Maverick Traveler

Location Independence, Geo Arbitrage, Individual Freedom

Driving The Scooter In Bali and Learning The Meaning of Life

While I’ve driven cars for many years (with both automatic and manual transmissions), the first time I drove a scooter-or any two-wheeled motorized vehicle—was many years ago when I was living in San Francisco. A friend who drove one around the city offered to teach me how to drive it. I got on and few seconds later I almost crashed it into my own car. All I remember was the beige scooter lying on the ground on its left side. It was purely a miracle that I was still standing and my own car’s left door was still intact.

Fast forward thirteen years, and I’ve found myself on the tropical paradise called Bali, Indonesia. I’m staying in a town of approximately 300,000 people. The town (Ubud) has an uncanny resemblance to San Francisco; it’s filled with nice tree-lined streets, organic cafes and lots of hippies and as well as some hipsters. And I’m exploring this beautiful town and island not by walking or driving, but by riding my very own Honda scooter.

Bali, Indonesia, a tropical island in the middle of Indian Ocean, lacks any kind of public transportation of any kind. While there are taxis (in many towns, your only choice is to negotiate a rate and hire a private car), they’re impractical for daily exploration and only make sense when you’re moving from one area to another-especially if you’re carrying luggage. Another option is to use your two feet for getting around, but then you’d be confined to a small radius around your hostel or hotel (it also gets very hot during the day).

Enter the scooter: for as little as $1/day, you can rent your own two-wheeled motorized transport and get around anywhere you need to. It’s easy to drive it. Easy to park it. Filling it up with gas costs almost nothing. Here on Bali, it seems every single person—and their mother and grandmother drives their own scooter. I’ve seen entire families consisting of mother, father and a couple of kids riding on one scooter. Everyone rides one. Renting one is really a no brainer.

Driving a scooter comes with its own challenges. First of all, you need to actually know how to ride one. If you’ve never ridden a motorbike  before, there will be a bit of a learning curve. You’ll have to learn how to properly balance it. You’ll also feel overwhelmed in heavy traffic when you’re surrounded by a sea of scooters buzzing and whizzing by you from all sides. It’s also difficult to navigate Bali’s many super narrow streets where a scooter can barely fit itself.

You know all those nice traffic rules—and people that actually follow them—in your comfortable Western country? Well, forget all that: the locals drive with absolutely no regard for any rules of the road.

After arriving to Bali, I hesitated renting one. I’ve never driven a two-wheeled vehicle, and I didn’t want to learn how to do it in chaotic environment; it would’ve been better learn in a controlled environment, not in the crazy Bali traffic that’s no place for a rookie.

However, it quickly dawned on me that I really had no choice. I rented a house about 10km outside the town (most affordable accommodation exists outside the main city), so some kind of transport became all but a necessity. I needed to rent a scooter.

I rented one. After crashing one almost thirteen years ago on a quiet in street in San Francisco on my first attempt, driving a scooter this time around has been easier. The most challenging part has been balancing it at low speeds, although over the past several weeks, I’ve made lots of progress that it feels much more comfortable now.

If you had asked me even two months ago if I would ever ride a scooter or a motorcycle, my answer would’ve been a definite no. I was living in a beautiful European capital (Kiev, Ukraine), and had absolutely no reason to drive a scooter or a motorcycle. There was easy public transportation and very cheap taxis, should I need one. Driving a two-wheeled vehicle wasn’t a necessity; it wasn’t even something I wanted to do. It was probably more than a hassle than anything.

But here in Bali it suddenly became a necessity. Any other kind of transportation was just impractical. Therefore, I had no choice but to rent one and learn how to drive it.

And what can I say after putting over 1000 km on it in the past several weeks? It has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I can remember. I absolutely love riding it. I enjoy its nimble handling and the ease of parking. I constantly make excuses to ride it around the town (to get fresh juice from a nearby local shop or buy some fresh fruits).

I’ve also discovered some amazing beaches on the island thanks to it: a beautiful white sand beach secluded in the eastern part of the island and nice black sand (volcanic) beaches on the northern side. Not too mention visiting and eating at a bunch of night markets located around 30 minutes from the city has been a fantastic experience.

