Friday, 25 April 2008

Pimp my Bemo


The colourful public transport of Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia

Originally published in Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine April 2007


Long before the MTV show brought flashing spoiler lights, two-tone paint jobs and triple exhausts to the masses, the bemo drivers of East Nusa Tenggara were pimping their own rides.
Bemo – an abbreviation of becak motor – are the backbone of urban transport throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The original bemo were rattly three-wheelers, a scaled-up version of the Thai tuk-tuk, carrying six passengers, but in most of Indonesia these have been replaced by the ubiquitous minibus. Following a complex spider web of interlocking and loosely fixed routes, bemo operate in virtually every city and town in the country, and are often the main transport in remote rural areas where timetabled buses do not run. With a couple of thousand rupiah and a fair degree of patience you can get just about anywhere by bemo.
In most of Indonesia bemo are plain, utilitarian, and often a little battered. They are sometimes colour-coded to indicate their route, and in the bigger cities they might carry advertising on a back window, but decoration goes no further than that. But in the remote islands in the east of the country, beyond Bali and Lombok, it’s a different story. The phenomenon of exuberantly decorated bemo begins in the town of Bima in Sumbawa, reaches new levels in Ende, the sleepy capital of Flores, and comes to a dizzying climax in Kupang.
The Capital of Indonesian West Timor is a pleasant, slow-paced and slightly shabby town of about 200, 000 people, dozing among the sagging palm trees on the edge of Kupang Bay. But there is one thing that is neither shabby nor slow-paced in Kupang, and that is the bemos. Blazing through the otherwise sedate streets with the shriek of air-horns, multiple-aerials whipping, neon lights flashing, and “full sound” bass pumping, they put the bemo of every other city in Indonesia to shame, visually at least, if not in terms of comfort.
For years Kupang’s bemo drivers have taken great pride in their vehicles. They keep the paintwork shining and decorate every available space with customised transfers. Elaborate names emblazon the sides; at night the undercarriages flash blue and red, hubcaps are painted in fluorescent green and even windscreens are plastered with stickers, leaving only the smallest gap for the driver to see. All of the bemo are named, usually after women: Laura, Gilang, Claudia and Rosy ferry passengers in and out of downtown Kupang. But the style and theme of the decoration varies wildly. Some are decorated with the insignia of European football teams, some with the racing stripes of Formula 1; others have dedicated themselves unbidden to some product of globalisation, Coca Cola or Marlboro. Love and ladies are popular, with “True Love”, “Cinta Pertama” (First Love) and even “Forbidden Love” emblazoned on widows with a picture of some sultry temptress, while other bemo sport stickers that are virtually x-rated.
The sacred and the profane mix freely. In majority-Christian Kupang Jesus Christ is a popular rear-window idol, but so are Valentino Rossi, David Beckham and Johnny Rotten. And while Britney Spears is a fading star, most popular of all among bemo drivers is Canadian pop-songstress Avril Lavigne. Avril is everywhere, pouting sulkily from window stickers, and smouldering beside drivers’ mirrors.
The craze has created a minor industry in Kupang, and there are workshops scattered throughout the town that specialise in making the customised sticker-decorations, copying designs from photographs and magazines.
There is certainly an element of competition that pushes the bemo drivers to wilder and wilder heights. Among the most exuberantly decorated are the green number 6 and number 10 bemos that run out of town in the direction of the Walikota bus terminal.
Bobby, the driver of a spectacular number 10, says, “It’s just for fun, but we all want to drive the bemo with the best decorations.”
Kupang has a huge fleet of bemo and they provide employment for many of the town’s young men. Each bemo has two staff: a driver and a fare-collector who hangs wildly from the open door shouting the bemo’s destination as it swings through the streets. The drivers and fare-collectors often have hair as wildly coloured as their vehicles in vivid pinks and reds. As with boy-racers everywhere, music is at the heart of their culture, and unlike bemo in other cities every bemo in Kupang is graced with “full sound”. The space beneath the twin rows of passenger seats is filled with enormous speakers, and an approaching bemo can be heard at four hundred metres. There is pulsing techno and Western pop; dangdut occasionally rears its ugly head, and latter-day American punk rock is a staple. But curiously enough, though she is the darling of every driver, Avril Lavigne is nowhere to be heard.
The top-volume music and thumping bass makes riding the bemo of Kupang an ear-shattering experience but the passengers don’t mind.
Adi, a young man with bleached hair travelling on the number 10 bemo along Jalan Siliwangi claims that all the people of Kupang love the bemo, and the music, and though he has to shout above the racket of American pop-punk band Blink 182, he says, “Full music is good, it makes the journey more fun.”
In the past Kupang’s traffic police did try to stamp out some of the wildest - and potentially dangerous – decorations, particularly the view-obscuring windscreen stickers and the deafening music. But it was a lost cause, and now the drivers are free to express themselves.
“It’s our tradition here,” says Iwan, the driver of a white number 2 bemo. “The police have no problem with it now, and they probably couldn’t stop it if they tried.” Iwan says that the decorations are a speciality in West Timor, with brightly-coloured bemo in the regional towns of Soe, Kefa and Atambua. “But the best ones are in Kupang,” he chuckles, “I think we have more imagination here; it’s how we express ourselves.”
Iwan has been to Java, and has seen the plain, unadorned bemos that ply the busy streets of Jakarta and Surabaya. When asked what he thinks of them he shrugs, “Boring, very boring! Those drivers obviously don’t have any imagination. Bemo are much more fun in Kupang!” And he is right. After a visit to Kupang, though your hearing may never recover, the bemo of the rest of the country will forever seem a little dull.
One more question: has Iwan ever seen MTV’s Pimp my Ride?
He grins. “Of course! It’s my favourite show!”


© Tim Hannigan 2007

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