It occurs to me that the only real danger in this world is wanton stupidity, and by that measure Indonesia is truly perilous.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been blessed to cross paths with some wonderful people, forming friendships that will last long after my trip has ended. To be invited into their homes, to be showered with gifts and well-wishes has been a privilege. But an incidental one.
All I wanted, all I ever asked of anyone, was to be treated with respect. Often I was, and for that that I’m forever thankful.
I met these people every single day and I’ve no doubt they represent the majority of Indonesians. More the pity, then, that their kindness has so often been stampeded by the cretinous few.
Usually I find these louts lazing away entire days by the roadside, their stained shirts pulled over doughy midsections like some sort of halter top perversion.
When I bike past, they raise their heads just long enough to shout “Bule!” – the Indonesian word for albino. A chorus of laughter then erupts from whatever sad company has congregated around the town crier, and I’m left wondering what on earth I’m doing here.
I’ve traveled 40,000 km through 35 countries and only in Indonesia have I been constantly reminded of the color of my skin.
I refuse to ascribe this to a cultural quirk, like the Indonesian propensity to point and stare or the general disregard for personal privacy and space. My eye may twitch on occasion, but I can accept and even embrace these differences in etiquette.
Harassing a visitor with “Bule!” is something else entirely. It’s not cute and it’s certainly not funny.
It’s a blemish of monumental ignorance, and until Indonesians wipe it clean their country will never find a seat at the grown-up table on the world stage.
Equally frustrating and more imminently dangerous is the idiocy on Indonesian roads. Not a day goes by that I’m not forced off the pavement by an oncoming bus or lorry. I’ve literally been squeezed between two cars and nearly flattened by vehicles ignoring stop lights.
I get it. The highways are crumbling and traffic is extreme. Drivers can almost be forgiven for their treatment of the lowly cyclist. But what I cannot fathom is why no one behind the wheel seems to have any respect for themselves.
The risks they take defy all logic. There’s nothing adventurous about overtaking on a blind corner or skidding onto an opposing shoulder, nothing macho in screaming a motorbike through city streets choked with pedestrians.
It’s selfish and stupid, and the countless burnt-out wrecks that litter the ditches are a sad testament to the consequences.
But Indonesians never seem to turn their heads. They see only what is in front of them and their capacity to sever the link between today’s actions and tomorrow’s results is frightening.
It must be this feat of moral gymnastics that allows Indonesians to gleefully poison themselves. The callous indifference people have towards their environment is staggering and it has left the country on the verge of ecological collapse.
I’ve cycled through Lanzhou, the most polluted city in western China, and even it seems like lollipop land compared to this place. Here, thanks to puking vehicles and unchecked industry, the air is scarcely fit to breathe.
Garbage is thrown over shoulders and left to rot in the streets. Entire cities have become slop buckets of excess and waste. At night, when the stinking mass is set aflame, the sky takes on a nightmarish haze of yellow and death.
Whatever can’t be burned is dumped into the water or left to blow away. Inevitably this filth finds its way to the sea where it spreads across the shoreline, stitching a devil’s quilt of plastic bags, empty bottles and bloated fish.
That’s what I see. I don’t pretend to be an expert and I’m not about to start an argument on ethics. I’m just a guy on a bike, free to think about what lies ahead for Indonesia and its people.
Sometimes I wonder if the locals don’t have it right. Maybe eyes forward is the way to go. Otherwise all I see is a shameful little footnote from an already toxic time.