Posts Tagged ‘motorcycle’

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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.

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Tap, Sniff, Shake And Squeeze – The Durian Ritual

February 7, 2012

I lean the bike around a bend on a relatively quiet Bali evening, expertly adjusting my line to avoid the many potholes, ridges and other obstacles. As ever, the night is redolent with the usual mixed aromas of musty drains, incense, tropical flowers, spicy foods and raw sewage.

But suddenly, the air is thick with a new scent that defies description, a smell that shocks my olfactory system to such an extent that it throws the rational, thinking part of my brain completely out of circuit and induces a zombie-like state. At the same time, I hear my name yelled, and see a friend waving madly from a temporary roadside stall on the other side of the road. This total sensory overload causes me to ride straight into the deepest pothole available and be thrown across into oncoming traffic. Ignoring common sense, I broadside into a barely-controlled U-turn and come to a stop next to my friend.

I don’t normally ride like that, but then again, it is not every day that I ride into a noxious cloud of durian vapours that not only shut down your brain, but would probably liquefy your eyeballs if you didn’t reflexively protect them behind slitted eyelids. These emanations are gases from a fruit that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention – but Indonesians seem to love them. I find myself stopped next to a beaten-up pick-up truck loaded with a pile of spiky green durians. The smell has intensified to the point where I am ready to faint, but the scene around the truck is so riveting that, against my better judgement, I decide to stay conscious.

As well as my crazy friend, who actually seems to enjoy breathing this miasma, there are perhaps ten others engaged in what seems to be an arcane ritual. “What are they doing?” I croak, my throat constricting. “Buying durian, of course!” is the reply. It’s not like any purchase of fruit that I have ever seen before. I mean, when I buy produce, I glance at my potential purchase, pick it up and perhaps give it a squeeze, then take it home to do whatever one does with fruit and vegetables. That’s the extent of my relationship with stuff that isn’t meat – but then again, I am not noted for being good at relationships.

But what is happening here is totally different. I watch the buyers stand around and just … stare at the heaps of durian with what looks like reverence. They seem to be  evaluating size and shape, colour and texture, as if they were choosing diamonds. Durians don’t even look like anything edible – think green grenades, or miniature sea mines – and there is no way that they smell even faintly edible. They are banned from buses, aircraft and many hotels, apparently to prevent episodes of projectile vomiting by those who are not aficionados.

Food writer Richard Sterling is reputed to have said, “Its odour is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”. I agree, but would add that the gym socks in question have obviously been worn for at least a month without being washed. And as for the taste, Anthony Burgess, an English literary luminary, compared it (unfavourably) to eating vanilla custard in a latrine. Obviously, millions of Indonesians, Malays and Thais would not agree.

Once the careful examination phase is over, the rapt purchasers start picking up their selected fruits and, well, fondling them. They caress the spines softly, sensuously cupping them in their palms and gently moving them up and down as if weighing them. The little stalk on each durian gets almost erotic attention, getting slowly bent and twisted, and even finger-flicked from side to side. A sniffing rite follows, during which each durian is lifted and its various parts carefully inhaled, while eyes are closed in rapture. I get a sudden image of small green echidnas having their nappies (that’s ‘diapers’ for you Americans) checked for intestinal accidents by their doting parents. I dismiss this thought as a hallucination brought on by the odour.

“How can they stand the smell?”, I think to myself. Then I realise with a shock that after ten minutes’ exposure to these fumes, they no longer seem so bad. They’re still unbelievably strange, but the pungent and sulphurously toxic kick seems to have dissipated. A distant memory surfaces – a chemistry teacher from an aeons-past school warning us that if the horrible smell of hydrogen sulphide (rotten-egg gas) starts to become sweet and pleasant, it means that we have inhaled a toxic dose and need to get fresh air immediately. I look around, hoping to find an oxygen bottle, because there is definitely no fresh air anywhere.

The durian acolytes continue their ceremony, tapping the fruit with the flats of handy machetes, or banging it gently against their bike helmets. The final act in their performance is to shake it close to their ears, listening to the noises it makes as if it is music from heaven itself. Having chosen their prizes, they pay the vendor, who wraps a sisal rope around three or four fruit in a deceptively simple but secure carrying cradle ready to hang on a bike. It makes sense; no mere plastic bag could contain those spiked monsters without tearing . The whole process of selection takes about twenty minutes, and is one of the most complex rituals I have yet seen in Bali.

Later, still amazed and intrigued, I talk to a well-travelled Indonesian friend about the intricacy and skill of what I have just witnessed. He is sceptical. “Ah, rubbish, you don’t do all that when you buy a durian”, he scoffs. “You just go in, check it out and buy it. No time at all!”

Oh damn, I think – I’ve just been given a special ‘gullible bule’ performance in the street. Must be that Bali humour again. But I persist. “So what sort of things do you check when you buy one?”, I ask him.

“Oh, you know,” he says, ” I just look at for a while to check for worm-holes. Then I just squeeze it a bit to see if it’s soft or hard, and to see if the thorns are sharp or blunt. Then I tap it to see if the sound is OK. Oh, and the smell has to be just right too. Then I shake it a little to make sure it has the right sloshing sound … anyway, it’s easy. Been doing it since I was a kid.”

