wonder- Why?

Because when people suggest this, my mind goes naturally to producing something that would be practical, but what useful advice do I have for people who like to explore? I am not sure that I would be a respectable source of information for the intrigued anyway, so i’ve decided to keep it simple and just write about random happenings, as these are the things that people have most enjoyed hearing about.

 

It’s been 18 years since my first tour (as an adult), and as I have mentioned in other blog posts, the world has changed a lot in that time. With only a few thousand kilometres left, the journey will be completed next year having pedalled more than 40,100km on tour, which is the circumference of our planet at its widest, so it’s actually slightly rugby ball shaped (see this post). 

This process of reflection, and my current location in the west of Canada, mean that I am already starting to feel nostalgic. It’s certainly been an investment to put it mildly, and a large part of my life. Indeed longer tours become a way of life, or a lifestyle. I wonder whether touring is now an obsession? I guess I’ll know soon enough. But for this circumnavigation at least, it is definitely something I know I need to complete, to get out of my system and be content for the rest of my life.

Over the course of my adult life so far, I visited 70 countries. In 10 of these, for whatever reason, I didn’t get on a saddle, so the memories I will share in this series of posts will be from 60 countries.

It’s difficult to find a commonly accepted definition of a country, nation, territory. Borders, or political boundaries have been fluid in some regions, and as I’ve mentioned in a previous post LINK ; countries are rather arbitrary in times of change.

For me, it has become more about the land and less about the country I happen to be in. People and cultures blend, the earth ebbs and flows from pastures to desert, mountains to jungle, back down to the ocean.

As I come towards the end of this 40,100km ride around our world, it is the knowledge of what the earth looks like, at 4-D ground level, that will stay with me as one nice whole visual bubble of information, made up of millions of data points and pedal strokes.

Note: Because of changing political and economic geography around the world, I have recorded what happened and where, as it was then. So some references may seem outdated, and so they will likely remain. This was pertinent in the cases of Tibet, Mongolia, Kosovo, Macau, Hong Kong, Armenia & Nagorno-Karabakh, Myanmar etc…

I decided that the best way to organise these memories is not on a timeline, which I could have called the ‘Chamois Cream Chronicles’, but rather in a typically teacher like alphabetical order, which I am yet to decide a name for. Alphabetcycles maybe?

I have written about something from each of these countries, and will work through the alphabet one country at a time. So the first blogpost will be about Albania.

Below is a list of the countries i’ve cycled, and HERE IS  A LINK to an interactive map of the screenshot above that I’ve created, locating each country and therefore story with a numbered pin in the order I’ll write. I do hope you enjoy reading about them all:

  

The full list of countries visited can be found here:  LINK

Stories so far: Albania, Armenia

Visit our website at www.pedalgogy.net to learn more.

 

Pedalgogy in the USA

Hello from the US of A!

Couldn’t have asked for a better start to the North American leg of our ride around the world.

Hosted by our friend (and fellow international teacher) Mark in Chicago who helped us to get our bikes up and running, showed us the sights, introduced us to deep dish pizza and rode most of the first day with us before turning to ride all the way back home.

Literally 15 mins after Mark left us, we met Jim (a recently retired science teacher) who chatted with us and then invited us to stay at his house instead of camping in 40 C/ 100 + F degree heat. He and his wife Joan treated us to a lovely dinner and “standard” American breakfast of bacon and eggs with lots of chatting and fun. Jim rode out with us and pointed us in the direction of Lake Geneva where we are currently camping/melting and writing this post after our first visit to Walmart.

Also we were given free petrol at a gas station for our camp stove and someone spoke to Niamh in Irish. First impressions of the US are extremely positive. Thanks to everyone who made it so and may the good times continue!

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Beautiful Places and Moments: One Year on the Road

We are now half way through our ride around the world. Since leaving our teaching jobs at Tashkent International School, we have cycled over 12,000 kilometres through 11 countries.

Uzbekistan:

Kyrgyzstan:

Kazakhstan:

China:

Laos:

Cambodia:

Vietnam:

Thailand:

Myanmar:

Malaysia:

Indonesia:

Not the entire 12 months have been spent actually on our bicycles, it is just not that simple. Over a month was spent in certain cities waiting and resting, normally for visas or extensions. Two weeks were spent in sick beds in Northern Laos, a month off to see our families at Christmas, and really our one year is more like nine months on the road. I think this is quite typical, and we still consider ourselves successful in crossing much of the biggest landmass in the world.

