Tuesday, December 17, 2002



The economic crisis was affecting my school. We were not attracting as many students as we would have liked and a number of excellent staff were not having their contracts renewed. To try to keep up numbers, we were taking in students who had been rejected by other institutions; some of them seemed to have disturbed behaviour. The top man in the school had left to take up a new post in another part of Asia. Our new boss of bosses had instituted a longer school day and we seemed to be having more meetings and more paperwork than ever before.

The price of rice was rising fast and so were tensions in the kampungs; many Indonesian children could no longer afford to go to school; in Jakarta, banks were going bankrupt.

The skies were darkening. This was due to huge forest fires in Eastern Indonesia rather than smoke from the shopping malls that were being burnt by rioters; the Chinese-Indonesian timber barons were blamed for the smoke-filled skies; satellite pictures showed that fires were burning in woodland right next to oil palm plantations and forestry concessions.

Late one evening I got sick. As there was a little red blood in my vomit, I made an immediate visit to the private Indah hospital. A doctor, with the big features of a rugby player, dismissed my symptoms as being minor and sent me away with what looked like a sneer.

Next evening I started to vomit and wretch. Blood was coming up and on one occasion it was enough to fill a cup. I phoned for a taxi and within half an hour had reached the Indah hospital. I apologised to the taxi driver for the pools of blood on the floor of his vehicle. In the emergency ward, I was shown to a bed and examined by a gentle white-haired doctor with a soothing manner.

"It’s acute gastritis," said the doctor. "Probably brought on by some virus."

I was given an injection, which stopped the vomiting, and was admitted to a spacious room with a TV and a private bathroom. I had a tickly throat and a pain in the guts and I was shivering with cold. I switched off the air conditioning and tried to sleep. My dreams seemed to proceed at high speed; it was as if I had a hangover and was full of toxins; turning over in bed was a problem as my arm was attached to a plastic tube.

The next few days brought good news. Blood tests showed no sign of diseases such as typhoid, malaria or dengue fever. An endoscopy revealed only slight scarring inside me. The doctor declared that I seemed to be recovering from whatever mystery bug I had caught.

I liked my room, although I had some minor criticisms of the hospital. I noted that the cleaning lady only gave the bathroom a brief and ineffective swish with a filthy mop; the rather pedestrian food was brought to me by a starved looking young man whose jacket sleeves were grubby and worn; the nurse, who adjusted the tube going into my arm, was not as skilled as the emergency ward nurses, and she allowed blood to spatter onto the floor; no stool samples were taken.

I had a visit from one of my bosses, an ever cheerful gentleman, who brought me magazines. And I had a visit from young Irfan, the guard and gardener at my house. When Irfan had suffered a broken arm, after colliding with a hit-and-run driver, I had taken him to the Indah hospital and visited him. Now he was repaying me and I was grateful.

"How are things?" I asked Irfan. "Everyone well?"

"Everyone well," said Irfan.

"I’m the only one to get sick?"

"Ami’s been ill," said Irfan, referring to my maid.

"Vomiting?" I asked.

"Yes," said Irfan. "She’s better now."

"I’ll give you some money to pay for her to get a check-up at the doctor," I said.

Within a few days I was back at home. I decided to do my own cooking for the weeks that followed, even though Ami had received a clean bill of health from the clinic.

What had made me ill? My guess was that it was stress that had made me vulnerable to some kind of stomach bug which had in turn led to nausea. Vomiting can, on very rare occasions, lead to tearing of the inner lining at the point where the stomach meets the oesophagus. Bleeding can result from the tear.

As Ami had been ill, it is possible that I had contracted a stomach bug from her. Dukuns, of the wicked kind, can cause the vomiting of blood. I assumed that I had not been poisoned by some dukun.

One Saturday morning I collected Min and his family and we set off in my Mitsubishi van to the little town of Lamaya; we were on a house hunt. After about twenty miles of wide, flat toll road we turned onto a series of narrow, minor roads. Fields of rice and vegetables to left and right were frequently hidden by shady woodland which provided shelter for villages.

