Wednesday, January 29, 2003


Another new school term found me filled with energy and enthusiasm. Honestly. But after the first five days of teaching it was good to escape, on the Saturday, from the oily traffic of Jakarta to the balmy hills beyond Bogor. Beneath a sky of tropical blue I motored up from Bogor towards the nearby Puncak Pass. I was hoping to find an interesting track that would lead me to some lost domain. Somewhere between the towns of Ciawi and Cisarua I found what I was looking for, although I don’t think I would ever be able to find the exact same spot again.

My path wandered through fields of sweet-smelling green papaya; it skirted rice paddies where muddy boys rode gentle water buffaloes; there was a primary school with a red and white flag and marching children; goats and ducks led me through a kampung where the houses had muddy brick and plaster walls, loose red tiles and gardens of jasmine; the children wore bright green sarongs.

I entered an area of dark shadows and spiky leaves. I passed beneath jackfruit, rambutan and durian, and squeezed through a tangle of lianas and bamboos. Help! I was in the middle of nowhere.

"Hello mister," said a lad, half way up a tree, collecting fruit. He was about thirteen years of age, dressed in clean blue school shorts and expensive-looking T-shirt, and had a happy and handsome Sundanese face.

"Hello," I said, relieved to find the voice came from a human. "Is there a restaurant near here?"

"There’s a hotel," said the lad beginning to climb down. He was followed by a younger boy wearing a mischievous smile and red school shorts and an older girl wearing a tight yellow blouse and tight jeans.

"How do I get there?" I asked.

"We’ll take you," said the older boy, scratching various insect bites.

"Thanks. What’s your name?"

"I’m Dede," said the older boy, "and this is my younger brother, Agus, and my sister, Melati."

"I’m Diego Maradona," I explained.

"The singer?" said Dede.

"No actually I’m Woody Allen," I said.

"Where are you from Mr Woody?" asked Dede, who apparently knew less about films than music.


"You want a place to stay?" asked Melati, who had lovely eyes and lips.

"No, just something to eat. Is it a good hotel?"

"Lots of girls there," piped up Agus, eyes sparkling.

"How do you mean?"

"Lots of women," said Melati, looking at Agus and giggling.

"You like drugs?" asked Dede.

"No. Definitely not. What kind of hotel is it?"

"They tried to burn it down," explained Dede.

"Who did?"

"A mob," said Dede.


"Some people round here don’t like these places," said Melati.

"Who owns it?"

"Chinese," said Dede.

"They didn’t manage to burn it down?"

"No. There were too many police and soldiers," said Dede.

"I think I’ll get something to eat at a roadside stall. Can you show me the way?"

"Certainly," said Dede, as he handed me some rambutan.

As we followed a narrow path through the woodland, I was thinking how good it was to still be able to find trees on the island of Java. Ninety percent of the island’s original forests have been cut down.

"Do you have any Gharu trees?" I asked. I had heard that such trees were to be found in western New Guinea and that the resin from the trees could be used as a drug to help you contact your ancestors.

Melati shook her head and looked puzzled.

"Left or right?" I asked, as we emerged from the dark and reached an area of rough grassland and scattered trees.

"Not left," said Dede.

"Ghosts on the left," said Agus, steering us to the right.

"Really?" I asked.

"An old man died near here," said Dede.

"What happened?" I said, noting the sober expressions on the faces of the two boys.

"People said he used black magic. He died suddenly," explained Agus.

"He was a dukun jilat," said Melati.

"What kind of dukun is that?" I asked.

Dede made sucking sounds with his mouth. "The dukun sucks the bit of you that’s sakit," he said, while scratching himself.

"Black magic?" I said.

"Some babies got sick," said Melati.

"The old man had some land," said Dede.

"A rich man from Jakarta now has the land," said Melati.

A red tiled school building came into view.

"My school," said Agus.

"Can I have a look?" I said.

Agus happily led us into the empty building which was made up of a handful of classrooms around a courtyard. I noted the rotting timbers, the graffiti on walls, and the complete absence of any kind of equipment or furniture other than cheap wooden desks with names carved on them.

