For the most part, during my time here, I have felt very safe. No worries about walking the streets alone, no concerns about being robbed or harmed.
However, there is one aspect of life in Jakarta that has made me feel like I am literally staring death in the face – the traffic.
Jakarta is a city of over 10 million people. For comparison, New York City, which is our largest city in the US, has a population of around 8.6 million. So in other words, Jakarta is huge.
However, unlike many other large, metropolitan capitals, Jakarta’s rise in population seems to have outpaced its modes of public transport. While buses and trains do exist here, they are far less effective than individual vehicles; therefore, most people move around from place to place by car.
Or, rather, by motorcycle.
See, the traffic gets so bad in Jakarta that it is not uncommon for vehicles to be at a complete standstill for hours at a time. However, even in a standstill there are gaps between cars. Gaps that are just wide enough for a motorcycle to slip through.
Therefore, as I have been advised by several locals, motorcycle transport is the fastest, most efficient, and some have even told me, safest way to get from place to place.
Now, normally this would not affect me at all, since I am neither brave enough, nor stupid enough, to rent a vehicle of ANY kind here in the hopes of testing my American driving skills out in Indonesian traffic, let alone a motorcycle (a vehicle that my mother would disapprove of me trying to drive anywhere, even in the US).
However, I did not take into account GO-JEK.
See, GO-JEK is an Indonesian app, similar to Uber or Lyft in the US. You download it to your phone, load money onto it, and can use it to call a car to you, wherever you are, for a ride. Essentially like calling a taxi, except with GPS accuracy and the ability to watch your “ride” in real time moving towards you on a map.
So, like Uber. Nothing new here. Except, there is. Because while GO-JEK has a GO-CAR function that is like calling an Uber, it also has a GO-RIDE function which directs not a car to your location, but a motorcycle.
You then ride seated behind the motorcycle driver (they do provide you with a helmet), and they take you where you need to go.
This is the option most locals use, since, like I said earlier, it is both faster and easier. And, in this case, it is also cheaper; costing sometimes half as much as a GO-CAR.
BUT, none of this should matter to me, because I know better than to call a GO-RIDE, right? Right.
See, I had a lunch meeting the other day with several religious leaders who are all part of an organization called ICRP: Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace. After this lunch I was to use GO-JEK to call a ride back to my hostel. However, I was not paying attention, and forgot to change it from the default of GO-RIDE to my preferred option of GO-CAR.
I only realized my error when I looked at the map on my screen and instead of seeing a tiny car heading towards my GPS blue dot, I saw a tiny motorbike. Panic immediately descended upon me. However, I was already outside waiting with several of the individuals who I had been meeting with. They had looked at my phone to see how many minutes away the driver was, intending to wait with me until I departed. They knew a GO-RIDE was already on its way to get me.
Now, I might have considered just admitting to my mistake, laughing it off, and changing the order for a GO-RIDE to a GO-CAR instead. However, I had already shown my “American-ness” earlier with this group of people, when they offered me a cup of coffee.
This was not just an ordinary cup of coffee, either. In their office, they take coffee making very seriously. They offered me two kinds of beans to choose from (I randomly chose the one they said would be less strong). Then, they grinded the beans fresh, and brewed it by slowly pouring steaming water over the grounds.
After all of this elaborate preparation, they presented me the cup of coffee, likely looking forward to my reaction. I was now at a crossroads: do I politely accept this cup of coffee, this cup of hospitality and friendship? Or…do I ask them for the milk and sugar that I can clearly see on a table a few feet away?
I deliberated for a few minutes while the coffee cooled, then I decided I would split the difference between these two options: I asked for sugar, but not milk. They quickly granted my request with nothing but smiles.
It was only later, after the conversation had flowed and we had gotten to know each other better, that they admitted that true Indonesians never add anything to their coffee. They told me that adding sugar essentially ruins the pure taste. They were teasing me, of course, and were not truly offended, but nevertheless I was relieved I had not asked to add milk too.
And so, as I stood outside with these men and watched the on-screen image of a motorbike move closer and closer, I decided I would try to simply move with the flow of culture here, rather than against it: I would take my first GO-RIDE.
The motorcycle pulled up a few minutes later. The driver looked like he was maybe 16, though legally he would have to be older. I put on the offered helmet, discovering the chin strap to be too long and impossible to adjust. I awkwardly climbed up behind him, placing my feet on two plastic footholds, one of which was so close to the exhaust that I could feel the hot air through the holes in my sandal.
Then came my first problem: how to hold on.
At first I lightly held onto my driver’s jacket, taking fistfuls of it near his waist. But after a few minutes on the bike I realized this wasn’t the most secure way of holding on. At a stop light I discovered handholds situated behind me, and so switched over to gripping these.
Now, it is hard to exactly explain how the traffic flows here. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. The only way I know how to describe it, is to imagine you are standing in an elementary school hallway when the bell rings for recess. Suddenly, small children would begin flying by you, running, turning, twisting – going in all directions around you as you remain still, simply an obstacle for them to maneuver around.
Not unlike how a wildebeest herd will divide, and then re-converge, around a rock that is in their path when stampeding.
This is a similar sensation one feels in Jakarta, when riding in a vehicle, surrounded by a sea of motorcycles. Traffic lanes are a mere suggestion, lines on the road, optional; or sometimes not even there.
Motorcycles can go not only forward and back, but also left or right – dodging between, in front of, and behind vehicles. This is what makes them so fast – even when traffic is blocked, a motorcycle can still find its way through.
Here’s a link to a short video clip of it in action:
And so, this is how I found myself; no longer the rock in the midst of the wildebeest stampede, but rather on the back of a wildebeest himself!
I clenched the handholds as if my very life depended on it (which, it quite likely did), and said prayer after prayer as we sped in between cars, jockeyed for road space, and squeezed through any and all possible openings.
At several points I closed my eyes, certain that I would soon hear the screech of metal upon metal as we crashed into the person next to us.
One moment in particular I saw my life flash before my eyes as the driver steered us in between an SUV and a bus – a gap that was only about 3ft wide. It got worse, however, when the bus decided to change lanes, suddenly changing the already-small-gap into one that was nonexistent.
Clearly, I did survive this harrowing adventure, but I’m still not sure how. Those three miles felt like an eternity, and when I finally reached my destination, my fingers had gone numb from gripping so tightly.
I did learn my lesson, though. Since then, I have made sure to select GO-CAR each and every time!