"What sort of price are you expecting to pay for a house in Lamaya?" I asked Min’s big brother Wardi, who was sitting behind me, in the middle section of the Mitsubishi.

"About twenty to thirty million rupiahs," said Wardi.

"Are you going to sell your two houses in Teluk Gong?" I asked.

"We have lots of relatives who can make use of those houses," said Wardi.

There was a period of silence. I had been thinking that the sale of the Teluk Gong houses would help to pay for a house in Lamaya. On the other hand, I was being paid in dollars, there was a glut of housing, and we were fast approaching the point where a twenty million rupiah house could be had for about two thousand dollars. I decided not to argue about money.

I began to think that Lamaya was a considerable distance from Jakarta and I would no longer be able to make my usual frequent visits to Min. To comfort myself I thought about how much Min had changed for the better. His behaviour had become more calm and I noted that, when I went for walks with the family, Min always took the hand of Wardi.

Lamaya has a wide chocolate-coloured river, Dutch-style municipal buildings painted in white, a market with small dusty shops and banks, several areas of open-space covered in rough pasture, and various jumbles of red-roofed kampung houses. The town has the feel of a pleasant garden.

The first house we were to look at was deep inside a crowded, traffic-free kampung. We walked in single file along sunny lanes peopled by smiling children playing with homemade carts and kites. Having passed small gardens of banana and bougainvillea, we came to a minute white and green mosque and then a tiny square in the centre of which two happy schoolboys were playing a languid game of table tennis. We entered a flat-roofed house at one corner of the square.

The house was brick and concrete but had no indoor supply of water. It seemed cramped, like the neighbourhood surrounding it. The price seemed high, for such a simple house.

We drove out from the centre of town until we reached a long winding street shaded by enormously tall trees. Here the atmosphere was more rural. Bicycles and bicycle-powered becak taxis moved slowly over potholes and around skinny dogs. There were gardens with fruit trees and chickens and ducks. The houses, all homemade, varied from the tumbledown wooden type to the grander brick and concrete affairs with red-tiled roofs.

We entered a large house which stood under some particularly dark trees. The rooms were poorly lit and full of cobwebs. The price being asked was above thirty million rupiahs, which impressed Min’s mum. She liked the place.

A little further along the same street we came to our third house, a sunny white painted home with a big red roof. The windows and doors looked smart and modern. The front room was large, high-ceilinged and light. The house had the benefit of a basic kitchen, with a well, and a simple indoor toilet. The price was just over twenty million rupiahs.

"There are rambutan trees at the back of the house," said Min’s mum excitedly.

"We can keep chickens in the back scullery," said Wardi.

Min looked happy and at ease. Wardi’s pretty wife was all smiles.

As we drove back to Jakarta, it was agreed that the third house was the one to buy. I would contact my bank and Wardi would look into the legal side of the purchase.

The sun was high in a benevolent blue sky. I drove past the Bogor Golf Club, turned left to face the dark blue mountains, and crossed the River Cisadane by way of a high and handsome, arched metal bridge. On foot, I ascended, by various red earthen paths, to a zone of chickens and goats, jungly trees and kampungs filled with children and washing. Among the Henri-Rousseau-vegetation, I made out tamarind trees, flame trees, clove trees, coconut palms, bamboo, bougainvillea, hibiscus, frangipani and jasmine. There was a smell of damp leaves and petals and armpits.

Part of a football team emerged from the trees by way of a steep narrow path. Eleven small boys, in red shirts and white shorts of almost adult size, filed past me in single file, each boy giving me a cheeky, tigerish grin.

"Manchester United!" called out the last boy in the line, as he turned his head in my direction and gave a victory sign.

