Bondowoso / Culture / Daily Life / Indonesia / Language / Peace Corps / People / Travel

Becak Ridin’ & the Most Useful Word in Bahasa Indonesia

The other day I arrived to my site from visiting nearby volunteers in another city and it was pretty late—meaning after 6pm. It was already dark out and I didn’t feel like walking the several kilometers between the bus terminal and my house, so I decided to take a becak.

A becak is basically Indonesia’s version of a taxi, chauffeured by a man in a bike pushing a wheeled-cart that can fit two normal-sized Americans quite snugly or up to 5 Indonesian children—possibly more.

I chased down this perfect specimen of a becak and its driver outside my school just so I could include it in this post. I believe the poor driver was frightened.

Riding a becak can be a humiliating ordeal. If you and your riding partner collectively weigh more than 5 Indonesian children, which isn’t hard to do, be prepared for a painfully slow ride while your driver huffs and puffs. I beg you to reconsider taking becaks at all if the terrain is hilly—and I’m counting speed bumps as hills. If you do, be prepared to get snickers and stares from pedestrians as your cruise through the streets in slow motion.

The moment when you want to get down to give your driver a break, offer to pedal the becak in his stead or just curse yourself for not walking in the first place to spare this poor weighed-down soul is awkward indeed.

Because of all previously stated, I avoid taking becaks altogether, but on the rare occasion that I do, I take extra care in selecting a becak driver. Does he look strong? Important. Is he young? Crucial. I’m aware that I’m guilty of some sort of age-profiling, but there’s nothing more humiliating than sitting comfortably in a chariot while an older Indonesian man struggles to drive a very young and able person somewhere. The thought that he needs the job and money is the only thing that gets me through it. I feel so bad about it that I’ve even feigned horror at a quoted price as an excuse to find a less frail-looking driver. Sometimes, these assessments don’t gain me a driver that won’t pant heavily on his way to my destination—but it’s better than nothing.

On this occasion, there weren’t options on the roads of Bondowoso, so I walked a quarter of the way home from the terminal. I debated walking the rest of the way, but after several blocks the papaya I was carrying as oleh-oleh—or small gifts for your family and friends obtained in trips to other cities—quickly became the heaviest papaya in the world.

I scouted for a becak driver, but there were none around. I kept walking, passing the town’s square until finally, about 2km from my house, I saw a lone becak driver making his way home. I flagged him down. I was so eager get a ride and to rid myself of the weighted papaya that I failed to notice that this man was easily the oldest becak driver I’ve ever seen.

I ran through tactics to get myself out of this. I attempted the familiar: pretending the price was outrageous. Harga berapa, Pak? What’s the price, sir? He looked at me for a long time, struggling to see me properly in the dim light. Pushing his thick glasses up his nose, he replied with a hoarse cough, an ancient low voice and a confounding answer, Terserah.

He began to pedal, clearly burdened by my weight, considering we went nowhere for the first 2 minutes. Puzzled by his answer, I gathered my stuff in an effort to make a quick escape, but finally he gained momentum—if you can even call it that. (Perhaps, inertia?)

There’s was no getting out of this one, so I focused on figuring out the price as we crept along the road. I couldn’t help appreciating every individual tree, shrub and crack on the sidewalk that I had previously overlooked from walking by too fast. Meanwhile, I also ran through all the possible numbers in Bahasa Indonesia. Satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima, enam, tuju, delapan, sembilan, sepuluh. One through ten—then again. It occurred to me perhaps terserah was a number in Javanese or Madurese. Terserah sounds like tercero or third in Spanish. Three, I thought, that’s probably right. I struggled to recall numbers from Madurese language class—a fruitless effort.

I attempted to ask, Pak, terserah, itu Bahasa jawa? Is terserah Javanese? He looked at me blankly and croaked incomprehensible nothings near my ear (since I wouldn’t be able to hear him otherwise, the panting was too loud.) I held up my hand, Terserah, itu satu? Dua? Tiga? I lingered, holding up three fingers for emphasis. Terserah, he replied again. I couldn’t help laughing to myself, thinking this was definitely going to be the worst and most expensive becak ride of my life—which holds true.

Finally, I recognized a toko, or a small store, about 7 blocks from my house and decided this had gone far enough. I jumped out of the becak, beginning the conversation of numbers again, when a man in a motorcycle came to save the day. After the routine questions (mau ke mana? Where are you going? Berasal dari mana? Where are you from originally?) and commentary (wah! sudah bisa Bahasa Indonesia! You can speak Bahasa Indonesia!) the man asked the driver the price.

Terserah, he repeated again. The man and driver proceeded to have a quick whispered conversation, and finally the man said sepuluh ribu.

I’m not good with numbers, so I translated slowly in my head—10,000 rupiah. It was obvious the man was hiking up the price. I was outraged that he would try to take advantage of a bule, or foreigner. The man had only driven me for about 5 blocks and I was sure it was only 3000 rupiah. I’ll give him double, I thought, which was more than what another becak driver charged me to get all the way to the station from my house. I handed the money to the driver and he ogled at the other man, marveling Wah! Banyak! Wow! A lot!

Triumph! Well, sort of, since I still overpaid. I gave the motorcycle man a dirty look and went on my way.

I got home after a long journey, mandied, and settled down to eat dinner as my ibu sat across from me asking about my day. After the flood of usual questions, I remembered the puzzling number, terserah, so I asked her what it was.

I’ll spare that lengthy explanation and accompanying enactments, but it turns out terserah isn’t a number at all. It’s only the most useful word in Bahasa Indonesia meaning “up to you.” I confirmed this with my English teaching counterpart at school and now I can’t go a day without using it.

Ibu masa apa besok? my Ibu asks.Terserah! I reply. What are we teaching this week, Mel? my counterpart asks. Terserah! I practically sing back. I can’t help adapting the lyrics to Que Será, Será to Terserah, Será! Whatever is up to you will be! (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, lyrics work for me.)

It’s amazing how often even the most mundane experiences are the vehicle to learning some of the most useful things in Indonesian daily life. (Pun definitely intended.)

I stole Joe’s photo of us becak ridin’ during site visits in training. (Thanks, Joe!) This was my first becak ride ever.

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6 thoughts on “Becak Ridin’ & the Most Useful Word in Bahasa Indonesia

  1. Hi Melanie, it is ” terserah” instead of “tercera” and it’s really useful word indeed. I stalk your blog for few weeks and really enjoy your blog. It’s quite interesting to read what foreigner sees in my country.

  2. I LOVED the imagery in this….frail, tired old man with emphysema killing himself to transport the bule for a pauper’s wage; heaving and hoing the entire way. Poetic…in a terrible way. I can picture you trying to balk too, after getting a good look at him. lol
    Where on earth did you find such a handsome devil!? Remember how the ride conveniently ended just when I was about to get into my life story? hehe ;o)

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