Archive for the ‘MOTORBIKE MADNESS’ Category

h1

Why Your Choice Not To Wear A Helmet Is My Business

July 28, 2014

“I never wear a helmet”, brags the expat on one of the more combative Bali forums. Let’s call him Bazza. “Nobody can tell me what to do. It’s my bloody choice if I wear one or not.” Some Indonesian participants agree. “We only wear helmets on long trips. No need around town in
Bali.” Others, perhaps of a more practical bent, chime in with warnings about the huge cost of medical treatment, the fact that insurance won’t pay, the police stings, the enormous risk to him, and … well, you’ve heard all those reasons before.

But Bazza is intractable. “If I get hurt, that’s my business. I’ll pay for my own hospital treatment.” He admits that he has no medical insurance. And he forcefully says that, no, he doesn’t expect anyone to hold fund-raisers for him, or help out if he is incapacitated, or to donate towards medical evacuation costs – or anything, really.

“I take responsibility for myself”, he keeps repeating. “I hate helmets – they’re restrictive and uncomfortable.” Like road safety rules, I suppose. He goes on to say, “I like the wind in my hair. It’s no-one’s business what I do, and all you do-gooders can just shut up.” He finishes with, “Don’t tell me how to live my life. If I don’t wear a helmet, it doesn’t affect you one bit, except to give you something to whinge about in your shallow, boring lives.”

I can understand his ire, if not his lack of diplomacy. I’m not much one for do-gooder rules myself. But as I ponder on his attitude, I am struck by the realisation that his ‘right’ to ride in helmet-less freedom, and his belief that it does not affect me “one bit”, is just plain wrong. It actually affects me a lot.

But what if this freedom-loving, rule-breaking, self-centred, independent legend was to have a serious spill one day? What if his unprotected head was to smash into the road as he comes off, peeling back his scalp, fracturing his skull and coating the surface of his exposed brain with the dirt and bacteria of Bali’s roads? And don’t say it’s unlikely; this happens every single day here in Bali.

And what if, at the same time, I am riding too, and I have an accident where my helmeted head suffers a ferocious blow which leaves me semi-conscious with a severe concussion?

In both cases, passers-by would no doubt call for an ambulance to take each of us to hospital. But this is Bali – there are few ambulances, many accidents and emergencies, and permanently choked roads that slow thinly-stretched emergency-response vehicles to a crawl.

So the dispatchers, having heard the sitrep from both accidents, will inevitably triage the two of us, and give priority to – guess who? – Bazza. After all, he is the one who is unconscious, covered with copious amounts of blood from his scalp lacerations, and the one whose brains
are leaking out of his cranium. High priority.

By comparison, I am merely groggy and disoriented and with only superficial grazes. As from inside a deep well I hear “Yes sir, he was wearing a helmet, and yes, he is sort of conscious”, as someone phones for an ambulance, so of course, I end up as a low priority job. They will
send their first available ambulance for Bazza. He’s the one in most need, at least in their professional judgement.

So I get to wait for the next available patient transport, while, unknown to me or anyone else, the brain bleed in my skull that began when I crashed goes unrecognised and untreated. I will die within two hours unless I get immediate medical intervention to relieve my intra-cranial bleed.

But let’s say I do manage to get to the hospital before I actually expire on the road. I will most likely languish in the emergency room, gradually losing consciousness, while the only qualified head trauma surgeon on duty is busy trying to stabilise Bazza.

By this stage, I have about twenty minutes left to live. By the time the surgeon slaps on enough dacron patches to glue Bazza’s stupid head together, checks his vitals and hands over to his assistant to do the closure, stitching and bandaging, it is nearly too late for me and my undiagnosed subdural haematoma.

That’s because my skull totally encloses my brain, which is getting gradually compressed by leaking blood. Oxygen-rich blood can no longer flow to my brain tissue. The reduced oxygen causes my neurons to die and my brain to swell even further. All this combines to force my brain down through the foramen magnum – a small hole at the base of my skull. Those brain parts that come in contact with the hard bone around this opening get so compressed that they stop
working altogether.

