On the Indonesian road, the truck is king. One blare from its horn can force other vehicles into submission, sending them seeking refuge off the sides of the road. But the realm of the truck is also one where lawlessness reigns. Highway robberies, shady love lives and sketchy security deals are all part of the picture. That’s what I found out when I hitched a ride on a truck, traveling almost 1,400 kilometers across the island of Java to explore the culture of the open road.
It was a late February afternoon when I started my four-day journey. The plan was to leave from Yogyakarta to Surabaya via the southern Javanese coast, and then to head for Jakarta via the northern coast. After searching the city for a ride, I finally found a truck willing to carry me on the first leg of my journey. Owned by a freight forwarding company, this large yellow Mitsubishi box truck was driven by Bimo Pranowo, accompanied by Sulis, his assistant. Bimo is an ex-policeman who has been driving since 1970. “I left the police force in 1976,” he told me. “Back then my salary as a police officer was very. Drivers could earn Rp300,000 for a three-day excursion from Yogya to Pati [Central Java] and back.” These days, even if the roads are a bit faster, a driver’s real wages are substantially less. To go from Yogya to Surabaya and back, now a two-day trip, a driver only earns Rp900,000 —minus a number of unexpected or unofficial expenses. Bimo says that to be a truck driver one must have a very strong heart. “Life on the road is tough,” he sighed.
Bimo interrupted our conversation, making a sudden sharp turn to pull up in front of a roadside warung lesehan—a tiny diner where customers sit on the floor. “My stomach is rumbling. What about yours?” he asked. I nodded and got out. Several other trucks were parked in neat rows in front of the diner. Taking our place in front of a low table, we were served three glasses of hot orange juice and three portions of fried chicken. After we had eaten and taken the last drags from our cigarettes, we sped off again.
A few hours into our journey we passed the outskirts of the city of Solo. Glancing over at Bimo, I noticed he had an odd grin on his face. Finally he told me that back in the 1990s, this stretch of road used to be frequented by dozens of women who would offer their sexual services by waving to the passing drivers. It all ended when factories started to invade the edges of the city. “Three whole truckloads would not have been enough to carry all those women,” he reminisced.
Imperceptibly at first, stiffness began to seep into my legs and my backside started to feel overheated from my perch atop the engine. Next to me, Sulis was sleeping like a baby. Bimo, obviously suffering from the heat inside the non-air conditioned cab, unbuttoned his shirt. I glimpsed a large tattoo on his chest and watched him gulp down a bottle of caffeinated energy drink.
As our trip wore on, Bimo’s tales became more vivid. He recounted how he’s had three accidents during his career as a driver. None of the victims lived to tell the tale. For these deeds, Bimo found himself doing time in a prison cell. He was lucky, however, to have had a large and muscular physique that he could use as capital among the inmates. “Life in jail was fine. The important thing was having the guts to bluff,” he explained. If any family members of his cellmates visited and brought food, he was always the first to taste it. At lights-out time, the most comfortable bed was always made available to him. Inmates offered him massage services and sometimes even money. And that tattoo? Indeed it was a jailhouse creation. “The tattoos could turn out pretty messed up, but it’s a souvenir,” he said with a chuckle.
As we sped off down the road, Bimo pointed out the sights: brothel areas known as lokalisasi and dimly lit diner-cum-brothels known as warung remang—literally, “vague diners.” Bimo didn’t deny that truck drivers tend to be intimate with this sleazy world. But when I asked why he didn’t stop in, he gave a little laugh. “The load in this truck has to be in Surabaya tomorrow morning. I don’t want my boss to yell at me.”