Jakarta’s carpooling laws were meant to ease traffic jams. Instead, they have spawned an industry of professional hitchhikers who help drivers comply with highway rules — for a fee.
Hundreds of men, women and children line the main arteries of the Indonesian capital every weekday, offering to ride in private vehicles during rush hours, when cars are obliged to carry at least three passengers on key stretches.
The “jockeys” — as they are known — do not stick out their thumbs like typical hitchhikers around the world. Here, one finger signifies a jockey working solo, while two offers a pair, usually a mother with a child in tow or a baby in a batik sling.
In a country where millions are struggling to climb out of poverty and into an expanding middle class, the jockeys — who charge about US$1 a ride — have turned their services into a career.
Jimmy, 22, has jockeying down to a fine art. In the hodgepodge of roadside competitors waiting for a ride, he stands out with his silver-rimmed spectacles and blue checkered shirt tucked neatly into a pair of black trousers.
“Chauffeurs in BMWs and Mercedes cars often pick me up because I can pass off as their employer’s friend or relative. Motorists don’t want to get caught by police, so jockeys have to help them minimize the risk,” said Jimmy, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
Cars picking up jockeys can face fines of up to 1 million rupiah (US$109). However, in a country where official corruption is rife, a 200,000 rupiah bribe is usually enough to get off the hook.
“Generally, nobody wants to get stuck in a jam with someone with smelly armpits. For my -efforts, I ask for an extra 5,000 -rupiah and I usually get it,” Jimmy said.
He makes about five trips a day and pockets about US$7.50 daily — a good sum in a country where about half of the 240 million population lives on less than US$2 a day.
However, not all jockeys are as savvy or fortunate as Jimmy. Many female jockeys are often sexually harassed in private vehicles, and police regularly lock up riders in squalid cells. By law, they can be jailed for up to 12 months.
Nuraini, 39, has worked as a traffic jockey for the past three years to supplement her husband’s meager income as a motorcycle-taxi driver.
“One time when I was still -pregnant, a driver asked if I wanted some fun. It was very uncomfortable, so I quickly got out of the car,” she said, carrying a baby in one arm and holding an eight-year-old daughter by the hand.
Nuraini rises at dawn to make the hour-long journey from her village in the suburbs to the city for the morning rush hour, returns home to cook for her four young children and is back on the streets to work the evening.
“It’s exhausting. The weather can change from sweltering hot to terribly stormy. Some days, I earn nothing, even if I wait for hours,” Nuraini said.
The jockeys know they are -violating the law and could be fined or detained for several weeks if caught. However, for the most part, police turn a blind eye to the hundreds on the streets each day.
“I don’t have a family. I never went to school. If I don’t do this, how will I eat?” asked Praspardi Putra Wibisono, a 16-year-old who was arrested last year and detained for two months.
Herlina, 36, has been arrested twice and was detained for six weeks in 2006.
“My time in prison was terrible. Eighteen of us were crammed in a stuffy cell full of mosquitoes. We slept on thin bamboo mats and the toilet stank,” she said. “So, why am I still doing this risky job? Simple, I need to live.”