The surgeon, finally freed of his responsibilities to the idiot Bazza (who no doubt still insists that his choice of not wearing a helmet affects no-one but him) finally arrives just in time to see me go into convulsions. Those areas of my brain which are being crushed actually control my breathing
and heart rate. I already have brain damage from anoxia, but that is nothing compared to what will happen next unless the surgeon immediately drills a hole in my skull to relieve the pressure. Quite simply, without help, I will die.

But somehow I survive. I don’t remember much. I have months of rehabilitation ahead. I can’t really understand all the words in books now, so I don’t read much. I don’t recognise people who claim they’re my friends. Sometimes I have lucid moments where some of my old mental acuity returns, and I think about things like cause and effect, actions and consequences. I vaguely remember using the internet a long time ago, and arguing with a guy called Bazza, who insisted on having the freedom to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, because no do-gooder
had the right to tell him what to do.

And I frown, vaguely remembering that I really disagreed with his attitude once, but for the life of me I don’t know why. The doctors keep giving me pills to make me better, they say, but I just flush them down the toilet. I think Bazza was probably right about people telling you what to do all the
time, so I will just ignore them, just like he did.

I see a guy on a gurney, head bandaged, connected to drips, being wheeled out of the hospital towards a Medevac ambulance. His friends look pale and stressed, and I hear them talking about how they had to take out mortgages to pay for his operations and to fly him home. One says, “You’ll be right, Bazza.” His name rings a bell, but I can’t remember why. I feel emotional seeing people look after their friends when something bad happens.

But most of the time I feel confused and angry and rebellious, and I want to go out riding fast, bare-chested and with the wind in my hair, enjoying my freedom, but they say I can’t. I don’t see why not. It’s my choice, not theirs.

But they say not to do it, because my brain is a bit like Bazza’s now and I’m unable to understand ‘consequences’, whatever they are. I don’t really know, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to do it anyway, because I’m the boss of me, and those do-gooders can just shut up.

Besides, it won’t affect anyone but me.

h1

Schoolies In Bali Struggle Without Safety Net

November 23, 2011

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.

 

h1

How To Stave Off Total Gridlock In Bali

June 29, 2011

Recent visitors to Bali who have returned after an absence of several years are shocked at the current chaos on the roads. Traffic here is like a turgid flow of molasses at the best of times. But during peak hours, it congeals in the streets into an immobile, impenetrable grout, filling the skinny spaces between the mosaic of shops and warungs on each side. Motorbikes fill every available niche between cars, mounting footpaths in their efforts to slip past immediate blockages, only to be caught in total gridlock a few metres further on. And it’s like that every afternoon. Well, that I know of anyway. I’m rarely up early enough to report on any earlier peaks.

It’s not just the sheer number of cars, or the huge number of motorbikes that is the problem either.  It’s also the anarchic behaviour, lack of spatial awareness and absence of any road-craft skills on the part of those who are in charge of these vehicles.  Nor is it the roads themselves, those weird emergent artefacts of ad hoc development which have no chance of ever having their capacity increased without tricky land acquisitions and compensation for disenfranchised business owners.

These are very real problems, and they need both strategic long-term and short-term tactical solutions. Considerate road use should be taught as part of  driver education and driver training programs. Learning to ride a bike at eight years of age – by borrowing the family rocket to zip around the back streets – might be a way (for those who survive) to discover how to keep the thing reasonably upright, but is not the way to develop road-craft. Publicising the traffic regulations might be useful too. I’m sure that a free rules booklet given out at registration renewal time would really surprise most drivers here, if only for the astonishing fact that the place actually does have rules.

We also know that big cars cause big problems in little Bali, so how about instituting a hefty annual road-use levy for anything bigger than a Karimun? A sliding scale based on size means the local government could charge an absolute fortune for those oversized 4WD monstrosities that clog up the streets, and hopefully discourage their ownership.

