What we learned about the traffic on Bali’s streets and how it feels to be part of it
I am walking along an endless street close to Kuta. Indonesian streets and walking don’t fit together is the first that an Indonesian would tell you. On the local streets it is the traffic on wheels that has the highest power. Scooters make the rules – the competing characters on the street can be divided into caring drivers vs. I-don’t-give-a-shit drivers.
For those who want to walk, or how Indonesians would say it – have to walk, because walking is equal to not having a scooter and that is a no go – have to be cautious. Sidewalks are mostly used for other reasons than to walk on.
Streetfood stands, water tanks, wheelbarrows filled with concrete, massage areas and chicken cages can cross your way. You never know what comes next. Avoiding obstacles can become a danger as you often end up on the road, in the middle of the traffic.
Once you have a sidewalk for yourself, other obstacles are waiting to attack you surprisingly: open holes in the streets, sharp steel sticks, holy offerings in palm leaf baskets, sand hills, trash or scooters parked carelessly. Things that don’t belong where people are walking on. There is just one single advice that I can give you for streets on Bali: Open your eyes while walking!
To cross a street can become daunting. A friend who holds your hand can be a real help. Regarding my clumsy behaviour in traffic it’s a necessity.
We have to turn somewhere, my boyfriend says. We’re on our way to the scooter rental. Yes, you nailed it; we have to admit that the Indonesians were right. Without a scooter nothing works here. One month we want to explore Bali and the traffic is part of it that we’re willing to fight.
A scooter is the only vehicle on the island apart from taxis and cars. Rental cars can just be booked in combination with a driver because the risk of a car accident is too high. Tour buses also operate but they’re way too expensive and impractical in Bali.
Here are the main pros why you should rent a scooter if you want to travel around in Bali
…is much cheaper than paying for a tour.
…offers more freedom and flexibility in planning trips.
…allows an individual way of immersing into a culture as you can spontaneously take a turn into the next side street.
…drive is refreshing in the heat.
…can be parked anywhere even in tiny spots.
The tropical humidity gnaws at our energy supplies. We pass by a brown river that is full of trash. It seems like the sewers of the city end up here. Despite that, we see a man catching fish. Hopefully that’s not what will end up on our plates, we think, and at the same moment we know it will.
After an hour walk, we arrive in Kuta, the main tourist area. We decide to go to a shop for some cool drinks. Furthermore, we arrange the meeting point with the guy from the scooter rental. It starts to rain. Not strong. The monsoon shows its on-off presence in these months. I ask Hemmo if he’s afraid of driving at hard rainfalls. He shakes his head. I hope nothing will happen to us. If you would ask me to drive a scooter amongst this horrible traffic where only the locals seem to know the rules, I would surrender. Hemmo however is not afraid of the Bali scooter challenge.
The scooter guy shows up. He is a good friend of our Indonesian friend we couchsurf at. We get the scooter for a fair price far from the rip-off-white people-prices. He doesn’t ask for the drivers license nor the passport. Hemmo even bought an international drivers license which specifically excludes scooters in Indonesia as the number of accidents involving tourists has been too high in the past. After a couple of minutes, the deal is sealed. The guy hands us the keys together with two helmets and a huge rain poncho. We don’t have to sign any papers. The deal ends with a hand shake. Mutual trust is the only thing that this deal is based on. He stresses that he only rents to friends of friends.
We get on the Honda scooter. My helmet is a little bit loose but it’s better than no helmet. My arms embrace my driver’s hip. We have no idea where we’re heading to. It doesn’t matter. We drive around to get used to the scooter.
The traffic is a nuisance at any time of day and night. From now on we belong to them – to the scooter folk, the kings of the streets.
Hemmo adapts quickly to the scary manoeuvres of the overtaking vehicles. I am relieved that we have a smooth flow in the mass. As a German, driving on the left side is still new and adventurous to me. Apart from one tourist who cut us off, the street follows our movements. The biggest danger here are, unfortunately, the tourists – or bules how Indonesians would call foreigners. Due to those mindless drivers, the international drivers license is no longer valid for scooters.
Street signs pointing to the right direction are rare in Bali. Side streets are hidden until it’s already too late. The dirt and ash on the asphalt and in the air whirls around and finally remains everywhere: on the skin, on the clothes, in the eyes. Only what is covered stays clean. The smell of motor fuel is hanging in the humid air. Mixed with the smell of burning trash and food. Plenty of food, especially meat.
Chicken. Duck. Beef. Fish.
Boiled. Fried. Grilled. Cooked.
The smell is a variety of everything that the Asian kitchen throws in the pot, on the grill or in the pan.
We drive through the smog.
We drive through the rain.
We get wet.
We get dry.
The breeze cools and refreshes. I realize that my arms and knees are burnt.
Is that what I expected from Bali, I ask myself.
And here it suddenly happens!
I breathe in. I breathe out.
I take my time to calm down. From the traffic. The heat. The noise.
The moment when I switch off the negative, I recognize the beauty around me. I begin to realize that I am here.
I wander my eyes to see what surrounds me.
Rice plantations in the most greenest colors spread out over hills.
Impressive temples where traditionally dressed women put offerings in front of the entrances.
The outlines of a volcano covered in clouds.
Squirrels jumping from tree to tree.
Monkeys doing acrobatics above your head.
Waterfalls rushing down from extreme heights.
Coconuts lying next to the road, ready to be picked up.
This is the other side of being on the scooter fighting the traffic.
Passing all those fascinating places and collecting all those impressions, is worth the challenging traffic, the heavy rainfalls and the burning heat.