Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.
Since I was now living within walking distance of Mallville and my workplace, I no longer had to use the Transjakarta busway every day, which to be honest was a relief. Whilst there is some cultural novelty to using the buses in Jakarta, that novelty soon wears off when you have to use them every day.
The Transjakarta Busway is like the rest of Jakarta, congested, dirty and lacking any real logical coherence. There is a map and there are fixed routes, but from what I can tell there is no timetable, which is not too surprising given the unpredictable nature of the horrendous traffic in the city.
The buses vary between freshly valeted, up-to-date vehicles and condemnable rust buckets with bricks for suspension. Someone told me that some years earlier there had been a large pot of public money invested into upgrading the stock of buses for the city. Unfortunately, by the time this money had filtered through the corrupted hands of government officials, all the people got with what was left was more of the same crap with a few shiny new vehicles thrown in for appearances sake. Corruption within government and public institutions is such a pariah for developing countries. In a fairer more just society, offenders would be treated as harshly as drug dealers.
The Transjakarta buses are split into two sections. The section at the front of each bus is for women only (wanitas) because apparently, women being inappropriately touched by male passengers had become a bit of a problem. Along with the signs on the bus windows indicating no eating and no smoking, there is one that always makes me smile; its a graphic of a male figure sneakily touching the skirt hem of a female passenger to indicate ‘no groping’. The ‘no eating’ sign on some of the buses is also pretty unique to Asia. It has a graphic of a durian, which is a large, oval, southeast Asian fruit about the size of a small honey melon. It has a hard, vicious-looking shell covered in inch-long spikes and looks like it should be on the end of a medieval club. But it’s not the spikes that make this particular piece of edible flora so threatening, it’s the smell.
Durians are also known as ‘smelly fruit’ because the soft flesh of these pomological beasts absolutely reeks. I really don’t know how to describe it, but food writer Richard Sterling comes pretty close, describing its rank, potent odour as a combination of ‘turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock’. American chef Anthony Bourdain goes one better – ‘Your breath will smell as if you have been French-kissing your dead grandmother’ – It smells bad! So bad that, even with its husk intact, it is banned from both the Bangkok and Singapore MRT public transport systems. It is also banned from many of the upmarket hotels in Asia, some even fining guests for releasing the stink of this fruit thing into their socially manicured temporary living areas.
If you use the Transjakarta Busway when it isn’t full, it’s fine. But riding a bus during rush hour is hard work.
The average temperature throughout the year in Jakarta is about 35 degrees, which is pretty damn hot, even before you factor in the humidity, so just the sheer heat of a busy bus is difficult to tolerate. Although in fairness, even when packed, the buses don’t really smell bad; nowhere near as bad as a busy bus in a busy city in the UK for instance. But still, being packed in a bus with a bunch of hot and sweaty commuters in tropical temperatures isn’t pleasant.
Getting on and off a bus during rush hour is a mission. People somehow manage to push and jostle without any real force being asserted, which is a paradox of physical law. Yet despite this antagonistic melee, nobody ever complains about losing their place in what passes for a queue and nobody ever loses their temper. It’s like watching hordes of wildlife in action. If this scenario were played out in Britain, or anywhere else in the western world, there would be fights and arguments on a daily basis. Somehow it just doesn’t happen in Jakarta. I think I am the only one who so much as scowls during these scrambling bouts of organised chaos. The coolest person of all though, is the conductor.
The conductors on these buses stand all day in their tropical patterned company shirts, monitoring the doors, ushering the passengers on and off in a disorderly orderly fashion. As you can imagine, with the sweltering heat and the intermittent madness of fifteen or so people trying to get on and off the buses all at the same time, the conductor seldom smiles. This guy has a tough job and no one ever says ‘Terimah kasi’ when they bundle past him; but I always do.
The drivers on the buses in England – well Manchester at least – are all too often miserable bastards. They’ll happily drive off when they’ve watched someone busting a gut to catch them at a stop. They’ll abandon man, woman or child in the middle of the night for not having the right money, the right bus pass or even the right change. Yet us Brits always say “Thanks” when we get off at the end of our journey. These guys on the Transjakarta Busway genuinely deserve some thanks. Managing that rush hour madness in the heat and humidity, they deserved a fucking medal!
Despite the shortcomings of the Transjakarta Busway, I strangely enjoyed this up close and personal slice of city life. It was the nearest I got to any symbiotic empathy with the people who lived here. It was the shuttle for the people who endured this tropical rat race – and boy did those people look exhausted. I usually stood up with my earphones plugged in my ears, listening to music as I scanned the passengers in the carriages, trying to get a sense of who they were. But I couldn’t. The best I could perceive was that, like most commuters chained to a life of work and debt, they were physically and mentally drained for the most part. But despite my voyeuristic fondness for the Transjakarta Busway, it didn’t seem to like me. Almost every time I crossed a walkway towards my station, I would see a bus pulling in at the stop. Then by the time I got there, it was gone, leaving me to wait in the heat as my lungs got assaulted by the toxic fumes and dust of Jakarta’s traffic. And typically for Jakarta, whilst the busway stopping stations have fans, those fans usually don’t point in the direction of where people sit and wait for the buses.
One time I arrived at station just in time for the bus, only to watch it clear everyone off and drive on empty. I found that this happens quite frequently, although I have no idea why. On this particular occasion, the next three buses drove past without stopping and I was left to wait for another 20 minutes for the next one to pick up. So yes, whilst there was some perverse cultural charm to riding Jakarta’s public transport system, I had built up a healthy contempt to the familiarity of doing it every day.