Tourists on Scooters: Why So Many Dickheads?
“Terima kasih. Terima kasih,” I repeat over and over, till my throat goes dry and the Indonesian words of gratitude become a meaningless, Australian-flavoured gibberish.
I wince. And fiddle with the label of the plastic water bottle that Ketut pressed gently into my hands. Made chucks me a toothy grin and tells me to breathe as he treats my left leg with Betadine. His hands, baked golden by years of sun with deep ridges of age, dance softly along my calf, imploring my body to express where it hurts. Through salty, wobbly vision, the faces of concerned onlookers swim in and out of focus.
A cat smelling of something rotten, with sticky, sweat-saturated fur, stares at me through a nearby bush. He cocks his head and twitches his nose as I squeeze my eyes shut. Taking off my grit-stained glasses, I rest my head in my hands.
This scene is the result of 19 years of unawareness, and borderline carelessness, of my own mortality. Well, that’s not entirely true. In fact, as a rule, I refuse to eat anything past its use-by-date and never leave home without a thick sheen of SPF50+. Yet, somehow, last month I found myself crumpled on the edge of a T-junction with my ankle wedged tightly beneath a freshly-rented scooter.
It’s a common enough story for young travellers.
“Let go of your inhibitions!” they say. “Be free, wild and adventurous!”
Sure. Fuck yeah! I can do that.
It seems that most Westerners become well acquainted with the hot sting of gravel-grated flesh when scooter-venturing through Southeast Asia. Particularly in Bali, where a culture of helmetless, Aussie Bintang fiends thrives despite the barrage of figures released by the Department of Foreign Affairs each year.
An Australian dies in Bali every nine days.
For me, upon arrival on this beautifully balmy island, and with my parents more concerned about angry Mount Agung, the volcano, than the mortality rate of scooter-loving tourists, the statistics faded into white noise and felt about as sobering as Melbourne’s Dumb Ways to Die campaign. Like thousands of other Western travellers, I felt as if death from misadventure just wasn’t me.
As night falls, illuminated by the ever-faithful florescent glow of 24/7 convenience stores, the main streets of Kuta come alive with the shouts of young travellers. Men and women with freshly-tattooed limbs stumble in and out of clubs, beers in hand, chanting incoherent renditions of Daryl Braithwaite’s The Horses at the top of their lungs. Barefoot and scantily dressed, in little more than a singlet and a pair of denim shorts, these tourists cackle as they leap on the back of battered scooters. Women with painted toenails and golden Havianas, held together by duct tape and bread tags, smile as they slide an arm around their boyfriends’ waists and speed off into the darkness. Women just like Australian tourist, Sophia Martini, who died in a horrific scooter accident in September last year.
In 2017, four Australians lost their lives in scooter accidents in Bali. Thousands more acquired critical physical injuries, and the waiting room of Kuta’s BIMC Hospital was in a perpetual state of disarray as Westerners drenched in blood, with broken bones and fractured skulls, filtered in and out of the double doors on stretchers.
With the United Nations declaring Thailand home to the second deadliest roads in the world, the number of deaths involving scooters and tourists are expected to rise across Southeast Asia in 2018. Although some of these travellers may not have been in the wrong in these situations, Balinese authorities report that there is a staggering number of Australian tourists who ride without a licence, putting not only themselves, but those around them, at risk.
Of the 1.2 million Aussies who travel to Bali each year how many of them take risks they normally wouldn’t back home? How many get a tattoo to celebrate their holiday or pat a bunch of wild animals for a groovy photo op? How many of them jump on a scooter even though they’ve never ridden one before? The truth is, Indonesia and other nations across Southeast Asia have become a playground for Western tourists. A playground of reckless chaos, where travellers develop a mistaken complacency in their safety and believe their actions to be inconsequential.
Although Indonesia does have strict laws regarding drugs, road laws are often not as strongly enforced and it is extremely easy to rent a scooter without a valid licence. Drink driving and driving a scooter without a helmet can result in a criminal record in Australia, however, with no such penalties in Bali, tourists can unthinkingly trap themselves in dangerous situations.
“Be careful,” Made said slowly, as he wheeled my battered, blue scooter toward me. Handing me the keys and what was left of the Betadine, he nodded and walked away. In the days that followed the accident, my left foot grew, swelling and reddening like a juicy tomato. Though the wounds on my elbows and knees soon began to harden and flake off, I dreaded the large gash on my ankle would blossom with infection and never quite heal completely. Nevertheless, by the end of my month-long escapade in Bali, I had made a full recovery and was riding with a pillion passenger through the teeming thoroughfares of Denpasar.
In any tropical island paradise, where the laws appear lax, it is easy to forget that there are consequences for one’s actions. Heeding Made’s words of warning, I strived to remain vigilant and, though I challenged myself as I grew more confident in my scootering skills, I always recognised my limits.
It was a regular Tuesday afternoon when Made and Ketut found me, head spinning, on the edge of that T-junction. For the local Balinese community, seeing a tourist trapped under a scooter, writhing and screaming, is a relatively common sight. This needs to change. It is important that we, as travellers, remain aware of our own mortality and the mortality of those around us overseas.
Too much blood has been shed to disregard the statistics.
Cover by Gemma Clarke