How to cross the road

travel mumblings

On Thursday, I arrived back from another work trip to Indonesia, this time to the island of Sumatra. The trip itself was amazing (as ever — this is my third trip to Indonesia, and my first to Sumatra), but the travel involved was exhausting. We had multi-leg flights with stops, punctuated by all the getting out of bags of liquids and x-raying of laptops that modern air travel involves. After a while, it was hard to know where we were and what day it was. I also came back with a heavy cold so I have spent a couple of days resting, trying to catch up on sleep, and trying to re-acquaint my body with its circadian rhythm.

We saw some beautiful natural environments, but this time we spent much of the trip in cities, particularly Banda Aceh. While I have a very ambiguous relationship with the process of getting from one place to another, I love being in a new place, experiencing all the interesting differences between where I currently am and what I’m familiar with. I love the new sights, sounds and smells (unfamiliar bird song, the regular punctuation of the day by the Call to Prayer, the damp, earthy, green smell of tropical foliage), and I love learning new things about different cultures. Personally, I think its good to get out of your comfort zone every now and again if you are able, and to experience what it feels like to be unfamiliar with the local language and customs. I always try to prepare a bit before a trip, learning a few words so that I can at least be polite and say please and thank you, good morning/evening, and to avoid giving inadvertent offence by doing something that is considered unacceptable locally, or even just impolite. However, every time I travel somewhere, there’s something that baffles me. This time, it was the proper etiquette and technique for crossing busy roads, without annoying other road users or getting mown down by a car or moped.

One of my travelling companions and I wanted to go for a walk across the city. We had scoured Google maps and found a park as a destination, which wasn’t too far away. On the map, it looked like a relatively straightforward route. However, what we hadn’t anticipated was how difficult it might be to cross the busy city streets we encountered.

On the surface, traffic in Indonesia appears somewhat chaotic. Cars, trucks, motorbikes and mopeds all freely drift across lanes, overtaking, undertaking, and sliding into every available gap. However, as you get used to it, you see that there is order and logic to the movement of traffic. Drivers of all kinds of vehicles only worry about the traffic they can see in front of them, not to the sides or behind them. When everybody behaves in the same way, and doesn’t make any sudden, unexpected moves, this works very well, and cars and other vehicles flow around each other smoothly. Vehicles behind a road user moving into their path often give a brief toot on their horn, but this doesn’t seem to be an angry “get out of my way!” warning, but rather a friendly “hello, just to let you know, I’m behind you” kind of signal. The ‘tootee’ (if I can call them that), doesn’t seem to look back at the tooter (in their mirrors or otherwise), but perhaps temporarily constrains their random drifting a bit to make their behaviour more predictable. Once you get over the terror, it’s a fascinating process to watch as a passenger, and it makes a lot of sense: it’s much easier to monitor only the traffic in front of you.

We soon discovered that this form of traffic flow makes crossing the road as a pedestrian rather more exciting than is ideal. There were one or two painted crossings on the roads, but these seemed to be for decoration only, as there was no perceptible change in the traffic flow as you waited at one side. On some junctions, we were able to use traffic lights to dash across the road while the traffic (or most of it, anyway) was stopped, but it seems that vehicles are allowed to turn left (Indonesians drive on the left) on a red light if the way is relatively clear, as I believe you can also do in the US when turning right. Either that, or they regard red lights as advisory only.

Our instinct, based on crossing roads in the UK, was to try to wait until there was a gap in the traffic, and then run like hell to the other side. On some roads we were waiting a long time, as gaps were just space to be flowed into by oncoming traffic. At a particularly hairy crossing, we were lucky that some men dressed in military uniforms turned up after some minutes, also trying to cross the road. Reasoning that drivers might be less inclined to run down a member of the military, and that they probably actually knew what they were doing, unlike us, we moved ‘downstream’ of them and prepared to hare across the road as they made a move. We thanked them afterwards, because it never hurts to be polite.

Unfortunately, they were the only conveniently placed fellow road-crossers, so the rest of the time we were on our own. By the time we returned to our hotel, we felt grateful to be in one piece. It intrigued me though: how do local people cross the road? In a moment of down time, I watched from the window as people crossed the busy roads around the hotel. A man and (I assume) his son, crossed at what I would have predicted to be the worst possible point — the middle of a very busy roundabout, which had a huge monument in the middle of it and thus very little visibility. What they did seemed very simple: they just walked slowly out into the traffic, and continued to stroll across. I almost closed my eyes, anticipating carnage, but it was all very uneventful. The traffic simply flowed around them, like river water around a boulder, to a gentle chorus of toots. As I watched, more people seemed to use the same technique, so that — in a nutshell — seems to be how you cross the road. You walk serenely and predictably into the road, and let the traffic work its way around you. Needless to say, we weren’t brave enough to test out our new-found knowledge.

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