Tuesday morning saw me standing outside the hostel in Kuta, waiting for a bemo (the local bus) while chaos erupted around me. Lining the street were loads of motorbikes, each with an owner hanging round nattering and waiting for something to happen. There was a policeman on hand, and all I could assume was that there had been an accident of some sort, and everyone was basically hanging around to see if anything juicy was going to happen. The fact that I understood not one word added to the confusion on my part; about three bemos went past before I realised I'd have to stand in the middle of the road to catch one's attention.
Bemos are the staple ingredient of Balinese transport. A bemo can be anything from a minibus to a truck with seats tacked on the back, and luckily in southern Bali they're fairly pleasant, and mainly of the minibus variety (on some of the other islands they do tend to be a bit more cobbled together). I thought that would be a good thing; the only problem is that when a minibus is packed to the brim, it's stifling, whereas an open truck has built-in air conditioning.
My first bemo, from the hostel to southern Denpasar, wasn't too bad; wedged between two warbling Indonesians with my backpack crunched under my knees, I got to Denpasar without any major problems. Then I realised I didn't really know how to proceed; I had directions to go to Sanglah, then Kreneng, then Batubulan, and then Ubud, my destination for the day. But changing bemos isn't exactly like changing tube stations; you get out in the middle of a street, and you take it from there.
As it happened, it took me all of five seconds to find the next bemo. A guy came up to me and asked where I was going, I told him Kreneng, and I was bustled into a waiting bemo. This was when the fun started: at official bemo stops the driver waits until he's filled the bemo, and then he sets off; outside of the official stops, you simply hail a bemo, and if there's room, he'll stop and pick you up. The problem comes in the Indonesian definition of 'full': in the western world it means as many passengers as the regulations allow, but as with everything to do with Indonesia, regulations seem to be things that happen to someone else, so by the time the driver had filled his bemo and started for Kreneng, the bus was bursting at the seams, a situation that wasn't helped by my backpack.
The next station, Kreneng, was when I first came up against the payload surcharge. My first rides had cost 500rp and 700rp respectively (11p and 15p), and the next leg was supposed to be 700rp, but for the grossly inflated sum of 1000rp I got to sit in the front seat, with enough room for me and my bag to breathe. This turned out to be well worth the extra charge, and after we arrived at Batubulan, I hopped out and searched for the bemo to Ubud. Unfortunately the front seat was already taken, and it took 20 minutes to fill up the bus to capacity, but eventually we trundled off, bearing 22 passengers in a shuttle not much bigger than a Renault Espace. I lost feeling in my left foot and circulation in my buttocks, but we soon pulled into Ubud, some 20km north of my original starting point, and as I got off the bus, I felt immensely proud of myself for managing another milestone in my Asian education. The total cost of the trip was 3700rp, or just under 80p, which was great value, particularly for a cultural experience akin to being holed up in the Black Hole of Calcutta with half the population of Outer Mongolia while the whole world shakes and lurches around you.
Sitting on a street corner and watching the Balinese drive is a bit like going to watch motor racing; you're there to see someone crash (at least, that's the only reason I've ever watched motor racing). Being actively involved in the whole traffic scene is the difference between watching a bull fight and waving the red cloth yourself, and using public transport in Indonesia manages to be both thrilling and deeply scary. Driving down the right-hand side of the road to overtake isn't unusual, but in the West we normally wait until there's nobody coming the other way before pulling out; red traffic lights mean 'stop' in the West, but here they mean 'grit your teeth, we're going through'; and pedestrian crossings here mean 'sound the horn' rather than 'look out for pedestrians'. As an outside observer the horn sounds are almost lyrical, providing a sonic backdrop to the traffic scene in much the same way that kookaburras and curlews provide a backdrop to the Australian bush, but when you're actually inside the maelstrom, horns are a matter of survival.
But there is one thing that strikes me about the Balinese driving system: it works. Given the amount of traffic and the random development of the road system – a relief after the orthogonal sterility of Australasia – the traffic's always moving, even if it's only millimetres from the oncoming trucks in the middle of the road. London drivers come in for a knocking, but their automotive audacity is nothing compared to the crazy stunts in Indonesia, and you can't help wondering if cabbies couldn't learn a thing or two from their Balinese cousins.