Wednesday, January 29, 2003

26. PUNCAK

Another new school term found me filled with energy and enthusiasm. Honestly. But after the first five days of teaching it was good to escape, on the Saturday, from the oily traffic of Jakarta to the balmy hills beyond Bogor. Beneath a sky of tropical blue I motored up from Bogor towards the nearby Puncak Pass. I was hoping to find an interesting track that would lead me to some lost domain. Somewhere between the towns of Ciawi and Cisarua I found what I was looking for, although I don’t think I would ever be able to find the exact same spot again.

My path wandered through fields of sweet-smelling green papaya; it skirted rice paddies where muddy boys rode gentle water buffaloes; there was a primary school with a red and white flag and marching children; goats and ducks led me through a kampung where the houses had muddy brick and plaster walls, loose red tiles and gardens of jasmine; the children wore bright green sarongs.

I entered an area of dark shadows and spiky leaves. I passed beneath jackfruit, rambutan and durian, and squeezed through a tangle of lianas and bamboos. Help! I was in the middle of nowhere.

"Hello mister," said a lad, half way up a tree, collecting fruit. He was about thirteen years of age, dressed in clean blue school shorts and expensive-looking T-shirt, and had a happy and handsome Sundanese face.

"Hello," I said, relieved to find the voice came from a human. "Is there a restaurant near here?"

"There’s a hotel," said the lad beginning to climb down. He was followed by a younger boy wearing a mischievous smile and red school shorts and an older girl wearing a tight yellow blouse and tight jeans.

"How do I get there?" I asked.

"We’ll take you," said the older boy, scratching various insect bites.

"Thanks. What’s your name?"

"I’m Dede," said the older boy, "and this is my younger brother, Agus, and my sister, Melati."

"I’m Diego Maradona," I explained.

"The singer?" said Dede.

"No actually I’m Woody Allen," I said.

"Where are you from Mr Woody?" asked Dede, who apparently knew less about films than music.

"Jakarta."

"You want a place to stay?" asked Melati, who had lovely eyes and lips.

"No, just something to eat. Is it a good hotel?"

"Lots of girls there," piped up Agus, eyes sparkling.

"How do you mean?"

"Lots of women," said Melati, looking at Agus and giggling.

"You like drugs?" asked Dede.

"No. Definitely not. What kind of hotel is it?"

"They tried to burn it down," explained Dede.

"Who did?"

"A mob," said Dede.

"Why?"

"Some people round here don’t like these places," said Melati.

"Who owns it?"

"Chinese," said Dede.

"They didn’t manage to burn it down?"

"No. There were too many police and soldiers," said Dede.

"I think I’ll get something to eat at a roadside stall. Can you show me the way?"

"Certainly," said Dede, as he handed me some rambutan.

As we followed a narrow path through the woodland, I was thinking how good it was to still be able to find trees on the island of Java. Ninety percent of the island’s original forests have been cut down.

"Do you have any Gharu trees?" I asked. I had heard that such trees were to be found in western New Guinea and that the resin from the trees could be used as a drug to help you contact your ancestors.

Melati shook her head and looked puzzled.

"Left or right?" I asked, as we emerged from the dark and reached an area of rough grassland and scattered trees.

"Not left," said Dede.

"Ghosts on the left," said Agus, steering us to the right.

"Really?" I asked.

"An old man died near here," said Dede.

"What happened?" I said, noting the sober expressions on the faces of the two boys.

"People said he used black magic. He died suddenly," explained Agus.

"He was a dukun jilat," said Melati.

"What kind of dukun is that?" I asked.

Dede made sucking sounds with his mouth. "The dukun sucks the bit of you that’s sakit," he said, while scratching himself.

"Black magic?" I said.

"Some babies got sick," said Melati.

"The old man had some land," said Dede.

"A rich man from Jakarta now has the land," said Melati.

A red tiled school building came into view.

"My school," said Agus.

"Can I have a look?" I said.

Agus happily led us into the empty building which was made up of a handful of classrooms around a courtyard. I noted the rotting timbers, the graffiti on walls, and the complete absence of any kind of equipment or furniture other than cheap wooden desks with names carved on them.

