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Sunday, Jan. 7, 2001

JAPAN LITE

Demolition derby in world's biggest game center


Whenever you step off the airplane in a new country, you are forced to throw all common sense aside and sacrifice your body and possessions to a complete stranger -- the taxi driver. From the moment you get inside his car, you become his.

Recently I took a taxi in Bali, where everyone learned to drive in a game center and the objective is to pass the car in front of you.

We've all experienced "that guy in back." You know the guy I'm talking about -- he's tailgating you and wants desperately to pass but keeps chickening out at the last moment. "That guy in back" makes you nervous, like someone looking over your shoulder.

Well, in Bali, there's always "that guy in back" as well as "that guy in front," and "that guy on the side" and "that guy coming straight at us."

That guy on the side often waits until he has almost passed you before he decides he can't make it, and returns to his tailgating position like performing a back stitch in a life-or-death needlepoint project.

Once our driver abandoned the back stitch, deciding he could make the pass if he just pushed harder on the gas pedal and squeezed his car in at an angle. Yes, that little space between the front bumper of your car and the front bumper of the oncoming car -- I believe it's called the "uncomfort zone" -- is where he slid into, in just the nick of time.

I swear I saw God up there looking down and yelling "Safe!" as he gave the gesture baseball umpires do when a runner slides into home.

"That guy coming straight at us" is the oncoming car who is supposed to be in the other lane but is passing someone and expects you to brake or move onto the shoulder so he can complete his pass using your lane. There's a lot of braking. Then suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, there will be a traffic jam. It's like Bangkok, without the buildings.

Why is it that these countries never have enough road? There are millions of cars jammed into two lanes while on either side of the road is hectares and hectares of arable, drivable land.

Being in one of those countries that doesn't enforce pollution controls for cars, I soon felt like the Pigpen character from Peanuts -- a vehicular Pigpen -- traveling around in a cloud of exhaust fumes wherever we went.

Road rage? Not a chance. There is nothing more relaxing to the Balinese than this alternating gas-pedal-brake-pedal therapy. They enjoy driving so much, I believe they are genuinely disappointed to reach their destination.

My husband swears we ran over three dogs en-route but I only witnessed one. With all the starts, stops, bumps and jumps, I wouldn't have been surprised if our car had been driving over the backs of a herd of sheep the whole time.

Maybe the herd was even stuck to the bottom of the car, their little legs running us the whole way. No wonder every now and then the driver would yell something that sounded like "Charge honey, charge!"

I know better than to look out the front window of a speeding taxi. I prefer to look out the side windows and watch what is whizzing past rather than what is hurling toward.

Out the side window coconuts, jackfruit, rambutan and limes flew through the air. Banyan trees and palm trees stampeded past. Orchids, hibiscus and pagoda flowers with blooms the size of my head, all charged by as if they were late for an important flower exhibit.

As we cruised through the dirt roads and dusty towns, on roads designed by gyroscope engineers, it was almost as if we were driving through a tropical drink, shaken not stirred. Rocks were flying everywhere, fruit floated by, and with the visual garnish of flamboyantly colored Balinese umbrellas on the side of the road, it was as if we were driving intoxicated.

When our driver finally screeched to a halt in front of our hotel, I gave him a healthy tip. After all, we had made it alive. And God looked down and yelled "Safe!"

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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