Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Buses, Angkots, and Sepeda Motors

I may have mentioned to some of you that driving in Indonesia is wack. For those whom I haven't told: driving in Indonesia is wack.

Some adjectives, in the order they come into my head: dangerous, curvy, congested, pollution-y, under-regulated, exhilarating, nauseating, farcical, baffling, and completely fitting.

Some facts...
  • About 70% of vehicles on the road are motorcycles, or sepeda motor in local parlance.
  • Roads are hardly ever wider than one lane for each direction, and often there are no lane markings.
  • Speed limits do not exist, as far as I know.
  • The law requires motorcyclists to wear helmets…
  • (And) the legal driving age is probably 17 or 18…
  • (But) there are no traffic police.
  • Public transport options on roads include:
  1. Angkot: A smallish van (perhaps three meters long and 1.5 meters wide) with a cab in front and a compartment with benches in the rear.
  2. Becak: A buggy pulled by a hardworking little man on a bicycle.
  3. Bus: You think you know what this is.
  4. Dokar (aka Kereta Kuda): Horse and buggy. This does still exist here in some places.

Motorcyles - Verboten

All Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to ride on motorcycles. Period. Worldwide, a number of PCVs have been killed in accidents, so some years ago Peace Corps made this a global policy, with the single exception of Cambodia, where you literally may not be able to do your work if you don't hop on a motorcycle sometimes. As inconvenient as this can be at times, I'm with Peace Corps on this one. Motorcycles are dangerous as hell, and considering the way people drive here, better not to deal with them at all.

Motorcyclists are required to wear a helmet by law. In practice, maybe half of them do. It's more common in the city, where there's a minor chance of being seen by police who might fine you. Outside of cities, helmets are like seat belts: some people always wear them, and some people just never got in the habit. While on the subject of laws that nobody pays attention to…(segue)…driving age! I've seen boys that could not possibly be 12 years old driving motorbikes and smoking cigarettes with one or two giggling friends hanging on the back. Kids with glinting impish eyes and squeaky little voices that call out "Mister!" as they zoom by. I mean, their feet can't reach the ground and barely make it to the footholder things. The first couple times I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.

The real scandal with motorcycles is that it is absolutely typical to see three or more packed on simultaneously. Two is usual, three is normal, four is in no way remarkable. The most I have seen is five, which is quite rare and perversely breathtaking, both for its sheer recklessness and as a cheeky rebuff to standard American notions of vehicular capacity (I mean, what exactly are they sitting on?). And when four or five people are on one bike, at least two of them are not wearing helmets. Those two are usually children, sometimes infants strapped to mother's chest and nestled between parental torsos.



In a city, the best way to get around is by angkot. Angkots run back and forth along set routes. You can flag them down at any point on the route and get off at any other point. The price is the same no matter what. The advantage here is that it's cheap and you don't have to bargain. The disadvantage is that the angkot frequently stops to pick up passengers and will often sit in one spot, refusing to move another inch until enough fares get on board to persuade the driver that it's worthwhile to press on. If it's late, you can bargain with the driver to take you to some specific place that might be outside of his normal range. The driver is always a man.

An angkot is about the size of a minivan, but the back is empty, except for benches. An American looking at the vehicle might say you could fit eight, or perhaps ten, uncomfortable people in the thing. An American looking at the vehicle who has been told that a driver's income is wholly dependent on how many fares he can pick up might readjust the estimate to twelve or thirteen people, if they are skinny and carrying no bags. An American looking at the vehicle who understand drivers' pay and is also aware that there is no legal limit to the number of people inside an angkot might start sweating and say that fifteen cramped and potentially violent people could theoretically be stuffed into this not-terribly-large and suspiciously rickety POS.

But, dear friends and readers, I do aver that I have been inside an angkot with no fewer than twenty-three passengers. Keep in mind that I'm talking about a moving vehicle with seating capacity comparable to a queen-size mattress. In some parts of the country, people regularly hang from the doorway, which is always open, or just sit on top. Twenty-three is my personal best, but other PCVs have outdone this. Once you get to about eighteen people inside, you start rooting for families with lots of little kids to get on board so you can bump up the record. Don't ask about seat belts.

