An overseas friend of mine plans to visit me and a number of cities in Indonesia. He wanted to see as much as possible the day to day life in the country, so he asked me if it was possible to rent a car and drive on his own. If it was possible, he also wanted to know of things he should (or should not do) driving in Indonesia.
I had to think hard for a while before I replied to his email.
I wanted to say, yes, it was possible to rent a car and drive it on his own provided he was prepared to pay more. A self-drive car rent is generally more expensive here than that with a driver. And then, only a very limited number of car rent companies provide that option and would let him drive long distances across the provinces and islands on his own. I also wanted to say that, like in any other countries, he would need a valid international driver’s license, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah …
Yet, I also knew, that driving in Indonesia is very, very much different from that in his own country. For a start, we drive on the left side of the road (the steering wheel being on the right side of the vehicle), which is the opposite of what he is used to doing in his own country. I guessed that would not be much of a problem for a seasoned traveler and very skillful driver like him. He would probably only need some time to adjust and get used to driving “on the wrong side of the street” as he would probably call it. But there is another — more substantial — thing that worries me: safety.
Indonesian traffic, especially that in big cities, is so chaotic — and life threatening — even for someone who is so used to it, someone who is experiencing it on the day to day basis like myself. I could almost say that there were no rules, much less laws, on our streets. Every rule there is in the book can be, and has knownly been, broken — not by a small percentage of motorists, but by most, that those who do not or have never broken the rules are an odd exception. Of course, this is not in anyway exclusively an Indonesian situation or experience. I know there are similar situations in other countries or territories. But he was my friend and a would-be guest of mine. So, his safety was my concern too.
Not too sure about where to begin describing the real situations he would likely have to face on the streets, I was thinking for a while of giving a comical answer. I was going to say that there were only a few things that he needed to prepare if he insisted on driving on his own on our streets. These were:
(1) Pray a lot for your safety. (That’s what most of us do here.) Only God or a miracle can save you from an unimaginable road catastrophe that may — out of a sudden — come your way.
(2) In addition to the brakes and other safety devices, make sure that the car’s horn (klaxon) functions properly and is loud enough to scare off, warn, and remind other motorists of your existence and rights to use the streets. Otherwise, they would not consider that you existed or had the rights to use the streets at all. They would cut you off, block your way, unexpectedly cross your path, and pose whatever other life threatening situations you can name that you can’t possibly think of in your own country.
(3) Drive aggressively — if you have the guts; Consider that you are in the jungle where only the boldest and the strongest can survive. Otherwise, drive defensively and meekly and hope that others will take pity on you. Consider it as a self-defense strategy if you are not too sure about your own strength.
(4) Prepare enough small change. You’ll need it to pay for ‘unofficial street taxes’ in almost every (busy) junction or U-turn, particularly in the city. The tax collectors at these junctions or U-turns are what we fondly call “Pak Ogah” — after the name of an Indonesian puppet movie character who would not do anything unless you give him a small amount of money. Because nobody would give you a passage at these junctions or U-turns — no matter how long you have waited for your turn — you would definitely need their services to help you get (what is rightfully) your way.
(5) Be particularly vigilant to the Angkot (minibus taxis) and pedestrians crossing the streets. The former can stop — unexpectedly — anywhere they like to pick up and alight passengers. They could even do so from the middle of the street, cutting you off just like that. The latter are no less dangerous. There are no pedestrian crossings in our streets — none that is ‘visible’ in their eyes who are so used to crossing the streets anywhere they like. They could cross the street unexpectedly from any points just by waving their magically-powerful hands to give you a sign that they would cross, no matter how close you were to killing them. They feel it’s their right to do so.
(6) Be particularly vigilant too of motorcyclists. There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them. The unavailability of (a planned, functioning, and legally enforced) public or mass transportation system in Indonesia has made them the most popular and affordable means of transportation. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most ruthless users of the streets. There is a myth among them that whenever a collision happens between any of them with a vehicle of a larger size, it will be them (the motorcyclists) who have the upper hand. They would never be wrong. They would boldly overtake any motorists in front of them even if it means taking the lane that is supposed to be for those that come from the other direction and thus endangering themselves and those that are rightfully using their own part of the street. Don’t be surprised too if they would come out of an alleyway, turning on to the main road without stopping and looking if it is safe to do so. The myth has made them legally the untouchables. Don’t ask about the police and how road accidents would be investigated to determine who is right or wrong. They are simply too overwhelmed by other tasks to care about doing so. Unless they are very serious and involve deaths of significant numbers (and/or make it to the news), they simply cannot afford to care too much about them. Most traffic accidents are settled among the parties — with some sort of haggling or threats, if necessary.
The list could go on a little longer. I have not mentioned, for example, that driver’s license is barely a means of control about who deserves (or does not deserve) to drive in this country. Anybody who can show that they are of a minimum age can “buy” it at the police station. By procedure, of course, they need to pass a written test and a driving-practice test. But money is more important than those tests. There are always insiders who would be willing to help you get it for a relatively small sum of illicit fee.
But then I decided not to say much. I only suggested that he consider cost and convenience factors and drop the idea of driving on his own. I hope he could understand.