Saturday, January 19, 2008


Hector prefers to drive. It beats flying, under one’s own steam as an Avian can or in one of those metal cylinders that today flit ubiquitously about the sky under the control of an Aviator and where, according to the latest Mittel Europa pre-history derivative forest nymph myths circulated by Those Who Desperately Want You To Believe The World Is Shortly Coming To A Very Nasty End, they are killing us with their unsociable emissions while unlawfully warming the globe and unnaturally interfering with the ozone layer.

But of course these days he lives in Indonesia, where using the roads is subject to many little local difficulties not necessarily found in countries where there is enough money to build them in the first place and maintain them – more or less – thereafter.

A popular pastime for some shorter-term visitors to the part of Indonesia in which he lives – the island of Bali – is hiring a vehicle. Rates are cheap, the cars are generally crap but so are the roads, and if you focus on the kilometres rather than the time taken, nowhere is very far from anywhere else. Plus petrol costs Rp4500 a litre (that’s around 50 US cents).

Visitors intending to drive while in Bali might like to browse through Hector’s Handy 10-Point Primer:

1. Indonesia notionally drives on the left. Always veer left if approached from any direction by a yellow truck, a petrol tanker or a bus driving immensely fast and randomly. Unless it’s on your left, in which case you’re toast. And that’s if you can see it in the cloud of black smoke all trucks and buses produce. The black smoke is mandatory for all large vehicles so as to obscure from the view of potential victims their registration plates and driver’s face.

2. Indonesians drive all over the place. Wherever suits is the rule. This is especially so with motorbikes (see below).

3. White lines, which are rare outside of bigger cities and their surroundings, have nothing to do with keeping left or even (what a concept!) in lane. They are driver testing devices: you pass the test if you can keep your vehicle centred over the white line and you get bonus points if you can keep your wheels equidistant from the mid-point. There is no difference between broken white lines and solid ones. A broken white line simply means the road line-painting machine was playing up at the time, or the paint was running out. Or someone came out with a bucket and stole half the paint before it dried.

4. The overwhelming majority of Indonesians ride motorbikes. On your right, on your left, up your clacker. Motorists are kind of, sort of, well, supposed to at least look as if they’re thinking about the road rules from time to time. Motorbike riders are exempt from this requirement.

5. Drivers and riders turning out onto busy roads never look right. They might see the approaching traffic if they did that. Nor do they stop. That would cost them valuable points in the highly popular national Shit-That-Was-Close Near Miss competition.

6. On the open highway (ha!) a vehicle flashing its right-turn indicator (a) may be turning right – this is however very unlikely; (b) might be saying it’s safe to pass (it never is); (c) could have a driver who has inadvertently activated the indicator while sending text messages on his mobile phone; or (d) might be thinking vaguely about turning left in approximately 10 kilometres; if this is the case it will travel towards its objective in the middle of the road at 20kmh.

7. Traffic lights in Indonesia go amber before they go green (that is, as in most civilised countries; but only if they’re working). All Indonesians have a chromosome that impels them to hit the hurry-up-in-front horn just before the light goes amber. The further back in the queue they are, the more advanced they are in timing this chorus. Ignore the horn-hoon immediately behind you at a red light: he will almost certainly stall his vehicle anyway.

8. Most intersections have free turns left on red. Don’t get in that lane if you’re going straight ahead. You will spark a riot and a policeman will materialise from nowhere and demand from you large quantities of untraceable currency.

9. Everyone goes straight ahead from right-turn lanes at traffic lights. Except the buzzing cloud of motorbikes on your left, and an occasional yellow truck; they will all turn right, across your bows, as you pull away on green. It’s a good idea to use your hazard lights at such places. It never means you’ve broken down (all Indonesian vehicles are beyond repair, except government Mercedes limos, see below). It means: I’m going straight ahead from this turn-right lane.

10. If you hear sirens, it may be an ambulance out trying to catch customers, or it could be a huge police escort for the shiny new Mercedes limo of the deputy assistant under paper shuffler in chief who is late for a tea or who has forgotten to take his files to a meeting. Police escorts often also use loud hailers, through which high-volume but totally unintelligible intelligence is transmitted (in Indonesian). Don’t try to understand it. Assume it is the local lingo for ‘get out of the [insert your preferred adjectival profanity] way NOW’ and do so. The difficult bit is to guess which point of the compass they will come from.

1 comment:

  1. "Or someone came out with a bucket and stole half the paint before it dried."