In traveling I have found that approaches to personal transportation are generally polarized. Canada and Indonesia can serve as examples of the two extremes of the spectrum. In Canada long distance drives can be a holiday. In Indonesia long distance drives are purely functional. Conditions under which these voyages are undertaken also vary greatly, creating either environments of enjoyment and ease or stress and chaos. Just for fun, let’s contrast the Canadian and the Indonesian road trips.
In Canada a road trip is primarily designed to traverse and enjoy a stretch of road. The drive itself is an integral part of the experience. Often driving is the selected mode of transportation not because it is the most convenient, but because the route itself is interesting. The stops may even be secondary, places you stumble across by chance and decide to explore further. This is how it starts: You get some friends together. You load your ipod with tunes that will set the vibe of your journey. You pack your cooler with drinks and snacks to keep everyone comfortable. If you live within my financial bracket you throw in your tent and some camp comforts like a frisbee, a guitar and some folding chairs. Maybe you even strap a canoe to the roof. If you are in a more luxurious tax bracket you pack your credit card and CAA hotel guide. Then everyone loads into the lovely climate controlled car, tunes blaring, bare feet up on the dash. Everyone gets cozy in their own seat, with their own seat belt. You drive for a bit, then pull off at a well signed scenic point to scope it out and use the facilities at the rest station. After a bit more driving, on a smooth paved highway, with passing lanes and speed limits, you see a familiar coffee shop and pull off to refuel. Conveniently the adjacent gas station is also standing by. At night you meander away from the main road into some idyllic park, by a calm lake, pitch your big cozy tent, have a fire, grill some dinner and toss back some beers while your friend plays guitar. Your trusty steed rests in its stall for tomorrow’s adventures.
The Indonesian road trip begins because you need to get somewhere that you just can’t walk to or manage with a motorbike (and almost anything can be managed with a motorbike). The best and most common vehicle choice is a pick up truck, often of the monster off-road variety. Before leaving you load jerry cans of gas into the back because you just never know when you might run out and the odds are that your fuel gauge hasn’t worked for years. You also make sure that there is still a tool box in the back because the driver will inevitably need to perform some roadside repairs. Then the truck is packed to the brim with supplies for wherever you are going, each trip is of course multi-purposed. Once that’s loaded in and covered with a tarp the back is ready for passengers. The cab will be equally packed with luggage, then people. Your imagination is really the only limit to how many people can be crammed in. On one transport along the treacherous road out of Danau Alo we had 8 people sitting on a mountain of gear in the truck bed, two people sitting in the spare tire on the roof, two more balancing on the hood and myself and the driver wedged inside the cab with everyone’s personal bags. As we drove up a steep hill, gears screeching, engine pumping heat into the cab, a phone rang. The driver casually took the call, now driving and shifting with the same hand he is using to bang on the windshield to let the guys on the hood know that they need to move to the roof so that we can make it up the hill without stalling out. This type of trip is pure function. Stops are generally made only for repairs and a basic meal at a simple and dusty roadside restaurant at precisely the half way point.
Now let’s discuss road quality. It can be infuriating in Canada when you hit construction along a main route in the summer time. You’ve just been cruising and singing along to the radio, enjoying the scenery blurring past and now this delay is cramping your style. You stop, turn off your ignition and wait while traffic is ushered through single file. Colourful road crews ensure no car gets out of line. Then you hit the smooth asphalt again and carry on at 100 clicks, maybe even setting your cruise control. The alternative, I have learned, is full on road anarchy. Road repairs outside of the city, for starters, are completed largely by random folks who have become fed up with their local stretch. In most places repairs are begun and then forgotten. Huge piles of rubble create long cordilleras, each mountain covering three quarters of the road. Eventually these are intended to be used to fill in the gaping holes in the asphalt. Cars must swerve around both the rock piles and the holes in dangerous games of head on chicken. In other places no one even pretends to fix the road, it simply crumbles away leaving car swallowing craters, muddy ruts and ponds. I have no idea what the speed limits are, but that point is null because there is no way that you could surpass 60 clicks for anymore than a few hundred meters. More often the car slowly jerks along, as the driver shifts up and down like a mad man, accelerating and decelerating between the obstacles.
Then there is traffic. In Canada it flows neatly in two directions within clearly delineated lanes. Horns are used almost exclusively to give the occasional jerk a piece of your mind. In Indonesia you are meant to drive on the left side, unless that side has a pothole, a family on a motorbike, a slow moving truck, or you just don’t feel like it. The horn has a broad vocabulary. Commonly it is used to let motorcyclists know that you are about to flatten them as you zip around a loaded palm truck while another one speeds towards you both head on. It can be used to warn people that you are coming around a blind corner in the wrong lane. Sometimes it is used to say hello to your friend the shop keeper whom you are driving past, or to move some monkey, goat, cow, cat, etc, off the road. And of course it can be used just for the fun of honking the horn. The base line expectation is that each driver understands the dimensions of their vehicle and only crams it in (with prior horn honking notice) where they are nearly certain that it will fit.
Perhaps the biggest difference is how a road trip makes you feel. At home I have arrived at destinations and thought, “now that was a lovely drive and I made great time.” In Indonesia I often get out and think, “This seems to by my destination, I’m still alive, and it only took eight hours, WIN!” While I would be terrified driving a car in this country I don’t really worry about my safety when I get in as a passenger. The whole road arrangement is just set up differently. All the drivers here know how it works, and it does work. When I fly in airplanes I never worry about crashes because I figure the pilot knows what he’s doing, it’s his job, he wants to get home safely just as much as I do. If I boarded a plane and learned that a fisherman was flying because he reckoned it couldn’t be much different from piloting his boat, I would be worried. My Indonesian drivers are my experienced pilots. Their profession is navigating this chaos. And as a bonus they all know how to expertly repair their vehicles on the spot, how many Canadians can say that of their cars? While traveling by car may be more about the destination than the comfort and enjoyment of the journey, being driven around by competent professional drivers is the best way to get to some wonderful corners of this fascinating country.