Malang, East Java, November 21, 2016
For three weeks we have been daily in taxis on the streets of Malang. This is a city of 2.5 million located in East Java. The main thoroughfares are two-lane each way with a narrow band for all else. On the straights, cars and trucks are surrounded by a flock (herd, stampede) of small motor bikes. These bikes weave in and out following no apparent rules or common sense.) The sensation in the cab is that of being surrounded by a swarm of angry, blurry bees.
Not that the riders look angry. Rather they look impassive – expressionless. Quite amazing when you consider the boldness of their maneuvers and the age of many of the riders. Who are they? I undertook my own mini survey. Six out of ten of the riders were female. Four out of ten had passengers – sometimes more than one. Ages of the drivers range from youth ( about 14 and younger still in the villages) to seniors.
Many of these roads meet in huge roundabouts. In our first encounters of these conflagrations it seemed to me impossible that any of us, or at least our vehicles, could survive. I assumed that we were about to experience bashing, scraping, and screaming of tortured metal as wing mirrors were wrenched from vehicles. Wing mirrors on cars commonly extend 20 centimeters. From my observation we were often passing or being passed, by vehicles and/or bikes with no more that 8 centimeters) between us.
After three weeks in this environment, I have not seen one vehicle without a wing mirror. Nor have I seen a dented fender or a scarred panel. – and believe me, I have been looking!. How is this possible? In St Heliers where I live, the loss of a wing mirror is a common occurrence and vehicles with dented panels are to be seen daily outside our Centre.
How is this possible?
I believe that the fact that this city is virtually alcohol and drug free is a contributing factor. Everyone is cold sober. Also, the insurance situation is not at all clear. It seems that in many cases bumps and scratches are paid for by the person causing the damage in cash - on the spot. This leads to drivers being highly motivated in respect to vigilant driving.
There is another phenomena which I have not noticed anywhere else. In the worst traffic snarls, intersection, 'T' junctions, roundabouts, there are people (mostly men) directing the traffic. They are not elevated on traffic islands. They are right in the middle of the traffic standing on the road surface. Some have yellow jackets which indicated they have had some training by the police. Many have no distinguishing clothing. For all of them, their main tool is a small, red plastic whistle which they blow with authority. I find it breathtaking, nerve-wracking, totally amazing to see these individuals in the middle of a sea of bikes, cars, trucks and buses. They raise their hands to stop this driver and wave on other vehicles and in this way they traffic keeps moving. We were never once in a grid-locked – crawling yes, but gridlock no. One taxi driver who had a smattering of English said, “If it wasn’t for these ‘supeltas’ (the people with the whistles) the traffic would stop and never move”.
As I watched this death-defying traffic ballet I finally noticed that some drivers (not all), as quick as a flash, passed small bank notes (a few cents in our currency) to the traffic directors. When I realise what was happening I was glad. At least these dare devils have some reward for risking life and limb. Incidentally, during our stay we have seen many splendidly uniformed policemen but have only seen one ‘real’ policeman on traffic duty.
These volunteer a mature traffic directors have got me thinking about the role of our church and community centre. What are we trying to do? Well this is the theory. With open doors and open hearts we are positioned at a cross road of many lives. These lives are moving (some are hurtling) in many different directions – some positive and some negative and a few self-destructive. Our role but to help them to move towards survival (first base), and coping (second base) and personal growth (third base). Hopefully, we do this without pomp or ceremony, uniforms or status. Just by being ourselves trying to live out our motto of 'reaching out and welcoming in'.
Watching the men and women with their red whistles I have been wondering how they work out who to stop and who to call on. They are not facing banks of orderly traffic lined up at opposing traffic lights. They are being pressed on all sides, literally at arms length, by vehicles all wanting to move in different directions. It must be instinct. It is surely not reasoning. They don’t have time to reason. Like a pianist or expert tennis player they trust their guts. Experience has wired them so that they know what to do.
I think attending church every week is like the practice of a musician or top athlete. It is a regular toning up, tuning up; a rehearsal so we will know what to do when life suddenly calls on us to walk with others in a life-giving way. And in this respect I don’t just admire Jesus, I worship him. By this I mean I give him a place in my heart and mind that I give to none other. Listening to his words, thinking about his stories, ingesting bread and wine – communion - symbols of his life, death and resurrection are all part of my preparation for life. Prpearation for my life in the middle of personal chaos – the issues, the tragedies that suddenly arise for me and for others. So that when facing life's road blocks, I will, hopefully sense without thinking what is the right thing to do (the Jesus way).This is what I think the Paul means when he talks of 'Christ in you, the hope of glory'. I don’t altogether get the 'glory' bit but I certainly resonate with the ‘hope’. It works for me.
Despite what I have said above, accidents do happen. Our daughter-in-law Effie was involved in a serious crash that led to the loss of her baby in the 6th month of pregnancy as well a sinjury to her body. And in our travels we have seen one serious accident which involved the death of a pedestrian.
The volunteer traffic directors (Supeltas) are not appreciated by everyone. A friend told me they were little better than beggars. However, there can be no denying that they keep traffic flowing.
Talking of beggars – we have seen only two in three weeks in this city.