The rain is so heavy that there is almost no room between drops. What little space is there is saturated with a fine mist. My poncho flaps and drums in the deluge, my bike is teetering on the edge of stability in the atrocious conditions, and my rider-survival tactics have been ratcheted up to Special Forces level. That’s because I’m on Jalan Nakula, between the river and Jalan Legian, and this stretch of ‘road’ has become terrifyingly dangerous in the last few months.
Not the best of thoroughfares even in good weather, it is now covered with a centimetre of water at its crown, and much deeper next to the high kerbs. While these are normal conditions for other parts of Bali during the monsoon season, Nakula hides an unexpected hazard for riders not familiar with this area of Legian.
The rider ten metres in front of me is proceeding at a sensible pace, but as an oncoming van swerves into the middle of the road to avoid one of the many huge potholes on the north side, it forces him to pull well to the left. I know what’s coming, because I know what lurks under the water. His bike suddenly drops and jolts him savagely as he nearly collides with the kerb. As he wrestles the machine back to the right, the handlebars are ripped from his fingers and he crashes heavily. When I reach him, he has already managed to get the bike upright, but understandably, is not in the greatest of moods. He makes no attempt to blame me – a refreshing change for Bali – but gestures angrily downwards. “Bad road”, he says, “bad, bad road.”
He’s right. About a month ago, contractors installed underground cabling along the south side of this stretch of road. They used bitumen saws to cut through the road surface and created a 40 centimetre-wide trench next to the kerb. During the construction phase, traffic was naturally chaotic because this busy road was reduced to a single lane. The trench was duly back-filled with loose gravel, and the workers disappeared, never to be seen again.
Naturally, the gravel settled within days. Now the road surface in Jalan Nakula drops a sheer 5 centimetres into a subsiding trench, which has made the left edge of the road completely unusable by bikes needing to filter past the long line of cars stymied by the Legian Street intersection. Anyone who drops their bike into the trench won’t get it back out onto the road easily, or without damaging the rims, even in the dry. As my bruised and soaked fellow rider found out, in the wet, when you can’t see the road surface beneath the water, it is a death trap.
Here’s a question for Bali road construction authorities: why wasn’t the back-filling in the trench compacted and the bitumen restored to finish the job? Surely it wasn’t to save money, because the heavy traffic has now caused the cut and unballasted bitumen edge to collapse and the entire road-bed to fracture in several places.
This was not hard to foresee, but nobody seems to have done that. To fix the road properly will now require a much larger expenditure, not to mention more delays as road-works shut down the street yet again.
And that, as far as I can see, is a huge problem throughout Bali. The standard of road construction appears to be very low and the materials used seem to be inappropriate for both the vehicle loads and traffic speed and volume. No provision ever seems to be made for high-stress areas such as braking areas and acceleration zones. Foundations and road beds are often insufficient, and soil testing rarely seems to be done, resulting in uneven subsidence or even total collapse into sink-holes. The actual road toppings erode quickly, are ‘repaired’ with materials that are clearly not up to the task, and promptly disintegrate again.
There appears to be an endless cycle of pumping money and resources into building and maintaining a road infrastructure that is not, and will never be up to the challenges of the present, much less the future. The poor roads, together with the separate problem of haphazard – and often truly stupid – parking practices creates massive collateral social damage. The congestion, delays and irritation translate into economic harm for Bali. Inappropriate road maintenance strategies are not only inefficient, but are one of the factors which divert funding away from much-needed regional development projects for the future.
But we know all this. The question is, how do Bali’s road management authorities stop this death spiral? I believe the answer is in outside assistance. I don’t mean foreign investment – not just in terms of money anyway. I’m talking about expertise. There are places not too far from Bali where the technical and engineering knowledge and understanding of the properties of road-building materials are well-developed. Much as it may disturb some Indonesians to accept outside assistance, I think the time is ripe to put aside parochial attitudes and look for solutions that could benefit Bali. And I believe that this could be done without creating social imbalances, or fostering dependent mind-sets which might lead to resentment towards outsiders.
Wouldn’t it be great to have an expert body – say, a ‘Bali Roads Authority’ – with expertise being drawn from both local engineers and international participants? Wouldn’t it be great to have qualified overseas mentors, experienced in quality road design, construction and repair working side by side with local road engineers? Wouldn’t it be great to actually develop strategic, island-wide plans for an exemplary road system that could be the envy of the archipelago?
But how can Bali afford these high-priced foreign experts? Well simply, we don’t have to. I have spoken to many frequent visitors and expats who have high-level skills in everything from national water-management to airport construction. Many have said that they would love to contribute their expertise – their way of saying ‘thank you’ for the pleasure that Bali has provided them over many years. But some have also said that their offers of assistance have been politely rebuffed. Maybe that should change.
There are many NGOs which have been inspired by the original Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), including those providing the expertise of engineers, architects, fire-fighters and teachers. Most people become involved without expecting the sort of remuneration to which they would otherwise be entitled. Why not use such a model here? We might even end up with roads that work – and keep working.
Besides, I’m sure that in the anarchic environment of Bali, independent-spirited overseas volunteers in such a project would relish becoming known as ‘highwaymen’ …
UPDATE: Several days after I wrote this, a crew was busily blocking traffic again, digging up a section of the newly laid cable. Now, as well as a dangerous trench, there is a bloody great hole for bikes to fall into, exposed cables – and a completely blocked footpath.
So far, there has been no sign of the new, very dangerous hole being filled in. It is invisible at night, and a small ‘warning’ sign has been left lying on the ground. I just hope that cable isn’t live – if the motorbike crash doesn’t get you, the electricity will.
UPDATE 23 Jan 2012: This particular hole has now been filled in. Thank you to whoever realised the danger and acted to reduce it.