“So, how long does it take you to do all this?” I ask him innocently.

He thinks for a bit and then smiles sheepishly.

“Umm, about twenty minutes …”

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Will It Always Be Life In The Trenches, Or Do We Start Building The Future?

January 15, 2012

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.

The Troublesome Trench

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.

The Collapsing Road Edge

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.

The Deadly Motorbike Trap

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.

Cable Dug Up Again - And Just Left

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.

 

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The Secret Language Of Survival On Bali Roads

December 5, 2011

Bahasa Indonesia is not the only language that Bali visitors must learn – especially if you drive or ride on our roads. There is a separate, informal language for road users that, although it has no words or grammar, has its own peculiar syntax.

It is more akin to the body language used by dogs, which lets them identify strangers, assert their right of way, recognise alpha dogs, resolve territorial disputes and generally smooth the path of social interaction. Motorists and bike riders here, at least those who are still alive and uninjured, have not only learned this non-verbal language but use it fluently every day.

The first and most important rule is that size matters. Visitors from more regulated places might expect that every road user will follow the same set of guidelines, whether they are driving a bus or riding a moped. Not in Bali. Here, one’s ability to dominate a traffic situation is directly proportional to the physical size of your vehicle. It’s the Bigger Is Better Rule. So trucks give way to buses, cars give way to trucks, scooters give way to big motorbikes, and pedestrians are meant to give way to scooters. To add a little uncertainty to the system, cabs will often ignore this hierarchical structure. The magnitude  and frequency of these lapses in protocol will depend on the taxi company involved  and whether the driver is at the beginning or the end of his typically long shift.

Basically, you give way to the might, and a lack of understanding of this prime aspect of Bali traffic dialogue by newbies causes quite a few problems, many ruffled feathers, and even the occasional injury.

Visiting pedestrians are particularly vulnerable here, believing as they do that because the streets here are so narrow, they automatically qualify as footpaths. Those who wander along carriageways, three abreast in a bovine stupor, will soon get their elbows clipped by a passing motorbike mirror.  Few realise that this is in fact a practical lesson in the finer points of ‘Bali Road Language’ being administered by a fed-up motorist. The exception is, of course, for locals. Within their own village precincts, Balinese reign supreme. They may strike up conversations in the middle of the road, suddenly stop their bikes anywhere on a whim, or even close an entire main road for a ceremony. Relax, that’s normal, but don’t try it yourself.

The second rule of the secret traffic language is to do with the judicious use of lights. I don’t mean indicators, which when used at all, only serve as a visual clue that the driver or rider has made a turn some time during that day, or might be thinking about turning at some stage in the future. Or just has a fondness for flashing lights. Hazard flashers, however, are used to indicate that a car is continuing through an intersection without turning. They are never used to indicate that a car has stopped in a dangerous spot. In Bali, there is no need for this; you can safely assume that every parked car has been left in a dangerous spot.

No, the real light signal communication here  is through the use of headlights. The ‘high-beam flash’ is used in conjunction with the Bigger Is Better Rule, but it’s the driver who flashes first who gets precedence. If you are proceeding up a narrow street and an oncoming taxi is stymied by a parked car, it will generally not stop until you have safely passed the chicane, but execute The Double Flash. This is the universal Bali GOOMW (Get Out Of My Way) signal. A especially tetchy driver will triple-flash you, which is more of a GOOMFW signal, and should not be ignored. Police and other authority figures may occasionally use the Multiple Repeated Flash, also known as the GOOMFW,YI. The correct response is to stop, or move over to the left as far as you can even if it means knocking over several parked bikes and creaming the odd pedestrian to let the oncoming vehicle through.

The third rule has to do with the use of sound. A minor aspect of this is the actual engine note of a vehicle. Whatever the other complex rules say, if you hear a large truck coming at high speed, get out of the way immediately. Don’t get precious and listen for squealing brakes; most trucks here don’t have any. Get out of the way if you hear the characteristic sound of a Harley. You might theoretically have right of way, but its rider is likely to be bigger and tougher than you.

But discounting mechanical sounds, the most mellifluous part of the traffic’s  symphonic language is the horn section. Bikes will beep you as they overtake – not to hassle, but to politely warn. In terms of right of way,  it’s a He Who Beeps First, Wins Rule. If you are about to change lanes and someone beeps you, wait until they have overtaken. However, the reverse applies in some extremely narrow lanes where there are often blind corners leading to even narrower lanes, wide enough for only one bike. It is, of course, customary to beep as you approach. No audible response means you can continue, but an answering beep usually means stop until you see the other rider. So in these lanes it’s a He Who Beeps Second, Wins Rule.

A few weeks back, this particular rule caused perhaps the most absurd situation to date during my time here. I often take short cuts through narrow lanes, and one in particular has a very tight turn. I approached, politely tooted, and immediately received an answering beep. So I waited. And waited. After a while, a repeat beep elicited another beeped response. Again, no sign of a bike. Edging carefully forward and craning my neck, I managed to peer up the lane. Nothing. Grrr. So I edged the bike around the corner, beeped twice in sheer frustration – and heard a loud beep-beep in my right ear. Nearly falling off, I snapped my head around to see an alcove leading to a Bali house. And sitting serenely in a bamboo cage was a nondescript brown bird. Beep-beep, it said again. It’s difficult to do when you have no lips, but I swear it grinned at me.

