When it was time to leave Palembang, we decided to go by train, presuming it could scarcely be as shambolic as the rest of the city’s transport. While its becak and taxi drivers were a motley collection of drunks and thieves, we couldn’t imagine an entire railway system falling into the hands of the mafia. We were wrong, of course, and really we had no one but ourselves to blame; one of our guidebooks had warned us off Kertapati train station, depicting it as a viper’s nest of gangsters and lowlifes. The book dated back to the mid 1990s, so we had presumed, erroneously, that things might have changed in the last fourteen years. Thinking we knew better, we decided to check it out ourselves.
The station was set behind the Ogan Mosque, at the confluence of the Musi and Ogan Rivers. We went by minibus, crossing the Ampera Bridge and heading out through Palembang’s Ulu side of town, a rather run-down and impoverished district. Just before the station was the Wilhemina Bridge, spanning the Ogan River, just back from its mouth. Having crossed the bridge, we tapped on the roof, indicating that we wanted to get down. The minibus pulled over to the left and we climbed out through the narrow doorway, all legs and arms. On the other side of the road was Kertapati train station.
We crossed the road, finding a chain-link fence of the sort used to enclose industrial sites- the whole place had an abandoned look. At the entrance gate, someone told us that it was ‘Tutup’: closed. He probably thought he was being helpful, but as the messenger of bad news, he hardly endeared himself to us; we walked off, muttering darkly about busybodies. When we reached the main building- a singularly unimpressive structure- we found that it was indeed closed. There were a few men lingering on the front steps who explained that the ticket office opened for only two hours a day, from 4 to 6 p.m. But they assured us that they were the answer to our problems, offering to sell us scalped tickets on today’s train service to Lubuk Linggau. Anyone who ever seen a single B-grade action flick would have known better than to trust these dodgy characters, with their moustaches, leather jackets and hood-like machismo. We left, debating whether or not to try again in the official opening hours. In the end, we decided to give it another go, coming back at half past three.
In the meantime, Kertapati had undergone a transformation. The small group of scalpers and idlers on the front steps had increased threefold, and with the platforms now opened, numerous other categories of person had arrived on the scene. Passengers sat about with their piles of taped-up boxes, contemplating the trip upcountry, and noisy troops of schoolboys ran about, laughing and joking, in all likelihood having no other playground in the neighborhood. One particularly pesky group followed us about, daring each other to scream out ‘Mister’ and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Vendors had also arrived during our absence, offering rice parcels, diced fruit or packets of tempe, a popular kind of bean-curd. The only thing missing was the obvious presence of officialdom, though after a long search we did find one uniformed man, who stood looking at a train, as if trying to make it move by force of willpower alone. We approached him and asked where the stationmaster’s office was. He waved in the general direction of the building behind but said nothing.
I wanted to blow a little steam by telling the station master what he thought of the scalpers being able to operate with such impunity. The black market dealings were so blatant that they must have had the station master’s consent; no doubt he was getting his cut of the proceeds. But over time we had learnt that it was better to voice our complaints rather than let them stew, so off we set, expecting either blank-faced incredulity or nervous laughter.
When we got there, the door was open, and there were three men sitting inside.
“Is this the stationmaster’s office?” we asked.
Though it said so over the door, we had been thrown by the appearance of men in plain clothes, seated at the desks.
None of them answered, so we asked again. This time one of them confirmed that it was the stationmaster’s office, asking what he could do for us.
I explained that he was upset and disappointed by the number of scalpers about badgering passengers. I said that surely scalping was illegal and wondered why the station officials were so willing to tolerate criminal activity. At this point one of the men asked where we wanted to travel to, saying he might be able to help us. We told him our destination was Lahat, wondering what this had to do with anything. He said he had some tickets there and asked if we interested in buying them. Cameron asked him if he was railway staff, and he confessed that he wasn’t. I asked where the stationmaster was, and he said that he hadn’t come in yet- maybe we could meet him around 4 p.m. We then knew with complete certainty that preman– small time gangsters- not only had control of the entrance to the station but of the stationmaster’s office itself. I laughed aloud, telling them it was ‘parah sekali’, desperately bad, that the likes of them should be tolerated.
We walked out of the office and around to the front of the station, joining the queue in the ticket office.
“Look at that,” said Cameron with contempt, pointing out a huge banner which said the scalping of tickets was strictly prohibited and offenders would be reported to the authorities.
The pretense of integrity is familiar to anyone who knows Indonesia well. There are endless declarations that corruption will be stamped out and even oath-taking ceremonies in which civil servants disavow the nefarious ways of the past. Of course what ensues is ever more devious and byzantine corruption schemes. When the KPK, the leading anti-corruption agency, conduct raids on government offices, they often find envelopes stuffed with ‘lunch money’, relayed about by networks of office boys, janitors and toilet cleaners. These reports have given us the impression that the life of the Indonesian public servant is a cloak and dagger affair, resembling in many respects the world of international espionage. Yet accustomed as we were to the parlous station of public administration, Kertapati train station was still a surprise. Whereas corruption was usually a back room affair, on the Sumatran railways it took place in broad daylight, right beneath a banner asking you to report it to the police.
We were third in the queue, a position we had to fight hard to defend from a drunk who kept trying to barge through. We told him to queue like everyone else, refusing to let him past. But every other minute or so, he kept trying to push by on one side or the other. Unlike in Australia, public drunkenness is not a common sight in Indonesia. Whereas many Indonesian Muslims drink occasionally, it is usually done discreetly, certainly not paraded about for all and sundry. Yet this was our second run-in with a drunk local since we had arrived in Palembang. Combined with the evidence we had seen of pervasive low-scale lawlessness, this created a rather unfavorable impression. When Indonesian friends had warned us that Palembang was Kota Preman, the city of gangsters, we had dismissed this as uninformed prejudice. We were beginning to think that the city may indeed have a serious law and order problem.
The counter finally opened at 4 p.m., and the two customers before us were served in a matter of minutes. Arriving at the ticket counter, we said we wanted to buy two first-class tickets on the evening service to Lahat. The women at the counter shook her head, telling us that the train was sold out. This seemed preposterous, as there had been only two people in the line before us. We asked if it was possible to buy tickets for the following day and she confirmed that it was not; you could only buy tickets on the day of departure. We double-checked that there were absolutely no first-class seats for today’s service, despite the fact that the window had only opened a few minutes before. She said this was right. We asked her what tickets the customers before us had bought and she explained that there were travelling on the other line to Tanjungkarang. There were still tickets on that service, but there were no seats to Lahat at all. We asked if she was really telling us that every seat in the first-class carriage had been sold to scalpers, and she confirmed that this was the case, suggesting that we strike a deal with one of them: there were plenty to choose from. Realizing how hopeless the situation was, we walked off, shaking our heads in wonder. Though we cursed Kertapati train station at the time, in retrospect, it provides a valuable introduction to Indonesia’s sick bureaucracy. Where else is every last train seat auctioned off on the black market