Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Scenes From the Back of an Ojek (Part I)

One of the many problems plaguing Jakarta is traffic jams, known locally as "macet". One way around the traffic jams (literally) is to hire a motorcycle taxi, or ojek. Ojeks are nimble, maneuverable, and they can cut right through the traffic. The downside is that they are dirty and dangerous. But you have to take the bad with the good, right?

On a recent afternoon I made my way out of the bubble and hired an ojek for an hour-long tour. The driver asked me where I wanted to go, and so I told him I wanted to see some crowded street markets and then get in a traffic jam. He was slightly taken aback by this, because usually people try to avoid traffic. But he acquiesced to my project after I explained to him that I wanted to create a photoessay describing the ups and downs of the life of an ojek driver (and after I showed him 50,000 rupiah). The following pictures provide a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of everyday folks in the megacity.

Like I mentioned previously, ojeks are able to cut through traffic jams fairly easily. There's usually a current of ojeks and other motorcycles flowing through stopped traffic. They accumulate at traffic lights and other bottlenecks, and when the way is clear they speed through the intersection in a big hurry to get to the next obstacle. Ojeks, like gases, expand to fill the available space. As I was riding around on the back of the bike today I was thinking of traffic as a viscous fluid, with cars and trucks thickening and often stopping the flow. In this way ojeks increase the liquidity of traffic. They are also able to pass through alleys and trails (and sidewalks) that can't be traversed by cars, as you can see in the first picture to the right. This alley is near the bubble and is where we began our odyssey. In the second picture you can see a big pile of garbage, which is the state bird of the special district of Jakarta. We passed through a few markets and went over a couple rivers. In the third picture you can see our first impasse of the SUV trying to enter the narrow alley we were traversing. Car people often don't like to make way in Jakarta; it seems to be a kind of class warfare. This particular driver didn't seem to understand that he wasn't going to be able to make it home if he didn't first let us get out of the alley. But finally we squeezed by and moved into Menteng, a very upscale neighborhood in central Jakarta. This is where President Obama lived when he was in Jakarta, but he says he didn't live in one of the ritzy places. You can see a blurred picture of a gated home in the 4th picture. That's as close as your going to get. Menteng's a pleasant place to have a walk. You can also challenge your math skills by attempting to count the number of servants running willy-nilly to pick up caviar and sleeping security guards.

Besides ojeks, there are a number of other forms of for-hire transportation. The most familiar are taxi cabs, but these are also the most expensive and are beyond the reach of most regular folks. There are innumerable buses as well, but these stay on the main roads and don't really link the innards of the kampung with the major arteries of the city. Thus there are other options to meet the needs of you average Joko, Bambang, and Budi. First up we've got a mikrolet. These modified trucks are found in a number of cities in Indonesia and ply regular routes indicated by a number on the window. Besides mikrolets you can also ride a bemo (short for "becak motor", which also operates along a fixed route. Bemos are a bit lower on the ladder of comfort than the mikrolet, but what they lack in safety the make up for in the Citroen-esque ugliness of their design. Bemos were originally part of a Japanese development project and were introduced in 1962. They are also limited to certain parts of town. The next conveyance you see is a bajaj. These were originally developed in India and can be found in Thailand as well (tuk-tuk). I've never ridden one of these in Indonesia because, although they are cheaper than taxis, they are wider than motorcycles and thus aren't as maneuverable and can't get through the same tight spaces as an ojek. On top of that they are really loud and they don't seem to have mufflers. Bajajs are restricted to certain parts of the city. They have a sign on the side that tells what part of the city they are authorized to travel through. The government said in 2001 that they were going to phase out the bajaj, but here we are ten years later and Jakarta is still lousy with them. I hate these damn things.

On the way back to the bubble we encountered something I didn't expect to see: a herd of cattle. These particular livestock specimens were feasting on the nutritious bounty of trash that has been carefully strewn about the side of the road. And in the last picture you can see my new friend "Mr. Jay", who did a really outstanding job of getting me in and out of traffic. Mr. Jay told me he's originally from Surabaya (Indonesia's second largest city), but he moved to Jakarta 21 years ago to make money. He's been driving an ojek for 10 years now. He said the money he makes fluctuates pretty widely from day to day and it's hard to plan a budget. However, on most days he earns less than $10 and admits that it's hard to make a living as an ojek driver. Part of this is due to the fact that anyone with a motorcycle can be an ojek driver; there are no required permits.

In addition to the pictures, I shot a couple of short movies with my crummy digicam. These will be screened a Cannes next year. The first video, "Traffic 1", provides a taste of what your in for when you ride an ojek through town. Pay attention to the toxic fumes coming out of the bajajs. Then notice how you encounter people going the wrong way, pedestrians, and street vendors. My personal favorite part of this short is the heartbreak experienced when a shortcut really is a deflating experience.

The next video starts off on the sidewalk, which my driver used to get around a broken-down bus. Watch out for the big hole in the ground! I think this video really highlights the influence of one of my cinematic heroes, Ingmar Bergman. If you really look close, you can see a kernal of Kurosawa as well.

Stay tuned for the next installment of "Scenes From the Back of an Ojek". I've included some sneak peaks below.


A good site on Bemos (in Indonesian) can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. Woow!! the traffic jam is a real 'traffic jam'!! The Ojeks look cool, kind of reminds me a Russian style motorcycle. The traffic jam reminds me, my busy capital city of Ulaan-Baatar in Mongolia. But, for the country like Indonesia is lucky to have an ojek that can cut the traffic because it can be ridden any time of the year, not like in Mongolia where it has freezing winter.