I imagine this will not be a surprise for those accustomed to traveling on the cheap in places outside the U.S. or Europe, or even for some subwaygoers who are used to being pressed up against pungent strangers during rush hour. I'd call it a draw in terms of squishedness, but the level of danger is infinitely higher in an angkot. You are in live traffic in an ancient vehicle, the engine of which is backfiring constantly, and your life is in the hands of a somewhat unpredictable driver. And the roads are narrow, curvy, and congested, with cars and motorbikes frequently swerving into the oncoming-traffic lane as they pass the slower drivers. On your average 30-minute ride, there are at least a half-dozen situations where you seem to be playing chicken with an oncoming vehicle.

People can--and do--smoke inside the angkot. Usually, this is an older man with papery hands who holds the cigarette so that the burning ends faces inward, toward his palm, and brings it up to his mouth with his hand sort of inside out in that way that lets you know that this dude has smoked a fucking lot of cigarettes in his day, sonny.



For intercity travel, buses are the most economical option. Buses here are not like buses in the US or Europe. They're basically bigger, faster, more dangerous angkots.


After visiting my PST host family in the Batu area, I get on the bus back to my permanent site. A rough count reveals approximately 30-35 seats on the bus, all of which are occupied when I board. An equal number of people are standing in the aisles and clustering in the little areas by the doors where there is a bit of extra space. At 5 feet 11 inches, I am the tallest person on this bus (being 5'11" here is like being 6'5" in the States). The ceiling of the bus is about 5 feet 8 inches high. There is precisely one spot on the bus where I can stand up straight--near the back, there is a cutout square spot in the ceiling which seems kind of like a hatch that can be opened in case of emergency. It is about five inches deep, giving me about two square feet of head space. Mostly, I hunch.

Buses are like angkots because the pay of the driver and his two helpers is 100% determined the number of people that get on the bus. Therefore, the driver's incentive is to go as fast as physics will allow, and occasionally faster, in order to maximize passenger intake. Buses are also like angkots because they do not stop only in terminals or at stations--they can be flagged down at any point along the route. The two doors to the bus are permanently open and each feature a hustling/bustling male helping passengers get in and out. If at all possible, the bus will not actually stop to pick up (or drop off) the passenger. It will usually slow to a crawl and let the individual jump in (or out), before speeding up again. This gets interesting with old ladies and young children.

The bus journey from Batu to my site is about two hours. During this entire time, I do not sit, because nobody ever gets up. Apparently all the people who get on at the beginning of the route are long-distance travelers. The road itself is hellacious: a narrow, sloping, serpentine thoroughfare through mountain terrain. On its own, it's enough to spook any person even mildly prone to motion-sickness. But throw in the standing, the ludicrous speeding, and the physical constriction, and you have an earthbound Vomit Comet. Hanging from the wall of the bus is a large clump of black plastic bags for the passengers to barf in. On this particular journey, at least six bags are passed to people in my half of the bus, filled with spew, and tossed out the open door. Sometimes they just throw up in their hands because they can't get hold of a bag in time. I, too, begin to feel a bit queasy toward the end of the ride, but I manage keep my dinner down.

Also worthy to note is that buses which are not completely full will routinely host beggars, buskers, and vendors. They get on and off at will. People try to sell you pens, office supplies, textiles, snacks, candies, drinks, and I can only imagine what else. Men with old, crappy guitars jump on the bus and sing awful songs (occasionally, however, the singer will have a good voice) and then stalk the central aisle with their palm held out. One time, a woman came on board with an amplifier and reverb-heavy microphone and sang karaoke for a solid ten minutes. I've only been here three months, and I suspect that I've only seen the tip of the iceberg.

The whole thing is pretty wild, and largely cramped and uncomfortable. But truthfully, it's not such a big deal. That's one of the strange things about being here. There are so many things that are weird and potentially strange/uncomfortable, but they don't always make me unhappy, and in some ways they make me feel good. The sense of adventure sort of offsets the inconvenience. And then in that moment where you realize you're actually used to this once-new-and-crazy thing, you feel...cool. Like, Ain't no thang, I can handle it. It's nice to find out that you're actually kind of tough.

No comments:

Post a Comment