So, I promised that I’d tell you guys the story about when I rented the motorbike in Bali. Here it is, though it is completely unedited and terribly long, so I apologize. The final version will be shorter and pithier.
“You go slow, ok? You go slow.”
“Yes, of course.” I nod enthusiastically, putting my left hand on the brake to demonstrate my sincerity. Pulling out of the little shop – slowly – I stop a hundred feet down the road to look back and wave at the clearly very nervous owner.
And, just like that, I found myself with a motorbike that I did not want.
In Lovina, a small, sleepy, spread-out “town” (it hardly deserves the name, in my opinion, and, indeed, in theirs, as it really is just a collection of smaller “towns”) in the north of Bali, the concept of a bicycle is as foreign as, say, a swimsuit in Patagonia. “You want what? You mean a down coat? No? Ohhh, a swimsuit. Why? Well, maybe someone around here has one…”
That was essentially my experience when I asked for a bicycle rental. The guy at the hotel said, “Why don’t you want a motorbike? Much easier.” I explained that I like the exercise, an excuse he accepted, but the truth is that driving a motorbike in Bali is definitely not easier. You see, in Bali, motorbikes are the preferred mode of transportation of pretty much everyone, from hotshot young punks, to grannies, to kids on their way to school (no, seriously). As a result – or, maybe not – traffic rules are something like nonexistent. For Americans, imagine a New York cabbie’s personal driving rules, minus the lanes, on the other side of the road (though this is only followed sometimes, in any case), and plus a few dogs, chickens, kids, and other various obstacles. And lots and lots of motorbikes, all going at different speeds.
So, you can see why a regular bicycle appealed to me far more than a treacherous motorbike, even though I had driven one before, at home, back in the safety of American suburbia and stringent traffic laws. But, alas, no bicycles were to be found, and so I found myself pulling out of the very nervous shop-owner’s driveway, smiling at him far more confidently than I felt. I can only imagine the fear he felt, watching this crazy American girl drive off with his only rental motorbike, and important source of income.
After a few quick errands, I felt I was getting the hang of it. I stuck to the edge of the road and went my own speed, so others could pass me when they wanted. I figured the general mentality was every vehicle for itself, and so as long as I did what I wanted to do, I’d be okay. It worked quite well, and I even got up the guts to go a little faster and pass some people.
With about fifteen minutes of experience, I was ready for the majors. There was a hotel/restaurant that I wanted to find, that was, according to my Lonely Planet guide, well-renowned, and significantly cheaper for lunch than for dinner. Even better, it was off the busy main road. Perfect opportunity for a little exploring and getting out into the “real Bali,” not to mention escaping the incessant cries of, “Transport, yes, please? Taxi, miss?” and other various pleas for business pointed in my direction thanks to my status as Foreigner.
The only potential problem seemed to be the vagueness of the maps – Bali is not known for reliable and specific maps, but Lonely Planet offered the best to be found, despite the fact that my destination was indicated only by an arrow off the map, saying, “Damai Lovina Villas, 3 km.” Not terribly helpful, but I figured that in a worst case scenario, I’d simply get lost and get a nice tour of the backroads of Bali before returning to my hotel for a belated lunch. All in all, a win-win situation.
About five minutes into my country road excursion, I realize that three kilometers isn’t very far, so I’d better ask for directions. Pulling over at a small outdoor shop full of women, I try to ask for help, only to discover that they speak no English and, of course, I no Indonesia. They looked at my map and chattered away at me while I stared helplessly at them. A toothless granny was the last to leave me, and she laughed heartily while patting my shoulder and saying something I couldn’t understand. I managed an uncomfortable smile – what was so funny about my plight? – before continuing onward.
Several more intersections and slightly more vehicles later, I realize I must have gone too far. All of a sudden, on the left side of the street, I notice an older Western man following a younger Balinese man with an uncharacteristic ponytail into a house. My foreigner radar goes off – maybe they speak English! – and I pull over to consult my map as they’ve already walked into the house. Another Balinese man notices me and goes inside, reappearing a moment later with the pony tailed man, who asks me in pretty good English if I need help. At last!
We consult the map and he explains that I’ve in fact gone too far, and I have to turn around and go back to the last turn off, where I will turn right, go to the stoplight, and turn left, where I should see signs. I repeat the instructions back to him like the Balinese waiters do with orders, to make sure I’ve gotten it right, and he confirms. Perfect. I thank him profusely before putting away my book, and I begin maneuvering the motorbike so that I can turn around.
