Dancing the Traffic-Cop Tango

By Vyt Karazija

Getting through this Kuta road junction is like being caught between the intersecting trajectories of four machine guns. The cacophony of blaring exhausts, incessant horns and tortured suspensions of vehicles thumping over Bali’s prodigious potholes jangles the mind. This sonic counterpoint is a metaphor for the mental turmoil that accompanies the instantaneous decision-making needed to negotiate complex traffic in Bali and survive.

Anyway, that’s my excuse for not hearing a shrill whistle blast as I zipped between killer yellow trucks, four-wheel-drive ego-boosters and bee-like swarms of crazed motorcycles. I’m relatively immune to the chaos, but my pillion rider’s state of mind registers clearly as her fingers dig painfully into my lower ribs. A fleeting moment of regret that I hadn’t insisted on her wearing a helmet passes quickly as we clear the intersection and enter a normal street, where the likelihood of death is not quite so imminent.

She leans next to my ear and says: “That cop wasn’t too pleased with you. He’s blowing his whistle and waving you over.” “Relax,” I reply loftily, “they never chase you – they’re too lazy. Always keep going when they do that.”

Unfortunately, I score a cop who isn’t lazy. In fact, by some miracle of teleportation, he is waiting for me at the next intersection, where he places his bike into a position that leaves me no option but to crash into him, fall off or pull over. I pull over and, secure in the knowledge that I have done nothing wrong, grin at him. He grins back. He understands my hubris; he deals with it every day.

“I whistled at you there at Jl Pantai Kuta,” he says. I avoid making an inane comment about Roger Whittaker and instead tell him that I didn’t hear him. I innocently ask him why he is stopping me. “No helmet,” he says, pointing at my pillion passenger. “Not required,” I say confidently. He is disconcerted. I press my advantage and say to him, “Bali law only says rider must wear helmet, not passenger.” He looks uncertain, despite the fact that I am spouting unmitigated drivel. Of course both people on a bike must have helmets – it’s not only the law; it’s plain common sense. But I’m on a roll here and I sense an advantage in our little dance, even though I’m dancing around the truth.

He looks like he is trying to remember whether the authorities have changed the road law yet again, because they never actually tell anyone, including the police, whenever they do that here. He changes tack suddenly and asks me whether my headlight was on. I tell him it was. A beat of silence ensues. “Licence please,” he orders, changing tactics yet again. He looks at my international driver’s licence and his face lights up. “Ahh! Not legal in Bali!” I say confidently that it is legal, actually, and his face clouds over. Quickly flipping to the last page, he sees the two stamps there, one for a car and one for a motorcycle endorsement. His face falls further.

We spend a minute or two in idle chitchat while I try desperately to keep the smile of triumph off my face. I should have stayed alert instead of gloating, because the guy is toying with me before setting me up for his masterstroke. As he closes my licence booklet, he suddenly freezes and points to the front cover. “Oh no!” he says. “What?” I say, sucked in. “Look!” he intones with beautifully studied regret. “Licence is expired! Now have to go to court in Denpasar…” And he points his finger at the date – 11 February 2011 – clearly stamped on my licence.

I am thunderstruck. How stupid am I? I must have forgotten to put my new licence in the cover after getting it renewed earlier this year. “Umm,” I say intelligently. “I think it’s in my safe at home…” He looks at me with that cop stare for a long moment. I reach into my pocket and hand him the obligatory Rp50,000 note. He grins. “Next time, both of you wear helmets,” he says, and sends me on my way.

On the way home, it dawns on me that his parting shot was about the helmet, an issue I had conned him about, and not the licence. I did con him, didn’t I? With some unease, I check my licence again, and there, clearly written on the front are the words “Issued 11 February 2011.” The damn thing is still valid for another year, and I finally realise he knew that all along.

Today’s score: Cop 1, Vyt 0. Oh well, at least the money goes to his family. Back home, traffic fines go to Consolidated Revenue for the government to waste on yet another useless exercise in social engineering. Here, it’s just your standard Bali redistribution of wealth. And it was an entertaining and compassionate way to cut me down to size. I’m comfortable with that.

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