I rounded a corner and came to the edge of a hamlet. A garage-like building had its door open and I peered in. Sitting on the concrete floor were a number of young girls who were putting soft jelly-type sweets into little paper packages. This was some kind of cottage industry employing child labour. The girls stared at me with expressions that seemed to mix hopelessness and hostility. I felt embarrassed and moved on.

At the other end of the kampung I was hit by the strong smell of chemical glue coming from the open door of a wooden shed. Curiosity persuaded me to investigate. Seated at primitive benches were several young boys sticking rubber soles onto trainers. The pasty faced lads wore impassive expressions. A fat adult male, who might have been a Chinese-Indonesian supervisor, gave me a sour look from his shark-like face.

I continued my journey through the countryside and in the next kampung encountered three pramuka, which means boy scouts. They were standing in the yard at the front of a simple house. One boy was having his neck scarf adjusted by a proud and pretty-looking mother. A second boy was examining the badges on his chest. The third was adjusting the wide leather belt which held up the well-worn shorts into which he must have earlier been squeezed.

There was a fourth boy, wearing not a scout uniform but a tattered shirt, baggy jeans and a tired expression.

"Hello mister," said the scout with the most badges.

"Hello," I replied.

There was no time for any conversation about ropes and knots as the three pramuka leapt over the fence in front of the house, saluted me and marched off in the direction of Bogor. The lady of the house disappeared inside.

"Hello," I said to the lad with the tired expression. "What’s your name?"

"Mukhlas," he said shyly.

"Where do you live?"

"At the bottom of the hill," replied Mukhlas, almost in a whisper. He managed to smile slightly, but his face was pale and his tummy had the bulge of the malnourished.

"I’m going that way," I said, hoping that Mukhlas would follow me. I wanted to ask the boy’s parents the reasons for their son’s apparent exhaustion.

I set off down the sloping path. Mukhlas tried to keep up, but, like an old man, had to keep stopping to regain strength. He was a handsome child, in a benumbed and weary sort of way.

At the bottom of the hill was Mukhlas’ home. I t was a fair size for a kampung house, and seemed pack-full of children, moulding half-damaged furniture and untidy piles of clothes. Mukhlas’s mum was a wide-shaped woman with a face that suggested friendliness and a simple easygoing nature. I introduced myself and explained my concerns about Mukhlas. It was agreed that we would take the boy to see a doctor.

During the fifteen minute car journey to the Menteng Hospital, mum explained that her husband worked and lived in Jakarta. She had twelve children to look after.

The doctor had greying hair that was slightly untidy, a body that was slightly overweight and an imperious manner that somehow failed to impress. He spent some time examining Mukhlas’ chest and then declared that the poor boy had heart trouble.

I collected various expensive pills, returned Mukhlas and mum to their kampung and promised to return at a later date.

After the passage of many weeks it was clear that Mukhlas was making no progress. A Saturday morning trip to the big modern Heart Hospital in Jakarta was arranged. The hospital put the boy through a series of tests on impressive looking machinery.

"There is nothing wrong with the child’s heart," said the neat little doctor, whose eyes spoke of shrewdness and charm. "But, there is a problem with TB, which the hospital next door can sort out over a period of six to twelve months."

Within a month, Mukhlas was beginning to look more bright eyed and bouncy. I had the rest of Mukhlas’s family x-rayed and it turned out that a little three year-old called Sri was also suffering from TB.

Indonesian children can be very polite. It was Christmas time and my young Moslem friends came round to my house to shake my hand and wish me ‘Selamat Hari Natal’, or ‘Merry Christmas’. They sat quietly on the tiled floor of the lounge and listened to the two little street musicians, Ali and Dikin, sing their songs. Ali still had TB but was not infectious as he was taking his cocktail of medicines.

Fajar, Andri, Hermanto, Sinta, Farah and several others played games of cards. Thin, gangling Fajar was supposedly now cured of TB, but he was as thin as ever. His elder brother, who had also had TB, was still in Sumatra and Fajar was unsure about the state of this elder brother’s health.

When the music and card games were finished, we watched a video of Mr. Bean, always popular in Indonesia.

