Please keep in mind that you take your own safety into your own hands if you choose to follow this, or any other advice. Reader, beware. According to recent statistics, traffic fatalities are the third leading cause of death in Bali, and most of them are motorbike accidents. According to the traffic police, 287 people died in traffic accidents in the first half of 2011, excluding victims who died later in the hospital. See BaliSurfStories for more gruesome details. Should you choose to go ahead and put yourself in the hands of fate and rent your own self-drive scooter, read on.
In no particular order; Thoughts on riding a motorbike around Bali...
1. Bikes and Bike accessories: Insist on a new bike. Ask to see the bike you are actually going to rent. Not "one like this one" or "One my friend has, you follow me, maybe 15 minutes." A bike should cost about 40,000 Rupiah per day, or 500,000 Rupiah per month. While you are at it, ask for a helmet. They probably have three to choose from, all of them will be too big, and one of them will certainly have some sort of disgusting bug infestation. Alternately, spend 170,00 Rupiah ($17USD) on a non-DOT approved helmet at the tiny helmet stall or grocery store and ride your motorbike 80km per hour through heavy traffic in it. Ask the dude you rent your bike from for a poncho. This should be included in the price. This is a necessary piece of equipment due to frequent torrential downpours that only occur when you are on a motorbike and have forgotten your poncho.
2. More on helmets: If you did buy a $17 helmet, take it inside with you, it is possible it will get ripped off from your bike if you leave it on the mirror. Crappy helmets you can leave. You can also lock one of the straps into the seat, but if you have a super snazzy non-DOT approved helmet, they will just rip the buckle off to take your helmet. This is really only a concern in Kuta at night. If you do leave your helmet on the bike overnight, it will almost certainly be full of rainwater/frogs/spider egg sacs when you come out in the morning, so look inside it before you put it on your head.
3. On Proper Documentation: Take the time to get an international driver's license. This costs about 10USD and you can do it online. Its a meaningless piece of paper that the cops will ignore anyway, but everyone says you should have one.
4. On Bugs and other flying debris: Buy a pair of clear lens glasses. I mean it. The helmet shields suck and get really dirty really fast. I have been hit full in the face by the most massive butterfly you ever saw in your life, full on Silence of the Lambs moment. Do NOT panic or crash when you get pelted with enormous bees, dragonflies, mosquitoes, or killer butterflies. Simply spit and turn your head and the offending bug will peel off your face and hit whatever sucker is on your wheel.
5. How to handle the ones that sting or bite: Do not slap at bugs that hit your chest, its likely they have stingers. Glance calmly down, or angle your mirror to see what's what. If it is one of the enormous wasp like creatures, pull your bike over calmly, take your helmet off calmly, peel your shirt carefully off your head, and then freak right the fuck out waving your shirt and beating it against the ground like a lunatic.
6. Hati Hati: This means Be Careful! Not Warning, or Danger, but Be Careful! This is kind of the general idea when driving in Bali. Do whatever the heck you feel like, but Be Careful! You will see these signs at the VERY LAST SECOND as they are placed DIRECTLY in front of whatever massive gaping hole they are currently ripping into the road. Bali seems to be continuously under construction, so these are everywhere. The rule seems to be, do not merge in an orderly fashion, nor should you slow down for the safety of the workers. All motorbikes should immediately speed up and cut off whatever car or truck is about to become the bottleneck at the construction site. You don't want to be the dumbass that is sucking bus fumes while everyone goes around you and up the middle. As you go around these signs (most of the time perilously close to them), it is polite to tell your passenger in a voice that sounds full of steely resolve and confidence, "Watch your feet!" as their feet stick out a bit on the pegs and are prone to snagging on the signs.
7. Gravel, Feathers, Dogs, Pedestrians, Bicycles, etc: There is an incredible amount of shit flying through the air, especially on the main motorways in Bali. Remember those clear glasses? Buy em. Use em. You can pull your face shield down on top of them for good measure. I also put wetwipes in my backpack because by the time I make the 1 hour drive from Ubud to Kuta, I am covered with a thick coating of sweat and road debris. Bodhi, having used me as a bug and dirt shield most of the way, fares slightly better.
8. What to wear? There is a reason that the Balinese wear jeans and jeans jackets while they are riding their motorbikes. It hurts to get pelted with everything one can get pelted with. This includes poo from the cow tied up in the flat bed truck in front of you and sweet smelling indonesian cigarettes from the beautiful sarong clad lady riding side saddle and nursing a baby in front of you. If you do happen to hit the ground on your merry journey, denim is a good barrier between you and the ground. Well, its better than surf shorts. Everyone rides in flip flops, apparently their feet are road rash proof. Bodhi likes to ride in his surf shorts without a shirt on, but I only let him do that on the broken, irregular, wet, slippery, very windy roads of interior Kuta. Safety first, kids.
