Every morning, I walk across the street from my building to take the mini-van that brings me to my work place. This mini-van, called an Angkot in the local language in Jakarta, is one among the few modes of public transport that this city offers. I hail one of these light blue coloured vans, and try to get on to it. There are days when it is empty, and then there are days when it is so full that one man is hanging off the door-less entrance. I think such transport systems are very typical to this part of the world. There is no dearth of similar sights back home, in India.
The sometimes-empty-sometimes-full nature of the Angkot seldom has a fixed pattern. It is not like I can step out of my house and assume that it is 8:15 and therefore it will be full. Nor can I tell myself that since it’s raining, it will be empty. There is no predictable pattern, whatsoever! And that makes the choice between a cab and an angkot even harder, everyday.
Nonetheless, I prefer the angkot over taxis. I choose to forego the air-conditioned comfort of the taxis, the smooth leather seats of the Blue Bird cars to enjoy my morning moments of people watching. (If you have ever been to Indonesia, you will know that people swear by Blue Bird as the safest company running the maximum number of taxis here)
The angkot, bigger than an Ambassador taxi in Kolkata, and smaller than a mini-bus: can ferry exactly 13 people at a time. They huddle on, to go in the same direction as their fellow travellers and soon find their spots to get off and along. It’s no fancy ride- no luxurious leg room, not enough room for your bags if you don’t want to rest it on your lap and if you’re sitting on the far end, the sun will shine down brightly on you. You may or may not like that but you will surely be happy to see how peacefully the group traverses the distance. People seldom know each other, though sometimes you notice acquaintances exchange niceties. Smiles come easily, and so do frowns. You will see groggy eyes, scarred faces concealing a story, dishevelled hair and then you will see people smiling into their phones, lost in thought or even catching a quick nap in the evening traffic. That’s the nature of any crowd, after all: diverse yet united, lost and unknown, oblivious yet careful in their own ways.
I enjoy people watching. On this ride, I do not get lost in conversation with my friends and colleagues. I look around; catch a glimpse of the young girl struggling to sit uptight in her skirt, the man who decides to give his eyes some rest, with his spectacles resting lightly on his long nose. I don’t peek into people’s phones but while they’re at it, I can’t help but notice their updates on Instagram, Path and Twitter. Every small detail goes up on News Feeds these days. Sometimes people are putting up pictures of the traffic.
I’ve had my own set of memorable experiences on these journeys. There were times when a girl in a bright yellow dress, was not comfortable and chose to sit close to the entrance. The driver wanted her to shift further in because she was giving his potential passengers the impression that the van was full. She couldn’t shift in, and therefore she simply got off, to avoid causing trouble for the driver. There was a time when I thought I could read in the van on my way back and the dim light from the single lamp in the far end did not allow me to indulge in the murder mystery. When I shut the book sighing from my failed attempt, I raised my head to smiling faces. I realized they noticed how naive I was, in this simple act of ignorance. Then, there have been days when I have skipped the ride to evade traffic and walked the 2 kilometre distance back home instead. While on the vehicle, I’ve had my own share of feet being stamped by pointed heels, boxes of non-vegetarian food emulating a fishy smell and then there was one specific instance of translations gone utterly wrong:
My stop to get off the angkot, on my way home is actually at the start of a bridge. In Bahasa, the word for bridge is “Jimbatan” So, by way of urging the driver to stop at the spot, I need to call out to him saying “Jimbatan, Mus” and he will stop. However, for the longest time since I was here, I kept calling out to him saying, “Jambutan, Mus” There were times when he would smile back at me and nod his head disapprovingly. Sometimes fellow passengers would repeat the phrase for me in case the driver didn’t hear. At that time, I didn’t pay much heed to the difference caused by the few letters in a syllable or two. I was an expat and people were looking at me like that, smiling at me and even exchanging funny glances. I passed off all of that, assuming that it was probably because I was not a local. Until one day; a local colleague of mine accompanied me on the ride back home and laughed until her stomach hurt when she heard me use the word: Jambutan.
Jambutan means vaginal hair.