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 go well together is the first that an Indonesian would tell you. On the local streets, the motorized traffic makes the rules and that is mainly the scooters. They can be divided into caring drivers vs. I-don’t-give-a-shit drivers.
For those who want to walk – or have to walk, as Indonesians would say it – 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 come across your path. You never know what comes next. Avoiding obstacles can become a danger in itself as you often end up on the road, in the middle of the traffic.
Once you have a sidewalk to yourself, other obstacles are lurking: open holes in the streets, sharp steel poles, holy offerings in palm leaf baskets, piles of sand, trash or carelessly parked scooters. Things that don’t belong in places where people are walking. Here is one valuable advice for mastering the streets in Bali: Open your eyes while walking!
To cross a street comes close to a test of courage. A friend who holds your hand can be a real help. Regarding my clumsy behavior in traffic, it’s a necessity.
We have to turn soon, 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. Nothing works here without a scooter. We want to explore Bali for one month and the traffic is part of it.
Rental cars can be booked with a driver and the amount of car accidents justifies it. Tour buses operate too but they’re more expensive and impractical in Bali.
Here are the main pros why you should rent a scooter if you want to travel around Bali
…is much cheaper than paying for a tour.
…offers more freedom and flexibility in planning trips.
…allows an individual way of immersing yourself into a culture as you can take a turn into the next side street more spontaneously.
…drive is refreshing in the heat.
…can be parked anywhere, even in tiny spots.
The tropical humidity takes on our energy supplies. We pass along 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.
After an hour walk, we arrive in Kuta, the main tourist area. We decide to go to a shop for some cool drinks. We also 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 during hard rainfalls. He shakes his head. I hope nothing will happen to us. If you would ask me to drive a scooter in such horrible traffic in which 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, our couchsurfing host. We get the scooter for a fair price far lower than the rip-off-white people-prices. He doesn’t ask for the driver’s license nor a passport. Hemmo even bought an international drivers license which specifically excludes driving a scooter 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 out 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 agreement this deal is based on. He stresses that he normally only rents to friends of friends.
We get on the Honda scooter for the first time. 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 really 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 for me. Apart from one tourist who cuts us off, the street follows our movements. The biggest danger are 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 too late and you have missed them. The dirt and ash on the asphalt and in the air whirls around and remains everywhere: on the skin, on the clothes, in the eyes. Only that which is covered stays clean. The smell of motor fuel blends with 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, 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 begin to 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 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 part of being on the scooter fighting the traffic.
In the end, passing all those fascinating places and collecting all those impressions, is worth the challenging traffic, the heavy rainfalls and the burning heat.