July 15, 2001 GMT
Restarting Starship Enterprise

I had grown used to thinking of it in the same way as it was viewed by most of the people I met along the way: A technological marvel, impossibly big and shiny with undreamed of capabilities, no doubt able to achieve twice the speed of sound with a flick of the wrist.

"How much this bike cost in your country?" they would ask in awe, clearly expecting a sum of money more usually associated with moon shots or major hydroelectric projects.

"Or about fifty quid," I thought in shock when I whipped the dust cover off the machine and wheeled it out into the light. It looked like shit...

A Monday morning in the middle of July. It was unseasonably hot, and the stupefied commuters on the M6 were nose-to-tail as usual. I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur, but was currently stuck somewhere near Redditch, ("The Kuala Lumpur of the North" as it is known locally).

Late arrival in Birmingham caused three of us on board the coach to miss the connection for Heathrow. However, the nice people at National express hired a taxi into which we piled in a jumble of weighty luggage. I ended up in the back seat wedged uncomfortably against someone's large plastic suitcase on one side, and a large bloke named Peter on the other. Peter, it transpired, was in textiles, and generously wished to share his love of fabric commodities with me. Needless to say the hours just flew by, and presently the cabby did us the honour of tuning into Radio 2. Terry Wogan was playing hits by the Carpenters. Clearly, I had displeased the gods in some way....

Aside from this, the trip was unremarkable.

Ha! How can you travel halfway round the world in a tin box, in less than a day, and call it "Unremarkable"? How can you skim over dozens of countries and civilizations and chai-shops and entire social systems based on bad karaoke, and one hell of a lot of biscuits, and think of this as just another mode of transport? It's not healthy, neither physically nor psychologically. (I think I may have ranted on about the evils of airplanes before, so just consider it said again.....)

Climatic shock and jetlag could not prevent me from rushing straight off to Mr Wong's lockup just as soon as I had dumped my gear at the guesthouse. I really should have paid more attention to the little voice in my head that was telling me to lie down, drink water and make no sudden movements for a couple of days, but I couldn't wait to start bolting onto the bike all the spare parts I had lugged painfully over from England.

I was stupidly concerned that my three-month stay in England would have affected my attitude to Asia. Kind of de-Asia'd my head. I felt that I would have somehow gone soft on too many english breakfasts and sumptuous B&B's, and lost my tolerance for lavatorial hotel rooms and hot and cold running rats. That said, next to Singapore, Malaysia is probably the least Asian part of Asia, and a good place to reacclimatise.

I did notice one dramatic change in my perceptions, however, with regard to the bike itself. I had grown used to thinking of it in the same way as it was viewed by most of the people I met along the way: A technological marvel, impossibly big and shiny with undreamed of capabilities, no doubt able to achieve twice the speed of sound with a flick of the wrist.

"How much this bike cost in your country?" they would ask in awe, clearly expecting a sum of money more usually associated with moon shots or major hydroelectric projects.

"Or about fifty quid," I thought in shock when I whipped the dust cover off the machine and wheeled it out into the light. It looked like shit. Nothing material had changed, the bike had been left completely undisturbed for three months, but inside my head I was holding this battered, oil smeared wreck up alongside all the latest pristine products of the Jap motorcycle industry that I'd seen humming smoothly about the streets of England. Through Asian eyes, it was still the Starship Enterprise. But in UK terms, it belonged in the back yard at Steptoe and Son. You would be hard put to decide whether to scrap it or compost it.....

Enough of this. I did my best to put my Asian head on, and thought Starship Enterprise.

It wasn't easy. When I thumbed the starter, it appeared that the warp drive was up the spout. Several fruitless attempts later, and the battery was flat. I had to resort to impulse drive: that is to say, I shoved the thing round to the back of Mr. Wong's shop where his team of mechanics lived. Although I was free to use any of his tools and equipment, Scotty and Sulu and all the rest were busily engaged in their own projects and I was on my own. Which, to be honest, is how I prefer it.

