Deciding to Drive (or not) as an Expat

This week I obtained my first driver’s license in a foreign country — Indonesia. The timing also coincides with my near-approaching over-the-hill birthday, which takes me back to another super important American birthday


Sweet 16

Turning 16 in the USA means one main thing: freedom. That particular day remains untainted in my memory as a beautiful, fun spring day of pure happiness. 

Photo by James & Carol Lee on Unsplash

My best friend spent the night the day before, and my mom drove us to the DMV in time for 8:00 am opening. I don’t remember waiting in any lines, experiencing any hassle from the people with the power, stress from not being in control, or any unpleasantness at all. I took the test, got my license, and that was that: I had my own wheels

I drove my friends around town all day long in my 1968 yellow Mustang until we — literally — could not drive any further, when we ran out of gas. I remember taking my friends out to eat, the wide open spaces and sky lit by the bright Texas March sun and most of all — the feeling of absolute freedom.


The Non-Driving Years

Saudi Sunset by Lindsay Lyon

I gave up the freedom to drive for more than 10 years of living in countries where:

  1. We didn’t need a car (China), 
  2. I was legally forbidden to drive (Saudi Arabia pre-2018; My husband drove us, or I hired a taxi to take me to the mall. I felt suffocated and stuck most of the time. The summer after we left, this antiquated law was finally overturned) and now,
  3. Jakarta, the city notorious for one main thing: horrendous traffic. 

While we summer in the States, I usually get right back behind the wheels, aside from the summers I let my driver’s license lapse and then had to take the driver’s test (twice) to get a new one. The freedom that comes with driving, however, has been limited to my life in the USA.

Up until a few weeks ago, we employed a driver, just like many expats do in Jakarta, so a license was unnecessary. The ONE thing Jakarta is most famous for is the traffic. It is insane. Having a driver was essential for us as we settled into Jakarta, but after two years, we now crave more independence and freedom. One step towards this freedom is by taking control of our own driving needs.

24 Years Later…

Almost 24 years later to the day, I am once again legal to drive, with my new Indonesian driver’s license in hand. Surprisingly, the experience was not unpleasant. The process of obtaining the license, however, was quite different.

Jakarta Traffic by Lindsay Lyon

There are two ways you can become a legal driver in Indonesia: 

  1. Go downtown to the driver’s license place by yourself with the necessary paperwork and try to figure it out.
  2. Pay someone to take you through the process. 

We chose #2. 

We paid a nice young man to complete our paperwork, and we showed up at the Indonesian equivalent of the DMV at 8:00 am, just like I did when I was 16. There was hellacious traffic on the way there, but when we finally met our helper, we followed him into the building, and exactly 9 minutes later had our driver’s licenses in hand. I know the exact time because I asked him how long it would take, and he told me 10-15 minutes, and I didn’t believe him.

I was wrong. We cut all the lines, sat where we were told to sit (briefly), and jumped up when it was time to take our photo. We don’t even know what happened with the “test.” Maybe that part was waived. Who knows. We do know that we paid this young man probably 5x the cost of an actual license. Was it worth it? Hells yeah.

Question, Readers: Would you pay someone to help you cut the line? To get through the red tape?

The Haggard and I discussed this question on our drive back home. The question itself is loaded, and as an American, it seems so morally wrong and obvious. NO–you wait you turn. You do the work, put in the time, and take responsibility for your needs. Work it out.

But living abroad, some things are different. It is possible that we could have done this ourselves, but we had neither the time, language capacity, or energy to figure it out. But we had the money. This process–while it certainly can’t be truly legal on paper–is allowed and maybe encouraged. Our “handler” does this for a living–he is a professional navigator of red tape. This is not uncommon in developing countries. It is how things work.

So far, I have not yet driven outside our neighborhood. I am working up my courage, and need someone other than The Haggard to be my co-pilot the first few times to help me figure out how to deal with the motorbike traffic. But it’s coming.

Free (again) at 40.

–The Lyon

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