Saturday, February 20, 2010

Three Wheels on My Wagon

A story appeared in last week's Globe stating that the days of the bemo, those three wheeled minivans that look like elongated bajajs and which can seat about eight, are numbered.  The city administration plans to get rid of the 1000 bemos is still dragging their sorry arses around the city's thoroughfares by 2011. In fact though, bemos have actually been illegal in the capital since 1996 but, as with so much else that happens in this country, the connection between legality and what actually happens in reality is tenuous to say the least.

Anyway, I thought that I'd take a bemo ride for old times sake as, during my first year in Jakarta, I remember enjoying a few amusing trips in the pathetic little things.  And so I strolled down to the flyover that crosses Jl. Sudirman next to the Meridien hotel and found a waiting fleet of about ten bemos squatting on the road like abandoned dustbins after a street fight.  The lurid paint jobs could hardly disguise the fact that these battered three wheeled shopping trolleys fitted with sewing machine engines are now well over 40 years old.

It's quite amazing that these things are still running at all and riding in one, you have the nagging suspicion in the back of your mind that the floor is going to collapse and buckle underneath you, leaving you running frantically on the road below like Fred Flintstone out on a Sunday drive.

The very fact that these Paleolithic old bangers are still running at all however is something of a triumph of human ingenuity.  Jakarta's creaking bemos remind me of Cuba's time warp fleet of 50s American gas guzzlers.  As with Cuba, the bemo drivers and mechanics have made a virtue out of a necessity and continue to defy the capitalist logic of waste and planned obsolescence.

It seems almost magical that these things still start in the mornings.  I wonder how many miles they've clocked up over the years?  A quick Google search on vehicle longevity brings up a 1976 Mercedes-Benz 240D owned by Greorios Sachinidis from Greece. This particular vehicle has apparently notched up an amazing 2,858,307 miles, which is the distance to the moon and back about five times.  Some of Jakarta's bemos may also perhaps have made it to the lunar surface at least once.

The average lifespan of a motor vehicle these days is just 13.5  years and it's hard to imagine any of today's cars lasting for 40.  As the world begins to hit the barriers of resource limitations our consumer culture ironically follows a model of increasing disposability.  People simply don't know how to fix things these days, unlike our brave bemo mechanics, and in a way perhaps they can't.  Our advanced technologies are increasingly specialised and arcane. You can always weld a broken exhaust pipe back onto a bemo but how are you going to fix a faulty Intel microprocessor? With scissors and glue?

Technological progress follows its own inexorable logic however.  Free market capitalism means that production has to be constantly revolutionized if a company is to stay ahead of the competition.  You simply have to fund R&D and scientific research if you want to maintain your competitive edge.  Capital has thus engendered a hyper accelerated culture that has quite astonishingly propelled us from the horse and cart to the space shuttle in less than 200 years.

I'm not quite sure where exactly bemos fits in on this continuum although they are perhaps nearer to the shuttle than it may appear at first glance (and the things are probably equally likely to explode on you).

There can be no time for historical materialism when one is trying to catch a bemo however.  Last week's Globe intimated that most of the drivers of these vehicles were dodgy gangster types.  They certainly had a good old laugh yours truly as he waited for his chariot and also attempted to charge him Rp.10,000 for a Teh Botol (and offer him women to boot).

Eventually, it was time to hit the road and I elected to sit up front next to the driver as we chugged off towards Tanah Abang.  An alarming amount of fumes started to waft up into the cabin from around the sides of the gear stick, making me feel a little lightheaded.  Perhaps the powers that be want to squash the bemo due to its internal as opposed to its external pollution.  Certainly the little things are no dirtier, in terms of exhaust smoke, than the fleets of orange Metro Minis and green Kopajas that fart their merry way around Jakarta every day.

In fact, I've long thought the parlous condition of the capital's buses to be rather strange in light of the fact that most of the country's other towns and cities are served by gleaming new squadrons of Angkots (mini vans).  What's all that about then eh?

Eventually, we puttered to a halt in the heart of gangster land (downtown Tanah Abang) and I shelled out Rp.2500 for the privilege of traveling in a vehicle older than I am (twice as old in fact...ahem).  So what will become of these senile motorised tricycles and the army of rough diamonds that pilot them?  The lure of the ojeg surely beckons...