07 July 2011


For the duration of my visit to Jakarta, I have the services of a hired car and driver. The driver’s name is Omo. His English is roughly equivalent to my Bahasa, which means we’re limited to the most rudimentary of exchanges: “Hello”, “How are you?”, and “Thank you” are about the extent of our conversations in each other’s language. Still, we’re spending a few hours per day together in traffic, so I like to imagine that ours is a companionable silence.

Omo is a remarkably skillful and aggressive driver – in this traffic-clogged city, he has to be. I’ve cringed as we squeeze through inches-wide gaps in traffic, always accelerating to find the next empty bit of pavement. The sheer volume of traffic here is mind-boggling: at rush hour, it seems that virtually every bit of road surface in Jakarta is occupied by smoke-belching buses, taxis, private cars, motorcycles, and three-wheeled bajaj vehicles.

Coming from the relatively placid and structured environment of the US, the free-wheeling approach to driving here is disconcerting: it looks like complete pandemonium, but after a couple of weeks of exposure, it’s clear to me that there’s an intricate dance performed on the streets here. To be successful requires equal measures of bravado and humility – you are expected to dart for the open space, but you must yield when someone faster, braver, or larger gets there first. Drivers in Jakarta aren't talking on their phones, drinking coffee, or applying makeup - they're driving. It's serious, all-consuming activity that requires way more concentration and skill behind the wheel than most Americans ever demonstrate.

The motorbikes just kill me (and often, I expect, themselves). Most riders are young, and often ride two or even three per scooter. Virtually every rider wears a helmet, but that seems scant protection against tons of metal as they squeeze through momentary gaps in the cars. Sometimes when traffic is really jammed, motorbike riders bypass the crowd by riding in the oncoming lane – it’s not uncommon to see a solid stream of riders roaring head-on against traffic.

Omo weaves through all of it, shifting, braking, frequently honking – not in anger, simply as a signal that he’s coming through. He drives as if he alone has a universal right of way, and he is merely reminding others of that fact. It works astoundingly well. For Omo, there are no stop signs, and the only red lights that count are the ones with policemen directing traffic beneath them. It’s rare that he elicits any emotion – driving is what he does, and traffic is where he does it. Mostly he concentrates, rapidly evaluating the shifting stream of vehicles that surround us, and constantly changing, re-calculating, reacting and dancing through the crowded streets. It’s impressive – he is very good at what he does.

When he drops me off, our mutual lack of language is most pronounced. We simply say “OK”. Until tomorrow.

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