A friend asked me the other day whether this trip is proving to be all I had hoped it would be. Looking back, I was disappointed with the brief answer I gave, so here are some more considered answers –

i.) If I answer that question based on the experience of a year touring this part of the world on our bicycles, then yes, pedalling in a mainly easterly direction from Uzbekistan to Lombok, has indeed been wonderful in its truest sense. It has also been adventurous and therefore rewarding; passing from high plateaus and densely forested islands, to featureless deserts and climbing between snow-capped peaks. There have been dangers such as busy roads and violent provinces, but measured consideration of the safest routes and most sensible riding time gave us an inner-peace that we are grown-ups and responsible for ourselves.

ii.) If my friends question was more about the places and people rather than the ride, then I think my preconceptions of Asia; that it is heavily populated, polluted and runs at a frenetic pace, were correct. But there have certainly been some pleasant surprises.

Kyrgyzstan’s sublime mountain-scape, it’s winding rubble roads up and down mountain passes for instance, were unforgettable.

Cycling near much of the Mekong river from China’s Yunnan province, through Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam was special too. It was as if the river became our friend, not only confirming that we were heading in the right direction,  but also provided some reassurance that we were getting closer to our goal of Ho Chi Minh. The river slowly widened from a cascading body of water, not much more than a stream, to what looked more like an ocean towards its delta.

iii.) Perhaps my friends question was less about the geography and more about the physical challenge. In which case – we have done well. We have dealt with the dry bbq-like 50 degrees celsius desert heat of the Kyzl-kum and Taklamakan deserts. As well as the boiling, dripping, shrivelling humidity nearer the equator. We have had a wide range of physical human experiences too, from feeling fit as fiddles and strong as oxen, to faint, weak and disorientated.

I recently wrote about our trusty steeds in another post (link). They have been fantastic but also like dead weights sometimes. I have been reminded, more frequently than ever, that much of the challenges we face in our lives can be overcome by a positive mindset. Our pace has been good overall so we have been able to take time in places we loved and have blasted through those we did not.

The next stage in North America will be the penultimate in my 18 year attempt to circumnavigate the planet. 40,000km is the goal, and with about 10,000km left as we prepare for this long next leg, we are looking good to achieve this by summer 2019. Administration waits should be less of a problem on this next stage so our Christmas breaks with our families should be our only significant pauses, allowing for plenty of pure pedalling. We are also considering Cuba and the Caribbean in the new year, perhaps even some of central America, but right now the distance is the goal, and of course we will want to leave some parts of the world for exploring in the more distant future.

It is definitely the case that we are now living with a new rhythm. It used to be a rather busy beat, with long awaited silences to get our breath back in school holidays. Now, it seems we are both more easy going. I have noticed that I have become less worried about things, less edgy and stressed, and the need that I lived with for the last 10 years of dealing with everything immediately, has at least a little bit, abated. I feel calmer in myself, having had time to think, and good about my health as I enter the latter part of my 30’s. We have both enjoyed the experience of riding through foreign lands immensely. Sometimes different cultures and their ‘normal’ is a little bit hard to accept and deal with, so yes, from time to time we have felt a little bit travel fatigued, but nothing a good bike ride the next day couldn’t solve. I am sure that all of these little niggles will be the basis for many a daydream when we look back and chuckle in the future. Our relationship is stronger than ever. I think the sense of accomplishing this together added something that we were not expecting and we are both in a wonderful place mentally about our breaks with family and the dream of cycling through prairies on traffic free routes, camping in meadows and breathing fresh air.

The Good People We Meet

 

A commonly used adage is “The less one has to give, the more generous they are’”.

This may presume that material possessions are a gauge of how much one has. Or that giving is a sign of ones kindness. I prefer to think that generosity in the form of helping strangers does not require any form of wealth other than human spirit in the heart.

Along our way, we have been touched by the kindness of strangers. It fills me with hope for the future and, in the short term, a warm glow, protection and reassurance for our continuing journey.

We grew up with clear instructions from our elders never to speak to strangers. Whilst we often remain wary of many people, a large part of this experience is about immersion and putting trust in the people we meet.

Our bicycle tour around the world has now taken us through 12 countries and we would like to pause and say thank you to some of the people who helped us when we found ourselves in sticky situations or just went out of their way to be friendly and welcoming.

  • Sardorbek and the other field workers just outside of Bukhara, Uzbekistan who let us get some shade under their apricot trees in the 40 degree heat that we just weren’t prepared for on our very first day of the tour. They then gave us a huge bag of delicious apricots to take with us for energy.

  • Dildora and her family in Gazli, Uzbekistan who, when we asked if we could pitch a tent in the shade near their property, instead insisted that they make up beds for us in their air-conditioned living room and then laid on an almighty spread of food in typical Uzbek style while refusing any money for the accommodation or food.

