Sidenote: Driving in Indonesia

I had written this as part of my adventures at Imigrasi and the Polisi but decided it deserved its own entry…So now I give you, driving in Indonesia, as seen through the eyes of a westerner.

Those are 12-foot rolls of bamboo mats that this man has so carefully lashed to his bike. Incredible.

I’d just spent the last two hours in a van zigzagging and leapfrogging through the palm plantation fields that litter the land between the townsite where I live and the nearest city, Pekanbaru. In spite of it only being 10:30 a.m., I was already exhausted from the number of heart attacks I’d surely experienced during the trek.

I’ve started equating Sumatran driving to a video game. Sure, they drive on the left side of the road which is enough to constantly screw with an American’s right-aligned mind, but there is so much more to add to passenger stress. Minivans, cars, trucks and motorcycle brigades of varying speed and power capabilities all seem to move along at the fastest pace possible while traversing the narrow, winding island roads. Of course, this is only to end up slamming on their brakes, stuck behind a puttering, barely road-worthy vehicle weighted down with tons of timber or coconuts.

This is where the game begins.

In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s some unspoken rule between Sumatrans that the person to pass the most vehicles while going uphill and around a sharp, blind curve without crashing wins. I’m not entirely sure what they win, but it must be awesome because the rate at which cars and fleets of two-wheeled motor vehicles pass each other makes the perils of Mario Kart look tame. The difference is, instead of flying turtleshells there are stretches where the road just crumbles away completely leaving potholes that could swallow elephants (and they probably did before they clearcut the jungles and drove all the pachyderms out 20 years ago).

On this particular trip, I must admit, the ride was much smoother. My driver on this day actually tried to wait until he could see around the vehicle he was trying to overcome before choosing to pass. Additionally, we were in a new minivan. Most of my travels along this road have been in the dilapidated 14-passenger bus keen on breaking down. During the week it is used by my school to cart children to various destinations. The schoolbus has no seatbelts, no suspension system and a waning air conditioner. Today’s minivan, on the other hand, smelled of new upholstry and the driver had the air on so high that I was actually freezing for most of the trip. Adding to the change of pace, I was sitting in the front seat rather than a backrow bench seat.

Today I could see perfectly out the window and had a clear view of my surroundings.

The entrance to the roadways leading into Pelalawan/Kerinci (the outskirts of my town)

My mother often says of being a parent, “Sometimes what you don’t know, won’t hurt you.” Well, now I can officially say the same in regards to what happens on the roads of Indonesia. For a time I decided to busy myself with trying to decipher the code behind the way Indonesians use their turn signals—often flicked on while going around a bend in the road and sometimes used to signal to trailing cars (at least I think) that it is safe for them to pass. I also tried to figure out what horn honking actually signals—horns are sounded during the act of passing, before passing, after passing, when going around bends in the road, when edging out into oncoming traffic to make right hand turns and at other various times—this one is totally lost on me though.

Anyways, it didn’t take long for me to begin wishing I that my view of the road wasn’t so clear. After nearly hitting a young boy standing at the top of a blind hill waving traffic around a spilled cart of rocks and seeing a motorcyclist attempt to pass a vehicle even while oncoming traffic was present, I decided the smartest option was to close my eyes and try to sleep.

And while I have yet to figure out when to honk a horn or flick on a turn signal, I am only 27, I don’t need these road trips to shatter my nerves before I hit 28.


2 thoughts on “Sidenote: Driving in Indonesia

  1. this sorta puts a whole new sense of ‘normality’ on driving the John Ryan or Eisenhower X-ways in Chi-town during rush hours??? Look at the bright side, albeit fast travel, at least you are MOVING, unlike the 6-lane parking lot the x-way becomes—oh, oxymoron of the day; “express lanes”, where teravel may exceed 25mph on good days.

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