I did all the usual stuff like hooking the flat battery up to Mr. Wong's charger, a piece of equipment which would have been more at home bringing corpses back to life in Frankenstein's laboratory. Sadly, the power from beyond the grave availed me of nothing.

A new plug didn't help either, nor did cleaning the carbs out, although I did find some stuff in the venturi that looked like lurid green snot, which I'm nearly sure shouldn't have been there. I scratched my head. I rubbed my chin. I swore inventively. I frowned and made "hmmm-mmm" noises and tried to look mechanical. I sniffed the exhaust (OK, OK, I know...).

Scotty glanced across from time to time, in a sympathetic sort of way. Spock raised an eyebrow. Chekov looked embarrassed and went off to fiddle with a clutch on a Honda 125. Uhura appeared briefly from behind the sales desk, giggled, and went away again, but otherwise contributed nothing.

In the end, the bike started. It didn't start in response to anything specific that I did, nor do I think that it was the cumulative effect of all my twiddling and adjusting and head-scratching. No, the bike just made the decision that it was time to start, and did so. Perhaps it felt that I had suffered enough. I know the dangers inherent in anthropomorphising pieces of machinery, but the plain fact of the matter is this: It was sulking. It was saying something along the lines of:

"Three months in the back of a sodding shed in some godawful humid tropical hole, with dust and rust and rats, look mate, all I'm saying is, if I don't go anywhere, you don't go anywhere. Capische? Point taken? Right then. Let's go."

So we went........

(And while you're at it a couple of litres of Shell Helix
20/50 wouldn't go amiss, and have you seen the state of the oil filter......? Kuala bloody Lumpur, I ask you.....)

I changed the oil, and the chain and sprox, checked the valve clearances, and bought a Malaysia sticker for the windshield. Thus mollified, the bike ran perfectly, or as near as I was going to get beyond a complete rebuild....

Loading bike in Melacca Malaysia.

Loading the bike in Melacca, Malaysia

We went, in fact, to the port of Melacca on the West coast of Malaysia. Thanks to excellent intelligence by team Duval some months previously, shipping the bike to the Sumatran port of Dumai was simplicity itself. I loaded the bike onto a small wooden cargo boat, by chance the very "Kurnia Jaya" on which Ken and Carol's BMW had sailed in April.

Loading bike in Melacca Malaysia.

Posted by Connor Carson at 12:00 AM GMT
July 31, 2001 GMT
Indonesia and the 'Friendly Customs Men'

I myself was propelled across the Melacca straits by an ageing high speed ferry, and arrived in the early evening a good few hours before the bike would come chugging slowly across.

At this point, consulting the email notes that Ken had written for me, I would apparently encounter "Friendly customs men".

I had puzzled over this unlikely statement for some time. Obviously this was not what Ken had intended to say. Perhaps he was being ironic. Or feverish. Gone "tropo".

Customs Officials are the lowest forms of life on the planet: they are not born so much as extruded from some noxious sump in the innermost recesses of the Devil's armpit. They lurch sickeningly towards the bright lights of the living world, leaving a trail of slime (probably green), and live in a twilight world in harbours and airports, trapping unwary and innocent motorcyclists under heavy piles of tedious paperwork and sucking the last scraps of vitality from their wallets.

Everyone knows this.

So it was a shock of monumental proportions to indeed discover "Friendly customs men" in Dumai.

"Helpful". "Nice". "Obliging". All words which I would never previously include in close proximity to the word "customs".

Perhaps they come from some weird alternate reality? Could they have fallen through a wormhole, from a utopian world where policemen stop you for reasons other than demanding money, where minivan drivers are sane, and where the toilet flush is never broken?

Whatever the explanation, I was immediately seized upon by one of the officials, and whisked off to the main Customs Office, on the back of the standard issue Indonesian scooter. Bearing in mind that I was weighed down with all my luggage from the bike, (total weight somewhere around 40kg) in a big green bag, which stood taller than my trusty driver, this seemed an impossible feat. But in apparent defiance of the laws of physics, the two of us and my enormous luggage were crammed aboard, and the driver (Khairil by name, AKA "Boy" on account of his youthful appearance) threw the machine headlong down the potholed road to the customs office, apparently enjoying himself hugely.

"Yaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" he whooped happily as the thing bottomed out in one of the bigger trenches.

"Woo" I enthused grimly, trying to hold on to the bag and the bike in roughly equal proportions.

The customs chief, it appeared, had gone home for the night. "No problem," Boy assured me, and off we went, weaving through the streets and alleys of Dumai, to visit the Chief at home. I believe that somewhere it is written in the Cosmic Scheme of Things that Connor shall, at regular intervals, be required to sit on the back of a small motorcycle being driven by a maniac, through the streets of various distant locations. So it is written and here I bloody well am again, I thought.

"Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" yelled Boy.

"Woo" I agreed.

The chief, when I finally met him, appeared not to resent in the slightest being rousted out of his house by some scruffy foreigner to talk about a damn motorcycle. In fact, he was a polite and urbane man who assigned Boy to help me retrieve the bike from the Cargo Jetty when it arrived, ETA midnight.

This we duly did, and the paperwork was completed the following day with the minimum of difficulty, in addition to a brief lecture on the merits of various Indonesian tourist attractions.

Finally the chief asked Boy to show me to the police station, to sort out a police permit for the bike. I extracted my revenge by suggesting that Boy accompany me on the back of my machine. Once he had quite literally climbed aboard, the height of the pillion representing a bit of an obstacle due to his diminutive stature, I took off up the road like a scalded cat, at a speed that his scooter could only attain if you threw it from the top of a tall building.

"Yaaaaaaaaaa!", I said with vicious delight.

I didn't catch his response....

I wasn't exactly sorry to leave Dumai, as it had that unkempt and slightly desperate feel that all port towns seem to have. On the other hand, I was pleased that my first Indonesian town seemed more reminiscent of Pakistan or India, than Malaysia or Thailand.

The shops and stalls were more basic and the roadside eateries looked like your average Chai-hut. I relaxed back into Asia, something I had felt kind of unable to do in westernized Thailand and Malaysia.

I ate that evening in a dining house attached to my roadside hotel. I had no idea what the form was for ordering, as there appeared to be dozens of different dishes to choose from, and I couldn't identify any of them. One of the cooks with a smattering of English lent a hand, and I wound up with some rice and three plates of stuff that I had selected on the basis of familiar ingredients. One was composed of vegetables; the other two were prawn based.

I hit early difficulties. I had failed to register that the prawns had not been peeled, just tossed in whole, in a spicy orangey sauce. So, what to do? I mean, was I supposed to just eat them like that? All the shells and legs and those feeler thingies? Really? I looked around at the other diners for clues, but no one was giving the game away. Should I try to peel them? I had a go - it wasn't too hard, but then I realised that I was using both hands, and quickly whipped the left one away under the table. I did a quick scan of the surrounding Muslim diners, but no one seemed to have observed my scandalous and unhygienic behaviour. I started again, using only my right hand to work the shell off the prawn. It was fiendishly difficult, and I began to sweat. I stopped for a breather while the greasy crustacean gripped in my fingers stared balefully back at me. At length I had extracted a pea-sized morsel of pink flesh from the prawn. I regarded the teeming millions of the things in the two full dishes in front of me with dismay, and wondered how many years of my life this was going to eat up. The second prawn was easier, though, and took only about 5 minutes but on the third I got overconfident and the thing zipped between my greasy fingers and shot off out of sight somewhere to the left. Where'd that go?

I glanced guiltily round to see if anyone was watching this performance. Apparently no one had noticed my aerobatic seafood, and I continued doggedly with my one handed crusade until I had assembled a small and pathetic pile of prawn shells, and gleaned three or four mouthfuls of nourishment. I decided to take a rain check on the prawns in future, until I could find someone to explain to me how you went about eating the damn things.

Posted by Connor Carson at 12:00 AM GMT

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