Wednesday, January 08, 2003



A week had passed and I was back again in Bogor, this time visiting Kebun Raya, the Great Garden, 87 hectares of flora and fauna. I passed through the gloomy main gates, with their statues of the Hindu god Ganesh, and strolled along the dark tree lined avenues. There were Javanese almond trees, huge strangling figs, mighty flame trees and fifty-meter-high king trees with buttress roots almost as big as the arches that hold up cathedrals. Eventually I came to lovely English-style lawns, where adults were practising tai-chi, and lotus ponds, where children were looking for fish. Sitting down in the tea house, I decided to consult my guide book.

The Bogor Botanic Garden was the idea of Sir Stamford Raffles, who temporarily ran Java for the British between 1811 and 1816. The Dutch used the garden to develop various crops such as quinine and cassava. Quinine, from the cinchona tree, came originally from Peru and was used to treat malaria. Cassava, originally found in Batam off Sumatra, became an important source of food. The Botanic Garden contains a monument in memory of Raffle's wife, Olivia, who died of a tropical disease in 1814. The beautiful Olivia was rumoured to have had an affair, prior to the marriage, with one of Raffles' superiors, a man called Ramsay. Four of Raffles' five children died in Sumatra of tropical diseases. What must Raffles have felt about the survival of only one of his children?

Having left the garden, I drove to Bogor Baru. As my vehicle approached the hamlet where Ciah lived, I spotted Agosto, Ciah's young son, standing by the side of the dark tree-lined road. Agosto could have been described as handsome if he had not been looking so dreadfully faded, grey and heartsick. I got out of my vehicle feeling nervous.

"How's your mum?" I asked.

"She's dead," said Agosto, sounding quietly angry, and staring at me.

"Dead? Ciah?" I felt like a doctor who has made a fatal error, or a driver who has been involved in an accident which has led to someone's death. I could remember the encounter with Ciah the previous week and picture her lined little face and faint smile. I could recall her asking for money to go into hospital. I could hear myself saying I was giving her only enough to visit the doctor. "Did she see a doctor?"

"Yes. At the local clinic," said Agosto.

"Did the doctor say it was TB or Dengue Fever or Hepatitis or something?" I was looking for something or someone to blame. I wanted to think that it was something beyond our control.

"I don't know what the illness was," said Agosto. "The doctor gave her some pills." Agosto's dull eyes suggested deep depression. All he had left was his married sister.

"The pills didn't work?"

"Blood came up when she vomited." His voice sounded shaky.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't realise she was so ill."

"Mister, can I come to Jakarta and work for you?" The voice sounded pleading.

"I've got staff at the moment, but I'll let you know if there's any change." At the back of my mind was the thought that I did not want someone living in my house who seemed so deeply unhealthy. I gave him a little money and crept guiltily away.

I tried to push Agosto's news to the back of my brain and concentrate on smiling little Wisnu, the mentally backward child I had found on a Bogor street the previous week. I motored to one of the main police stations in Bogor, a low-rise military-style complex, next to a department store. Seated at a desk at the entrance was a hard-faced young officer, dressed a little like a Los Angeles traffic cop. I handed him the photo I had taken of Wisnu and briefly explained the situation.

"So you'll try and find his family?" I said.

The policeman nodded but did not smile.

"You can keep the photo," I said. "Do you want me to bring Wisnu here?"

He shook his head. He made no move to fill in a form.

"OK. Thanks for your help," I said, without intended irony. I handed him a piece of paper bearing my name and phone number.

My next stop was the children's ward of the nearby mental hospital at Babakan. Nurse Diana and her colleague looked at the photo of Wisnu and shook their heads. They said they had never seen the child before.

"How's young Saepul?" I asked. "Is he still punching his face?" It was a while since I had seen Saepul or taken him for a walk.

"Saepul's gone," said Diana, looking straight faced.

"Run away?"

"No. Gone to an institution down the road, in Cimanggu."

"Can you give me the address?"

