Take a tadpole ride on the wild side
Here are three things you won’t find in Indonesia:
A Javan tiger; an unsweetened coffee – even when you’ve stressed pahit and the waitperson has nodded vigorously - and a fat becak (pedicab) cyclist. But this slimming suggestion won’t be featured in women’s magazines.
“That’s right, you never get overweight,” said Tukiran who at 78 claims to be the oldest becak driver in Malang. “It’s a job that really keeps you fit. I’ve never been sick.” As proof he showed his calf muscles, worth admiring despite being of more interest to a vascular surgeon.
In the principles of honest journalism, but to the grief of the Quit lobby, it has to be disclosed that Tukiran’s recipe for longevity includes nurturing asphalt-coated lungs. He smokes the coarse hand rolled kretek clove cigarettes. These are so lethal that - unlike handguns – they’re banned in the US.
These are not the refined and processed products promoted on TV by heedless hipsters skydiving off razor-tipped cliffs and skindiving among sabre-toothed tiger sharks.
If the smoke ad models wanted to confront real danger they’d clamber out of their gull-winged Mercedes and fly through the traffic in a Malang becak.
Unlike rickshaws, invented about 150 years ago with the rider alongside, the pedicabs in the East Java city have the passenger in front. Designers call this the ‘tadpole’ model. It’s more efficient than the sidecar version and can squeeze through narrow lanes.
Training as a health and safety officer is not needed to know that in any collision the passenger will be the human bumper, or if rammed from behind, an instant projectile. If your dream is to be a space explorer, this is your moment of glory before gore.
However if you plan to study the orifices of truck exhaust systems for a mechanical engineering degree then this is the place for research.
There are positives; becak are pollution free and next to noiseless apart from the grunts of the driver.
For those too poor to have a home, a becak can serves as an abode.
Passengers get to spot potholes before the driver and brace for the shock, though there’s nothing to hold onto unless you are riding with your beloved.
The bench seats are designed for two slim-hipped pre-teens, not wide-bottomed bule (foreigner); enjoy knees in mouth like airline economy class and hunchback headroom.
If love is in the air travel at night in the rain - wheels hissing through puddles - with a plastic curtain windshield. To suggest the material is waterproof would be a misprint, but the joy is that passengers can see out, well just, and others can’t see in.
As this is a family magazine we’ll go no further along this road, just leave the direction to your imagination.
Despite the obvious hazards Tukiran (right) claims he’s never had an accident. He calls the becak which he owns Sabar meaning ‘be patient, tolerant and calm’.
A splendid motto for preservation when the steel four-wheelers jostling for the same road space drive to discredit these ancient Javanese qualities.
If readers get the impression Tukiran is arrogant then this story needs a rewrite. His title of Becak Opa (Grandpop Pedicab) was bestowed by his mates on the corner of the alun-alun (town square) and he only laughingly acknowledged the rank.
Perhaps he blushed, but we’ll never know. Almost eight decades of exposure to sun and smog, rain and dust have turned his skin near to buffalo brown.
If lucky he’ll earn Rp 50,000 (US$ 3.70) a day starting at 7 am and finishing around 4 pm. He’s competing with around 2,000 others and a boom in privately-owned motorcycles so fares are getting rare. A becak driver plays the waiting game.
His younger mates have handphones with subscribers on speed-dial to regularly ferry kids to school or maids to market. The elderly and disabled reckon they’re handy because this public transport is easy to access.
Loads too big for motorbikes and too small for pick-ups are also part of the business.
The other threat is the bentor (motorised pedicab) cobbled from old motorbikes and becak cut in half and crudely welded together.
“The problem is that there’s no front brake,” said Suwoho, 38, one of the younger bentor drivers. “The police say they’re illegal if unregistered and can only be used outside the city. We have to play a cat-and-mouse game.’
If so the feline must be well fed. While talking to a group of drivers and assorted hangers on, including cigarette hawkers and ladies of the night on the day shift, police cars cruised past.
No-one jumped into drains. Today the cops were displaying their perfected blindness to minor malfeasance by those too poor for a shakedown.
Suwoho doesn’t own his motorised second-hand three-wheeler – he’s paying off the Rp 800,000 (US$ 60) loan at Rp 100,000 a month – if he gets enough customers.
“It’s no good if people are stingy,” he said, resigned to reality. “What I earn depends on the blessings of God.”
Becak and bentor don’t have meters so the cost has to be negotiated. That’s a skill mastered by the drivers though not easily learned by outsiders, particularly tourists.
They tend to convert rupiah into their own currency and measure the cost against a cab fare in their homeland. “What, only Rp 100,000 to the Post Office? It would cost five times that in Chicago – what a deal!”
It would cost five time less if they’d asked locals for the right rate.
The becak men know they’re heading down a no-through road. Tukiran started pedalling when he was 12 and hasn’t stopped since. His Pop was also in the trade, but his two sons have found other jobs.
The story of Jakarta authorities briefly cleaning up the capital by dumping thousands of becak in the ocean is well known. Less understood is that Yogyakarta has spruced up its becak to make them tourist attractions.
“This work is only for those who don’t have another job and who left school early,” said Suwoho.
But when shown pictures of a new design being explored in the US for Asia (see breakout) he urged that the idea be introduced to the city mayor.
Reinventing the wheel
· Catapult Design, based in Denver, Colorado, has won a US$340,000 (Rp 4.5 billion) one-year contract from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to ‘redesign the existing rickshaw into a modern pedicab’.
Project team leader Bradley Schroeder calls himself a ‘bicycologist’. He’s written a book about cycling and studied pedicabs in 11 countries.
“I’ve worked quite a bit in Indonesia,” he told J-Plus. “The project would be applicable in many cities. I believe the status of the car is declining among the younger generation.
“Take Bandung for example. The mayor (architect Ridwan Kamil) is very focussed on creating a liveable city and managing traffic. Jakarta is a really tough place because of the street sizes and the national and local politics. Medan has a long way to go.
“Catapult will also make 60 prototype vehicles and test them in Kathmandu and Lumbini (the birth place of Buddha) in Nepal with a further ADB grant of US $150,000 (Rp 2 billion).
“It’s important to note that the prototype cost will be significantly higher than production costs. So a simple division does not represent the true cost of the manufactured vehicle once in production.”
· Half the pedicabs will be pedal powered costing around US $750 (Rp 10 million), the rest assisted by an electric motor.
The pedicabs, made of aluminium with an enclosed drive train, will be lighter; the GPS touchscreen could also be used for advertising.
“The design will be open source,” said Schroeder. “This means that any manufacturer can use the ideas without violating copyright.”
(First published in J-Plus - The Jakarta Post 10 April 2016)