Monday, December 23, 2002



Taking an early morning walk along an earthen footpath, five minutes from my house, I was aware of how so much of Jakarta was still made up of little villages, woodland, fruit trees, vegetable patches, fish ponds, and yards full of chickens and goats and the occasional abandoned car.

A pretty girl, in Islamic headscarf and short skirt, was seated on a wall, next to a cluster of simple houses with brown tiled roofs. On the opposite side of the path stood a bare-chested lad holding a baby. Next him sat a tired looking teenage boy wearing a black peci cap. A well fed man in a turban walked past, on his way to the mosque.

"Are you well?" I asked the boy with the cap.

"I’m well," he said. He was remarkably skinny and pale, possibly aged around thirteen, and quite tall.

"What’s your name?"

"Fajar," he said, looking down at the ground, in a bashful manner.

"Have you got a cough?"

"No, mister," said Fajar, sounding exhausted.

"Do you eat plenty?"

Fajar explained that his father, a tailor by profession, was unemployed and unwell. His father had had to sell his sewing machine in order to pay for medicines.

"Sometimes my father gets very tired," said Fajar.

"Has he been for an x-ray?"

"No. He’s been to the clinic. He gets vitamin tablets."

"Can I speak to him?"

"He’s visiting my sick brother in Sumatra."

"Maybe you’ve all got TB," I said. "You should get an x-ray."

Fajar shook his head.

I was aware that I had no money on me, and decided to walk on. A well-groomed little lady in a cheap but smart suit was coming in my direction and she stopped to talk.

"I’m a Christian," she said, smiling proudly. Presumably she saw me as an ally in a country that was mainly Moslem.

"Do you live near here?" I asked. I didn’t want to get dragged into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ conversation.

"Near the main road. Just over there." She pointed in the direction of some relatively modest little houses with gardens.

"What do you do for a living?" She looked like a woman on her way to work.

"I’m an administrator."

"I’ve just been talking to Fajar back there. His family is very poor. Maybe you can help."

"I don’t know Fajar."

"He lives near you. His father’s sick."

"I’m helping my church."

"Do you want to help Fajar?"

"We’re building a beautiful church. Bigger than the mosque. You should come and see it."

"Do you want to meet Fajar?" I looked at the woman’s hurt looking face and it occurred to me too late that I could be accused of being the rich expat bullying the poor native.

"I’ve got to be going," she said, looking at her watch and hurrying off.

A few hundred yards further on my ears were gently bashed by the sound of heavy metal music coming from massive speakers, set up in a small field. Five young men wearing offensive T-shirts, jeans with holes, chains and safety pins, were dancing around like drunken punks. There were only meters away from a small mosque.

"Hello mister," one of the punks shouted. "English music. Come and join us."

I smiled at them, turned, and swiftly headed back towards Fajar. What was wrong with me? I had failed to help Fajar, and I had rejected the friendly gestures of the Christian lady and the pro-English punks.

"If you want an x-ray," I said to Fajar, "come to my house for the money." I gave him my address and began to feel a bit less grumpy. "I’ll be expecting you within the next few days," I said.

The Merdeka Ward of the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor lies in one corner of extensive grounds. When I reached the ward I could not find Firdaus. He was not in the sunny central courtyard, nor in the unlocked room on one side of the courtyard, nor in any of the cage-like cells on the opposite side of the courtyard. There seemed to be about half a dozen patients, and most of them were wandering around enjoying the morning air.

"Where’s Firdaus?" I asked the under-sized male nurse who was standing in the middle of the open courtyard. "The little boy with the scars on his chest and the bumps on his head." I was ready to punch someone’s face or rearrange someone’s limbs.

"He’s been moved to the children’s ward," said the nurse, much to the benefit of my blood pressure. "He’s no longer sick."

I glanced around the courtyard and spotted a figure in one of the cells fronted with bars. "Who’s the pretty young lady in the cage?" I asked.

"She’s got TB. Don’t go too close."

"Is she getting medicine?"


I had my doubts about the hospital providing the expensive cocktail of drugs usually necessary for a cure. "Are you sure?"


I set off through the gardens, following the directions given to me by the nurse. The children’s ward, now housed in a different building from the one I had visited in the past, was a low rise affair with clean white walls, a relatively new red roof and its own enclosed garden. I entered the office and spoke to the middle-aged lady on duty. She wore a Moslem headscarf and she had a kindly expression.

"Firdaus is watching TV," she said smiling.

As I entered the lounge area, Firdaus leapt to his feet and rushed over to me to take my hand. I felt wanted and appreciated. This was a good little kid.

"Things have improved," I said to the nurse. "No one tied up."

She explained that her Christian colleague had departed permanently to another part of the hospital.

