Sunday, January 12, 2003



Christmas was fast approaching and I felt it would be a good idea to spend a relaxing weekend down at the coast. I wanted some clean sea air and I wanted to take some pictures with my recently purchased video camera. I announced to Mo, my driver, that at the end of the week we would be going to the seaside town of Pelabuhan Ratu, if that was all right with him. Mo agreed, but his face showed a total lack of enthusiasm.

The school library provided some information about the Queen of the Southern Seas, Nyai Loro Kidul, after whom Pelabuhan Ratu, the Harbour of the Queen, is named. There are a number of versions of the origin of Nyai Loro Kidul. In one version she was the daughter of Prabu Sindhula, the 13th century ruler of the West Javanese kingdom of Galuh. As a result of her pure and chaste life, the princess was transformed into a spirit, and became queen of all the spirits in Java.

A more popular version of the story has it that the lady was the beautiful daughter of Siliwangi, a Javanese King who had several wives. Jealousy of the beautiful princess and of her mother led to black magic being used against them. The princess and her mother became ill, lost their good looks, and were forced to leave the court. The mother died. One day the princess found herself on the Karang Hawu cliff near Pelabuhan Ratu. Mysterious voices persuaded her to leap into the sea, whereupon she was magically transformed into the beautiful Nyai Loro Kidul, Queen of the Southern Seas, a goddess ruling an undersea realm. Some Javanese males picture Nyai Loro Kidul as a sexy, long-haired nymph with swaying hips. The warning is given that she must not be looked at when she is bathing, otherwise misfortune will strike.

Saturday morning arrived, I dumped my suitcase in the back of the van , hummed a Christmassy tune and discovered that one of the vehicle’s tyres was flat. That took Mo half an hour to fix. Then we discovered we had an empty petrol tank, which meant further delay. Was Mo trying to tell me something?

On the way to Pelabuhan Ratu I stopped off in Bogor, where I briefly called in at the house of Daud, the boy who had recently been taken home from the mental hospital. Mum was out at work, but Daud’s brother, a handsome youth with a studious face, welcomed me in and took me upstairs to Daud’s room. Daud had now been home from the hospital for some time and was cured of his diarrhoea. He was seated on the floor fiddling with a rubber band. Unlike Min, whose eyes could sparkle with intelligence and warmth, Daud’s eyes seemed to stare with a puzzled blankness. But at least he was now well-fed and well-clothed, and that offered me some cheer.

From Bogor Mo and I drove on to Ciawi and then took the right fork to Cicurug. Just before Cibadak we stopped for a brief rest at a roadside stall. Over to our right lay Mount Halimun National Park, an area of misty mountains, unspoilt rainforest and what are reputed to be dangerous spirits. I had read that the loggers had not yet managed to enter this area , which was good news for the Hornbills, the Sunda Minivets, the Racket-tailed Drongos, the Javan gibbons, the Javan Leaf-monkeys, and the giant hardwood timber trees such as the Rasamala and the Meranti.

When Mo and I eventually arrived in Pelabuhan Ratu, the weather was breezy and grey, but one patch of cloud had a yellow brightness which suggested that the sun might be just about to burst through. As I got out of the Mitsubishi near the harbour, the sails of the fishing boats were flapping noisily and the tops of the coconut palms were being bent to one side. Next to the market there was a truckload of armed soldiers; and on the road into the town I had noticed two more military vehicles.

I entered a little wooden shop in order to buy a non-alcoholic drink called teh botol. "What’s going on? Why the military?" I asked the thin woman behind the counter.

"There’s been a riot," she said, without showing any emotion. "Some students tried to burn down the house of a Chinese businessman."


"The Chinese have opened a supermarket. They’ll take business away from the small traders."

"Is it peaceful now?"

"Sort of. But I’d stay away from the area beyond the hospital."

When I booked into the Samudra Beach hotel I noticed there were two army officers in the lobby.

Having unpacked, I took a stroll along the wide wet sands in front of the hotel. At some distance off I spied a fisherwoman and her long-haired teenage daughter, both draped in towels, and both about to enter the sea. I stopped beside a clump of palm trees and unpacked my video camera. As I looked through the lens I could see the fisherwoman up to her neck in water, and the slim daughter up to her waist. Should I press the shutter? It was a perfect scene, comprising foamy sea, two distant fishing boats, a wild sky and a girl’s beautiful naked back. I took some film.