Min’s family were now into their new house in Lamaya and one Saturday I went to visit them. Min was standing in the front yard when I arrived, as if he had been expecting me. He smiled a shy but happy smile and shook my hand. Wardi, looking a little tense, came out of the house with his grinning wife and relatively new child, a plump and healthy little girl.

"How is Min?" I asked Wardi.

"He’s fine," said Wardi.

"And the rest of the family?"


"Is Min’s little brother, Itin, going to school?"

"Yes. He likes the school."

"And you have a rice field?"

"We have a rice field on the other side of the river."

"And Min’s mum and dad?"

"They have rented a house down the road from here," said Wardi, sounding edgy.

"You’re not all living in the same house?"

"It was difficult all living in the same house," said Wardi, frowning deeply, his large dark eyebrows moving towards each other.

I thought it best not to comment. Naively, I had assumed that the whole family could live together in the one building.

Min, Wardi and I took a walk through the trees to the house occupied by Min’s parents. It was a bright, clean house, but not as grand as that of Wardi. Wati, Min’s mum, greeted us with a forced smile. She had things on her mind.

"Mr. Kent," said Wati, touching my arm gently, "there is a house for sale near here. We’d like to buy it."

"Another house!" I said, trying not to sound too grumpy. "You’ve already got three houses in Jakarta. You’ll need to sell the brick house in Teluk Gong."

Wati was not smiling.

"How about a walk with Min?" I said to Wardi. I was tired after my long journey and needed some pleasant distraction to improve my mood.

"Min wants a drive," said Wardi.

We climbed into my van, Wardi and I sitting at the front, Min with Wati and Min’s little seven-year-old sister Imah sitting at the back. As we drove slowly around the edge of town, the radio played loud classical music, from Canteloube to Rodrigo. The country lanes were full of children and flowers. Min’s twinkling eyes and the set of his mouth suggested he was in a state of ecstasy.

"Imah seems very quiet," I said to Wardi, as we headed back home to Min’s house.

"We think she’s gone the same way as Min," said Wardi. "She seems to be mentally backward."

My stomach tightened. "Has she always been backward?" I asked.

"Wati thinks it happened just after Min’s brother Aldi died of tetanus. We all went to your doctor to get various immunisations."

I had a vague memory that Imah had had a bit of a fever on the day of the visit to the surgery and that this was reported to the doctor. I had a feeling that the doctor had postponed the vaccination of Imah. My remembrance was cloudy. I could not think of any suitable comment to make to Wardi.

As I drove back to Jakarta my mind was troubled. Had it been a mistake to get Min’s family vaccinated? A mercury based preservative is found in certain vaccines. Mercury can cause mental retardation. The well water in certain parts of Jakarta is polluted with various heavy metals including mercury. The drinking water sold to some of Jakarta’s residents reportedly contains levels of mercury well above those recommended by the Health Ministry. Malnutrition and lack of iodine can cause mental retardation. From what sort of fever had Imah been suffering? Meningitis, measles and encephalitis are among the diseases which can lead to mental retardation. Why was Imah apparently mentally retarded while her brother Itin was quite normal? Imah lived with Min’s mum; Itin lived with Min’s older brother Wardi.

I consulted our school nurse and was told that vaccination against diseases such as measles and tetanus was ‘a good idea’. The risk of getting brain damage from these diseases was many times greater than the risk of getting brain damage from the vaccines. One study related that the risk of brain damage from whooping cough is about 1 in 10,000; the risk of brain damage from the vaccine which protects against Tetanus, Diphtheria and Whooping Cough is about 1 in 100,000. Another survey suggested that encephalitis develops in one child out of every 2,000 with measles; for every ten children with encephalitis, around three may get brain damage. One out of every 200,000 children develops brain degeneration 5 to 10 years after having had measles.

I remembered what Bob had said about every action containing not just positive yang but also negative yin. If you have a positive, it is always balanced by a negative.



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