Away with the Fairies Until They Smell the Money

Driving from Senggigi to Mataram, on a sunny morning in Lombok, to do a little shopping and observe changes to the city over the past three years, I wish desperately for an accident-free journey.

It’s not that you are more apt to have minor traffic events on Lombok, where the driving is easy. For me, it is fear of failing to maintain one’s decorum when mobs of hysterically inventive “witnesses” rush from beyond any vantage point to offer “evidence” of your gross negligence after some underage, unlicensed and untutored motorcyclist has smashed into you.

It is the dread of meaningless hours at a police station where no one knows the road rules, but everyone knows they can impound your car and confiscate your licence … if you don’t pay up.

And it’s a desire to avoid gifting wads of cash to the moron who has damaged your vehicle and possibly yourself, and ruined your day, and whose highly inflated assessment of his motorbike repair and medical costs reeks of opportunistic greed. Band-Aids seem to cost a fortune on Lombok.

I know all this from bitter experience, and as we wheel our way cautiously and optimistically towards Mataram I recall our previous Lombok traffic incidents.

Our first one came when, heading south in central Senggigi, The Playmate turns right across the northbound traffic lane and noses into a side street. We feel the terrible thud. Two kids on a motorbike, speeding south on the footpath of the north-bound road, have tried against all odds to execute a horseshoe-shaped manoeuvre around the front of our moving car. They smash into our front and end up in a heap on the pavement.

The Playmate goes to their aid and deems their injuries superficial. They moan and wail. Crowds come from nowhere. I try to call the local police chief, a friend. Someone insists we take the kids to hospital. Would that mean we accept liability? Should we leave the scene? Police turn up and take The Playmate’s licence and order us to the station where the kids’ extended family is already deep in council.

An expatriate is hauled out of a café to translate: “Pay for the bike repairs and the medical treatment or the police will take your car. The family says you could have killed their son.”

Lombok people must be very fragile if they die of minor abrasions, I muse, as the kids moan and clutch at their heads and stomachs. We are not allowed, for blindingly obvious reasons, to see the driver’s licence.

The compensation demanded equals a decent annual salary on Lombok. We call in our local adviser, a lovely Arab from Ampenan, to help negotiate. He says the police need a hefty “administration” fee, which he stuffs into his own pocket.

Four hot hours later and well after sunset, just as we’ve signed and paid to end the matter, the police chief returns from pistol practice in the forest. Apparently you can do that in the dark on Lombok.

Wow, you paid a lot, says the chief. Are you happy with that? Yes, we mutter reluctantly, totally exhausted by the whole saga and wanting to go home. But, I tell the chief, that family should invest some of our money in driving lessons for the kids. Fat chance.

A few days later, happily on our way to Lembar for the ferry crossing home to Bali, we stop at a red light. The light turns green; we edge forward; a policeman strolls in front of us; we stop to avoid hitting him; the head of the animal pulling the Cidomo (pony cart) behind us smashes into the back of our car; the light turns red: and there we are, partly across the white line – an absolute no-no for foreigners – and with a horse’s head up our backside, to boot.

“You wrong, Mister! You wrong!” yells a second policeman directing us around the corner where the Cidomo driver waits. Well, I have had it, and I find enough Bahasa to tell the officer in no uncertain terms that if we hadn’t stopped we’d have hit his friend and that we will not pay anyone a single rupiah. Defeated, he marches into the road and ceremoniously stops all traffic while we do a U-turn and head on to Lembar. The Cidomo driver looks glum.

A few months later, a Lombok expatriate reports exactly the same situation at those traffic lights.

So, more recently, as we return from Mataram to Senggigi, marvelling at the ease of accomplishing our chores and the orderliness of the traffic, my stomach churns and my hands shake on hearing that horrible crunch and scrape of metal on metal, some of it undoubtedly ours.

We’ve just accelerated gently away from some traffic lights where, we later work out, a bike rider had thoughtlessly propped his steed against the left side of our car. As we move forward, it drags along our length and topples over. “What are you going to do?” I ask The Playmate at the wheel. “Drive on,” he says.

And we do. The thought of paying for someone else’s negligence after hours at a police station is just too much. Of course, if we had hit the bike, we would have stopped and faced the crowds and corruption. But we didn’t.

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