The Dashed White Lines Between Life and Death on Bali’s Two-Lane Racetracks

Bali, Indonesia

“Your mind is filled with shadows, your palms are wet with sweat. Limbs are bound and tangled in a fatal net. There are two things you can do, one is turn and fight, the other’s run headlong into the night.” – “Into the Night,” Bad Religion

By Brian Spencer

There is no room for error on the close-your-eyes-and-hope-you-don’t-die raceways that pass for two-lane roads in Bali.

Once you’ve crept out of the perma-traffic jam that is heaving Denpasar, leaving the masses behind to fight (sometimes literally) for precious little real estate on the island’s sullied southern beaches, life flashes by in the form of mini-SUVs jockeying like stock cars, head-on collisions at high speeds skirted by seconds, the just-right time to make The Pass and get the fuck back over in the your lane calculated by an impish driver in his twenties, his phone’s ringtone set to Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up”.

One hour ago he was just another face in the post-customs mob, distinguished only by a placard scrawled with “Mr. Brian” in black marker, and now he’s the most important person in the world. You trust him, because you have to trust him. You suck your breath in and your teeth in and try not to think about how close you came — again — to a car wreck, because there’s still a few more hours to go, and it’s getting darker, and it’s starting to rain a little, and worrying about it isn’t going to help anything.

In Bali, sometimes a leap of faith is taken sitting down.

You pretend everything is fine — everything is totally fucking fine, really — and focus on UB40’s remixed cover of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” on the radio. Rip into a bag of fried seaweed, then some weird, vaguely cheese-flavored chips, and then a three-pack of Oreos, all purchased from a convenience store where the cashier responded to your outstretched credit card with a quizzical “yeah right” expression. Stare out the window, watch the bricked, blocky Balinese compounds sprawling to the road’s edge whizz by, and hope for not only your safety, but also for that of the locals breezily flip-flopping down the side of a road with no shoulder, a few feet or lapse of driver attention away from being splattered across the car’s grill like a fat mosquito.

Unspoken Rules of the Road

Maybe you’ll rent a motorbike in Bali, but you won’t rent a car, or at least you shouldn’t. Please don’t, for from my view a foreigner’s experience behind the wheel amounts to something of automotive flagellation. It’s an activity best left to the masochists and fools.

Traffic jams are a grim reality, even outside of Denpansar: the 20-odd kilometer journey from the airport to Ubud once took us nearly three hours. Street signs and stop lights are few and far between, particularly outside of the south. And though there are rules of the road, they’re mostly of the unspoken kind, an understanding shared between the Balinese, a mutual trust, or maybe just an everyday game of chicken to see who blinks first. It’s hard to tell.

Road in Bali, Indonesia

I did see a number of policeman as our driver cut a rug through the mountainous region of central Bali, though it seemed like everytime I glimpsed Johnny Law, it was when our driver was at his most daring, employing a schizo Morse code signal of horn and blinkers to let the guy in front of us know he was about to be passed, and to warn the car screaming towards us to plan accordingly. In Indonesia, get caught smoking a joint and you’re in a world of hurt, but be seen driving like a fucking lunatic? Keep crazy and carry on.

Horns are not utilized not so much to vent bouts of frustration, like in the States, but rather as repeated prompts to slow down so you can be passed, to get over so you can be passed, or to not do anything and risk death because you’re about to be passed. Blinkers and flashers are an after-dark extension of the horn.

Related: … And in Ubud, When the Greasy Taxi Driver Asked Me to Strip Naked in Front of Him, I Did It

Were it not for the spectacle of death by fiery car crash lurking around every hairpin turn, I could almost appreciate the artistry of The Pass on Bali’s precipitious roads. It’s the ultimate trust exercise between car and driver, passengers and driver, driver and driver, one in which the slightest of  gaps in oncoming traffic are green lights to honk the horn and flash the blinkers and step on the gas and swerve back over into your lane just… barely… in time.

Yes, you can appreciate the artistry of The Pass after experiencing it 10, 20, 40, 50 times. You can feel the hands of gods cradling the car.

We’re on a Road to Nowhere

Sometimes, in the middle of an overnight 13-hour flight from one side of the planet to the other, I suffer brief bouts of… not panic, but a feeling closer to doomy sense of place. I look around, consider that I’ve voluntarily boarded a missile currently screaming through remote voids of black stratosphere, my trust, my life, placed in machinery that could malfunction, and in people I know absolutely nothing about. I feel the wanna-be spaceship hurtling forward, and I remember how terrified I was as a child when John Lithgow spotted the gremlin on the wing in Twilight Zone: The Movie. The loss of control, the slippery slope of trust, the helplessness — it all pulses within me like a bicep flex, though fortunately these are only temporary flashes.

As our mini-SUV plunged into the black unknown in Bali, the road winding and turning and climbing and falling, that feeling of airborne anxiety surfaced a time or three. We were bound for a place we’d never been, traveling down roads we’d never traveled, driven by a driver we didn’t know. Who’s to say that even if we survived the journey, we weren’t being whisked away to a remote corner to be beaten and detained and held for ransom? It could happen.

My faith in humankind often wears thin, but of the many ways in which travel has enriched my life, learning to trust strangers — and, in tandem, to trust my sharpened instincts — is surely near the top of the list.

We used the same driver for our return trip back to Denpasar.

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