On the road

It’s about time I wrote a little bit about driving in Indonesia. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in a car recently, which is not a bad place to learn about the rules of the road.

Most Indonesians ride motorcycles, which sometimes serve as family vehicles. Small children sit or stand in front of the driver, between their parents or potentially on someone’s shoulders. Older kids hold on in the back. Babies are wrapped in a sling. Once I saw a mom spoon feeding her baby while the dad drove. It’s not unusual to see a family of five on a single motorcycle, but people aren’t the only thing they convey. If it’s not kids hanging off the sides, it’s sugarcane, grains, furniture or even animals.

Of course there are also plenty of cars on the road as well. In my area I see a lot of SUVs, which have advantages and disadvantages. There are potholes here and there, which make an SUV a more comfortable ride than a compact car, but Indonesian roads are relatively narrow, which can make maneuverability an issue. Then again, an SUV can handle the unpaved, often rocky roadside, which offers some leeway.

Buses and angkots (smaller buses) are also a common sight. When they’re not hurtling down the street, they do stop—or at least slow down—to let passengers on and off. Then there are the trucks, bicycles and pedestrians, more often than not all laden to capacity. If you’re looking for a sidewalk, you might find one in a bigger city.

Indonesians drive on the left—and on the right. It’s hard to say how many lanes of traffic there are. Driving is, for all intents and purposes, synonymous with passing. If you’re driving, you’re passing. A quick honk or two of the horn to say I’m coming! and you’re good to go. Even if the guy in front of you is already trying to pass the guy in front of him, no problem! Just go faster, but remember that the same thing is probably happening in the oncoming traffic. In general, Indonesian drivers are very aware of their surroundings. They have to be.

I have seen some speed limit signs, but I think speed limits are probably dangerous to enforce. In general, it’s the laws of physics that define how fast you go. Intersections are a good place to slow down. Free-for-all might be an exaggeration, but not by much. Traffic lights exist, but they’re more of a suggestion. Most people do seem to follow the suggestion, but it’s best to expect the unexpected. If you’re looking to turn right, you might decide to get on the right side of the road a little early.

I almost forgot the traffic conductors. At some particularly tricky intersections, you might see some guys in reflective vests conducting the orchestra that is Indonesian traffic. If you want to turn right, the guy with the whistle will help you out. Don’t forget to tip! Just hand the guy with the bucket a few (thousand) rupiah and you’re all set. Some shops have their own team of parking facilitators / crossing guards that will stop traffic long enough for you to get back on the road or help you cross the street.

I personally prefer to get around on my mountain bike. It’s ideal for when I have to hop off the road for a minute to let some trucks pass in both directions. I still get a little nervous on the road, but a little nervousness is good. Otherwise, I’ve adjusted much better than I had expected to.

In this post I’ve said Indonesia this and Indonesian that, but these are just my first impressions of a small part of this immense country. I’m looking forward to exploring more.

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