Photo: Paolo Bona/Shutterstock

The Family Wagon, Balinese Style

by Nathan Myers May 27, 2013
We used to laugh and point. Now this is how we roll.

I post the photo thinking I’m being cute and funny. My friends and family back in “more civilized” parts of the world are mortified (and mildly amused). I understand this reaction. I had it once myself.

The photo in question shows me on my motorbike. With my wife. And our two children. Plus the dog, of course, tucked down on the floorboards. We jokingly call it “the family wagon,” which in “more civilized” countries would be a chip- and Cheerio-littered minivan with safety-approved carseats double-belted in the third row, with nursery-rhyme spewing DVD player, headrests, and a stroller rack on the roof.

Here we have a motorbike instead.

I’m sure we all remember our first impressions of the family wagons in Bali and throughout Asia. Four-person families popping the curb to avoid traffic. The occasional five-pack. The holy six-pack. Cell phone tucked into the helmet. Monkey on the handlebars and a sack of rice between the legs. Is that woman breastfeeding? Then we spot the toy-store scooter, the doormat moped, and the various meals-on-wheels-mobiles. Motorbike madness is just a way of life around here. You get used to it. Mostly. My all-time craziest-ever sighting was a man riding with a giant mirror in his lap. It was so big, he couldn’t see the road at all, but he seemed content just staring at his own reflection. And somehow, he wasn’t crashing.

We’re mortified at first (and mildly amused), but eventually we find ourselves shopping for a baby helmet (which also used to mortify me). Pretty soon, it’s both kids, a hand-me-down baby helmet, and, okay, the dog can come too. But only if I can bring my surfboard.

You become what you resist, the saying goes. Or maybe just: Don’t knock it till you try it.

I suppose there’s a larger metaphor at work here. Something about our innate human capacity to adapt, rationalize, recalibrate. But this isn’t a metaphor, just a quick trip to the beach. I’m told there’s a shockingly high number of motorbike mortalities in Bali every year, but it’s hard to hear those stats with the wind in my ears and the joyful hoots of my three-year-old boy as we blaze through the rice paddy shortcut. The volcano is watching.

So it goes. This story would be finished, but on my way home today I saw my new “craziest ever.” The sight mortified (and amused) me all over again, like a fresh-off-the-plane tourist.

He was driving on the Bypass Road, where traffic is the fastest and most intense on the island. He had a big Scorpio motorcycle and was leaned back into a fully reclined position, so that he could steer with his two bare feet. His helmet was pulled up, the way you raise sunglasses to your forehead, and with both hands he was happily typing a text message. Or maybe he was playing Angry Birds. Hard to tell because as I pulled closer to take a photo, he made a left-turn exit and disappeared into Denpasar traffic without ever sacrificing his lounge-chair status.

Shocked. Mortified. But mostly just glad my boys didn’t see that one.

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