It’s amazing that something that was so terrifying not long ago is now not only second nature, but it’s actually a super fun activity – an activity that I enjoy thoroughly and had no idea how I lived without it for so long. This is usually how things work.

I’ve been enjoying riding one so much, that I now have dreams of riding one around other Southeast Asian countries like Philippines or Thailand. Heck, I want to drive in every country that I visit from now on. (I’ve also been even researching whether I can drive it in Latin America or Europe. I believe they’re pretty popular in Italy and Spain).

The question of cultivating skill

When I lived in Kiev, I met people who’ve never driven cars in their lives. At first that puzzled me; I couldn’t believe there are actually people on this planet who’ve never driven a car and don’t have a driving license—and I’m saying this as a New Yorker who owned several cars in the city.

But yeah, apparently such people do exist. Mainly because for them driving a car was never a necessary. Either their family didn’t have a car when they were growing up, or they simply got around using the city’s extensive public transportation. They didn’t learn to drive because there wasn’t any need to drive a vehicle.

At the core, self improvement is all about learning new skills. That skill can be picking up women, mastering a new language or learning how to drive a motorbike. The objective is to go beyond what you know-go beyond your comfort zone-and tax yourself by learning how to do something new.

Learning a new skill and going beyond your comfort zone is never easy. It’s not easy to learn how to pick up and seduce women because the byproduct is always lots and lots of rejection. It’s not easy to learn a new language because you’ll make a fool of yourself repeatedly before you’ll be able correctly pronounce words and make coherent sentences.

And it’s certainly not easy to ride a motorbike because it can be hazardous to your life; not only will you’ll need to learn how to balance the vehicle, understand how to switch gears and avoid crashing it into various objects (and quickly react so others don’t crash into you).

Nevertheless, each one of these skills enhances your life by allowing you to experience something brand new. All of them make your life more interesting and more rewarding.

My mother once told me a story that back in Soviet Union she was required to pass a swimming test in order to graduate from school. There was one problem: she didn’t know how to swim. She has never swam before. So, on the day of the test, the instructor called her name and requested that she swim across the length of the swimming pool. She jumped in the water and, in order to avoid drowning, began to tread water and stay afloat. Few moments later she was “swimming,” (I’m using the word in its most liberal sense). She eventually “swam” the full length of the swimming pool and passed the test. It was the first time she “swam” in her life.

The subtle art of rationalizing away and not confronting your deepest fears

When I was researching about riding scooters in this part of the world, I stumbled on a few articles where some backpacker was warning foreigners against renting and driving scooters in some Southeast Asian country (I believe it was Thailand). His justification was driving one is dangerous and unpredictable: there’s a much higher risk of a serious injury because, unlike when driving a car, you’re not protected by an outer shell. There’s the fact that you’re not familiar with how locals are driving, etc.

In a sense, he’s right: driving a motorbike is certainly more dangerous than driving a car, but where he’s wrong is in the overall thinking and intent.

But here’s the thing: the problem that’s preventing you from moving forward is not a specific concrete reason like your inability to ride a motorbike or the foreign country’s laws and regulations. These are all nothing but rationalizations for a root cause: your overriding fear of taking a risk and doing something new. You’re afraid to do it and you rationalize your fears using some existing excuses.

What people like him are doing are rationalizing not confronting their (usually massive) fears. Here in Bali, everyone rides a scooter, so every single driver-whether he’s driving a scooter, a car or a large truck, is completely used to scooters buzzing all around him at all times. Thus, riding a scooter is actually safer here than in a city where no one rides these mini motorcycles such as Kiev or Moscow. (It’s for the same reasons that driving a bicycle is almost suicidal in New York City and completely safe in Copenhagen, Denmark where 30% of the population commutes to work in bicycles.)

People who rationalize not confronting their fears tend to live very closed and mundane lives. They’re afraid of letting go and surrendering and just experiencing things. They’re afraid of experiencing life. They’re not living — but merely existing.

