Thursday, December 12, 2002



Because many expat parents had decided to educate their children a safe distance away from riot-torn Indonesia, my school now had a lot of spookily empty classrooms and far too many teachers. More than ever, our boss was praying that some of his staff would begin to look for jobs elsewhere. I wanted to stay because I still could not think of any other country with such alluring scenery and people. And yet I had anxieties that the competing factions within the Indonesian elite would continue to struggle against each other, causing more pain and stress.

A Saturday trip to Lamaya showed me that Min was in good health and pleased to see me. I noted that he had finally lost his boyish looks and manner; he had broad shoulders and the beginnings of a small moustache. His moods seemed more balanced; I saw no more episodes of deep gloom or over-wild exuberance.

Min’s family knew all about the recent political turmoil, but their quiet little town had not had any riots, only huge price rises for basic foods. Wardi asked me what I thought of the new president. I said that Habibie had the reputation of being extremely clever; he had apparently been a vice-president of Germany’s Messerschmitt and was intent on promoting high technology in Indonesia. Wardi was evidently proud that Indonesia could produce a top-class engineer; but he was noncommittal about Habibie’s politics.

I suggested a walk, but Min wanted a ride in my vehicle. Min, Wati, Wardi, Imah and I drove into the sunny centre of town, parked and took a stroll through the market. I was a little anxious in view of the recent troubles, but the local people seemed to be going about their business in their normal relaxed and friendly way. Three-wheeled becak taxis, filled with children and chickens, were being pedaled at a leisurely pace. Women shoppers took their time as they gossiped with their friends or bargained over the prices of sweet potatoes or fly-covered goat meat.

The air was filled with bright dusty light and a variety of wonderful smells from freshly ground coffee to fermented shrimp paste. Colour was provided by piles of chillies and tomatoes and mounds of saffron. The sounds were of caged birds and the hammering of scrap metal that was being made into small implements.

"This is not President Habibie’s high-tech world of aircraft manufacture," I said to Wardi, as we passed displays of recycled batteries and fans and small workshops making simple furniture and baskets.

"The Americans would not buy our planes or cars," said Wardi.

We came to a little shop which was gaudily painted like an Indian fairground stall. It was selling traditional medicines: liquids and powders made from roots, herbs, bark and other natural ingredients.

"What’s this medicine for?" I asked the sweet girl behind the counter, as I picked up a yellow package from a glass case.

"Bergairah dan digdaya," she said. She pointed to the illustration on the box and gave me a knowing look.

I got the impression that it was all about increasing a man’s passion.

"And this one?"

"For the woman," she said, grinning happily. "It brings back sexual delight after childbirth."

"And this one?"

"For teenage girls. To develop their bodies."

Min and his little sister Imah did not understand the conversation, but Wardi and Wati smiled.

Having left the market, we walked a little way alongside the town’s wide river. After watching women doing their washing and children enjoying a swim, we returned to my vehicle.

As I was finishing my evening meal, there arrived at my front door my young kampung neighbours, winsome Agung, tubercular Fajar, uncoordinated Saban and half-Chinese Andri. They were frequent visitors. I ushered them into the lounge where they were happy to sit on the floor and play their usual games of cards. Next to appear were the little musicians, Ali and Dikin, who performed some rousing street songs. The final visitor was happy Hermanto, who had brought along two young friends called Gadi and Ferry.

As I sipped my coffee and watched the card players, a thought occurred to me. There was someone missing, someone who had previously been a regular visitor but whom I had not seen for some weeks. The missing boy was called Herry and he was thin and had a dark pointy face.

"What’s happened to Herry?" I asked Hermanto, who had just finished a game of whist.

"He’s ill," replied Hermanto.

"What’s wrong with him?" I said.


"Typhoid!" My heart made a leap.

"He’s been ill for weeks."

"For weeks!" Now I was angry as well as shocked.

"He got some pills from the local clinic, the puskesmas, but that didn’t help."

"He should be in hospital!" I said, sounding furious. "You should have told me he was ill! You must always tell me when someone’s ill!"

I asked the maid to phone for a taxi and instructed young Irfan, the house guard and gardener, to go with Hermanto to Herry’s house. Once there, Irfan was to offer Herry’s family the money to pay for hospital treatment.

