Monday, October 7, 2013

How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

The picture to the left is a typical Jakarta surface street on a Saturday morning when traffic is light. What the picture cannot tell you is that the speed limit here is basically, "How fast can you go?"

Most days, that means 0-5 miles per hour. On the rare  light traffic days, it can reach 30 mph. The worst is when the traffic is heavy but moving, because everyone is desparate to get as far as possible before the inevitable traffic jam. But you know what you don't see in that picture or most anywhere else in Jakarta? Sidewalks!

Sidewalks, traffic lights and streetcrossings do exist in some places, but since those are merely lights on a pole or lines of paint on the street, they don't do much to slow down traffic. And yet, many times in Jakarta you simply must cross the street. What to do?

Your first few days or weeks, you wait until a local is crossing the road, and you use the slip stream to get across. Usually this is a little old lady in a hijab, and you feel like a total Wuss-keteer keeping a little old lady between you and onrushing traffic. And then sometimes you need to cross and there are no toddlers and old ladies to hide behind. So, one day you decide to use It. The one device that locals swear by when it comes to crossing a road full of moving traffic without the benefit of a crossing, stoplight, or anything else than your guts and your need to get across the road. 

Here it is:

This is the human hand, also known here as the "tangan dukun" or black magic hand when used to cross the street here. Here is how you use it. First, swallow hard and get very philosophical about whether you are going to live longer than the next 2 minutes. Then, put the magic hand out at shoulder height or lower in the direction of oncoming traffic. Step off the curb and walk at a consistent speed across the road, no matter how fast the cars are coming or how soft and squishy you feel compared to the buses and trucks heading towards you. That's it. I've seen it work a thousand times in my tour so far, and never seen anyone run over. But there are some "dont's" you have to avoid:

1. DON'T look at the drivers, only your destination. If the drivers see you look at them, they know you can see them and should avoid them. This can be hard to do if you are only 1/3 of the way across and have already been buzzed by 20 motorcycles. Stay tough, stare straight ahead.

2. DON'T vary your speed once you start across. The drivers rocketing towards you are assuming a constant rate of speed on your part as they calculate how close they can come to clipping you. If you get scared and stop, or think you are close enough to run the last little gap, you will be crushed.

3. DON'T react to cars and/or motorcycles hitting the horn as they draw even with you. Especially if you are an expat, because getting a "bule" (boo-lay) to jump two feet straight up into the air is great sport. Show some toughness and pride.

The only alternative is to hail a cab so they can go to the nearest roundabout and, depending on traffic, get you to the other side of the street in 10-20 minutes. You can do this. 240 million Indonesians can't be wrong, right?