Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bike culture

I've been slack with the blog, I'm sorry. Much to post as I'm almost done with my orientation in Bandung and head for Magelang and my school placement at the end of the week. I've skipped writing about Olive's death on Aug. 31 and about a trip a group of us took to a very active and very extraterrestrial volcano two weeks ago. Some excellent pictures from that outing that I'll get up soon. But I wanted to waste zero time in posting some quick comments and a few images from a leisurely Sunday motorcycle ride today with my friend Gus.

My Indonesian language skills are still what I'd call nascent. But I do know some numbers and words for fast and slow and this means I've been able to speak about motorcycles and displacement with several Indonesian men. Among them, Gus, who works at the Sheraton in Bandung where we're staying. Anyway, after a couple false starts we finally made plans for a weekend ride and off we went just after noon today. It was supposed to be a trip of about an hour. Long story short, nothing takes an hour here. You cannot eat in a restaurant of any kind in less than an hour. An hour means nothing; it's warming up. So we took four and a half.

Gus has lived in the U.S. before and worked in hotels across the mountain west. He's lived in South Dakota and Utah and he did a stint at a ski lodge in Breckenridge. Today he loves in North Bandung with his wife and 11-year-old boy and he spends his money on motorcycles. The bike we rode, a 2009 Yamaha 150, is the hot rod of the bunch. He has a 125 cc commuter bike that's pretty tricked out, too, one other bike I've never seen and a scooter, which he calls an automatic. Anyway, the guy's into bikes and he's not alone. Motorcycles are the lifeblood of Indonesian transportation. They are everywhere. The island of Java is swarming with them.

This means car drivers are significantly more accustomed to motorcycles than U.S. drivers, and they appear to harbor almost none of the hostility that American car and SUV owners routinely show to motorcyclists. Here, bikes buzz in and out of traffic lanes, in and out of gaps between cars--a fluid dance of perpetual revving if not always motion--and the drivers just let them be. I know, weird. Indonesia has its faults but its drivers are almost impossibly imperturbable. The only time anyone's ever yelled at me, I ran in front of him to chase a dog who'd wandered into traffic. And he yelled mostly to say, Look out. Anyway, this beatitude on the road is even more perplexing when you consider what the roads look like: often crumbling, and always choked. And by choked I mean a two-lane road that functionally operates as a five-lane road. All the time. Here's what I mean ...

This kind of thing went on for about 30 minutes before we reached some really daunting traffic. Gus wanted to visit a scenic overlook called Pengunjung Nusantara and this meant braving a slow-mo traffic jam unlike anything I've ever encountered. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of vehicles jammed along a narrow park road, like 15 motorcycles across at some points. Traffic headed both ways but mostly nowhere. We sat and lurched and sat and sputtered along for an hour and a half, the line just unending, the crowd just organic, a hive. There was nothing to do but sit and watch, so I got some video and still images. And I ate more exhaust than I've ever encountered in my life. Writing this hours later I'm still feeling the effects: Like an exhaust pipe was attached to my face for an afternoon. A fumey, acid cloud of noxiousness, gulped between coughs and gasps. My head hurts. My throat's a joke. After fighting uphill for an hour--Gus stopping every so often to shake out his throttle hand--we decided to stop and park and just walk to the summit when the crowd looked like this ...

Through this sea of motion we trundled, only to reach the peak as the fog rolled in. The view from the top looked something like this ...

So we headed back down the mountain, through the same mob, and eventually got free to a roadside field planted with tea. Gus said we should take a picture.

From the tea fields we headed for a supper of traditional Sundanese kelinchi sate, or rabbit satay. Gus, a Bandung native and proud Sunda, confessed while eating that he'd never actually had kelinchi sate before. It was pretty good--served with a patty of sticky rice and a grilled ear of corn (two meals, $5)-- although hard to taste the rabbit for the peanut paste dumped on top.

We hopped back on the bike and made for home, just in time for a monsoon rain. I left the cameras in my bag for that part of the trip, stowed away in a dry bag bought for this very reason. But our ride home looked a little like the view from inside a car wash. Only we were outside, in the elements, the roads sluiced with water, Gus braking hard to avoid dumping the motorcycle on sharp, hilly curves. I got back to the hotel soaked to the bone, my lightweight rain jacket simply overpowered, my jeans plastered to my legs. Gus headed home, I took a hot shower, and hopped online to look for some Gore-Tex gear.

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