9. On dealing with the cops: Put a 50,000Rupiah note in with your registration and HIDE YOUR MONEY (not in your backpack). The cops are the one group of people you DO need to worry about here in Bali. If you get caught in a tourist net, don't get off your bike, don't let them take your keys, make a bit of a scene. They will tell you that the fine, for whatever traffic offense you are supposed to have committed is around 300,000Rupiah. We've gotten away for as little as 20,000. Don't bargain, just say no, and hand them your blue note and leave. They won't chase, they are busy trying to get bribes from other suckers. See previous post Pulled Over By Cops on the Way to Kuta
10. On the Rules of the Road: There are really no traffic rules in Bali. Well, there are, but those rules are ignored, and there is a whole other set of unwritten rules that you need to figure out quickly if you want to go anywhere and have all your fingers, toes and skin with you when you arrive. Traffic goes both ways on one way streets, its common for people to drive up on the sidewalk and emerge suddenly from behind trucks. People drive fast and aggressively. When you are crossing the street, expect to see scooters and motorcycles and guys with whole portable food stalls attached to the back of their bike, random chickens, roosters and dogs all over the traffic. and going the wrong way. Bodhi was actually run over one afternoon while I was busy getting a tattoo. I think I was also awarded Mother of the Year award that very afternoon. (He's okay. He has a little scar on his foot that he's quite proud of. I do not have a post called Run Over In Kuta While my Mother Was Getting Tattooed, although I might write one.) (In my defense, he had a babysitter. A lovely young man Rov, the lead singer of GoldVoice, a hard core Bali Pride rap group and his beautiful expat Aussie girlfriend.)
11. Signal! Use your blinker. That is a weak indication that you intend to shift your direction of travel. If you really intend to turn, put your hand out, palm down and wave gently and subtly. This means you really actually intend to turn in a way that might disrupt traffic. If you see someone doing this in front of you (often it's the co-pilot) (ie, one of seven people on the bike in front of you) doing this, GIVE THEM the right of way, they will cut you off and you will die. By the way, when a car signals, it does not mean it is going to look in the mirror and then change lanes completely. It means its going to shift a little. People don't really pay attention to lanes in Bali. A car might be driving straddling the dotted line, and this is it's lane. When it needs to go around some obstacle or other (a sudden Hati Hati sign for instance, placed squarely in the middle of the road and appearing without warning from in front of the car which previously swerved without warning around it), it will put on its blinker and move just enough to go around the obstacle. A blinker means "Im moving over" not "I'm changing lanes or turning."
12. Go, Go, Go! If you are going to drive a scooter, or anything else in Bali, drive aggressively. If you don't want to get stuck in hellish traffic for hours choking on bus fumes and chicken feathers, learn to move to the front of the pack. The best way to do this is find someone who looks like they are about 14 years old. They will be riding a dirtbike of some sort, and going really fast. Hop on their wheel and let them be the proverbial stick in the water. If you are going to do this, stay RIGHT on their wheel and move like you are one vehicle. Let him take the risk. You get the reward. If you are not going to drive like this, prepare to spend a lot of time being overtaken from behind, cut off and frightened.
13. More on aggression: If you are going to pass someone, PASS them. Don't mamby pamby around and block the passing gap. When you gun the throttle and then don't go, it confuses the locals, who are willing to hop curbs and take on-comming busses with a nanosecond gap without blinking. If you are too much of a pussy to pass, let someone else widen the gap for you. You ruin the flow, man.
14. Countdown to take off: When you are in a major intersection, like the McDonald's in Sanur, watch the count down light. It will say, "Jalan 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO!!" No kidding, it actually counts you down like it's a race course. Everyone will gun their motors on 2, and leave on 1. Pay attention, if you are out in front, you are prey for being broadsided by lagging traffic going the other way. If you can be out in front, you will have a big open road in front of you, until you catch the next tangled mess of traffic ahead. James Bond your way to the front, going through the gaps and up the middle of the lane, on the sidewalk and however else you have to go to get ahead of the trucks. They are dangerous.
15. The rules of sidewalk driving: Speaking of driving on the sidewalk, pay attention. The sidewalks in Bali often have sewers directly under them, and they are made out of blocks of pavers laid across the flowing mass. Most of the time, there will be some sort of upheaval and giant gaping hole in the sidewalk that comes up unexpectedly. Sidewalks can also end abruptly with a giant drop off, so look ahead if you chose the adventurous route. Pay attention, wrong way traffic tends to go on the sidewalks as well.
