In Bali, the Possibility of Impossibility

By Richard Boughton

I’m trying to be polite. I’m trying to be sensitive. I’m trying to observe local culture, traditions and ways with a dispassionately astute, non-jaundiced eye – but for criminy’s sake, what in the world can some of these people be thinking!

I’m sitting on my Honda one recent morning, ready to exit the Circle K parking lot, right-turn signal on, waiting for the traffic to thin on Tamblingan, when a Balinese fellow pulls up behind me, and then parallel to the right side of my bike – and he wants to turn left! I’m already there, signal on, ready to turn right, and he, instead of pulling up on my left side and continuing on without impediment – a no-brainer, or so it would seem to anyone in possession of that organ – positions himself such that he must cross in front of my bike or I in front of his.

In short, he has needlessly set up a scenario for a collision. What can he be thinking? Why has he done this? Has a malevolent spirit taken control of his senses? Is it a game of chicken? A jousting-like challenge? Or is the man just simply an idiot? And if the latter be the true case, we have a problem, for what this man has done is not rare, but common, as common throughout the population as black hair and brown eyes.

I know we should be used to it by now, but we’re not. Day after day it defies our ability to acclimate, to adjust, to synchronise, to enter the flow. Again and again actions such as those of the aforementioned motorbike pilot leave us with mouth agape. A brand new stupor sends the Western mind into a brand new hopeless search for reason, justification, logic, intelligence in what would otherwise seem rampant stupidity.


But it cannot be stupidity, for these are not stupid people. Most of them speak two languages – the universal Indonesian and their own native tongue – Bahasa Bali, Sunda, Jawa, Menado, Melayu, Batak and so on, o’er the far-flung peoples of the archipelago – two languages at least, and many of them more, bits and pieces of English and Dutch and French and even Australian. I am convinced that no person can be stupid and multilingual at the same time. Here as well is an inventive people, forged in the fires of hardship and poverty, a quick-witted people, a ready people, a people able to interact with foreign cultures, peculiarities and tongues with amazing ease and alacrity.

And so why has this man, seeing that I am about to turn right, chosen to do the wrong-est thing possible and gone around my right in order to turn left? Why, why, why?

It is perfectly emblematic – not isolated, but the norm. Why indeed does another motorbike driver try to force his bike between mine and the SUV on one side and the impassable gully on the other? What chance has this manoeuvre of doing other than failing, or perhaps causing injury or death? And yet he will try nonetheless, for it somehow seems to him somehow possible. He has done it this day, and he will do it again and again in various versions, for it is apparent that in Bali the impossible seems always just barely possible, and therefore worth a shot.

Why does the driver of the car, in the midst of the choked chaos on the bypass, reckon that the best way to turn right at the traffic light is to start in the far left lane and then cut across three lanes of traffic within the space of about two car lengths?

Why does the truck driver, roaring headlong at full speed, honk his horn when coming upon slowing traffic rather than decrease his own speed? What is the message here? “I’m in a great hurry; I’m bigger than you; I’m coming through; I’ve given fair warning?”

Or perhaps he simply has no brakes, or just the thinnest vestige of brakes, and so means to warn the unwary drivers ahead (a method apparently widely favoured over a repair of the braking system).

Oh, and here is one of my favourites: you’re about a car length behind the vehicle in front of you, which is about a car length behind the vehicle in from of his, and so on as far as the eye can see, and yet the driver in back of you is revving his engine and flashing his lights. What, again, is the message? I want to go fast and so everyone needs to get out of my way? I own this road? Heads up, folks, I’m about to run you over?

Things such as these have driven sane men mad. I know a few of them. Things such as these have driven other men to the point of dangerous imitation, a sort of roadway Heart of Darkness scenario. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Other men, milder men, merely puzzle and wonder, tighten their seatbelts and hold on.

The myriad mysteries of the island of Bali. Who can sort them out?


Filed under: Practical Paradise

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