Life from a motorbike

Motherhood is something that always makes me feel close to women, no matter where they come from. Distance disappears when mothers talk about their children. In Jakarta, where I presently live, there is a habit of travelling with the whole family on a motorbike – children included – often without helm, and this is something that makes me feel unease because I know I would never share a motorbike with more than one person, and certainly never put my small child on it without a helmet. But this is my way. I know there’s a wider picture. I wrote the story below in an attempt to identify myself in the feelings that go beyond the danger, and that are common to all families – love, warmth, sense of unity and belonging.


Life from a Motorbike

‘Open it!’ My mom’s eyes are glowing. I lift the upper part of the cardboard box and there it is, a bright new motorbike helmet, exactly like my father’s, orange with a black tiger on it, but smaller.

“Happy birthday.” My dad grins. He knows how much I wanted it. Children’s helmets have appeared recently in Jakarta, and they are expensive. Still, we spend a lot of time on my dad’s motorbike, and we hold every object and rituals linked to it in high consideration.

life-on-a-motorbike2My family is not rich. My mom works as a maid and my dad moves from one casual job to another. The motorbike is essential for my mom to reach work every day, for my dad to job-hunt, and for us to go to school. Every morning, when it’s time to leave the house, my sister and I argue:

“Angun, today it’s my turn to sit in front.”

“No way,” I reply.

“Mom said I could ride in front the whole week if I helped her clean the room.”

The roar of the engine interrupts the discussion, and my father heaves us onto the motorbike. He is the one who usually drives it, though my mom is not a bad driver at all, and occasionally takes the handlebars.

We take our seats, trying all combinations: me and my sister sandwiched between Mom and Dad; Dad, me, Mom and my sister in the back; me in front, then Dad, sister and Mom. My dad is not keen on having me sitting in front. I don’t think he worries for my well-being, though. He probably wants to have a bit of free space to play with his phone at traffic lights.

life-on-a-motorbike4The trip is long. We leave early from our neighbourhood in the suburbs of Jakarta, a depressed area packed with makeshift homes where sewage flows in the open, and rats share space with humans. Hanging laundry and piles of garbage dot the area, until the first shops appear, taking a bit of the squalor away.

We take a shortcut under a big grey bridge, which takes us straight to the first skyscrapers. Huge buildings with shining panes are surrounded by one-storey wooden houses where everything is done outside: Women wash their laundry, children play, men chat and smoke.

I have a lot of time to absorb all the details. Some of the traffic lights in and around Jakarta last forever. Lots of bikers crowd under them and patiently wait for their turn to go. You can feel the stress mounting after a couple of minutes. In the heat it’s made even worse by the revving engines: drivers pump the gas, bikes inch forward, engaging in a tense battle to conquer a meter.

I spend my time at traffic lights looking around. I love to see the patterns on the helmets – some are plain black or white, others have colourful designs that entertain my eyes for a while. I enjoy observing what other families on motorbikes do to kill time during the long wait. Children mostly sleep. Adults check their phones, chat with the neighbouring biker, smoke a cigarette or clean their nose and ears. All around engines fume and roar. Cars are kept behind.

You see, motorbikes are like water in Jakarta, they naturally occupy all free space and adapt to the surroundings. So it is always an army of two wheels in front of and around cars. Cars are less interesting anyway. Most of them have darkened windows, which makes it difficult to see what goes on inside.

life-on-a-motorbikeSome traffic lights are more interesting than others because of the hawkers. It is fun to see new things coming up all the time – colourful feather dusters are my favourite, they come in bright blue, pink, yellow and green, and I would give an arm and a leg to be able to touch them and feel the softness of the feathers. At the beginning of the year, huge calendars are on sale, and after elections, the portrait of the president and vice president are at all traffic lights.

I particularly love a junction where a little girl with a tiny blue guitar entertains drivers for a coin. Her mother moves from one car to another selling tissues, and the girl approaches the cars, barely reaching the windows, and plays an off-key tune. I can’t say if I am more envious of the sense of freedom she exudes, or of her bright blue guitar: I would do anything to have it.

But I always look forward to the traffic light where we sometimes meet the foreign woman. The first morning I saw her I was strangely tired. I leaned against my mom’s back, and was not interested in what was going on around me. I could barely keep my eyes open. Through the mist of fumes I suddenly saw a woman in a nearby car watching me. Unlike like the other cars, hers had open windows. What struck me most though, was that she was different from anyone I knew. She was fair-haired and her eyes were blue. I shuddered and turned away.

life-on-a-motorbike3A few days later, at the same traffic light, her car was close to our motorbike again, her window open. She flashed me a huge smile and spoke to me. She was using my language, but I could not understand what she was saying. She said: “Saya dari Italia.” I had never heard that word, Italia, before. Plus, I was intimidated by how strange she looked, with her hair cut short and many different necklaces around her neck.

One day, a full week after I had last seen her, her car was at our side. She was holding a little black box. I was scared. My mom must have felt my tension on her back, and turned to check. The woman talked to her in a different language, but my mom could not understand her either. Other bikers joined the conversation. In a mixture of English, Bahasa Indonesia and lots of gestures, she explained that she was writing a piece to describe life on motorbikes in Jakarta, and needed to have a picture of a family on a motorbike. The box was called a camera and it was a machine that made pictures. She took one. My parents smiled and everybody around applauded.

She’s not scary any more: I smile and wave every time I see her now. It makes going to school easier. I don’t like leaving my parents in the morning. My mom says that school can teach me a lot, but I know that nothing compares to what I learn when I travel through Jakarta on my dad’s motorbike.


Claudia Landini
Jakarta, Indonesia
October 2016