One of my favorite parts of the day is the morning commute to school. I go by ojek every day from my house to my school—about a 10 minute motorcycle drive away through the backstreets and alleys of Palembang.
I have to text my ojek driver, Taufik, every evening before to make sure he can come. It goes something like this: “Hello Taufik. Bisa jemput saya ke IAIN besok pagi jam 6:40?” All you fluent Indonesian speakers out there, don’t judge too harshly. At least we understand each other. Usually.
So usually he’ll respond: “OK”. Short and sweet. He’s not angry, he’s just got important things to do, like drive!
He’s always on time, and he honks (as does everyone here) when he arrives. I go outside, put on the extra helmet he has (safety first, mom!) and hop on the back. I always have my shades on and the windscreen (don’t know official word of this part of the helmet) up so I can see around but I still feel secretly invisible with the sunglasses on. (Like in Big Daddy! Anyone? Anyone? ) *Sidenote: No one in Indonesia wears sunglasses. I guess they’re used to the sun in their eyes. But they make me feel like even more of a rockstar than I already am here. And also, my eyes hurt in this tropical sun. *
When I’m riding on a motorcycle, I feel like I can get a real view of what people are like and what they’re doing—I can’t do this on foot because what they’re all doing is staring at me. I like being (kind of) invisible. Although occasionally I catch someone’s eye and their mouth drops—whaaaaat’s a white girl doin on the back of that bike?!
So I’m on the motorcycle, and he sets off from my house up the hill and away from the main roads where all the cars and other motorcycles are driving. We drive across a main road, into a neighborhood where at 6:40am the shops and food-stalls (warungs) are all open, and other motorcycles with dads taking their children to school are passing us and stopping in front of schools. Children dart across the road, looking at toys spread out by savvy salesmen getting that morning rush. An occasional goat can be seen on this road too, wandering out of a nearby cemetery.
We pass over this canal, where people are usually sitting on the side, selling produce. In the morning, the canal looks pleasant and calm, whereas sometimes in the afternoon it smells a bit or looks harsher with trash littering its water in the bright sunlight.
Taufik is an incredibly safe and competent driver. I feel completely at ease when I’m riding with him. The first time I was ever on a motorcycle was with him and I remember kind of lightly holding his sides, and being embarrassed, because who does that? And I don’t know the boundaries of touching Indonesian men I don’t know! But now, I don’t hold onto anything. I just sit, look around, and take it all in.
So the fact that I feel so safe means I don’t even flinch when he passes huge trucks or drives against traffic (because it’s Indonesia, and you can do that!)
We then make our way through some real side-streets. It feels like we are driving through people’s backyards or front yards if there were yards! There are men and women out walking to and from stalls, some selling produce on the side of the road, and others walking children to school. There are roosters wandering back and forth, begging the age-old question of WHY? Still no answer.
This section of our drive is also notable for its stench of sewage. I don’t believe there is any clean water here, and the ditches are full of dirty water coming from god knows where. Once, when Taufik and I were stuck in a huge rainstorm and took shelter in a barber’s hut on the side of the road, I saw women running out of their houses with huge buckets to place under roofs to collect the water that was dripping off the houses, and then bring it into their houses, and come back to fill up for more water. I’ve seen men bringing big canisters to ditches (not this ditch) to fill up. And this is Palembang, a city of 1.7 million, and I’ve heard from friends who go outside the city that the villages have a much worse water situation. Every time we drive through this neighborhood, that smell hits me like a ton of bricks, but it’s weird, it’s not even disgusting anymore, it’s just normal. Hopefully I’m not grossing you out. It just makes me think about the people who live there, and if they notice, and what their lives are like to live somewhere where it just constantly smells of POO. If nothing else, it makes me grateful for my non-smelly neighborhood.
After this neighborhood we drive past another cemetery—it’s under some trees and has colorful headstones. It’s a pretty peaceful place. There are stray cats everywhere—which brings me to another Indonesian phenomenon: the cats here have stubby tails. Apparently it’s genetic. I’ve seen a handful with long tails like cats in the US, but for the most part, they’re stubs! (I still want one.)
Moving on… past the cemetery we get back onto the main road, and head into the crazy Jalan Sudirman—the main road through Palembang that we must go up in order to turn around and go back to my school. Oh Indonesia. So this is the part where we drive on 3 lane highways (6 lanes all the way across), with cars, trucks, and entirely too many motorcycles zipping past. There are families on motorcycles, motorcycles carrying huge cargo (how?!) and of course the crazy large buses. Yet I still am not holding on, because shoooot, I’m fine.
We turn into IAIN, and Taufik drops me outside of my building. The students and passers-by still gawk to see me get off a motorcycle. I tell Taufik, “Terima Kasih, see you later” as I’ve been instructed by Danie (my neighbor & Taufik & my friend) that Taufik & my linguistic relationship should be a mutually beneficial one: I teach him some English, he teaches me some Indonesian. I don’t know how much progress either of us is making…
And there I am. At work.
I’m waiting for this commute to get old, or to wish I lived closer, but it hasn’t happened yet. The sights, smells, noises, people, and life in general is just still so fascinating to me, almost four months in. The main thing it makes me think is, “man, I kind of want my own motorcycle….” (Cue scary music for all my parents reading this).