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Motorcycling on Ambon

by Fridus Steijlen –

‘Continues to amaze me’, ‘it is dangerous’, ‘they drive like lunatics’ – these were some of the comments on social media when friends posted pictures of motorcyclists in Ambon. Last year I took to the streets of Ambon on my motorcycle, travelling 10 km back and forth each day between my house and Pattimura University and making several trips into town. Before I became a motorcyclist myself, I went by motorcycle taxi for a month first to observe how the driver navigated through the traffic. Did I join the dangerous world of motorcyclists? It does not feel that way. Let me share some observations as an anthropologist: about my fellow motorcyclists, the fun of riding a motorcycle, and most importantly the unwritten rules and how to read the traffic. Not unique to Ambon but still interesting.

A motorcycle, to start with, is not just a two-wheel vehicle to transport two people. Motorcycles are a means of transportation that can be easily adjusted and expanded when the need arises. These vehicles can carry families with two or three children. Special rotan child chairs are placed between the steering handle and the seat. Constructions at the back can transform the motorcycle into a mobile shop, needing only a stick to support the motorcycle while customers are served. And with some skill on the part of the motorcyclist, the motorcycle can be used to transport an amazing number of large packages.

There are different kinds of motorcyclists. A large number among them are ‘non-owners’, they have a red licence plate. These motorcycles are the property of the government, the driver’s employer. And then there are the professionals on motorcycle taxis, called ojek. Motorcycle riders from three companies – Grab, Gojek and Maxim – can hang out waiting for passengers everywhere, because their customers contact them using an app. You recognize them by the green or yellow helmets for their passengers. Besides these nomads, the ‘old style’ ojek, still congregate around the sides of the main roads at entrances of smaller neighbourhoods, waiting for customers who are on public buses. Many of their hangouts are beautifully decorated, some are even coloured orange, expressing their support for the Dutch national soccer team.

When it comes to the style of riding motorcycles everybody has his own speed, some sometimes too much. But there is a group, maybe one-third, of slow drivers. Some are notorious because they will never go faster than 30 km/hr, the average speed in bustling traffic. Others drive slowly just occasionally, when they meet friends on the road and want to chat riding next to each other, or when helping a friend to the next gas station or garage by pushing their friend’s motorcycle from behind, with their feet on the tail of the motorcycle.

And there are rules, written and non-written. Most important are the unwritten ones. The most basic rule is to take care of the other and give people space. This rule applies to different situations. For example, whenever the traffic in front is slowing down: there might be somebody crossing the street or taking a U-turn, or there is a pothole. Then you should slow down too. Driving behind an angkot (small public bus) means thinking along with the angkot driver. You have to learn the choreography of an angkot: turning to the left of the road when empty is different than turning to the side of the road in an angkot full of passengers. And you will learn the difference between the waving gestures of an angkot driver: attracting a potential passenger or to let you know that it is safe to overtake.

The most important rule I learned is to read the motorcyclist in front of you. If you want to overtake, make sure that the motorcyclist is not going to do the same. Is he going slow: why? Is he speeding: why? There were many times that I noticed (by sound, shadow, or in my mirror) motorcyclists approaching from behind while I had to pass a vehicle in front of me. They then held back to give me space. Mastering the skills of reading the traffic enables you to manoeuvre, overtaking left or right depending on which side is safer and being given room by the one in front of you, and becoming an organic part of the traffic flow.

Riding a motorcycle then becomes a joy. The wind and sun in your face and the road ahead. And you will be able to especially enjoy riding as soon as it gets darker. Then driving turns into an intense and colourful experience. Red, blue and green tail lights, some with lights flashing all around. Some tail lights like a bull’s eye with a flashing red centre and coloured circles. Some motorcycles have, like some cars, a green or violet-purple light at the bottom, giving the impression that they move as a hovercraft on light. Large white lights approaching by the side of the road are not ghost drivers, they are taking a short cut or preparing to cross to the other side of the road. And of course, there are the almost invisible motorcycles, without tail lights. They can be recognized by their headlights shining in front, or because headlights of oncoming traffic make them appear as spooky silhouettes. The oncoming traffic, comprising vehicles with the same colourful lights, adds to a disco feeling: different colours of lights flashing, darkened cars and motorcycles without lights. Driving in the night is a disco experience. Loud music played by angkot, using techno or other music to attract passengers. The ultimate disco experience is when youngsters on motorcycles hang behind the angkot and jump up and down their motorcycles to the rhythm of the music whenever the angkot pumps up the volume of its musical horn.

When you learn to read and navigate the traffic, the world of lunatics turns out to be a fun and social world.

Fridus Steijlen is visiting professor at Pattimura University, emeritus professor at VU Amsterdam, and honorary fellow at KITLV

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