By Gerson Poyk
Late one evening as I was studying for my semester exams, my nimble fingered father called out to me from the living room. Without looking up from the old radio he was repairing he said, “Come and sit here a moment, son.” I sat down expecting a request for help to hunt on the cool ceramic tile floor of our house for some nut or screw he had dropped.
But I was wrong.
“Since your mother passed away I haven’t been able to concentrate, son,” said dad. “I haven’t been doing a good job on these radios either, and well, the customers, they’re going other places. My small pension isn’t really enough; I’m not making as much as I used to from the radios and I have no idea how I’m going to pay for your little sister to go to university.”
Politely I said nothing as my father continued.
“What do you think if I withdraw the last of our savings from the bank and buy a small secondhand motorbike?”
I was puzzled, “A motorbike?”
“A motorbike. You could make a little extra money for us by taking pillion passengers. By becoming an ojek (1).”
“You mean like all those other ojek who give people rides for a fee?” I asked.
“If you don’t mind spending the time on Friday evenings or in the afternoons you could get a few fares. Even one or two would be a help with the household budget. Rather than getting a job as a bus driver like some of your friends, it would be better to just become an ojek,” said dad, screwdriver still inserted into the radio.
“No problem,” I said straight away, getting up to go back to my desk beside the kerosene stove at the back room of our fourteen tile-wide three-room house. There weren’t any doors between the rooms so I could talk to dad in the living room if he raised his voice slightly. “Could I use the bike to go to university, dad?” I asked.
“No, don’t do that,” was his reply. “What you need to do is stay away from the main roads. Just wait on the bike at the intersection of the main road and the road leading into our kampong. You have to offer to take people places they can’t get by public transport,” suggested dad from our all purpose living room cum electronics workshop.
My younger sister was worn out from playing volleyball with friends from the neighbourhood and was in bed. When she went out to play volleyball in the afternoons she would usually take a couple of thermos flasks full of ice blocks which she would place by the edge of the court. Once her friends were thirsty she would shepherd them over to the thermos flasks and sell them ice blocks. She not only got a little physical exercise but she also made a little money, her own little contribution to the household. Our tiny house was in fact a highly productive place, serving as both radio repair workshop and factory producing the ice blocks my sister sold to weary neighbour children and school friends.
I busied myself, first arranging a motorbike license for myself and then with the last of dad’s savings, looking for a second hand motorbike.
I would come home from lectures in the afternoons and wait at the top of the road leading down into the densely built kampong with its labyrinth of capillary small lanes and paths which were impenetrable to public transport.
On the first day I made a fortune, five thousand rupiah! This encouraged me greatly and after a week I had made a tidy little sum. Dad urged me to put the money into the bank account he helped my sister open a long time ago when she started selling ice blocks.
The money brought its own pleasure. But there were also the pleasures of the odd little things that happened from time to time not to mention the life-threatening risks. At first I couldn’t care less about the passengers, what they looked like, or what state they were in, as long as they handed over the fare. Old, young, clean, dirty, healthy, sick (so long as they were still healthy enough to sit on the back), I took anyone, anytime they wanted, anywhere they wanted to there.
But it was the young women I enjoyed the most, and there were plenty of attractive young women wanting to be taken home to their houses deep in the kampong, far from the main road and public transport. But as an ojek, I knew my place and never tried starting a conversation.
One day a beautiful white woman walked up to me wanting a ride. The problem was she was so amazingly tall and so large that as we travelled the bike swayed wildly and she almost caused me to lose my balance. And then it had to happen, right as we descended a small hill, my front tire blew out! I jumped on the brake – and over we went! Small dark me and the beautiful giant both went sprawling across the road. Fortunately she wasn’t hurt. As the bike went over, her vast figure landed on scrawny little me, right on my head! And as my helmet had no chin protector, my chin was driven into the gravel road, almost breaking my chin and sending dazzling sensations through my jawbone as it was pushed back into the base of my ears. Happily the feeling didn’t last too long.
I apologised to the white woman, hailed a friend passing on his way home from taking someone else and asked him to drop off my huge white passenger.
