Wednesday, January 15, 2003



One Saturday morning in September I made a journey to the countryside around Ciomas, not so very far from Bogor. This was Java at its best.

The morning sky was deepest blue and all the poppy-coloured roofs and all the flame-green paddies seemed to sing and dance with light. I passed a leafy playground where, accompanied by jolly dangdut music, dusky cherubs in white school uniforms were performing sensuous aerobics. I headed along tree-flanked tracks, past diminutive shacks and mosques, and up through airless woodland until I reached a river in a deep-bottomed gorge. There was a musky aroma of warm and fleshy jungle and I could hear splashes and shouts. Young Tarzans, in their birthday suits, were swinging from dangly vines and leaping from enormous heights into deep, earth-brown water. I continued up steep tree-covered slopes until suddenly I sighted the volcano, Mount Salak, and beneath it a lovely lake.

I decided that it was picnic time and sat myself down on a tree root of enormous size. It was good to put down my pack and start the laying out of lunch. It was a typical day near the equator, in terms of heat. But I had the shady trees, the flask of Muscadet, the ham and mustard sandwiches, the melting brie, the hot anchovy-stuffed olives and two of the finest almond croissants you can ever imagine.

As I began munching a sandwich I became aware that I had company. A small girl and a small boy had come to stare at me. They looked about eleven years old and had pleasant elfin faces. I decided to offer them one half of an almond croissant each. These offerings were eaten slowly and with relish. Not a single crumb was wasted.

As I polished off the olives and the brie I noticed that four more children had come to have a look.

"I can’t offer you a sandwich," I said to the group. "They’re ham sandwiches."

The children smiled politely. I looked at the yet uneaten almond croissant and decided that I would get considerable pleasure from offering it to the four hungry-looking newcomers, more pleasure than I would get from eating the thing on my own. Picnics are more fun when you have company.

I handed the croissant to the largest boy in the group and he carefully broke it into four small pieces. The result was four happy smiling faces.

When the food was finished, I took a stroll around the lake, followed at a discreet distance by the children. I was thinking to myself that this was better than Bali.

That evening I went shopping at Kem Chicks supermarket, a red-roofed building that looks like a large private house. While walking the aisles, I bumped into Carmen and we decided to have a coffee and a chat in the little upstairs restaurant.

"How was your weekend holiday?" I asked, once we had settled ourselves down at a table.

"In Bali you never need to be short of company," said Carmen, with the sort of loud chuckle that makes heads turn.

"What sort?" I asked, as I began applying my fork to the first of two large almond croissants.

"I remember two teenagers in particular: Andi and Andri: earrings and cool shades and skinny bodies. They were sitting outside an American fast-food restaurant. Andri was sitting on Andi’s lap and the two of them were being quite affectionate to each other. They’re like that in this country. Even the police. Andri and Andi insisted that they should act as my guides in Kuta."

"You couldn’t get rid of them?"

"I told them that I was a local and didn’t need a guide. I asked them if they were Balinese and really knew Bali. They admitted that they were migrants from Java. I asked them if there were any problems between the Balinese and all the Javanese who’ve come into the island. They admitted that there were problems. They said that the immigrants got blamed for spreading AIDS, selling drugs, selling sex and extorting money. I asked them if they were going to try to extract money from me. They gave me friendly smiles and I wandered off unmolested."

"Has Indonesia got much of a problem with AIDS?" I asked.

"An expatriate nurse once told me that in the naughty parts of Surabaya, and other such places, it could be the same high rate as in Bangkok’s Patpong."

"I don’t suppose the Balinese can do much to get rid of the incomers."

"They’ve tried to fight against the drug trade and so on, but the criminal gangs are protected by the security forces."

"The army is important in Bali?"

"In lots of ways. Around 80,000 Balinese were murdered by the army people, back around 1965, when the Americans put Suharto into power. Now a lot of the tourist industry seems to be owned by army generals and the Suharto clan. Also, Bali is the base for the Udayana Army Command."

"Udayana Army Command?"

"These are the army people that control East Timor."

"And did you enjoy Bali?"

"It got me away from all the useless meetings and paperwork at school. Was I happy in Bali? I was happy when I could see the temples, the mountains and the sea. I wasn’t happy with the queues at the airport. I think, to be happy, you have to learn not to cry over spilt coconut milk. When the Garuda flight’s delayed, you just have to adjust. You just have to say to yourself that it’s not the end of the world. In fact the delay can be seen as a bonus, because it teaches you patience."

"And if there are mosquitoes in the sandwiches, it won’t spoil the picnic."

"That’s it," said Carmen. "Live for the moment."

"Are you good at doing that?"

"Not in the slightest. To be happy you have to be able to move on, otherwise you get bored. I’m not always good at moving on."

"Moving on?"

"Forgetting about yesterday’s problems with maids and traffic and moving on to today’s adventure."

"I have problems with maids and traffic and lazy students."

"I thought you were the charitable type." Carmen gave me a look which suggested just a hint of doubt.

"There’s often an opposite side to people," I said.

"Ah! So what’s your opposite side?" Carmen’s eyes had developed a wicked twinkle.

"There is nobody more irritable than me in a queue in a Hero supermarket," I confessed. "And when I don’t get the right change there is no one more quick to take it personally. I’m always complaining to restaurant managers about cold soup and poor service."

"We shouldn’t take things so seriously?"

"A friend at university once said I shouldn’t look down my nose at people. Then a numerologist warned me against false pride."

"You didn’t hit them?"

"I didn’t believe them, especially about the false pride," I said. "I didn’t believe them until that child called Budi died. Then I thought, well, I should have visited Budi more often. I’ve got nothing to feel proud about."

"I sometimes go from one extreme to the other," admitted Carmen. "One moment I think everything’s going wonderfully and next moment I think I’m a complete failure. We need a balanced position. We’re not as good as we think. But we’re not as bad as we think."

"Do you have a negative side?" I asked.

"I’m bad when it comes to patience. I think all my traveling’s got something to do with impatience. The traveling is an escape."

"An escape from what?"

"An escape from making the necessary adjustments. The Balinese make a big thing about making adjustments and keeping life in balance. When a boy reaches the age of puberty, there’s a ceremony in which he has his upper canine teeth filed down. This is all about him getting rid of his less desirable characteristics, and becoming more balanced in his behaviour."

"Bali is the biggest Hindu place after India."

"Bali’s religion is a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism," said Carmen.

"A balanced approach."

"When you look at the depressed and drunken British and Australian tourists in Bali, you think that the Balinese have a superior way of life. But I’m not sure that the Balinese religion is necessarily perfect. Bali still has a little bit of the caste system. And I’m not sure, if I was Balinese, that I could cope with all these priests and endless rituals. I wouldn’t want to see a cock being killed during a cock fight and then the blood being used in some purifying ceremony. That seems too primitive. On the other hand, I love the beating of the gongs and bits of bamboo when they’re driving out evil spirits. And I like the Balinese idea of communicating with your dead relatives."

"On balance, you’d rather be Balinese than British."

"Oh definitely Balinese," said Carmen.

On the Monday afternoon I made another visit to Jakarta’s Teluk Gong Hospital. John was alive and well and looking positively chubby. His mother, wearing sandals and a simple white dress, was smiling happily.

"He can go home now," said the doctor whose expensive suit suggested high status and middle-aged spread.

"What was wrong with John?" I asked.

"Simply dysentery," said the beaming doctor. "Sometimes it goes undetected because there are no obvious symptoms. We did a series of stool tests. It was easy to clear up. Then we gave John a good diet. His mother must be careful in future with hygiene because John is very retarded and gets his hands dirty."

"He had marks all over his skin," said John’s mother. "I hope it wasn't cigarette burns."

"Well I hope he doesn’t go back to the mental hospital in Babakan," I said. "Have you found a place to stay?"

"Yes, in Teluk Gong. Want to have a look?"

"Yes please."

I accompanied John and his mum to their new home. The furniture had already arrived. The house was like a large garage divided into three rooms, but, with its white painted walls, fridge, TV, beds and settee, it looked bright and homely. I handed over the money for the rent. I had some niggling doubts about whether or not John would survive into a comfortable old age. But for the moment everything seemed fine.

"Where did the furniture come from?" I asked.

"Relations," said mum. She was seated on the settee and a smiling John had his arms around her.

John’s sister arrived, again dressed in cord jeans. She had the pale skin and curvaceous lips that I associated with some Sumatrans.

"Hi. I’m Martha," she said. "Thank you for helping John."

"You’ll have new neighbours now," I said to Martha. "Do you think they’ll be friendly?"

"We’ve got three lots of relations in the neighbourhood," said Martha. "We’re not far from our church and my school."

"Christian school?" I asked.


"Has it got any Moslem students?" I asked.

"Most of them are Moslem," said Martha, suddenly cold-eyed and unsmiling. "The rich Moslems want their children to go to Christian schools."

"Have you got a Moslem boyfriend?"

"I don’t like Indonesian boys," said Martha, making a sour face.

"None of them?"

"None. I’ve got a pen friend." She took a photo from a pocket in her tight blouse and handed it to me.

"Where’s he from?" I said, as I studied the picture of a handsome Semitic-looking youth in his twenties.

"The Middle East. He’s Jewish."

When I visited Min, next afternoon, he was having one of his hyper days. His eyes sparkled, he was grinning from ear to ear, and his body was charged with jerky energy.

"How’s Min?" I asked Wati, who was preparing vegetables on her living-room floor.

"Fine." As she spoke, Min poked little sister Imah in the stomach. Imah looked puzzled.

"Min’s not getting any medicine these days, is he?" I said.

"He’s not, and he can still be naughty," said Wati, looking cross.

"How’s the vegetable stall?"

"Not good. We have to give money to this person and that." Wati avoided looking at me.

"Who gets money?"

"Municipal security officials, and others."

"Is this legal?"

"No. They just want money."

"Is it like that where you used to live, in Teluk Gong?"

"Not the same. In Teluk Gong we have lots of family."

"How many?"

"Lots. Uncles, nephews, cousins, grandparents."

"So people won’t take money off you."

"Some of the people around here are bad."

"How do you mean?"

"Some of them drink too much. Some of them don’t like Min."

I was beginning to get the message, and it was confirming some of the thoughts that had been floating around in my mind for some time. Wati and family wanted to return to North Jakarta.

"Do you want to go back to Teluk Gong?" I asked.

She didn’t want to offend me by replying in the affirmative. She simply carried on putting vegetables into little plastic bags.

"It’s difficult to get work here," said Gani, from the kitchen.

"If you go back to Teluk Gong," I said, "you’d need to find a house that’s better than your old one on stilts. You want a place with a proper toilet and kitchen. Are there houses like that in Teluk Gong?"

"Yes, Mr Kent," said Wati, suddenly looking happier. "Lots."

"Do you want to start looking for a house in Teluk Gong?" I asked.

"It’s up to you, Mr Kent," said Wati. I interpreted this as a ‘yes.’

"Would you sell this house here in Cipete, to get the money to buy one in Teluk Gong?" I asked.

"It’s up to you, Mr Kent," said Wati. I interpreted this as a ‘no.’

"If you didn’t sell this house, what would you do with it? Rent it out?"

"I don’t know," said Wati. It occurred to me that she had a big family and she’d be reluctant to see a house being sold.

"OK," I said. "You find a house in Teluk Gong and I’ll come and have a look at it."



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