Monday, December 19, 2016

Traffic, Bali-style

This post makes unapologetic use of bullet points. If this somehow offends you, stop reading now.

I've hinted before at the madness that is traffic in Bali, and I think it's finally time to give it the attention it deserves. All of this blather will be interspersed with some scooter photos, because scooters, and also because you vampires will only click if you get some sort of visual stimulus in return. And of course I mean that in the nicest possible way. Also, I'm saving my favorite scooter photo for another post.

So pimp

The first few minutes after leaving DPS (Denpasar airport) count as the second-scariest experience I've ever had in a car.

The first was a, shall we say, memorable pass made by a friend of mine on a two-lane highway outside Susanville, CA on our way back from a snowboarding trip; so memorable, in fact, that it literally scared the backseat passenger from the left side of the car to the right side of the car, as if that would have somehow saved him from grievous bodily harm had we collided with the oncoming traffic.

But I digress.

Driving Miss Ruby

However, to digress again...

Before I run you through the first few minutes of this portentous car ride, I'd like to provide some context in the form of my own lifetime driving experiences. I've:

  • been a licensed driver for 20 years
  • driven in about a dozen countries, LHD and RHD
  • driven something around a third of a million miles (>500000km)
  • been involved in one accident (while stationary at a red light)
  • piloted a car in excess of 190mph (>305kmh)
  • had many passenger and driver laps on the Nürburgring
  • done track days in spectacular sports cars, driven open-wheel race cars, and raced go-karts
  • gotten one well-deserved speeding ticket
  • never had any other moving violations of any sort
  • been hit twice by cars while cycling
  • observed thousands of hours of insane driver behavior from close quarters while cycling
  • learned to be hyper-aware
  • become fascinated by the subtleties of traffic, especially as an American, where the car is king

I think my point in presenting this laundry list is to demonstrate that:
  • I've seen a lot, like, A LOT a lot
  • I'm exceptionally safe behind the wheel
  • I know the difference between being safe and being timid
  • I'm qualified to spend an entire blog post yammering about traffic in Bali

In other words, I'm above average, just like 98% of drivers believe they are...LOL. In any case, hopefully you'll be able to view what I'm about to share through the same lens through which I see it.

OK, so in the first few minutes after leaving the Denpasar airport, the friendly driver of our hired SUV:
  • not once wholly occupies a lane, except in brief moments transitioning from straddling one lane to straddling another
  • dives into countless closing gaps in traffic
  • goes to great lengths to avoid applying the brakes
  • displays a specific disregard for stoplights and posted signage
  • uses his horn every few seconds

Further, I witness the following array of (mind-bendingly uninjured) road users:
  • kamikaze SUVs
  • evil evil taxis
  • decrepit and polluting rustbucket cars
  • mosquito-like scooters, many carrying entire families and/or ludicrous amounts of unwieldy goods
  • pedestrians walking with and against traffic
  • food vendors pushing their carts
  • cyclists riding the wrong way
  • stray dogs
  • chickens
  • and, to demonstrate density, in any slice of an N-lane stretch of road,  roughly N+2 cars -and-  roughly 2N scooters. For realz.

It's mayhem. Sheer, unequivocal mayhem. Our driver single-handedly shatters every conception I've ever had of what it means to be a responsible road user, and all in the space of less than 10 minutes. And not only do I witness no deaths or dismemberments in the remaining 20 minutes it takes to get to the villa, but I see a decrepit infrastructure elegantly accommodate about four times as many road users (and a staggeringly more diverse collection of road users, at that) than any road I've ever seen in the first world.

In short, it just works. I apologize for not having photos of all these things, but I spent that ride clutching the door handle so tightly that it got a restraining order against me.

Paddy almost stuffs it

Over the remaining week and a half of our stay in assorted parts of Bali, I'll witness variation upon variation of that same terrifying first ride. But throughout it all, no still-steaming accidents, no body bags, no shattered glass or piles of car parts, no blood-stained pavement, no tow trucks, no junkyards of smashed and stripped cars, no roadside stands selling scavenged scooters, no amputee beggars, nothing. But after witnessing hundreds if not thousands of too-close calls, my pattern-recognition circuits start to realize that it can't just be coincidence that everyone lives. There has to be a reason.

What I come to realize is that all of the behavior I witness is merely the consequence of a different philosophy regarding the operation of motor vehicles. Sure, different first world countries all do things a little bit differently, and I'll take a German driver over a Californian driver any day of the week, but in general, the Western first world views driving as a regimented set of cause/effect pairs. Each vehicle is a particle whose position, velocity, and interaction with all other particles can be determined through the application of predictable driver inputs influenced by a legally-ordained set of rules and regulations, and this choreographed performance is played out upon an intricately-engineered canvas of infrastructure.

However, in Bali, we're going to take away the intricately-engineered canvas of infrastructure, and while I'm sure the rules and regulations might actually exist, enforcing them would be more elusive than a teenager's ability to unhook a bra with one hand, so let's just say that we're taking them away, too. What we're left with, then, is this collection of particles, and by removing all semblance of order by which they might govern their motion, we'd expect them to haphazardly clatter into each other like marbles in a clothes dryer, but somehow they don't. Why not?



While driving in the first world is all about rules and demonstrating rights of way, here, it's about maintaining flow. Each driver/rider/pedestrian/stray dog/chicken/food vendor constantly makes micro-adjustments to his or her trajectory and velocity, all aimed at giving others the opportunity to help maintain that flow. Forcing someone to stop at an intersection to exert one's right of way would cause a two-hour traffic jam, so instead, they breathe the throttle to let that person join. Horns are monosyllabic communication, perhaps demonstrating that what's said isn't important, but rather, how it's interpreted. Ignoring painted lines simply removes the chance of getting into trouble for defending territory that's not yours, not to mention turning an arbitrary measure of "6 lanes" into something far more functional like "big enough for everyone who needs it." There's nary a hint of righteousness, nor malice, towards other users, as this would certainly disrupt the all-important flow.

They are one consciousness, all entering and exiting the flow at different points, but all maintaining it, and with minimum effort. Namaste, bitches.

If anything, it makes me more confident that I'm less likely to lose my life in traffic in Bali than I am somewhere "safe" like Reno.

An interesting thing about it is that I've not really been able to apply much of this lesson to driving anywhere else, as it'd result in instant death. It is all about flow, after all, and it requires full buy-in and trust from all users. If you want a great read on getting buy-in from all users, revel in the awesomeness of when Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right, OVERNIGHT, in 1967, and no one died. Sorry for using Wikipedia as a source, but whatever.

Proud whip

Certainly, one could extrapolate these tales of traffic to the non-Western-first-world way of life in general, but I think we're nearing the end of the time we've got today. Maybe re-read the line about the horns; I'm starting to feel lucky that that sprouted from my keyboard.


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