“Are you scared?” Kiki asked me. A few minutes before, she had put on a hoodie, gloves, and thick thigh-high socks under her shorts, even though it was another searing hot day in Jakarta. On top of all this, she strapped on a helmet and a cloth face mask. This morning I had prepared for a visit to a Chinese school. I hadn’t imagined that I might end up cruising through Jakarta on a moped. So I had no helmet. And my skirt wasn’t exactly moped-friendly attire.
Now I was seated behind a five-foot-tall Chinese language teacher and accelerating down the street, gripping my seat with both hands and praying at each turn that I wouldn’t fall off. Cars and motorcycles surrounded us, all moving at different speeds. Some weaved through the traffic, some honked as they passed by. Every time we rode over a speed bump, I worried I’d lose my balance and crack my head open on the asphalt.
“Yes, I’m a little bit scared!” I shouted back to Kiki over the drone of the engine.
Let me explain a thing or two about Jakarta’s traffic. It’s unrelenting, unpredictable, and it dictates your day. It is so bad that you can really only get to two — or if you’re a masochist, three — different places in the city in the same day. (I learned this the hard way last week, when I made appointments — very reasonably, I thought — for 10am, 1pm, and 5pm. I ended up canceling the 1pm.) This is because the roads are usually clogged. Even at 6:30am, the highway by my apartment building is congested, the cars at a crawl. This lasts for the next 14 hours.
The only escape? Stay home. Or ride a motorcycle/moped. Two-wheeled vehicles squeeze between cars and maneuver through slow traffic any way they can. Swarms of mopeds and motorcycles are the only things that move with any speed during rush hour.
Back to Kiki’s moped. “You have to trust me,” Kiki yelled into the air. A truck belching black smoke was lumbering slowly in front of us, taking up part of the next lane. Kiki cut to the right and sped up; we started to pass the truck. I looked at the other motorists and discovered that no one else bothered to hold on with their hands. Indonesians must have strong core muscles. A family of four, sandwiched together on the back of a motorcycle, scooted past.
“I trust you,” I said. “It’s the other people I don’t trust.”
The last time I remember being on a moped, I was maybe six years old and living in Taiwan. A young man who worked for my parents gave me a ride on his scooter. I thought it was fun.
This time, I hold on tight and take a few deep breaths. Soon, I relax and start to enjoy the ride. The breeze cools me off, and I get a new close-up of the city without a car as a buffer zone. Since I arrived in Jakarta I’ve been getting around mostly by taxi; a 20-minute ride costs about $3. But this is a luxury that most Indonesians can’t afford. Despite the skyscrapers and glitzy malls in Jakarta, wages here are actually pretty low; $500 per month is typical pay for a white collar job. So on the roads, you’ll see many of Jakarta’s residents on motorcycles and mopeds; they’re exposed to the elements and in a bit of danger, but when it comes to traffic, they’re also more free than the wealthy people trapped inside their SUVs.