Driving a Motorbike in Bali

One of Eric’s New Year’s resolutions, when we started 2013, was to write a blog for With Husband In Tow.  Now, technically, he finished the blog on December 22, so, this was accomplished in 2013, but with my blog schedule…Finally, The Husband speaks out for the first time on the site.  If you want more from The Husband, follow @TheHusbandInTow on Twitter.  Now, in Eric’s own words:

In sales, they say that the best way to learn is “trial by fire.” Hand the salesman a list with names and phone numbers and start calling. Sure you’ll be nervous and not present the product as it should, but you’re getting used to pitching your product, building confidence with each call. 

The same can be said for operating a motorbike for the first time. When I picked up the motorbike in Ubud, Indonesia, from Ketut (it means third son in Balinese), I had no other option than to put in the key, turn the ignition and ride on back to our villa. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to start the motorbike. I assumed you just turned the key, much like a car, and away you go….wrong! 

Driving a Motorbike in Bali

It turns out that you have to turn the key, engage the brakes, make sure the kickstand is up and push the starter button. It was a good thing that I put my pride aside for a moment and played dumb with Ketut (not a difficult thing for me) by saying that it had been a while since I last rode a motorbike and could he “refresh” my memory on how to start it. I might not have been the greatest salesman during my career, but if there’s one thing I learned, it’s how to stretch the truth. I don’t know if Ketut bought what I was selling but he took 30 seconds to show me the ignition sequence and away I went out into Ubud traffic, on my first ever self-operated motorbike ride. 

The Normalcy of Southeast Asia Driving

There is something to be said about the relative calmness and normalcy of driving in the US. For the most part, cars remain on their side of the road, people use their turn signals and occasionally animals venture across traffic, sometimes successfully, some times not so much. Normalcy on the roads in Southeast Asia is organized chaos. Traffic coming from every direction, motorbikes on the sidewalks, yes sidewalks, and an antsyness from the drivers that would rival a 5 year old hopped up on candy. 

Having witnessed traffic from the relative safety of the sidewalks of Southeast Asia, I approached joining this three ring circus with trepidation and flat out fear. It’s one thing to splatter my brain on the pavement it’s another do that to Amber, she’d never let me live that one down, so to speak.

Obstacles of Driving in Bali

In 2009, during our first trip around that world, we stopped in New Zealand to witness the awe inspiring beauty of the South Island. Renting a camper van we had the freedom to stop when and where we wanted to take in the amazing scenery. If you ask me what the South Island looks like I’d describe it as black asphalt with bright yellow dashed lines running down the middle. Amber’s description would be slightly different. The same happened when I drove in Ireland years before.

Driving on the other side of the road, I won’t call it the wrong side of the road (even though it is) out of respect for my friends from the UK and other former British colonies, is just different.  For the first time, I was more concerned about not getting into an accident than seeing the sites, that’s what photos are for, right? 

The same can be said about riding the motorbike here in Bali, where they also drive on the wrong side of the road. I haven’t been able to take in the scenery as much as I would like in an effort not to get us killed. What I have seen on the road, though, has made me shake my head in disbelief, scared the crappy out of me, and made we wonder what I’m doing out there with them.

It’s funny how we can take things for granted up until you have to deal with a situation. Having been driven around on a motorbike in other Southeast Asian countries we’ve been to, the view and experience changes when you’re the one pulling back on the throttle. Ubud is making my first experience on a motorbike very interesting to say the least. 

For starters, the road to our first Bali villa cut through a small village and rice fields. At the entrance to the village, the locals were kind enough to lay down four speed bumps. Perhaps if everyone could control themselves and the speed in which they travel there would been no need for them. Regardless they were there and had to be dealt with. 

When I was on the motorbike by myself, getting over the bumps wasn’t an issue. I could zip right over without bottoming out, surprising given my size compared to the average Balinese. When Amber and I were on the motorbike, we crossed over a weight line that the good folks at Honda probably didn’t consider when designing our Vario. Usually, I could get us over 2 of the 4 speed bumps without bottoming out, not bad. When things were on my side, I occasionally scored a 4 out of 4; yeah me!!!

