Monday, December 16, 2002


I was finishing my Sunday breakfast toast and coffee and regarding with pleasure the fleshy pot plants out in the sun-dappled courtyard. A cock crowed loudly and then the door bell buzzed. My young kampung neighbours, tubercular Fajar, half-Chinese Andri, and cheeky-faced Hermanto, had arrived at the front door. They were accompanied by two boys I hadn’t met before.

"Jalan jalan?" said Andri.

"A walk. Good idea," I said, anticipating adventure. "Who are your two friends?"

"Agung and Saban," said Andri, in his usual chirpy voice.

As we set off down the steamy, tree-lined street I observed the newcomers.

Thirteen-year-old Agung was the typically graceful, winsome Javanese; he had a snub nose, big dark eyes and curvy lips; in his blue school shorts he had the appearance of a happy Pierre Joubert boy scout.

Fourteen-year-old Saban was the odd one out in the group; he was a Huckleberry Finn with slightly uncoordinated movements; his face was that of a boxer who had lost a few fights; his shirt was stained and missing some buttons, his baggy long trousers were too short, and his plastic sandals were broken.

"Look," said Agung, pointing to a metal cage next the garden gate of a sizeable art-nouveau villa.

Agung and his friends jumped into the garden and started talking to the occupant of the cage, a depressed young macaque monkey.

"Are we allowed into this garden?" I asked, after gingerly following my guides.

"No problem," said Agung.

In view of the recent riots, I wondered how long it would be before some of the rich began putting barbed wire on their fences and gates, thus becoming ‘prisoners’ like the macaque.

"The monkey is stressed and unhappy," I said. "It’s lost its parents."

The poor creature grabbed a piece of ragged cloth from the floor of its cage, placed it over its head, and began swaying from side to side. Saban gave out a nervous sounding giggle.

We moved on, and having passed a cart where a couple of maids were buying pieces of fly-covered meat for their masters, reached a street with kampung houses. On our left, seated on a mat, was a plump and jolly woman who was selling knickers and bras. To our right was a wheelbarrow-shaped cart filled with what looked like light grey ash.

Hermanto pointed at the ash and said, "Soap."

"Kampung people use it for washing," said Andri, rubbing his face with his hands. "It’s cheaper than soap."

We passed some wooden shacks with rusting corrugated iron roofs and came to an open doorway at which Agung stopped.

"My house," said Agung, with a grin that perhaps combined pride and embarrassment. "Come in."

I stepped inside the dark front room where I could make out a chair piled high with clothes, a curtain leading to a back kitchen, and a narrow twisting stair leading to an upstairs bedroom. Nobody seemed to be at home.

"You have brothers and sisters?" I asked.

"Many sisters," said Agung. "No brothers."

A high whistle sound reached our ears from somewhere out in the street.

"What’s that?" I asked, while putting on my puzzled face.

Agung led us outside. "Fish restaurant," he said, pointing to a man pushing a cart with a whistle-shaped funnel. When steam shot out, there was a high pitched flute note.

We continued our walk and came to a narrow passageway that led down to a marshy river. On each side of the river a wooden platform had been erected, and between the platforms stretched a rope. Attached to the rope was a flat bottomed ferryboat, big enough to take about a dozen passengers. We paid our few rupiahs to the young ferryman and began our crossing.

"A crocodile?" I said, pointing to a creature on the bank ahead of us.

"It’s only a cecak," said Agung, referring to the little reptiles that climb the walls of living rooms.

"It’s a lizard," said Fajar, trying to be adult and reassuring. I supposed he meant a Monitor Lizard.

We passed a school and a mosque and entered a vast cemetery that seemed to stretch for miles. There were sweet smelling frangipani trees, graves covered with fresh white flowers, tomb stones decorated with crosses and angels, areas for military heroes, and there was one shiny black headstone above which hung a bird cage containing a live bird.

Agung came to a halt beside a simple wooden memorial.

"My father," he announced.

"Your father is dead?" I said, resisting the urge to put my arm around his poor young shoulders.

