May 12, 2008

Gerson Poyk


by Gerson Poyk

Late one evening while I was studying for my end of semester exams, my nimble-fingered father called me from the living room. Without looking up from the old radio he was repairing, he said, "Come and sit here a moment, son." I sat down suspecting that he wanted me to hunt on the cool ceramic-tiled floor of our house for some nut or screw he'd dropped, but I was wrong.

"Since your mother passed away I haven't been able to concentrate, son," said father. "I haven't been doing a very good job on these radios either, and I, well, the customers - they're going other places. My small pension isn't really enough; I'm not making as much as I used to from the radios - and I have no idea how I'm going to pay for your little sister to go to university." Politely I said nothing, as father continued, "What do you think if I take the last of my savings out of the bank and buy a small second-hand motorbike?"

I was puzzled, "A motorbike?"

"A motorbike. You could make a little extra money for us by taking pillion passengers for a fare, by becoming an ojek."

"You mean like all the other ojek who give people rides for money?" I asked.

"If you don't mind spending the time on Friday evenings or in the afternoons, you could get a few fares. Even one or two would be a help with the household finances. Rather than getting a job as a bus driver like some of your friends, it would be better to just become an ojek," said father, screwdriver still inserted surgeon-like into the radio.

"No problems," was my immediate response. Then I got up and went back to my desk next to the kerosene stove at the back room of our 14-tile-wide three-roomed house. There weren't any doors between the rooms so I could talk to father in the living room if he raised his voice slightly. "Could I use the bike to go to university, father?" I asked.

"No, don't do that," was his reply. "What you need to do is stay away from the main roads. Just wait on the bike at the intersection of the main road and the road leading into the kampong. You have to offer to take people where there isn't any public transport," suggested father from our all-purpose living room-cum-electronics workshop.

My younger sister had worn herself out earlier in the day playing volleyball with friends from the neighbourhood and had gone to bed. When she went out to play volleyball in the afternoons she would usually take a couple of thermos flasks full of ice blocks which she would sit by the edge of the court. Once her friends were thirsty, she would shepherd them over to the thermos flasks and sell them the ice blocks. She not only got a little physical exercise, she also made a little money - her own modest contribution to the household. Our tiny house was really a very productive place, serving as both a radio repair workshop and a factory producing the ice blocks that my sister sold to her volleyball-weary neighbours and school friends.

I busied myself, first arranging a motorbike license for myself and then, with the last of father's savings, looking for a second-hand motorbike. After that, I would come home from lectures in the afternoons and wait at the top of the road leading down into the forest-like kampong with its labyrinth of capillary-small lanes and paths impenetrable to public transport.

On the first day I made a fortune - five thousand rupiah! This spurred me on greatly and after a week I had made a tidy little packet, father urging me to put the money into the bank account he had helped my sister open ages ago when she started selling ice blocks.
The money brought its own pleasure, but there were also the pleasures of the strange little things that happened from time to time, not to mention the life-threatening risks. At first I couldn't care less about the passengers, what they looked like, or what state they were in, as long as they handed over the fare. Old, young, clean, dirty, healthy, sick (so long as they were still healthy enough to ride pillion) - I took them all whenever they wanted to go.

But it was the young women I enjoyed the most - and there were plenty, pretty young women wanting a ride to their homes deep in the kampong, far from the main road and public transport. However, as an ojek I knew my place and never tried to start a conversation.

One day a beautiful white woman walked up wanting a ride. The problem was she was so astonishingly tall, and so huge that as we rode along, bike swaying drunkenly, she almost made me loose balance. And it had to happen - my front tire blew out just as we were going down a small hill and just as we went over a hole in the road! I jumped on the brake - and over we went! Diminutive dark-skinned me and the beautiful giant both went sprawling across the road. Fortunately she wasn't hurt. As the bike went over, her vast form landed on scrawny little me - right on my head! And, as my helmet had no chin protector, my chin was driven into the rock-covered road, almost breaking my chin bone and sending dazzling sensations through my jaw bone which was thrust inwards and backwards into the base of my ears. Happily that did not last for too long.

I told the white woman I was sorry, hailed a friend passing on his way home after ferrying someone else, and asked him to drop off my huge white passenger.

