So I’m sitting there on a torpid Tuesday afternoon, slurping down my caffeine fix and watching the endlessly fascinating passing parade in Jalan Padma Utara. Suddenly, there is an eruption of demented yells and a group of boys zoom unsteadily into view on their rented motorbikes. Shirtless, barefoot and helmet-less, they weave between both kerbs, oblivious to the attempts of oncoming traffic to avoid them. Their age, about 17, their self-absorbed demeanour and their disrespectful attitude marks them as schoolies, a peculiar subset of Bali visitors that come here to unwind and wreak havoc at the end of each school year.
The first seven pass my vantage point and hurtle around the nearby right-hand bend, barely in control of their bikes. In their testosterone-fuelled exuberance, they ignore both basic road rules and standard rider courtesies. Naturally, they are completely unaware of their limitations as riders. Many of the boys have female companions riding pillion, almost as under-dressed as they are. Some are waving their arms about and twisting on the seat, throwing the bike into barely-controllable swerves. I think of debridement, permanent scarring and crippling injuries, and shudder. A bad outcome is inevitable.
The eighth rider, the least confident of the bunch, is trailing by twenty metres and seems desperate to catch up with his peer group. In a series of inept wobbles, tries to cut the blind corner. Inevitably, oncoming traffic stymies him and he tries to get back to the left side of the road. The trouble is, he has no idea how to turn a bike – or at least has not internalised the process enough to properly respond in an emergency – so he turns the handlebars to the left. Um, you don’t do that, mate. The bike already has a 30 degree lean to the right; so his reflexive attempt to counter-steer the wrong way slams the bike down hard on the pavement with an explosive bang. His right leg is trapped under the bike as it grinds to a halt, shredding both bike fairing and ankle tissue, and leaving a smear of wet red stuff mixed with shiny bike bits on the tarmac.
Dragging himself from under the bike, he re-mounts, foot oozing blood. By-standers offer help and ask him if he needs help. Looking embarrassed and angry, he snarls “Ah, fuck off!” at them. He doesn’t feel the pain yet, but at his age, he keenly feels the loss of face. The pain will come later. His little lapse does not deter the others in his group though – they continue to ride up and down the street for another 20 minutes, clowning around while hooting and yelling and generally causing chaos, until they finally vanish. Whether this is because of another accident, or just the onset of a bout of ADD is difficult to say.
Later, a friend who works at a bar nearby says, “Ah yes. Skuli. Very drunk. Very rude. Very loud. And very young.” He shrugs. “But they spend money.” Oh, that makes it all right then. I think about what it must be like to be 17 years old, full of piss and vinegar, having just burst out of the restrictive confines of regimented schooling and going to a foreign country to decompress. I can hardly remember being that young, but I do remember feeling invulnerable, immortal and rebellious – attitudes common to many at that age.
But if I put all disapproving, grumpy and somewhat envious thoughts aside, I realise that most of these kids are having fun. It helps no-one when the media in Australia runs sensationalistic ‘exposes’, with headlines screaming ‘What your kids are really up to’, and to selectively edit vision implying that Bali – that terrible den of iniquity and sleaze – is full of drunken, drug-addled, sex-crazed, motorbike-crashing and semi-naked under-age children. It might sell newspapers and boost the ratings, but the real casualty is the truth. They’re having fun.
As with any group, some will act up and some will thoroughly enjoy the experience without acting like dorks and risking their lives. There is no doubt that the antics of a few will result in injury, perhaps even death. Others will fall foul of Bali’s seamier side, contracting STDs and getting robbed, or just end up falling for the scams of those police in cahoots with drug peddlers, thereby spending a far longer time in Bali than they ever anticipated. It’s the oldest rule of life – maximum fun is often accompanied by maximum risk.
So how can we reduce the risks for these young people? Knowledge is power, and I suspect that schoolies have so little knowledge of Bali that they are powerless to survive an environment that can suddenly turn hostile on them. The real problem for them here is that they assume that the same parental, community, government and police protections are available to them here as at home. They are not. There is no safety net, and it’s time that one was provided.
Instead of being negative and sensationalistic about schoolies week, Australian media could provide useful survival guides – information that could help schoolies in Bali to manage an ostensibly ‘rule-less’ environment, but one that is in fact a veritable minefield for the inexperienced. Let schoolies know that coming here without travel/medical insurance is the epitome of craziness. Let their parents know that a medical evacuation will cost them up to $75,000 without insurance. Let them know that three motorcyclists die every day on Bali’s chaotic roads and that if you ride without a licence or helmet, a police fine is the least of your problems. Even if you survive, your medical insurance will be invalid.
Tell the kids what to do in case of emergency. Give them phone numbers for hospitals, but warn them that they won’t be treated, even in emergency situations, unless they pay in advance. Make them understand that there are no ‘emergency numbers’ in Bali. You can’t just call for an ambulance, and even if you manage to get an expensive private ambulance from one of the clinics, it might take an hour or more to arrive through the choked traffic. Taxi drivers will flatly refuse to take you to hospital if you are bleeding. It messes up the seats.
Let them know where to call if they are arrested. Make sure they have their Embassy’s number. Explain about the culture of bribery, and the corruption that is necessary to get things done – but also warn them about being too blatant about offering bribes so that they don’t get charged for that as well. Consider setting up and publicising a government-sponsored emergency number – somebody to call when things go wrong, as they will. I’m sure there are many expats here would would be happy to be part of a volunteer network of non-judgemental call-takers to offer advice to young people in trouble.
The thing is, would schoolies listen to such advice or warnings? Would they use a safety net like this? Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. Would I have listened at seventeen? Probably not. I knew it all then. It took quite a few decades before I realised I didn’t.