Anyway, that’s Bali. Needless to say, situations will arise where the Bigger Is Better Rule conflicts with the Double Flash Rule, and cannot be resolved by the He Who Beeps First, Wins or even the He Who Beeps Second, Wins Rule. This can lead to some hairy situations, but most of these can be overcome by a judicious application of the Slow Motion Good-Natured Bullying Rule, which is normally used at all Bali intersections. This simply involves continuing in your intended direction at a slow creep until someone eventually gives way to you. However, remember that regardless of all the other rules, the Don’t Collide With Anyone Even If You Supposedly Have Right Of Way Rule always, always has precedence.

Got all that? Makes trying to learn Bahasa a piece of cake, doesn’t it?

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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.

 

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Think Differently, Everyone Else Does Here

August 9, 2011

If ever I needed any reminders that Bali is a quirky place, these last few days have served to disabuse me of any notion that people here are reading from any conventional script, except maybe one of high farce. Every single day on the island provides vignettes of absurdity of course, but when these come in unexpectedly concentrated clumps, I feel even more like an actor in a Mr. Bean movie.

I finish breakfast, and am nicely full. But not quite having woken up properly, I am still a tad taciturn. It is, after all, not yet mid-day. I proffer a 50,000 rupiah note for a 35,000 rupiah bill. The cashier is aghast.
“You have no small money?”
“This is small money”, I reply.
“No, this is big money”, she says, her eyes big as if to emphasise the point.

I am tired of always being expected to have exact change for everyone from taxi drivers on down, so I tersely ask “Don’t you have a cash float?”
“No, I can’t swim”, she responds without batting an eyelid. Having zeroed in on the word ‘float’, she has instantly segued to a response to my perceived non-sequitur as if this was perfectly normal. I am impressed with her thought processes.

Temporarily baffled, I struggle to explain that a ‘cash float’ is what you start the day with in the till, so you can give change. I can see from her expression that is visualising a ‘cash float’ as some weird bule practice, presumably one involving a litre or two of water in the cash drawer with some banknotes floating on top.  She explains, as if to a child, that they don’t do this, because they can get enough small change from their first few customers. Ah, why didn’t I think of that?

Mesmerised by this exchange, I wander off to the local cushion-making specialist to order a mattress pad for my somewhat hard sun-lounge. We spend twenty minutes going through the specifications and measurements, and agree on a reasonable price. He wants to copy my specifications down on his order form, but I tell him to use the diagram I have prepared previously.

“But I have to draw this on the order form”, he wails.
I prefer him to use my sheet, because it clearly states that I want a complete mattress pad of specific dimensions. He is clearly distressed.
“Staple it to the page in your order form”, I suggest. I’m trying to avoid the frequent Bali transcription errors that have messed up more than one custom order. I also ask him whether, when ready, the completed mattress will fit on my motorbike.
“Oh yes, of course, easy!” he says, seemingly relieved to be handling a simple question. However, having seen what the locals happily cart around on their bikes, I have my reservations.

Two days later, I go back to pick up my order. A beautifully crafted mattress cover awaits me, made exactly to specifications, except that it’s empty. There is no foam pad inside. “Oh no!” is the horrified response to my obvious question. “You only ordered cover! Foam is extra!”

So I ask to see my order in his book to prove that I ordered a complete item, not just the cover. Guess what? My spec sheet is not there any more. He shrugs and insists that he quoted only on the cover – and proves it by showing me his copy, which contains the word ‘cover’. I check my carbon copy and it also says cover. Damn. Now I have to find somewhere in Bali that cuts foam to size; so much for one-stop shopping. At least he was right about it being easy to carry on my bike …

A fruitless two hours spent both on-line and browsing local directories reveals that apparently most businesses don’t bother advertising. Especially purveyors of fine foam. I mean, why spend the money? Everyone knows where they are, right?

That evening provides more snapshots of life in Bali. I watch a local youth weaving dangerously down the road on his bike while texting. He is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend: “Total Stability”.  I see a tourist riding pillion, covered with recently-healed scars on his forehead, ears, jaw, shoulder, knees, ankles and feet. My view of all these unmistakeable hallmarks of a bike incident is unimpeded, because he is wearing only shorts. No shirt, no helmet and no shoes. He looks relaxed as he drinks from a bottle of Bintang. Faith is a wonderful thing.

I consider dropping into a pub for a quiet one, but don’t stay. Everyone is yelling, apparently because they can’t converse at a normal levels, because everyone is yelling. Why don’t they just … never mind.

I ponder the logical circularity of this situation, as well as the absurdities of the last few days, as I ride home. As I get to my gate, I get an SMS. It says: “Your mattress cover is ready.”

Strangely enough, I don’t even blink. I mean, this is Bali, and it’s been a perfectly normal day.

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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)