Thursday, October 05, 2006

Get Your Motor Running, Head Out On the Highway

The purgatory of Jakarta’s ceaseless traffic jams has been hitting the headlines recently. Various solutions, both potentially beneficial and downright laughable, have been tabled:- more busways, special number plates, Mag. Lev. monorails, Kancils, car sharing schemes, 4 stroke pogo sticks, fuel cell powered space hoppers, etc. etc. However, there is one rather more conventional, tried and trusted way to slip through the gridlock: park ya glutes on a motorbike and yell “Banzaiiiii!” as the city’s road turn Kamikaze.

Biking through Jakarta is a good way to save yourself both time and money, it's also a good way to get yourself killed but maybe we should go with the positives first. Time wise you can cut journeys in half or maybe more when the traffic is backed up. The cars maybe bumper-to-bumper, going nowhere fast, but usually bikes can slip down the gap between the cars and the pavement in first or second gear. This demands a certain amount of concentration, granted, as it involves dodging potholes, Baso trolleys and bastards riding motorbikes in the opposite direction on the wrong side of the road. It sometimes feels as if you're playing a videogame or cruising down a Star Wars Death Star trench in an X-wing fighter, although sadly without any guided missiles to help you clear a path through the flotsam. Those thankfully rare occasions on which your bike is trapped with the cars in the gridlock and can't puncture its way through are not pleasant at all, it has to be said, and an aqualung would probably come in handy.

Money wise, you can fill your bike's fuel tank for around Rp.20,000 or less and you won't have to go back for more for a week. How far can you get in a taxi for Rp.20,000 these days? In addition, bikes here are relatively cheap to buy (usually costing between Rp.10,000,000 and Rp.20,000,000) can be bought on credit (even by itinerant foreigners), are cheap to maintain and retain their value pretty well when sold second-hand.

Saving time and money are quite abstract considerations however. If one is going to attempt the Jakarta motorcycle experience, one has to be aware of the physical realities of sitting on two wheels and careering through a maze of cars. You have to put up with other road users for a start. Cars are actually, in the urban setting, the least of your worries and seem slow and lugubrious next to a bike. Buses are another matter. Apparently Jakarta's buses are required to pass an emissions test. I'm not sure exactly what kind of test this is, although seemingly it is one in which a bus is not allowed on the road unless its emissions are above a certain level. The benchmark for this test is that if you are able to see the back of the bus through the exhaust clouds, it has to stay at the depot until a mechanic gets round to topping up the carburetor with a bag of soot. A biker’s worst enemies however are probably other bikers. Some of these boy racers come within a couple of millimeters of you when overtaking and overall, a defensive riding style is probably the best to adopt on the city's roads. Finally, of course, there is the rain. The combination of Jakarta's heavy precipitation and any kind of movement at speed ensures that you get soaked to the skin within about 20 seconds of a shower starting. I used to favor one of those billowing ponchos for the purposes of keeping dry and, in combination with my helmet, I found that I could emerge from a shower pretty much unscathed (apart from soggy socks and trouser bottoms). However, since a biking friend of mine was pulled off his machine after the trailing back of his poncho got caught in his rear wheel and the thing ended up half strangling him, I have reverted to the waterproof trousers and jacket combination. That said, a wet arse is pretty much something you have to get used to in the rainy season.

All this is not to say that biking can't be fun, but for me, it's mainly a utilitarian activity, a way of getting from A to B. I don't consider myself a "Biker" per se as I find myself unwilling to gain the 30 kg in weight, grow the facial hair and purchase the hoary, old Seventies rock music necessary to join the biker gangs of rich expats that you occasionally see roaring around town on their Harleys sounding like a swarm of mosquitoes the size of 747s. Conversely, the all-too-familiar site of a local family of ten balanced on a scooter, as if in a world record attempt, all helmet-less aside from the father, also fills me with grave misgivings about the whole biking project.

On a more affirmative note, it's cool to ride around town at night and enjoy a magical mystery tour or a speedometer shattering suicidal death trip, depending on what kind of mood you're in. After around 10 PM you really are the king of the road, although it's harder to avoid any police checkpoints with a lighter load of traffic on the city's highways. Having recently, finally, obtained a driving license, I no longer have to run the gauntlet of the police roadblock or get stung for Rp.50,000. Yes, I’m now a fully licensed mental case and free to take my place among the utter loons driving around the city’s streets. Getting hold of a driving license in Indonesia is a purely pragmatic measure. I feel no guilt at not having got my hands on one earlier as acquiring a driving license in this country doesn't seem to involve the passing of any actual driving test…Still…stay safe everyone and if I'm not back next week, you’ll know what's happened.

Simon Pitchforth