But no-one seems to want to address the real issue with traffic congestion here. The roads might be narrow, but their effective width has been so reduced by the insane parking practices here that most roads might as well be bike paths. Drivers park anywhere they want, unwilling to walk twenty metres after leaving their cars somewhere that will not impede traffic. Motorcyclists park nose-in to the kerb anywhere convenient for them, or on the apex of blind corners, despite enormous disruptions to the traffic flow. Cars are parked haphazardly with rear ends sticking out into traffic lanes. Often, only a single lane is left free in a busy street, one that then has to be shared by vehicles travelling on both directions. The resultant atherosclerosis chokes all movement and as a side-effect, asphyxiates road-side business.

Parking practices in Bali are so out of control that immediate action is necessary. This is something that can be done immediately to give this place some breathing space. Analyse the problem at the local level. Identify trouble spots where bad parking causes congestion. Paint the kerbs red where there is to be strictly no parking. Where parking is to be tolerated on certain sections of road, paint a white line – at a distance from the kerb equal to the width of a small car. Do this so there is enough room for two lanes of cars to pass in the road adjacent.  Issue a hefty fine for any car not parked completely within the defined space. Through the local Banjar, appoint local staff (Jakarta-style) to monitor parked cars and issue tickets. Make the fine 200k, and pay the parking boys 10% commission. Where a car is left badly-parked in non-controlled areas, and is causing traffic mayhem, glue an A4-sized sticker to the windscreen with non-removable glue. It could read, in big letters, “This Car Has Been Parked Here By A Complete Moron”. As an added extra, it could also say: “Feel free to remove hubcaps, wing mirrors and other accessories without penalty”.

Even the little dead-end street that leads to my gang is almost impassable now. A year ago, it had two cars regularly parked there. Now there are twenty-four, their proud owners draping their treasures with opaque car covers and parking in staggered formation on both sides of the narrow street. The cover means that you can’t see past them, and even on a motorbike, navigating these chicanes is stressful and dangerous. It’s almost impossible in a car. Maybe it’s time to tie car registrations to proof of availability of off-street parking. If we don’t, soon there will be no roads to actually use, except as elongated car parks.

Then, of course, there is the road layout. A perfectly good, wide road runs along the beach between Jalan Melasti and Jalan Double Six. It could do wonders to relieve the pressure on Jl. Legian, Jl. Melasti, Jl. Padma and Jl. Double Six. But it’s closed, and has been since it was built years ago. Open it. Yes, you’ll upset the beach hotels along that strip. So what? Bali’s roads are bursting – relieve the strain in any way you can.

But this is Bali, so nothing will be done. And in the meantime, every afternoon, we will continue to experience the glutinous mess of Legian Street, the disaster that is Jalan Padma and its tributaries Padma Utara and Garlic Lane. The maxed-out Rum Jungle Road, the dreaded Jalan Double Six macet, and the frustrating nightmare of Jalan Laksmana, where expats joust with locals for every square metre of road space, will keep us fuming, and late for everything. And that’s just in the Legian/Seminyak precinct.

I’d love to write about the congestion in other areas of Greater Kuta – but unfortunately, I’ve never actually been able to reach them in our traffic.

Related Post: How to Fix Bali’s Parking Chaos (from 16 June 2010)

h1

How I Escaped From The Parking Maze At Centro

May 8, 2011

A sudden need to go to Tuban sees me braving the swirling traffic in Kuta and fighting my way past the Matahari bottleneck. I have to get to Jl. Kartika Plaza in order to reach the Discovery Mall. Or Centro, or Megawati’s Parthenon, or whatever they call it nowadays. Trouble is, the traffic control gnomes have changed the way one can access Tuban yet again. I now have no option (if I want to stay legal) but to take a two kilometre detour to reach the street I want, which is less than one hundred metres away and clearly visible. Mild irritation sets in.

To hell with that. I cut through the market area instead, dodging vehicles and pedestrians and emerge victorious just short of where I want to be. Now a mere twenty metre dash against the one-way traffic remains. Unfortunately, a police car is parked on the corner where I am about to make my illegal turn. The driver eyeballs me. I eyeball him back. I turn anyway. He opens his mouth and raises his hand. I shake my head, point to myself and shout “Diplomatic Corps!”. He laughs, waves me through and I’m on my way. I mean, I could have been a diplomat; how would he know?

