9/29/2015 – Java is an island of middling size afloat in the Indian Ocean in the western part of the Indonesian archipelago. It is known for its coffee, ethically dubious industries (palm oil, tobacco), best-avoided capital city (Jakarta) and rich variety of landscapes, from teak forests to volcanic peaks. Unfortunately for the casual visitor traveling by road, none of these will be visable to you on account of the constant stripmall of shops, stalls, restaurants, motorcycle repair garages and other floatsam that line virtually every roadway on the island.
While obviously disadvantageous to the avid sightseer, this condition does allow ample opportunity to ponder A: the mysterious spelling of Indonesia’s favorite convenience store, Indomaret (is there an extra E or a missing K???) and B: the exotic habits of the Javanese motorist.
There are two main types of motorists on the island of Java: those on two wheels and those on four. Those riding the island’s ubiquitous motorbikes are the gnats of the roadway eco-system–speedy, erratic and with a low life expectancy. One might think that loading a motorbike with bales of hay, crates of chickens, a meatball soup stand or a squirming live sheep, rendering it larger and more unwieldy than a car, would cause its role in the eco-system to change. No so! Once a motorbike, always a motorbike, and the typical rules (which is to say, none) still apply.
Automobiles follow slightly more consistent customs. Flashing your indicator signals that you will pass someone, usually on the right, unless of course it is more convenient to pass on the left. Honking signals “hello chap, please be aware of my vehicle approaching yours,” unless it’s the kind of honk that means “out of the way a$$hole, i’m coming through!”–a subtly melodic difference. Similarly, flashing one’s brights indicates something between “head’s up–best get back in your lane” to “RAMMING SPEED!!”
In my many days of intensive study, I identified a few maneuvers of the Javanese motorist that warrant specific mention:
The Bahasa Hug: In which a car and a motorbike overtake a slower vehicle on the left and right simultaneously. Signally or honking may or may not be used to add a touch of personal flair to this choreography.
The Awkward Threesome: In which a two-lane road becomes a de-facto three lane road, the center lane continuously occupied by vehicles going in either direction and motorbikes going in both directions.
Schrödinger’s Center Line: In which a center dividing line has been painstakingly painted on what can only be described as a one-lane road, serving no purpose whatsoever other than rendering it abundantly clear that vehicles are driving in the middle of the road. Unless of course, two cars are forced to pass one another in which case they do not slow down or pull over to allow the other by, but instead momentarily alter the laws of physics turning the road into two lanes.
Continued study in this area is obviously necessary. The most pressing queries include: how Indonesian authorities choose to place hati-hati (caution) signs on roadways where literally every 10 feet requires the utmost caution to survive with life and limb intact and, of course, the goddamn spelling in Indomaret (is a compromise between with extra E and the missing K? Did the founder just suck at proofreading?? Had the company already grown a national following before anyone pointed it out???)