Firdaus and I went for a pleasant walk in the hospital grounds and I bought snacks for Firdaus and the nurse.

Skinny, gangling Fajar, accompanied by two young friends called Ali and Dikin, arrived at my house late one afternoon. Ali had a thin ten-year-old body, a pleasant happy cartoon-character face and a banjo. Dikin looked like a ten year-old from a Lassie film, and he was carrying a drum. The two musicians sat on the living room floor. Fajar slumped in an armchair. I suspected that all three children were several years older than they looked and I decided to ask them their ages. Ali and Dikin were thirteen. Fajar was sixteen.

"You’ve decided to get an X-ray?" I asked Fajar.

Fajar nodded and I handed over the money.

"Your friends are musicians?" I asked.

"Ali and Dikin are street musicians," said Fajar.

"Are we going to have some music?"

The two musicians beamed, picked up their instruments and began to sing a typical Jakartan street song: ‘My bonnee lees over the ocean, my bonnee lees over the sea...’ It was sung with hundred per cent gusto, and a lump came to my throat.

The maid brought in some biscuits and glasses of water for the three hungry children.

"When you wash the glasses, wash them thoroughly," I said to Ami. I noticed that Ali had a cough.

As the trio departed from the house one of my neighbours was at her gate, looking vaguely puzzled. I said to myself that one of the joys of living abroad is that you don’t have to be too conventional.

Min, his family and I took a trip to Jakarta’s giant Taman Mini recreation park and took out small boats on the lake. The boats, shaped like swans, were intended to be operated by the application of one’s feet to revolving paddles. I had a boat to myself and found the paddles relatively easy to use. Min, occupying a boat with his big brother, decided it was too difficult to use his feet. He knelt down and used his hands to move the paddles. This worked, and it gave him enormous pleasure. I wondered about Min’s brain. He had the speech of a child aged one or two, yet he was capable of the actions of a much older person. At an earlier time, he had been able to survive alone in the city; he had deep feelings, if his eyes and facial expressions were to be believed; he had a sense of humour and a mind of his own; he was capable of showing great affection to his siblings. It was as if the computer operator, consciousness, was normal, but the computer, the brain, was damaged.

Min was now almost the tallest in his family and thankfully his behaviour had calmed down. He no longer gave people friendly punches when he was feeling playful. He behaved like an adult.

Fergus and I were having afternoon tea among the potted palms at the Borobudur Hotel. The chamber music and the elegant clientele put me in mind of Florian or Quadri in Venice’s Piazza San Marco.

"How are you?" I asked Fergus.

"Masuk Angin," he said. "It’s the computer in the office and the air-conditioner in the car that cause it. Pain in the neck and shoulder and sore sinuses. Maybe I should move the computer mouse to the left hand side."

"Have you tried rubbing on menthol cream?"

"Frequently," said Fergus. "Reflexology too. I think anger comes into it. Stress."

"Due to the traffic?"

"And nasty students. Anger makes me a pain in the neck." Fergus gave a half-smile.

"Surely not."

"They say shoulder pains are caused by a lack of flexibility, stomach pains are caused by fear and lower back pain by being fed-up."

"You been talking to a dukun?"

"No," said Fergus, as he helped himself to another dainty sandwich, "but I’ve been talking to some of our Indonesian staff. They’re depressed by what’s been happening with the PDI."

"This meeting of Megawati’s party in Medan?"

"The story is that Suharto, or maybe one of his ministers, arranged for Mega to be deposed. Officially she’s no longer party leader. This bloke called Soerjadi has taken over."

"But Mega still claims to be boss and her faction is holding on to the party HQ in Jakarta."

Carmen and I were enjoying a bottled tea in a cafe overlooking the sunny market place next to Bogor’s railway station, a little, white, nineteenth century building. There were no donkeys but I was reminded of Marrakech’s Place Jemaa El Fna; there was was a man in a white robe examining round red fezzes and prayer mats on a wooden stall; a pack of frisky schoolboys were admiring wriggly little snakes; to the throb of drums a monkey was being jerked about on a string; the sound of sensuous Arab songs issued from a battered cassette player.

"One of the girls in the office saw something interesting," said Carmen, "not far from Jakarta’s Monas. Some kind of riot."

"When was this?"

"Last Thursday. About five thousand of Megawati’s PDI party had been demonstrating. Stones got thrown. Police and soldiers charged."

"Did the girl in the office see all this?"

"The aftermath," said Carmen, sounding unusually serious. "People running. Banners saying: ‘Megawati for President.’"

"The Telegraph had something about it."

"There’s a rumour two people were run down by army vehicles and killed," said Carmen quietly.

