So, those of you who have followed my travels the last few years have read a lot about motorbikes.
My first motorbike non-experience in Asia was when I was required to sign a vow that I wouldn’t touch one (in any way!) while working for Cross-Cultural Solutions in Bangkok, Thailand. This was a no-brainer to my fresh American-in-Asia sensibilities. I watched them out the window of my comfortably chauffeured car and wondered how ANYONE in Bangkok lived after one minute on a motorbike.
I easily wrote off the motorbike as a kind of transportation I would never set foot (or behind) upon.
Then I went to Cambodia for a few weeks. Again – motorbikes everywhere. Here I first saw six people and their daily ration of rice and other food on one bike. I tried SO hard to get a photo, but from my comfortable bus seat it was impossible. I was in awe, but still not even slightly interested in a motorbike. Or motorbike taxi.
In Vietnam the sheer chaos of even crossing the street on foot was overwhelming. Add a motorbike or motorbike taxi to that? Certainly not.
Same thing in China. Motorbikes (and push bikes) everywhere. Not a chance I would ride one.
Then I came back to the US and rode a snowboard at mach-40 for a full winter – 100 days; 1 million vertical feet! No problem. Actually, it was quite a bit easier after having learned how to “flow” through street traffic in Asia.
Back to Vietnam the following May. The constant chorus of, “Lady! You need motorbike!” in Saigon didn’t even tempt me.
Fast forward three weeks when I’m pretty “done” traveling Vietnam. Including the two weeks I’d traveled there the previous summer, six weeks in Vietnam was too much for me.
So I visited a place I’d not really been interested in before: Dalat.
Dalat is a mountain community with great respite from the Vietnam heat. I was actually cold there. People wear North Face jackets – and hats and gloves – year round in Dalat. And it’s stunningly beautiful.
In Dalat the motorbike tour is kind of a rite of passage. You can read about mine here.
This is when my mind started to open to the idea of the motorbike. Not as a means of regular transportation for myself, but rather, maybe as something I would ride on, behind someone, more than once. Maybe.
Fast forward to Bintan, Indonesia, about one month later. After we had a LONG discussion about motorbike safety and lack thereof in Indonesia, my host Dina and I did 90 kmh on a bike together to witness a sea turtle release. Let’s just say she’s a FABULOUS driver and I wasn’t scared for a second. Just pretend about the “not being scared” part. She is a great driver but I was scared out of my mind. But we survived. And we got to watch those wonderful little critters find their way into the ocean. Amazing.
Tana Toraja, Indonesia was yet another place I was ADMONISHED to never get on a motorbike. My host there, Merda, is a wise, caring woman whose father positively forbade her to ever ride one in her life. And although he is now an angel in heaven, she has never been on a motorbike. And made me promise to not ride one.
Alas, I sprained my ankle BADLY in Tana Toraja.
And even two weeks later, when I arrived for my “decompression” vacation in Bali (you know, cuz when a girl works for two weeks after six weeks of vacation, she has earned it!), I could barely walk.
Here is where this motorbike saga changes color like my ankle. “Lady, you need transport?!?” takes on a whole new meaning when clearly, you do.
Limping down Poppies 1, I was such a target. If you haven’t been to Bali, Poppies 1 can only be described as a complete cluster-f#@k. Stall-style shops, mini-markets, a McDonald’s, surf shops, salons, travel agents, hotels – all manner of ways for tourists to part with their money – line this narrow, impossibly two-way “street.” My hotel was at the end of this lane furthest from the beach – about a 1km walk. Through “the gauntlet” of shops and touts. And motorbike taxi drivers.
Luckily, I met my Indonesian beach “family” within days of my arrival in Bali. I was the regular on the back of someone’s motorbike wherever I needed to go. “You need a ride back to your hotel?”
“Okay, we go.”
And off we went. To the hotel. Ride back to the beach the next day. For lunch. For dinner. You name it – I was on the back of a bike.
Limping down the street – an “extended” member of my beach family would see me. “Sister – you go to the beach? We go!”
I seriously might have walked fewer than 1000 steps my whole first few weeks in Bali.
I got more comfortable with the idea of being on the back of a motorbike as I became more familiar with its necessity. Nina from Switzerland and I went on a grand motorbike adventure on Nusa Lembongan, and I hired a motorbike guide in Jogjakarta who made my time there more than just fun.
