As you know, the road down to Lake Meninjau consists of 44 terrifying switchback turns. Each of these turns is decorated with a weird little monument of one kind or another. At first I thought they were shrines to people who died there, like those bunches of flowers and little crosses you see alongside the road in the United States. After the first ten turns or so, though, I realized they didn’t have people’s names on them. What were these painted rocks and other roadside decorations? I still don’t know. I was paying more attention to the numbers, counting down from 44, possibly to stave off drivers’ terror. Or add to it, in my case.
What you don’t know is that my motorbike—that red thing with the purple Monster drink handles—was awful. Actually, that’s not true. The engine was fine. What didn’t work were the brakes. Well, that’s not really true either. The foot brake didn’t work at all, no matter how far down I pressed it. The handbrake did work, but that was the problem. It had only two settings: full stop or full speed ahead.
Do you know what happens when you’re trying to turn 180 degrees and you pull on a brake like that? You fall over. The momentum needs to go somewhere, and it goes into pushing your right elbow into the ground and your body into oncoming traffic. Then you have to right yourself, try not to burn your calves on the exhaust pipe, pull your bike upright, get it back into neutral, and walk it to the side of the road, all while praying not to get hit by the black trucks and the yellow public buses still flying around the corner that took you out.
There was a lot of praying going on while I went down that hill. Past turn 20, I’d gotten used to the falling down and getting back up routine. I’d even learned to compensate for my death trap of a front brake by slowing down to a crawl at every turn. The problem was that I had to slow down on the straight bits, laying off the gas well ahead of any curves. This annoyed the buses and motorbikes and trucks and vans that were also trying to get down to the lake, but what else could I do?
Worse, even in second gear, going as slowly as I possibly could, I still had to widen my turn into the other lane so as to leave enough turn radius to not fall over again onto my already-bruised elbow. This meant that at every turn I had to lay on my horn, honking it in a series of quick but insistent beeps, hoping oncoming traffic would get the message.
In actuality, oncoming traffic didn’t care. The fat noses of large trucks poked into my lane, ignoring my horn and my hand cramping around the handle that controls the gas and the brakes. That’s why the praying started. Nothing gets you closer to God than visions of bloody body parts splattered across two lanes of Indonesian mountainside traffic. And trust me, there were a lot of those visions.
By turn number 30 or so, praying was not enough. I’d already thought about loved ones safe at home in the US, thought about the latest boy who I hadn’t been dating but who I’d managed to break up with anyway, thought about my friends somewhere ahead of me on a motorbike with actually functioning brakes. The only thing left to do was start crying. All that excess emotion needed to go somewhere.
Of course, crying is just about the worst thing you can do when you need to watch for death trucks barreling around turns. Especially when they’re the kind of tears that you know you won’t be able to stop once they’ve started. So you start swallowing hard at each turn along with chanting prayers and trying not to overbalance and tip over or freak out and pull on your brake by mistake.
This is the state in which you guys finally found me. I had about ten turns to go and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. Each turn presented a new, hopefully alternate universe in which I died.I was getting very tired of the death all around me, crouching on my cramped shoulder blades and in the grass below each of those numbered signs. I was getting very tired of the buses that kept piling up behind me, honking their horns as if that would miraculously fix my brakes.
Your van was another of these vehicles wedged in behind me, heightening my stress as I edged around yet another turn. I nearly lost it there, as three trucks came around the corner in the other direction, with little regard to my teetering, honking form. I did manage to make it, though, possibly because God was listening to my prayers or possibly just because I was extremely lucky.
Once back on the straight bit of road, I slowed down to let you pass. I couldn’t do another turn with your van right on my tail.
This is when you took the opportunity to yell at me: “Hati-hati, dik!”
Actual tears came then, and I had to swallow and swallow and focus hard on the road, even as I shouted my thanks back at you.
Be careful, you’d said. Literally, Be careful, little sister.