They’re also handicapping themselves. They’re given a choice to do something new, learn a new skill and become a stronger man, but instead of taking a plunge and just “going with the flow,” they rationalize away confronting the fears and choose not to do it.

(One could ask a different question: if you’re so scared of living your life, why travel anyway? Traveling is far from bulletproof. Lots of bad things can happen and often do. You can be robbed, assaulted, mugged, killed, raped, etc. Or you can have the most amazing experience of your life.)

Invariably most of you who’re reading this will fall into two camps: those who will jump at the opportunity to grow by learning a new skill and those who’ll make every single excuse in the book to rationalize not confronting their deathly fear of doing anything that involves any risk.

This is the wrong approach. Rationalizing anything is always a bad idea because it shows that it’s not something that you wanted to do-but needed to somehow explain this poor decision.

It’s easy to let fear dominate your decision making in almost any kind of situation. Pick any decision that requires you take a risk and move forward, or not do anything and stay where you are, and it’s always easy to talk yourself out of pretty much anything that makes you feel uncomfortable in any way. For instance, guys who don’t approach the girl they’re attracted to know exactly what I’m talking about.

But the trick with fear is that you can actually train yourself to feel it and still do something anyway. Over time, as a result of the positive feedback of doing something new and risky and not experiencing catastrophic failure—such as an embarrassing rejection or crazy crash—you’ll automatically build a healthy relationship with fear. The fear will still be there, but what will happen is that you’ll develop organic confidence that will counterbalance the fear, making it all but irrelevant. And this is exactly what you want.

Learning while doing it

While, over time, things do become second nature, the hardest part is to take the risk and do something whenever you’re presented with an opportunity. When given the option to grow: you must choose to go forward (“go with the flow”) instead of making a sudden and erratic u-turn.

Because the best way to learn a new skill is precisely while doing it, not while planning to do it. You learn to swim while helplessly struggling to stay afloat in the deep end of the pool, not standing in the shallow end where your feet can easily touch the water. You learn to ride a motorbike in heavy Indonesian traffic while surrounded by tons of other motorbikes instead of practicing in some empty park lot.

You learn a new language when you can’t communicate properly in English with the locals (here in Bali, English sort of works, but if I was exploring other areas of this huge country, I would learn Bahasa Indonesia. That’s why I became fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese: I was living in countries where speaking English would only get one so far, and I wanted to go much further and actually connect with the people). I had no choice but to learn their language.

You learn to pickup and seduce women when you reach a breaking point: you want to be with quality women, but you don’t know how. Maybe you’re in a sucky relationship where you don’t love your current girlfriend. Or maybe you want to learn to become more social and meet women anytime and anywhere instead of remaining a shy and fearful hermit who plays video games and watches online porn instead of interacting with actual, live women. Ultimately, you learn that being able to approach and meet women directly translates into becoming a much better and capable man in all areas of life.

You learn how to make money when you realize you want to live in Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Kiev or Bali because you like it better there than your crappy life back in New York, Los Angeles or Brussels and need a way to support yourself. Or because you met a nice girl there and want to live with her, but getting a job there or having the girl move to your home country isn’t an option.

You learn to ride a motorbike when you realize there’s just no other practical means of transportation around a beautiful tropical island, and you want to explore it and not be chained within a small radius around your hotel.

The clearest sign that you must do something is when there’s an element of risk; when there’s an element of imminent failure. Moreover, if you’re scared of doing something, it’s a pretty clear sign that you must do it. It’s a sign that you must overcome your fear. 

Can you imagine not driving a scooter in a place like Bali because some fear is holding you hostage? It’s absolutely ludicrous. But that’s exactly what you’re doing when you refuse to take the leap. For, fear knows no bounds; it’s wholly irrational. That’s why you must tame it.

That’s how you improve. You do it when you have no other choice. You do it when the alternative to not learning a new skill is so painful, inconvenient, or it’s a plain requirement (e.g., you must pass a test in order to graduate the class). You don’t learn when it seems like a “cool” thing to do. You learn when you must. And you become an infinitely better and more capable man for it.