Diana wrote it down and I motored the short distance to the home in Cimanggu. It was an old house in a dull garden, on the edge of Bogor, about a mile from where I had found Wisnu.

"Have you got a child here called Saepul?" I asked at the office.

"We've no children here," said the vacant-looking young man behind the desk. "I don't recognise the name."

"He's a child who punches his own face. Lots of bruises. You'd remember him."

"No. We've nobody like that. This is a small place. I know everyone."

So, no more Ciah and possibly no more Saepul.

I went to find little Wisnu, expecting him also to have disappeared; but in fact he was seated by the roadside at the same spot where I had sighted him the previous week. When I approached him, he got up to take my hand. He was smiling. We went to see the local official, the bristly-faced R.T., who was standing outside his little house, tending a fruit tree. I wondered how close a watch the R.T. had been keeping on Wisnu.

"Have you found Wisnu's family?" I asked the R.T.

"No. We don't know where the boy comes from." The R.T. was trying to sound as if he cared.

"Could he have come from the mental hospital in Babakan?" I asked.

"Very likely," he said. "Lots of patients walk out of there and wander the streets of Bogor."

"Just like in London," I said. Wisnu blinked, moved his head to one side, put his hand up to his mouth, and chewed imaginary food.

"The same in London?"

"Almost. Should I take Wisnu to a children's home? I know a place in Jakarta called Wisma Utara."

"Yes," said the R.T.

I was forming the impression that Wisnu was unlikely to be taken into the home of the R.T. or anyone else.

"I've sent his photo to the newspaper and I've been to the police. Do you think we'll find his family?"

"Maybe," said the R.T.

"I'll leave you one of the photos. It's got my phone number on the back."

Wisnu seemed happy to get into my van and off we drove to Wisma Utara in Jakarta, the institution where Min had been staying before his family had turned up. I reckoned that if Wisnu remained on the street, he might disappear, and if I took him to the mental hospital, he might also disappear.

"Mr Kent! It's so good to see you," said Joan, as we entered Wisma Utara's front room, which was smelling of urine. "You've been neglecting us. We miss you." Joan's simple hair style, plastic sandals, and lack of make-up, suggested neglect caused by low wages.

"I've been busy," I said.

"How's Min's family? I miss Min," said Joan.

"They're all fine. I've come here to ask if you can take this child here. This is Wisnu." Wisnu moved the side of his head onto his shoulder and then began his blinking and chewing movements.

"Where's he from?"

I told Joan the story.

"Mr Kent, it's very difficult," said Joan. We need to have permission from Ibu Ani."

"This child has nowhere else to go. You took Min without any problems."

"There always has to be a consultation. It takes days We also need a letter from a doctor."

I turned to Wira, the member of staff whose father was receiving money from me for TB treatment. "Wira, what do you think?"

"Joan's right. It can take several days to arrange things."

"This child has to stay somewhere," I pointed out. I thought of the times I had brought clothes and toys for the children at the home; yet now they would not let Wisnu stay the night. I wondered if I should ask them what had happened to the clothes and toys? Then I thought of Gus, who had once helped look after Min.

"How's Gus?" I said.

"Gus died," said Joan, gently.

"Died!" I exclaimed. "What of?"

"Cancer," said Joan.

It occurred to me that, at Wisma Utara, Santo had died of TB, Dadang had been almost dead from TB, Wira had TB in her family, Diah had developed a brain tumour, Tedi had almost died of typhoid, and now young Gus was allegedly dead. Wisnu would be better elsewhere.

I drove with Wisnu to the house of Dr Joseph, the child psychologist who formerly had treated Min. It was already evening and I imagined Wisnu was as confused and tired as I was.

"Mr Kent, how are you?" said the always friendly Chinese doctor as he welcomed us into the surgery.

I related the tale.

"We can certainly take him," he said. "We won't put him into Dr Bahari's clinic though. I have my own clinic now. The Jeruk Clinic. It'll be more suitable."

I was beginning to feel better. "Sounds good," I said. "Where is it?"

