Photo: W T/ Unsplash
A motorbike seat | 1,500 words | Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Lise Isles
Who doesn’t like music accompanying them on their travels? Hearing a favourite song in a taxi, a tourist bus, or an angkot minibus is par-for-the-course. But to hear a favourite song on the seat of a motorbike taxi? The feeling’s fantastic.
It happened one Friday night. I was waiting outside the train station for a motorbike taxi I’d ordered online. I was about to put earphones into my ears and turn on a playlist, but ultimately I abandoned that plan because my driver on his bike quickly pulled up in front of me. Not wanting to make him wait, I put my earphones back in their case and clambered straight up onto the bike seat.
It was a slim bike, its body plastered with lots of stickers. The seat was black, soft to sit on. There was sufficient space, enough for me to rest the bulging backpack I had with me in my lap for the ride. Thank goodness, not one of those narrow ones, I thought. I gripped firmly the horizontal steel handle immediately behind me on the back of the seat, so I didn’t need to be anxious about falling off if the bike accelerated sharply.
‘You ready, Mbak?’ asked the driver, looking at me through the bike’s side-view mirror. I nodded as I finished placing my earphone case into one of the pockets of my backpack.
It’s no problem, right, if I don’t have music on the way, I told myself. The distance to home wasn’t far, about five kilometres. I shouldn’t be bored en route, though for sure I’d only daydream and curse out the city’s evening peak-hour traffic jams.
Then, as the motorbike entered the road, I heard, very faintly, the sound of music. Or was it just the wind?
I only became certain it was music when the bike quickly and adroitly sped up and overtook several buses and trucks. My anxiety as we accelerated was somewhat diverted into listening to a song that was steadily becoming more audible.
No doubt: this was the intro riff of a song from one of Indonesia’s most popular bands. I looked over towards a shopping centre we were passing – maybe from there, I murmured to myself. The motorbike taxi continued to speed along, but the tune continued to be heard from atop it – in fact it was now, beyond doubt, actually getting louder.
I was more and more curious – but finally, I just enjoyed the song. Not only because the tune was so catchy, but the lyrics, simple, pretty schmaltzy, invited me to get nostalgic for my school years. We were listening to ‘Ku Katakan Dengan Indah’ from the band Noah. For me, this song’s an oldie but a goldie. Only after the song ended and a new one came on did my curiosity return. From where were these songs coming?
From the bike-seat I looked all around, searching for the source of this music whose sound-quality was still muffled. Right then, I saw my motorbike taxi driver touch the screen of his phone, which was fixed to a holder next to his side mirror. He was turning up the volume of the song that was playing.
I was surprised: this was a new thing for me. Listening to music in a car or some other vehicle that’s closed to the elements is commonplace. But enjoying music on a motorbike seat, from the phone of a motorbike taxi driver, provided a very different feeling.
I felt I was sharing this music with the strangers around me on the road, and in the process, seeing them anew. The face of an angkot driver, frowning because he had no passengers; other motorbike drivers visibly annoyed because lots of MetroMini buses had brazenly parked on a road shoulder; a truck driver, tired-looking, consoling himself with a cigarette; up to a family sitting comfortably inside an airconditioned car.
I witnessed all this amid a buffeting evening wind which necessitated me zipping up my jacket. Road dust and exhaust smoke, which thickened every time there was heavier traffic, made me lower the visor of my helmet and tighten my mask. I hoped there wouldn’t be rain.
On a motorbike, I realised, everything’s more open. All my senses were activated – to sounds, to sensations, to the sights spread out before me. I could study the world around me, laid bare – though on the other hand, such conditions also made it more difficult to properly hear this music which had so got my attention.
The noise of other vehicles, the revving of motorbikes and honking of minibuses, muffled the songs. Several times I had to really strive to hear, leaning my body forward to catch the song. Though the volume of the sound rose and fell, though, it never went away – still playing, still striving to defeat the clamour of the road and to accompany me as I sat on the back seat.
Maybe others would think otherwise, but I enjoyed this experience. I appreciated the way this motorbike taxi driver, a middle-aged man, had incorporated music into this short journey. I found myself glancing at him through the side mirror. While his face was obscured by a mask, I could see his head bopping along to the tunes. At this I felt a warmth in my heart.
Maybe this man was endeavouring to bring an extra level of service to his motorbike taxi. It’s already normal for lots of public transport in my city to do a bit extra for their customers. Minibuses decorated in unique ways, taxis that provide snacks, up to drivers ready to chit-chat with you if you want.
But maybe this man’s reason was simpler: he just wanted to have music on his travels, the same as me. Additionally, the choice to play music through the speakers of his phone was safer than listening through earphones, those being much more dangerous for a driver. I salute this decision, I thought. More than that, I thought it an ingenious way to ward off both driving fatigue and irritation with traffic jams.
Now the song changed again, to one I didn’t know, but I could make out that the genre was pop and that most of the lyrics were about romance. Was it possible this driver was remembering his courtship of his wife or partner?
On this trip, I counted five songs. This journey had a magic to it, in its own particular way. I’d been given an opportunity to hear and share in the playlist of this motorbike taxi driver, a stranger, even as we retreated with each song into our own memories and thoughts.
The trip reminded me of my late father, who had often taken me with him on his scooter. We had each hummed songs throughout those trips. Without any self-consciousness about being heard by others, because we had only wanted to make the journeys happy in our own way.
The bike entered my residential-complex and stopped at a house with a black gate – here we were, my place.
I wasn’t going to miss my opportunity to say a word of thanks to the driver, though I knew that he like me was surely exhausted. I’d just come home from work, while he was still working even though the sky was already pitch-black. But I wanted to convey my appreciation.
‘Pak Edi, thank you very much for a unique trip!’ I said as I handed back my bike helmet. ‘They were awesome songs, Pak.’
He adjusted the position of his glasses on his nose, and gave a shy smile.
‘Oh, ha ha – yeah, those I play specially to accompany me, Mbak’, he said.
‘You’re not scared your phone will get hot or the battery will get eaten up too fast?’
He shook his head as he put the passenger helmet into a cloth bag. ‘Cos I’ve got a powerbank to recharge, Mbak. Ha ha.’
I chuckled too. Happy to see his high spirits. ‘Brilliant, Pak. So I’ll head inside, hey. Stay safe’. And there our interaction ended.
Locking the gate, I saw him park his motorbike on the left side of the road, beneath a shade-giving tree. I watched him fiddling with his phone – whether to see a new taxi order coming through or preparing a new playlist specially for his next trip, who knows.
I smiled softly and entered the house, not forgetting to give him five stars.
© Veronica Gabriella
English translation © Lise Isles