SHADOW ECONOMY: Mystical Bike Mechanic


What has six blinking eyes, a big pink fin and only drives in circles?
An Indonesian bicycle.

If you catch a glimpse of one during your evening stroll in Yogyakarta, follow it: this is no normal bicycle. As night falls, these metal creatures begin to roll silently from scattered city garages to the local alun-alun: a central square marked in the middle by twin trees.

Nearly every Indonesian city worth its cloves has an alun-alun. At night, vendors set up impromptu cafés here, and scatter mats on the bare ground for the clientele to sprawl, smoke and sip tea. Young men and women mingle. Teens challenge each other to walk blindfolded through two enormous banyans without hitting their heads.

Circling the nightly festivities is a drag race of celestial bodies, a ring of fluorescent shapes whizzing and whirring by; a glowing green scorpion, a big pink fish on wheels, a flashing, house-sized rolling heart with a gang of four Indonesian skinheads pedaling furiously at the center.

A resourceful bicycle mechanic can rent out these rides to groups of two to six people, depending on whether they prefer the smaller six-eyed fish or a more sedate and accommodating “horse and carriage.” Eventually, they will all be used; alun-alun bicycle rides are among the few innocuous and acceptable first dates for young women in a profoundly Muslim country.

Instead of the buzz of alcohol, endless rotations make you dizzy. Rear-mounted boomboxes blast Indonesian pop remixes of “Call Me Maybe,” and extra-daring individuals dash in and out of the neon rally on the way to the sweets stalls across the street. Twenty rupiah will buy you half an hour of this giddy spinning: enough time for seven rotations around the alun-alun, nine different renditions of Carly Rae Jepsen, and about two seconds of discreet hand-holding under the cover of chaos.