Agus took a thick pen from his pocket and began to apply some scribbles to an exterior wall.

"I think we’d better move on," I said.

A small shop at a road junction provided a place for me to buy my meal of bananas, biscuits and cola. Mysteriously enough I could see my vehicle parked a few metres down the street. Before departing, I rewarded my guides.

"Thank you, Woody Allen," said Dede.

Chong, the malnourished young man I had found lying in the street and taken to the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor, hadn’t been visited by me for some time; so to assuage my guilt I went to see him.

I strode through the hospital’s sunny gardens, admiring the white Gardenia, the red and yellow Rangoon Creeper, and the handsome, modern two storey block containing the director’s office; finally, some distance from the hospital entrance, I reached the warehouse-like ward housing Chong.

"I’ve come to take Chong for a walk," I said to the young male nurse who opened the locked door of the mildewed building.

"Chong?" The nurse, casually dressed in T-shirt and jeans, looked as if he had never heard the name before.

"Yes, please."

He went inside to check.

"Nobody here called Chong," said the nurse on his return.

"There must be. I brought him to this hospital and he was in this ward last time I visited."

"He’s not here."

"Are you absolutely sure?"

"Yes. I know all the patients."

"Do you remember Chong?"

"No," he said, with a sort of vacant grin.

"I’ll go to the Director’s office and ask there." I felt ready to lash my tail.

I explained the situation to the director’s secretary, who informed me that the director was away in Jakarta, but that I could speak to a deputy. I was eventually introduced to a round-faced doctor with thinning hair and a sharp looking man wearing an expensive suit and tinted glasses.

"We’ve sent someone to collect Chong," said the doctor, sitting back on the expensive black leather settee.

"Would you like some tea?" asked the man with the smart suit.

"No thanks," I answered politely.

A nurse entered with a young male patient who had broad shoulders and a grinning Javanese face.

"Here’s Chong," said the doctor.

"This is not Chong," I said. "Chong looks Chinese and he’s slim."

"This is Chong," said the smiling nurse.

"It’s not the person I brought to the hospital."

There was a period of silence.

"Have you tried the mental hospital on Jalan Dr Semeru?" volunteered the nurse.

"That’s not where I took Chong," I said.

"I’m sorry we can’t help you," said the doctor.

"Have you checked the records?" I asked.

"We have," said the unruffled doctor.

"What do you think has happened to Chong?"

"The only Chong we have is this man the nurse brought here."

"But he is not Chong," I said.

"Mr Kent, I’m sorry we can’t help you," said the man with the tinted glasses.

I supposed there was nothing I could do. It was possible that Chong had been allowed out of his ward and had wandered through the gardens and subsequently through the hospital’s open gates. There was no great incentive to keep a careful eye on a patient like Chong; I had not visited Chong for some time and his family had no interest in him. Perhaps he had got sick and died; perhaps he was wandering through the streets of Bogor.

Later that morning, while taking a walk alongside the Ciliwung river, not far from Bogor’s botanic gardens, I spotted a ragged-looking figure under a wide stone bridge. Could it be Chong? I crossed a patch of tall grass to have a closer look.

Instead of Chong I found a teenage boy, a granny, a small girl, a few pots and pans, several sleeping mats and some plastic bags: a home under a bridge.

"Hello," I said, being careful not to go too close. I didn’t want to actually enter their bedroom.

They stared at me with frightened eyes. Or was it hostility?

"Do you live here, under the bridge?" I asked.

The boy nodded.

"How many people?"

"Five," said the granny, who managed a slight smile.

"Do you work in Bogor?"

"In the market," she said.

I took some money from my pocket and held my hand out in their direction. The boy took it, almost grabbing it.

"Thank you," said the granny.