It was some time before I saw the white woman again. Then one day while I was waiting for passengers she went past this time driving her own car. An Indonesian woman was sitting next to her. I wondered where the beautiful giant and her attractive Indonesian friend with flowing black hair could be going. I was desperate to know so I turned the ignition key and set off after them. Dismay swept over me when eventually the car pulled into an immense two storey house which compared to my fourteen tile wide house was a castle. I just rode past satisfied that I had found where the attractive white woman lived.
It was some time later before I saw the Indonesian woman again and in the meantime I continued with my business ferrying passengers on the back of my bike. I lost count of the number of fares I had, anyone at all wanting a ride, young or old, male or female, not to mention all the children. I took no notice of them, just the money they held out.
At home three things filled my mind: my father, my little sister and my study, while at the university campus I would revert back into a hard working university student.
Several months later I did notice the woman with the flowing straight black hair again as she crossed the road at the bus stop. This time she was wearing a high school uniform. I waved and as she headed in my direction I started the engine. She jumped on and we roared off.
“Who was that good looking white woman you were with?” I asked without wasting time.
“Have you ever given her a ride?” she asked in reply.
“Once. But I got a flat and we both came off. She landed on me and almost crushed me!”
The high school girl on the back laughed and said, “She’s my after-school tutor.”
“Well, that explains why you were in the car together, doesn’t it. And what does she teach?”
“She teaches English,” answered the girl.
“Cool. By the time you’re in university you’re English will be good,” I said encouraging her. “Which stream are you in at school?”
“I took sciences.”
“And what do you want to do at university?” I asked.
I began to say how wonderful I thought that was but suddenly she shouted ‘stop’, seriously startling me. Without realizing it we had reached her large house.
She held out a ten thousand rupiah note and said, “This is all I have, sorry.” I didn’t flinch and she continued, “Ah, keep the change.” She strode off towards the imposing wrought iron gates leaving me clutching the note.
I stopped working as an ojek so I could concentrate on my final major paper at uni. In the meantime I lent my bike to a friend whose own motorbike had been repossessed by the owner. We agreed to split the profit fifty-fifty and even though he’d only finished primary school, he turned out to be completely honest. He dropped in every afternoon to deliver half the day’s takings. My friend’s honesty encouraged me to look on him as a younger brother and my father too became quite fond of him. Orphaned when young, he had no home and sometimes slept on benches at the bus interchange, sometimes in shop doorways. When dad found out about this he rented a small room in a boarding house for my friend.
Late one night he picked up a passenger and that was the last time his friends saw him. His lifeless body was found dumped in a river, my motorbike stolen by his cruel thieving killer. My friend’s life had been extinguished for nothing more than a crappy second hand motorbike. Sorrow settled over our hearts and remained with us always, along with the memory of the friend who had been so good to us.
My friend’s death also caused the more mundane problem that we had to deal with the police, but we were satisfied they had taken his murder seriously.
After so much hard work I eventually graduated and the day I received my results, a satisfactory level pass, I was overcome with anguish thinking about my murdered ojek friend. He had contributed so much to paying my way through my now successfully completed uni course and I was overcome with grief and emotion.
In my poverty in that small house with a widowed pensioner scratching out a living by repairing radios and my little sister karting ice blocks to school to sell to friends the almighty had granted that I should complete my degree, me, a university graduate, born of poverty and the faithful friendship of a homeless ojek whose life was torn away by a savage robbing killer.
My sister started uni and dad continued repairing his radios. He even surprised us by quietly learning how to repair television sets. My sister and I were amazed one day to find a television in the living room.
As soon as I graduated I was offered a job as a teacher at the uni and one day while teaching a class of first year students I noticed one of the female students with a surprised look on face. At once I recognized the woman who was gazing not at a teacher but at a young ojek and the question was obvious, how could he be one of my lecturers!
Unfortunately it didn’t take her long to fail the semester examination and stop coming to lectures. Before she stopped attending, however, she sent me a letter politely asking whether she could visit me at home to arrange private tutoring, at whatever price I liked. She was even prepared to become my girlfriend, so long as I faked her results so she passed the examination.
Saddened I reflected on the fact that my degree had cost the life of my ojek friend and that if I did tamper with her results the reputation of the university would be worthless. The answer was, no.
1. Ojek are informal motorbike taxi riders who earn an income by taking pillion passengers to their destination for a fare.
2. Ojek was published in Kompas daily in June 1988.