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22.6.10

Hawg Heaven

Indonesia is, by far, the motorcycling-est place I've ever been. The average red light in Jakarta makes Sturgess look like a distant wanna-be in the world of motor-rallies.

This post was inspired by seeing a Jakarta record of five people on a motorcycle yesterday afternoon. The all-time record still belongs to Balikpapan, with a whopping six souls on a single bike: two kids on the running board, dad at the helm, mom on the tail, one kid between them, and a babe-in-arms. But record-setting numbers of people are only the beginning of the story. Motorcycles in Indonesia are workhorses, as well as necessities.

Jakarta is a highly compact city. In area, it is about one-quarter the size of Houston, Texas, but it has a stable population of about 12 million, with more coming every day. Since Jakarta is the center of commerce in Indonesia, many folks set out to find fame and fortune in this ant pile. Because of the sheer density of people and buildings, traffic here is a round-the-clock affair that not even Rome or Mexico City can outmatch. The density of vehicles on the road means a motorcycle is the most efficient way to get around. It is also cheap to buy and operate, features which appeal to the average Indonesian. Furthermore, in accidents, the law favors the smaller vehicle, so a surviving cyclist has a better than even chance of collecting on the deal.

Traffic in Jakarta is amazing. Streets are narrow and follow no discernible grid or logic. Traffic control is achieved primarily through the use of U-turns and one-way streets, which means you can end up driving several kilometers to cross the street. Where there is a red light, a fair number of folks simply ignore it. Consequently, Jakarta spends the hours between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. in a sort of fluid grid-lock. Traffic moves, but you'd get a bigger thrill from watching molasses flow in January.

Further enhancing the effect is the fact that the outer fringes of every street have a constant flow of push-carts, bicycles and pedestrians (sidewalks, if they exist, are a nightmare obstacle course, so most prefer the relative smoothness of the street). Topping all of these factors is the Indonesian philosophy of driving, which is to get from Point A to Point B without coming to a full and complete stop along the way.

These factors combine to make a motorcycle the most efficient means of travel across the city, and indeed, acros the nation. A bike is able to weave in and out of traffic, use sidewalks and pedestrian cross-overs, slide the wrong way down the edge of busy streets, and get cheaper and easier parking. A motorcycle can make the trip across town in half the time and a fraction of the cost of a taxi or car. Every red light looks like a shotgun start at a Moto-X event, as the bikes wend and weave their way to the front of the line and roar out ahead of the pack as soon as the light turns the palest shade of green. As a pedestrian, you do not want to be caught in the crosswalk at this point.

Indonesians are so cheap, they'd make a Scotsman blush. They can pinch a penny and turn it into a dollar, where a Scotsman only gets a dime. For this reason, motorcycles are the mode of choice. Entry into the market will set you back about $1,000, versus 15 times that for a low-end car. The norm is a 125cc bike, with the occasional 150, and even the rare Harley or two. However, over 150 the taxes and insurance rates go up steeply. For the most part, no one carries liability. Insurance is only used to cover vehicles while they are being paid off. In an accident, there is no "later," you usually pay cash to the injured party on the spot.

Tags last 10 years with an annual renewal fee. The annual inspection, such as it is, determines whether you show up to pay the fee or not. This puts bikes at a price-point that even an Indonesian can love, while providing all the benefits of personal mobility. Therefore, the motorcycle has become the workhorse of Indonesian life.

In addition to carrying obscene numbers of people on a single bike, Indonesians use them for just about everything from trucks to mobile shops. I have seen 30-foot bamboo poles, car windshields, mobile kitchens, and hardware stores all mounted on motorcycles. In the case of large deliveries, one man drives and the other holds the object, such as a windshield, lumber, parcels, and other unwieldy things. Others have their shops or wares built onto the back of the bike, such as a stove and storage for cooking, or bread boxes, pizza delivery and, in the case of some, an entire selection of brooms, mops, brushes, buckets and spray bottles. This latter example comes in a jumble a full six feet high and four feet wide; an impossible arrangement that looks ready to explode into a housewife's dream at any moment.

I have seen live goats and ducks tied rather comically onto the backs of bikes. One example took me several takes to fully appreciate. He had 10 ducks bundled and draped over the seat like saddlebags, with all the heads facing rear. As he drove down the street, the back of the bike seemed to have Dali-esque streamers coming off the back. You had to be there.

Another attraction for motorcycles is Indonesian law, which favors the smaller vehicle in any altercation. For this reason, a biker stands to fair better in any accident short of bicycle or pedestrian, assuming he or she survives the encounter. Since the norm is to pay damages in cash at the scene, odds are on the side of the motorcycle. In the case of bike-on-bike wrecks, it usually leads to one of Indonesia's favorite spectator sports: Who's Fault Is It? Large crowds gather, witnesses are paid, sides are taken, and the show is on. For normally stoic Indonesians, this is about as emotional as things get outside the national badminton tournament.

Accidents occur frequently. Hardly a month goes by that you don't get news of someone in the hospital or dying from a crash. I've witnessed and heard of some rather horrific screw-ups. It's unavoidable, given the sheer volume and chaos of Jakarta traffic. At its best, driving here is one of the finest forms of enlightened anarchy I have ever seen. At one time, I was convinced that traffic in Rome was the most insane contests I had witnessed, but Jakarta eclipses Rome by orders of magnitude. Things that in Texas would get you shot instantly are commonplace here, and for the most part, Indonesians are amazingly dispassionate about it all. Sure, there's horn blowing that makes the World Cup look quiet, but it is done not in anger or frustration, but because that's just the way things are done.

I've never witnessed road-rage, even in the most extreme cases. Operating a vehicle here, and even just walking, requires a level of detachment that borders on Zen perfection. Driving in Jakarta requires a skill and patience that is unheard of in American life. Through all of the chaos and smoke, the motorcycle putts along, the center of Indonesian transportation and commerce. Without it, life here would slam to a halt.

For that reason, I nominate Indonesia as Hawg Heaven...the biker's dream.

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