I rode a friend’s dirtbike a couple times when I was 16. Flash forward ten years when I almost crashed my friend Alan’s Vespa into a car in the same driveway. That was my last attempt on two wheels before renting a scooter and putting my fiancee on the back. The guy who rented it to me ($9 total for 3 days plus gas) though explained how to honk the horn (very necessary) and how to store the helmets. I asked where the gas tank was he looked at me with one skeptical eyebrow raised and said, “Why don’t you try first?” I went about 30 shaky feet before he yelled stop and Erika hopped on saying, “you know you were on the wrong side of the road, right?” Indonesia drives on the left.
In Jogyakarta, the exhaust of the motorbike in front of me feels like a hot blowdryer on the right shin of my planted foot. The exhaust of the bike next to that is angled at my chest. It’s already 90+ degrees outside, but I don’t know what’s worse; the heat of the 30+ bikes surrounding me, or the dizzying smell of oil, fuel, and whatever that black dust is coming from the idling bus. The red light’s countdown clock has gone from 90 down to 5 and the swarm of scooters accelerates towards the red light passing between the last cars crossing the road. Here bikes rule the road, and the cars are seen as idling snails in the road. The insane amout of traffic is terrifying to look at through the winshield of a car, but on a bike, all available space is dedicated to forward mobility, including any being taken up by pedestrians.
In Bali (specifically, Kuta, Legian, Seminyak, and Denpasar), one can go through dozens of intersections without seeing a single traffic light. The moment, a small gap presents itself, the anticipation and sheer will of motorists takes over as they dart out to moderate the flow of traffic. It’s terror and exhilaration blended together that give one the confidence necessary to never hesitate when things get crazy. One night, me and hundreds more drove most of the 6km ride on sidewalks and the center line of the road, dodging pedestrians, restaurant carts, cars and other scooters.
The bus is almost as fun, you get all the same smells, but in a more confined space. Ocassionally the bus stops in traffic on the side of the road and just waits, 5…10…15 minutes goes by and then we roll. No idea why, it’s something one just has to accept to stay sane in the crazy transportation world of Indonesia. The local bus we took up to the town of Kaliurang (to see Mt. Merapi) was about the size of a VW van. Except remove all of the hippie interior paneling, replace the spring seats with wodden benches covered with fabric, add downpouring rain, two American travelers who are a foot taller than everyone else, their gigantic backpacks the size of one Indonesian woman, and then 15 people, driver included, and all of their smally items from the market. We felt bad we took the bus. We should have saved everyone else the hassle and just paid for a taxi (which we did on the way home). Yet seeing the country like this is what traveling is about because halfway into the ride, everyone had gotten out, and it felt empty and less alive. When congestion and chaos are the norm, silence is not always golden.
*Traveler Tip: To rent a motorcycle in Indonesia you should pay between 35,000-40,000 Rp. One liter of gas will cost you 5,000 Rp. While Bali was not the best place to learn to ride a motorbike, Jogyakarta was as people obeyed traffic laws a bit more. If you are taking the bus from Jogya up to Kaliurang, go to the Giwangan bus terminal and catch the #7. It leaves every ten minutes and should cost about 2,000-3,000 Rp/person. Tell them you are going to Kaliurang and after about 15 minutes you will switch buses. They will tell you which one and you’ll have to cross the road. The second bus costs 10,000 Rp and takes 1 hour to arrive at Kaliurang. We recommend staying at Vogels hostel. We will have a separate post for Vogels.