Learning to Love Our Motorbike

It didn’t take sharing a road with the Bali Merzy Motorcycle Club, arguably the best-behaved bikers on the planet, to teach me that there’s nothing rock ‘n’ roll about biking in these parts.

Even if you’ve got a bona fide Hog. Which – like, doh! — we haven’t.

Our mean machine? One of those little 100cc pop-pop scooters that function as the family car across most of South-East Asia.

And I do mean the family car.

I’ve seen middle-aged matrons, bolt upright, driving one-handed with metre-wide trays on their heads; men transporting everything from window frames to fresh-cut grass to whole roast pigs; families of four or five, with nary a helmet between them, in formal gear en route to a ceremony; and kids barely older than Z bowling along the narrow paths through the rice fields…

To be honest, I’d always wondered how those little kids got started on their bikes. I’ve seen one answer, a gang of teens and tweens lurching alarmingly onto a relatively fast road, but I figured they couldn’t all be doing it in Hackney council estate style (though I’m guessing these kids had honestly borrowed the bike and weren’t going to torch it later).

And lo! This morning, I saw a mother, her seven year old son behind her and her twelve-year-old upfront, hands hovering just over the handlebars as the tween negotiated traffic…

Proper driving lessons! Pretty much…

Now, just because everyone’s doing it, doesn’t mean I have to.

And just because hiring a car is expensive, and you need your own wheels in Bali, doesn’t mean I have to hire a bike.

And just because bike is by far the fastest way to get around Bali, doesn’t mean I have to stop being scared…

So, yeah, it has taken some time to learn to love the little (surprisingly new) twist-n-go Honda I’m renting for just over $100 a month.

Or, more precisely, to lose the absolute gutwrenching terror that preceded any motorbike mission for the big end of a fortnight.

It’s over a year since, having barely ridden so much as a pushbike since my teens, I attempted the sort of road that counts as dirtbiking in the developed West and, well, just a road over here, felt too proud to walk the bike and, erm, deposited self and spawn in a chaotic puddle of limbs, blood, mud and shock.

Though, weirdly, now I think about it, no tears.

I enjoyed some relatively easy, low traffic biking in rural Vietnam and Laos. But, though they’ve got nothing on Saigon or Hanoi, Balinese roads are not what you’d call quiet.

Now, I’m basically used to Bali traffic rules by now. That’s rules as in “socio-cultural norms” rather than “things enforced by police” or “lessons taught by driving instructors”.

The might is right rule. The way a right indicator means “move over” and a flash of the lights means “did you not see my right indicator, you muppet? I’m steering round a pothole, here”.

The rhythms that underlie the not-quite-free-for-alls at intersections and roundabouts, the logic within the scooter surges that seem, from behind the wheel of a car, like so many midges…

Most of the time, when required to stop suddenly by men with whistles, kamikaze 12-year-olds, food carts, ox carts, pushbikes or big, scary lorries with a f*ck-you right indicator, I can do so without squeezing the accelerator along with the brakes…

(Fellow uncos, it’s all about keeping the wrists high.)

Not only am I no longer mystified by random swerves, I’ve learnt that they originate with a passenger, even a small one, adjusting their weight or leaning the opposite way from you on corners.

More importantly, I can feel them and correct them before they start, even if I can’t yet take my eyes off the road and mirrors (and, yes, you have a blind spot on a bike) long enough to insist the perpetrator stop bloody wriggling.

It’s taken a while.

But I can finally feel – whisper it! – a bit of that anytime-anyplace-anywhere sense of freedom that people love about the bike.

No wind in the hair, though. While I envy the hot mamas rocking up at the school gates with nary a helmet twixt them and spawn, since Thailand both craniums have been covered like a Star Wars Storm Trooper.

What happened? Three things.

First up, we took a trip to find a white sand beach. (Harder to find than you’d think: it’s the waves and the underwater stuff that make Bali a marine destination, not the beaches. They’re OK. I mean, better than much of Europe. But, honestly, Maluku beats the hell out of them.)

There was proper coast road cruising, lots of fun, and a butt-achingly long day since the closest Bali has to a white sand beach is Pantai Putih (“white beach”) and, erm, it’s a bugger finding the handwritten road name.

To get there, we had to do the scary bypass. Which meant I had to get over my fear of passing or being passed by lorries (Z’s dad and I agreed a 40kph speed limit on bikes, not so much because we don’t believe in Z’s Indo helmet, but because he’s not wearing leathers, or even denim, and bitumen, as they used to say about heroin, screws you up.).

Secondly? I got sick. As in, “Must lie down. Ouch. Christ! Dengue?!” sick. It’s the first time either of us has been sick since we left the UK over a year ago and a weird one for me.

I don’t usually get ill. I’m literally cold-blooded, so very rarely run a temperature. And when I do, I tend to lie down, sleep it off and be fine in 24 hours.

Not this time.

Z was right as rain. Which is, of course, a good thing. Especially given I couldn’t really stand up on day one, so he had to go to the shop.

On day two (not to mention three, four and seven), I took him to school. On a bike. With a fever. In heavy traffic.

And, once you’ve taken a motorbike, with passenger, up and down a road that would fail health & safety for BMX biking in the UK, in a cold sweat, shivering, aching and tripping slightly, routine bike journeys hold few fears.

And, thirdly? I did the supermarket shop. One small step for mankind. One large step for this particular woman.

I may be a long way off the professional bike taxi drivers, who’ll pile me, Z and our belongings onto a single bike with nary a wobble, but I’m seriously amazed how much crap you can hang off the carrying hook on the dash of a scooter without over-balancing. And, for that matter, how much crap you can get under the seat.

On which note, gentle reader, I bid you adieu. We hit the bypass tomorrow am for Denpasar, as junior’s wardrobe is far beyond tired.

And we’ll be back with a full report on Balinese New Year.

7 Responses

  1. Jeff says:

    Nice story! Sounds like a roller coaster of experiences on a bike. Here’s to continued health while riding!

  2. Funny that I read this post as today I also hired a motorbike here in Langkawi, Malaysia. I came close to death two times. The locals here are such pros and I am sure it is the same in Bali! They put me to shame.

    In saying that, it was the best way to really get to experience the island.

    • Theodora says:

      I think practising on quiet roads is by far the best, if you can do it. And proceeding at a snail’s pace, which we do. It’s a very different set of skills from driving a car, I find, though related.

  3. Mark D. says:

    Enjoyed your post. I remember so many varied groupings on a little motorbike in Bali and Thailand. Yes! The middle-aged lady with pumps and purse sitting “bolt upright” speeding down from Doi Su Thep faster than we were. She passed us on the right. Too funny. Whole families heading off to somewhere and blithely assembled on their little family bike. Even dogs perched up on the handle-bars. I did enjoy riding around Asia on one of these little bikes — with darling wife and daughter. Three of us zipping along the crowded streets. Was a nice feeling of freedom. Thanks for the post. Cheers!

    • Theodora says:

      It is, actually, a great feeling of freedom, once you lose the fear. The way you can just stop off anywhere you want…

  4. La Loca says:

    l enjoyed reading this story and all of the other one’s as well. I will be going to Bali soon. I can’t wait to get on a scooter and enjoy myself. I’m sure seeing families piled onto a small scooter is something you would never forget. I am very intrigued by the customs, culture, language and people. I will see you someday soon Bali and I can’t wait. Selamat Malam!