After a further ten minutes of dodging suicidal locals, I reach the edifice which is my destination and look for a place to park. Then the real frustration begins. The car park, which is huge, is underneath the shopping complex. I locate the narrow entry lane for bikes, stop at the barrier and pull out some money. The attendant waves it away and gives me a plastic smart card. “Pay when you leave”, he says. I’m impressed. Little did I know it was premature.

The motorbike parking area is packed, and is separated from the car area by a robust fence. I wend my way through the narrow track, my knees tightly together to avoid knocking them on the rear wheels of the thousands of bikes crammed into tiny spaces. Inevitably I have to stop a few times, dismount and shift a bike whose spatially-challenged rider has seen fit to leave jutting out and blocking the track. Equally inevitably, the evidently sight-impaired dimwit behind me blips his horn continuously while I am doing this. He smiles a lot. I don’t.

Finally, a space manifests itself and I manage to insinuate my bike into it. The noisy gentleman behind me stops and in aggrieved tones, but still smiling, informs me that “this is my space”. I tell him that MySpace is old hat, and that he should get onto Facebook. He stops smiling and roars off.

I am well inside the cavernous interior now, so rather than walk all the way back to the main road and enter the complex from the front, I look for a quick way into the mall. This involves climbing through a steel barrier fence, (displacing only a few vertebrae in the process) and squeezing past several thousand parked cars to discover a hidden door into the complex. Big mistake. The door inexplicably locks behind me and I have to climb about eight flights of stairs until I reach the top floor before I can actually enter the shopping centre itself. People politely ignore me as I stand gasping and wheezing against the wall. Finally, I get enough oxygen to stagger to an escalator back to the ground floor.

After my meeting, this time I astutely take the long way back to the car park and find my bike. Clutching my trusty smart card and money, I snake my way back through the tortuous path to the exit barrier. The man looks at me blankly. “No, no! Must pay first!” he says.  He finally gets through to me that I have to pay “the security man” before I can leave, and he does one of those 360 degree finger-pointing waves that pass for Balinese directions. He won’t let me through the barrier, so I can’t make a simple U-turn and re-enter the car park. “No, you will just go home!” he says suspiciously.  He’s not wrong. So he forces the ten bikes behind me to back up like a big mechanical millipede. This does not endear me to their riders.

So, through the maze again, until finally I find a “security man”. Except he really is a security man, and won’t take my money. “No, no, pay at security office!” he says, and points me back towards the exit gate. As I reach the exit again, I finally see the pay station. It’s out in the car parking area, behind the damn fence. I finally twig that you’re supposed to go there and pay before you go back to your bike. Which means I have to find a spot to park my bike again, climb through the fence again, pay the fee and then climb through the fence one more time before I can get out of this place.

There is a small thundercloud over my head and I am getting very tetchy. I go through the entire rigmarole, pay the fee and am told that I have 10 minutes to depart the building, or else the smart card expires. When I get back to my bike, it’s completely blocked in by locked, double-parked bikes. It takes nine minutes, plus a few popped spinal discs and assorted muscle strains to get my bike out.

I get to the exit boom. The man puts my card in the reader slot, then looks at me. “Card expired” he announces blandly. “Open. The. Gate.” I say, enunciating each word flatly and very clearly. He looks at my face and sees something there that scares him. He says nothing, but he opens the gate.

After that, even the peak-period Kuta traffic didn’t faze me on the way home.

h1

Dancing the Traffic Cop Tango in Bali

April 27, 2011

Getting through this Kuta road junction is like being caught between the intersecting trajectories of four machine guns. The cacophony of blaring exhausts, incessant horns and tortured suspensions of vehicles thumping over Bali’s prodigious potholes jangles the mind. This  sonic counterpoint is a metaphor for the mental turmoil that accompanies the instantaneous decision-making needed to negotiate complex traffic in Bali and survive.

