Just A Simple Boy

Kupang's primary form of public transportation is the bemo. I know locals who have not ridden one since they were in grade school, having opted for the ubiquitous scooter as soon as they were old enough. Still, just as many depend on them to get around in a reasonably timely manner. The bemos thus ply a brisk, daily trade, transporting throughout the city people and goods, young and old, and, on occasion, unoffending animals. I once rode alongside a chicken who happened to be resting in the crook of a man's arm, clucking contentedly away.

In the same way that a Christmas tree starts out as an immature evergreen in the five to ten-foot range, a bemo is, at bottom, a gutted-out, low-riding minibus of 80's, Japanese vintage (Suzuki, though it is standard for one to have a shiny, oversized, Mercedes emblem pasted to its front bumper). I mean that the real fun is in the ornamentation and decoration. Most bemos are green or white, though I have seen yellow, blue, red, black, and pink ones too. I have never seen one that doesn't bear some name, slogan, or callsign (usually multiple) painted on its side in a garish, technicolor font or stickered onto its windshield and passenger windows. These do not tell you what route the bemo belongs to or where it is going (that is the job of the light-up numeral that perches diminutively on the roof). But they do bestow a lot of character and a little credibility. The louder and more attention-grabbing a bemo is, the more confident I (and some locals) somehow become that it and its crew are really up for the job of shuttling us to our destinations. I don't want to overstate the difference and should say that ultimately, I'll get on any bemo that comes along. But some do seem to try a little harder, get a little deeper into character, want it a little more.

As far as character is concerned, bemos can be divided into a few themes and categories. There is the religious bemo, which proclaims, "Jesus Christ," "Yesus Malole," "Bapa Yesus," or, more straightforwardly, "Jesus." Some of these have elaborate tint- or sticker-jobs that obscure one's view out of their windows but look like stained glass from the outside. The playboy bemo, on the other hand, probably couldn't be too explicit without turning off some potential passengers. But it is suggestive enough, with its girly decals (exclusively white, Western babes—cartoonish, with long, flowing hair and full lips) and such coy quips as "Otomatis Romantis" ("Automatic Romance"). I have yet to see it with my own eyes, but a fellow volunteer who lives on the far west side of the island informs us that one regularly passes by her front door, flashing, in big, bubble letters, "BOOBS."

Finally, there is the stud category of bemo, which I could probably further divide into distinguishable sub-groups (hustler, punk, pretty boy, angsty teen, footballer, happy-go-lucky, Napoleon complex, etc.) but which seems to cohere better as a general, catch-all category for the preponderance of bemos that, more than simple piety or lust, broadcast some flavor of heavy-handed, posturing masculinity. One claims the title, "King of Kings." Another, bulldog-like in disposition and crouching a little lower than the rest (Or am I imagining that?) calls itself "Boss Kici" ("Little Boss"). One reminds us, in English, that "Time is Money" while its cousin confesses to being the "Money Hunter" himself and drives home the point with dollar sign stickers. The classy gentleman of the family glides around with a handle of Johnny Walker Black and an empty rocks glass in its back window (it is no drunkard and knows how to handle itself). I usually ride the number 6—a sprawling fleet in shades of lime, turquoise, and jade—which sometimes whispers in my ear as I pass through its door, "Cinta diawali dengan senyuman tapi diakhiri dengang kesedihan" ("Love begins with smiles but ends in sadness") or, "Uang bukanlah segala2nya tapi segala2nya butuhkan uang" (Money isn't everything but everything needs money"), or, pensively and again, in English, "I am just a simple boy."

It is clear, at any rate, that the personalities of bemos reflect the tastes and personalities of their crews, which are always male and frequently adolescent. A bemo, like a cab driver's cab or a mailman's truck, is its sopir's (driver's) charge—the steed he depends on for a living. But more than this, it is his outlet and his sanctuary—the den in which he spends many hours between each sunrise and sunset and the literal backdrop against which much of the drama of his youth and manhood necessarily unfolds. As such, bemos inevitably become four-wheeled bulletins of desire and insecurity and swagger and yearning and whatever else occupies the minds and hearts of young men and boys.

It helps that apart from the price of a fare (a flat rate of 3,000 rupiah for adults, 2,000 rupiah for children and students, and 5,000 rupiah for two people, though I have seen more than these sums paid unwittingly and less paid without issue), the city does not regulate bemo operation at all. The crews can set their own schedules and routes and do whatever they like with the vehicles themselves. Some speed their bemos along, swerving around slow-moving traffic, screeching to sudden halts, accelerating like startled horses, and tumbling their passengers around all the while. Others putter slowly up the street, pausing at and peering down every alleyway so as not to miss any potential customers. Some crews blast their USB-contained playlists of dangdut and C-list pop and EDM remixes at such earsplitting volumes that they are audible long before and after they are visible. Others—marginally less keen on the party bus vibe, I suppose—lean towards the Indonesian equivalents of Michael Bolton and Phil Collins and keep the crooning and wailing down relatively low (by which I mean that I can almost begin to hear myself think). Some festoon every square inch of exposed dashboard space with grimy, dust-caked blankets and dangle so many plush toys from suction cups attached to the windshield that you wonder how the driver still manages to see out of it. Others leave it all bare so that you can see the loose bolts and rusting shafts and exposed wires, and wonder instead about how something that looks like it's about to fall apart is getting along at such a startling clip.

