What Driving Tells Us About People

So when Clifford Geertz tumbled into the Balinese villager’s backyard, he was running from the State. (See my previous post on Bali if you don’t know what I’m talking about here.) And when the villager and his wife welcomed Geertz and his wife, and served them tea and snacks (rather than, say, turning them over to the police) he ran into Balinese hospitality and graciousness.

In the five days we spent in Bali, I witnessed, on many occasions, the kind of graciousness Geertz fell into and, here, I’m going to focus on the culture of driving in Bali as a way to illustrate that point.

It seems to me that you can tell a great deal about a people based on how they drive. Increased cases of road rage in the States for instance can be read as our cumulative national anger at . . . what? Politicians? Traffic? Government ‘take overs’ of health care and education? Crumbling roads and bridges? The Kiwis and the Aussie drive fast, but they are careful and alert. I saw very few people driving and playing with their handheld devices. When we were driving on the narrow, two-lane highway from Uluru to Alice Springs, for instance, drivers I’d pass would always slow down, rather than speed up, which is what most American drivers do. We logged a lot of self-drive miles in New Zealand and Australia, so I feel like I have a pretty good sense of driving culture there.

Driving in Bali, though, is a very different skill and, what I’m going to argue here is that the the way the Balinese drive is very similar to who they are as a people.

Let’s begin with the roads themselves. Once you get outside of the major metropolitan area of Denpasar, the roads narrow to about a meter wider than a single lane in the States. That means you have two-way traffic on a very narrow asphalt surface, so the roads are tight and this is compounded by the fact that most of the roads do not have a shoulder—the asphalt, on either side, just ends and becomes part of the jungle, or a sidewalk if you are in a larger village or city. The roads outside the major cities wind through villages, pass by modern and ancient Hindu temples, rice fields and terraces and artisan shops of all orders. These are not roads built and designed by bureaucrats in Jakarta. They wind and meander through the countryside.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect these roads are probably just ancient pathways that the Balinese have been using for centuries. At one point they were probably narrow pathways connecting one village to another. Later, they widened out to accommodate animals and carts. Now, they just happen to have a coating of asphalt over the top.

There’s really not a good way to convey this visually, but here’s a photo I took that shows you how narrow the roads are. Also, that’s a dude on a scotter carrying all those bags of rice ahead of us:


The roads themselves are actually in pretty good shape and I suspect that is because (I learned this is Pisani’s book), Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest producers of asphalt. I did not know, until I read it in Pisani, that asphalt was extracted out of the ground as it is. I thought it was made through a process of mixing stones and petroleum and other stuff.

Now, let’s put some cars, motorbikes, scooters and, hell, we’ll throw in some pedestrians as well. The complicating factor, as least for me, was the scooters. They are everywhere and when the cars get held up by traffic patterns, the scooters just go right around them, on the left or the right. It’s kind of disorienting to sit in a car because you’ll be riding along and then all of a sudden a scooter will pass you on the right or left. You will see entire families on one scooter. It wasn’t uncommon, for instance to see a man driving with a toddler standing between his legs and peering over the handlebars, a woman sitting side saddle behind the man with an elementary-aged child on her lap.

Cars will also pass slower-moving scooters. The real fun happens when two cars going in opposite directions meet. As I said earlier, the roads are narrow so when two cars come up on each other one simply has to slow down, give way and pull over as far to the side as possible. This ends up as a kind of dance between the oncoming cars, and in the five days we were in Bali, I never once saw a near accident.

You might be thinking that this combination of narrow roads, high volumes of diverse kinds of traffic would drive people mad and they’d be shaking fists and cursing out their windows. That would certainly be the case in the States, but in Bali I never saw a driver of a car or a scooter demonstrate the least bit of frustration or anger. Part of this is because the Balinese seem to have developed a rather intricate system of lightly honking their horns as they are passing a scooter or a car, or even a pedestrian walking on the road. In the States, when we honk our horns, what we are really doing is saying, “Oh my god, you are such a phucking idiot! Get off the road and stay off!” In Bali, a honk seems to suggest, “Excuse me, I am going to pass you and I just want you to know where I am so we can all be safe.” This is just my perception and it’s relative to my experience driving in the States. I shared this with a few Balinese and they just laughed at my naivete; that is, they thought their fellow Balinese drivers were just as crazy as I think drivers in the States are.

On our third day in Bali, Putu the owner of the hotel where we were staying took us for a drive through the countryside.

Us, with our friend, Putu

We visited rice terraces, temples, restaurants, cafes, wood and textile artisans, a village cremation and a waterfall where all manner of tourists were taking a break from the heat and humidity. Along the way, Putu informed us how the Balinese plant and harvest rice, gave us insider information on the Hindu ceremonies at the temples we visited, introduced us to artisans and shared stories with us about his life and family in Ubud. Spending the day with Putu was, by far, the best thing we have done on our adventure up to this point. He, like all of the other Balinese we met, was engaging, kind, informed and energetic. When we hugged goodbye Putu and his lovely wife Kadek this morning, we were all a little sad.

I hope that we see them again sometime, and if you ever go to Bali, you should stay at their place, Inang Village in Ubud. It is a spectacularly beautiful place that backs up against a rice paddie and is very close to Ubud village. Plus, Putu and Kadek will treat you like family.

With our friend, Kadek, outside the beautiful Ingang Villas, Ubud, Bali




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