Sun, 20 Feb 2000

Decorated pedicabs color the streets of Klayan

By Y.R. Prahista

CIREBON, West Java (JP): The young man smiled bitterly when told that the becak (three-wheel pedicab) was a symbol of poverty. He was even more saddened when he heard pedicab drivers compared to horses.

"If there were a different way to make money, I would not want to work as a becak driver," said Talim, from Klayan, Cirebon, West Java.

Klayan is located some three kilometers north of the city center of Cirebon. The majority of men there make their living as pedicab drivers. "We depend on the becak for our livelihood," said another driver. "Driving a becak is hard work," he added.

The pedicab is often seen as the cause of traffic jams in urban areas, which also views the pedicabs with some disdain as being from a different era. What is more, some people also say that pedicab drivers are being exploited. As a result, a number of large cities like Jakarta and Bandung have implemented becak- free zones.

Some regional governments still allow pedicabs to operate in their areas, but have issued new regulations to control their use. They have divided the pedicabs into ones which operate in the afternoon and ones which do their rounds at night. The difference can be seen in the color of the pedicabs.

In Cirebon, the night pedicabs are predominantly white in color. Equipped with flashlights and a horns, they can operate safely in the dark. The afternoon pedicabs have a basic color of blue and are not specially equipped for use at night.

Theoretically these regulations should lead to fewer becak on the roads, but, in fact, this has not happened. The use of different colored becak to distinguish their times of operation did not hold long, largely due to complaints from pedicab owners about the difficulty of providing two pedicabs to one driver who worked both in the day and night.

Sanaji, 50, a becak driver since 1972, is trying to get into the management side of the pedicab business. "I sometimes buy and sell becak, but the money just isn't enough."

The father of three who did not complete his second year of elementary school, hopes to someday become a becak boss, renting vehicles to drivers. "It is good to be the boss. You receive money every day," he said, adding that drivers only made money after a day of toil.

When buying and selling pedicabs, Sanaji decorates the becak to lure customers. The two front wheels are painted with decorations or the owner's or his wife's name.

Other pedicab owners also decorate their vehicles. The insides of the pedicabs are painted with pictures according to the taste of the owner. In the beginning, one would only find wayang figures like Gatutkaca, Bima or the five Pandawas.

There were also pictures of national heroes such as Diponegoro, Imam Bonjol and Kartini, which gave way to paintings of Rambo and Superman. Now the preference is for beautiful stars from television and the movies.

Since the era of reform began, quite a few pedicab owners have had pictures of Megawati painted on the back of the seat. The chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and the country's vice president is clearly an extremely popular figure among the masses.

"In one night, I can paint seven pictures of Megawati," said Talim, who paints becak. He earns Rp 10,000 for each picture.

The pictures are painted on plastic sheets, and while not the exact likeness of Megawati, Talim is proud because he can express his feelings for his idol. "We adore Megawati," he said earnestly.

Klayan has no fewer than nine studios busy at work decorating pedicabs. The workers at these studios are skilled in their use of color, despite the fact that they use ordinary brushes with metal paint and spray paint.

Nor do they know the names of the country's more famous painters, such as the late Affandi, although the maestro hailed from Cirebon. Yet the work of these becak painters cannot be ignored, because it has enriched the people of the Cirebon region.

The ethnic characteristics of Cirebon are reflected in the bright colors used by the painters, replete with ornaments, pictures and batik designs. The overall impression is that of dynamism.

"We are better than the becak painters of Tegal," said Sanaji, one of the artists. The proof? Many of the pedicabs operating in the Tegal area are decorated in Klayan.

An even greater source of pride for Sanaji is that six becak have been exported to Germany. "A university teacher from Germany bought them," he said.

The vehicles were shipped in pieces together with rattan handicraft from Cirebon. A becak of standard size costs from Rp 900,000 to Rp 1,000,000. "A small becak is cheaper, only Rp 600,000," he said.

Due to the monetary crisis, Sanaji had to buying pedicabs for one year because the price of the materials, such as wood, tires and paint, increased sharply while his purchasing power decreased sizably.

"We have been back in business for the past six months only," he said.