Use the Force

Clunk, Bang! The car stops dead. We are heading up a small rise out of a rice paddy on our way to another spectacular waterfall. With eyes closed in a mix of hope and dread I wait for a few seconds, optimistically hoping that the engine has just stalled. I turn the key and am met with the tortured groan and splutter of a car which has completely given up on life. Something is definitely, catastrophically, wrong. Baz, sensing the car’s distress, starts wailing from the backseat; a particular kind of wail he reserves specifically for the times the car doesn’t start. I open the bonnet and, running down a mental check list, poke and prod all of the parts which may have caused this most recent arrest. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, I climb into the driver’s seat and roll back down the hill to a patch of flat ground on the side of the road. We pack all the things essential to keeping a 12-month-old child alive for a day or two, and start the long walk back to town. 

Following an amazing week at the western end of Sumba Island we were returning to the port city of Waingapu, from where we would catch the next ferry to Flores. We passed through the quaint but surprisingly bustling town of Waikabubak, stopped at a small takeaway store (OK Bento) for some eagerly anticipated fried chicken and headed out to Air Terjun Lapopu, the latest natural wonder of Sumba. The narrow road out of town snaked around steep hills; each sharp turn revealed new, incredible views of rice paddies and green hills falling gently to the ocean below. Down and down, we passed through small villages of traditional uma mbatangu, ‘peaked houses’ with impossibly tall, thatched roofs wherein spirits or marapu reside. We reached the turn-off for the waterfall, and passed through a small village where kids washed under water pumped from wells and pushed bicycle tires along the road with sticks, and adults lazed on wide verandas. We followed the road another kilometre or so where it dropped steeply down into a verdant rice paddy. As we climbed back out of the rice paddy, clunk, bang! We were stuck.

We walked back to the village we had just driven through with the intention of finding a car to take us back to town, but after knocking on a few doors and trying to communicate our situation, it became obvious that a scooter was the best we could hope for. We met Madeline who said her husband could take one of us on a motorbike. There was no option but to leave Margie and Baz in the village, drive into town, and find a way to get a car. I was handed a helmet, climbed onto the back of the scooter and we sped off back up the winding road. I’m not sure if my driver was sick or if a lifetime of smoking was catching up with him, but every minute or so he would cough a deep, hacking cough, lift the visor of his helmet and spit out the phlegmy contents of his lungs. Most of this expectorated sputum landed safely on the road, but my forearms and elbows were quickly covered with a slimy patina of stray spittle, which, pushed by the headwind, crept slowly up my arms and towards my face. I was beginning to think about the sort of evasive action which might be possible on the back of a motorbike, when, thankfully, it started to rain and the fear of having another person’s lung juice on my face was quickly replaced by the more real fear of having a serious motorcycle accident in the middle of nowhere.

We reached town, slowed to a less terrifying speed and pulled up outside a dilapidated hotel. I thanked my driver, and told him I hoped his cough got better soon, wiped the water and globs of spit from my arms and went inside. I was greeted by an old Chinese lady who showed me to a less-than-appealing room and laughed when I asked if they had any cars I could rent. She lead me back to the road and pointed at a string of cars with drivers waiting for fares. Embarrassed by my lack of observation, I walked up to the first car and within seconds we were racing back to pick up Margie and Baz. After returning them safely to the hotel, the driver, Freddy and I went to see Freddy’s friend who was a mechanic. He took one look at a photo of the car and shook his head,” No, I can’t work this car!”. After trying three other mechanics who all had the same reaction, we found Rudi, who said he could take a look at it, but he needed his technicians who were at lunch. Rudi gathered up some tools and we drove to the house of his diesel mechanics, Obe and Wan. I looked suspiciously at Rudi as he introduced them wondering if he was serious. He was, and I danced a little jig inside to be in such auspicious company. Could our car be in better hands?

We drove to the rice paddy where the Land Rover waited forlornly in the rain and immediately all three climbed up, squatted in the engine bay and started to diagnose the problem in the way all men do when faced with uncertainty; by speaking loudly and tapping bits of the engine with a spanner in the hope that the solution will present itself. The rain intensified so I retrieved a canvas from the car which we all sheltered under while simultaneously trying to pinpoint the issue. Someone suggested a blown fuse, then a fuel filter, then the fuel pump; each of these were systematically discounted.

After about two hours of pulling bits out of the engine the brains trust concluded there wasn’t, in fact, anything wrong with the car except a flat battery and we should be able to push start it. My mechanics were starting to appear more Ja Ja Binks and less the Jedi masters their names promised. We gathered up a few local onlookers and started pushing our 3500 kg car backwards and forwards up the sides of the little valley it was trapped in, while Rudi turned the ignition. Imagine this scenario. You and four or five other people start pushing a ridiculously heavy machine. As it gathers momentum you start running to get it going as fast as possible. The road is slippery so everyone’s thongs, either involuntarily or by choice, start coming off. With thongs flying in every direction the car has gained enough pace that no one can keep up with it. The driver drops the clutch. And. Nothing. Happens. The car rolls to a gentle stop. All those pushing are life-long smokers and are not used to this sort of physical activity, they collapse on the ground or stand hands on knees, sweating and gasping like landed fish. Eventually, their breath returns, they get up and go in search of their discarded thongs. Once everyone is dressed, we start pushing in the other direction. Again, and again and again.

