August 15, 2012

On the Buses

Taking a ride on Jakarta’s bus services makes for a surprisingly interesting experience – in a good way.

Photo by Wendra Ajistyatama

Whenever I mention my preferred form of transportation, people shake their heads and repeat their concerns about safety and thieves. “You don’t want to ride the Metro Mini; you’ll get your pockets picked.”
Warnings or not, my decision to jump onto the rickety buses bobbing their way across Jakarta came down to a simple financial question. Would I rather get to my destination once by taxi (Rp 40,000) or 20 times by bus (Rp 40,000)? Once I was hooked on the low prices, I quickly noticed something else. These buses weren’t filled with pickpockets staring down the strange foreigner while their accomplices covertly redistributed my financial resources.
They were filled with mothers, daughters, sons and fathers – all of whom only wanted to reach their destinations as quickly and as painlessly as possible. While I may have missed out on the comfort of taxis, riding these buses reaffirmed my faith in humanity.

Using Germany’s trains and buses shaped my transportation expectations. All I needed were the paper map and paper schedule posted at every station. Without having to talk to anybody, I could effortlessly travel hundreds of kilometers using multiple trains and buses – despite never having seen my destination before. My money would float from my pocket to the glass receptacle separating me from the faceless ticket collectors. I was confident in my ability to arrive – on time, without assistance and on my own.

In Jakarta, I never would have made it alone. And we won’t even mention “on time”. With no signs, no posted routes and no clear indicators of where each rumbling Metro Mini bus goes, I was at a complete loss as to how to use this highly economical form of transportation.
When queried, my friends would just say, “Oh, well, you just know, or you ask.”
“Ask?” I queried incredulously. You mean, initiate conversation with a complete stranger, admit you are vulnerable and unaware of your surroundings, and then put complete trust into someone you have never met before, expecting them to willingly assist you?

Add to that my inability to completely comprehend their responses due to language barriers, and I would have only ridden Blue Bird taxis. Then I thought about handing over one Pangeran Antasari (featured on the Rp 2,000 note) versus two Oto Iskandar di Natas (on the Rp 20,000 note). Soon, “tolong … di mana” became an integral part of my vocabulary.
Fears aside, I was scrunched against the metal wall of the Metro Mini, holding my knees tightly against the rattling driver’s seat in front of me. In what would become the day’s theme, I couldn’t see any familiar landmarks past the mass of people inside the bus. My heart palpitations increasing, I nervously asked the young woman next to me for directions.
“Tolong mbak,” I started, anticipating the worst. “Di mana Transjakarta?” Without any inquiry into my origins or my reason for butchering her language, she answered, in English, “Oh, follow me.”

With the bus still rolling along the road, we jumped off and landed at the macet-infested intersection. The road was burdened by hundreds of scooters, their drivers interpreting the red light in front of them as a mere suggestion, as groups of them dashed in between the oncoming traffic. In all this chaos, I could see no Transjakarta stations.

Seeking Direction
There were no helpful plastic signs and no colorful arrows recommending a slight left or a sharp right turn. Would I have known to turn right, cross the road, walk under the bridge and wait at the unmarked intersection for Metro Mini bus 616? Not a chance. Could I have masterfully explained in Indonesian to the ticket collector that I wanted him to let me know what at which stop I should get off in order to reach my transit point? No way. Without having any reason to help, any obligation or any duty, this woman – a complete stranger – did all that for me.

With my head banging against the low ceiling of Metro Mini bus 616, I stood awkwardly as we bounced along the jagged road. Someone tapped my shoulder. An older woman stood up and offered me the empty seat next to her. Again, completely lost as to where I was and how to get to my destination, I took a deep breath. I’m still not used to asking for directions. So with great nervousness, I asked for help. She gave her advice. Two more people joined her conversation, and after a few minutes of discussion, a third person pitched in, saying to me in English, “Come. Follow me.”
Putting all of my trust into yet another complete stranger, I leaped off of the bus, narrowly escaping being entangled in the roaring swarm of oncoming scooters seeking to overtake this fume-puffing rectangular prism. After a few minutes of walking across stone gutters, with no signage or indications of the right route to follow, we ended up at a Transjakarta station.

On the bus, I saw nothing but arms and heads. At each stop, I couldn’t see past the influx of commuters. No station names marked on the buildings. No helpful robotic voices calling out the next stop. No green lights from high above indicating upcoming stations. Instead, I saw the arms and heads of other passengers … waiting, hoping to get to their stops quickly or thinking of their loved ones.

I saw a young man extend his hand and help an older woman span the gap between the bus and the street below. I saw a young woman give up her seat for an older man. I saw another man give up his seat for her.
Language barriers, the fear of asking for help and my false expectations of thievery almost prevented me from using Jakarta’s public transportation. Had the financial incentives not been so strong, I may have never learned how kind and helpful people are – no matter what form of transportation they use. I may never have experienced the support system that enables people to help complete strangers reach their destinations, safely and confidently.
I may never have realized how interconnected we all are – and how easy it is to brighten someone else’s life, just with a few words of reassurance. Today, I can say that Metro Mini and Transjakarta have given me trust and faith in the goodness of humanity. And contrary to expectations, my wallet is a little thicker, too.




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