Sun, 16 Mar 2003

The ojek driver

By Kirk Coningham

He had first seen her 94 days ago when she had moved into one of the small, but comfortable apartments, whose affluent tenants provided work for ojek drivers like himself.

She always dressed in suits with matching shoes and handbags. Her hair was a shining black mane that was luxurious even when bundled into its formal restraints. She wore little makeup and needed less. Her only jewelry was the small silver cross he occasionally saw around her neck. Her body was perfect, in the full bloom of youth, but the best thing about her was her scent. The smell of her filled his senses with roses.

He had never known the scent of a rose as a child. He was the eighth of 11 children from a very poor family. The arrival of every new child made the family poorer still -- pushing them inevitably into one of Jakarta's many shantytowns. Forced by crushing poverty to leave school at nine years of age, he had eked out an existence for himself, becoming known on the street for his hard work, his smile (as quick as his wit) and his willingness to help his family and friends when he could.

With a lot of hard work and careful management, by his 13th birthday he had saved several hundred thousand rupiah. The fund was his ticket out of the shantytown, only a few hundred meters geographically, but another world away in reality. Disaster struck when he was on the verge of making his move. His friend's little sister was standing too close to a food cart when a wok full of hot oil upturned over her small face. The burns were atrocious but the worst thing was the damage done to her eyes. Without immediate and expensive medical attention she would be blinded for life. Sharief did not hesitate: "Ahmad, take this money and take her to the hospital, now." Ahmad and his family had no time to protest. They understood that the money represented more than years of hard work -- they understood that Sharief was handing over his future. But they also understood, as did Sharief, this future was of less importance than a little girl's sight.

Sitri's sight was saved. It took another seven years but, eventually, so was Sharief's future. Although Sharief accepted the necessity of his gift of the money at that critical time as a fact of life, Ahmad and his family, who moved back to their village soon after the accident, never forgot his generosity. While by no means wealthy, Ahmad's family had prospered in the village. On Sharief's 20th birthday they were able to repay their old friend's kindness ... with interest.

Sharief's windfall came on two wheels -- he was given (repaid, as Ahmad put it) enough money to buy a small motorcycle. He soon put the bike, and his good sense, to work, taking people home from bus stops for small change. Now 26, he owned five ojek but continued driving, both to make the extra money and to keep an eye on his investments. He would never be rich, but he was hardworking, smart and willing to take a risk. He had retained his good nature from his youth, and had continued to help those around him when he could. His compassion for his friends had ensured he had many more friends than dollars. He was sensible enough to hope that it would ever be thus.

He was happy with his lot in life until 94 days ago when he had first seen her. Most people scoff at the idea of love at first sight, but that was what it was, plain and simple. The instant he saw her, a bomb went off in his chest. His heart, along with his safe existence and contentment, was taken from him.

The cruelest part was that his good sense had already convinced him that this love could never be. She was in a different class to his. The closest he could ever hope to be was perched in front of her on his motorbike as he dropped her home. Knowing this did not stop his longing, and it did not stop the flickers of hope when she started to look for him and he became her regular evening driver. The morsels of hope only served to increase his hunger. He carefully hid his feelings lest he become the brunt of the jokes that must follow in the face of such folly.


She had noticed him first when riding behind him sidesaddle after another 12-hour day in the office. She first sought him out because he was always clean and she hated the smell of days- old sweat that permeated so many of the ojek drivers. Then she had noticed that he was actually quite handsome. The revelation had surprised her, not so much because he was, but simply because she had noticed. The curious intimacy forged out of having to hold on to a stranger on the back of a motorcycle had always set her on edge. It was not like the crowded buses; on the ojek you were forced to hang on to the driver, to reach out and touch him. Like many other women her means of coping was to dehumanize the drivers to the point that they were the merest extension of the motorcycle: Automatons.

Sharief (she had heard his friends call him) had changed that. Now she found herself looking forward to her trip home in the evening. She had even smiled at him and been amazed at how his face lit up in delight. When he smiled he was not only handsome -- he was gorgeous! After the smile she started to notice a little more about him. His body was strong. He was at least 15 centimeters taller than his friends, with broad, well-muscled shoulders tapering to a slim back: an athlete's body. People looked up to him, not just because of his height. She could see people liked him, respected him.


