Learning to Drive

Not long after we arrived in Bali we decided to get out of Sanur and do a bit of exploring. We chose Candidasa and Tenangan as our first destination and we chose a motorbike as our means of transport. This is known as getting familiar with driving in Bali.

First off, drivers use the left side of the road rather than the right; I have had some experience at this in Cyprus and in Thailand with mixed results and it still takes some adjustment. If you can remember to stay on the correct side of the road, that left turns are easy while right turns are difficult and that staying far to the left is the slow lane things go a bit easier.

Bali transport
Bali transport

The most common form of transportation is the motorbike, usually 125cc Hondas with no clutch or gears just a throttle and brakes. Far more common than cars, they are a normal family vehicle carrying entire families, although I must admit I have never seen more than five people on one. Dad will drive while a youngster stands on the platform in front of him and mom rides behind, often side-saddle, with another child on her lap. This leaves a bit of room for cargo, maybe some groceries or a backpack or two. Motorbikes are used a delivery vehicles as well loaded with say a half dozen 20 liter water bottles or several pigs in a basket or perhaps a ladder or a 6 meter length of bamboo or pipe carried by a passenger. Lots near schools are filled with motos since children, often as young as nine drive them to school.

In addition to being much cheaper than cars and very lean on gas, they are so much easier to use than cars because of the narrow crowded roads. While cars submit to gridlock motos buzz past on right or left advancing much quicker, they are easy to park and best of all they go to the head of the line at stoplights. While there seem to be no rules about who can pilot these things, helmets are required and compliance is pretty high (there seems to be an exception to the helmet rule if you wear the ritual headgear of a Hindu or a Muslim scarf).

With all this in mind, we planned our trip. We had read that it is required to have an International Driver’s License and that failure to have one could result in a fine. We also read that the fine is not so much a fine as a bribe and is usually 50,000 rupiah (about $4) and the advice of the guidebook was to be prepared to pay the bribe rather than go to the bother of getting the mostly worthless license. So we secreted away a few 50,000 notes just in case.

Candidasa is 38 Km (23 miles) from Sanur up the major highway called the bypass. We rented a moto for around $5 a day (which was, of course, nearly out of gas). We packed a couple of tidy backpacks and practiced loading them safely onto the bike. The fun, or was it terror, began immediately. How to stay on the left; how to make a right turn; how to keep cars, trucks, buses and other motorbikes from driving me off the road; where to buy gas before we run out. Pulling into traffic which most folks do without looking is terrifying with vehicles of every description tearing past in no particular order; although lanes are marked no sane driver observes them.

Thank God for GPS. There are almost no road signs and maps are a disgrace, plus since we know no Indonesian asking is impossible. Staying on track is hard. We were used to this sort of situation while in Ecuador where signs were similarly non-existent, but at least we could ask for directions. (there the advice usually amounted to “no se, continua preguntando”, meaning I have never heard of that place just keep asking).

I tried to remain calm and to keep my passenger safe but it was a chore as I motored along at about 30 Km/hr. I got the hang of advancing to the front at stop lights and racing off in advance of the other vehicles but having all those vehicles then advance on me made me nervous; I was obsessed with my rear view mirrors. Keeping an eye in front for vehicles pulling into my space or for pedestrians wheeling a cart or for abrupt end to the pavement or a giant chuckhole didn’t match well with trying to keep track of whatever might run us down.

With a bit more experience things began to settle down, no one seemed intent on hurting us and in fact after a time the system made sense. Drivers all work together: you need space to pass that truck so come on over the center line, I’ll move over; I’ll pass you on the left since there seems to be more room there, stay where you are; you must need to make that u-turn right here so we will all wait till you get it done. That’s the dance. Horns are used for one purpose only and that is to alert you that they are nearby; it’s only a little pip of the horn. Horns are never used in anger or frustration; drivers are very patient, no extended digits, no road rage. Now I get it. A friend later told me to ignore the mirrors, you care only about what’s in front of you, the guy behind you will do the same. Be alert, anticipate and be ready to adapt.

So we got to Candidasa. The 38 Km only took two and one half exhausting hours.

One thought on “Learning to Drive

  1. Your motorbike experience in Thailand probably served you well.
    You certainly recall picking me up at the Chaing Mai airport driving a Honda 125.
    Good for me that I usually travel light and only had a backpack (no suitcases !).
    I found that driving on the left was most challenging when making turns.
    Pin would say which lane to end up in.
    And, the lane markers are just a suggestion.
    I recall once on a two lane road seeing three lanes of cars coming at me!
    I pulled off the road. The passing drivers just smiled.
    I was told that I should have just ‘stayed in my lane’ and the oncoming traffic would ‘flow’ around me.
    And, yes I saw many families of four on a Honda 125 motorbike, with their shopping hanging in plastic bags from their rear-view mirrors (that’s what those mirrors are for !)


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