‘Scared of driving around’

How higher living and fuel costs affect the finances of an Indonesian pedicab driver and his family.

Man pulling a pedicab
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost-of-living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Rohim, but everyone calls him Wak Gaes (“Wak” is an honorific title in Indonesia which is something akin to grandfather, while Gaes is a riff on the word “guys”)

Age: 49

Occupation: Pedicab driver

Lives with: Wife Juriah (38), son Surpianto (20) and daughter Ratna Anjeli (18)

Rohim has another daughter from his first marriage, Ayu Asari (25) who has two daughters aged four and one. So Rohim is also a grandfather.

Lives in: A three-bedroom rented house in the city of Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra, 1,881km (3,027 miles) from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. The rent costs 900,000 Indonesian rupiah ($58) per month.

Monthly household income: About 2.5 million rupiah ($160) per month, although it fluctuates according to how many passengers Rohim is able to find. According to Salary Explorer, the median income in Indonesia per month is 11 million rupiah ($704).

Total expenses for the month: 2.5 million rupiah ($160)

A photo of Wak Gaes on a pedicab
With fewer customers these days, Rohim would prefer to wait at an informal rank for fares rather drive around and burn fuel with no guarantee that he'll find passengers [Aisyah Llewellyn /Al Jazeera]
With fewer customers these days, Rohim would prefer to wait at an informal rank for fares rather drive around and burn fuel with no guarantee that he'll find passengers [Aisyah Llewellyn /Al Jazeera]

Rohim watches videos or listens to music as he reclines in his becak or pedicab in the shade of an oil palm tree. Every day, he queues in the same spot - at an informal rank in one of the city's main housing complexes - with three or four other drivers, waiting for a passenger.

Over the years, Rohim has customised his pedicab, which is made up of a motorbike and sidecar, painting it with colourful patterns, setting up a screen to watch videos, and putting in plastic sheeting to keep the wind and rain off his passengers. In the afternoons, as the friendly, ever-smiling Rohim sits in his pedicab waiting for a fare - wearing his signature baseball cap and leather jacket -  children from the neighbourhood sometimes come and play with him. They play games on their phones with Rohim or ride up and down in front of the becak stand on their bicycles.

If business is slow, which it always seems to be these days, Rohim meets other pedicab drivers at the rank to discuss the latest news and drink coffee. Sometimes they chat about current affairs, and sometimes about the goings-on of the complex - who has moved house, who is selling their land, who is new in the neighbourhood. Rohim always seems to be in a good mood, and may give the impression that he does not have a care in the world, but behind the laid-back veneer, he is struggling.

Rohim is originally from the town of Tebing Tinggi in North Sumatra, about an hour away from Medan, but with fewer employment opportunities there, he moved to the big city to work as a becak driver when he was just 20 years old.

That was more than 20 years ago. Back then being a becak driver was a coveted job that offered unlimited fares given that there always seemed to be passengers to pick up across the city.

The work allowed Rohim to be his own boss and choose his working hours. Before the pandemic, he could earn up to 1.5 million rupiah ($96) per week or 6 million rupiah ($384) per month, far more than the current minimum wage of 2.7 million rupiah ($173) per month in North Sumatra. But a confluence of unfortunate factors means pedicab driving is no longer as lucrative as it once was.

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar smaller than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Now Rohim’s family is lucky if he makes 50,000 rupiah ($3) per day driving one or two people around or 1.2 million rupiah per month ($77), in addition to his wife Juriah’s work as a cleaner for which she earns about 800,000 rupiah ($51) per month.

“When the pandemic hit, it was a disaster,” Rohim told Al Jazeera. “I still went looking for fares, but there was no one on the streets. The schools were closed. Everyone was too scared to go out.”

Rohim was scared too, but he had no choice, and few other options when it came to finding work. He left school when he was 13 years old with just an elementary school education.