I made more use of my camera at an open-air fish market where women and young boys were selling bright red tuna, shiny squid and long black eels. I moved my camera up close to a particularly large hammerhead shark. The air had a pleasing aroma of salty sea and mackerel.

My photography finished, I paid a visit to a fishing family in the centre of town. I wanted to see how Ali, a little hunchback boy, was getting on. His wooden house was simply furnished but its white interior walls and its sizeable windows gave it a bright and cheerful feel. A smiling Ali looked less starved than on my previous visit. His stressed looking mum offered me a glass of water, which I carefully avoided drinking.

Next I motored to the wooden hovel occupied by Marni, the thalassaemia girl. Marni’s mum was standing at her front door and she was carrying Marni wrapped up in a cloth, like an oversized baby.

"Has she had a blood transfusion yet?" I asked, after we had exchanged pleasantries.

"No. She doesn’t want one," said the mother quietly.

"Has your relative given you that money he was supposed to pass on?" As I said this I could see a fat, brown-uniformed policeman, shirt partly hanging out, standing across the road.

"Not yet."

I gave Marni’s mum some more money and then went for a solitary wander along the beach, heading eastwards. My driver had instructions to drive slowly along the coast road which runs parallel to the beach, in case I wanted a lift back into town.

I came upon two boys in cheap anoraks sitting on a fishing boat and wondered if I should take a photo. No. The boys appeared terrified. They kept looking towards a tall crew-cut man standing on the road. I had never before seen Indonesian children so frightened and decided to move on swiftly. Goodness knows who the man was.

The further I walked, the more impoverished grew the fishermen’s wooden huts and the blacker grew the sky. Rain began to patter down. I hurried over the soft sand, trying to avoid the occasional piles of human excrement. I could see my vehicle parked on the road, but I was making for an open-air stall selling snacks and cola. A jolt of thunder and torrential rain made me run the final yards to this warung, which had the benefit of a wooden roof.

I ordered a cola and took a seat. "What happened to your leg?" I said to the mop-headed boy stretched out on the wooden bench to my left. He looked about twelve, was wearing brown school shorts, and his left knee and part of his left thigh were red, swollen and puss covered.

"I got hit by a car. A military vehicle. It didn’t stop."

"Not been to a doctor?"


"Like to go to the hospital?" I asked, while noting that my vehicle was still stopped on the nearby road, and that Mo was looking in our direction.

"Yes please," he said, suddenly looking cheerful. "Can my big sister come too?"

"Of course."

"There’s a sick baby in the house over there." He pointed to a thatch covered hut.

"It can come too, with its mum."

"And there’s an old man who’s sick."

By the time we reached the little hospital a desperately thin woman had also joined our company.

"You can’t come in here with your camera," said a stout little man in a beige uniform who was standing at the hospital entrance. "You can’t use a camera in this part of town."

I was annoyed by his officiousness and lack of charm. I wasn’t going to give in. "I’m a tourist. Surely I can take pictures," I complained.

"Leave your camera in your hotel," he said, moving towards me with his teeth showing.

I gave the camera to my driver and waited in reception for my patients to see various doctors and collect an assortment of pills. I hoped Mo would not look at what I had been filming.

In the late afternoon Mo drove me to the town’s small fishing harbour so I could take pictures of fishing boats. I passed two policeman standing near the wide open entrance at the harbour’s eastern end.

"Have you paid to enter?" said one of the policemen, a tall thirty-something-year-old, with a sly face.

"Oh yes," I lied. I was sure you didn’t have to pay to wander around this harbour which I had visited many times before.

I photographed a number of oily little fishing boats with bright painted lettering on their sides. These were relatively small scale vessels but they did have engines and nets and they were bigger than the wooden catamarans I had seen on the beach. Much of Indonesia's fishing fleet still uses hook and line but there is increasing use of more advanced gear. I spotted a couple of fishermen mending nets but they would not smile for the camera. They looked too anxious. I decided to return to my van where my driver was lounging against the front door. The two policeman were standing a few yards distant.

"The police want you to go to the police station," said Mo, smiling slightly.


"You have to go to the police station. You can go in your own vehicle."

