I AM in a ketek
– a sleek, wooden-hulled six-meter long motorized craft – as it slices its way through the turbid waters of Palembang's magnificent Musi River. The 750-km Musi is Sumatra’s longest river and originates in mountains to the west of Bengkulu. With the russet-red, Ampera Bridge behind us, my sixty-four-year-old boatman, Pak Teguh steers us away from the rambunctious Enambelas Ilir market.
We're off to his village, Kampung Tiga Ulu - on the far side of the river. It's an exciting ride as we weave past large ocean-going vessels, tug boats as well as barges, ferries and other craft. The broad, alluvial plains of Sumatra's east coast are marked by a series of impressive, silt-laden rivers: the Kampar, the Batanghari and the Siak. However, the Musi, on whose banks the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire was to emerge remains the most economically-dynamic to this day as well as being suffused by a mixture history and legend.
Closing my eyes for a moment, I am swept back in time – to the 7th Century – imagining myself as a traveller, (perhaps a trader in spices and sandalwood?) stopping after a month-long journey from Guangzhou at Palembang, Srivijaya’s capital. I'm on the way to the wealthy Bengali city of Nalanda, better known as a revered centre of Buddhist scholarship. Perhaps, there's a young monk in my party – a man called Yijing (“I Ching”) who will in turn, become China's most famous translator of Buddhist scriptures, received and feted by the much-feared and reviled Empress Wu Zetian at Luoyang some twenty five years later in 695 AD.
Pak Teguh has been working on the banks of the Musi River since 1970 when he was only 18 years old. The river is his livelihood, helping him earn IDR100,000 on a good day. - Photo by Karim Raslan
Long a hub for trade, scholarship and industry, Palembang's history is intertwined with all the great kingdoms of the Nusantara and beyond, from Ayudhya, Khmer to Malacca and Majapahit, not to mention the Chola's of Southern India, as well as China’s Tang and Song dynasties.
Now a predominantly Muslim city, it has a past as colourful as any trading port. In the aftermath of Parameswaran's flight and the collapse of Srivijaya, the city was ruled by succession of ethnic Chinese pirates, only to be attacked by the Ming admiral Cheng Ho himself. Indeed, even the British sacked Palembang. But my reverie ends and I'm suddenly back in the present day.
Karim Raslan riding the ketek across the Musi River. A ketek is a sleek, wooden-hulled motorized boat that is only about six metres long and serves as a water taxi on the high-traffic Musi River. - Photo by Karim Raslan
We've arrived at Pak Teguh's village. One of his sons, Anshori leaps onto a makeshift-looking pontoon and secures the ketek, allowing us to disembark. Teguh speaks in an unrushed manner. Having spent hour after hour waiting for fares, he possesses a certain calm.
"I've been living and working on the banks of the Musi since 1970. I was only eighteen years old back then."
When I ask how his life has altered over the years, he's answers blandly: "Life is just the same for us, there's no real difference."
Karim precariously crosses the makeshift bridge connecting the dock to land. - Photo by Karim Raslan
Of course for families such as Pak Teguh's that don't have the educational qualifications or networks to get jobs in local government, much of the 6% GDP growth that the 1.6 million-strong city has experienced has passed them by. For example, even the 24-km LRT line from the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II International Airport to Jakabaring across the river costing some IDR12.59 trillion (which is for the 2018 Asian Games) hasn't provided much work, as Anshori explains: "To work on the LRT you need special training. So most of the workers come from outside Palembang."
As it is, only one of Pak Teguh’s six sons passed junior high school, the rest didn’t even make it past primary school. With such a large family (he also has 10 grandchildren), Pak Teguh has to work hard. A good day can see him earn IDR100,000, but in the quieter periods (i.e. outside the holiday season) his income can drop considerably to about IDR50,000. When you consider that his family’s expenses are over IDR3,000,000 a month, life is precarious for Pak Teguh’s family. He doesn’t even have a cell phone—his eldest son’s wife does.
Pak Teguh looking out the window of his home alongside Karim. - Photo by Karim Raslan
Pak Teguh bought his first boat with his savings from three years of trading. Replacing it now would cost him IDR20 million. He still nevertheless hopes to pass his boat down to his descendants.
His situation doesn't reflect the improving fortunes of many of his fellow Palembang residents most of whom are earning at least IDR2,484,000, (the city's mandatory basic wage) slightly higher than say, the East Java cities of Malang (IDR2,272,167) or Jombang (IDR2,082,730).
His small house balancing precariously on stilts is crammed with clothes, mats and pillows, all neatly folded and stored away. "This was just swampland in the past. No one wanted to live here. But over the years, people who work in Palembang have moved here because housing is cheaper across the river, here."
When I asked him what his hopes for the future were, he added quite simply: “All I want is just a better life for my children and that they will get regular work.”
There have probably been boatmen like Pak Teguh plying the Musi River for centuries. But if his daily struggles for survival and dignity is anything to go by, their lot today is very far from the gilt of modern Indonesia, to say nothing of the splendour of Srivijaya.