Munir Winkel, WEEKENDER | Thu, 07/12/2012 11:25 AM |
The guy had to have been completely gila. From my padded leather seat in an air-conditioned car, I stared in disbelief. Amid the bumbling bajaj, the weaving scooters and the often stationary automobiles vying for the right to inch forward was a lone man on a bicycle. Crazily or courageously, he was efficiently navigating the crevices between vehicles. His countenance seemed relaxed, even though he had to engage in several evasive maneuvers to avoid being compressed by the swarm of vehicles around him.
Was he oblivious to the health hazards? Did the exhaust fumes and pollution fail to deter him? Could he simply not afford another form of transportation? His extra-sturdy black helmet, surgical mask and colorful racing outfit ruled out all three possibilities. I wondered where on Earth this crazed soul was heading.
The next Sunday, I saw two more cyclists. The first was boldly sporting a neon-green biking outfit as he signaled right and darted between buses and scooters to swiftly cross three lanes of traffic. The second was sweating profusely through his outrageous outfit – a pink polo shirt and swimming trunks depicting the US flag. He barely avoided colliding with a scooter going against the flow of traffic by darting onto the sidewalk and nearly running over a policeman. In the side mirror of a scooter, I saw the cyclist in detail – I recognized him as myself.
Driven by neither madness nor financial constraints, my uncle and I are just two of the thousands who enjoy Car Free Sundays in Jakarta. I find these Sundays to be the most magical of days in Jakarta. On these days, Jl. Sudirman and Jl. Thamrin are freed from their weekday fate of being saturated in a tumultuous sea of motorized contraptions blasting their horns and spitting out exhaust. On these Sundays, these streets become graceful, lined with calm, joyful and slightly sweaty joggers, cyclists, walkers, skateboarders, dancers, performers and vendors.
As my uncle asked, “What other major city in the world regularly closes off two of its busiest roads – just so people can go out and play?”
Looking at Car Free Days from that perspective, I began to comprehend just how special Jakarta is. For the longest time, I thought that leaving the United States meant leaving behind picnics, outdoor strolls and long bike rides. Car Free Days have proved me utterly and thankfully wrong.
Having only glanced at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium from behind hazy glass windows as I idled away in traffic, I was astonished to see it bustling with action one Sunday morning. Car Free Sundays brought out communities I never knew existed. Troops of joggers, clouds of cyclists and teams of exercising dancers dominated the crowds circulating the stadium. Children of all ages darted between the trees, chasing soccer balls and each other, as their families nibbled on snacks and gorengan from local vendors. Shuttlecocks grazed the skies and skirted between feisty badminton players, as people reclaimed the outdoors for themselves.
Thanks to Jl. Sudirman on Sundays, Jakarta opened my eyes yet again. Whether or not I was living a sheltered life before is arguable, but one thing is clear. Never before have I encountered such a prodigious variety on the two-wheeled motif. Struggling to remind my feet to keep pedaling, I was passed by youngsters, proudly showcasing their one-speed multicolored bicycles.
Fast-moving groups of cyclists zoomed past me, as they rode unified in hues and decorations, their vintage collectors’ edition bicycles glowing with pride. Never have I seen a two-meter-high bicycle before. And I certainly never saw three of them in a row, their audacious owners soaking up the stares of astonishment and awe from the crowd below them.
The removal of automobiles shatters the cold anonymity of city life. Car Free Days engender freedom. By providing a free and public space for recreation, Jakarta offers communities a chance to gather and celebrate. For me, Car Free Days are a reminder that Jakarta is not merely a series of pathways and routes to shuffle people from one destination to another.
Jakarta is home to families and friends, daughters and sons, who, given the occasion to come together, relax outside, exercise with like-minded souls, and savor their health and vitality, will earnestly embrace the opportunity. Such is the magic of Car Free Sundays.