Friday, January 03, 2003

44. PRIMATES

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The sky above Bogor was an equatorial blue and the trees and tiled roofs, washed clean by the night time rain, were aquiver with colour. It was a Saturday morning and Carmen and I were on our way to a picnic.

As we drove past Bogor’s white pillared Presidential Palace and its shops and its crowded markets, I had a peculiar feeling that something was missing. Where were the street children who sell plastic bags to people shopping for vegetables? Where were the boys who shine shoes for the rich? Where were the ragged mentally backward men who sometimes rummage in roadside rubbish piles? Where was the semi-nude mentally disturbed woman who strides along certain streets staring straight ahead?

"President Clinton’s coming," said Carmen. "For the APEC free-trade summit."

"Of course. They’ve cleaned up the streets," I said. "Wouldn’t it be good if Hilary visited the medical wing of the mental hospital?"

"No chance. She’ll be taken to some posh orphanage for the unwanted offspring of top officials."

"I wonder where they’d take a President if his helicopter crashed?"

"Not the Red Cross Hospital."

"Definitely not. I suppose they’ve set up a special clinic."

"Where are we going for our picnic?" asked Carmen, as we approached a quiet junction.

"Mystery tour," I said. "We’ll just take any old road. Deep into the countryside."

We motored for half an hour along a variety of minor roads peopled by happy schoolchildren and waddling ducks. Having parked on the edge of a hamlet, we picked up our picnic things and set off along paths of damp red earth. This was a countryside of papaya, padi, coconut palms and little huts with roofs of ochre tiles. Dragonflies cruised beside us.

"No tigers here today," said Carmen, striding along on her little middle-aged legs which had been kept fit by playing squash. "Or rhino, for that matter."

"What do you know about wild life?" I asked cynically.

Carmen proceeded to educate me. I learnt that tigers still occasionally killed people on Sumatra but the last time anyone had seen a tiger on Java was in 1972; the Javan one-horned rhino, which used to be found throughout Java, was now the world’s rarest large animal; only around fifty of these rhinos survived in Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park. And Carmen knew all about primates.

"There aren’t many left," said Carmen. "The Javan leaf monkey has lost almost all of its habitat."

"Too many people?" I asked.

"The ordinary Indonesians haven’t benefited much from the destruction of the forests," said Carmen, guffawing. "When Suharto’s government took over all the forests, people like the Dayaks in Kalimantan tended to get pushed out. Suharto’s Chinese and military buddies set up their businesses and the forests began to disappear. The Americans and the British are also to blame because they import thousands of primates from Indonesia for scientific research."

"So primates are becoming rare," I sighed.

"The rarest of all is the orang pendek from Sumatra," said Carmen, bubbling with excitement.

"Orang pendek? Never heard of it."

"It’s like the yeti. There have only been a few sightings. It’s supposed to be a man-ape. It has a hairless brown face and it walks almost like a human. Marco Polo claimed he saw them. And about eighty years ago a Dutch journal reported sightings."

Carmen filled me full of information about primates and their behaviour. I was informed that among Java’s macaque monkeys the females are in charge and the daughters spend all their lives with their mums. The young males tend to join all-male groups. The moloch gibbon, which is found only in West Java, is monogamous and mates for life. The male proboscis monkey, found only in Borneo, lives with a harem of around seven females; the bigger his nose, the sexier is his behaviour; and because of his big nose he is sometimes called the Dutchman monkey. The orang utan, found only in Borneo and Sarawak, is a solitary, introverted and intelligent primate. The common chimp is often aggressive. One male, sometimes the unruffled psychopath, becomes the boss or president. Being the top male means he get lots of women and he also gets to attack other tribes.

"But note that chimps cooperate when they hunt for food," said Carmen. "And some chimps can be altruistic and kind. Do you know about the bonobo apes of Zaire."

"The what?"

"Bonobo. Now they are rather nice. Sociable, friendly, gentle. Ninety eight per cent of bonobo DNA is like that of human’s. That’s more than with the common chimp. With the bonobo there’s equality between the males and the females. The young do it with the old, females do it with females, males do it with males and males do it with females."

"Do it?"

"Sex. Rubbing up against each other. It only lasts a few seconds."

"Interesting."

"The bonobo are bisexual, but then Tom was telling me that bisexuality is the norm in the world of nature. And in non-Western countries."

"Tom, our friend who had the problems with a girlfriend called Kuntil?"

"That’s the one. Tom was telling me about this German called Ferdinand Karsch-Haack who studied zoology at the beginning of the century."

"Tom told me about him while I was having a coffee in Kem Chicks."

"It seems Karsch-Haack found bisexual behaviour throughout the animal kingdom."

"Don’t tell this stuff to your students," I said. "Some of them are a bit against Evolution and all that stuff."

"The point is that humans may not be inevitably violent, or inevitably anything," said Carmen.

"If we are descended from apes, we may be lots of things."

"You’re telling me primates are a mixture of the monogamous, the polygamous, the kindly and the cruel. Do you think you are descended from macaques, gibbons, chimps, or what?"

"Ah," said Carmen, giggling loudly, "I’m a combination of orang utan and bonobo."

"You seem to me to be a jolly bonobo," I said. "Now, where are we going to eat?" I was getting hungry and we could hear the sound of running water.

"Down by the river."

"What happens if there’s a flash flood? It’s the rainy season."

We sat on rocks well above the river, in the shade of tall trees. A gentle breeze kept the mosquitoes away.

"Now," said Carmen, as she unpacked our picnic, "Ikan pedis, sate ayam, rempah, sambal goreng buncis, sambal goreng telor. In other words, fish in cabbage leaf, chicken sate, beef and coconut patties, spicy fried vegetables, and spicy fried egg. Then there’s fermented soybeans, peanut sauce, shrimp paste and the Nuits-St-Georges and that’s about it. Apart from the cheese and the pastries."

