One of the more mundane things in American life has become a major adventure for me here in Indonesia: traffic. There is good reason Americans are advised not to rent cars here, and why my Silat instructor told me hell no I should not ride a bike around. His other comment was that, if I must cross the street, I “better haul ass”.
Vehicles move forward as a constantly shifting mass rather than the relatively organized lines we expect in North America. And they don’t stop for anything but traffic jams. In both Jakarta and Surabaya, there is minimal pedestrian infrastructure, and close to no public transportation. As a result, the only way to get around is by motor vehicle. Most notably: motor bikes. They’re everywhere, swarming like ants through the tightly packed cars, popping out of side streets without warning and piling up in intersections at red lights.
Riding a motor bike does not mean limited cargo space, either. I’ve seen families of five crowded onto one, a portable bakery with questionable balance and a man carrying a bundle of 20 foot bamboo stalks, and still weaving through traffic.
For first-timers, it’s a white-knuckle experience watching drivers and bikes look like they won’t stop themselves from t-boning you or each other. Lane lines, traffic lights and “one way” signs are mere suggestions around here. While following these behaviors in DC, or really just being in a car, causes accidents, I’ve watched hundred cars enter a traffic circle at once, without braking and work their way through without hitting anybody or anything and dozens of bikes speeding into oncoming traffic without consequence. Good job, Indonesia.
A more terrifying experience, though, is being a pedestrian. Walking is necessary from time to time, despite the major lack of sidewalks. One just has to walk along the side of the road and pray that the cars provide the proper millimeter of space between you and their mirrors as they buzz by.
Crossing the street makes you religious, if only temporarily. The technique that I’ve noticed to get cars to slow down enough (not stop) for you is to put your hand out in the “stop” gesture and step into the street. Somehow, it does seem to create a bubble that pushes cars around you as you work your way across each lane. While a dependable tactic, it still scares the shit out of me to do it.
In Jakarta, another common form of transportation is the bajai, also known as a rickshaw in India or tuk-tuk in Thailand. They are small, open-air motorized tricycles with scrap-metal shells. Bajais exist at the bottom of the traffic food chain, in all its mayhem. So naturally, a small contingent of us used some to explore the city at the end of our second day. This ride provided us a very up-close sense of how traffic really flows (or doesn’t) in this mammoth city. I made sure to document the event: (notice around the 20 second mark where we’re driving into oncoming traffic, because forget waiting for red lights)
It makes the Rickshaw Run look even more tempting now.