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Learning How to Drive in Jakarta

Today I tried my skill at driving in a right-sided steering car. My husband has had his Indonesian license for a couple of months now. He's been driving on Sundays since it is a bit quieter on Jakarta's roads and he's been doing fairly well.

We thought that the other drivers would agree that it would be best for me to learn the different steering wheel orientation off the main roads, so we went to the 'practice driving area'.

Our well-engrained American driving habits showed up during a funny incident on the way to the practice driving area. We came to an intersection and my husband made a right turn into the inside lane. Passing a truck in the intersection on the right side, I said, “I guess we're driving the Indonesian way.” My husband said, “I don't know why that truck was going the wrong way.”

I said, “Is this a one-way street?” to which he responded, “No”. As a car was coming toward us I said, “Aren't we supposed to be on the other side of the street?” He says “Oh yeah!” and quickly maneuvered into the left lane. “What am I doing?” he said with a big sigh. It's obviously harder to undo habits than we thought, especially when it comes to driving on the other side of the street.

The practice driving area is actually a huge parking lot in Senayan where Rp 5,000 allows access to practice lanes. Practice seems like a sort of a farce, since after a moment's observation of traffic on major streets in Jakarta you'd think the drivers had never taken the time to practice!

Jakarta drivers are famous for their ability to drive in a zigzagged manner down the street, joyously swerving around all other traffic, ignoring all the lines marking lanes on the street. Considering how bad the 'experienced' drivers are in Jakarta, the Senayan parking lot was truly a danger zone! We were expecting it to be empty on Sunday, unfortunately we were wrong.

The Senayan parking lot is full of rubber tires lined up to make the lanes. The lanes are placed in two oval loops, one encircling the other. One or two of the tires are usually out of place, and they all look like they taken a lot of direct hits as they're quite beaten up.

Other areas are designated to practice parallel parking and backing into parking spaces. Most of the cars are old and cheap or beat up. We realized later that wise people would not take their BMW to practice driving here! At any time there are about 40 cars driving around, some with big “student driver” signs on top of the car, though the literal translation is “learning”.

Most of these cars are manual (stick shift), and you can see a lot of student drivers starting and stopping and trying to start again. There's a lot of slow weaving as these student drivers practice not going in a straight line, or should I say, practice trying to go in a straight line.

Being an experienced driver I didn't have trouble with the clutch, only with the fact that everything else in the car was backwards. I kept reaching for the stick shift with my right hand and would bang it into the door. It's amazing how driving becomes so automatic and when you have to change your habits and adjust to the new location of things it messes you up.

But soon I was more worried about the other students. We drove bravely into the rubber tire-marked lanes and soon got caught behind a traffic jam that was building up. This seemed strange since one would think there wouldn't be any traffic lights or intersections in the practice lanes. In the distance, to my surprise, I saw a couple of policemen directing traffic out of the lanes. As we got closer we realized two cars had just been involved in an accident.

We then decided, after a little thought, that we'd learned enough and it was time to leave.

© Lisa Kumaradjaja