Thursday, October 05, 2006

Blue Birds of Paradise

Well, we're deep into Ramadan now and all seems pretty peaceful after the bombers prologue. The FPI (Indonesian Islamic Front) have been up to their old tricks to a certain extent although, interestingly, local people finding themselves under the FPI cosh seem to be fighting back this time around.

Two other clouds on the horizon though, threatening to dampen people's holiday spirits, are the price hikes and spiraling inflation. The latest increases this week were implemented by Jakarta's taxis, the second fare hike this year, and apparently people are deserting the city's cabs in droves, no longer able to afford them. A recent ride I took from Blok M to Kota cost me over Rp.50,000 and that was at night when there was little traffic.

Jakarta's cab drivers themselves are generally nice chaps though, a recent, rather belligerent anti-cabbie opinion peace on the front page of the Sunday Jakarta Post notwithstanding. They will usually chat happily with you, giving you a good opportunity to practise your Bahasa. They also generally seem to know where they are going and won't usually rip you off. In addition they're often willing to wait for you for simply ages whilst you get dressed, down another ten beers, go shopping, finish retiling the Mandi, etc etc.

Personable fellows the city's cabbies may usually be, however, the condition of their cabs and often the drivers themselves can sometimes leave room for improvement. Many of the taxis are not particularly well maintained and when this is combined with the fact that most of these old cabs have driven the equivalent of the distance to the moon and back since rolling of the production line, safety can be compromised. I was driven down Sudirman one rainy night in a taxi with wrecked suspension and threadbare tires and we ended up doing a 360 degree spin in the fast lane before coming to rest on the central reservation, thankfully without injury to either myself or the driver. On another occasion, a drowsy driver drove me into the back of the car in front after nodding off at the wheel momentarily. These guys deserve our sympathy on the whole though. My lethargic driver had probably just put in an 84 hour non-stop shift in order to make ends meet. I guess it's these long shifts, in combination with broken ACs, that also account for the appalling, eye stinging body odor that taxi drivers intermittently have here.

I knew a Westerner here who once took pity on the driver he had decided to keep for the whole night and took him into the nightclubs and bars that he was cruising around as well as buying him a few drinks. Apparently he had a wail of a time. Occasionally, as a solo Western male in a taxi at night, you come across a driver-come-pimp who will talk dirty to you and offer you girls. Something along the lines of, "Mr, you looking woman, you want the woman? I take you woman yes?" I shudder to think what strange fate would befall someone who ever took up one of these Blue Bird Mac Daddies on their kind offers. I have visions of clucking chickens scattering everywhere in some far-flung suburb whilst a white man in his underpants is chased down the road by angry locals.

There are unquestionably a few bad apples at the bottom of the cab driver barrel of course and stories continue to filter through of people (mainly women) being robbed at knifepoint by criminal drivers and their gangs. Recently, police have been looking for a gang of who have been painting and modifying ordinary cars to make them look like genuine taxis and then using them to pick up and rob passengers. The only con trick that I've experienced in a Jakarta cab, other than the ones that have meters which gallop like Olympic stopwatches, is the driver who turns around about five seconds after you've paid him claiming that you haven't paid him enough. He then shows you a Rp.5000 note when you were sure that you gave him a Rp.20,000 note. Of course, the crafty devil has switched notes and you can never be 100 percent sure that you didn't give him the Rp.5000 instead of the Rp.20,000. You can never be sure... unless, of course, the driver tries the same trick twice on the same fare: i.e. switching notes a second time and claiming that you still haven't paid him enough. When a driver was stupid enough to try this one on me one time I twigged what was going on and told the cheeky swine to get stuffed. I should have kicked his ass all the way back to the depot.

My absolute favourite Jakarta taxi story, though, happened to a friend of mine only last week. After a night of heavy beering he jumped into a cab. After a couple of minutes, the grinning driver opened the glove compartment revealing a neat row of... well, cigarettes of dubious legality shall we say, which he told my acquaintance he was selling for Rp.20,000 each. My drunken comrade showed interest in the offer although neither of them had a light on them. Upon stopping at a roadside Warung, the driver disembarked from the cab in search of fire whilst our inebriated reveller climbed into the front seat and proceeded to drive off down the road. He pulled over after 100 yards, just long enough to have given our driver a heart attack; he then insisted that he would be driving from now on while the driver occupied the passenger seat. The driver happily agreed. So there's my friend, drunkenly piloting a taxi down Sudirman whilst chuffing on a Bob Marley special with a beaming cabbie in the passenger seat. He leans over to pass the funky cigarette to the driver, "Sorry Mr. 4 AM, I'm fasting."

Simon Pitchforth