Safety on the Motorbike

driving a motorbike in Bali

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that, “in this world nothing can be certain, expect death and taxes.”  For anyone riding a motorbike in Bali, this expression is fitting if you remove death and taxes and insert having an accident. On any given day you see the tell-tale signs of tourists and expats who’ve had flesh meet the not so nice streets of Bali. White gauze and surgical tape on knees, elbows, forearms and hands, bloody scraps and scabs where healthy skin once was. 

It was these images that kept me off motorized two wheels for my entire adult life. The thought of this happening to me makes me sick because I know my day will come. Worse is the possibility and inevitability of Amber driving her own motorbike and this happening to her. Just writing about this makes me ill. Sure I could choose not to ride the motorbike and hop on a good ole fashion push bike, but that presents a whole new set of challenges with the traffic here. At least on the motorbike I’m getting my chores done faster.

So, what is the solution, because I’m not giving up my Vario.  There isn’t one. All I can do is make sure my helmet is buckled, keep my eyes moving and have the occasional offering and blessing done to my motorbike. 

About a week ago we made our first road trip on the motorbike. Along with our friend Julie, we went from Ubud down to Keramas beach to spend the day soaking in the beautiful sunshine and sounds of the Bali Sea. We left at 9 am and arrived at our destination approximately 35-40 minutes later. Traffic was light which helped us make good time (I’m reminded of George Costanza from Seinfeld and his fixation on having to make good time). It was the first time that I had ventured out onto the two lane bypass. With cars, buses, and trucks zooming by at 70+ kpm I was reminded of how serious it is to operate motorized transport here.

After our relaxing day at the beach we hopped back on our motorbikes for the drive back home to Ubud. Traffic had picked up and at one point I found myself having to decide if I wanted to play slalom in traffic or sit behind a truck that was spewing loads of nasty black exhaust.  Against my better judgment, I pulled back on the throttle, weaved right, then left, passed a tourist bus and around the belching truck. 

Now, that I have ridden my motorbike outside of Ubud, another problem will ultimately present itself, one that is another inevitability here – the police. 

I’m technically supposed to have an international drivers license to operate the bike. I don’t. I still have my Virginia issued drivers license. When I get pulled over by the police, and it will happen, this license isn’t going to do me any good, but Amber says carry it, so I do. We’ve heard numerous tales from other bules (Westerners) who have been pulled over. These stops are more like mobile ATM machines if you catch my drift (you can’t tell, but I’m winking). For 100,000 Indonesia Rupiah or $8, you can go back about your business. 

These transactions are not looked highly upon by the government.  In fact, there are PSA signs around town explaining how serious a situation it can be if you get caught. I understand that these PSAs came about after an incident last year when a Dutch tourist secretly recorded his interaction with the local police after he was stopped for not wearing his helmet. He posted a video on YouTube of a police officer asking him for a bribe instead of paying the fine for not wearing a helmet. The Balinese authorities were left with egg on their faces, hence all the PSAs….so goes the rumor. Well it turns out that this “tourist” from the Netherlands, travels the world trying to expose local corruption. His own personal PSA for tourists? Regardless, it still happens here in Bali.

Much like removing your sandals before entering a home, riding a motor bike around Ubud or other Southeast Asian cities and towns is just what you do. Is it my favorite thing? No. Am I nervous that my accident is coming? Yes. Do I want to pay the police to let me continue about my day, not at all. 

However, I do enjoy the freedom it provides Amber and I to get around, especially knowing how much we despise taxis. Zipping around town on my two wheels dodging children, chickens, dogs and other drivers on a spectacular sunny Bali day, past rice fields and temples, is one of those things that I love about living here. 

2 thoughts on “Driving a Motorbike in Bali

  1. Anne Helmers says:

    Driving in Bali is one of the scariest events we encountered on our RTW adventure. They load up the bikes with chickens, metal, boxes and families so you never know what might come flying off around the corner. I also loved how rain never stops anyone from driving bikes around, just put a garbage bag over your family and ride. We became more accustomed to it but not brave enough to try it. Good for you! Be safe! Be sure to go to Naughty Nuri's ribs! (Ubud) You won't regret it!

  2. Amber Hoffman says:

    Anne, It is true that every time we are on the road is an adventure, and we are always anticipating people's moves, but you can only do so much, and then a chicken will run out in front of you. We just take it slow. And, we have been to Naughty Nuri's, but for your next trip to Bali we can take you for even better ribs, across from our house in Ubud!

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