How can driving possibly get any worse than this? I had thought at the time. Knowing I was heading overseas after graduation, I had decided to see the East Coast while still young. Maybe I’ll never make it back to the States, was my justification for the Spring Vacation splurge to Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. I don’t want to alienate younger audiences by saying, “Twenty-two year-olds think dumb things like this,” so I’ll just admit, “THIS twenty-two year old thought dumb things like this.”
Fast forward ten months to early 1986. My hands gripping the door handle, the arm rest, my pants, my insides, my ANYTHING—I was holding on for dear life in the passenger seat of a friend’s car on a three-lane road turned six lanes. Downtown Jakarta, Indonesia. Pure terror for the uninitiated—which I was at the time. Downtown Manhattan was Sesame Street compared to this. Sometimes the road had six lanes, sometimes five, and sometimes—in a good moment—four, but never the prescribed three lanes delineated by fading white lines. Bicycles were weaving in and out, larger-than-people-sized baskets tied to both sides of the rear axle, transporting food items; motorcycles were creeping in between cars, sometimes with two adults and four children hanging on, bumping rearview mirrors; pedestrians were jaywalking in every which direction; men, women, and children on foot were pushing cigarettes, toys, and homemade food items in front of your windshield, each one nodding with a big smile, hoping for a sale. And, they just…wouldn’t…go…away! How could I ignore them? They were people. Precious, each with a story to melt my heart.
Two hours later, we had finally pushed through the three-mile-long traffic jam and arrived at our destination, exhausted, and wiping the inevitable layer of diesel grime from our faces. Would I ever drive in Indonesia? This was city driving. Inter-city driving was another ball game altogether.
Four years later, newly married and living in Bandung, Indonesia, my wife and I flew to Bali to pick up our first car—left behind by a friend who moved to Singapore. Driving was now inevitable. We had a twenty-five-hour drive back to Bandung—all on two-lane highways (that’s one lane going each way…in case you weren’t quite sure). Four of those hours were on the island of Bali. Then, we took a ferry ride across to Java (not quite the same experience as a ferry on Seattle’s Puget Sound system). With 160 million people on the island of Java, the roads are never a dull place, for there you’ll find:
Busses, trucks of all sizes, personal automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, becaks (cycle pedicabs), horse carts, children, teenagers, adults, food hawkers and salesmen pushing their carts, free-roaming chickens, cats, and ox carts (even slower than the chickens). Near accidents happen a thousand times an hour.
But it’s not just the varied obstacles that made driving in Indonesia such a challenge, rather the different speeds each user pursued, and the unpredictable patterns of movement. Busses drove like demons out of hell—at least 90 or 100 kph (Americans—metric system—catch up with the rest of the world!) passing anything that moved just 1 kph slower. Oncoming traffic had to move to the dirt shoulder—if there was one. If there wasn't, the two-lane highway became a three-laner--with barely a whisper of space between them. When busses passed trucks or other busses, oncoming drivers had to pray there was a shoulder available rather than a drop-off into a ditch. We were forced off the road more than once.
Other drivers weren't the only challenge. You never knew when chickens might lower their necks and make a daredevil run for it across the road. Nervous bicyclists (can’t imagine why they’d be nervous) might swerve too far into the lane, and you might have to slam on the brakes.
Driving there brought my blood pressure up to ten thousand over a million (that's just hyperbole, if you were concerned). That trip was an absolutely, thoroughly, undeniably exhausting nightmare. And this was my first experience behind the wheel in Indonesia. What a baptism!
But, steering the ship on this maiden driving excursion, I later discovered, was infinitely better than riding in the passenger’s seat. As a passenger, I had absolutely no control over the chaos. My wife was a brave soul by offering me a “rest.” Turns out, riding in the passenger’s seat wasn’t a rest at all. It was terror taken to a new level. Oh, how I must have afflicted her dear soul with my driving. Actually, she told me I did—more than once.
After a couple of hours into the “rest,” I took command of the car again, and never relinquished control for the remainder of the torturous journey. We arrived home in once piece, the car undented, rejoicing that the ordeal was over.
After a few fender-benders in the early years, my driving skills improved. I even developed a reputation among locals as becoming more of an Indonesian driver than they were. Some were even afraid to ride in the car with me. (Now you understand why my wife might have made comments.) But when in Rome….
For the first twenty years of living in Bandung, travel to and from Jakarta was mostly on one of those two-lane highways. When friends or family visited from the States, we took the four-hour trip to Jakarta, picked them up at the international airport, and then initiated them into the driving experience on the way back through the mountains.
One year, a pair of American friends brought handycams. Owning a good sense of humor, they thought it would be fun to take footage of the drive between the capital and Bandung. They leaned out the window with their cameras, and when a bus came roaring toward us on our side of the highway, passing another vehicle, they pulled themselves back into the car just in the nick of time, yelling, “Whoa!” Then, they encouraged one another with the words, “That’s gonna be soooo good.” Their laughter waned after a few close calls…and they decided they had enough footage.
Whenever I get together with those friends, I still hear about that video.
Here in the US, with more stringent enforcement of traffic laws, we expect people to drive responsibly. And, with exceptions, we generally do—at least, here in Seattle. We don’t really have to be on the top of our game when driving—at least, not like in Indonesia. Put on the cruise control and enjoy the ride down the freeway. Turn on the audio system or engage in a good conversation.
There, drivers must be prepared for the absolute worst out of other drivers—irrational, self-interested behavior. They're always on the alert for anything and everything that could go wrong. Your foot is always near the brake. Conversations and audio systems can be dangerous distractions. When finished with an inter-city journey, your muscles ache, your back aches, and your legs are dead. You're tense every second of the trip. (Okay, maybe that's just me because of the way I drive there, but most Indonesian drivers would say the same, I think.) Driving in Indonesia is an art—a high-level skill. In fact, American visitors have often commented that they never see accidents, despite the seemingly chaotic traffic.
Now that I’m back living in the States with our relatively calm driving conditions, I actually miss the excitement of Indonesia’s system. Seriously.
A good friend from Jakarta was setting up permanent residency for his family in New Zealand. When asked to compare Indonesia and New Zealand, his answer is applicable to the comparison between driving in Indonesia and the United States. He said, “New Zealand is like a boring heaven, and Indonesia is like an exciting hell.”
Man, can’t I choose the “heaven” from the first and the “exciting” of the second? Well, I have to admit: As far as driving goes, how would I define an “exciting heaven” anyway?