Someone recently told me that most people who land in such a chaotic country as Indonesia suffer  bad culture shock, and further that they exhibit terrible mood swings while they work it through. It’s true, if my experience is any example. I joined the Carfree Sundays event yesterday, living both joyously and on the verge of doing violence moment by moment.

Knowing that I had an appointment at 11 a.m., I decided to head up to Sudirman early: it officially starts at 6 a.m. Leaving the house at 7 a.m., I found Radio Dalam exceptionally quiet, and surprisingly accepting of a cyclist. Maybe it’s because I’m obviously bule (foreign), maybe because of my age, and maybe because it’s Ramadhan here and kindness infiltrates every moment.

I figured the biggest challenge would be the lefthand drive, because the route itself was straightforward. I followed Radio Dalam to the end, careful to watch where the motorcyclists stood and how they navigated traffic lights. Most people don’t follow the rules if it doesn’t suit them, so I have to learn how to live within that structure if I want to succeed. I stuck close to the lead motorcycles and raced through red lights when they did, my heart doing jumping Jacks the whole time. A couple of times I stood in front of the vehicular traffic and made eye contact. They all waved and smiled, but I don’t kid myself that they were keen on it, even if they were agreeable.

At the end of Radio Dalam is a T-junction with Jalan Gandaria. It’s a very busy street, but either way you go it meets up with Sudirman. As long as you don’t get sidetracked by the many secondary streets, you’re good to go.

On the other hand, the traffic is thick there, as is the air. I always wear a homemade bandanna around my neck when I travel now, in case a bus or a tuk-tuk with particularly bad exhaust overtakes me. It’s really practical because you can pull it over your nose easily, and when you get home you just wash it out and reuse it.

Reaching Sudirman, I joined the throng of cyclists already in motion.


Walking part of the route last weekend was exciting, but actually being on a bicycle, realizing just how long the blocked off route is, breathing in the (less) polluted air, was otherworldly. I felt part of a community at last, as if this city were maybe not so bad as I’d come to believe, that I just might make it here. It was a genuinely happy moment, one of my first memorable ones in Jakarta.

There were lots of groups of cyclists out yesterday, all dressed alike and riding foldups, or speeding along as a competitive scrum, or just enjoying being outside with a friend. I saw a three-wheeler yesterday. A skateboarder. Several runners. Things you never see on a weekday in Jakarta. Things that civilize.

I rode handsfree for a good part of the twenty-one kilometre route, passing other cyclists and greeting them, waving at those who pointed to my Canadian colours and interacting spontaneously with anyone willing to make eye contact.

Jalan Sudirman becomes Jalan Mohammad Husni Thamrin partway up. At the top of this street is a traffic circle, something I have come to dread in Jakarta.

Traffic circles here are the epitome of no rules. Multiple lanes of traffic wait for their turn, heading in all directions. It’s almost impossible to watch every eventuality. Still, your light maybe red, but if there’s nothing coming, you go. And if you’ve gone the wrong way and want to turn around, you can’t. That was where I made my first mistake.

Following a few cyclists on the assumption that they were turning around and heading back down Thamrin, I ended up on an extremely busy street. For those in Toronto, think Queen Street, only eight lanes. The street signs are infrequent and not at eye level, so you have to be looking for them at unexpected moments. This city is a collection of smaller towns, so naturally there is no grid. You could at any point want to turn right, across heavy traffic. Have I mentioned that it’s all lefthand drive?

Begging directions is not a great idea. People have lived within a six block square their entire lives, and don’t know what exists beyond those borders. Maps are confusing because there are so many side alleys and second streets that aren’t included. I began to ask directions each block.

“Sudirman?” I would ask. They would point. “Me kasih!” I would respond brightly. I ended up on an on-ramp to what felt like the Gardiner Expressway. The joy I’d experience twenty minutes earlier had turned to panic and anger. This town hates me. I’ll never succeed here. I’m defeated. I stopped and had a good cry.

Looking up, I spotted a bule on a bicycle. He was crossing the intersection. Following him, we ended up in a park, in the middle of a small neighbourhood. When I asked if he was headed to the event, he shook his head.

I’d tripped on a ex-pat from Calgary happily getting exercise on a mountain bike in the middle of a chaotic and intolerant environment.You can imagine just how badly I wanted to weep tears of relief.

“If you want to ride here, you need to get a GPS!” he advised.

Most kindly, my new friend led me two kilometres back to Sudirman. His approach to the multiple laned traffic was aggressive but accepting, and it worked well. Just like in Toronto, people aren’t trying to hit you, but you have to become part of the flow and move in expected patterns. And when things go wrong, as they always do here, you accept it and wait for your moment.

As we parted, I leaned over and kissed him on both cheeks. My happiness had returned. Still, I could never have found my way back without him. He just laughed that he needed the exercise. And I, without a map or GPS, on only a heartful of determination, wound my way back to Radio Dalam. I don’t know how I managed it, but I did. Yep. I’m gonna be alright in this town.