Anyway, that’s my excuse for not hearing a shrill whistle blast as I zipped between killer yellow trucks, four-wheel-drive ego-boosters and bee-like swarms of crazed motorcycles. I’m relatively immune to the chaos, but my pillion rider’s state of mind registers clearly as her fingers dig painfully into my lower ribs. A fleeting moment of regret that I hadn’t insisted on her wearing a helmet passes quickly as we clear the intersection and enter a normal street where the likelihood of death is not quite so imminent.

She leans next to my ear and says: “That cop wasn’t too pleased with you. He’s blowing his whistle and waving you over.”  “Relax”, I reply loftily, “they never chase you – they’re too lazy. Always keep going when they do that.”

Unfortunately, I score a cop who isn’t lazy. In fact, by some miracle of teleportation, he is waiting for me at the next intersection where he insinuates his bike into a position that leaves me no option but to crash into him, fall off, or pull over. I pull over, and secure in the knowledge that I have done nothing wrong, grin at him. He grins back. He understands my hubris; he deals with it every day.

“I whistled at you there at Jl. Pantai Kuta”, he says. I avoid making an inane comment about Roger Whittaker and instead tell him that I didn’t hear him. I innocently ask him why he is stopping me. “No helmet”, he says, pointing at my pillion passenger. “Not required”, I say confidently. He is disconcerted. I press my advantage and say to him, “Bali law only says rider must wear helmet, not passenger”. He looks uncertain, despite the fact that I am spouting unmitigated drivel. Of course both people on a bike must have helmets – it’s not only the law, it’s plain common sense. But I’m on a roll here and I sense an advantage in our little dance, even though I’m dancing around the truth.

He looks like he is trying to remember whether the authorities have changed the road law yet again, because they never actually tell anyone, including the police, whenever they do that here. He changes tack suddenly and asks me whether my headlight was on. I tell him it was. A beat of silence ensues.  “Licence please,” he orders, changing tactics yet again. He looks at my International Driver’s Licence and his face lights up. “Ahh! Not legal in Bali!” I say confidently that it is legal actually, and his face clouds over. Quickly flipping to the last page, he sees the two stamps there, one for a car and one for a motorcycle endorsement. His face falls further.

We spend a minute or two in idle chit-chat while I try desperately to keep the smile of triumph off my face. I should have stayed alert instead of gloating, because the guy is toying with me before setting me up for his master-stroke. As he closes my licence booklet, he suddenly freezes and points to the front cover. “Oh no!” he says. “What?” I say, sucked in. “Look!” he intones with beautifully studied regret. “Licence is expired! Now have to go to court in Denpasar …” And he points his finger at the date – 11 February 2011 – clearly stamped on my licence.

I am thunderstruck. How stupid am I? I must have forgotten to put my new licence in the cover after getting it renewed earlier this year. “Umm” I say intelligently. “I think it’s in my safe at home …” He looks at me with that cop stare for a long moment. I reach into my pocket and hand him the obligatory 50,000 rupiah note. He grins. “Next time, both of you wear helmets” and sends me on my way.

On the way home, it dawns on me that his parting shot was about the helmet, an issue that I had already conned him about, and not the licence. I did con him, didn’t I? With some unease, I check my licence again, and there, clearly written on the front are the words ‘Issued 11 February 2011′. The damn thing is still valid for another year, and I finally realise that he knew that all along!

Today’s score: Cop 1, Vyt 0. Oh well, at least the money goes to his family. Back home, traffic fines go to Consolidated Revenue for the government to waste on yet another useless exercise in social engineering. Here, it’s just your standard Bali re-distribution of wealth. And it was an entertaining and compassionate way to cut me down to size. I’m comfortable with that.

h1

Anatomy of a Motorbike Accident in Bali

June 3, 2010

Witnessing a motorbike accident is shocking in its suddenness. Before your mind can register what has happened, there is a flash and tangle of limbs, spinning wheels and brightly coloured bike parts in front of you. The sound is unexpected too – the faintest of thumps followed by an obscene scraping of plastic along the unforgiving road surface. If it is just ahead of you, you barely have time to avoid running over the hapless rider, now sliding over the meat-shredder road surface. From the time that things first go wrong to the moment where flesh, steel and plastic come to rest takes perhaps two seconds. It’s not pretty, but it’s fast.