Some of our on-lookers, exhausted, decided they had provided this mad foreigner and his awful car enough assistance and wandered off, back to whatever they were doing before being inadvertently dragged into the scene. The mechanics decided the car really should start if the battery wasn’t flat and Rudi and Freddy dashed off to find another. I was left standing on the road with Obe and Wan, and having nothing else to do, offered them some bananas. After the snack, Wan, the more diligent of the two, grabbed some old rags which were covered with diesel and oil and proceeded to clean the entire car. I stood watching in bemusement as oil and fuel were spread from top to tail, making its state far worse than when it was covered simply in mud. Following the diesel bath, Wan grabbed the canvas we had been sheltering under, dragged it out to the middle of the rice paddy and washed it clean. He rolled it up and, beaming, handed me the limp, dripping thing.

Rudi returned with two car batteries. We connected first one, then the other, with jump cables. Nothing. Both the batteries were dead flat. Rudi, convinced that more batteries really was the solution, sent Freddy and Obe back into town. They returned enthusiastically an hour later with two huge truck batteries which, between them, had enough power to run a small hotel. These were connected to the car; Rudi jumped into the driver’s seat and expectantly turned the key. The car, stubborn as an old mule, refused to start. Rudi looked broken. He called a friend who lived nearby and asked to borrow his truck. Yes! It looked like sense had finally prevailed. It was getting late in the day and I assumed the truck would tow the car back to his workshop where we could work on it the next day. I could not have been more wrong.

By the time the truck arrived the sun was setting. The driver climbed into the back of the truck and pulled out two old, frayed pieces of rope which didn’t look like they would survive pulling a shopping trolley let alone our car. Hesitantly, I asked Rudi if we were really going to tow the car all the way to town with these ropes. “Town?” he said, “No, we need start car”. Understanding slowly coalesced; the truck was there to replace the people pushing the car, not to provide a tow. We weren’t going anywhere fast!

The car was tied to the truck which took off gently. Every few metres, when it had gained sufficient speed, Rudi dropped the clutch. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Just more tortured sounds emanating from the car with every attempt. Until, snap! The rope failed. Shaking my head, I unpacked a recovery strap and some large shackles from the car, attached the car back to the truck and the crazy train started again. The truck reached the steep road out of the rice paddy and started to climb. About half way up it became obvious that the truck was not going to be powerful enough to pull our car out of the valley. The truck stopped, we unhitched the tow strap, and Rudi rolled the car back down the hill. As he was rolling, he tried one final time to start the car. He dropped the clutch and amazingly, incredibly, miraculously, the car started!! Everyone cheered. I was incredulous, but the car sat at the bottom of the hill, serenely putting away like nothing had ever happened. Unsure how this was remotely possible, I thanked the truck driver, who now seemed to be claiming genius, super-hero status amongst the throng of people assembled on the roadside, and he left.

We quickly packed all the gear, tools and batteries away. Wan handed me a limp and dripping recovery strap which he had washed in the rice paddy while no one was watching. I climbed into the car with Rudi, while Obe and Wan climbed in Freddy’s car and we were off. I knew instantly that all was not well. While the car sounded fine, it handled like a beached whale, but we were moving. We drove slowly for three kilometres as the sun set and the rain started again, and I watched the temperature gauge steadily climb to an alarming level. With the engine shrieking, I pulled over and turned the car off. Rudi and I sat for a minute watching clouds of steam billowing from the bonnet and listening to the disturbing sounds of an engine that had overheated. Fearing extensive damage, we climbed out, and found lime green coolant spraying all over the engine bay. We had burst a radiator hose. Once the engine had cooled and the steam cleared, we also found the shredded remains of a fan belt hanging lifelessly from the engine. Luckily, I had a spare belt on the roof of the car, but had no coolant. Rudi, raced off with a jerry can to find some water, while Obe, Wan and I fitted the new belt by the tiny light of our phones.

Obe climbed in and tried turning the key. It was dead, but given that the car had already started once, the mechanics were determined that it should start again. So began another round of roll starting the car. Eventually, the engine did splutter back to life but the noise it made was so horrendous I yelled at them to stop. We were all defeated, exhausted, wet and hungry. Rudi made a phone call to his brother and organised another truck. He agreed, grudgingly, that now we would just tow the car back to his workshop. While we waited for the truck to arrive, I dug all the food I could find out of the car and offered biscuits, bread, tomatoes and cheese, around. The mechanics were grateful but Rudi pulled out his phone, typed some words which translated as “in Indonesia we only consider tomatoes to be food if they are cooked”. We laughed at how silly Australians eat tomatoes, unfood, raw.

The truck arrived, we attached the car with my recovery strap and commenced the long, slow drive back into town. At some point, it had been decided that the car wouldn’t, in fact, be going to Rudi’s garage, so I was surprised when we rolled to a stop outside our hotel and the driver of the truck jumped out and disconnected the straps. It was after 9pm and I was beyond caring; I could deal with the car tomorrow, for now, we were all back, mostly whole and safe. The truck departed and the mechanics stood around looking sheepish until I pulled out my wallet and showed that, of course, I intended to pay them for their time and effort. They had been working out in the field on our car for more than ten hours. They held a brief conference and Rudi finally said “three”. He meant 300 000 Rupiah; about 30 Australian dollars in total. I would have paid ten times that, had they asked. I thanked them profusely, locked the car and walked back into the hotel wanting nothing more than a hot shower and to collapse into bed. I said this to Margie and the sympathetic look on her face told me there was one more twist to this ordeal. Not only did this hotel not have any hot water, it didn’t even have a shower.


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