16. Thoughts on Potholes, dogs, cats and chickens: Massive potholes in the road proper are also a pleasant surprise when you are ripping along at 6o or 80km/hr directly behind a car or truck. These lovely back breakers and flat makers appear out of no where and can send you flying. Reading the road has a whole new meaning here. Dogs tend to sleep in the middle of the street, where its very peaceful (?) and tend alternately not to move at all, or to suddenly jump up and run in an unpredictable direction when you approach. Chickens seem unconcerned and slightly more predictable, cats go in the same direction of travel really, really fast. Old people don't move. Piles of dirt for construction appear without warning or signs. There are no rules for who has the right of way in these circumstances. If, say, you are traveling toward a pile of dirt, which is on your side of the road, and there is an old person walking in the opposite direction directly across from the dirt, slow down and let the old person walk by. There is often a scooter passing the on coming truck headed for the gap all at the same time, anyway. If you have a nanosecond of speed advantage and a bit of momentum, go for it. It usually works out. (except when it doesn't. See above warning).
17. On Courtesy and Road Rage: One of the coolest things about Bali is that I have yet to see any road rage. People tend to work together to get traffic moving, and it is expected that you will cut each other off trying to make space. Once one bike slips through, there is a little channel that all bikes can use until the cars manage to clog it off by moving at the alarming rate of approximately 1km/hr. Smile at your fellow roller derby players as you ping pong your way through traffic. But for god's sake, don't let anyone go ahead of you, this causes massive confusion. Put your elbows out and get to work. Make friends at the traffic lights.
18. On getting directions and finding your way. Most of the streets don't appear to be marked with signs. When they are, they are in non-uniform, non-official looking signage, and in odd and unpredictable places. To improve this not at all confusing scenario, streets in Bali tend to randomly twist and turn, to such an extent that it feels very much like you are now going in a very different direction, did you turn or was it just the road? To counteract this issue, try finding landmarks. Be careful of making landmarks out of billboards and petrol stations as the billboards will change, and the petrol stations all look the same. As do Indomarts, circle K's and McDonalds. A common way to give and receive instructions sounds a bit like this: "Go to the huge statue, go almost all the way around, get off at the petrol station, go to the McDonalds, go past it and turn right at the Indomart." The next time someone gives me directions like this I am going to punch them in the face. I'm not kidding. Not very tolerant or Hindu of me, I know. But there is a huge statue in almost every major intersection, an Indo Mart on every corner. (Ironically, I gave directions to my house in just this way only yesterday...)
19. Use your iPhone: From a place with internet, (all Circle K's have free WiFee), pull up Google Maps and map your route. Zoom in all the way along your route of intended travel so that the map fills in completely. Then, duct tape your iPhone over your speedometer. (There is no speed limit in Bali anyway). Make sure you turn off your passcode, because its really hard to open your phone and type in your passcode while you are driving the motorbike through traffic with a passenger, a surfboard and six bags of groceries in the stifling heat while its raining.
20. Speaking of Rain: Remember that poncho? When you see locals on bikes pulled over by the side of the road and the sky is really grey, this is an indication that you, too, should pull over and put your poncho on. Yes, I know its not raining yet. Yes, I know you think you can just wait until it begins to rain and then pull over and put it on. But trust me. If you wait until you feel the rain and THEN pull over, in the fifteen seconds it takes you to pull over, you will be drenched in water like you jumped in the pool. For real, I'm not kidding.
21. Hati Hati! When the rain comes, the road gets slippery. This is the one time I've seen people drive like they have a sane thought in their head. Everyone slows down and pays attention. You should too, the rain comes in torrential sheets and its hard to see through. If you only have one poncho, and you have a kid on the back, like I do, they can just duck under the back of the poncho. Although Bodhi (being Bodhi) likes to ride and get all wet. What the heck, he's in his boardies anyway.
22. More on Cops: The only time I've ever heard a siren was when the cops were escorting first the Indonesian Porsche Owner's Club, and then again when they were escorting the Indonesian Ninja Owner's Club. Presumably this clears the road so that the cars and Ninjas can drive relatively fast and in formation. Other than that, I've only seen cops on the side of the road looking hot and cranky and waving red and green flags ineffectually at the clogged traffic. Oh, and pulling over tourists for cash.
23. No Seriously, on Safety: Even more rare than a cop in a cop car being actually cop like are ambulances. They exist but they are few and far between and the staff is poorly trained. Take the time to make a first aid kit and put it in your bag. Maybe not for you but for one of the other accidents you are likely to see. (We have witnessed no fewer than five motorbike crashes in the nine weeks we've been on island.). You might want to go ahead and take a WFR course while you are at it, more well trained medical people who are traveling is never a bad thing. A friend of mind is making a motorbike safety video for his senior thesis at Green School, when its all done and after he's hit his home run in presentation on Monday (good luck, Dylan), I'll post a link to it here if he lets me.