"Mega’s not giving up," I commented. "Her people still hold onto the party HQ on Jalan Diponegoro, East of the British Embassy."

"One party. Two leaders," said Carmen, giggling. "Soerjadi supposedly approved of by Suharto and Mega supported by most of the PDI."

"So the PDI is made up of factions, just like the army?" I asked.

"There’s a moderate Moslem faction that wants Moslems to play a bigger part in Indonesian life. There’s a Christian faction but it’s relatively small. There’s a faction that wants to keep in with the powers-that-be. Lots of factions, but Mega is respected by most of them because she’s the daughter of the first president. How’s the tea Kent?"

"Interesting. I’m looking forward to some strong British tea during my August holiday."

"You planning to stay in Indonesia a few more years?"

"Yep," I said, "I want to see Min settled down, somewhere nice in the countryside; a quiet country village; a decent house; a plot of rice. How about you Carmen? Planning to stay?"

"Until I retire. There’s nowhere else with such sweet people. Such a fun way of life. Look at those kids beside that stall, dancing to the music, wiggling their hips. Got enough material for your book?"

"1990 to 1996. Yes. Then on to part two."

"How have your seven years been? Good?"

"I was fed-up just before I left London," I explained. "I was bored and neurotic. Indonesia’s almost paradise. The only bad thing is the people who get sick. Budi, Aldi, Agosto, Oya and so on."

"It happens," said Carmen, looking down at the table.

"Why do certain people get sick? Why them? Agosto got sick again and again."

"Typhoid is poor hygiene," said Carmen. "But, physical illness may be tied in with spiritual illness. Emotional illness."

"That’s what the dukuns say. Give me an example."

"When I left Africa I wasn’t feeling totally well," said Carmen, with a giggle. "I was feeling just a little unloved, broken hearted, angry. No particular reason. It’s just what happens when you leave a place."

"Sounds bad."

"Not really," said Carmen. "I loved Africa but the physical appeal wore off after about three years. I became negative about the place. I needed to either change within myself, and try to love Africa warts and all, or move on. It’s important that our minds don’t get too rigid."

"You didn’t change within yourself?"

"I would have needed help for that."

"So the dukun may be needed to cure our minds," I said. "Cast out the negative spirit from the patient or those around him."

"Yes. It doesn’t always work though, as we know. I doubt the dukun could have done much for your Aldi once he had his tetanus or Oya had her water on the brain. These were hospital cases."

"I wonder if it was more than physical illness," I said. "I mean, did someone hate Aldi or his family? Aldi felt persecuted by the neighbourhood kids. Was Oya a nuisance to her mother and the new boyfriend? Was it just bad luck?"

"My drink’s finished." Carmen wiped her mouth with a tissue.

"OK. I’m taking you to visit Firdaus at the mental hospital," I said.

It was bumper to bumper blue and green minibuses as we drove by degrees along Muslihat, past Ramayana and then past the prison.

"She looks as if she’s escaped from the hospital," said Carmen pointing to a thin, ragged, barefoot woman walking slowly along the pavement past giant piles of rotting garbage. "Her hair’s absolutely filthy."

"They have an open-door policy for some of the patients," I commented.

We reached the hospital car park and began walking through the gardens.

"It’s not as bad as I thought it would be," said Carmen. "It’s like the Botanic Gardens: red frangipani, pink hibiscus, crimson rangoon creeper."

There were childish shouts of "Mister Kent! Mister Kent!" And assorted happy shrieking sounds. As we entered the children’s compound Firdaus and his mate rushed up to grab my hands. I felt appreciated.

"The one on the left is Firdaus," I said. "Look at the strange bulges on his forehead. Tumours? Wounds?" I unbuttoned Firdaus’s shirt. "Look at the scars on his chest. They think he may have fallen off the roof of a train. And the kid on the left is going blind. He’s got a funny little face, hasn’t he? One eye seems to be in the wrong place."

"Should they get treatment from a private hospital?"

"The doctors here won’t agree to that. If I take them out, they become my children. I don’t think that can be done legally."

"Don’t look now," said Carmen, "but there’s a lad over by the swing who’s just unzipped his shorts and he’s having a pee."

"Let’s take a walk to the little shop and buy some snacks. Then we’d better give our hands a thorough wash."

After our mental hospital visit, we took the back road home from Bogor, the road that twists and turns and bumps you along, making it almost impossible to read The Jakarta Post or the FT.

"There’s a story here about President Suharto going to Germany," said Carmen, "for a health checkup. He may have a heart condition or something. If he goes, permanently, things could get rough."

"You think there’s a need for a strong leader?"

"What they need is someone like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Someone tough enough to prevent factional fighting. Someone clean."



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