She remained a profound mystery to him. He was sure she didn't know he existed, then three weeks ago she had smiled openly at him. The smile had flashed out like a fishing hook into his chest, catching his breath and making his senses real. His entire being lit up and shone through his face and eyes. If he wasn't sure that it could not be true, he might have allowed himself to think that she was pleased to see him. "Perhaps she is," he chided himself, "I am her lift home after a long day."

The gloomy thought matched his mood as heavy drops of rain fell from a gray, sponge sky. He cursed his luck, not solely at the prospect of another rain sodden night, but because she always took a taxi when it rained. At 7:30pm she didn't get off the bus as usual and he was sure she would not be coming. He persevered with the night until just after 11pm. He was saying good night to his friends when she suddenly appeared only a meter in front of him. She had stepped unsteadily out of a cab into a large puddle of water. She stumbled again as the heel of her shoe skipped on the uneven surface beneath the water. He reached out as she began to fall and held her steady.

Close now, he realized that it was not just the rain and the shoes that made her unsteady. Amazingly, she had been drinking! This was the first time he had smelled anything more than roses on her person, but there was a definite scent of alcohol. As he held her steady he also realized that, far from being affronted by his attempts to help her, she was smiling broadly. "Malam Sharief," she hiccuped.


Her head was reeling. She had accepted two glasses of wine at the office farewell of a colleague. The night had been fun, but she was not a drinker and was now anxious to get home. She realized, of course, that she now included Sharief as part of her thoughts of home. The last time she had held him on the back of the motorbike she had thought about holding him in a very different way. The thought was far from unpleasant. Somehow she had developed a crush on her ojek driver. She had found herself thinking more and more about him. She thrilled at the chance to put her arms around him. She was also almost convinced that he felt the same way. But was he ever going to say, or do, anything about it? In the end her decision to get out of the cab in the rain was not as spontaneous as she wanted to believe. Two glasses of "Dutch courage" had made her want to spur him along a tad.


As she stood in the driving rain smiling at him Sharief thought he would die. Was she thinking what her face was showing? The frustration of it choked him and he was pleased the steady rain quickly washed an uninvited tear from his cheek as he helped her over to the bike. She appeared unsteady still, so he suggested she sit a moment and sent a street urchin for water. Tucked in on a rough wooden bench under a plastic roof that kept out most of the rain, she looked more beautiful to Sharief than ever. The urchin arrived back with a cup of hot, sweet tea that had been provided by a kindly old women who was watching the proceedings with a smile playing around her wrinkled lips. The cup was dainty, circled in flowers and sported a fine saucer that was hardly chipped at all. Someone's pride and joy had been given over for the sake of Sharief.

The girl sipped her tea appreciatively as a towel was passed through. Sharief sat uncomfortably close to her in the cramped refuge. Stripped of the license provided by the motorcycle, he had become overtly aware of the feel of her thigh against his own. He went to move from under the shelter but she asked him to stay. "I'll be fine, thank you, it's just that I'm a little cold." He sat back down, heart pounding, stomach churning, palms sweating as she held his arm and leaned against him.

She laughed when she had finished her tea and felt a little embarrassed. "Thank you Sharief, I'm fine now. Thank you." "Astaga," she thought, "I can't do it all for you!"

Seeing his moment passing Sharief did not know what to do, what to say, what to allow himself to think. In his panic at her impending departure he blurted the first thing that came into his muddled head. "It's raining!" he said. As soon as he said it he looked at her rain-flattened hair and wet clothes; she looked at his sodden jeans and T-shirt and the water trickling off his face, and they burst into simultaneous laughter.

Their laughter was heard by many that night. They were left in peace. Fresh tea was passed quietly through at the instructions of the old lady, along with two small, sweet cakes -- on dainty plates with the same pattern as the cup. On that crowded, jostling, rain-soaked street the pair was left to talk and laugh. No one interfered, joked, pointed or whispered.

The owner of the little shelter that the pair had requisitioned smiled up into the rain as he abandoned his refuge to his friend Sharief and the girl that everyone knew he had been in love with for months. All of the quiet watchers understood the difference in their social stations, but the thoughts of the old lady who had shared her tea were broadly held. "Ahh," she thought. "You would be a lucky woman if you married a man such as Sharief".