Posts Tagged ‘road safety’

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Why Do Parents Insist On Killing Their Kids In Bali?

July 19, 2013

I don’t really understand why some Balinese parents are so hell-bent on killing their kids here. Oh, they don’t do it deliberately – in many ways they care for their children in a way that far surpasses child-raising practices in westernised countries.

But they allow them to ride motorbikes from a very young age – an age when common sense has not yet begun to develop, when risk-awareness is non-existent and understanding of consequences is totally absent. And ‘road rules’? Well, I doubt that many of the parents who allow their kids on the road have any idea themselves.

So I’m on the road, on the way to brunch, and the road is full of kids on bikes. Many are in elementary school uniforms, all look to be between 7 and 10 years old. They are skittish and impulsive, weaving all over the road, impulsively accelerating and braking without a thought for any other road users. They are dangerous, and unaware of anyone but themselves. I ride defensively, because they show the same the attributes of caution as a cat caught in the middle of a busy road. At least a cat has the sense to be scared; these kids show no fear.

Suddenly, on a bend in the road, a child on a bike – way too big and heavy for him – comes straight at me on my side of the road. He looks to be about 6 years old. He is not wearing a helmet. It’s a blind corner, but he is taking a racing line, cutting the corner at speed, oblivious to the possibility of on-coming traffic. He sees me, but takes no evasive action. Maybe that’s because he has a phone firmly clutched in his left hand and has not yet mastered swerves using only one hand.

I brake hard – tricky on a bend – and manage to get far enough onto the left shoulder to avoid a head-on crash. He deviates not one centimetre from his line on the wrong side of the road. As he passes, he glares at me, his face twisted with anger. How dare I, as a bule, occupy a part of the road where he wants to be? How arrogant of me.

Worse, as he flashes past, his passenger – a little girl of perhaps 4 or 5, who is also helmet-less, just looks at me with that Balinese direct opaque stare, without a trace of fear, or a skerrick of understanding that she was seconds away from death or a horrible maiming.

In the next ten minutes, I see dozens of small children on motorbikes, riding three abreast, chatting to each other and ignoring oncoming cars that have to brake and swerve. I see others cutting corners, stopping without warning, turning right from the left lane without indicating, and entering heavy traffic streams from the left without looking. Just like their elders.

I ride as carefully as I can to avoid them all, because I know that in Bali, if any local crashes into my bike because of their ineptness, inexperience or stupidity, it will be my fault. I am the foreigner; if I had had the sense to stay in my own country instead of coming here, the accident never would have happened. Ergo, it’s my fault. Balinese logic.

And if I do have an accident where a local is hurt, at best I will be expected to pay for all hospital bills, repairs to their bike, ‘compensation’ to the family and a gratuity to the police to avoid further unpleasantness. At worst, I will be beaten or killed by an enraged roadside mob.

So why do Balinese parents allow their under-aged, inexperienced, unlicensed kids to ride the family bike? They know the danger. They know that three people a day are killed on bikes in Bali alone, and that countless others are badly injured. They know that children are more at risk than adults, and they know that children will always promise to be ‘careful’ despite not having the slightest understanding of what ‘careful’ even means.

My feeling is that it’s sheer, uncaring laziness. Or a pervasive fatalism. I was with one family as their very young son jumped on the family bike and rode off to school.
“Why don’t you give him a lift?” I asked the father.
“Oh, I’m too busy”, was the reply.
I tried a different tack: “But he doesn’t have a licence …”
I got a pitying look. “Of course not. He can’t get a licence until he’s 16″. (Unspoken: “You idiot.”)
I thought I’d give it another try: “But it’s dangerous …”
“No. He knows how to ride the bike. He has been practising in the gang outside for two weeks now.”
I have no answer to that.

Finally, I asked the question that I had been avoiding, as I didn’t want to bring bad luck.
“Does he know what to do if he has an accident?”
“Oh, yes”, he laughed. “I’ve told him. Get out of there as fast as you can!”

Oh. I guess that’s OK then.

With growing impatience at my obviously retarded intellect, he also indicates that the young boy had been riding as a pillion passenger practically since he was born, “so he knows the rules”. Presumably by some variant of osmosis. Or worse, by watching his parents, both of whom scare me to death when I see their abysmal lack of road-craft when riding.

Later, as I was writing this piece, I spoke about this problem to a couple of my local friends, who gave me an ever-so-gentle spray. They politely implied that I don’t understand Balinese customs, that “this is what we do”, and that I should not bring my Western preconceptions to Bali. At least this time I didn’t get the time-honoured response of : “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from?” But I’m also sure that one will come from the affronted after they read this.

Well, maybe I don’t understand. Maybe I believe that all parents have a responsibility to keep their children from harm, and this includes not allowing them to have control of a lethal weapon  such as a car or motorbike before they are old enough to do so responsibly. Maybe I don’t want to be killed or injured by a child on a bike, or see children badly hurt even if their parents don’t seem to care.