Yet even without the pandemic, Rohim had already started to feel that his days as a pedicab driver might be numbered. With the rise of other low-cost forms of ride-hailing apps in the form of Grab, Gojek and Maxim - local equivalents to Uber - Rohim had found that his fares were depleting and that many of his fellow pedicab drivers were making the switch to becoming couriers, delivery agents and motorbike taxi drivers with on-demand apps. But for Rohim, who had already fallen on hard times, signing up to such apps is prohibitively expensive. “I would need to renew my motorbike license which is 200,000 rupiah [$13] and I’d have to buy a smartphone which would be about 2 million rupiah [$128],” he says.

Rohim worries that, even if he had the money, it might not be a natural transition. He is naturally quiet and shy, and he says he lacks the confidence needed to make such a career change.

“He’s too old to learn how to use a smartphone and an app,” jokes his wife Juriah.

In June, inflation in Indonesia hit 4.35 percent year-on-year – a significant increase.

To make matters worse, the Indonesian government also raised the prices of state-regulated products such as electricity and gas, causing consumers to feel the pinch.

Economists have also said Indonesia is suffering from an economic phenomenon known as “stagflation” - a combination of high inflation and limited economic growth caused in part by the rise in global commodity prices.

All this has made life harder for Rohim and his family, who these days spend all their money each month and have no savings.

From October 31 to November 28, Rohim tracked his family's monthly expenses in collaboration with reporter Aisyah Llewellyn. Here are the expenses that tested his family's finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A photo of three people sitting next to each other.
Rohim, Juriah and Ratna at their home in Medan, North Sumatra [Aisyah Llewellyn /Al Jazeera]
Rohim, Juriah and Ratna at their home in Medan, North Sumatra [Aisyah Llewellyn /Al Jazeera]


The cost of groceries has been a major cause of stress for Rohim and his family, although his wife Juriah is the one who has borne the brunt of the rise in food prices over the last year. Rohim does not cook or shop for food, so he does not have much of a handle on the numbers, but Juriah can rattle off the cost of almost anything from memory.

A photo of a woman standing.
Juriah knows the prices of local groceries by heart but her kitchen is now bare due to price hikes [Aisyah Llewellyn /Al Jazeera]
Last year, she says a kilo of fish from the local market cost 25,000 rupiah ($1.60) while now it costs 50,000 rupiah ($3.2). Eggs used to cost 5,000 rupiah ($0.32) for three and now cost 6,000 rupiah ($0.39). Chicken used to cost 18,000 rupiah ($1.15) and now costs 38,000 rupiah ($2.43) per kilo, meaning that Rohim and Juriah are now essentially vegetarians - although not through choice.

“We eat whatever we can afford to buy - eggs, tempeh or tofu with rice,” Juriah says. “If we can afford chicken or fish a few times a week, we give it to the children because they are still growing.”

Last year: 150,000 rupiah ($9.60) every two weeks or as long as the food would stretch*
This year: 300,000 ($19.2)

A photo of a bike and someone holding the handle.
Rohim is lucky if he gets one or two fares a day and makes $3 [Aisyah Llewellyn /Al Jazeera]


As a pedicab driver, petrol is the main lifeblood of Rohim’s business and a source of great pain at the pump. Last year, petrol cost 7,000 rupiah ($0.45) per litre; this has now gone up to 10,000 rupiah ($0.64). He usually pays about 480,000 rupiah ($31) per month for petrol, although this depends on how far he travels. Previously, he would buy 3 litres (0.8 gallons) of petrol per day and drive around the city looking for passengers. But now that the price has gone up, he needs to conserve every drop. This poses something of a quandary. “I’m scared of driving around now looking for fares in case I don’t get any and the petrol runs out,” he says.

Petrol prices have also affected other items. Previously, Rohim would drive home for lunch to save money. Now he buys a portion of rice and curry for 12,000 rupiah ($0.77) - up from 10,000 rupiah ($0.64) last year - to conserve petrol.