"He died of tetanus," said Agung, staring at the grave. "He was a joiner. He died a few years ago."

We stood quietly for a few moments. Passing through my mind were distressed memories of Min’s young brother Aldi who had died of tetanus. Agung seemed quite calm. Saban fidgeted.

The sound of a passing diesel locomotive broke the silence. Off to our right, several hundred metres away, we could see the train, packed with passengers on its roof.

"Do you want to see where Saban lives?" asked Fajar.

"OK," I said.

My guides led me to the edge of the cemetery, across the railway track, through an area of colourful kampung houses followed by an estate of modest villas and onwards to an area of waste ground. In one corner of the grassland was a white painted hut, and that was where Fajar was leading us.

The hut had a window with a metal grill rather than a glass pane. Through the open door I could see that the hut’s only furniture was a wooden bench, stuck against one wall.

"This is where Saban lives," said Andri, in a sympathetic tone of voice.

"This is the neighbourhood guard’s post," explained Fajar. "The guard stays here at night. He allows Saban to sleep here."

"Saban has no family?" I asked, turning to look in the direction of Saban.

Saban said nothing, but his eyes reminded me of those of Min, when Min had been lost.

"Saban does have parents," said Andri, with a look of seriousness.

"Why doesn’t he stay with them?" I asked.

"Saban woke up one morning and found his parents were gone," said Andri.

"Saban," I said, a strong note of incredulity in my voice, "your parents had gone?"

"That’s right mister," said Saban, sounding both sincere and indignant.

"I don’t understand," I said, addressing the group in general. "What happened to Saban’s parents?"

"His mother lives in the countryside," said Fajar.

"Saban’s father?" I asked.

"He sleeps in Gambir railway station," said Saban.

"Why did your parents leave?" I asked, hoping Saban would not break down.

"Don’t know, mister," said Saban, appearing genuinely puzzled.

I was gaining the impression that Saban was not too sharp. "Have you visited your mother?"

Saban nodded.

"Why don’t you stay with her?"

"Her house has no room," said Saban.

I looked at Fajar. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say that certain families were both a problem and a puzzle. I looked at Saban and imagined that his father was possibly the sort of gentleman who frequented the darker corners of downtown Jakarta.

Black clouds were filling the sky and it was time for me to return home.

When the maid brought me my after-dinner coffee, she was smiling in an overemphatic manner. She had something to ask me. Would I like to meet Aryo, a small child who needed a heart operation? Aryo and family lived in a nearby kampung. I told the maid I would think about it.

I did not know what a heart operation might cost, but guessed that it would be at least fifty million rupiahs.

I looked at the Jakarta Post. There were more stories of riots, and there was news that one American dollar was now worth seventeen thousand rupiahs. I looked in my wallet and saw that it contained two million rupiahs, which was the sort of sum expatriates regularly took from the bank.

The following Saturday I took Aryo and his family to the concrete tower block which houses Jakarta’s heart hospital, a place designed to cater mainly for the rich. Aryo was about five years of age and had a cheerful little face. His mum and dad seemed to be decent, kindly kampung folk, poorly dressed and thin about the face. I had memories of little Oya, who had had an operation to help her cope with her Hydrocephalus. Mum had not visited Oya in hospital, and when Oya later caught an infection, Oya’s mum had refused to have the child readmitted to hospital. Oya had died.

The heart doctor assured me that an operation was necessary for Aryo, if he was to have the chance of a normal life. The parents assured me that they wanted the operation and would stay with Aryo in hospital. And the cost? The hospital’s prices had not gone up, in spite of the fact that the rupiah had crashed.

Several weeks later a smiling Aryo was brought to my house by mum and dad. There was a deep scar on the child’s chest, much bigger than I would have imagined. But I was assured that the operation had gone well.

It was time to see how Min was getting on. This meant the usual longish journey during which there was time for anxiety to build. Was Min safe and well? Were the family getting on happily with each other and managing to make a successful living? As we bumped over the potholes on the minor roads I found myself becoming bad-tempered. When I arrived outside Min’s house in Lamaya, Wardi was in the front garden, but there was no sign of Min.