As Mo and I made the five minute drive to the police station, I was wondering what I had done wrong. Had I failed to pay my TV license? They weren’t to know. Had I deeply offended the two policemen by not giving them money? Surely not. Did they suspect me of being a Libyan agent trying to start a revolution? I wasn’t wearing dark glasses and a funny hat. What was worrying me was the video shots of the naked girl’s back. I could be blackmailed. I picked up my camera, found the start of the section relating to the girl, faced the camera towards the van’s floor and started to record.

The police station was a low rise building occupying a narrow space between the main road and a steep tree covered bank. Inside I was invited to have a seat at a long table in a dimly-lit inner room. To my right stood a middle aged army officer with what looked like a submachine gun. He looked like the sort of big muscular chap you might find in a friendly rugby club bar. To my left sat an unsmiling, moustachioed little man who seemed to be the boss and who took a great interest in my passport. Opposite sat a tall young plainclothes policeman whose relaxed posture and bright eyes suggested an above average degree of wealth and education. The two policemen from the fishing harbour stood by the door.

"You are a teacher," said the boss. "Do you know an Australian called John Harris? He teaches at your school." I think he was trying to give me the impression that he knew absolutely everything that went on.

"Ah, I’m not sure about the name. We have a lot of changes of staff," I said. The John who taught at my school, and who had a young girlfriend in Pelabuhan Ratu, was not Australian and his name was John Harrison. John presumably did not show his passport to these chaps. Or maybe the boss was trying to trick me.

"We want you to tell us everything you’ve been doing in Pelabuhan Ratu," said the boss.

So I told them, in great detail, all about Ali, Marni, my walk along the beach, the kid with the car injury, the sick baby and all the others. I missed out the bit about the policeman with his shirt hanging out and the bit about the policemen asking if I had paid to look around the harbour. Fortunately I had not taken any photos of military installations, so far as I knew.

The young plainclothes policeman looked as if he was delighted to have come across a genuinely eccentric and harmless foreigner. He sat back in his chair, grinning widely.

The boss still looked stiff and stern. He called in Mo who was asked to relate everything I had been doing throughout day. Fortunately the two accounts were the same, although Mo decided to complete his narration with a comment about my character.

"Mr Kent likes children," said Mo.

I hoped that would not be interpreted in the wrong way, and that no plainclothes policeman had been watching me filming the girl in the sea.

The boss now seemed to believe it was safe to let me go, but first he wanted to demonstrate who was in charge.

"If you come back to Pelabuhan Ratu and go to visit these people you must first call in at this police station. We’ll get someone to accompany you to these people’s houses."

This angered me as it made Pelabuhan Ratu appear to be like Enver Hoxha’s Albania or Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea. However, deciding to be obsequious and diplomatic, I shook the hands of the various policemen and soldiers and made remarks about English football and the weather.

On the road back to the hotel I tried to work out in my mind what they had been after. Did they think I was a dangerous provocateur or did they want money? I decided to ask my driver.

"Mo, why did the police say they’d get someone to come with me next time I visit Ali or Marni?"

"I think they want to protect you, Mr Kent," said Mo. "If you go into a kampung, carrying money, it’s not too safe."

"But this is a very small town, full of friendly people and plainclothes policemen. Nobody would dare mug a tourist in broad daylight. And isn’t robbery very rare in a Moslem country?"


"If I see a child whose been hit by a military vehicle, surely I can take the child to the hospital without having to ask permission."

"Mr Kent, my son is ill," said Mo, suddenly changing the subject. There was also a change in his voice. He was trying to sound relaxed but he was sounding a little high-pitched. "Can you help with the bill?"

"Your son’s ill! You didn’t tell me. When did it happen?"

"Before we came away. He’s only three. He fell off a chair."

"Has he been to the doctor?"

"Yes. The doctor examined him and told him to rest."

"Give me the receipt when we get back and I’ll pay the bill."

Mo was a puzzle. Why had he not told me about his son before we set out?

Two days after returning to Jakarta, my driver assured me that his son was making a swift recovery. That evening, I played back the video film on my TV screen. I had successfully wiped out only four fifths of the footage of the girl’s back. And prior to the pictures of Pelabuhan Ratu there was a scene showing Mount Salak, a small lake, and a raft on which stood various young people who were not exactly overdressed. But Indonesia is like that; the Jakarta Post has on occasions featured photos of naked schoolboys bathing in rivers or in fountains in front of five star hotels.



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