Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fossil Fuel Folly

Recently, I resolved rather masochistically to take some driving lessons. Now I know that I've been a great advocate for the humble but green bicycle in previous MMs but rest assured that I will continue to pedal to work in the future as there's nothing better than arriving at the office wringing wet with perspiration. Now that my motorcycle days are behind me though I thought I would at least try to belatedly acquire a skill that most normal Westerners learn before they are 20 (I'm 21 now you understand). On the other hand, learning to drive just as global oil prices head for the carbon dioxide filled stratosphere is just the kind of perverse, if not downright imbecilic idea that has made be a household name the length and breadth of Mampang.

This was to be a test of mettle, an assault course on my psyche and mental resilience. If I can drive a car in Jakarta, I theorized, then I can drive one anywhere. After scouring the Internet I eventually procured the address of a local driving school in East Jakarta, the cheesy side of town. I bagged a Bluebird taxi to the hallowed Institute of learning in question and soon found myself in the 2 meter by 3 meter room that constituted the driving school's office. After assuring the slightly taken aback lady in charge that I would be able to follow their instructor’s Indonesian commands I handed over a reasonably small amount of hard earned Rupiah and quickly found myself behind the wheel of a modified and rather dilapidated Kijang.

"Okay Sir, just pull out into the traffic," my guru intoned chirpily. "Err... right," I nervously answered, staring at the bumper to bumper chaos seething outside the car park. Then I crawled slowly onto the main road at the kind of pace that would have seen me burned off by Stephen Hawking in his motorized wheelchair. As our trusty Kijang was swallowed by the traffic and we pottered along in second gear, I fought down a wave of rising panic and nausea. "I'm going to crash! I'm going to hit something!" I thought. I had a strong premonition that I would presently hit the back of a Metro Mini bus and that the driver would then jump out and remonstrate with me with his fists.

The motorbikes swarmed around me as if operated by riders dosed up on the kind of pills that have a warning about not operating heavy machinery printed on the packet. My biking days are over though. Now I was on the other side of the windscreen. In fact I had entered the realm in which my worst enemy would be motorbikes. When I had had a bike myself, in contrast, my worst enemy hang on... it was other motorbikes now that I come to think of it.

Yes the bikes swarm around the unsuspecting car driver like drowsy wasps at a barbecue. The ostensibly simple task of turning left proved to be the hardest trick to master as the bikers, apparently oblivious to my indicator signals, continued to stream past me on my curbside like machine-gun bullets.

Then we hit the back streets. These are the real test of one's driving chops. Most of the city's backstreets aren't actually wide enough for two lanes of traffic and thus all kinds of maneuverings, swervings and stampings on brakes are continually required. Add in the open sewers at the side of the road waiting to snare unsuspecting drivers, the pedestrians impeding one's car due to the lack of pavements and the often lunar type road surface and you have yourself one extreme sport type experience. Nintendo should release a game called Jakarta Driver.

Infinite reserves of Zen like patience are required if you are to negotiate the city streets in an automobile without running over an old lady balancing a basket of bottles on her head or a group of soccer loving school kids. Occasionally, I felt my serenity wearing thin and I suspect that there must also be other drivers in Jakarta whose innermost cathartic desire is to steam through a Soto Ayam (chicken soup) roadside Warung with their arses on fire at 90 km an hour , screaming like Zulu warriors as diners scatter or are crushed mercilessly beneath Bridgestone tyres.

And there we must end psychotherapy for this week. As for the driving, well I'm not doing too badly now, however with oil prices soaring the world over this little scheme of mine may well have been doomed from the off. Apparently beer is now cheaper than petrol in many Western countries and consequently the iconic slogan, "Don't drink and drive," should perhaps be changed to the ironic, "Drink... don't drive." Nevertheless, I hope to take a spin out in the country soon, once I've mastered the art of trundling around the city's atrophying arteries. Its 2008 though, whatever happened to the future? They really should have invented spaceships by now.