Here Thar Be Monsters!

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30.11.10

Herding Cats

Damn this traffic jam
How I hate to be late
It hurts my motor to go so slow
Damn this traffic jam
Time I get home my supper'll be cold
Damn this traffic jam

Now if I die, I don't want a coffin,
I've thought about it all too often,
Just strap me in behind the wheel
and bury me in my automobile.

- chorus -

Now I almost had a heart attack
Looking in my rear view mirror
I saw myself the next car back
Looking in the rear view mirror
'bout to have a heart attack
- Traffic Jam, James Taylor

Rome? Nope.
Paris? Child's play.
London? Piffle.
Beijing? Trifle.
New York? Child's play.
Los Angeles? Don't make me laugh!
Mexico City? Not even close!

The traffic in Jakarta can bring all of you to your knees! And I don't say that in theory, I have sat in and dodged through the worst that each of those cities has to offer, and trust me, you ain't seen nothing!

Eve my dear home city of Houston, during a massive flood when freeways are closed and arteries are hopelessly clogged doesn't compare to rush hour in Jakara. Lest you think I exaggerate, then consider this:

Jakarta has called in the army (TNI) to help fix the problem.

Now that's almost a late-nite stand-up joke. You know it's bad when you call the army to direct traffic.

There are so many reasons for the problem, it is hard to know where to begin: corruption, lack of mass transit, road conditions, weather.

One of the major reasons is just a complete, profound and utter disregard for traffic laws. Not that I'm complaining really, because it is a source of entertainment for me. Motorcycles drive anywhere and everywhere: sidewalks, pedestrian bridges, alleyways, and all over the roadways. Red lights are a mild suggestion. People stop in the middle of the road to take phone calls and send text messages. Motor vehicles share the road with a dizzying array of pedalled and pushed carts. Pedestrians march out into traffic with little regard for cross-walks. Motorists pay little attention to cross-walks. Buses drop off and pick up pretty much anywhere they please, including the inside, middle and outside lanes. Special lanes designated for the sole use of TransJakarta are clogged with every form of private conveyance imaginable.

In other words, the streets of Jakarta are thinly veiled, complete, anarchical chaos!

I personally only use ojek, which are motorcycles taxis. Supposedly they are illegal, which only means that there are thousands of them, waiting in groups at key locations, with large signs that read, "OJEK," in big, hand-pained block letters. Every day, I am treated to a game of bumper-cars, sometimes to the point of severe bruising on my legs, as we bounce around in traffic. I have sailed down the wrong way of a very budy 3-lane road, at night, doing 40 kph with push-carts, bicycles, pedetrians, cars, and buses flying at me. I have ridden up and down sidewalks, through drainage ditches, over pedestran bridges...it's very exciting.

Motorcycles are like flies on shit here. They are cheap and manuverable, so thousands of people buy them as alternatives to sitting for hours in a car to go a handful of kilometers. The irony is, that many people use motorcycles are a way to get around congestion, but there are so many now that they become one of the major problems with congestion. Of the very entertaining sights in Jakarta traffic, one of the best are those 'pink' lights. The cars generally come to a rolling stop for them, but the motorcycles wend and weave through the cars and pile up at the head end like a shotgun start to a rural moto-cross event. When the light turns to the right shade of 'pink', they all fly out into the intersection and begin honking horns madly at the cross-traffic who didn't bother to stop for the other 'pink' light. If any of my fridnds are family come to visit, the first order of business will be to put them on an ojek and send them across the city on what will likely be one of the seminal events of their lives.

Another problem with Jakarta traffic is just the sheer numbers of transportation options. There are private cars and motorcycles, of course, but there are also private and public buses, mikrolets and ankot (like Chevy Suburbans with bench seats in the back), bajaj (auto-rickshaws), baijek (pedalled rick-shaws), delman (horse carts), and pedestrians. The sidewalks are crammed full of street vendors, so people have to walk in the streets. The various forms of public transportation don't have regular stops, so they come to complete halts pretty much anywhere they please. The smaller rick-shaws are like berserkers, liable to turn, stop or reverse direction without warning.

The TransJakarta is half of a good idea. They are very nice and clean and cheap, BUT they have no posted schedule and there are precious few route maps in any of the stops or on the buses, so you can where you are going and what stop is next. They are supposed to have an announcement system on-board, but it is manually operated by the driver and only works about half the time. During peak times (sun up to sun down) the buses are so jammed packed that you couldn't fall down if you got a running start at it. Furthermore, the bus lanes that are supposed to be exclusive to make the busway more attractive simply serve as express lanes for every form of vehicle known to man. On the best days, they are turn lanes, thus bringing the busway to a dead standstill.

Back in 2000, the city launched the Millennium Monorail project, which got as far as building a bunch of pylons in certain parts of the city before the contractors absconded with all the money. They tried a second time and that was even more abortive. Now people are stealing the exposed re-bar for melt, even as the city is talking of reviving the project.

