by Douglas Myers

As he smiled, the widening of his lips revealed one remaining tooth protruding from the top gum. "My name is Ali Baba," he said with an infectious laugh.

He had lived for nearly seventy years on this earth, and yet did not know the significance of his name in my culture.

Not Just FORTY Thieves

This Ali Baba was not the leader of just forty thieves. There seemed to be more than forty of his kind on every street corner in Java. All of them wanted to overcharge the tourist!

A service to the public and a boon to the tourist, becaks (pronounced bechaks ) are all that and more. Ali and his peers are offered a chance for employment and survival by their becaks.

A Becak is a bicycle which has been converted by adding two wheels and a passenger carrying seat in the front. It is for hire. It will carry passengers and goods from one place to another. Its motive power is a human.

In the West we think of asking a taxi-driver if we are lost and don't know the way, but in most of Indonesia we can always ask the becak driver as he will know the answer, and he always seems to be around.

The passenger seat comes equipped with a folding hood to protect you from the sun and the rain, and sheets of plastic which can be rolled down to protect you from the occasional tropical downpour.

Nothing protects the driver.

Becaks in Indonesia come in all shapes and sizes but tend to concur to local patterns.

The becaks of Banyuwangi and Malang are, for example, bigger, while the becaks of Bandung are more colourful. The becaks of Jakarta have been eliminated as a traffic hazard. The becaks of Surabaya, where our story is based, are utilitarian. They are painted white for the night and blue for the day.

A Becak for all reasons

Becaks, like any other public transportation vehicles in Indonesia, will carry an extraordinary number of people. They take Mum to the morning market and bring her back with the shopping. They call in and pick up the kids and take them to school. They take Dad to the bus stop or the station to commute to work, and when the children have finished their school day, and dad has arrived back from work tired and drained, there sits the friendly becak, ready to take them home.

The secret of business success from both sides in Indonesia is relationship called a langanan. This means that the same family uses the same becak each day for similar purposes. The family gets a better price as the becak driver knows he can rely upon them for regular income. He can be sent on little jobs and might post the letters, pick up the mail, buy the papers and take the car battery down to have it charged on the way to the children's school. The becak driver gets security and a sense of belonging. The family gets reliable service in return.

What does the becak offer the tourist?

First and foremost, an intimate knowledge of the area. Nobody knows an area like the becak driver. He goes everywhere and knows everybody's business. He talks to other becak drivers. If you are looking for the most comfortable accommodation, the most delicious food, the best coffee or just the most original antique, ask a becak. He will take you straight there.

A Becak gives you security

If you travel in a becak you gain security. Touts will not approach you and you will have peace on your journey as you are the "guest" of the becak driver. You are in charge. You say where you would like to go and if you see something interesting along the way, you just say "stop". Yes, the English word works.

Becaks are a cheap way to travel, and if you hire them for a day they will not only look after you by finding the best food and drink, but will even sleep the night outside your hotel in their becak, in order to take you to the train next morning.

Becaks provide a welcome shady seat on a hot day. At any intersection you can find them congregated, and you can sit in one while watching the hustle and bustle of life moving around you, and talk to the drivers who patiently await their next customer.

A Friend in Need

In Yogyakarta, where the becaks have names, I once had aN arrangement with a becak and whenever I went to that city I would tell the becak druvers at the terminal when I arrived, that I wanted the becak "ANTIQE". Within a short time he would peddle back into my life.

I got to recommend him to my friends and they would arrive in a strange city and do the same thing. Soon they would have a friend and a guide who would stay with them till they departed.

At first you might be put off by the effort the becak driver has to put into climbing hills. When he is finally beaten by the incline, and he alights to push you up the last pinch of the gradient, remember then, that this is his chosen way of life, and you are keeping his family alive by participating in it. Becak drivers can be real friends and are great to talk to as you see the world from the peace of a becak seat.

The Becak as a Business

How does a becak rate as a business? Ali Baba is close to 70. He has always lived in the same area of Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia.

He remembers the years of Japanese occupation during the Second World War. He had no access to school but was forced to do morning exercises each day. These were hard times, and for a while he worked in a factory. He joined the Freedom Fighters after the Japanese left and at that time saw a little of the rest of Java.

Settling back into Surabaya, Ali bought a becak. In those days becaks were the main means of transport for the populace. Business was good. He married and began to father his family. He has made enough money from his becak business to bring up seven children. He has survived three wives. His last wife died seven years ago.