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10 Comments

  1. When my gf and I went to The Bahamas I rented a scooter, having NEVER ridden a motorbike, and we did just fine on it, all day. It was a blast.

    A little surprised by your comment that (as a New Yorker) you’d never met anyone who’d never ridden. A couple of friends I made in grad school, from Brooklyn, had never driven; there was no need where they lived. They learned to drive in my pickup here in fly over land.

    • When I was in Asia driving scooters was my favourite activities. I’m lucky in that I had a Honda 50 when I was a kid. I’d had my share of spills back then.

      One of my favourite places to scoot around was Pai, in Northern Thailand. A beautiful little town mountain town with lush valleys and glorious views.

      Every single day some tourist would crash a scooter and fuck themselves up. The local hospital was a revolving door of these poor bastards (mostly women).

      After seeing about two dozen scooter accidents and hearing about a few fatalities, I have put together this short scooter survival list:

      1. Do not speed…ever. You will get cocky. You will feel invincible. 90 percent of the scooter crashes are from that brief moment you give it gas, usually at the bottom of a hill, or going around a slight corner. There is some sand and you spin out, or a bump in the grade and you are flying off your seat over the front.

      You will meet other tourists who will try to race you, or show off. Those are the people who die. Trust me, drive like an old lady and you’ll be ok.

      2. Do not drink and drive.

      3. Do not sight see. Keep your eyes on the road in front of you and your mirrors. The only time I crashed in 8 months out there was when I was on Koh Chang, going down a steep hill and I glanced briefly over my shoulder at something. I went off the road at like 10km per hour, dropped the bike in a ditch, and fucked my foot for a week. I was super lucky.

      Have fun.

      • Great advice, Tony.

        The turns can be super tricky, especially when the locals seemingly fly through them. But then the locals have been driving scooters since they were like eight years old. That puts things into perspective.

    • Yeah, you’re right. I grew up in southern Brooklyn where it was common to have a car to get around. If you’ve lived in northern Brooklyn/Manhattan, then there’s no need to have a car.

  2. Mav, experiencing life on a motorcycle is like nothing else.The freedom,the focus on the present moment, the meditative mindset it puts you in,the connection to the outside world and elements( your on a motorcycle), not (in) a motorcycle.Your in the scene,instead of merely watching it through a cartoon like tv screen known as a car windshield.It’s not just transportation,it’s a form of travel,of the mind and soul,you feel like a complete human being on a motorcycle.

    Here is a few inspiring links about motorcycle riding:
    http://www.ianchadwick.com/motorcycles/whyride.html
    http://contradictorian.com/minimalism-and-motorcycles/
    http://www.themotorcycleobsession.com/2015/04/why-you-and-everyone-you-know-should.html

    Glad to share the passion

  3. Experiencing stuff like this is the beauty of travel.

  4. I am from the countryside in Poland, in the 1990 when i was a kid we emigrated to Germany, in almost every summer vacation we used to visit our Family back in poland. my Cousins same Age like me and all there friends were interested in cars motorbikes, they would jump into the river from a high tree, all things i wouldnt dare to do, because i was too afraid. fast forward 20 years i have lived in asia for about 4 years, driven scooters and motorbikes in China and Thailand for about 3 years and did all kind of adventourous stuff, while my fellow child hood friends never left their home country and lost their adventourus nature when they grew up

  5. I enjoyed your writing but you are totally wrong about the dangers of riding a scooter in Bali or Thailand. These places have some of the highest road fatalities stats in the world. Only Nanibia is more dangerous than Thailand per capita. Over 85% of road fatalities are scooter crashes. Travel insurance companies in places like the UK rate it as the most dangerous place to be a tourist on the planet. To be a tourist on a scooter (or motorcycle as the locals like to call them) is really tempting fate. All that talk about conquering your fears is reasonable when applied to learning to relate to women or acquire new languages. And I am no advocate of the risk free life. But if you value your life you should avoid 2 wheel travel in Souht East Asia. The odds are stacked heavily against you remaining unscathed.

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