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My first thought upon observing Bali traffic was that the scooters resembled schooling fish. Alone they could never survive, but when they move in a pack, they can dart in and out of heavy traffic, avoid collisions with cars and trucks on the road, and reach their destination much faster.
I was somewhat apprehensive when I first started riding around here, but once I learned how to flow through traffic I felt far safer on a bike than I would in a car. Riding a scooter in the U.S., at least in my experience, is generally limited to sleepy beach communities or college towns, but within days of my arrival here, I was zipping down the highway alongside trucks and buses, a mirrored visor covering my face to keep the dirt and exhaust out of my eyes.
Everyone here has ridden a scooter at some point, so everyone has a degree of patience for people on scooters and knows to watch out for them. The standard of driving in Bali is quite low, and, for the most part, people tend to drive defensively. As automobile insurance is not widely purchased here, people take extra care to avoid crashes, even those in which they would not be at fault.
After being here a month, I traded in my surfboard rack for a collapsible one, and found happily that the small difference in width pays significant dividends in heavy traffic because it allows me to fit through much gaps in traffic than I would otherwise would be able to squeeze through. Then there are the traffic jams that even scooters cannot conquer. The kind where there is no sidewalk to ride down, no space to weave slowly between cars, and no options for shooting down the shoulder or the center of the road.
I found myself in one the other day, and two men in a truck with their windows down leaned over and started talking to me.
“Where you have to go?” the driver asked.
“Just to the river,” I said, and pointed to the dirt path 100m down the road, a useful shortcut back to my house, which is on a road off the river. The turn onto my street so tiny that anyone who did not know the surrounding landmarks would miss it. It is less than a foot across, with a pile of rocks adjacent to it making it look like an abandoned construction site rather than a street full of houses and temples. Only after the turn does the red brick road become visible.
“We have been sitting here a while,” the driver said.
“Too many idiots on the road,” I said. He got very excited that I uttered that phrase in Indonesian. He switched the language of the conversation. I only understood parts of what he said, but I could pick up enough key words to know what he asked me.
“Oh, you speak Indonesian?!”
“Yes. A little.”
“Where you from?”
“Oh, America! How long have you been in Bali?”
His and his friend’s eyes widened. They seemed surprised that I picked up that much vocabulary in a few weeks. I didn’t really. I just have learned enough key words to make people think I understand more than I do. I also find that if I pretend to understand people’s conversations, they assume I speak Indonesian. Then they talk to me, realize I only speak a little, and in that simple exchange, I manage to learn a few new words. Scale that method, and one starts to become conversational.
I saw a clearing in the traffic, a chance for me to zip onto a sidewalk and bypass the rows of honking cars, which faced in every direction and resembled the toy cars my little brother used to leave in piles across our living room when he was small. I smiled at the men in the truck and drove off quickly, grateful to be on a bike and not sitting in the traffic jam for another hour.