The Reluctant Biker
“Your karma just ran over my dogma.”
My heart was pounding, palms clammy. It was time to learn how to ride a motor scooter in Bali. I was never much of a biker type, unless you count my mountain bike. But here in Bali, it is almost essential to rent a motor scooter if you want to see the sights. The roads around Ubud, on the other hand, are a story unto themselves. Ancient volcanoes carved deep valleys, while numerous rivers created even deeper verdant gorges. Roads twist and turn around blind corners, the effect akin to a roller coaster, and one can only marvel at the engineering feat required to keep many of these goat paths open for driving.
Motorbikes are very cheap to rent, less than $3/day long term, a full tank of gas costs less than $2 (Indonesia being a major world producer of oil). There are no shortages of places that will facilitate rentals for you; motorbike leasing companies seem to be on every corner here in Ubud.
In point of fact, two-wheeled scooters are the preferred mode of travel for most locals, given the high cost of automobiles in this part of the world. Despite the high cost of cars, it is nonetheless surprising to witness the variety of motor vehicles on the roadways – everything from smart cars and similar sub-compacts to monster size SUV Esplanades and Hummers.
To drive in Bali, one must embrace the new normal. Local rules of the road are completely foreign to those of us accustomed to western driving. In fact hopping on a scooter or motorbike here is akin to learning a new language, and many an uninitiated traveler has paid a heavy price for thinking it is a simple matter to rent a moped or scooter and head off into the rice paddies to take in the scenery. All too common are stories of serious injury- and even death- due to all the hazards that await the rank beginner tackling Bali’s roads.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of a road being of two lanes with a dividing line down the middle. Drivers understand it is vitally important to keep to their side of the road, at their peril; now through that concept out here in Bali. Begin with extremely narrow roads- perhaps able to barely accommodate two cars. Then it is necessary to divide this into at least five lanes, as follows (Balinese adhere to the British system of right side steering – which is rather odd considering the country was colonized by the Dutch- go figure!)
Two Normal Traffic Lanes: These are loosely defined as the left and right traffic routes, but actually have little bearing on how traffic actually flows
Middle Lane: This is used for passing and weaving into and out of on-coming traffic at ludicrous speeds, coming as close as possible to vehicles approaching from the opposite direction as one’s nerves will allow.
Shoulder Lanes: Best used for merging into the normal traffic lanes from the wrong side, also used for passing, driving the wrong way on one way roads (which really takes some getting used to I might add), the storage of building materials, including dirt, sand, rocks, piles without safety cones that often spill into the middle of the road – really fun at night!; may also feature giant potholes without warning, trucks and cars parked into the roadway with little regard for driver safety, pedestrians balancing all manner of agricultural and handicraft products on their heads, food vending carts selling such delicacies as Sate and the ever popular soup Bakso Ayam, bicycle riders, dogs squatting next to the road ready to pounce without warning, ducks, chickens and chicks scrambling.
As a sidebar, it is important to load the moto (nickname for scooters and motorcycles) with as many people as possible (usually two but up to five), based on family size (the Asian station wagon).
But here is the most important rule – it is what we have dubbed the “first one there.” It applies to intersections, to merging, to rounding corners at breakneck speed. Whoever gets there first rules the road, so it is necessary to adjust accordingly. This can be a hair-raising experience but soon everyone gets into the groove because everyone plays by the same rules. Busy traffic intersections can seem terrifying until you learn your place in the line, then it is simply a case of every man for himself. What few traffic lights that exist are often considered a recommendation for motos, depending on traffic volume.
Now picture traffic flowing in both directions. Male Balinese teens and 20-somethings on ultra-fast crotch rockets and muscle machines weaving in and out of traffic in an attempt to break the sound barrier, requiring perfect timing less they be consigned to the “donor-cycle” circuit; massive buses and dump trucks negotiating lanes ill-suited for their size (see above); moto drivers texting and/or smoking while steering with one hand, laden with all manner of stuff, including ladders, picture frames, mattresses – you name it we’ve seen it on a moto! Turning left and right at seemingly impossible intervals as traffic surges toward you.
Add in the constant and sudden downpours, the instant donning of rain parkas and the inability to see through the helmet visor. Landslides, mudholes, giant puddles or small ponds in the middle of the road.
Now drive as fast as you can.
You will be wide awake as soon as you enter the merging lane, better than a cup of super strong local coffee, and after a couple of bumps jar your tailbone into your belly button, you’ll know exactly what they mean when they say that there are no atheists on Asian roads.
You will however be rewarded with superlative scenery, especially on the back roads north of Ubud. And the plethora of handicraft shops along the roads around Ubud and Mas, spilling onto the sidewalk, including giant stone and wood carvings that boggle the mind.
After a couple of months, riding around on a moto has become “normal,” we seem to fit right in, but always keeping in mind: don’t take your eye off the road!
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