Sun, 14 Dec 2003

Risk-taking Jakarta style: Crossing the road

Jacqueline Mackenzie, Contributor, Jakarta

The tiny Indonesian girl with glossy black hair and immaculate school uniform looked about four years old, but I guess could have been six or seven.

Still too young, I thought, to be crossing Jl. Hang Tua, alone: eight lanes of polluted peak-hour hell. The kind of road an average expat would worry about crossing themselves, let alone allowing an unsupervised child to do so.

When I first saw the way small children cross Jakarta's busy roads alone, I was horrified.

But this is the story of how -- after just over a year living in Jakarta -- an Australian mother of three stopped worrying and learned to love (well, feel much better about) the nightmare roads of Jakarta.

It's also how I realized my views of what's dangerous and what's not were formed by cultural forces much stronger than I knew, until I got to live in a place as different from Australia as Indonesia is.

For months after I began living in Jakarta, I held my breath each time I saw young children negotiating their way through traffic.

I'm not talking about street-kids, for whom traffic must be only one of many dangers of living in the city, but the well- washed, smartly uniformed school kids who daily dodge careening decrepit buses, herds of Kijangs, swarms of weaving motorcycles and the occasional impatient Mercedes.

Of course, Jakarta's streets are perilous for drivers and cyclists too, but young kids? Couldn't some responsible adult see them safely across?

I wrote this practice off as a slightly neglectful by-product of the "life is cheap" reality of life here. Anyway, we didn't think we'd have to deal with this hazard, as we expected to travel pretty much door-to-door.

But soon after we arrived we discovered that driving our kids to school, which had looked like a three-minute trip on the map, was actually a 20-30 minute proposition, thanks to one-ways and gridlock troublespots. We could, however, get there within 10 minutes if we drove half-way, crossed a major road on foot, and then walked the last 300 meters.

But when I applied to the school administration for a "walker" badge, I was told I would not be allowed to walk my children to school. They had checked the route from our home to the school, they said, and decided that it was too dangerous, even if an adult walked with the children. It was not until we quoted a regulation in the Parents' Handbook that stated children were allowed to walk to school, with a "responsible adult" that the school relented.

Then I had to get used to crossing the very kind of eight-lane highway I'd dreaded.

Initially, I found it pretty challenging. Every school morning, my driver and I would stand by the curb, each guarding a child, all of us choking in exhaust, while I waited for an Australian-style break in the constant stream of peak hour traffic.

While he never showed it, my driver must have been pretty bemused, as it was nothing for us to stand there for five or more minutes until I considered it safe to cross. We could just about have driven in that time.

But as the weeks went on, I started paying more attention to how locals cross, including the young schoolchildren I'd initially feared for. Slowly I copied, waiting for the traffic to slow just a little, for a flicker of a smile on a driver's face, or for one of the inner lanes to pause just a moment, then walking out resolutely with my hand up.

And of course, as longtime Jakarta residents know, it almost always works. Occasionally, a car screeches to a halt because I've moved out too late, and more rarely there's an angry horn blast (yes, usually from a Mercedes) telling us the driver's coming through anyway.

If you tried this in Australia, you'd die from the torrent of abuse hurled at you, if not the actual collision.

So why has this system of accommodating pedestrians developed in Jakarta? My guess is it's a direct response to the fact that there are few legal, safe places to cross, especially pedestrian crossings. In their absence, the drivers -- with greater or lesser degrees of graciousness -- have taken on the responsibility.

Even though most expatriates think the roads here are a nightmare, in fact most drivers are much more forgiving than first world drivers to pedestrians, simply because no-one would ever get across the road if they weren't. It's one way Indonesians make this highly dysfunctional city a little more livable.

I still can't quite get past my distrust of buses' brakes with just a raised hand for protection, but I'm getting closer to crossing roads Jakarta-style.