But hey, what do I know? I’m just a bule here.

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The Collateral Damage From The Van Der Speck Sting

April 16, 2013

A recent video uploaded by Mr. Van Der Speck, the Dutch ‘journalist’ posing as a tourist to ‘expose’ so-called corruption and extortion practices of the Bali police, went viral, as its maker had hoped. It showed the well-known practice of paying police a small fee when caught in a traffic infringement.

Equipped with a hidden camera, plus an accomplice with a second camera close by, he rode past a police post, sans helmet, waiting to be pulled over. Following the best practices of journalistic entrapment, he effectively offered an inducement to the police officer to avoid ‘going to court’. Readily agreeing to a fairly high pay-off fee, he then intimated that he would love a beer, whereupon the unfortunate cop, perhaps motivated by guilt for accepting such a relatively high payment from a ‘nice guy’, scurried off and bought him a a few beers with the proceeds – which they then both enjoyed.

Reactions to this sting followed the predictable pattern of those who come from a different culture, where all corruption is considered wrong. Ignoring the distinction between ‘minor’ corruption here, and the unacceptable ‘major’ corruption which is endemic amongst Indonesia’s officials, the media, in a fit of unseemly glee, went bat-shit over the issue. No point in explaining to people that ‘minor’ corruption plays an important role in the complex economic and social fabric here, and is actually beneficial given the subsistence salaries that are the norm.

No, uninformed moralists of all persuasions, holding firmly to their belief that ALL payola is wrong no matter what the circumstances, expressed their condemnation with the usual Bali-bashing. This, of course, caused Bali’s authorities to lose face and crack down on a practice that is both complex and necessary, at least under the present system of dealing with traffic violations. The police involved were disciplined as well – a scapegoat was necessary.

And this opportunistic little set-up is now having very expensive repercussions for locals.

A friend – a local person – was pinged by traffic police in Kuta/Legian tonight for riding without a helmet. Yes, it was a silly and dangerous oversight. Normally, in return for a small fee (for locals) of 20,000-30,000, it would incur a safety lecture and an exhortation to stay safe. Most people I know learn from such an experience and remember to wear their helmet – at least for a couple of months anyway.

But this time, the cop apologised for not being able to accept the usual ‘fee’, and said his hands were tied as his supervisor was watching closely. He kept glancing around as if to find a hidden camera. He then proceeded to write out the first traffic ticket I have ever seen in Bali, saying that all police were being watched like hawks since the Lio Square sting by Van Der Speck.

My friend now has to go to the police station in the morning and pay the official fine, which according to the vaguely-worded citation, will be either 100,000, or 250,000, or 500,000 rupiah. Even the cop didn’t know.  That’s a lot of money for a local person. The printed citation form doesn’t even provide an address at which to pay the fine, undoubtedly because this method is so rarely used here that the kinks in the system haven’t even been discovered yet.

I wonder if the holier-than-thou ‘journalist’ ever considered that his actions would have such repercussions? A fine of up to two week’s salary for a local is savage. Loss of discretionary income for a police officer – who has already paid 100 million plus for a place in the police academy, and a further few million a month to ‘buy a franchise’ for a spot on a lucrative ‘fine’ corner will seriously affect his family.

Am I ‘for’ corruption? No. But the system under which the traffic police have operated for years is finely tuned to the society here, and the ‘fees’ paid for vehicular transgressions go straight to the officer to supplement his meagre salary. In developed countries, without a culture of, er,  personal fee-for-service, the money paid in fines goes to Consolidated Revenue for the government to totally waste on airy-fairy social experiments. I know which one I think is the more equitable system. I don’t even see it as ‘corruption’, rather, it is an equitable re-distribution of wealth.

Will this new system last? I don’t know. I do know the police on the street are not in favour of it because of the loss of their income. Their bosses may be of a different mind, suddenly realising that a hitherto-unrealised revenue stream is there for the taking. I know the average local is horrified that they will have to pay up to ten times the amount they are used to.

But I suspect that when the fuss dies down, Bali’s traffic regulation enforcement methods will quietly revert to their time-honoured state, where there is a social benefit for all who get trapped by their vehicular misdemeanours.

And, despite the arguments for and against the existing system here, the fact remains that no-one needs to pay anything to the police or the Traffic Department. Ever.

All you have to do is wear a helmet, a shirt, keep your headlights on during the day, stop before the white line at traffic lights, and carry a valid licence and registration documents. No-one will book you.

And Mr. Van Der Speck – next time you come blundering into a foreign country, ignorant of its culture and social mores, and deliberately break its laws in order to entrap someone – for the sake of journalism – stop and think. You might be happily back in Holland, but the damage your stupid journalism has inflicted remains.

