Indonesia Sketches: Good Karma and the Becak Driver

The becak drivers of Solo were some of the most destitute looking guys I dealt with in Java. Sure, there are people worse off in a slum somewhere in Jakarta — but not the ones I’ve been to. The people in marginal neighbourhoods I’ve seen didn’t look as malnourished as the Solo becak drivers. Jogjakarta, an hour away from Solo, was another story, the drivers there had more meat on their bones and were more rapacious — consequences of Jogja being a booming tourist city.

A becak is bicycle rickshaw with a covered seat for the passenger up front, the driver sits behind peddling. Solo being flat, drivers don’t have to pedal up hills, however, with their rusty-chained and non-existent brakes, most becaks didn’t get a warrant of fitness from me.

After thirty minutes walking around the centre of Solo trying to find a hotel I decided I needed a ride. As soon as I’d made that choice the becaks vanished from the scene, none of the usual cries of ‘transport mistar’ to be heard. Normally becaks were waiting on every corner, here was a case of Murphy’s law in effect.

A Benkor, motorized rickshaw, Tidore, Indonesia, photo: Frank Beyer

Eventually, I did find one. The driver, lounging in the passenger seat, had a mullet and was staring at his cell phone through supermarket reading glasses. Five foot nothing and forty-five kilos, he couldn’t have been a day under sixty. His name was Budi, he seemed like a good guy.

Budi took me around to a bunch of hotels but they were all booked up. I was starting to think I’d have to go to a mall with wifi, get onto Agoda to book a hotel. Finally, we found a place with a vacancy, they didn’t have wifi but by this stage it didn’t matter. Budi said he’d wait for me outside the hotel, because surely I’d want to ‘jalan jalan’ (go about) Solo later in the evening.

There was no polite way to get rid of him. I decided to give him some money then and there, even though he told me to pay later and that tomorrow we’d tour the town together…I tried to make it known to him that I had other plans, but he didn’t get it. I went into the hotel and had a shower. When I went back out onto the street, Budi was right there. He laboriously peddled me to a cell phone shop where I bought credit for my mobile. Then he wanted to take me somewhere with a lot of choices of things to eat — it turned out to be street food and I didn’t want to risk an upset stomach. OK, he said, and drove me to a Chinese restaurant which wasn’t bad at all.

Back at the hotel he told me he’d sleep out in his becak and wait for me to get up the next morning. It was warm, I don’t think Solo is an unsafe city by night and the front seat of the becak was pretty spacious for someone his size. So I figured sleeping out wouldn’t be much of a hardship. In fact during the day the city was full of drivers asleep in their becaks. Solo had a climate suited to nocturnality but the city wasn’t well lit, putting you off nighttime wanderings.

A Bajaj, Jakarta, Indonesia, photo: Frank Beyer

I went to bed without paying him for the last trip around town. Paying him in dribs and drabs would get expensive, better to fix him up when we parted company for good. The next morning at seven I went out onto the street and he was nowhere to be seen. I got another becak to McDonald’s to use the wifi. At ten still no Budi. I was going to change hotels — he would never find me again. He’d biked me around town for free. Well, that was his fault I thought.

In the afternoon I remembered he’d given me his number, but I hadn’t given him mine. It was a moral test. I didn’t want to fail, so texted him to see what was up. Budi was at home ‘boz’, he’d be in back in town sometime ‘nanti’ (later). Why had he upped and gone home? Poor guy looked hungry and what I was going to pay him was definitely three days of decent eating. A mystery.

The next day I wanted to leave Solo for the more bustling Jogja. What to do about Budi? It was hardly my fault I told myself again, but I couldn’t leave town without paying him. I left an envelope at reception, and texted him that it was there. Lo and behold if he didn’t suddenly turn up with a clean shirt on, all smiles. I didn’t get an explanation about why he’d disappeared. When I was at the station waiting to get the train to Jogja he texted me, saying to call him if I ever came back to Solo. You could interpret that as meaning as he was happy with what was in the envelope or that he was just genuinely friendly.

I asked middle class Indonesians what they thought — was his behaviour weird? Why had he taken off without being paid? They said he was happy to drive me for free because I was a foreigner. But that was their reason for everything — why I had diarrhea, why I found that hike hard or easy….why? Because you’re a foreigner — often they were right in a way. I wanted a deeper analysis though. Never mind.

I left Solo feeling pretty good. I hadn’t forgotten various past peccadilloes, but I’d gained an inch back in the Karma stakes thanks to Budi.

 Header Image: Becak rickshaws, Bogor, Indonesia, Wikipedia

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