1 Jul 2012


I know life is all about balance, but nowhere have I ever felt that it is more true than here Indonesia!  As a Westerner, when “balance” is mentioned in related to us as humans, I would tend to immediately think of life/home/work balance, but here, I think it is that and more - even more literal and basic than that at times.

When being driven around the streets of Jakarta (as one does when one has a driver), there really is ample opportunity to just sit back and observe.  I get carsick if I look down to do anything too much like reading or texting on the phone, so I have done a lot of observing while driving to and from school and running errands in the last 4 or 5 months since we arrived.

I have come to appreciate that the art of riding the motorbike is an amazing feat of skill “thing”, and that most here make it look truly effortless.  You will regularly see children that can be no older than 9 or 10 driving the motorbike themselves, with or without friends piled high on the back, no helmets, wending their way easily and “care-free-ly” through the bustling streets with the everyday and unforgiving traffic of trucks and buses and other millions of motorbikes! Watching them can sometimes almost result in palpitations for the observer!! Individually the motorbike riders can actually be quite useful, allowing the car driver to sneak into a gap, and “break up” the traffic…very convenient for allowing the car drivers to get a “nose” in!  But, en masse the motorbikes really can be quite intimidating and an incredibly formidable force to be reckoned with!

In Indonesia, motorbikes can be hired for individual transport, similar to hiring a taxi elsewhere.  This is the “ojek”.  They are very cheap, and very convenient in the ever-increasing crazy traffic that plagues Jakarta.  Motorbikes can of course sidestep these jams and easily weave in and out of the smaller spaces!! There are taxis here, not all of them are above board or trustworthy, but they too are cheap, but of course in the traffic, they’re slow. With the Ojek, one just hops on the back and holds on, and away they go!

Also, as well as human cargo, it will never cease to amaze me what other things can be carried on a single motorbike…along with of course the rider/driver.  We have seen enormous boxes full of innumerable goods – loose eggs (I regularly break eggs in their cartons just getting from the supermarket to home!), live chickens, computer printers, donuts, lunches, vegetables, numerous bales of hay type-stuff, seven 19 litre water bottles…full – all at once on the same bike, and the prize winner is a full sized fridge.  Yep, that says, “fridge”!! All things are tied on with raffia-type string/tape…which has to be the “gaffa tape” of Indonesia…can aff-ix anything!!

Compared to those who are actually in charge and driving/riding the bike proficiently, being a passenger is a whole other ball game! It is again balance that one must possess though, to be able to master this art form of being the motorbike passenger.

I have observed that motorbike passengers do tend to fall into a certain few categories…

1.             The “relax-look-no-hands-at-all” group. This group must have core strength and balance like no one else on Earth!! With chaotic traffic surrounding them, and the weaving in and out of this traffic, constantly and stopping and starting regularly…the hands and arms never move from their sides.  They are supremely balanced and seemingly calm human beings. 
2.             The “look-no-hands-but-I-can-also-multi-task” passenger.  These people, as well as having great core strength and supreme balance have to contend for the title of “the great multi-taskers”!! I have seen people texting, reading, working on the computer (yep…kid you not…computer balanced on driver’s back/butt and passenger tapping away!!), eating, and even children I have seen doing homework while balancing on the back of a motorbike!
3.             The hold on to the driver casually. Appropriate, does the job but still looks cool.
4.             The “hold-on-as-tightly-as-I-can-so-the-driver-can’t-breathe” look. This would be me I must say.  I would be petrified to ride on the back of a motorbike, and really do not think I could do it! I am certain I would be unable to ride on the back of a motorbike because I would need a helmet at the bare minimum!  So few of these motorbike drivers and paassengers seem to wear helmets …it just terrifies me even to watch them sometimes.