Later in the evening, Irfan returned with news of the patient. Herry had gone into hospital. The doctor was annoyed that the family had not taken action sooner. He said that Herry not only had typhoid but also dengue fever.

Fortunately, Herry got better. His small, hook-nosed father came to the house to thank me for my help and to ask for more money. I asked him for the hospital receipt so that I could see if there was any of my money left over after he had paid the bill. He explained, in a rather unctuous manner, that he was a low-paid government worker and needed cash to pay for possible future health checkups for Herry. I insisted on seeing the receipt. With some reluctance, he handed over the document and I saw that there should have been a substantial sum remaining.

"What about the change?" I asked.

"I need to keep it," he said, with what seemed like a weasel-faced grin, "for future health checkups."

I was decidedly angry but decided to give way rather than have a long argument. The boy had got better and that was what counted most.

The man made his exit. Herry never returned to my house. Much later, it occurred to me that the behaviour of Herry’s father was not so unreasonable. I might have behaved just like him had I been in his shoes.

During a ten day summer holiday in the United Kingdom I assured my parents that Indonesia was back to normal and that there was nothing to worry about. They did not seem as concerned as I had expected. Back at the time of the May riots, they had been on holiday on the continent and had apparently not seen any newspapers.

I was soon to learn that Indonesia was far from being back to normal. In July 1998, there was news from East Java of the murders of shamans, or dukuns, by mysterious groups of men called ninjas. These ninjas were suspected of being part of an army psychological-operation to weaken the forces of democracy. In September, as the economic problems continued, there were fresh riots in parts of Sumatra and Java, with the properties of the Chinese again being targeted.

Back once more in Indonesia, I knew there were lots of people I should be visiting. I should have called in on leper Iwan, but, as usual, left it to my driver to make the monthly trip to his home. Min’s mum had said that Iwan had not been feeling well; when my driver returned from Iwan’s house I asked about the state of Iwan’s health and was told that there was no problem.

On a trip to Bogor, I called in at the mental hospital at Babakan to see both Firdaus, the boy with the mysterious fleshy scars, and Isaiah, the boy with the strange eyes. As always the two children were overjoyed to see me and we enjoyed our stroll in the hospital grounds.

On my return journey from Bogor I decided to call in at Panti Bambu, the overcrowded government institution where the boys called Wisnu and Raj had once stayed. I called in at the office and spoke to the sparkling-eyed girl who was on duty. She remembered who I was and greeted me with a chummy smile. I asked if there were any children I could take for a walk.

"Certainly!" she said. "You buy them an ice-cream, and bring one back for me."

She introduced me to the new director, a small, grey, middle-aged man, wearing a suit with short sleeves and a little, high collar. He led me across the courtyard, with its expensive fountain, to the shed-like buildings that housed the adults who looked like tramps. In the first room there were ragged women lounging on wooden beds. And there was one little girl, aged about ten, whose name I was told was Suli. She wore a brave but possibly desperate smile on her cute little face. Her feet were bare and her stained and torn dress was too long for her.

"Suli is mildly epileptic and just a little backward," said the director, gravely. "Her mother has remarried and her family don’t want her."

The door was unlocked and Suli was brought out. She gave me a token smile.

In the next overcrowded room were men who looked like street-toughs and derelicts. And there were two young boys, aged around eleven or twelve, one of whom was sitting on the same bed as a gaunt-faced adult. There were not enough beds.

"The boys are called Hari and Saryun," said the director, as he brought them out into the sunshine. "We haven’t been able to find their families and they’re both slightly retarded."

Hari had an impish face and gave the impression of being a survivor. Saryun, like the Dickens character Smike, was worn and wasted. He had sad, haunted eyes and was wearing overlarge trousers which he had to hold onto, to stop them falling down.

"Saryun is very thin," I commented.

"There used to be a rich Chinese gentleman who brought us quantities of rice and other food," said the director. "I think he’s probably left the country."

"Can I take these children for a ride in my van?" I asked.

"Of course," said the director.

I instructed my driver to take us to the local hospital, a slightly tatty and lackadaisical institution run by Christians. In the outpatient clinic, the three children were briefly examined by a youthful and easygoing doctor who did not look Chinese. His wide nose suggested that he might be a Christian from one of the outer islands.

