“Bot nambang... bot nambang ke Pasor Payang! Dua riyal je!” (Water taxi, water taxi to Pasar Payang! Only RM2!”)
Wan Mohd Alif Muhaimin kept calling out in his Terengganu Malay dialect, looking for passengers for the 15-minute boat ride from the Seberang Takir jetty across Sungai Terengganu to Pasar Payang.
It was 7.30am – Wan Mohd Alif, 26, starts his day early.
Passengers are hard to come by these days, given the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement control order phases that have kept many indoors.
But life must go on.
Wan Mohd Alif may not get even one passenger for as long as three hours on most days, and this was one of those days.
It was the same day that this writer, and photographer Mohd Khairul Fikri Osman, decided to find out how the traditional bot penambang or water taxi business was managing in these difficult times.
“There was a time when the passengers made up of workers at the (Pasar Payang) market, and foreign tourists. They will be waiting for the boats to arrive from across the river.
“Nowadays, you can consider yourself lucky if you get five or more passengers. Usually, there will be two or three. And that too after waiting for almost two hours, ” said Wan Mohd Alif.
He said there were occasions when he had to take the boat across from the Seberang Takir jetty without any passenger, hoping to get passengers on the Pasar Payang side.
“Even then, I would have to wait for several hours. I will even go around the market looking for passengers, ” he added.
Wan Mohd Alif blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for the dire situation. He also said that passengers began to dwindle as many local people also opted to drive to the city via the Sultan Mahmud Bridge and the Terengganu Drawbridge.
He and fellow boat operators sometimes make just RM15 a day and have even gone without earning anything on some days.
Nevertheless, a unique and traditional practice of sharing the income has kept Wan Mohd Alif, who hails from Seberang Takir, and the 14 other fellow boat operators afloat even in the worst of times.
He said the “orang lama” (old timers) among them will draw up a schedule of the boat rides and the income will be pooled in the evening to be shared among them equally or according to a certain rate depending on the individual income.
“If five boats are operating on a certain day, we will pool our income and divide it by five. I may have earned RM50, others RM70, RM40 or RM30. The money will be shared, after taking into account the cost of the diesel fuel.
“It may seem strange for some people but for us this is based on trust and responsibility and it ensures that our business stays afloat. The calculation is slightly different when any of us secures a special booking, ” he said.
Wan Mohd Alif has his reason for remaining in the business despite the tough ride to make ends meet.
“Many people have advised me against carrying on. But, for me, the boat is my life. I inherited it from my late grandfather, Hitam Taib. It is 50 years old. Leaving it idle will only ruin it.
“I am fortunate because I did not have to buy a new boat which can cost over RM120,000. If I do not carry our family heritage on my shoulders, who else will? I want to carry on, ” he said.Wan Mohd Alif talked proudly of his grandfather, saying he was a popular water taxi operator who passed on the business to his uncle Ali Muda in 1998 and who, in turn, passed it on to him in 2016 and taught him the ropes.
Wan Mohd Alif, who has a certificate in electrical maintenance, is the youngest among the 15 water taxi operators. The others are in their 60s.
“This boat has undergone repairs several times. I have spent more than RM14,000 on repairs. It has to be given a new coat of paint thrice a year. There are also expenses in terms of maintaining the engine, horn and lights as well as buying safety jackets.
“Over the past five years, there has been no return on the capital. How can there be when the monthly income is only about RM500 to RM600? I am fortunate that I am not married yet and do not have a family to feed, ” he said.
Wan Mohd Alif seemed to have the patience that photographer Mohd Khairul and I lacked. We almost gave up hope after waiting for hours on end for passengers. We decided to just go ahead and take the ride ourselves to Pasar Payang, arriving there in just 15 minutes.
Luck was with us at Pasar Payang. Within 20 minutes, Wan Mohd Alif secured five passengers – four adults and a child – for the ride back to Seberang Takir.
He was relieved to have earned RM18 (RM4 per adult and RM2 per child, return). With RM8 earned earlier in the day, he was able to at least cover the cost of diesel fuel for the day.
Earning just RM26 in a day is tough but passion and determination keep Wan Mohd Alif going.
It is his hope that one day, not too far away, the tourism industry will pick up again and business will improve. – Bernama