"Not far from here. I'll examine Wisnu and then take you over there."

The Jeruk Clinic was in a beautiful white villa. Dr Joseph was doing well. The central lounge area contained a giant TV, a plush white leather suite, a tank full of exotic fish, a white uniformed nurse and an overweight Chinese girl who looked a bit backward and who seemed to be the only patient. The nurse was someone I had met before, both in Dr Bahari's clinic and in the mental hospital in Johor Baru. I assumed she worked in all three places, at different times during the day or week.

"How much is this going to cost?" I asked.

"It's nine hundred thousand a month."

"Gosh. Expensive," I said.

"That includes all medicines and food. The medicines are not cheap."

"Can you give some kind of discount for a long-stay patient? Wisnu might be here for years."

"Mr Kent," said the grinning doctor, "we can't do it any cheaper."

I was in a weak bargaining position. It was the evening, I was hungry, and I couldn't think of any alternative institution. I had failed Ciah and Agosto, and I did not want to fail Wisnu. "It seems more expensive than Dr Bahari's clinic," I said.

"Dr Bahari charges for periods of ten days. I'm charging by the month. And this place is more comfortable."

"No schizophrenic adults or cockroaches."

"It's only children here."


Next evening I returned to the Jeruk Clinic to visit Wisnu. The nurse was alone in the lounge, feet up, watching TV.

"Hello," I said. "Can I take Wisnu for a walk?"

She gave me what seemed like a cynical smile and, after a bit of a pause, got up and led me to a small side room. The Chinese girl was asleep on a bed. Wisnu was seated in a wooden chair, imprisoned in a straight jacket. He looked doped. I felt sick.

"Why is he tied up?" I asked, trying not to sound angry.

"To stop him being a nuisance," she said.

"He doesn't need to be tied up."

She didn't answer, but released him from the chair.

I took Wisnu for a walk and he was well behaved and even smiled. We passed the art deco mansions of the rich, who were mainly Chinese. The biggest house took up almost the entire length of one street.

I stopped a scavenger, who was collecting litter for his sack, and asked, "Who owns that palace?"

"A Batak, from Sumatra," he said.

"How does the Batak earn his money?"

"He rents out houses in the slums. Very, very rich."

I was worrying about the Jeruk clinic and its straight jacket and its drugs. I wondered if I should return Wisnu to the clinic or release him back onto the street in Bogor. His photo had now been in the newspaper, so I supposed I had better have him kept in a safe place, in the Jeruk clinic, in case his family turned up. Life is not a long quiet river.

While having a coffee in the school staffroom, I got talking to Sally, a friendly, middle-aged Australian lady who acted as school nurse. I told her about Agosto and Ciah and asked her what might have led to Ciah's death. I explained that Ciah had previously been in hospital with hepatitis.

"Did Ciah do farm work?" asked Sally.

"She washed clothes for people. But she lived in a rural area, with goats and rice fields and fruit trees."

"People living besides rice fields and using river water can get repeatedly infected with bugs that affect the liver. I remember a student who'd been on a holiday trip in a farming area. He got an illness that gave him jaundice and encephalitis. The doctor found he had a big red spot on his thigh, a purpura. There was blood in his sputum. Eventually the hospital diagnosed Weil syndrome, resulting from Leptospirosis."


"You can get it from the urine of animals, like goats or rats. It used to be called swineherd's disease. It's common among people working in rice fields."

"Did the student get better?"

"He recovered after a long stay in a hospital in Australia. The death rate from Weil syndrome can be as high as ten per cent in wealthy countries, but much higher in poor countries."

I told Sally about Wisnu and about him not being able to get into Wisma Utara.

"I can see the point of view of the Wisma Utara staff ," said Sally. "They really couldn't have taken him in without first consulting a doctor and their board of governors. The child might be full of bugs and parasites."

"How do you avoid bugs and parasites?"

"Eat lots of raw cloves, raw ginger and raw garlic," said Sally, with a cheerful grin.



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