Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cab Driver's Blues

Jakarta is a great big freeway.

Actually, it's not, especially considering the best roads are tollways. But the song sure seems to fit as we enter hour two of our cab ride across the city.

Traffic is ubiquitous and constant in this sprawl of 11 million souls. On the elevated high road we're on, vehicles are stopped far in front and behind us. We lurch a few yards occasionally, half the cars taking those opportunities to change lanes, snarling things even more. Even the motorcycles are stopped beside us.

The only consolation is that it's far, far worse on the surface roads, where construction, tuk-tuk fumes and pedestrians add to the misery of getting from A to B. From our perch on an overpass, I gaze down at the vast tenement blocks of Jakarta, all red tile, corrugated iron and decay.

“That,” my cab driver says, pointing to the slums, “is where my life is.”

You live there? I ask him. The area below is along a fetid waterway, its sides plaqued with plastic grocery bags and scrap paper. Not there, he indicates in a broken English, but in a place just like it, in another district.

It turns out this cabbie is in a chatty mood. I've found Indonesians as a whole are a very kind and friendly lot; despite the conditions they live in, they are intensely interested in others, in sharing about their lives and finding out about yours. Uniformly friendly and giving.

My driver is 31, 41 or 51; it's hard to tell from either his English or his looks. He has eight kids, the oldest in their 20s. He was married very young- in traditional Javanese fashion. Now he struggles to feed his family.

His eldest son, he laments, has no thought for the future, for school, work, or marriage.

"And your boy?" he asks me, as my son naps beside me, his leg slung over my lap. "He's a good young man," I tell him.

He waxes political. Things are hard again economically, he says, though it was getting better for a while. He's angry, about the country and politicians and how the 'Chinese own everything'. These are old complaints, you can tell- thoughts scored into the grooves of his mind over months and years of sitting in traffic like this.

There's a random break in the congestion, and we suddenly pull out into five open lanes of asphalt. We drive for about a kilometre until the next bottleneck appears.

“Maybe I come work in your country,” he says to me as we slow down again. “What does a driver make in your country?” He mimicks a guy driving cab as he drives the cab.

I think for minute, pull out my iPod calculator. I figure I'll lowball it. I'll tell him a cab driver makes $35,000 a year. It seems a safe guess to me.

“A driver makes about $120 US a day,” I say.

His eyes widen. “$120?” he asks, incredulously.

“Yes,” I say. “But you have to remember. It is expensive to live there.”

I make a list of deductions for him. Taxes, take off at least one third. Gasoline, $40 a day. Insurance. Cab licences. Even a coffee, I tell him, will cost 25,000 rupiah.

“In the end, you might take home only $20 or $30,” I tell him.

“$120,” he repeats to himself again, rolling the incredible number around in his mind. What he could do with such wealth. He is now far away.

“Yes, but remember, lots of bills,” I repeat again, not trying to build up his hopes too much. “How much do you make in a day?” I ask.

“It goes up, it goes down," he explains. "But about 60,000, 70000 rupiah.”  That's about $8.

Eight dollars a day to feed a family of eight. Still, compared to the Indonesian average- $2 a day- he's doing pretty well. I put away the iPod, suddenly aware it's worth two months' salary to him, feeling a little ashamed of myself.

We pull off the tollway, into the gridlock below, near our destination. At an intersection, street kids plaster their faces to the windows of the cab and beg. A 10 year old boy, carrying his two year old sister, have picked me to try to ignore them.

“I'm sorry about that,” the driver says to me, ashamed of the street urchins.

“Hey, not your fault,” I say, wondering whose fault it is. I gaze out across the road, studiously not seeing what's in front of me, while my driver dreams of Canadian streets of gold.

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