There is commuter rail, of a sort. Trains run between the city center and large suburban centers, such as Bogor. They even have a posted schedule, which primarily serves to give travelers false hope. One of the major problems with the rail service is that people steal the rails and sell them for melt, or to contractors who in turn get money to re-install the rails. On good days, the trains run fairly close to a regular schedule, but on many days its just a crap0-shoot.

One of the key problems here is Ipardon me while I laugh hysterically) law enforcement. To set this scene, I have litterally been in the car when people just roll up the window and drive away from cops because the cops are just nit-picking to get bribe money. In three years, I have seen one person actually get a traffic ticket. Most of the time, the driver simply pops Rp.20,000 into their registration book and hands it to the cop, who thanks them with a warning and waves them back into traffic (by the way, the standard bribe for white people is Rp.50,000 - don't pay more). If there's an accident, you must pay the cops to show up and take a report. If someone is injured, or God forbid killed, you must not stop, but run immediately to the nearest police station for your own safety. Trust me.

In addition to the lack of real enforcement, the law itself is quite flawed. In an accident, the smaller vehicle is always the injured party. The natural result of this is that motorcycles have little or no regard for cars, and cars will cut off trucks and buses without a thought, since the larger vehicle will be held at fault, no matter what the circumstance. That goes for pedestrians, as well. If someone crosses a busy freeway and gets hit (inevitably) by the fast-moving and non-stop traffic, then the driver is at fault. Always. Even at night when the pedestrian is wearing black clothes and there is no street lighting because someone stole the copper wiring so they could sell it back to the city.

That brings us to the two big wild cards in all this mess (if that can be said of the extant situation): weather and location.

The weather, of course, can not be changed. It is subject to the typical tropical situation in that there are two primary seasons, Wet and Dry. That's not to say it doesn't rain in Dry season, only that by comparison, the Dry rains are weak cousins to the torrential, ark-building events in the Wet season. We are currently in the middle of Wet, which means you can set your watch by the afternoon and evening deluges that are perfectly timed with rush hour (not that rush hour is much different from 3 a.m., mind you). Wild lightning and thunder are accompanied by blinding rainfall that quickly overwhelms the legacy Dutch canals and city storm sewers, which are crammed full of garbage, which piles up and dams off grates and the intricate system of locks that control the canals. Almost immediately, the streets and rivers fill and overflow, so that within minutes everyone is ankle deep or worse in water. Naturally, traffic grinds to a complete halt, further exacerbated by the thousands of motorcycles that jam up under overpasses for shelter.

On top of this issue is Jakarta's location. You see, Jakarta is built on the deltas of a couple of rivers that drain out of the mountains sourth of the city. Most of Jakarta is at or below sea level, the sea being the entire northern border of the city. If there is heavy rains in the mountains (almost daily year 'round), there is a frighening wall of water that rushes down out of the mountains and inundates Jakarta. If those rains are accompanied by heavy rains in the city (almost weekly), well, you can imagine the situation. For those reasons, everything in my house sits on tables one foot off the floor.

Trust me when I say that this only scratches the surface of the problem here. I haven't even mentioned the world-famous 'force field,' whereby pedestrians simply march into speeding traffic while sticking their hand out in the general direction of hurdling masses of steel and expect it to stop or go around them. Nor have I mentioned that streets with two painted lanes have four actual lanes of traffic in the posted direction, two couter-flow lanes on the outside edge, and a melange of pedestrians outside of that.

So, now when I tell you that the city has called in the army to assist with the traffic situation, instead of laughing at the obsurdity of that statement, you may be nodding your head in agreement. It truly is one of the modern wonders of the world. I highly recommend everyone come and experience it, because you will return home knowing that the worst your local area can throw at you is nothing compared to the daily commute of a Jakartan. Not only is the the chaos a thing to behold, but the fact that people face it daily with such dispassion and resignation!

So now I point you back to the title of this column, "Herding Cats." Make a mental picture of that, if you will. Now you know what daily life in Jakarta is like, and it is much the same through-out the country, though magnitudes smaller in scale. Oh, how I miss those six lanes of insanity around the Coliseum in Rome!

Next time you are cursing the traffic at home, think about this: if you can open the door and step out, then it can always get worse. If you haven't bumped into two other vehicles in the last ten minutes, then it can always get worse. If the two feet between the front of your car and the back of the next is not crammed full of motorcycles and pedestrians, it can always get worse. And if your city has a public transportation system, with a posted schedule and way-finder maps, and it keeps fairly close to that, then it most certainly can get worse. And IF, in your city, people general follow the rules, and the rules are enforced by a professional police staff, then you are NOT in Jakarta, my friend!

Mexico City, eat your heart out!

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