In Central Java, taking our time in a becak

This short story will tell you much about Indonesia.

A line of becak waiting passengers in Yogyakarta

A line of becak awaiting passengers in Yogyakarta

Bruno and I were in a part of Yogyakarta (a city in Central Java, about an hour’s flight from Jakarta) with heavy foot traffic, and it was time to head back to our hotel, across town.

We couldn’t find a taxi, so we opted for a common mode of transport in this part of Java, called a becak. Americans might call this a bicycle rickshaw, or maybe a bicycle taxi — it’s basically a two-person seat attached to the front of a bicycle. A man rides the bicycle, pushing his passengers languidly through the city. Interestingly, this mode of transport was outlawed in Jakarta in the 1970s, presumably because it was considered unsafe and exacerbated traffic problems (city officials deamed them a ‘menace to public order’). The ban has been strictly enforced in Jakarta — to absurd lengths, including the dumping of confiscated becak into Jakarta’s bay. In the rest of Indonesia, however, becak remain common.

Having searched in vain for a taxi, we found a becak just before 7 p.m. The driver kindly agreed to take us to our destination and headed down a back road, presumably to avoid traffic on the main streets. We made some small talk, practicing our new Indonesian language skills.

After pedaling laboriously for a minute, he pulled over and stopped the bike on the side of the street. We were in front of a mosque. He said in broken English, “You wait just 7 minutes, OK? I have to pray. I promise only 7 minutes. OK?”

It was time for Islamic prayers.

If, as is often said, this country has a very flexible notion of time we have not seen it, as we saw in Latin America. Indonesians — in our experience — are not often tardy, at least in contexts where foreigners are present, such as offices, classes, restaurants, or hotels. They do, however, take delays in stride. If there is a flood in the road and all the cars have to stop and you spend an hour in traffic, well, that’s just the way it is, so you wait patiently. If it’s prayer time and the becak driver has to stop at the mosque, well, you just wait patiently.

So, what could we do when the driver stopped at the mosque? We waited. About seven minutes later the guy came back and pedaled us on to the hotel.

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One Response to In Central Java, taking our time in a becak

  1. Pingback: In the absence of public works, Jakartans cope with a daily slog | Katherine and Bruno's Adventures Abroad

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