Research a transport to fun
Dr David Reeve gets revved up about Indonesia’s ‘Transports of Delight’. To show he’s no desk-driving academic his latest book includes a picture of author in an angkot the mini-busses which plague the major cities.
However the Australian is a portly professor so wisely chose to use the front seat; in this position the hazards are few: A gear shift in the ribs, springless seat spine hammers and lung disease from the driver’s smokes.
If inside the cramped low-roof van with 15 other passengers (licensed to carry ten) Reeve might have pondered re-titling his talks to Indonesian students while preparing exit strategiest without getting stuck in the slot that mimics a doorway. ‘Transports of Discomfort’ sounds more apt.
Angkot is a squashed word for angkutan kota (city public transport), also known as bemo or oplet depending on the city and local language. They’re the cheap drop-anywhere, wait awhile, overworked and under maintained minibusses which properly belong in a scrapyard not a street.
Novice tourists find these transports quaint, then change their minds after one trip. Reeve is no newbie being taken for a ride but a class-hardened lecturer whose Indonesian credentials started almost a half century ago and have yet to take a break.
He’s taught at the Republic’s top tertiary institutions and is now a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales where he’s an Aspro – not a headache cure but an Associate Professor; Indonesia is not a sole trader in compressed language.
Reeve’s interest is not the mechanics of angot (they seem to be largely powered by prayer) but the social attitudes fueling the words and designs, particularly in Padang where the art is vibrant. Not to the level of the Philippine’s crazy-kitsch jeepneys, but more gaul (cool / trendy) than in other Indonesian metropolises.
His book Angkot dan Bus Minangkabau subtitled ‘popular culture and popular values’ squints at the vans’ often garish decorations as they cruise the West Sumatra capital thrusting the up-you message of hormone-charged kids everywhere: ‘We’re rebels hunting a cause while waiting to grow up.’.
‘Angkot have a bad name in Minang society and are generally seen as undesirable and transgressive in established adult mainstream opinion,’ Reeve writes. ‘Angkot may be popular with the youth community but adults have a stream of criticisms.’
These include leadfoots’ aggression, road skills, pollution, counter-culture, opposition to traditional conservative mores of a matriarchal society - and noise. Many have been customized into mobile discos with flashing lights and sound systems that would blast the vehicle into space if tipped from horizontal to vertical.
The signs they display are generally macho, concerned with prestige, high tech and speed – ironical as the clunky loaf-shaped angkot spend much time loafing in traffic jams. Fantasy images are drawn from universal pop, Disney and violent films.
Curiously sex is rarely seen in the artwork; this is probably to keep tutt-tutting authorities at a distance, though obscene language gets tolerated. PC they are not.
In 2006 Reeve was at a Padang wedding where he got excited by the ‘dramatic and memorable language and decorations’ used on the angkot. He writes: ‘I was struck by the distance between the ideas expressed there and in more official accounts of the values that are supposed to operate in West Sumatra society’.
And not just in that province. Authorities nationwidc tell citizens to obey the road code, follow the ten-point Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga family welfare rules, not dump rubbish and Say No To Drugs. Readers can judge the effectiveness of these harangues from their own observations.
Reeve is a funny man able to pack an auditorium with students who tend to listen and laugh rather than tweet enjoying his wordplay, highlighting Malang’s ML angkok route. This is local adolescent slang for sex – Making Love.
His work sounds a hoot, but it’s serious. It included dissecting 780 bodywork slogans to find the lurking cultural directions; curiously 58 per cent are in English. Well, a sort of English if your
Dremwold is Holliwood.
These aren’t adverts but statements of owners and drivers that reveal their fantasies of living the good life overseas and having adventures in wild places – the same themes exploited by cigarette adverts. Designs reflect the young men’s codes, morals even, for some are evangelical.
A supporting industry of spray painters, sticker printers and other artists using their imagination and motifs off the Internet, TV, films and comics, serving the angkot drivers’ desires to be different.
“Research can be fun,” Reeve says which sounds like the sort of statement which might fill the Indonesia Circle with another round of protestors.
“For me (the angkota of Padang display) a set of values presented in especially lively, dynamic, funny and creative ways.’
(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 May 2017)