Leaving the centre of Bogor, I motored along the usual bumpy roads to Bogor Baru. Having visited little Andi and tubercular Asep, who seemed in reasonable health, I decided to find out how Ciah was getting on. Ciah was sitting on her verandah, looking pale but reasonably well recovered from her hepatitis. Maybe her lack of colour was due to the lichen and moss covered trees cutting off the sun from her shack.

"How’s Agosto?" I asked.

"He’s sick," said Ciah, standing up and beckoning me into the wood and bamboo house.

Lying on the black metal bed, which almost filled the stuffy room, was twelve-year-old Agosto. He looked fevered, withered and yellowy-green.

Two neighbours, having helped carry the boy down to the road and into the back of my van, accompanied us to the Menteng Hospital. I wondered if we would get there in time to save him. He closed his eyes but kept on breathing all the way through town.

We reached the emergency ward and Agosto was laid on a bed covered in stained plastic.

"How long has he been ill?" asked the young doctor.

"I think it’s about ten days," said Ciah in a tired voice.


"Yes," said Ciah. Agosto seemed to be not quite aware of what was going on.



"Stomach pain?"


"Constipation or diarrhoea?"

"Yes," said Ciah, sounding hesitant.

I got the feeling she was not too clear in her thinking.

The doctor looked at a rash on Agosto’s abdomen and peered down his throat. A nurse took his temperature, did a blood test and attached him to a drip.

"What do you think it is?" I asked the doctor.

"Typhoid, probably. Very common among children aged ten to fourteen. It can take several tests to be sure. Not easy to diagnose. We’ll give him antibiotics."

"Is he very seriously ill?" I said.

"It’s a pity Agosto wasn’t brought here much earlier," said the doctor frowning, "He’s very dehydrated and weak."

"Do you think he’s going to be OK?"

"We hope so. There’s always a risk of complications, especially when patients get here late."

"What kind of complications?"

"Meningitis, intestinal bleeding, pneumonia. There’s a problem if the infection gets into the bloodstream and moves to the liver."

"Why do so many kids get typhoid?" I asked.

"Patients who’ve recovered can still be carriers. The bacteria is in their faeces. So it spreads. Dirty food and dirty water."

"Kids don’t wash their hands?" I said.

"And food has to be boiled for twelve minutes to kill any bacteria in it."

"Why don’t kids get vaccinated?"

"Vaccination can cost a month’s wages and it only covers you for three years. Another problem is that some antibiotics don’t work anymore." The doctor gave a shrug and a friendly smile before heading to a desk to do some paperwork.

Agosto was wheeled through a section of garden and into the crowded third class children’s ward, a long shed-like building with big metal windows. Sitting beside the sick children were family members who had brought with them baskets of home made snacks and bottles of tea. In one corner of the ward, a mother and daughter guarded a little girl who was even more grey and wizened than Agosto.

"Who’s the girl in the corner bed?" I asked the nurse, as she adjusted Agosto’s drip.


"She’s not on a drip," I said.

"The parents are very poor," explained the nurse.

"Is she getting any medicine?"

"They can’t afford it," said the nurse.

"What’s wrong with Suhartini?" I asked.

"Typhoid. And there are complications."

I looked at Suhartini’s mother and older sister who were seated at the bedside. The tired looking mother wore a watch, although it may have been of little value. The older sister looked plump and wore a clean school uniform.

"I’ll pay for the medicine," I said to the nurse. "Has the mother got the prescription?"

"Yes, you can take it to the pharmacy near the entrance."

This was explained to the mother and I was accompanied to the chemist by the plump sister.

"How many days will Suhartini’s medicine last?" I asked the pharmacist.

"Three days."

"Can the doctor write out a prescription to last more than three days? I live in Jakarta and can’t get here every day."

"No," said the pharmacist. "The family must buy more medicine in three days time."

"I’ll need to give the mother some money for that," I said.

"Give me money for school," said the grinning sister. She seemed to show no trace of anxiety about her sibling, but then emotions are often difficult to detect.

Back at the children’s ward, I handed over some money to Ciah and to Suhartini’s mum.

"For medicine and food only," I said. "Not for other things."


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