Despite seeing literally hundreds of near-misses, I have only witnessed three crashes here in the last year. All were horrifyingly sudden and all left me a bit shocked. Maybe this is a good thing – when you ride in Bali, complacency is your mortal enemy. The sight and sound of an accident resets one’s risk-evaluation meter to a state of hyper-caution. One rides more defensively, because there is nothing like the sight blood to dismiss the inner Valentino Rossi and bring out the inner wimp.

The slightest lapse of concentration can bring about disaster. Some time ago, I watched a tourist (who told me afterwards that he had no licence or riding experience) riding through the bends in Jl. Padma Utara, his local girlfriend close behind on her own bike. He looked to one side and pointed something out to his companion, who naturally looked in that direction. At that moment, he inexplicably braked – and distracted, she clipped his back wheel and crashed.

Her injuries were relatively minor, but disfiguring. The flesh on her knee was torn back to the bone; the skin of her ankle bone had peeled away like a hard-boiled eggshell, and the numerous rips and tears on her arms were filled with bits of gravel and tar. I helped as best I could, but she didn’t want to see a doctor, being more concerned with screaming at her boyfriend for stopping. Or maybe she had experienced surgical debridement before, and wasn’t about to go back for a second dose. In her eyes, her choice to tailgate wasn’t a factor in the accident. It took two seconds from contact to lying on the road, nursing wounds that would scar her for life.

The other accidents I saw were similar – a momentary distraction causing loss of control, leading to a upset of the finely-tuned dynamic equilibrium between all riders in the vicinity. One was actually caused by a third party – a young mother who wheeled her toddler’s pram off the footpath and on to the road without looking – a frequent occurrence  in Bali. Perhaps she believed that her pram was a vehicle, and so entitled to use roads instead of footpaths. The motorbike coming up behind her had nowhere to go, and swerved into the path of another bike that was overtaking at that moment. Both bikes crashed, blood was spilled and oaths were exchanged in that peculiarly Balinese passive-aggressive manner. The young mother, oblivious to the carnage behind her, continued to use the road while motorists zoomed around her. The episode took two seconds.

The picture changes drastically when it happens to you. My narrowest escape was on a day when traffic was light, so I was enjoying the freedom of leaning the bike over through the bends. A nice sharp right-hander was coming up, and with the bike well over, I was about to power through a dark shadow left by the late afternoon sun. But wait! The sun was over there, so that’s not a shadow, it’s water streaming over the apex of the turn! Time slows when you’re not having fun, so there seemed to be plenty of time to get the bike upright before the wet patch and gently apply the brakes.

Of course, that meant I was no longer turning. But the road was, so after an eternity of locking and releasing the brakes while heading straight for a shop, the bike finally began to slow. Subjectively, it took a long time to traverse the frictionless wet section, plough through the roadside gravel, avoid a rubbish bin on the forecourt and come to a dramatic stop in a shower of gravel. My front wheel was just inside the shop door. I looked at the shop owner. He looked at me placidly. “Just looking”, I said. “OK”, he replied. The whole episode took two seconds. To me, being in the thick of it, it felt like twenty seconds. Jam karet.

His laid-back response is typical of the local attitude towards motorcycle dramas here. One morning, I asked a local friend if he knew of a good driver for a month’s work. He called me back early in the afternoon and said his friend could do it, but he hadn’t been answering his calls all day. Later that day, he rang and said: “Sorry, my friend cannot do the job.” “Oh”, I said. “Yes, he was killed this afternoon – motorbike crash”. “Oh no!” I said, in shock. “It’s alright, don’t worry”, he reassured me,  “I can get someone else for you.” He found it strange that I was concerned about the death, and thought that I was peeved that I had no driver. How sad, how fatalistic.

But it does explain a lot about the attitude of locals to danger. You live, you ride, you die, you join your ancestors. That’s just the way it is here. Me, I’m just going to be extra careful.

h1

Rain, Rain – Go Away!

February 27, 2010

By some incredible quirk of marketing by vacation industry mandarins, the ‘high season’ for visitors to Bali has been mandated to co-incide with the rainy season. Everyone knows that, but they still pay inflated prices for everything during a time when they are sure to be regularly saturated. High season in Bali is hot, humid – and can be very, very wet.

