Ode to a Javanese Road

Once again, depressingly, without pictures.  I’ll get some decent wifi soon, I’m sure.  Sorry.


National Route 3 is one of only two major east-west roads on the island of Java.  You’d think it might be a fine, wide highway, zipping traffic efficiently from one end of the island to the other.  But it really, really isn’t.  It’s more like experiencing the whole life of Java compressed onto a (very, too, scarily) narrow strip of tarmac, and rushing past in a crazy cavalcade wreathed in diesel fumes and dust.  It deserves a little more attention than I gave it in the last post.

My first view of Java was of a volcano and clouds.  The volcano warned of hills to come, and the clouds (and reports of flooding all over the west of Java) suggested that rain might become an issue once again.  Nothing warned me about the impression the roads would make, even after a warm-up in Bali.

A gaggle of schoolgirls in pink hijabs shoot by on scooters.  Some two-up, some three up.  Some texting.  Some smile and wave – “Hallo Meester!” – before dividing each side of the truck in front, which is plastering me with diesel fumes.  The truck turns out to be stuck behind a scooter with a dumpling shop riding pillion.  I have to pass him as well, attentive to the gentle honks of anything behind which is quicker.  Just letting you know they’re there.  I’m through, and there’s a slight break.  Few deep breaths, and dodge a wheel-sized pothole (to the inside; feeling clever until I see an old man on a bike loaded with reeds heading straight toward me).

A bit later.  A clear spot.  I switch off for a second.  A truck comes around the bend ahead, followed by a slipstreaming inter-city bus, which immediately moves out to overtake it.  My side of the road.  Horn blaring, lights flashing.  The road’s full, so I’ve no choice.  Dive onto the dirt, and watch the wall of metal flash past.  Straight back on, in case I lose my nerve.

A town, and things slow down.  And clog up.  More Hallo Meesters, overlaid with the crunching of ancient truck gears, music pumping from somewhere, and the strains of the local muezzin trying to make himself heard over the general hubbub.  Smells – diesel, satay, sewage, fried chicken, coffee, two-stroke engines, over-ripe fruit.  A family come past on a scooter.  Mum driving, then the two kids, then Dad on the back.  Big smile, a Hallo Meester, thumbs up.  All of them.

Start climbing.  Less traffic.  The more overloaded trucks barely make my speed up hills, so I can stop and wait for the convoy stuck behind them to pass before heading on up on fairly clear roads.  Almost everyone who passes gives me a friendly honk, or a shout of encouragement, or a thumbs up.  Everyone’s so nice on the roads; it’s the only way it could work here.  At home, there would be road rage everywhere.  None here at all.  Maybe getting there on time is less important than getting there alive.  Down the other side; passing trucks with hopeless brakes edging down the hill under massive overloads of rocks, soil, wood, metal, whatever.  Get to stop, wash, collapse into bed.

Next day, the rain comes.  At the bottom of a 700-metre pass.  Grr.  The road goes quiet for a minute as everyone gets their rain-capes on, then the madness resumes.  I’m soaked and covered in road-filth in a matter of minutes.  Another fleet of kids; boys this time, in football gear, boots dangling from the saddles, precariously close to the wheels.  Endless encouragement in broken English from the scooterists and quicker truck drivers as I climb into the low clouds.

A break as the rain becomes torrential high on the pass.  Under the tin roof of a little restaurant-shack clinging to the mountainside.  An old man dipping his bare feet in the river running across the road, a Muslim lady staring folornly at the weather and muttering.  I guess she’s praying for it to stop.

It doesn’t stop, but it does ease a little.  I’m running out of light, so I’m off, over the pass, and down the slippery, rutted and pot-holed descent.  In the dusk and the rain.  I zip past a couple of trucks and another scooter-borne snack bar.  This is why you want disc brakes on a touring bike.  Confidence.  Hit a rhythm, slaloming down the hill towards a dry room and my bed.  Let a car through.  Friendly honk.  Swerve the lying water; could be holes underneath.  Judder on the shoddy surface, take violent evasive action to avoid a family of feral chickens crossing the road.  Wonder why they’re crossing.  Smile.  My reward is my first aggressive honk from a flying bus.  Clearly not an animal lover.  Splash into town as it gets dark.  More Hello Meesters, and what sounds like a “Nearly There, Meester”.

I am there, thankfully.  Into the room.  Wash, food, bed.  Same again tomorrow.  Loving it.


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