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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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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)

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Let’s Keep Cycling Fun And Lycra-free In Bali!

June 4, 2011

Bike riding is on the increase in Bali. I’m not talking about motorbikes, but pushies. Sepeda. Deadly treadlies. Oh, there have always been frighteningly fit expats around who power through the streets, easily keeping pace with nominally-faster motorbikes in our terminally clogged thoroughfares. There have always been those expat women floating serenely through the traffic on their traditional style ladies’ bikes, wearing elegant long flowing dresses and looking utterly unfazed by the heat. And there have always been local kids zooming around on tiny, erratic bug-like things that are obviously an interim stage before they graduate to motorbikes at about 8 years of age. But there seems to have been a quantum leap in the numbers of cyclists recently, and this is getting scary.

Soon after sunset, when the air cools, big pelotons of young riders appear on the roads and continue swooping and darting through traffic until late at night. They seem like organised groups, and are obviously having fun. Most seem to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of road mores – in the sense that they at least – generally – stay to the left. But there is not a helmet to be seen, none of their bikes have lights, and riding three or four abreast seems to be the norm. While I hope fervently that it won’t happen, it is only a matter of time before a car ploughs into one of these nocturnal groups.

Children naturally imitate their elders, so it should have been no surprise for me to encounter such a group in one of the smaller streets in Legian last week. The trouble was, all thirty or so of the tiny riders were in pitch-darkness and all were riding fast. The entire width of the lane was occupied by excited kids looking sideways while yelling happily to each other as they swept around a blind corner, straight at me. I managed to stop my motorbike before any contact, but two of the budding BMXers still ended up wobbling into each other and falling off. Sadly, they both gave me the traditional dirty look reserved for bules in Bali, because naturally, it must have been entirely my fault.

No-one denies the health benefits of bicycle-borne exercise, or that the carbon footprint of a bike and its rider is much smaller than that of a motorbike. Except for the occasional release of methane in an exertion-induced kentut, bicycle riding is generally regarded as more friendly to the environment than motorised transport. And I am the first to encourage it – as long as this laudable pursuit does not go down the same path as it has in Australia.

On my last trip to Melbourne, I arrived on a weekend. I needed to drive to a bayside suburb along a main road which follows the line of the bay. To my surprise, it was completely closed to cars – something that apparently happens every weekend. Not for a scheduled bike race, I hasten to add, just so that recreational riders can use a main arterial road without the hassle of dealing with cars. Cyclists are the only ones who can use the road, causing untold angst to thousands of residents who have to find their way to their destinations through choked back streets that eventually feed into overloaded main roads many kilometres away. Maybe the preponderance of surrealistic Green-dominated local councils has something to do with it. Maybe it’s just that social engineering in Melbourne has finally tipped over the edge into unbridled lunacy. Who knows? While some of those weekend riders are no doubt motivated by opportunities for healthy exercise, many unfortunately give the impression of being self-centred fanatics, if not complete psychopaths.

It wasn’t enough that many of these ‘enthusiasts’ in their visually confronting harlequin-bug costumes saw fit to dominate the only viable thoroughfare, they also took over the side streets. Negotiating those congested minor routes was a nightmare. As well as the displaced cars, these streets also had to cope with clots of angry, Lycra-clad ectomorphs oozing endorphins, and consumed with an irrational rage towards anything on four wheels. They ignored stop signs and traffic lights, cut in, changed lanes without warning, and overtook cars on the left and on the right. Thank the gods that none had mountain bikes, or they would have ridden over the top of my car. Some even thumped my roof as they passed, glaring and yelling “Bloody Cager!” as they passed. Apart from anything else, I resent their hijacking of the motorcyclists’ term of endearment for a car driver. Bloody cheek!

Then, at a roundabout in Elwood, where I was going straight ahead, a pair of suicidal idiots shot past me on my left and promptly turned right across the front of my car. I stopped abruptly, despite a strong urge to keep going and reduce their bikes to scrap metal. Incensed, they promptly yelled abuse at me for daring to get in their way, for daring to drive a car, and for “destroying the planet”. Wow! L’il ol’ me – actually inciting passion in someone. Then, like a disturbed wasp nest, the other riders in the area swarmed to the defence of the aggrieved riders. Several dozen of them immediately entered the roundabout and circled endlessly, screaming epithets at me – and at all the other drivers blocked from entering the intersection. Very mature. After five minutes of this, they apparently decided I had completed my penance and rode off to find other targets.

But that’s Melbourne; this is Bali. So far, cycling here is at the same stage as it was in my youth –  a time of pleasure in healthy physical activity, a time of freedom and joy in self-powered motion. Let’s preserve that if possible; let’s encourage safe cycling through education and socialisation. Let’s do that before cycling becomes a hip fashion, a form of institutionalised arrogance and a cult politicised by inane do-gooders who have no idea of the ramifications of their actions.

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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.