The problem is that the road has become much more crowded since I pulled over. I haven’t quite gotten the bike positioned properly when I spot a break in the traffic and decide that this is my chance. Turning the handlebars sharply in the direction I’m turning, I turn hard on the accelerator. Suddenly, the bike is going to fast, so I jam on the breaks with both hands, but it’s not stopping, and a shop is coming up in front of me quickly. If I don’t change direction, I’ll go straight into the store, so I swerve away, towards oncoming traffic, still desperately gripping the ineffective breaks. The bike rears up like an angry horse and I see the truck getting slowly closer. I scream for help before deciding that without my hands on it, the bike can go nowhere, and I let myself fall the now-short distance to the ground, watching my bike skid towards the truck.
Strangely enough, it never occurs to me that I might get run over or die, though I have since embellished the story to others to make it sound more terrifying. At the moment, though, all I can think is that I am going to rip my new skirt by skidding on the ground.
Immediately, the pony tailed man is there, picking up both me and the motorbike and dragging us out of the street, over to his family’s house. Unlike me, he knows the likelihood – or lack thereof – of traffic stopping, and has the wherewithal to get me out of the street before checking how I am. I am a mess, to say the least. I immediately burst into tears, partly because of the shock, and partly because I’m so embarrassed that I crashed the bike. I try to explain that I know how to drive motorbikes (well, motor scooters, but it’s all the same to them), but by then, the whole family has come outside and they are primarily concerned with sitting me down and taking care of the few scratches on my feet.
Miraculously, I am essentially unhurt. A woman with a child around her feet smiles hesitantly at me and puts her arm around my shoulder. I smile back through my tears, amazed at how emotions can be communicated beyond language and culture. She dabs a little antibacterial stuff on my cuts, which also stops the bleeding, and offers me a tissue for my face. The pony-tailed man and the man who had fetched him earlier are examining the bike and gesturing wildly.
Just then, the large, partially-clad Western man whom I’d seen originally comes out of the house, evidently fetched by one of the other family members. He sees my tear-streaked face and the two men around the bike, and immediately takes charge of the situation. Between the pony-tailed man and myself, we explain what happened, though I think my tears said it all. They agree that I will not be going back just yet, I’m too shaken, even if I appear to be physically fine. (I confess, a tiny hypochondriac part of me was afraid I’d ruptured some internal organ or suffered from a concussion and would die sometime quietly during the night without anyone knowing what had happened, but the rational part of my brain won out for the moment.
After several minutes of the Danish man – I guessed based on his accent – trying with little avail console me and calm me down by explaining how difficult these things are to ride, and how dangerous the traffic is, and how I really shouldn’t worry, all I can say is how stupid I felt. Stupid for thinking I could ride a motorbike in Bali, on the roads and with the minimal traffic rules, stupid for crashing when I do actually know how to use these things, stupid for crying in front of these nice people when I’m supposed to be all grown up and mature and capable. So the Danish man changes his tack and starts just telling me things, such as how the pony-tailed man is his son-in-law, and how I’m lucky I found people who speak English, because there aren’t that many Westerners who come out here. That actually makes me laugh and I tell him why I stopped in the first place.
Once I’m calm enough, it is decided that I still can’t drive back, so the pony-tailed man’s brother will drive the bike, with me on the back. The Danish man looks at me very seriously and says, “His name’s Jerry, you can trust him.” We look at each other and I nod, understanding, relieved to find another Westerner out here. In Bali, women do enjoy a certain amount of equality and respect, but that doesn’t always extend to foreign women, who, in addition to being walking wallets, are also viewed as easy, particularly in beach and resort towns. Somehow it feels that only Western men understand that this can be irritating or problematic, while even non-threatening Balinese men are oblivious of the discomfort.
The Danish man and the pony-tailed man explain to me that, when I return the bike, I shouldn’t say anything – just one side is a little scratched up, but there’s nothing major or obvious – and if my renter notices, I should refuse to pay more than 250,000 rupiah, about USD25, as most people will try to cheat me because I‘m Western. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to get away with this but I nod in understanding, thankful for the number, at least.
Once my tears are dry, the brother, Jerry, throws away his cigarette, puts on his helmet, turns around the bike, and waits while I figure out how to arrange my skirt so I can sit securely and thank my rescuers again. And then we zip off, with a friend of his following, to give him a ride back.
I realize as we pull away that I don’t know anyone else’s name.
That afternoon, when I return the motorbike, my renter comes out to greet me.
“So, how was it?” His relief at my return – with both the bike and myself in one piece – is visible.
“Good.” I nod, unable to say more. I will myself to be calm, because even if we can’t communicate well verbally, he’ll be able to tell if something’s wrong.
“Great!” He pulls the bike inside, not even inspecting it, and gives me back my deposit. “You need transport tomorrow?”