Heaven and Hell on Wheels…

6 Nov

Bali. One of the most consistently beautiful places on the planet. With (outside the timelessly international package hell of Kuta) a culture that is beyond unique. Landscapes of misty mountains, stepped rice terraces, river gorges fringed with palms and broad banana leaves, stone-carved temples everywhere you look, and pavements littered with offerings lovingly hand-crafted from palm leaves, flowers and coloured rice.

Snacks for the angels, demons, gods and goddesses that are everywhere, even today.

This is a place where you can stop for petrol and find yourself overlooking an ancient royal palace built in brick and stone with views across to dark forest and crater lakes and down a staircase of young rice to a river gorge. So, for the driver, it’s almost exactly equidistant between heaven and hell.

Why? Well, Bali is one of relatively few places in South-East Asia where it makes economic sense to hire a vehicle (motorbikes come in around $5 per day, ancient Suzuki jeeps from $10 depending how long you hire them for). Which would, and does, make for drives through some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.

On roads which are, well, quite close to hell.

Y’know. One moment you’re admiring a dazzling descent of tiled rooves and viridian rice, with the mist curling up the valley below you. The next you’re testing the brakes as four thirteen-year-olds crammed on a single 125cc scooter wobble out directly in front of you while a truck bears out of a hairpin straddling the road.

Technically, the Balinese need a license to drive in Bali (just as adults, though not children or babies, need a helmet to ride a motorcycle). In practise, most of them don’t bother.

And, since the license acquisition process does not involve anything so time-consuming as lessons or (heaven forfend) a test, the cost of a bribe should one be pulled sans papiers is far less than that of buying a license, and drivers communicate the presence of police to each other using the V for Victory hand signal, you can see why they don’t.

Which means that on the narrow, overstrained roads, great squadrons of untrained and often unprotected road users, from men wheeling foodcarts to families on motorbikes to impressively-scaled trucks, seven year old children on bicycles, stray dogs, meditating worshippers and even the occasional donkey cart, are competing for space in an amicable but nonetheless unnerving free-for-all. Occasionally and erratically administrated by men with whistles.

As in Vietnam, the challenge seems to be “how many scooters CAN we get in one lane?”, reminiscent of those attempts to break the Guinness World Record for the number of people squashed into a phonebox which clogged up British TV schedules in simpler times. An approach which would probably kill many more people than it does were it not for the larger vehicles slowing everyone down.

There’s no speed limit, in fact. There’s not even, I’m told, any law against drunk driving.

And yet…

In fairness to the Balinese, I saw four motorbike accidents in Vietnam. One in the Philippines. One in Laos. Plus a host of Full Moon party casualties in Thailand, sporting that asymmetric bandaged look that signals how very, very clever it is to ride a motorbike while off your tits dressed only in a pair of shorts. We’ve been in Indonesia for over two months and I’ve yet to witness a collision.

Still it’s, well, kind of bracing.

All in all, however, I would say that I prefer being in a jeep, with my spawn bitching about directions from back seat or shotgun, to being on a Honda, with complaints bellowed from under his visor directly into my ear.

As per:

“Mum! Did you have to brake so hard?”

“Yes, actually. Because otherwise we would have gone into that big truck which has just pulled out without indicating, leaving us nowhere to go.”

I won’t quite go into the directional travails we’ve experienced, even with our dear friend H as navigator, except to say that I would like to kill the man who put the line in my guidebook saying that Bali has good road signs. And that, if you’ll be driving any distance in Bali, front up $22 straight away for the Periplus Bali Street Atlas rather than carry on spending $5 a pop on the foldouts they sell in the tourist offices hoping the second one will be better than the first.

Oh, yes, and that after some debate we’ve decided it’s OK to use the space in front of all those beautiful temples to turn round. And that even a road that’s marked as major on a map may, in fact, look indistinguishable from the ramp up to a shop or temple until you’re within five feet of the turn, and prove to be a goat track for several hundred metres after that.

Anywise. Once you realise that nobody knows what they’re doing and there really are no rules (though flashing one’s lights means, in polar opposition to the politely British, “No, no, you first, I insist”, “Stop right there, I’m coming through!”, and a bip on the horn is a polite warning that you are overtaking or undertaking), it ceases to be disorientating.

It’s like this, you see. In the West, if you see a set of headlights headed straight at you in your lane, it’s panic stations. In Bali? Well… If it’s a bike, it’s someone just popping round the corner, who can’t be arsed to do the turn across traffic. If it’s on four wheels, it’s someone overtaking a motorcyclist who needs you to pull in a couple of feet or so (perhaps into the motorcyclist undertaking you, perhaps into a ditch, perhaps just tight to the verge – who knows?!) to allow him the customary six inch gap between vehicles.

No cause for alarm.

Mind you, there’s still something slightly odd about coming through a green light to “merge” with a stream of traffic obeying the local lore that says there’s no harm turning left on a red light (folk here drive, most of the time, on the left). And being beckoned forward by a chap directing traffic with a glowstick to find he is also beckoning two scooters out straight in front of you is, well, good for the reflexes.

Driving at night’s interesting. One moment you’re navigating a dazzling whirlwind of full-beam headlights. The next you’re working your way through a thousand-strong crowd in print sarongs and silk headbands admiring the four-times-lifesize white bull (complete with dangling, hairy, err, bullocks) that will form the sarcophagus of a Balinese kinglet, whose body is currently stored in a 20-tonne tower to be carried by hand to the temple.

One minute a man with a fridge on the back of his motorbike is pulling directly in front of you without lights; the next there’s a child pedalling frantically on his bike, or an old lady with a basket of offerings on her head… And then there’s the trees sprouting clouds of storks like furry fruit you were looking for in the first place, some guys hosting an impromptu cockfight, and the sun setting slowly over the temple of Siwa, the destroyer-renewer, which adorns every single village.

Anywise… We’ve seen some beautiful things. After an amazing week or so in Ubud, we’re off up that winding mountain road to Bedugul, on a tranquil lake with a climate so cool they grow strawberries and apples, a garden full of orchids, and forest with zipwires and Tarzan ropes through the trees. I am, to be honest, looking forward to it. And, fingers crossed, there may even be some pictures.

4 Responses to “Heaven and Hell on Wheels…”

  1. nicole curry November 6, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    Glad your having such a good time! If we had been in VN for 9 months I think I would have been intimated to drive in Bali but I find it a lot less chatoic:)
    Bedugul is beautiful and oh so cool…tree tops was a big hit with our kiddos… Waterbom is supposed to be big Fun too..
    Did you get over to Echo beach? We leave near there. Are you planning a visit to green school?
    Have fun!

    • MummyT November 6, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

      Waterbom is great! I highly recommend… The Climax ride should please even your oldest. It starts with a 70 degree descent for which you have to stand in a capsule and they pull the floor away. We’re going to see the Green School when we’re back in January… I think it is less chaotic than Vietnam. Worse than Thailand. Far worse than Malaysia. But, yep, Hanoi and HCMC have the edge when it comes to chaos. I drove a bike a couple of times in Vietnam, but not in HCMC or Hanoi. Must have been hell the first time you got into the vehicle…

  2. Cynthia Scarborough November 6, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    My goodness! Sounds like training for the demolition derby. Good thing you’ve apparently got excellent reflexes.

  3. Zablon Mukuba November 9, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    Driving in Bali must be a nightmare. you have to very cautious and very alert

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