Driving tips from the other side of the world

Photography Credit: Fikri Rasyid

On a recent trip to Indonesia, I had a chance to compare road and driving conditions with those in America. Having never been to that part of the world, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. 

Since the whole Indonesian archipelago is one of the most densely populated areas of the world, I wasn’t too surprised to find traffic far more closely packed than almost any place else I’d ever visited. It was only after a couple of days on the road, traveling in remote rural areas on the mountainous island of Bali as well as in some of the thickest traffic in the world in the city of Jakarta, that I began to appreciate what has to be one of the most gracious and civilized areas of the world. 

I’m sure there are areas and remote islands (Indonesia has more than 17,000!) that could be considered “third world,” but I never saw or experienced anything that compared more favorably than the people and culture of Indonesia. 

What impressed me most was the courtesy, industriousness and artistic sensitivity of all who live there. Everyone seems to be doing something positive, even if there seems to be no financial incentive to do so. 

Since much traffic travels bumper to bumper in a self-limiting 20-35 mph centipede-like flow, it would seem almost impossible to enter the stream from a side street or driveway. 

The solution: hundreds of very brave, self-appointed traffic monitors every few hundred yards. They stand in the middle of this dizzying flow, waving self-made red flags or even twirled rags to stop and redirect traffic. 

Some entering this maelstrom hand out a few rupiah in passing without any seeming acknowledgement of the assistance; there just isn’t time to give it. It’s not as if there’s any expectation or entitlement for the favor, it’s just that it’s the only way motorized life can proceed.

Amazingly, I never saw a police car or even a real traffic cop–or even an ambulance! How this constantly moving mechanical organism survives without human destruction seems a mystery until one realizes it’s the only way millions–with different languages, religions and cultures–all living so close together can survive. 

Very commonly there’s a complete family of four on a scooter, weaving in and out with the flow. Interactive, unspoken courtesy is a way of life. As the tide proceeds, with bikes and cars constantly interacting, seemingly cutting each other off, there’s never a curse, honked horn, angry look, attitude or even any acknowledgement of the incident. It’s just what is. 

After living with the squalor, trash, homelessness and negative attitudes that pervade so much of modern America, the cleanliness and pride of those who live in even the most remote island areas of this part of the world were impressive. 

I spoke with one young car guy who told me that there are some 750 tribal cultures in the island chain where he lives, and all speak different dialects. He was pretty proud that he could converse in six. 

Roads, whether in the hinterlands or in the cities, were generally in great condition, but the traffic wasn’t exactly conducive to traveling much above its naturally created speed limit unless you were on one of the few modern motorways that connect different parts of the country. 

It’s mostly two lanes wherever one goes, but it’s the thousands of motorbikes and their super-skilled riders that really get your attention. They create some five intersecting lanes of a constantly intermingling stream of action that’s so surprising. They aren’t just splitting lanes, as we see here, but moving through the two designated lanes whenever a stoplight halts traffic, with not an aggressive hand signal seen or honk to be heard. 

When the light is finally green, there may be 15 to 30 bikes in front of two rows of cars surging off together in unison. It’s a universal culture in motion that we should learn from.

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Spike415 New Reader
7/22/23 4:06 p.m.

Great insight, thank you!

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