Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Year of Living Dangerously

(With apologies to Steve for stealing his title. Then again, he should probably apologize to Christopher Koch, so I don’t feel too guilty.)

Before flying to Sumatra, several weeks ago, I was consumed by a nagging sense of sorry and impending death, having opted to save $40 by flying the cheapest of the cheap airlines, which recently suffered a major crash due to mechanical failure. (Also, the main remnants of the plane are lost in Southern Sulawesi, probably permanently, with the airline steadfastly claiming, at first, that they had already found it, along with twelve survivors. They also claimed that the plane had crashed into a mountain, when it turns out it most probably exploded in mid-air. Real professional, guys.)

Of course, everything was fine when I actually got on the plane and now, looking back, I see how silly I was to even worry. Aside from all the statistical comfort I had been using in the days up to the flight—Adam Air runs hundreds of flights a day, and just because one of their ancient 737s went down doesn't mean all of them will—I realized that, on any given day, I do a number of things far more dangerous, in real world terms, than flying on a semi-sketchy airline. (At least their motto is not "Fly Is Cheap," which is more than can be said for some of the other low-budget carriers, cough Wings Air cough.) While sitting on the plane, smoothly cruising over Java, I made a list of some of these daily activities which could, any day now, get me killed. Thus, for your reading pleasure, or perhaps, if you are my mother or close female relative, panic, I present,

The Dangers of Indonesian Transportation
or, Ways to Get From Here to Eternity

1. Cross the street. Those of you who have been to South or Southeast Asia know what this is like. Those of you who have not should just start imagining Frogger—only, in this game, it’s not just small squares of poorly-animated light moving at you, it’s buses, trucks, public vans, bicycles, motorcycles, becaks, and sometimes other pedestrians. There are lanes, in theory—at least, there are white lines painted down the middle of the road—but these lane boundaries are constantly in flux, veritable Alsace-Lorraines of traffic flow, with each vehicle feeling free to suddenly stop, shift lanes, drive down the precise center of the road, or weave between and through the other vehicles. Oh, right, and in this game you’ve got no extra lives. Have fun!

2. Ride a becak. You’d think a guy driving what is essentially a chair strapped onto the front of a bicycle would yield the right of way to an oncoming bus. You’d be wrong. Becak drivers apparently have no fear of death, God, or traffic: for a fifty-cent fare, they’ll gleefully steer their rickety contraption the wrong way down a one-way street, completely against the flow of traffic, all without blinking an eye. At least, I hope they’re not blinking, being the drivers and all, but my eyes are usually too tightly screwed shut to know for sure.

3. Ride a bicycle. I can’t even talk about this one, because I’m too scared to try it. Never particularly talented on a bicycle at the best of times—my sense of distance is dangerously skewed, leading me to believe that, at all times, I’ve got “plenty of room,”—I would have to be truly idiotic to even think about this method. For the average person, though, riding a bicycle, preferably with another person balanced on the handlebars, is no more dangerous than, say, juggling knives or taking candy from strangers. If you don’t believe me, ask the missionaries; in particular, ask Elder H., who, after a crash about eight months ago, still can’t feel his left hand.

4. Ride a motorcyle. I’ve written about this before. Everyone constantly tells me how safe motorcycles are, but when, doubting their smiling reassurances, I ask if they’ve ever been in a crash, these same folks then eagerly begin telling long sagas of grisly motorcycle accidents, complete with the scrapes and scars to prove them. (“And then there was the time my motorcycle skidded on a slippery wet road...look, I’ve still got the imprints of embedded gravel to prove it!”) In my time here, I’ve seen at least five of my students hobble into school with all the skin torn off their elbows and knees, and at least one of them has broken a limb, but no one except me seems to register this as proof of the fact that motorcycles are not safe. I guess, for them, it’s just another ride in the park.

