Romancing the road
While attention has been focussed on the spectacular rise of air travel in Indonesia, most people still use public bus transport for inter-city commutes.
These can vary from nightmare journeys in ancient rattletraps literally held together with wire where seats are shared with goats and poultry, through to luxury travel with toilet, spacious leg room and sleeper seats. Duncan Graham has taken a few rides.
The transit people in Canada’s chilly Edmonton have come up with a smart idea to keep their customers amused. Since 1999 they’ve run a poem competition.
Organizers say the project ‘celebrates the work of poets and makes riding public transit a more enriching and pleasurable experience.’ Presumably it also takes passengers’ minds off chattering teeth and dead fingers.
Across the border in somewhat warmer Madison, Wisconsin there’s a similar contest, cleverly called Bus Lines.
A few other countries have devised creative ways to promote the delights of being imprisoned in a steel box racing down a highway and controlled by someone you don’t know and pray remains awake, but it seems only Indonesia has Bismania.
It’s not the ideal title, suggesting louts who put their dirty boots on your seat, blow smoke in your face and razor-slash the upholstery. In fact they’re fun people with serious intent, a consumer-awareness and lobby group that started in Jakarta in 2007 and in Malang the following year.
The legally incorporated club’s motto is Ayo! Naik Bis! (let’s go by bus), and it has a code of ethics; ‘We will not accept free rides lest we compromise our right to criticize’. Its members are mainly professionals and university students who have thought deeper about their nation’s transport problems than many political candidates.
|Driver Hari, 46 and never had an accident|
“though I’ve seen plenty”
The Jakarta Post met 15 supporters (half the local membership) at Malang’s pitted and puddled Arjosari terminal where the big busses bounce and buck their way into position amid clouds of dust, some heading as far as Medan, 72 hours distant.
Not all noise comes from the fuming diesel engines and klaxon blasts, for Arjosari is hustlers’ heaven. Here the jobless gather to garner a few rupiah by shouting travellers onto a bus, any bus. If it happens to be going your way then that’s a bonus.
Any uncertain victim with white skin heading for Jakarta will be steered onto a bus for Bali; all touts know that’s where foreigners really want to go.
Work on a new terminal has stopped and weeds are sprouting. When will construction restart? Everyone gave the same answer: “Only God knows.”
Bizmaniacs can tell the age of a bus at a glance, however much it has been disguised by panel beaters. The oldest they noted was built in 1982, long before most of the spotters had been assembled.
“If I became Transportation Minister I’d take off the fuel subsidy and subsidize spare parts so buses can be better maintained,” said spokesman Dudi Sudarmono, a public servant when he’s not admiring axle lengths and sizing up horse power.
“Passenger waiting rooms need to be improved to make the travel experience more pleasant. We want a fit and proper test for drivers and better working conditions. In some areas outside Malang we hear that bus driver licenses can be bought.
|Checking the hardware – Bizmaniacs Rezha Hadyan (on the ground) |
and Adi A. Firdaus (on the bus).
“Some drivers work 12 hours with only brief breaks. They get paid a commission so have no insurance. That’s not fair to them and it’s not safe. Then there’s the issue of traffic overcrowding and highway repairs.”
Because Indonesia’s roads are so rough the buses need a minimum of 42 centimeters clearance. This makes alighting tough for the elderly and handicapped unless the conductor puts out a step. It’s even better if the driver actually stops.
What about other hazards like the asongan (hawkers) and ngamen (buskers) who are allowed on many routes, their presence noted by a sudden close clutching of handbags?
“That’s complicated for us,” said Hendra Rakhmanto who works in the pharmaceutical industry. He’s something of a romantic who loves the colors of the busses.
“These are little people; they need jobs but have no skills. They bother passengers but can’t get money elsewhere. This is a problem the government should address.”
In early May the Malang branch hosted a national convention attended by 800 Bismaniacs, including Rezha Hadyan who plans to enter the diplomatic service when he finishes his international relations studies at Malang’s Brawijaya University.
“I could fly back to my family in West Java for holidays at around the cost of travel in an executive bus (fewer seats, two drivers and a toilet) but I prefer travelling by road,” he said.
“The drivers and conductors are cheerful and friendly in Malang; it’s not like Jakarta.”
|Catching the bus: Bambang Gunawan Lie|
David Lie vice president of coach builder PT Morodadi Prima, which has a factory at Singosari on the Malang-Surabaya road, said there were two main lanes of bus design – European and Chinese.
“We prefer the European,” he said. “Their ideas are more elegant and the accessories, like air conditioning, are hidden. This creates a more aerodynamic look. We may be a growing and changing country but our tastes and demands are high. Twelve years ago there was no air conditioning – now it’s essential.
“The problem is that while we make fine and comfortable busses the roads remain crowded and poorly maintained. How can you travel smoothly and fast when the highways aren’t the right standard?”
It’s easy to detect the Chinese style – big rear-view mirrors thrusting ahead like heavy-duty proboscises, turning the bus into a monster-movie mutant caterpillar.
Along with technical improvements in transmission, air-conditioning, engine efficiency and seat comfort, the other evolution has been in livery.
If the body has leaping tigers and galloping horses it should be parked and left to rust in peace. Today the emphasis is on long, sweeping abstract designs in pastel, supposedly creating an impression of tranquil movement, flowing gently like a stream.
Wildlife is also popular. “We have more animals in Arjosari – deer, pandas and dolphins – than any zoo in the province,” commented one Bizmaniac dryly.
David’s father, Bambang Gunawan Lie started the carrosserie (a borrowed French word) in 1964, and the company has just had a big birthday bash. He said the industry had changed dramatically since the fall of Soeharto and the lifting of chassis import restrictions.
“You can say that the growth has been linked to Reformasi (the 1998 change to democracy),” he said. “The demand for busses is growing as more people have money and want to travel.”
His company, which produces between 400 and 500 vehicles a year and employs almost 600 workers, is far from the largest in Java.
The bare frames are shipped into Indonesia from companies overseas. These are little more than the engine, wheels and flat steel frame, the foundation on which to build the body. The finished product can cost around Rp 3.5 billion (US$300,000).
The most popular chassis are Japanese Hino. Their suspensions are said to be particularly tolerant of rubble roads. However some companies modify the imports to add their cheaper versions of air suspension.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 June 2014)