His youngest son, a boy of twelve, is now looking to become a conductor, on a public transport vehicle. He sees this as a step up in the world. From there he might advance, in time, to become a driver. In the world of becaks there is no advancement. Ali sees a regression. As you get older, it only becomes harder to push the vehicle up the hills.

A New Role for the Becak

The coming of busses to the transport network has tended to make becaks into feeder vehicles which only service the side roads. It has also led to a strict system of licensing, whereby local authorities try to control the number of becaks on the road, as more and more they clog the traffic arteries. Each becak must be registered with the local city authorities and is issued with a registration plate. Paying for the plate is the responsibility of the becak owner.

Police every now and again blockade the roads and sieze illegal, unlicensed becaks. These they load onto trucks and eventually dump out to sea. This is a way of trying to keep the number of becaks down so that they do not clog the main traffic lanes.

Ups and Downs in the Becak Trade

Another of the hazards of being a becak driver is the constant fear that your vehicle can be stolen. This happened to Ali's first becak. From then on, he hired a vehicle. He presently pays Rp.750 (US$0.40) a day for his becak .

On top of this, he has a two-yearly renewal of his becak driving licence which costs him Rp20,000 (US$10). He then pays Rp1,500 (US$0.75) a month to the local government authorities and is issued in return with two reflectors which mean that his becak does not have to carry lights at night.

A becak which can cost Rp150,000 (US$75) second hand and Rp250,000 (US$125) new, is an expensive capital item. Ali's 1957 model has "real" steel, not like to-day's becaks which deteriorate in a short time.

Businesses are built on the need for looking after the vehicle. There are becak minders who look after many becaks when the drivers are not using them. They ask about Rp500 (US$0.25) per day.

When becak drivers go for a bath or to the mosque to pray, they have a place to park their becaks under supervision. At other times they do not leave the vehicle. They wait for passengers and often catch an afternoon nap in the seat of their vehicle. Sometimes they sleep the night in the becak .

Ali says that most people are honest. On occasions he has taken a passenger to the market and been asked to wait outside. The passenger has exited from the market by another gate and Ali has waited for hours before realising that this is not a good day for him. He has not only lost his fare but also the opportunity to gain others.

So what should you pay in a becak ? Ali makes about Rp5000 (US$2.50) on an ordinary day. At very busy times he can double this figure.

How much, please?

He likes it when the foreign ships come into his port city, because then he has the chance of getting higher fares from sailors who do not know the local price structure.

Tourists are also an attraction as becak drivers hope they will pay more. A short ride in a becak should cost anything between Rp.300 (US$0.15) and Rp.500 (US$0.25). A becak driver will normally ask a tourist for at least Rp.1000 (US$0.50) for any ride. Sometimes they will bargain with you, sometimes they will not. If not, try the next becak. There are normally plenty of them about.

Drive Yourself Becaks ?

It probably depends on whether or not you are in an area commonly visited by tourists. I remember once in Yogyakarta getting the "right" price from a becak by offering to ride the becak with the becak driver sitting in the passenger seat. This got me home as healthily as the next way.

Becaks have their own feel and sound. The sound of the metal "clappers" which they use to signal to the traffic ahead when they don't want to lose their momentum, after a while, becomes music to the ears.

They carry all kinds of goods to all sorts of places. It is quite usual to see them piled high with goods for the markets or a wardrobe from the furniture shop or anything else that needs to be moved.

They even give relaxation to the sellers of food from push- carts, the bakso men, by moving them from one district to another in tandem with the becak. The seller sits in the seat and pushes his cart before the becak .

Hire them for a short trip, for a day or for your stay. You will find that they offer service with personality, convenience and friendliness. The becak also offers a livlihood to many Indonesians.

You might think that after forty odd years of toting a becak in the streets of Surabaya, Ali would be full of anecdotes. He isn't. He dwells upon the difficulty of making ends meet in this fashion, but does not regret his chosen trade. His major motivation has always been making enough money to provide for his family.

When questioned upon the future he is sure of the answer. When it is finally time to give up, will he miss the becak ?

"Never!" says Ali. "I will be glad when I never have to push it again."

Long live Ali Baba and the Becak !

Copyright 1993 Douglas Myers

An earlier edition of this story previously appeared in Archipelago Vol. 1. No. 7.

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