The roads of northern Sumatra can go from superb to nonexistent and back within a few meters. Perfectly serviceable roads fall apart unexpectedly into an agglutination of knee-deep potholes, only to rally and get themselves together again.
The potholes can last for a meter or a thousand meters in a seemingly random pattern. Or maybe they outline the administrative boundaries of communities less interested in the welfare of roads or the traveling public.
The end result is that periodically the vehicle you ride in will slow to a crawl and will cross the field of craters with the speed and determination of a beetle. You and your fellow travelers will be jostled around energetically. Just close your eyes and imagine you’re riding a camel. Then it’s all over, until it happens again.
It is not a particularly pernicious problem. Drivers and passengers have adapted to it, and it keeps down the average speed on the roads. I have seen no speed limit signs in Sumatra, it would be a waste of resources I presume.
Every now and then, helped by the local entrepreneurial spirit, the lowly pothole is elevated from a traffic nuisance to an economic opportunity. All it takes is a guy with a shovel and a guy with a basket. The guy with the shovel fills the pothole with dirt from the side of the road. The other guy straddles the median and holds out his basket to passing drivers, hoping to collect a reward for saving the axles of their vehicles. It may not sound like a get-rich-quick scheme to you, but it must pay something, otherwise they would not be eating dust all day long.
I imagine it takes a certain amount of skill on the part of the shovel guy. Doing a very good job may be counterproductive. There must still be enough of a pothole for the drivers to slow down and throw into the basket the measure of their appreciation, in the form of balled-up rupiahs.
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