When it does rain, it is usually a deluge. The gutters, which double as defacto rubbish bins – invariably flood. This might be because of the cunning placement of outlet drains uphill from the rest of the watercourse, or maybe because those ubiquitous plastic bags are blocking the pipes. The result is a temporary tropical Venice – without gondoliers. However, the deep gutters, while marginal at best for draining water, serve another function – they eat cars. The channels are very close to the edge of the road, so to turn into a narrow gang with equally deep ravines requires an excellent understanding of the different turning radii of one’s front and back wheels. If you lack this understanding, the ever-present locals will gladly right your capsized vehicle and jack your inside back wheel out of the ditch – but of course, you’ll need to have your wallet handy.

Bali currently has a serious water shortage. Many lakes are dry and underground water is disappearing as people suck increasing amounts from rapidly depleting aquifers. So the rains are welcome from a purely hydrological point of view – even though it would be nice to have more catchment wells to make use of the downpours and help raise the water table. I know we need more water, but my rampant self-interest dictates that I personally want this rainy season to be over, and as quickly as possible. Yes, I’m socially irresponsible.

You see, I have begun to suspect that I’m a Rainmaker. I don’t actually make the stuff, but I can make it rain on command simply by forming an intention to do something that involves going outside. I think it’s a quantum mechanics effect, where the mere presence of a participant can affect the outcome of an otherwise purely physical process. Let me give you a few examples from last week.

It’s morning, and after the usual nightly downpour, the skies lighten and the drizzle fizzles out just in time for breakfast. So at about 9am, I putter off on my motorbike to the local purveyor of fine eggs and bacon. Within seconds of leaving home, it starts raining, and it does so relentlessly until, dripping wet, I sit down for breakfast. The rain instantly stops, then starts again when I get on the bike. This happens no matter what time I decide to head off in the morning. Quantum rain.

Then there’s afternoon Coffee Time – a ritual discovered by those who had become used to multiple daily coffees in our pre-Bali days. Before, I used to get so distracted here I tended to neglect my caffeine fix – only to be rewarded by a niggling headache by mid-afternoon. No, it’s not the lunch-time Bintangs, it’s actually caffeine withdrawal. The pre-emptive anti-headache coffee became part of my daily life here, but I still have to get to the coffee shop. And of course, it rains the instant I leave home, stops during my coffee and obligingly resumes as soon as I leave. Quantum rain.

Dinner time is usually better. The clouds often clear by evening, meaning that if I change into something that creates a modest display of sartorial elegance – or at least something better than the traditional Bintang singlet – I can stay relatively immaculate during the trip to the restaurant. But of course, it inevitably pours as soon as I leave, meaning that I arrive home a sodden, bedraggled mess. You guessed it – quantum rain.

In fact, anytime I go out on the motorbike, it rains. The water comes down vertically from above, and horizontally from taxis whose drivers take delight in timing their puddle entries to achieve the maximum splash trajectory. It also comes up vertically. I tried to ride through a large puddle, only to find that its deceptively flat surface concealed a pit of such monumental proportions that I ended up sitting in water up to my crotch. At least it greatly amused the watching locals, who apparently sit around watching each new arrival plunge into the abyss. I suspect they actually dug the hole. I’m reliably informed that it’s better than cock-fighting, and it’s not illegal either.

Lest it be inferred that I am a sullen troglodyte who doesn’t care about Bali’s water shortage, I’m willing to compromise with the forces of nature and the imperatives of tropical climatology. I am happy to let it rain heavily during the hours that I am asleep. I am even prepared to let it rain during the day, as long as I am under cover, napping or indisposed.  But I do insist that it stop before I have to ride anywhere. Surely climate scientists could work on creating this new Bali weather pattern for me?  It’s obviously a viable, equitable solution for my moisture problem – and surely easier than that Climate Change stuff they’re all playing with.  And I’m giving them this revolutionary idea for free – now that should make those who thought I was a spoilt, self-absorbed pillock change their mind.