"Min’s with his mum," said Wardi, giving me a nervous smile.

"I thought Min was going to be staying with you," I said. My stomach was grumbling and I found it difficult not to sound aggressive.

"We all look after Min," said Wardi. "Shall we go and see the new house Min’s mum and dad have moved into?"

Wardi and I walked along a path between assorted fruit trees and came to a sunny house very similar to the one we had just left. The walls were white, the roof was red and the windows were smart and modern. Min and Wati appeared at the front door. Min looked as if he might be having one of his slightly ‘down’ days. Wati, forcing a smile but appearing ill at ease, invited us in. Were Min’s family picking up the signs of my stress or was I picking up the signs of their tension? Min’s dad was looking pale.

"Very nice house," I commented. "Big bright rooms."

Wati’s shoulders relaxed.

"Do you want to see our rice field?" asked Wardi, his eyes twinkling.

"Yes, please."

My mood changed for the better as we began our walk down the leafy street. Min’s young brother hopped and skipped round the potholes and sleeping dogs. Becak taxis pedalled past carrying cheerful fat ladies, slim-limbed schoolgirls and piles of pineapples and sweet potatoes. A teenage girl with cherub lips and a white school uniform gave me a voluptuous smile. The gardens were full of Rangoon Creeper and Rose of India.

We took a left turn, passed scores of banana trees and eventually reached a nutbrown river where naked boys were bathing. We made our crossing by means of another flat bottomed ferry boat attached to a rope which stretched between the banks.

A flat green plain lay before us: rice fields, drainage canals, and occasional patches of trees.

"Our rice field," announced Wardi, pointing to a rectangle of green, the size of a large football pitch.

"Will you have enough to live on?" I asked.

"I’ve got a job helping at a shop in the market," said Wardi. "That brings in extra money."

Everyone seemed to be at ease as we walked back into town.

On the way back from Lamaya I asked the driver to stop at a shop in a small village. I bought some milk and biscuits and set off on an exploration of the village’s hinterland. There was a sweet little mosque with an onion-shaped dome, a sunny meadow with goats, a collection of neat vegetables patches, a line of trees next an embankment and finally a wide meandering river. Two girls and two boys began to follow me as I walked a narrow path beside the river. Soon three more children joined our procession. When I stopped to eat some biscuits I saw that around fifteen young faces were staring at me. They all looked happy, but thin and possibly hungry. I felt guilty as I drank my expensive milk.

On returning to the village shop, I decided to feed the multitude, now twenty in number. I invited the children into the shop’s dark and sweet-smelling interior. I could see packs of clove-flavoured cigarettes, piles of tropical fruits and earthy vegetables, bottles of soybean sauce, sacks of rice, bottles of cola, packets of noodles, cosmetics and shampoos with American brand names, and on a shelf behind the counter, Dancow milk powder. I asked the shop owner, an elderly Chinese-Indonesian, to give me twenty cans of Dancow.

The cans were placed in a cardboard box on the floor. The children pressed towards me. I picked up two cans and handed one to the nearest girl. Hands stretched out to grab the second can.

"Mister! Mister!" cried the bigger, bolder boys as they struggled to reach the front of the scrum.

"Take the milk outside," said the shop owner with a degree of ferocity. He did not want a riot on his property.

I picked up the flimsy box, fought my way outside and positioned the heavy load on the pavement. As I handed out one can to a small boy on my left, bigger boys started helping themselves. One lad grabbed two cans. Three well-built young men, who had been standing beside parked motorbikes, came forward to grab their share of the loot and then drove off with smirking faces.

The Dancow was gone within seconds and half a dozen of the children had ended up empty handed. I bought the last of the shop’s supply of powdered milk and, with the aid of two muscular shop assistants, dispensed it to the six kids. But new children were hurrying towards the shop from both ends of the street. I hurried to my van and escaped.



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