Last year: 7,000 rupiah ($0.45) per litre*
This year: 10,000 rupiah ($0.64) per litre

A photo of someone leaning next to a bike carriage, holding one of the wheels.
Over the years Rohim has customised his pedicab, which is made up of a motorbike and sidecar [Aisyah Llewellyn /Al Jazeera]

Motorbike tyres

As Rohim’s entire business is focused on his motorbike, it pays for him to keep it in tip-top condition and safe for himself and his customers. This means regularly changing the tyres which quickly become bald on the rough Sumatran roads. Usually, he changes them every year. But this year, Rohim has been unable to buy new tyres because of the price. Last year it cost 180,000 rupiah ($11.50) for one tyre, but now Rohim cannot find anywhere that will sell one to him for less than 280,000 rupiah ($18).

“I’ve driven all over the city [to find cheaper tyres] but they are just so expensive,” he says. “So for now I’m trying to hold off and save money so I can buy them.”

Last year: 180,000 rupiah ($11.50)*
This year: 280,000 rupiah ($18)

A photo of someone sitting on a bike.
The monthly instalments on Ratna's motorbike now cost the family more than the old one but she needs it for school [Aisyah Llewellyn/Al Jazeera]

School supplies

Rising prices and declining fares have come at a bad time for Rohim and his family. His daughter Ratna is in her last year of high school, and has her sights set on going to university to study law - if she can secure a scholarship.

“I can work and go to university at the same time,” she says, when asked how the family will afford her higher education. She originally wanted to go to medical school, but it is more expensive than law school, so she has settled on becoming a lawyer instead of a doctor.

An illustration of prices rising in the past year.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

According to her family, the idea that she might not be able to continue her education without a scholarship has caused much upset, with Ratna often crying herself to sleep at the thought that she might have to give up her dream. To support her and make sure she gets good grades which would be the key to a scholarship, Rohim and Juriah give Ratna 500,000 rupiah ($32) per month for school supplies, including snacks, books, stationery and other essentials. To afford this, they have stopped buying meat.

“Last year she didn’t need as much because she wasn’t about to do her final exams, and we only needed to give her 250,000 rupiah [$16],” Juriah says.

Last year: 250,000 rupiah ($16)*
This year: 500,000 rupiah ($32)

A photo of the back of a bike carriage.
The pedicab is brightly coloured to attract attention and hopefully bring in more customers [Aisyah Llewellyn/Al Jazeera]

Motorbike payments

In June, the family’s second motorbike - which was used by Ratna and Juriah to go to school and work - was stolen from outside a minimarket. “We couldn’t believe that someone would have the brass neck to do that, and at such a difficult time,” Juriah says.

The motorbike had been bought on credit. The family were paying instalments of 750,000 rupiah ($48) per month which was already stretching their money. After the theft, they had to buy a new motorbike. But due to inflation, the cheapest one they could find now costs them 820,000 rupiah ($52) in monthly payments.

The family do not need to pay the instalments on the stolen bike as they could prove the theft with the police report and security camera footage from the police. So far no one has been arrested and Rohim says that it would now actually make things worse for them financially if the motorcycle was found and returned to them.

“Then we would have to pay two sets of instalments instead of one,” he says, shaking his head and his eyes widening at the thought.

Last year: 750,000 rupiah ($48)*
This year: 820,000 rupiah ($52)

Five quick questions for Rohim

What's one thing you had to forgo this month? Meat. We used to eat it regularly but now it’s rare.

Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? Money for school supplies for our daughter. It’s important that she gets an education.

When finances get tough - what advice do you have/what gets you through the difficult times? Learn to make do with what you have. Use whatever is available. Eat whatever is available. Learn to accept it.

What’s your biggest money worry? That I won’t be able to afford to pay the rent on my house and keep a roof over my family’s head.

What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? When you are this poor, you don’t really have saving hacks. You just try to save everything you have.

*2021 prices sourced for Rohim and his family

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera