Saturday, January 25, 2003

27. A GIRLFRIEND AGED SIXTEEN

After seven days, I returned to the third-class children’s ward of the Menteng Hospital in Bogor. In the simple sunlit room, there was a smell of unwashed bare feet and sweaty anxiety. I was feeling jittery; almost reluctant to look at anyone’s face. But I could see Agosto; he was still alive. In fact, although he still looked a bit shrivelled, he was reasonably alert and able to sit up. Ciah, his mother, was smiling a wan smile.

"His fever’s down," said the nurse, a pleasant, plump, matronly woman. "Now he needs to put on weight."

"How’s Suhartini?" I asked. The little girl’s bed was occupied by a new patient, a cheerful boy.

"Gone," said the nurse, in a soft voice.

"What happened?" I asked, my heart beginning to beat faster.

"No longer here," said the nurse, soothingly.

"Dead?" I asked, in a louder voice.

"She’s left this world," said the nurse, putting on a little smile.

Other visitors were looking in my direction and also smiling. It was that smile that tries to lessen the impact of bad news.

My stomach tightened. I wondered if she would have survived if she had got her typhoid medicine a bit sooner. It seemed criminal that when she had first arrived at the hospital she had apparently not been given any medicine.

"The government’s supposed to give hospitals money," I said to the nurse, with more than a hint of rage. "For free medicine; for the very poor."

"People have to pay," said the nurse quietly.

"Does this hospital get money from the government?" I asked, determined to press my point.

"The money runs out very quickly," said the nurse, giving me a smile with a hint of cynicism.

"I’ll give you my telephone number," I said to the nurse. "Phone me if there’s another case like Suhartini."

She never did phone.


After leaving the Menteng Hospital I returned to the Bogor district of Babakan. I had stuck Chong’s photo to a piece of paper, added my telephone number and a sentence about a reward being offered for his safe return, made lots of photocopies, and brought them to the mental hospital.

"Has Chong been found yet?" I asked the grey little man in the mental hospital’s dusty front-office.

"Chong?" he said. He wore a puzzled expression. Or was it boredom?

I explained about Chong. "I’ve made this poster," I said. "May I give them out to people?"

"Yes." His face had become expressionless.

In the open-air market area just north of the railway station I distributed my photocopies, mainly to resting pedicab drivers. Nobody who looked at the poster recognised the face or seemed particularly interested. I didn’t want to stay too long in case someone in authority asked me what on earth I was doing. You probably need permission in triplicate before giving out leaflets.

Weeks passed but there was no word of Chong. He had vanished; and I would never see him again.


The school term moved on and the rainy season arrived early. On a Saturday morning of black skies I made my daily check-up on Min at his home in South Jakarta. As I stepped into the little front room, Min got up from the frayed and stained settee and began dancing around and sort of singing. He was having one of his hyperactive days. I wondered if his more eccentric behaviour was related to his illness at age seven, which was presumably something like meningitis or encephalitis, or related to the poverty of his early environment, or related to something inherited. Probably it was a combination of factors.

"Kent," said Wati, Min’s mum, who was wearing her best batik dress, "Aldi’s now going to school here in Cipete."

"Great," I said.

It was good to hear that the middle child in the family, eleven-year-old Aldi, was now living in the new house, rather than back in the slums of North Jakarta. Aldi, looking handsome but not wildly happy, appeared at the kitchen door. He was frowning, but I presumed he was going to be able to settle-in and make new friends.

"Kent," continued Wati, in a begging voice, "Min’s relatives in Cengkareng. We’d like to visit them. Can you take us?"

"Cengkareng?"

"It’s near Min’s old house in Teluk Gong. Near the sea."

"I want to go to Teluk Gong," I said, "to visit Sani and Indra, the seven-year-olds with TB. So we can go to Cengkareng after that."

We trooped out of the house, me, Min, Min’s mum and dad, Wardi, eleven-year-old Aldi, and little Itin and Imah. In single file, and watched by the neighbours, we paraded down the street towards my vehicle.

It was raining heavily as we made the one and a half hour journey to North Jakarta through the more than usually jammed streets.

The area around Min’s old house looked different. Due to the heavy rains, and the high tide, it was under water. About two feet under water. There was a canoe sailing down the main street and happy kids in bathing costumes were swimming past the doctor’s clinic. Some citizens had moved furniture onto their roofs. We had to park the Mitsubishi on the higher ground at the entrance to the area.

"How do we get through here?" I asked.

"Motorbikes," said Wardi. "We can get ojeks."

The ojek drivers were doing a roaring trade. Wardi and Min got on the back of one bike and I got on the back of another. I kept my feet as high as possible as we drove along the Venice-like lanes to the wooden house on stilts occupied by little Sani and Indra. We didn’t hit too many deep potholes and we didn’t topple over.

"How are Sani and Indra?" I asked their mum, who was standing at her door. In fact I could see the two children and they were as puny and sickly as before.

"OK," said mum, wearing a vacant look.

"They’re twins, Sani and Indra," explained Wardi.

"Are they eating well?" I asked.

"No," said mum.

"Have they still got coughs?"

"Yes."

"Is the medicine finished?"

"No."

"Can I have a look?" I said, while stepping inside the house.

She hesitated. I could see the bed, and two shelves. There really wasn’t much else. On one shelf was a clear plastic bag and in the bag were the clear plastic cartons containing the TB pills. I pointed to the bag and she brought it over for me to have a look.

"The medicine cartons haven’t been opened since you got them from the hospital," I pointed out.

"Yes they have," she said.

"Look, the cartons are full to the brim. Have you been forgetting to give the kids their medicine?"

"No." She looked away.

"Have you got a calendar where you can tick off the medicine each day?"

"No."

I took a page from my notebook and made a simple calendar.

"My driver will come here next week to check you’ve remembered to give them their pills. They must get them every day. Are you going to forget tomorrow?"

"No."

Before leaving, I watched her give that day’s medicine to the twins and watched her tick off the date.

Leaving Teluk Gong, we drove East towards Cengkareng along minor roads that in places were about a foot under water.

"Look at those houses," said Wardi pointing leftwards to a middle class housing estate where flood water had reached window height. "These were only built a few years ago."

"They’ve cut down too many trees up in the Puncak," I said. "Instead of the trees they’ve got luxury houses and golf courses designed by these top name golfers from America."

"Yeah," said Wardi, looking blank.

"When it rains," I continued, "the water goes too quickly into the rivers. No trees to slow down the water. The rivers and drainage channels overflow their banks and Jakarta gets flooded. Friends of the President have taken over entire hills near Bogor."

"This area’s always flooding," said Wardi.

"If they’d built the houses on higher foundations they’d be OK," I said. "But the builder was too mean."

Not much further on we came to a man-made mountain range constructed of every kind of garbage. It was dark grey and smoking like a huge World War One battlefield after the guns had stopped; after all the sweet smelling flowers, all the cute furry bunny rabbits, and all the fluttery little song birds had been smashed, splintered and pulverised by machines and then buried in gangrenous filth . Now, little children, with wicker baskets on their backs, were scavenging for soggy paper and plastic and perhaps finding the arms or legs from a settee or from something else. Dangerous looking machines moved among the infants. Being probably as big as any dump in the Philippines or Egypt, it would make a marvellous tourist attraction and perhaps the shanty dwellers living on the edge of the tip could offer bed and breakfast and unusual souvenirs.

We motored on past flat fields and over wide canals to a more heavily populated area. It had stopped raining.

"Is it much further to your relations’ house?" I asked. "You said it was near Teluk Gong." I was beginning to feel hungry and irritable.

"We’re almost there," said Wardi

We parked under some trees and set off on foot along a muddy path sided by high brick walls. This opened out onto a flat red-brown plain which stretched into the distance. It made me think of the outskirts of Marrakech on a cloudy day. I could see no trees or grass but lots of home made shanty houses built with brick, corrugated iron and even cardboard.

Improved kampungs have concrete paths and drainage ditches but such luxuries were absent here. Strange coloured human waste lay in puddles. Great chunks of red earth clung to my shoes.

"Here we are," said Wati.

We had arrived outside a small brick house and were greeted by various of Min’s cousins, uncles and aunts. The smaller children had thin limbs and slightly bulging tummies. We crammed into the front room where there was simply not enough space for us all to be comfortable. Small cakes and glasses of water were offered although I was careful to avoid actually consuming anything. Goodness knows what was in the water.

"Have another cake," said Wati.

"I’m fine thanks. Haven’t quite finished the first one yet," I said. I couldn’t hide the cake in my pocket as there was always someone staring at me.

The conversation was in Sundanese which was Greek to me. I grew tired of staring at their few possessions: a calendar showing a mosque, a metal bed, several school exercise books, a broken mirror and a battered wardrobe.

"Can I use the toilet?" I asked.

An uncle led me outside and pointed to a muddy ditch a few feet from the well. A mobile stall selling noodles had arrived in the street and a crowd had gathered. Oh dear. I wandered down the road but everywhere there were people: playing chess, flying kites, sweeping the path, hanging out washing, tending their fighting cocks, having a good gossip, or tinkering with motorbikes. I reached the canal where other people had gathered to wash their hands. Ah well, when in Cengkareng, do as the locals do.


The following day, in Kem Chiks little supermarket in South Jakarta, a place where foreigners can buy everything from imported avocados to imported zit cream, I bumped into an amiable expat acquaintance called Tom. In appearance, Tom looked a little like Groucho Marks. We decided to have coffees and Danish pastries in the upstairs cafe.

I told Tom about the skinny children I had seen in Cengkareng.

"Probably got worms," said Tom, with a trace of a Manchester accent. "Almost everyone’s got them."

"Not very healthy," I said, while noting bachelor Tom’s pallid complexion and bald patch.

"You know places like Malaysia and the Philippines spend about five times as much on health as Indonesia does," said Tom, who had trained as an accountant and had a head for figures.

"But I have to say the people in Cengkareng looked a happy bunch."

"It’s the communal thing," said Tom. "They’ve all got lots of friends. Not like in Britain."

"You still like the life here?" I asked.

"In my next reincarnation I wouldn’t mind being in Bali."

"You believe in reincarnation?"

"Well it’s one of the more logical explanations of things," said Tom. "I want to find out a bit more about Islam."

"Your Moslem girl friend? What age is she?" I had first met Tom while having a drink with Fergus at the Hyatt Aryaduta Hotel. It was there that Tom had told his friend Fergus about this girl moving into his house.

"She’s now sixteen," said Tom very calmly. "She was a little younger when I first met her, but I didn’t sleep with her until her sixteenth birthday. She wants to marry me."

I was startled, but tried not to show it; I wanted to appear as an experienced man of the world.

"You’re forty something?" I asked. I looked again at Tom’s thinning hair.

"Yup. I don’t want marriage. It’s her idea. I thought about marriage but I don’t want all the complications, like becoming a Moslem and being married to her entire extended family."

"You look worried," I said.

"I am. She’s very determined about the marriage thing."

"What are her parents like?"

"Nice enough, but not exactly sophisticated. It’s her friends I don’t like. She used to work in a bar and I don’t like some of the people she worked with. Really tough people."

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