And when I returned to the US in the fall I vowed that I would learn to ride one on my own. I mean – why not learn in my own environment/ traffic and then take those skills back to Bali with me?
My dear friend Jay was easily coerced into teaching me to ride. Bikes are a new passion for him, so I knew he would be happy to share. I spent a couple of MINUTES on his Vespa and had a nearly HORRIBLE experience (thanks to my nerves, not his patient teaching). I walked away, defeated, thinking that, perhaps, riding a motorbike on my own was not for me.
Fast forward again, five months into my living and working in Bali. Yes, I have friends with motorbikes that will take me places. Yes, I have a ride in a chauffeured car to my work 15 km away from where I live. But neither of these things gives me ANY freedom to come and go as I’m used to. I’m getting stir-crazy, restless, and am starting to feel a bit, well, childish and helpless.
I MUST learn to ride a motorbike. Alone. In Kuta traffic.
I started slowly. My cherished friend Valerie showed me how hers worked, and I set off for a few timid passes around her courtyard. I ventured onto the narrow, broken street where she lives, trying to stay upright and not look like a COMPLETE rookie. To any local it was completely obvious that I was a beginner, and I was petrified. It was embarrassing.
I then started borrowing a motorbike in the wee hours of the morning when there was no traffic, and riding around my little neighborhood in Kuta. My tour involved a lot of left turns and few right turns (I don’t like turning to the right – can’t make sense of that one!) Eventually my route got larger and larger, and actually incorporated some small broken streets and right turns. I actually might have gotten up to 35-40 kmh in my early morning rides.
Then Ani, a colleague from Dhyana Pura University, told me that “any time I wanted to” she would come down to Kuta and take me out for a ride. “Really?” I asked.
“Really,” she said.
It was like a dare…
OMG has she taken me for a ride!
The first Sunday morning she arrived at the end of my narrow, broken road at 10 am and we rode all the way to the university and then some. “I have some challenges for you!” she said, as we wound down the narrow streets of Dalung, the town where the college is located, and where she lives. Her street isn’t paved. “No problem!” she said, “Just do, don’t think!” (This is perhaps her greatest nugget of wisdom!)
By the time we arrived at her house for a rest, I was a puddle of sweat. I’d dressed like Indonesians do to ride – fully covered with “real” shoes, jeans, long-sleeved shirt, and – of course – the helmet. This attire has SO many benefits (no sun exposure, limitation of possible road rash, disguising the bule – tourist – from police) but it’s HOT. I gulped down two glasses of water, and we were off again, back down to Kuta. In traffic. Ugh.
Ani is a patient teacher, but she’s not slow on the bike. Watching her eight-year-old daughter, either in front or in back of her on the motorbike – flapping her arms in the breeze, eating candy and freeing the wrappers in the wind, or nearly falling off, asleep – is enough to understand how much a part of Indonesian life the motorbike is.
I have followed Ani and her faithful sidekick, Gracie, on three consecutive Sundays now, on tours that challenged EVERY riding skill I thought I might have (or didn’t have!) We have traveled in traffic; out of traffic. Between GIANT tour buses; on broken curbs. At all speeds (even up to 65-70 kmh!). Yesterday we went almost 140 km on a day trip to Padang Bay, Bali – the tour boat landing point for most trips to the Gili Islands. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and exciting!
I have had a flat tire (fixed for less than $5 on the side of the road). I have learned where to position myself in traffic; that running red lights is REQUIRED to not get hit from behind; that one steers through curves with the body, not the handlebars; and that the only rule of the road in Indonesia – CLEARLY – is don’t run into what’s in front of you. Oh, and don’t be afraid to use your horn.
I got pulled over by the police, who were surprised (even kind of delighted, in a macabre way) that I had an Indonesian driver’s license. I was just psyched that I didn’t have to pay them off after paying so much for that license…
Interestingly, as my motorbike skills increase, I feel the Indonesian language muscle in my brain relax and receive. Coincidence? Who knows.
I have now clocked probably 350 km on the motorbike. Am I an expert? Far from it. Can I navigate most any situation? We’ll see.
All I know is that today on my commute home from work I was not at all surprised by anything that happened.
And that every day, after every safe ride, I say a little prayer of thanks for my safety and well-being on the motorbike. And I mean it.