Oh! We are all such suckers for nostalgia, but as they say ‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be!” Sometimes looking back, we tend to romanticise our memories. I will try not to do that, especially about transport, but you never know!

Let’s start with the demise of the simplest, non-polluting, form of transport you can imagine: a simple old upright black bicycle, push bikes we used to call them, with a little plastic seat behind the rider. There you perched side – saddle, as a little, wizened old man peddled you around the streets of Kota. The drivers invariably seemed ancient and wrinkled and hardly capable of moving a leg but they were actually very strong and for Rp. 100,- would ply their way through the busy back streets. But all are now gone, except for some ‘tourist models’ in Fatahila Square.  

The second pedal-powered contraption was the wonderful ‘becak’, a real pedi-cab with a seat on the front covered by a canopy, and the driver up behind. They were bright and colorful, with bells and rachetty noise-makers to clear their paths, and there were hundreds of them around town, thousands perhaps!

People loved them, they were cheap and they were everywhere, but wait, some people did not love them: motorists! They clogged the streets, parked everywhere and caused traffic jams. So, they got the chop… first they were moved off to the suburbs, but slowly they returned, and this time the merciless city government loaded them onto trucks, and dumped them in the sea!  Now this may not have pleased the irate becak drivers (who all had moustaches by the way) but it made the fish in Jakarta Bay very happy as they formed artificial reefs where the fishy denizens of the deep could hide and snooze safely. 

And so, Jakarta moved on to motorized transport in big way with the introduction of the wonderful bemo, which was a mini-bus that cruised the streets , stopping anywhere at any time, to pick up passengers, then the not so wonderful,  big belching orange ‘Metro Mini’ buses, and  their green counterparts ‘Kopaja’. This was ‘mass’ transport at its finest as it transported masses of Mas’s around the city, also stopping wherever they wanted, usually at a nice oblique angle to the road, parking two or three abreast and well causing more traffic jams then the becaks – and polluting the streets to a degree yet to be breached. Their ‘conductors’, young lads in thong slippers, hung out the doors with kretek cigs in one hand and a pile of dirty banknotes in the other, grabbing attractive girls off the streets and ‘helping’ them board with well-placed hands! I had two crashes with these monsters of the road, whose drivers were untrained, unlicensed and completely without rules. Or insurance of course! Farewell Metro Minis, pity you didn’t end up at the bottom of the sea too! 

But before we move on to the taxi services, we have to dwell a while with the natural successor to the ‘becak’, the ‘Bajaj’! These orange cubicles on wheels were designed in India and came pouring in, two stroke motors, adding gallons of noxious fumes to the Metro Mini fug, and once again captured the hearts – and lungs – of the price-conscious Jakarta housewives. Naughty, undisciplined, and ubiquitous, the bajaj’s (not the housewives) took over the roads and added brilliant layers to the chaos. 

Now we have to talk about the taxis, no not the brilliant, organised, clean, safe, well maintained Blue Birds, the ramshackle, falling apart, cheating, stealing, breaking down in the back streets at 2am, horrors called (highly inappropriately since I’m sure he had not nothing to do with it!) President Taxis. These yellow terrors roamed the streets of Jakarta hunting for unsuspecting, or just desperate, passengers. Many years ago I got into one and slammed the door and all the other doors fell off. The driver tried to charge me but my sharp eyes spotted the bits of twine that had been holding the doors on. ‘No way’, said I, helping him to load the doors onto the back seat as he set off again. That was an real “air conditioned” taxi of the 1970’s! 

On another occasion I stepped into the back seat only to realise there was no floor. It was pure Fred Flinstone, but I quickly hitched up my feet onto the seat as the ground slipped past all too close to where my feet had been. ‘Wait’ I thought ‘if there’s no floor there, what’s holding up the seat?” That journey could not have ended quickly enough. But my favourite incident was just at the H.I. Roundabout when my taxi, having no brakes of course – hit the car in front, a solid Toyota HardTop, and most of the body fell off, first the bumpers (held on by twine) then the side panels (held on by tape) like a clown’s car at the circus. It was going no further. I got out and walked. 

Of course, every journey in a President Taxi involved watching an argo meter which had a complete life of its own, with no relation to journey length or time, just revolving away to try to get to a good negotiating price! Sometimes this resulted in heated debates. Actually, every time. But that was expected. 
And so ends my merry traveler’s tale, as we were ‘transported’ back in time, but not really far enough…before my time there were the ‘Delman’ horse drawn carts, and ‘Dokar’ which pretty much translates as ‘Dog Carts’. There’s a thought for the animal lovers! Please excuse me I am off to catch the MRT home.

Alistair Speirs

Alistair Speirs

Alistair has been in the publishing, advertising and PR business for 25 years. He started NOW! Magazines as the region’s preferred community magazine.