I explained to the doctor what I knew about conditions for the children at Panti Bambu. He smiled but made no comment. I suspected that he believed there was little that could be done to improve such an institution.

"Suharto has retired but there’s been no reformasi. No reform," I commented angrily.

The doctor shrugged his shoulders.

"How are the children?" I asked. "Any problems?"

"Only scabies and worms," said the doctor.

As there had been no blood tests or x-rays, I was not sure I had total confidence in the doctor’s judgment. However, I kept my mouth shut and collected the ointment and pills which had been prescribed. There seemed little chance that the scabies and worms would disappear.

There was a phone call from the sister of John, the very mentally backward boy who, back in 1993, had been moved from the mental hospital in Bogor to the Teluk Gong Hospital in Jakarta. After being cured of severe diarrhoea, he had moved to the house rented by his widowed mother in Teluk Gong. I had been helping to pay the rent. Now John’s sister was telling me that, while I had been away in the United Kingdom, John had again got ill with diarrhoea and had died. He had not been taken to a hospital.

I felt depressed on hearing this news. I tried to comfort myself by thinking that at least John’s final years had been in his own home.

That week I had a candlelit dinner with Anne and Bob in the glittering dining room of their home in Menteng.

"Peanut chicken," said Anne, as we began our feast. "Onions, garlic, ginger, chillies, turmeric, coconut milk, roasted peanuts and chicken. It’s one of our cook’s specialties."

"Delicious," I said. "How is Pauline getting on in Australia?"

"Greatly enjoying university," said Bob.

"And you survived the riots?" I asked.

"Bob saw the beginnings of it," said Anne.

"I was in China town that morning, very early on," said Bob. "I was standing outside a bank. Suddenly scores of motorbikes came into view; they were in a military style formation; the drivers looked tough and fit."

"Bob left the area as quickly as possible," said Anne.

"You think it was organised by sections of the military?" I asked.

"Of course," said Anne.

"How are things with you, Kent?" said Bob. "Still visiting the kampungs?"

I told them about Suli, Hari and Saryun at Panti Bambu.

"It sounds to me like Britain," said Anne, putting down her wine glass. "British workhouses in the 19th century. They were overcrowded, full of dysentery, and had very high death rates, particularly among children. There was a notorious case of a homeless boy called Henry Bailey who was put into the Lambeth workhouse in London. Henry died after being given a flogging. That’s Christian Britain for you."

I tried not to think of Henry and concentrated on the peanut chicken.

It was five thirty in the morning and the maid was knocking loudly on my bedroom door. A young woman was at the front door and wanted to speak to me urgently.

I got dressed and hurried downstairs. In the middle of the lounge stood a graceful girl, aged in her late teens and poorly dressed. She gave me a nervous smile and proceeded to tell me that she lived nearby and was the sister of Agung. She reminded me that Agung was the boy who had recently taken me to the burial place of their father, who had died of tetanus. Agung was ill. He had been suffering all night from diarrhoea and vomiting and had become semiconscious.

I phoned for a taxi, gave my face a fast wipe and grabbed a quick cup of coffee. Within minutes a battered old taxi had arrived and we were driving down narrow lanes to Agung’s house.
Agung was slumped in a chair; his face was almost white and his eyes were closed.

"Get him a glass of water," I instructed the thin woman whom I took to be Agung’s mother.

A plastic bottle was produced. Agung opened his eyes wearily and took a few sips.

We sped in the taxi towards the privately run Regensi Hospital, which was near my school.

"Take some more water," I kept on saying to Agung, who was sitting next to me and struggling to keep his eyes open. He managed a few more sips.

On arrival at the hospital, Agung was taken by stretcher into the emergency room and put on a drip.

"The boy is very dehydrated," said the stern faced young doctor. "He has lost a lot of liquid.

"What’s been making him sick?" I asked.

"We’ll do some tests," said the doctor. "At the moment it’s too early to say."

The hospital was not as big as the Indah Hospital, where I had stayed as a patient, but it was bright and modern, with walls of light grey paint. It had been built to serve the members of the middle class who had moved into the area’s brand new and ‘slightly shoddy’ housing estates which had been constructed by a company headed by a well connected Chinese-Indonesian businessman.

I returned to the taxi and was driven to my school. During lessons, my mind would occasionally drift to the boy in the hospital.



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