A Man and His Motorbike

Trip Start Oct 09, 2008
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Indonesia  , Bali,
Monday, January 5, 2009

Sanur Beach is classy and peaceful but there's no action. So I rented a motorbike and headed to Legian Beach on the other side of the peninsula in search of a hotel. I found a great place a block off the beach, though like most accommodations here there's no air conditioning. And we're practically on the equator. I've also been doing battle with an army of ants. I must confess to a grudging admiration for their persistence. I have killed somewhere between, oh, four and five thousand of them and they keep coming. Then, of course, there are all the lizards on the walls and ceilings. And the rooster that likes to make his presence known outside my door every morning. And there's some unknown animal that periodically makes a cackling noise outside the window. That noise might be coming from the squirrel-sized creature I saw scurry up a tree this afternoon, even though there are no squirrels here and no monkeys on this part of the island. And you know what? If you are an animal that's climbing a tree and you're the size of a squirrel, but you're not a squirrel or a monkey? I am afraid of you.

The best way to get around Bali is by motorbike. You can rent them anywhere without difficulty. I lied and told the guy who rented me a bike that I had lots of riding experience, when in fact I'd only briefly ridden Elizabeth's pirate Vespa last summer. He told me, "No go too fast." This, I decided, was the least-likely-to-be-followed advice I had ever been given.

But I did start out slow. Too slow, actually. I took a wrong turn almost immediately and found myself on a freeway, with vehicles of all sizes careening past me at excessive speeds. Indonesian drivers are an aggressive, possibly deranged lot, and their roads are poorly maintained and extremely crowded. So crowded that when drivers are faced with the rare sight of a relatively smooth and empty stretch of road before them, they clearly feel the urge to discover the maximum speed of their chosen mode of transport. It is utter chaos. Buses, cars, trucks, motorbikes (often carrying gigantic cargo or a family of four), and bicycles all swerving around each other, often sharing the same lane at the same time. And it was more dangerous for me to be going so much slower than everybody else, so I quickly sped up to cruising speeds far beyond what I was comfortable with. At one point I was driving past the airport when a descending Thai Airways jet flew just above the road, blew several pounds of sand into my face, and sharply knocked me sideways.

There seem to be no rules of the road here other than "it's your responsibility to avoid hitting me." What that means is that people speed the wrong direction down one way streets, drift haphazardly in and out of lanes, make rights turns onto streets without so much as a glance at incoming traffic to see who or what they might be cutting off. Cars may be coming the opposite direction taking up half of your lane, or they may decide to stop and park in the middle of the road, and it's your problem, not theirs. At faster speeds I had close calls that missed by a couple of feet. At slower speeds I had plenty that missed by inches. Surprisingly I saw only one minor collision and the riders didn't even stop afterwards.

There is a continuous symphony of honking horns; not of the "you're an idiot" variety, but rather the "just letting you know where I am" or "coming through!" variety. The road signage is laughably bad, though I guess you'd only actually laugh about this if you weren't trying to use these signs to get to a particular destination. 

But after a while you start to notice patterns within the chaos. Believe it or not these are actually skilled drivers with a great awareness of everything that's happening around them. They may not follow any rules, but there is a system: everyone trusts each other not to do anything too erratic or stupid.

Of course, inserting an overconfident novice like me into this equation--driving unwisely fast, giggling at the adventure of it all, with a big, goofy helmet bouncing around my head--only undermines the system's credibility.

But as my confidence and driving abilities grew, I went on longer excursions. The first such excursion took me down to an area called Uluwatu at the bottom tip of Bali. Uluwatu is famous for its stunning cliffs, its huge surf waves, and a monkey-infested Hindu temple. My guide at the temple loved surfing and was happy to recommend his favorite surf spots. I bought bananas to feed the three monkey groups. Two monkeys started having sex, which made my guide bark gleefully, "Quick! Take picture!" I managed to get a pretty good action shot. At the end of the tour, he said, "OK, now you pay me tip."

On the ride back to Legian, I came around a bend on a country road to find two girls in their early teens with their backs turned to the road, looking over their shoulders. Once they saw me approaching, they started shaking their behinds in a clumsy seductive manner. I gave my scooter horn a vigorous toot, causing them to wave their arms and cheer. I laughed as I sped by, then reminded myself to never, ever allow any teenaged daughter of mine to own a webcam. By the time I got back to my hotel, I'd spent so many hours riding my motorbike that the muscles in my right hand had frozen into a hideous claw, not unlike Jerry Seinfeld's hand after he had to endorse thousands of checks he was receiving in the mail from Japanese fans.

Reading: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
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