The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, January 19, 2007


© Duncan Graham 2007

Most weekends we drive to and from Surabaya and Malang, the two major cities in East Java. In the good old days BC (Before Crisis) the trip took about 90 minutes using a toll road that goes about one third of the way.

Now up to five hours can be the norm.

Since the last leg of the turnpike has been drowned by the Lapindo mudflow disaster, traffic has been diverted through the village of Porong. This road now bears all non-rail freight south and east of Indonesia’s second major city.

What was once a rural byway has become Indonesia’s most congested thoroughfare, its thin asphalt pounded and rammed, bashed and broken by steel axles and black rubber.

Forty-tonne container trucks, behemoths hauling 24-wheel log-laden trailers, inter-city busses steered by Formula One fanatics, rusting tankers sloshing with high-octane fuels and toxic chemicals, pick-ups overloaded with perishables, medicines and merchandise, squeeze between thin-skinned cars.

The three-lane highway becomes two, then one. This is where the Porong market spills and splashes into the road every day, starting before sunrise and dribbling into noon.

Now the huge smoking, steaming endless convoy gets mixed with pedicabs laden with limp vegetables pushed by wrinklies, motorbikes revved by dreadnought hoons, backblock rustbuckets delivering and dumping, kids on bikes double-dinking, plump mums shuffling through the mass and the mess, their arms tugged taut by bulging bags.

You think you’ve seen mayhem on Indonesian roads? You reckon you’ve tasted toxins, coughed clouds of carcinogens? Not unless you’ve savored the pong of Porong: This is the ultimate clogged artery, thickened by the cholesterol of maladministration.

Bottleneck? A ridiculous metaphor. Better think of pouring rice through a straw.

Since the earth started bleeding black mud and burping white gas last May all bids to halt the hemorrhaging have failed. So have attempts to intelligently handle the unstoppable surge of traffic pouring through Porong.

To put it politely – the authorities have stuffed up big time. But maybe they were always doomed; roads in regal Britain may be the Queen’s Highway, but in this Republic they belong to the people.

In a country where parks are few and recreation centers the preserves of the rich, the poor have no-where to go but the bitumen.

Having a wedding, a circumcision ceremony, a funeral? No need to hire a hall or book a mosque, church or temple. Just commandeer the area outside your home and tell commuters and commerce to go elsewhere.

Need to kick a football, fly a kite, swipe a shuttlecock? The tarmac playing fields may be hard and narrow, but they’re straight.

Need some funds? Set up a roadblock and man it with thugs ready to scrape knives down your paintwork.

Want to offer your wares but don’t have cash for a kiosk? Problem solved – your selling space starts at the kerb and spreads outwards. Bang a few staples into the concrete, add four props, a tarpaulin, bench and table – bingo! It’s business on the blacktop. All you need is gall.

In other countries impeding the free flow of traffic is a serious offence. Roads are reserved for vehicles. In Indonesia the highway is public open space where cars are intruders.

Grinding along in fits and starts, overtaken by limping pedestrians, trying to shrink from bulging bald tyres towering over your roof rack, it’s easy to damn the market folk of Porong for endangering us all.

But where else can these already damaged people go to trade? They’ve lost their land, their homes, their jobs, their schools, their places of worship. Some have lost their lives.

Sure they’ve been compensated with a cornucopia of fine words pouring out of Jakarta. These may sustain newsprint – but not life.

There must be space somewhere for a new market, but the civil authorities who are paid to handle such matters haven’t looked or haven’t negotiated.

So as you suck in the fumes and feel your tenure on life lessening with every lungful, praying a load won’t slip, a tank rupture or a truck tip while you’re alongside to make the trip terminal, please forgive the people of Porong for making your journey a misery.

Their lives are miserable enough already.

(First published in The SundayPost, 14 January 2007)


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