One of the most dangerous things one can do in Indonesia is also an essential part of daily life for most people. That dangerous activity is riding a motorcycle.
I do it every day.
This is the story of my motorcycle accident.
It was 7:45 a.m.on a Monday morning and I was driving down Jalan Jamin Ginting, a traffic-choked thoroughfare that marks central Medan’s southern edge. A woman attempted to pass me on the right, in the tight space between my bike and the zebra-stripe concrete median. At this particular spot, the road takes a gentle turn to the left. Momentum being what it is, everyone keeps a bit of their forward inertia as they react to the turn, which has the effect of narrowing the space to the right.
I knew there was someone on my right when something touched my leg. I looked and saw a young girl on a bike. I felt my rear tire bumped and saw the girl drop behind. She was swiveling her handlebars trying to regain control.
We had been advised during our Fulbright orientation in Bandung to drive away from accidents if possible. Our foreignness makes us culpable even when we are the victims. I stopped, partly out of reflex, quickly supplemented by a calculation:
Here, people chase down those who commit hit-and-runs. People may have thought this was my fault. I drive here every day. How can I possibly drive away?
I pulled to the side of the road and turned back. A small crowd had gathered around the girl. Her bike was no longer in the middle of the road and traffic had resumed as if nothing had happened.
But something had happened. There was blood on her hands. She was crying.
“Obat, obati,” – a man close to me said. Medicine, treatment. I asked where and he pointed to a clinic back behind the girl.
“What kind of treatment?”
I walked past the girl and the people helping her and into the clinic. There were half a dozen people near the clinic who could have gone in and said something – half a dozen people who could speak the language and could explain what was going on, plus the half dozen crowded around the girl. Instead, I had to get her help.
A few minutes after the clinic nurse had taken the girl behind a curtain, she reemerged. Her hands — her bare hands — were covered in blood, and she used those red hands to grab a bottle of medicine from a cabinet. There were stitches scissors, that curved tool, in her hand, and she set the bloody instrument on a desk along with the bottle of medicine now imprinted with her palm. Then she rifled through a set of files. When she went back into the treatment room, she was still gloveless.
I had called AMINEF, my bosses in Jakarta, and they had called the American consulate. The girl had called her uncle. When everyone had assembled, we spent two hours moving chairs and drawing diagrams to decide who was at fault. The girl, who spent this time lying on the bed and punctuated her story with moans, never realized that I understood her. I did not let on that I spoke Indonesian, but when she said, “He tried to pass the angkot and hit me,” I angrily and immediately responded in English that she had been passing me. The remark was duly translated.
Her uncle was a quiet man, probably uneducated, and he stared silently for 20 minutes at the mark on my tailpipe that proved the girl had been alongside me. He was thinking, I believe, about what he could say to get something out of all this even as he recognized that he was in the wrong.
My school had heard about the accident and sent two people to help. One was an administrator who should never be sent to deal with problems. The other was a soccer coach whose job at school is to lecture students on why, “for the good of the human community,” they must keep their classrooms clean. I was not excited to see what trouble they might cause. And sure enough, the first administrator introduced himself by shouting at the girl.
As the school people arrived, the consulate aide was closing on a figure of 300,000 rupiahs. A third of that would cover the stitches the girl had needed on her jaw. The rest would cover half of an x-ray, should she choose to get one. When the uncle put that figure to her, she agreed for a moment, then backed off. Her phone had broken. What about the phone?
Before the uncle had arrived I spent a while talking with a member of the crowd who had stayed behind to help the girl. He was making calls for the girl because, he explained, her phone had been stolen the week before when she was riding an angkot. So at the moment the girl asked about her phone, my slowly eroding calm cracked. I hissed that she was lying to the consulate aide, but before we could act, the coach intervened.
“I want you to look deep inside yourself at this moment and to ask yourself whether, in some way, you might be responsible,” he said to the bloodied girl.
Here, at the tensest moment in the process, was the moral lecture I knew would ruin everything.
“Look at this man,” he continued, gesturing toward me. “He is a good man. He could have driven away. Your uncle saw his bike; there is nothing wrong with it. Instead, he stayed. He stayed and he was the one who got you treatment. He did not stay because he was responsible. He stayed because he is a good man and he does not want you to think he is bad. This is about the good of humanity. Now he is even giving you money – 400,000 rupiahs – which is money he does not need to give you.
“You can take this money. Or you can go to the police. You can sue him and you will get nothing, because this was your fault. So now ask yourself, ‘What do I want?’ And choose if you will accept this good man’s offer or not.”
She thought for a moment, and then agreed to the soccer coach’s misquoted, slightly higher price.
“For the good of humanity, shake hands and show that you have no more anger,” the soccer coach said.
And we did.
If there are morals to this story, the first is this: in Indonesia, you will pay something if you are obviously foreign and involved in a motorcycle accident. The second is a reminder to be culturally humble. Sometimes problems are solved with ways of speaking that would only make things worse in your country. Trust the people around you to fix problems with the people around them.
Trust them a little.
P.S. If you choose to ride a motorcycle, wear a full helmet of the kind that protects the jaw. Had this woman been wearing that kind of helmet, she could have gotten up and driven away without a scratch.