Love Letters to Indonesia: My Motorbike

As spring tentatively began to show itself, more and more people have started driving their motorbikes around Ann Arbor again. For the most part, they’re little automatic motorbikes, but I’m jealous of them nonetheless. I won’t go so far as to say that I miss my motorbike every day, but I do miss it at least once a month, and now that motorbikes are back out on the street in force I miss it more and more.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that traffic in Indonesia is crazy. There are lots of vehicles on the road and, infamously, traffic laws are only guidelines. All that said, after three years of driving I’d gotten so used to the flow of traffic that I was even comfortable with driving long distances, entering into a sort of zen state that didn’t make driving relaxing but did make it a somewhat automatic, instinctual act.

I drove the most between Solo and Jogja because it really is easier to have a bike of your own if you want to go somewhere at night or if you want to leave somewhere without having to bother one of your friends. I developed a whole ritual for driving between Solo and Jogja: stopping once to refill my gas tank and stopping one other time to buy too-sweet tea in a carton from an IndoMaret. I’d keep the carton in my front pocket and sip it while I waited at stop lights, maneuvering the straw beneath the jaw part of my helmet. Sometimes, before even leaving Solo, I would also buy a piece or two of fried tempe and stick those in my pocket as well (wrapped in plastic, of course) to take bites of at traffic lights.

For me, my motorbike represented freedom. I could go out on my own, drive myself wherever I wanted, and on the road—wearing a jacket and a helmet that covered most of my face—I looked like any other Indonesian girl on her motorbike. It was a level of anonymity that I never achieved in any other arena.

Lately, there have been a slew of motorbike robberies in Jogja: young men grabbing at people’s purses and bags late at night, pulling them off their motorbikes and taking off with their wallets. These news stories have made me stop and think about the freedom I felt, especially driving at night, going home after hanging out at someone’s house drinking tea or after watching a wayang or dance performance. It makes sense, now, why I would always leave with people who were going the same way as me, why we would drive together. Driving at night always felt safe to me: there were less cars and bikes on the road, more room to move. But of course this is also when you’re a target for more robbery.

Even so, when I go back to Indonesia, I’ll keep driving myself. But I’ll also keep accepting friends’ offers to leave together and to keep close together on the road until we’re all back in our own homes.

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