It was some time before I saw the white woman again. Then one day while I was waiting for passengers, she went past, this time driving her own car, with an Indonesian woman sitting beside her. I wondered where the beautiful giant and her pretty Indonesian friend with flowing black hair could be going. Dying to know, I turned the ignition key and set off after them. Dismay swept over me when eventually the car pulled into an immense two story house which, compared to my 14-tile-wide abode, was a castle. All I did was ride past, satisfied that I'd found out where the attractive white woman lived.

It was then some time more before I saw the Indonesian woman again and in the meantime I went about my business whisking pillion passengers here and there. I lost count of how many passengers I'd had Ð anyone at all wanting a ride - young or old, male or female, not to mention the children. I took no notice of them - just the money they held out.

At home three things filled my mind: my father, my little sister and my study, while at the university campus I would change back into a hard-working university student.

Several months later I did spot the woman with the flowing, straight, black hair again, as she was crossing the road at the bus stop. This time she was wearing a high-school uniform. I waved and as she headed my way I started the engine. She jumped on and we roared off.

"Who was that pretty white woman you were with?" I ventured, wasting no time.

"Have you ever given her a ride?" she asked, in reply.

"Once. But I got a flat and we both came off. She landed on me and almost crushed me flat!" The high-school girl on the back laughed and said, "She's my after school tutor."

"Ah, well that explains why you were in the car together, doesn't it. And what does she teach?"

"She teaches English," answered the girl.

"Cool. By the time you get to unit, you're English will be great," I said, encouraging her. "What stream are you in at school?"

"I took sciences."

"And what do you want to do at unit?" I asked.


I began to say how wonderful I thought that was but she suddenly roared "Stop!” startling me breathless. Without realizing it we'd reached her castle.

Holding out a ten thousand rupiah note, she said, "This is all I have, sorry." I didn't flinch, and then she went on, "Ah, keep the change." She strode off towards the imposing wrought-iron gates, leaving me clutching the note.

I stopped working as an ojek so I could concentrate on my final major paper at university. In the meantime I lent my bike to a friend whose own motorbike had been repossessed by the owner. We agreed to split the profit fifty-fifty, and even though he had only finished primary school, he turned out to be very honest, dropping in every afternoon to deliver half the day's takings. My friend's honesty made me look on him as a younger brother, and my father too became very fond of him. Orphaned when young, he had no home and slept sometimes on bus interchange benches, sometimes in shop porticos and when my father found out about this, he rented a small room for him in a boarding house.

Late one night he picked up a passenger and that was the last time his friends saw him - his lifeless body was found dumped in a river, my motorbike stolen by his heartless thieving killer. My friend's life was snuffed out for nothing more than a tatty second-hand motorbike. Sorrow settled over our hearts and would remain with us always along with the memory of the friend who had been so good to us.

My friend's death also caused the more mundane problem that we had to deal with the police, but we were satisfied that they had taken his murder seriously.

After so much hard work, I eventually graduated and the day I received my results, a satisfactory-level pass, I was overcome with anguished thoughts of my murdered ojek friend. He had contributed so much to paying my way through my now successfully completed university course and I was overcome with grief and emotion.

In my poverty in that little house with a widowed pensioner scratching out living repairing radios, and my little sister carting ice blocks off to school with her to sell to her friends, the Almighty had granted that I should complete my degree. Me, a university graduate, born of poverty and the faithful friendship of a homeless ojek whose life had been ripped away by a savage robbing killer.

My sister entered university and my father continued repairing his radios. He even surprised us by quietly learning how to repair television sets. My sister and I were amazed one day to find a television in the living room.

Immediately after graduating I was offered a position as a lecturer at the university, and one day while teaching a class of first year students, I caught sight of one of the female students, astonishment written wide across her face. At once I recognized the woman who was gazing not at a lecturer, but at a young ojek, and the question was palpable: how could he be one of my lecturers!

Unfortunately it didn't take her long to fail the semester exam and stop coming to lectures. Before she stopped coming, however, she sent me a letter politely asking whether she could call on me at my home to arrange private tutoring - at whatever price I liked. She was even prepared to become my girlfriend - so long as I faked her results so she passed the exam.

Saddened, I reflected on the fact that my degree had cost the life of my ojek friend and that if I did tamper with her results the reputation of the university would be worthless. The answer was no.

Ojek (Ojek) was published in June 1988 in Kompas