5. Drive a car. Despite having learned to drive in Boston, a town where even hearse drivers cut you off, I’m not brave enough to drive by myself here. A car feels safer, certainly, than a becak or motorcycle—at least you’ve got all that metal to protect you—but the comparative is necessary here: safER. It’s kind of like saying, for example, “Aghanistan is safer than Iraq”: be that as it may, you’re not about to run out and book a two-week vacation to Kandahar. The senior mission couple who just arrived pulled me aside after church on Sunday to whisper to me, worriedly, that they were afraid their hired driver was “not very good.” I asked them why they thought this and they pointed out that he just got so, well, close to other cars. Poor things, really, but that’s okay: it should only take them about another week or two to figure out that “within an inch of hitting other vehicles” is not “not very good” but, rather, “normal.” In the meantime, I told them, they should work on not hitting the air brake every ten seconds; if they needed to, they could just close their eyes and think of the Church.

6. Ride in a public van. These vehicles, about the size of minivans, with two small benches inside to accomodate as many as twenty riders, cruise the city looking for passengers; for a mere twenty cents you can flag one down, hop in, and go anywhere your heart desires, as long as your heart desires to go somewhere on their fixed route. The drivers are usually twenty-somethings who, apparently, learned to drive from bumper cars at the local amusement park, and the vans themselves are usually venerable, creaking machines with a worrisome propensity to suddenly run out of gas in the middle of the street, refuse to start again after slamming on the brakes for a passenger, and skid on the wet streets during the rainy season. When I'm by myself, these public vans are my main method of transportation around the city. I figure hey, if I’m going to die in traffic, why pay more than twenty cents for the privilege?

7. Ride a bus. The buses are the biggest things on the road, sure, but not the safest. I’ve been on public buses that tilted precariously while going around turns—one, I swear, lost wheel contact with the road on one side—careened around the city at forty miles an hour, ridiculously fast for urban traffic, stalled while going up hills, and, like any other respectable vehicle, serpentined through lanes in order to both move as fast as possible and be ready, at any second, to pick up new passengers. It’s also not particularly comforting, safety-wise, to look down, while standing on a bus, and see, through the corrugated holes in the metal floor, the road whizzing beneath you.


In my twelfth-grade psychology class, we were told that a person in the Middle East is more likely, statistically speaking, to get in a car accident than a terrorist attack. Though that may have changed somewhat post-September 11, I’ve been to the Middle East twice since then, and, while I’ve never been attacked by a terrorist, I’m 2 for 2 on car accidents. The danger here, then, statistically speaking, is not bird flu and tsunamis and earthquakes and terrorism and air crashes. It’s about how I get to school every morning, how I visit my friends, and how I cross the street on my way home. And now, having written this, I feel perfectly confident flying any budget airline I like—if, that is, I can get over my newfound fear of leaving the house at all.


Master Fob said...

8. Take long walks through the jungle with creepy strangers.

Th. said...


Here, it seems that the driver's primary goal is just not to hit pedestrians--this can be a trying task. You'll probably find that a refreshing change.

Yellow said...

You have a fear of living the house? As opposed to... deading the house?

Melyngoch said...

Master Fob has a point.

It's nice that you're not dead so far.

petralearnedtocrossthestreetfromme said...

at least in indonesia you have the hand power to stop the traffic or does that not work in semarang? in india all we have is the cow riding shot gun to help us cross the street.

steve said...

no apologies need for stealing my reference. As I've realized, when it comes to writing in English about Indonesia, "the year of living dangerously" has to be the most often ripped off (or I would like to call it 'referenced') title there is. Maybe we should both apologize for doing something that has been done so many times before.

By the way, do you know of any cool happenings in Semarang for Chinese New Year?

Purplebuttmadrus said...

Shall I post a picture of my butt bruise from getting hit by a car today while crossing the street without a cow to protect me? It is purple which matches your blog.

Confuzzled said...

After this blog, I actually have great faith in your ability to stay alive in Indonesia . . . mostly because hey! you aren't dead yet