Children on motorbikes are not something we are accustomed to seeing as urban Australians. Along with all the goods and chattels like fridges, here children also get piled onto motorbikes too!! In our Jakarta travels we have seen Mum, Dad and three or four children (including newborns strapped to their parent in a sling), no one wearing a helmet scooting and weaving effortlessly through the traffic too! (Sometimes with a chicken or two, or other goods piled on to boot!!) As well as the newborns who are physically tethered to a larger person, there are innumerable configurations for the positioning of children to ride on the motorbike – some are really quite inventive! They can stand in between an older person’s legs and face forwards, or backwards towards the driver, they can be seated on the front tip of the seat with the driver, or at the back of the seat perched precariously so that if a bump would ever be hit (literally every 5 minutes!), bouncing off would be a real possibility!  (and I’m not sure sometimes that the driver would even notice!!) Now, all of these combinations can be achieved either awake or asleep, and I have even seen children literally draped forwards over the handle bars sound asleep while the motorbike is traversing the incredibly noisy, dusty and frantic traffic!  The “Titanic” pose (i.e. standing in between the drivers legs facing forwards, with arms splayed out, wind in the hair type of look seems to be particularly popular with the 6-10 year old age group! Wedging children between adults, especially if the child is asleep, with an adult holding onto the child’s head or under their jaw to keep it steady and upright is commonly seen.  I do not know how these children sleep in this environment!

That brings me to another topic, of sleeping, and the Indonesians can really do it ANYWHERE!! A favourite position for them to sleep on their motorbike is to lay on their back, back on the motorbike seat with legs forward draped over the handle bars of the motorbike. How that can be comfortable, I will never know! Or how they are able to balance on such a narrow strip and not fall off once asleep is beyond me. Supreme balance.

People here also balance all sorts of bags and packages on their bodies…on their heads, akin to African tribes-people. They also balance their mobile food carts on their shoulders… a bit like the classical Chinese pictures balancing the baskets on their shoulders. These Indonesian mobile food vendors often lug around a gas cylinder under an oil-filled wok to fry whatever it is they are selling door-to-door on foot.  They then pick up and put down their self contained store to cook your goods, then hoist up the contraption to move on to the next customer.  How they don’t slosh that boiling hot oil around and burn themselves, is again, another amazing feat of balancing.

Construction workers here climb about quickly and nimbly at all sorts of terrifying heights, and balance on the beams…often in thongs or rubber boots, or no shoes, with no safety gear at all.  The bamboo scaffolding is there, but how useful it would be at preventing or lessening a fall I’m not sure.  Workers above roads hang out over the edge of structures to change signs or build things, and again, all about balance…no protective gear at all.  Neither group have safety harnesses.  Breath-taking stuff and more supreme balance.

Trucks are packed to the brim and above…with no “hungry-boards” so that the load will be at least a meter or so above the edge of the truck tray! It will be tied on with a tarp, and bound with  kilometres of rope…all balanced perfectly.  There is no way that a part-delivery could ever happen as the whole lot would just topple once any single part of it was disturbed!

And like “us” Westerners, the balance of work/life/family seems to be just as hard for everyone here in Jakarta as we find it at home (wherever that may be).  Admittedly, there is a lot more home help available to the people here, and especially to expats, as wages in Indonesia appear to be so comparatively cheap.  But, with the added burden of sometimes huge travel times due to Jakarta’s traffic woes, and children and school commitments, and work and leisure…it is still a juggle for all…just a different one.  It is still hard to find that balance. Indonesians too juggle their kids with nannies, maids, family etc, to manage to do the school, work and home-life thing…perhaps this is the one thing that they do actually truly struggle to balance…


  1. What a great read Michelle!! I am just picturing that fridge on the back of a motorbike right now!!! Motorbikes rule also in Manila.. they carry all manner of things also.. :) I can imagine your school runs are fairly entertaining like mine if not a little hair raising when you see a kid standing on a motorbike lol!!

  2. They are everywhere...but thankfully not allowed on the toll road that the majority of our trip to school is on. It is the one and only rule that they seem to adhere to here! Go figure! They are like herds of swarming bees!
    Not much shocks me with them any more. xxx