Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Jakarta Taxi Blues

Jakarta Taxi Blues

First-time visitors to Jakarta are often advised to take the Bluebird or the higher-end Silverbird executive taxis. They are considered safe. Taxis have been my main form transport here since I started visiting Jakarta in the mid-nineties. I must say, the service provided by the Bluebird cabs is nothing short of excellent: the drivers are always polite and conscientious; they never fail to use the meter and the taxis are very well maintained. They put the cab service in KL to shame.

In KL, you always have to ask the taxi driver whether he is willing to take you to your destination before entering the cab. You are at their mercy. This is especially bad during the rush-hour: It is a common sight in KL to see frustrated passengers jutting their heads into taxi after taxi, almost pleading the driver to take them to their destination. Our taxi service is still wallowing below Third World standards. Thank God we have the Putra, Star and monorail train services now.

There are bad cab drivers in Jakarta too. I have even encountered "drivers" who barely knew how to drive! I remember one having problems releasing the clutch, and dragged me all the way to my destination in first gear. If you stumble out late at night from nightspots such as Tanamur or JJ's and get into one of the cabs waiting outside, a usual 5K rupiah ride will cost you 50K instead. If it is raining, a short hop to the next building will sometimes cost you 10K rupiah.

For newcomers, communication could be a problem too. The taxi driver will never understand what you mean by "meter" (it's called argo). They will smile when you say "pusing" ("turn" in Malay)--to Indonesians that usually means "headache" (putar or belok is the right word).

You also have to learn to pronounce acronyms the Indonesian way: WTC is "way-tay-say", BCA is "bay-chay-ah". Most places with Western names are pronounced phonetically: Summit becomes "Soo-meet", Stadium becomes "Stah-di-ee-um" and Atrium, "Ah-tree-ium". Luckily Jakarta does not have a Renaissance Hotel.

I enjoy chatting with taxi drivers: they often come from different parts of the archipelago--a cab ride becomes a geography lesson for me. It is also a challenge for me to understand their thick provincial accents, but it is fun. I very rarely meet an unfriendly one.

The rarest sight though in Jakarta is a Chinese taxi driver. I spent years here asking my Indonesian friends if there's such a thing as a Chinese cab-driver in Jakarta. No one has encountered one before. Not in Jakarta, maybe in Pontianak, they'd say. Jakarta Chinese are supposed to be "rich".

This is not exactly true. I have encountered at least one Chinese Bluebird taxi driver before. It was during Lebaran when many of the drivers were back in their kampungs. I took the rare opportunity to grill the driver and asked him if Chinese taxi drivers were indeed that rare. He said, they are some Chinese drivers in Bluebird, but they are a small minority.

He seemed a bit uneasy when I asked him why he chose to become a taxi driver. I suddenly realised that it could be insensitive of me to do so: it was like I was questioning why he as a Chinese was so "useless", though that wasn't what I meant. It was just plain innocent curiosity on my part. I quickly changed the subject to the traffic instead.

Another pribumi (native) taxi driver I encountered used to be a bajaj driver; he told me how happy he was when he was accepted by the taxi company to be a driver--he even held a small celebration with his family and friends.

A taxi driver in Jakarta will usually pretend not to have small change. So I always make sure I have enough 1K, 5K and 10K notes in my wallet. My rides usually cost me not more than 10K. Good luck to you if you only have 50K notes!

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