  • Islomjon and Dilmorod, the General Motors truck drivers who picked us up on the side of a desert highway in Uzbekistan when Niamh was really sick from heat exhaustion and just couldn’t cycle in the sun anymore. They put our bikes on the back of the truck and let us lie down on the bed behind the drivers’ seats to rest while they drove us to the next town and would only let us buy them some tea at a highway rest stop as a thank you.

  • Abdulrahman who repeatedly welcomed us to Kyrgyzstan while buying his cup of vodka in the local shop, went away, came back 5 minutes later and presented us with two delicious ice-creams and a big smile.

 

  • Sultan, the little boy on the donkey in Kyrgyzstan who helped us to find a good spot to camp on the side of a mountain pass when it was starting to get dark and then came back later to give us two bouquets that he had made from wild flowers and which we adorned our bicycles with the next day.

  • Axel and Claudia, the German couple in the 4×4 in Kyrgyzstan who spared us a couple of litres of drinking water when we underestimated just how remote one section of our trip was.

  • The Russian family who picked us up when hitch hiking to Charyn canyon in Kazakhstan and to the group of Turkish men who picked us up on the way back.

  • The family in Khorgos who, on our first night in China, were extremely helpful in finding us the best restaurant and food in town and later came to check that we were happy. One of the best and cheapest meals we had in the country.

  • The mechanics in China who tried to fix Matthew’s chain (but made it worse) and then helped us to organise transport for us and the bikes to the next town where it could be fixed while feeding us energy drinks, tea and beans.

 

  • Coco, the woman in China who went out of her way to take us around to all the travel agents in town when we thought it might be cheaper to buy our flights home for Christmas that way. Turned out it wasn’t and we just bought them online, so she had completely wasted her time on us but didn’t mind at all and wouldn’t accept anything but a thank you in return.

  • The doctor in Laos who gave us a lift back from the hospital to our hotel on his motorbike when we were too sick to walk and who then checked in with us to make sure we were ok while we recovered.

  • The family in Cambodia who let us camp under their house when we got a bit stranded in the dark on impassable paths and gave us a ball of rice and some coconut milk to drink when they didn’t have much themselves (we gave them some money in return).

 

  • Meow’s family in Thailand who’s hotel we stayed in. They had all just flown in for their sister’s funeral but, despite the sad occasion, were determined to make us feel welcome and said that their sister would want them to take care of us. So we had a lovely evening of chatting, photos and delicious food.

 

  • Asad, The Pakistani man in Malaysia who made us feel so welcome in the town canteen and cooked his native dishes with such pride and passion.

  • Mr Nager Zer, the manager of the Amadeo hotel in Duri, Sumatra, who took us to an English class to run a Ted Web workshop with his students and then treated us to dinner.

 

  • Randy, who when Matthew met him in a ropey laundry place in Indonesia, happily offered to take him around town on his motorbike to find a better place and then to his family’s cafe to get some tasty local food and coffee. He also guided us through the busy streets out of town as we continued our journey and hooked Matthew up with some great meds from a doctor friend of his.

  • And to finish with a compatriot and like-minded bike lover, Pete in Bali who tended to the needs of our weary steeds in his beautiful bike shop and cafe : Kayuh Bali/Rhino Velo

We will look back fondly on these memories and remind ourselves of them in the future if we start to doubt that:

PEOPLE ARE NICE!

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Click here for our route maps of the ride so far.

Biking Stuff: Ride Diary – Sumatra, Indonesia

Click here for an interactive map of our route in Sumatra.

Ride Diary Week 2: Bukittinggi to Bengkulu

A bit more than a week (10 days) but no point in doing a week 3 blog post for only 3 days. We ended up flying out of Bengkulu to extend our visas in Yogyakarta and carried on cycling from there. It was a much more pleasant place than Bengkulu to hang around for a week during processing.

Key to Hotel ratings:

£ = budget (less than 10 pounds) ££ = mid (10-20 pounds) £££=expensive (more than 20 pounds)

C=Cleanliness: /10

F=Facilities: /10

V=Value for money: /10

Adjusted for country expectations. Average price of hotel etc…

Bukittinggi to Lake Maninjau – 30km direct

Through canyon. Severe ups and downs. Stunningly beautiful. 45 switchback descent to lake. Beach Guest House: £, C = 7, F = 6, V = 9.

Lake Maninjau to Pariaman – 86km

Anti-clockwise around the lake and then down a valley to the coast. Easy riding. Surface generally good. Nan Tongga Hotel: ££, C = 4, F = 5, V = 5.

Pariaman to Airy Paintai Bungus – 71km

Minor roads along the coast as far as the airport. Joined Padang bypass for ease and speed. A few climbs near bays towards end of day. Cavery Beach Hotel: ££, C = 8, F = 7, V = 7.

