Falling Down

Picture, if you will, the way that motorbikes park: in a row, close together, the front wheels all angled in the same way. It’s like a row of curved dominoes—each one mirroring the next—and, just like in dominoes, if you’re a little clumsy they can all go toppling over.

The first time this happened to me, there was someone around to pick up the bike that I had knocked over. I like to think that there will usually be someone around to help me with whatever bike-related problem I come up with. There are parking men everywhere. I pay them Rp 1000 and they pull my bike out for me so that I don’t knock down all the other bikes around me. They also move my bike after I clumsily park it so that it lines up perfectly with the ones around it. Once, one of them even kickstarted my bike for me after I had given it a few unsuccessful attempts and managed to look pathetic enough sitting there in the rain.

Unfortunately, there are not always parking men around, as I discovered one night after dance class.

Parking behind the student union scares me, but I’d parked there anyway, choosing not to circle around to the front and therefore saving slightly on gas and time. Now I was paying the price for that choice. The rows of motorbikes were too close together, and the bikes themselves too close together in those rows. When I knocked the bike next to me over, I wasn’t really surprised. What did surprise me was that I couldn’t lift it back up.

I gripped the handle bars and pulled.


I glanced behind me at the canteen. There were a few groups of students there laptops glowing in front of some of them. No one appeared to have noticed my plight or, if they had, no one seemed to care.

I circled the bike, a black one, bigger than mine. Once I stood in front of it, I tried again, figuring that if I got the right angle, I’d be able to lift it.

Again, it didn’t move.

I stood and stared. It looked like I wouldn’t be able to lift it. Not at all. How was that even possible? It couldn’t be that heavy, right? I wasn’t that weak, right?

Wrong. I could barely lift the bike two inches off the ground.

At this point, I started getting that panicky feeling that occurs whenever I start anticipating talking to a stranger. This happens when I’m using English, but it happens to an even greater extent when I’m using Indonesian. I know that, up until I open my mouth, I’m assumed to be Indonesian. I hate anticipating the change that occurs once I do start talking. And that’s even before you add in the general concerns that one has when speaking a second language: accent, word choice, comprehension.

I looked around again. A group of men were hanging out on the sidewalk not far off. It seemed like they were looking at me, but I couldn’t tell if that was just the paranoia talking. As we’ve been over, groups of men make me nervous.

In desperation, I tried to lift the bike again. There was no way I could be this helpless.

But I was. The idea of just leaving the bike and driving away flashed through my mind, but I knew I couldn’t do that; not with the distinctive smell of fuel seeping into the night air; not with all these people around, even if they were making no move to help me.

I sighed. There was nothing for it. And after all, hadn’t I come to Indonesia expecting to feel uncomfortable and expecting to have to talk to people?

I stepped over the gap between the parking lot and the sidewalk—a gutter for when it rained—and approached the men. “Minta tolong?” I tried very hard not to babble as I explained that I’d knocked a bike over and needed help.

They followed me back to the parking lot, the prone shape of the motorbike slowly materializing out of the darkness. Struck by a sudden thought, I began hoping fervently that it wasn’t one of theirs.

Of course, I’d spent a lot of time worrying for nothing. Two of the men righted the bike, another pushed mine out of the row and into an open space so that I could start it easily, a fourth asked me if I was Japanese or Korean. No one was creepy and, more importantly, no one seemed angry that some random foreigner had managed to knock over an innocent person’s motorbike and then been incapable of correcting the problem on her own.

I said thank you several times before driving off, leaving them still clustered behind me around the now-upright motorbike.


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