MALAYSIA - SWEAT AND KINDNESS
I wake to the sound of my watch alarm and open my eyes. It is 5am and still dark, but I feel rested. I pull on my socks, get dressed and climb out of the tent to light my stove. While I wait for the water to boil I quickly shake the dew off my tent and pack it up. The water boils and I make myself a cup of tea and a large breakfast of porridge drowning in sugar. I wolf it down then wash up my pot and pack it away with the stove in one of my panniers. It is still dark, all of this has been done by torchlight. I load everything onto my bicycle and have one last look around.
It has been a pleasant camp site for the night, hidden off the road in a small palm oil plantation. The night before I had camped in the ruins of an old building tucked away on the fringes of a vast rice paddy, and my back had been sore from sleeping on the hard concrete. My inflatable mat had broken weeks ago, but I didn’t really mind. And last night I’d had a comfortable bed of grass under me. A good camp site. I have been awake for around 30 minutes. I push my bike out onto the road, turn on my lights and begin pedalling into the darkness.
I have 100 miles to ride today as I am racing north towards the Thai border. I always start early to take advantage of the cooler temperature as by the afternoon the Malaysian heat and humidity will have become suffocating. And I love riding early in the mornings. There is almost no traffic and I always feel peaceful shrouded in the darkness. After around an hour the dawn begins to break over my right shoulder. Mountains to my left are faintly outlined by a reddish glow and I can see an electrical storm illuminating the clouds in the distance. I ride through sleepy villages and long stretches of road framed by palm trees on both sides. Gradually I begin to see more and more people as the sun rises higher and the day begins.
I take my first break at 9am, having ridden a little over 70km. I treat myself to a delicious meal of chicken and fried rice, nasi ayam goreng, and refill my empty water bottles. I sit for a while and enjoy the shade; it is already roasting hot in the sun. I chat idly to the man who owns the restaurant, explaining my ride as I do almost every day. After an hour I have had my fill of procrastination and reluctantly come to my feet. I pull out my wallet to pay for the meal but my new friend smiles and waves it away. He insists on giving me the meal free of charge and warmly shakes my hand to offer his encouragement. Spurred as I always am by such acts of kindness, I thank him and remount my bicycle. I still have a lot of ground to cover.
Over the next few hours the thermostat is slowly but irresistibly cranked up. I ride over a couple of enormous rivers and through endless flat stretches of rice fields. I am perspiring freely and am caked in sweat and road dust. I grit my teeth and keep pedalling until just after midday, then spot a beautiful Mosque and quickly pull off the road to dismount. I ask permission to sit in the shade to rest, and am immediately given water and a plate of tasty rice curry.
I chat to a man who introduces himself as Teacher. He tells me it is good that I have come this week, as next week will mark the start of Ramadan and getting food during the day will be difficult. Teacher acts as translator as I again explain myself to the growing number of onlookers. We talk and joke together for a while before Teacher invites me across the road for coffee and cake, where his son presents me with a bunch of bananas from his garden. After another hour the heat of the day has passed so we return to the Mosque and I thank everyone and remount my bicycle. Islamic hospitality is amazing.
I do not ride much further as I am feeling lazy and it is still fairly hot. I keep my eyes peeled for potential camp sites, and it is not long before I spot a perfect site nestled in another big palm oil plantation. I wait until there are no cars on the road to see me, then quickly duck under a barrier and ease myself into my new home for the night. My camp tasks are completed with the unconscious ease of familiarity. Ground cleared, tent pitched, stove lit, dinner cooked. As the day ends I sit with a cup of tea to watch the sunset, enjoying the solitude and silence of another night in the wild.
I have ridden around 150km today, falling just short of my 100 mile target. In total it has cost me about 60 pence. Night falls and I crawl into my tent to sleep. For a few minutes I stop to reflect on the day, and it is the selfless kindness of strangers which dominates my thoughts. As I do every night, I remind myself how lucky I am to be here, to be enjoying the beauty, simplicity and fierce unbridled freedom of a life on the road. Above me the moon is up and the stars are beginning to come out. I am smiling as I close my eyes and sleep takes me.