Mapping Bali #6: Ring Road Culture
As urban Bali has expanded rapidly during the last 30 years, the local government has constructed a network of ring roads to reduce traffic congestion, the entire urban area is bounded and bisected by this series of expressways. As they frame and divide the urban area they cut into earlier road systems leaving bizarrely shaped bits of roads and fragments of neighborhoods behind. These super roads have been imposed on the landscape by committee decision, they don’t feel organic, they have a definite industrial quality to them.
But at the major intersections of these ring roads there has grown a specific sub-culture with its own identity. Groups of men and boys, each with something to sell, establish their own territories here and vie for the attention of the drivers waiting for the traffic light to change. There are skinny boys in baggy pants selling newspapers (both local and international), sometimes a crippled man is playing a harmonica for tips, another man is selling wind up helicopters, sailing up and over the vehicles. Another day a man is sitting forlornly next to a rack of blond wigs, feeling silly because nobody is buying his wares. The drivers show interest if they want, but when the light changes from red to green these crossroad entrepreneurs had better get out of the way. The race is on again to see which of the drivers will win the right of way this time around.
There is nothing too certain in the jumble of vehicles, its not as much a matter of traffic rules as traffic scenarios, the right of way belongs to whoever gets there first, the rules of the road are being constantly re-written. Some drivers are tense, some are spaced out, and any single driver might change between these moods during the course of a short journey. But since these big roads are crowded and hot, with much blue exhaust lingering in the air, you should not expect to find many easy going drivers here. It’s tough to be a cool driver on a hot road.
There are trucks and buses here, too many of them, like whales flopping in a puddle. There are quite a few private sedans and mini vans, with their windows lightly closed, the passengers trying to maintain the illusion that they are in climate-controlled mobile lounges. Any remaining space is filled with motorcycles, thousands of them. The truck drivers call them mosquitoes, swarming around and becoming a nuisance. The 2 wheelers use their maneuverability almost like a weapon as they twist and turn and dart around spitting out blue smoke.
The larger vehicles more or less drive wherever they want, with an air of inevitability generated by their large mass. Their drivers sit high above the mayhem unaffected and imperturbable. Not so the motor cycle drivers, down in the thick of the noise and smoke they are the wild cards, they have the potential of making incredibly unlikely and dangerous moves. It almost seems that a number of these death wish drivers actually want to get hit. The perception changes somewhat if you became a motorcycle driver yourself. You will get the glimmer of the notion that there is always enough room for at least one more motorcycle to squeeze in, just enough space to pass by and not get hit. There is an almost irresistible urge to maintain a forward motion in spite of the obvious hazards.
If you are driving when the schools get out, the craziness goes up a notch or two. Hormone fired teenagers spill out into the street oblivious to the machines of steel and rubber trying their best to avoid them. The boys drivers talk the loudest and make the biggest show of themselves, contorting into strange positions as they drive. They sometime punch holes into their mufflers to turn them into amplifiers, assuming the girls will like them better for this. But most girls drive with perfect posture, crisp, cool, and unaffected by all the confusion around them, except for an occasional highly refined look of annoyance when they have to drive through a cloud of blue smoke.