Pantai Bungus to Painan via Sungai Pinang – 69km including 8km boat crossing

Tough, steep. In parts unsurfaced. Quiet and beautiful along the coast. Wisma Putri Wisatta: £, C = 7, F = 6, V = 7.

Painan to Balai Selasa – 72km

Road under construction. Fairly flat after testing morning climb. Little shade. Villages along coast. Penginapan Bunda Bari: £, C = 5, F = 5, V = 6.

Balai Selasa to Tapan – 65km

Another morning climb – quite short. Road under construction. Improving east. Not much to see or do. Steady pace, fairly flat. Hotel Felai: £, C = 6, F = 6, V = 6.

Tapan to Mukomuko – 70km

A few minor hills. Lots of short, sharp up and downs. Nice road past the airport on approach to town. Long town stretched out along main road. Not much to do. Cheap laundry place. Hotel Madiyara (mosque in hotel carpark. Extremely loud call to prayer).: ££, C = 7, F = 7, V = 7

Mukomuko to Ipuh – 104km

First 30km flat and east. Constant up and downs. Hundreds of them. Tough but all rideable. Guest House beginning with “A” (forget name). Small white sign to turn left before centre of town. Che Che supermarket opposite sells beer. ££, C = 7, F = 5, V = 4

Ipuh to Ketahun – 82km

Along coast. More ups and downs. Palm plantations. Road was fairly good. Losmen Dari Hotel – shockingly bad and infested but only place in town. On the right just after petrol station (which in on the left) before roundabout. Supermarket at roundabout sells beer. Good restaurant opposite hotel. £, C = 2, F = 2, V = 3

Ketahun to Bengkulu – 87km

Some confusion on route from town. Stick to the road along the coast. Not well paved but scenic and quiet-ish. Nice place for a rest stop at 47km. Coconuts to drink and rocky island view. Busy on way into city. Tropicana Guest House: ££, C = 8, F = 7, V = 8

If you need a bike shop in Bengkulu there is one to the east of town within walking distance of Tropicana. Aloha Cafe on the beachfront was good and Bencoolen Cafe. Both near Tropicana and both sell beer.

Click here for week 1 ride diary.

Click here for an interactive map of our route in Sumatra.

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Education Project: Surprise School Visits in Sumatra

It has now been 10 months since Matthew and I left our teaching jobs and although I love the freedom that this career break brings, I sometimes miss the classroom. Sumatra has been quite challenging in some ways but we were delighted to visit two different schools during our time there. Both visits were the result of spontaneous invitations and lifted our spirits as they came at the end of two tough cycling days.

Duri

After a day of cycling extremely busy roads and dodging trucks we arrived at the oil and gas town of Duri and checked in to the Amadeo hotel. The Indonesian manager, Mr Ger, turned out to be a fellow adventurer (by motorbike) who invited us to visit the school where he volunteers his free time. After meeting the students and teachers, we split into two groups to run a Ted Web workshop – Matthew with the boys and myself with the girls. Each student wrote a story, some in English and some in Indonesian. Considering that our session was only about 40 minutes, and we arrived by surprise, it was impressive that the students managed to think of and produce stories in such a short amount if time. After the workshop and lots and lots of group photos, Mr Ger treated us to a delicious dinner of fried chicken and coconut rice. Then it was back to the hotel to rest up for the next day’s ride. A really pleasant end to a stressful day of cycling.

Teachers click here to find these student’s stories on www.tedweb.org.

Ipuh 

“Hello Mister!” called the group of girls as we wandered down the street to find some dinner. We had just arrived in the town of Ipuh after a day of constant hills through palm oil plantations. We found a restaurant for some ‘mie ayam’ and then planned to collapse in our guest house for the evening. As we ate, the same group of girls kept poking their heads around the corner and peering into the restaurant. “They probably want selfies,” I commented to Matthew. As we walked back back toward our guesthouse we heard a polite “Excuse me Miss” from behind. I turned around  for the obligatory selfie, but instead was surprised to receive a lovely invitation to be a guest at their English evening course. They had rehearsed the invitation and were helping each other to finish the sentences. When I agreed, they erupted in squeals. Matthew had a rotten cold so he went to rest while I followed the girls to the school. I was greeted by their teacher, Maria, and about 20 students. We all sat down and spent the next hour or so chatting. Sometimes they asked me questions, sometimes I asked them and sometimes I just chatted with the teacher. The lesson went quickly and before we knew it, it was time for group photos and back to the guest house for me. I even got a lift in the teacher’s car for the 400m journey because they were adamant that I shouldn’t get wet in the rain – that’s Indonesian hospitality!

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Tales from the Road: Sumatra – An Intense Introduction to Indonesia