Thick black smoke spews out of the tailpipe of a bus up ahead, choking and blinding the many commuters perched on small motorcycles — scooters, mostly — following close behind. The motorcyclists have three choices. They can remain where they are, bunched together behind the bus as it slowly makes its way through the intersection, or they can pull out and swerve around it — either going to the right into opposing traffic (this is Indonesia where cars drive in the left-hand lane), or to the left where they must squeeze into the narrow space that remains between the bus and the curb, sometimes going up onto the narrow sidewalk. Few choose to remain in the cloud of exhaust. Horns beeping, most speed off around both sides of the bus, narrowly missing each other as they jostle to be first into the relatively clear lane ahead.
For a foreigner — at least for an inexperienced Canadian — learning to drive on Indonesia’s insanely congested streets is an exercise in forgetting most of the good habits taught in driving school — most, that is, but not all. You should, at least, remember to signal before swerving into oncoming traffic. That won’t necessarily keep you safe, but at least it will give other drivers some idea of where you might be going in case they’re planning on going there, too — which many most certainly will be. Otherwise, navigating traffic pretty much just requires you to follow impulse and instinct. Lane divisions are treated cavalierly, speed limits seem non-existent, as are load limits — motorbikes designed to carry two people at the most, often have three on board and sometimes four or five, depending on the size of the children being carried. Traffic lights are largely respected, but only up to a point, with drivers commonly jumping the gun before red turns to green and then ignoring the fact that amber has already switched back to red.
Nevertheless, motorcycle drivers do take certain precautions. Most, if not all, wear helmets with face guards and they often use their horns to alert other drivers when approaching their blind spots — not that anyone pays attention to the almost constant beeping. These precautions, however, never seem quite enough to stem a horrendously high-crash rate. On average three motorcyclists are reportedly killed per day on Bali alone. More than 3,000 are killed every year in the whole country.
However, despite their hazards these small motorcycles are a necessity in Indonesia, for local people and visitors alike. While inexpensive public transit systems do exist (unlike in some so-called developed regions — like, say, Labrador), they are not always as convenient as one might wish. As a result, independent commuting is the rule and since automobiles are even more difficult to navigate through the almost constant congestion found in all towns and cities (traffic jams in the capital of Jakarta can easily quadruple normal travel times), most Indonesians choose the cheaper and smaller bikes to get to where they have to go. That means Jakarta only sees 1.5-million cars on its streets every day, compared to 2.5-million motorcycles.
The obvious choice
For a visitor to Indonesia rented motorbikes are an obvious choice — outside of Jakarta, at least — even for someone more used to empty or near-empty streets, like someone from Labrador, for instance. Aside from helping a person to quickly and easily get around towns that are not designed for pedestrians (in temperatures so hot they discourage walking), a favourable exchange rate makes them highly attractive (at least before the Conservative government finishes trashing the loonie). Hiring a motorbike for a day can cost as little as five dollars. Parking one in a secure location for as many hours as one needs to leave it there: between eight and 10 cents.
Still, it doesn’t take long to spot a reminder of why inexperienced foreigners shouldn’t drive motorbikes in the same manner as an Indonesian who’s been doing it since childhood: crash scenes with broken glass and bits of bike strewn across pavement are common. Watch out for a police officer holding a white flag and hope he’s not holding it for you. It means someone has died.
Michael Johansen is a resident of North West River, Labrador