"Carmen you’ve done an excellent job. Or rather, your maid has."

As we ate our modest meal we watched various forms of life parade along the opposite river bank. Half a dozen women were on their way to the secluded spot where they bathe, brush their teeth and do that sort of thing. An old man with a bike was going fishing. Three schoolgirls were skipping home from school.

"1994," said Carmen. "A good year for drinking this red stuff."

"Can the good times last? We must have passed a dozen new housing estates on the road to Bogor. Where’s the money coming from?"

"Banks."

"Many of the roads are choked with Mercedes and much of the better land is covered in luxury houses. Something’s wrong."

"There are predictions of a crash," said Carmen, as she finished off the Rocquefort cheese. "Most of these houses will never be bought. The banks will never get their money back."

"Will this APEC summit help the economy?"

"The Americans are only here to help the big American corporations." Carmen began giggling again.


I made one of my regular visits to Dr Joseph’s Taman Clinic, to visit Wisnu.

"How is Bangbang?" asked the pretty little nurse who was sitting at a desk near the entrance. She looked about sixteen years old.

"Bangbang?" I said. It slowly dawned on me that the nurse was referring to the mentally backward and epileptic little boy I had found lying on the central reservation near Jakarta’s World Trade Centre. It was Bangbang who had vanished from the Dipo Hospital, who had playfully punched people in the stomach and who had kept on running away from home.

"I used to work at the Dipo some mornings," said the nurse. "I remember Bangbang."

"It’s ages since I’ve seen him," I confessed. "I must visit him sometime." I couldn’t remember having seen this nurse at the Dipo, in spite of her having a strikingly cute and friendly little face.

Wisnu was wandering about heavily drugged. We went for a walk and came upon a huge church, some market gardens and rows of neat little middle class houses. This was an area with plenty of open space and light, an area where smiling children peddled about on bikes, and where cabbages and carrots didn’t have to put up with too much in the way of traffic fumes.

Next evening I took a trip to Bangbang’s house.

"How is he?" I asked his pregnant mum, after exchanging greetings at her front door. The house looked out onto an exceptionally busy main road.

"Gone again," she said, smiling in a dazed sort of way.

I was upset, but to a lesser degree than I would have been if Min had gone missing. I had helped Bangbang partly out of a sense of duty and had never seen him as a soul mate. "How long has he been missing?" I asked.

"Many months."

"Have you been out looking for him?"

"Come in and speak to my husband."

The narrow front room was full of skinny but happy-looking little children; and the settee on which I sat was still broken. Bangbang’s grinning little father got up from his sewing machine and came and sat beside me.

"I’ve been to the place near Taman Mini where the police take mad adults," he said. "Bangbang wasn’t there. I’ve looked everywhere. This is the longest time he’s ever been absent."

As I was being driven home, my eyes scanned the poorly lit streets for any little figure who might be sitting huddled in a doorway or lying asleep under a wooden cart. I never did see Bangbang again.


Sometime in December, there was an evening phone call from Juriah, the mother of Nur, the boy from Teluk Gong who had had an abscess on the brain and who had died at the Dipo Hospital.

"Nur’s younger brother, Didi, has toothache," she said. "Can Didi go with your driver tomorrow to the Teluk Gong Hospital?" Juriah’s voice was pleading, like that of one of these persistent beggars in the market. Pleading and annoying.

"Toothache!" I said. "He doesn’t need to go to the hospital just for toothache."

"It’s very bad toothache," she said.

"The hospital is for things like TB and typhoid," I said.

"Please."

"How old is he?"

"six."

"Well, you can meet my driver outside Min’s house about nine in the morning. The driver’s meeting about half a dozen kids. See what the doctor says. But the hospital’s meant to be for serious illnesses."

At the end of the next school day, Mo, my driver, told me how he had got on that morning at the Hospital.

"Do you remember Nur’s mother?" said Mo, as we drove sedately in a homeward direction.

"Yes. Her son’s got toothache."

"The doctor says Didi’s got tetanus."

"Tetanus! Has he been admitted to the hospital?" My heart began to pound as I remembered what had happened to Aldi, Min’s brother.

"No."

"Why not?" I sounded more than irate.

"I thought I’d better ask your permission first."

"Of course I’d give permission. Where’s Didi now?" My driver seemed to lack basic common sense.

"Back home in Teluk Gong."

"Did the doctor want him admitted?"

"Yes."

"Well he should have been admitted." I wanted to hit someone.

"Yes, Mr Kent."

"OK. Let’s go to Didi’s house at full speed. Every second counts with tetanus."

Mo put his foot down extra hard on the accelerator and we overtook everything we could. On the long narrow road called Srengseng the traffic was hardly moving. When the lights turned in our favour at the intersection with Pos Pengumben they were green for only a few seconds. Yet there was only a trickle of traffic on the other road. We chugged along and at last reached a wider thoroughfare.

"Faster!" I called to Mo. Normally I tell drivers to slow down but now I was feeling reckless. Mo certainly could drive fast when he had to. We reached Didi’s house and sped with the little boy and his mum to the Teluk Gong Hospital.

Didi was admitted to a first class ward, not third class as had been the case with Min’s brother at the Pertama Hospital. Six-year-old Didi had a funny little face and seemed to be not over-bright. He didn’t look as ill as Aldi had done.

"How is Didi?" I asked the young doctor. My voice was as shaky as my hands.

"He’s got tetanus, TB and pneumonia."

Mo drove me slowly back towards the centre of town. I needed to take my mind off things and so had supper at the Hilton. I thought it was nice to be in the same hotel as President Clinton.




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