In the end, however, such differences are only differences of style and degree. If you are paying attention (and it is impossible not to, so in-your-face and, at times, comical, is the queer miracle of the bemo), you will notice them. But let yourself begin to embrace the routine and the necessity of the daily ride—to think of the various routes, collectively, as a system of public transportation—and all of these minor variations begin to blur together into a single, uniform texture and experience of transit-by-bemo. Certain features of the ritual remain constant from ride to ride. Unspoken rules and protocols exist. There are no designated stops. If you want to board, you wait by the side of the road with an expectant look on your face. If you want to get off, you clap your hands or clink a coin against the handrail attached to the ceiling. If you have baggage (a sack of rice, a plastic bag full of meat or fish, a bunch of cassava leaves, a load of laundry, a cardboard box with a flat-screen TV inside of it, etc.) you stow it right behind the driver's seat. If the bemo is crowded but more people have somehow been persuaded to get on, you shift forward, towards the open door, and let the newcomers clamber past you towards the back. If it so crowded that not even this movement seems possible, then you sit still until somebody more or less falls into your lap. There is only one, main terminal, which is right next to a famous beach in the old, coastal heart of the city and which serves as an endpoint for virtually all of the different routes. The driver's job is to navigate the free-for-all that is Indonesian traffic and react in a timely manner to stop requests. The konjak's (hawker's) job is to sit or stand in the doorway, handle the cash, call out the bemo's direction ("Kupang! Kupang!" if it is inbound, heading towards the terminal, or the name of the neighborhood at the other end of the line, if it is outbound) and flag down or be flagged down by potential passengers. These drivers and hawkers wear the same flip-flops and cut-off jeans and graphic tees, crouch on the same raggedy crates and stools and upended buckets, sport the same haircuts, chainsmoke the same cigarettes (bought three at a time from kiosks along the route), shuffle and fold stacks of bills the same way (always lengthwise, never along its width), taunt and laugh at each other with the same hyena laughs, loiter and nap and change shifts in front of the same warungs (roadside eateries) and bengkels (roadside mechanics). In six months, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have bumped into somebody on a bemo whom I recognized from a previous ride. Even so, my fellow passengers hardly seem varied or diverse. Sitting on the same, parallel benches and facing each other, are the schoolboys in their too-short pants, the schoolgirls whispering in each other's ears, khaki-clad civil servants with their tired expressions and shoulder patches, nonas (young women) on their way to campus, nyongs (young men) on their way to work, middle-aged mothers with babies in tow, toddlers smushing their sticky cheeks and noses against the windows, wrinkled ibus coming back from the market, grizzled, old bapaks chewing betel nut and staring into space. I know they are all different people. But in the back of a bemo, I find that I can no longer tell them apart.

Even the vehicles themselves, when thought of en masse, hardly seem so different from each other. Just like the teenagers and twenty-somethings who drive them, bemos are simultaneously all unique and all alike. And if I have said much about the distinctness of their personalities, it is only because I have tasked myself with describing a reality that I already take for granted in clear and imaginable terms—in other words, because I find myself, once again, paying attention. Colors and themes and decals and routes aside, a bemo is and will always be a rustbucket—a trumped up, goofy rustbucket with a nightmare horn, busted-up seat cushion, and amateur operator, solving for Kupang the problem of connection and mobility that subways and buses and trams solve for bigger, richer cities and making up for a lack of infrastructure and efficiency with sheer pluck and nerve. At 6am, a quiet bemo carrying two other passengers besides yourself takes you to school. Twelve hours later, a loud one filled to the brim and piloted through rush-hour traffic by a sixteen year-old nearly sideswipes a motorcyclist, who then gets off his bike just to punch your scrawny driver through the open window. It's true: no two bemos or bemo rides are exactly alike. And yet, it is this very unpredictability that leaves you no choice but to believe in the highly predictable outcome of you getting to wherever you need to go, this very inconsistency that somehow points consistently forward, this very jankiness that seems to say, reassuringly, "If I'm running today, I'll be running tomorrow."


By 7pm, any bemo you see is probably on its last or second to last circuit. And by eight o'clock, the streets are usually clear of them.

Up until about three weeks ago, I couldn't be certain where the bemos and their crews went after hours. At one point I imagined a central garage somewhere in the hills outside of the city that they all withdrew to at dark and came charging out of at first light. Maybe a sopirs' and konjaks' "barracks" to go along with it. It didn't seem realistic. But it was a lively image.

And then, three weeks ago, I walked through an unfamiliar neighborhood late at night and stumbled across my answer. There, parked in the driveway of a perfectly average house, was a white, number 2 bemo with its doors shut and engine quiet. This particular neighborhood was actually quite out of number 2's usual way, but that didn't matter. At least one member of the crew lived here. And after dropping off his last passenger, he had simply gone home like anybody else.

It all seems perfectly obvious to me now. But in that moment, the thought of a hundred bemos dotting Kupang's labyrinthian, residential complexes, parked in little side streets and beneath awnings, proved overwhelming. I paused, walked up to the number 2, peered through its window, and did a double-take. Inside, sitting where their passengers usually sat, were four young men, each one staring intently at his phone. Only their faces were illuminated by the pale glow of the screens and in the surrounding darkness, they looked like four, ghostly, disembodied heads suspended in midair, bowed in communion or prayer.

A dog barked in the distance. More joined in. Behind the bemo, apart from a single, naked bulb shining weakly above the front door, the house stood dark and empty. I backed slowly away before they could notice me and hurried onward into the night.


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