Monday, October 01, 2007

The Lone Biker

We are now halfway through the holy month folks and the holiday season will soon be upon us. In the meantime, spare a thought for Mr. Sheikh Mus Zaphar Shukar, the Malaysian astronaut who will be blasting into space towards the end of Ramadan. This epochal event has produced some serious soul seeking amongst that country's Muslim community. Various newspaper articles have played out the kind of contorted arguments and creaking of metal that usually occurs when the religion mothership attempts to dock with the sleek, high-tech space station of modern science.

Mr Shukar will apparently be orbiting the Earth 16 times in any given 24-hour period but clerics have decreed that he will not be required to pray 80 times per day. He may instead perform his religious duties upon return to Earth. Mind you, it's swings and roundabouts with this story. I mean, if he had to pray 80 times a day at least he'd be able to break his fast 16 times a day. Suddenly things don't seem so bad.

Nevertheless, returning to more terrestrial matters, last Saturday I took a break from my embryonic stem cell research to check out the car free day underway on Jalans Sudirman and Thamrin. A couple of Metro Mads ago I discussed how encouraged I had been after hooking up with some of Jakarta's Bike to Work community and riding my aluminium steed around the city in a show of solidarity with them. This time though, the omens weren't so good.

I switched on the TV before I left the house and a cable news reporter was covering another car free day in China. Gesturing towards the internal combustion engine choked streets behind him he opined that the whole event had fallen somewhat short of being a resounding success. In fact, it seemed that the Chinese had completely ignored the whole thing. So much for their green credentials.

Would Indonesians prove any more responsive to a car free day than those Sino petrol heads? I decided to go and investigate. First though, I had to reach Jl. Sudirman's car free zone via the distinctly un-car free zone of Jl. Gatot Subroto in the centre of town. I donned my pollution mask and hit the road. The mask itself resembles something from World War I but is a vital accessory to have if the budding cyclist is to filter out the chemical soup that hangs heavy in the capital's air. Believe me, the ambient atmosphere is every bit as deadly and astringent as the mustard gas used in the trenches once you start breathing heavily. In fact, I've often considered whether some kind of scuba diving apparatus would be more appropriate or even one of those pressurized steel suits that they use for diving to the bottommost trenches of the ocean.

I descended on to Jl. Sudirman from the Semanggi clover leaf and was immediately greeted by.... loads of cars. It seems that the police had wimped out on the total car ban and had allowed drivers onto the side lanes of Sudirman and Thamrin. Only the centre lanes had been closed off. Bah, humbug. Not a good start I thought. The busway was also running of course so it was a far from emissions free Sudirman that I pedaled along. Nevertheless, it was a deliciously surreal feeling to have the centre of Jl. Sudirman completely to myself whilst the jammed cars crawled slowly along the edges. If only it could be like this every weekend.

I suddenly realized, however, that I did indeed have the central lanes of the road to myself. There were no other cyclists... at all. Where the hell was everybody? It was around then that I started to think that the ecologically indifferent Chinese were not alone in their lack of support for this brave environmental initiative.

Ah well. I decided to have a nice ride anyway and rocked up through Sudirman's skyscrapers along my own private ultra wide cycle lane. Towards the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, I finally came across some other cyclists: a married American couple who seemed as bemused as I was as to the whereabouts of the city's other bikers.

In front of Plaza Indonesia a marquee had been set up but nothing appeared to be going on inside. Ho hum. I continued on up Jl. Thamrin towards the end of the car free zone at Monas (the National monument).

At Monas itself, six emissions testing areas had been set up for cars to use free of charge. These were also somewhat less than a hive of activity though. I only saw one car being tested and staff at the testing stations sat around listlessly, twiddling their thumbs. Mind you, it doesn't take any high-tech equipment to be able to spot the city's dirtiest vehicles, one can simply see the clouds of soot that billow out of their exhausts. Any guesses?

Yes, as we all know the great Jakarta punchline is that the filthiest vehicles by far are public transportation. How embarrassing. I mean it's all very well getting 40 passengers in one vehicle but if that one vehicle is emitting 40 times the normal amount of pollutants then what's the point?

The answer? New fleets of buses of course. However, that's going to take money from a city budget that is largely leaked away through the sieve of corruption.

I cycled dejectedly back down to Semanggi feeling betrayed by my fellow citizens. At the cloverleaf junction I stopped next to a drinks vendor for some refreshment. I introduced myself as disgraced Tour de France winner Floyd Landis but alas the guy didn't offer me any testosterone injections or shots of human growth hormone... although he did claim that his bottles of Cola cost Rp.8000 each, the cheeky swine.

Then it dawned on me as I slurped away. Of course! It's the fasting month! No one's going to fancy a sweaty cycle when they can't drink are they? Nice planning Mr Sutiyoso!!