Published: December 21st 2011December 15th 2011
My Indonesian language teacher, Mbak Agnes, asked me last week where I felt most at home. Given that I have moved around so much in the past and recently, I answered,"On the seat of my scooter." And so it has been........
Horses used to mean freedom for the cowboy and later cars for the middle class......in America. In Java, the scooter, or motorbike, usually of Japanese origins is in my opinion the undisputed leader of similar free-spiritedness. The horse like the car at present has always been more of a status symbol, although not totally without practicality for a growing middle class....if only Java's roads had room for them.
Although there are many cars in Java, the majority of people cannot afford them. I am quite certain that if they could, nearly every Indonesian would own one. Considering the sad state of their roads and overall infrastructure, it is a frightening thought. The clogged and chaotic arteries of Yogyakarta are the nightmarish traffic situation I picture soon appearing in still mostly subdued Thai city of Chiang Mai after a few years more development. If my beloved Chiang Mai ever develops an economy like that of larger cities situated in
mountain valleys like Yogyakarta, I see a mirror image. This is especially true without further development of modern transport infrastructure. In Yogyakarta, only the Transjogja inter-city bus, a very small contribution, is conceived along these lines.....Chiang Mai, as yet, has nothing like this.
In Yogyakarta, where I currently stay, the enormous student population buzzes around on scooters like gnats at sunset in the yard at the beginning of summer. One way streets and hidden street signs make navigation difficult when you are surrounded by cars on one hand and motorbikes on the other. If you include sporadically consistent but ubiquitous becaks (Bicycles with special passenger seating behind) and occaisonal horse with carriage, consistently reading half hidden signs while on the move becomes a near heroic feat. Roads here, like in Boston, Bangkok and other older cities, were developed with a local clientele in mind......and Jogja is a very local if still internationally friendly place. It takes time to find your way around its roads. Java on the other hand, is a similar but more diverse story.
If you have ever been in a Central Javanese city or on the road from Yogyakarta to any other cities in Central
Java such as Solo, Semarang or Magelang you would understand much of what I am about to describe.
As you trundle your way around Jogja (Yogyakarta) by motorbike, sometimes you get quite disoriented. There are a number of one way streets but this doesn't always mean traffic always follows such mundanely logical rules. There are times where I question my own judgement as I turn left onto a new street (Indonesians drive on the left side of the road) and I notice lights coming straight at me in my lane, the left one. "Did I turn onto a one-way street?," I ask myself. Moments later, I realize it is just a motorbike zipping quickly from one restaurant to a nearby parking lot on the same side of the road. The driver probably didn't want to have to deal with the ridiculous flow of cars and motorcycles that would have made the journey five times as long. Other times traffic just seems to flow this way, four directions on a one or two way street.......It is something that definitely keeps you alert at all times.
Rationalization of transport here is very subjective....and I have to admit I have equally
strong emotions of hate and love at different times. Mostly, it is a rush. A little bit like a video game, driving in town requires constant awareness and concentration, but not too much deep thought....lol.
Once you get on the inter-city roads, the threateningly annoying, dangerous and large tour buses careen all over the road. They are some of the craziest drivers I have ever seen and some of the buses, half the size of the road, emit enough carcigenous black smoke that they completely obscure the road. They make you think twice about ever wanting to board a bus here. They completely block your vision, destroy the air quality and generally make the very narrow roads here a much more dangerous place. You must take every opportunity to zip past them or smoke (without the enjoyment of an actual cigarette) what is probably a pack of cigarettes in five minutes of sufferng behind them.
If you were to sit back for a few minutes and watch the action on one of these roads, you might think you were observing an auto race but with even more vehicular variety than Friday night at Seekonk Speedway open competition (Seekonk
Even at gas stations on busy roads, volcanic mountains lurk down narrow streets.
is a colorful local race track in Massachusetts). A Mercedes zips past a pebble leaking dumptruck while a duet of motorbikes slips through the crack between the two. Meanwhile, a line of tour buses is waiting in the wings and aggressively stake their next move, peaking out behind the dumptruck every second or two in anticipation of their next pass.
On a motorbike, you are on the edge, literally, whether you drive slow or fast. Size dictates that you must take the side of the road to let others pass if you are slow. If you are fast, this is an advantage and many a traffic jam becomes only a slower ride as you loll past a small town worth of motionless cars, truck and buses. It sometimes seems like an ideal of freedom, the feeling of relative advantage...........and then it starts to rain. Thank someone, or rubber trees, for helping raincoats and panchos become readily available. But at this point, the freedom of a scooter is mute and the comfortable status of waiting out one of Java's endless flash flood creating storms becomes preferable to the open air wandering of a mechanical steed.
I ponder the wonders
of today's horse, the potentially adventure enhancing scooter. My most recent trip was to Central Java's capital city of Semarang and tomorrow I will head to Bromo in East Java to further test the metal of both me and my bike.
There are more photos below