Many years ago, while traveling around eastern Africa, Beth and I spent a couple of days in Mombasa, a sleepy Kenyan city on the Indian Ocean. For our first morning there we had planned a long, lazy walk around town.
As we left the hotel we were stopped by a young boy, perhaps eight years old, maybe a little younger, who insisted that we should pay him to show us around.
It’s not unusual to be confronted in this manner by people of all ages. The world is filled with entrepreneurs, and in less-developed countries this creative energy is often directed toward selling things, such as food or water, or even services, as this young boy was now doing. Those smart enough or lucky enough to learn a useful language, which often means English, can make a relatively decent living by hounding tourists.
So this boy was just one of many people trying to get our attention. What made him stand out though was his pitch. Beth and I were ready for a quiet day, wandering and exploring this amazing city. But the boy refused to accept our polite ‘no thank you.’ Finally, after following us for a bit and offering his services several times, he yet again jumped in front of us and said “You need a small boy to protect you.”
In Bandung we don’t have the services of a small boy, but we do have Aris Permana. Aris is 30 years old, but as do many Indonesians he looks much younger than his actual age. Aris is our driver.
I know, I know, that image of me as Colonialist is now creeping into your head. The last thing I wanted to do while in Indonesia is to have a ‘staff.’ The idea seemed so wrong. But Aris, serving in the place of our “small boy,” has quickly become indispensible.
People in Washington D.C., especially the tourists not familiar with its unusual street patterns, sometimes complain that driving there can be a nightmare. But DC holds nothing on Bandung. As near as I can tell, other than the toll road which travels along the west and south edges of town, there is not a single street that actually runs directly across the entire city. Not one main thoroughfare as we would think of it. And even what passes for a main street here will suddenly become a one-way street, and then veer left or right, taking you in a totally new direction.
And they drive on the left side of the road.
All this makes it difficult to know just where the heck you are. Unless you were born and raised here, getting from point A to point B with any amount of ease is more within the realm of divine providence than any possible street sense.
Add to this the constant macet (traffic gridlock) and uniformly miserable road conditions, and driving here can be very frustrating.
(This video gives an idea of both road conditions and traffic on the main road leading to our home)
This is where Aris comes in. He’s a native Bandunger (Bandungee? Who knows), having grown up in a kampong (village) near the kid’s school. Aris has intimate knowledge of the city’s smaller streets – the ones they call “rat streets” here. They get that name because they are laid out in a pattern similar to a maze that a rat may be required to run through to get some worthless piece of kibble as a reward at the end. And that’s sometimes how I feel when we’re driving here – waiting expectantly for that dangling food.
When the macet is too bad, Aris generally knows where to go to get away from it. Or at least he knows where to take us so the traffic is less intense.
Aris also knows how to navigate alongside other Indonesian drivers. The style of driving here is quite different from that in the states. If you could imagine the craziness of big city driving – say Washington D.C. or Boston – multiply that by a factor of ten and remove the bad attitudes, and you would have Indonesian driving down cold.
To be honest, I drive on the weekend when Aris is off, and as long as I stick to the streets I know well, I do fine. But then I spent 15 years perfecting my driving in DC. But I like it when Aris is here. I can relax, and sometimes even rest, while we’re stuck somewhere. Sometimes it’s nice having a small boy, even when he’s 30 years old and not really a boy at all.