Agus took a thick pen from his pocket and began to apply some scribbles to an exterior wall.

"I think we’d better move on," I said.

A small shop at a road junction provided a place for me to buy my meal of bananas, biscuits and cola. Mysteriously enough I could see my vehicle parked a few metres down the street. Before departing, I rewarded my guides.

"Thank you, Woody Allen," said Dede.


Chong, the malnourished young man I had found lying in the street and taken to the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor, hadn’t been visited by me for some time; so to assuage my guilt I went to see him.

I strode through the hospital’s sunny gardens, admiring the white Gardenia, the red and yellow Rangoon Creeper, and the handsome, modern two storey block containing the director’s office; finally, some distance from the hospital entrance, I reached the warehouse-like ward housing Chong.

"I’ve come to take Chong for a walk," I said to the young male nurse who opened the locked door of the mildewed building.

"Chong?" The nurse, casually dressed in T-shirt and jeans, looked as if he had never heard the name before.

"Yes, please."

He went inside to check.

"Nobody here called Chong," said the nurse on his return.

"There must be. I brought him to this hospital and he was in this ward last time I visited."

"He’s not here."

"Are you absolutely sure?"

"Yes. I know all the patients."

"Do you remember Chong?"

"No," he said, with a sort of vacant grin.

"I’ll go to the Director’s office and ask there." I felt ready to lash my tail.

I explained the situation to the director’s secretary, who informed me that the director was away in Jakarta, but that I could speak to a deputy. I was eventually introduced to a round-faced doctor with thinning hair and a sharp looking man wearing an expensive suit and tinted glasses.

"We’ve sent someone to collect Chong," said the doctor, sitting back on the expensive black leather settee.

"Would you like some tea?" asked the man with the smart suit.

"No thanks," I answered politely.

A nurse entered with a young male patient who had broad shoulders and a grinning Javanese face.

"Here’s Chong," said the doctor.

"This is not Chong," I said. "Chong looks Chinese and he’s slim."

"This is Chong," said the smiling nurse.

"It’s not the person I brought to the hospital."

There was a period of silence.

"Have you tried the mental hospital on Jalan Dr Semeru?" volunteered the nurse.

"That’s not where I took Chong," I said.

"I’m sorry we can’t help you," said the doctor.

"Have you checked the records?" I asked.

"We have," said the unruffled doctor.

"What do you think has happened to Chong?"

"The only Chong we have is this man the nurse brought here."

"But he is not Chong," I said.

"Mr Kent, I’m sorry we can’t help you," said the man with the tinted glasses.

I supposed there was nothing I could do. It was possible that Chong had been allowed out of his ward and had wandered through the gardens and subsequently through the hospital’s open gates. There was no great incentive to keep a careful eye on a patient like Chong; I had not visited Chong for some time and his family had no interest in him. Perhaps he had got sick and died; perhaps he was wandering through the streets of Bogor.


Later that morning, while taking a walk alongside the Ciliwung river, not far from Bogor’s botanic gardens, I spotted a ragged-looking figure under a wide stone bridge. Could it be Chong? I crossed a patch of tall grass to have a closer look.

Instead of Chong I found a teenage boy, a granny, a small girl, a few pots and pans, several sleeping mats and some plastic bags: a home under a bridge.

"Hello," I said, being careful not to go too close. I didn’t want to actually enter their bedroom.

They stared at me with frightened eyes. Or was it hostility?

"Do you live here, under the bridge?" I asked.

The boy nodded.

"How many people?"

"Five," said the granny, who managed a slight smile.

"Do you work in Bogor?"

"In the market," she said.

I took some money from my pocket and held my hand out in their direction. The boy took it, almost grabbing it.

"Thank you," said the granny.


Leaving the centre of Bogor, I motored along the usual bumpy roads to Bogor Baru. Having visited little Andi and tubercular Asep, who seemed in reasonable health, I decided to find out how Ciah was getting on. Ciah was sitting on her verandah, looking pale but reasonably well recovered from her hepatitis. Maybe her lack of colour was due to the lichen and moss covered trees cutting off the sun from her shack.

"How’s Agosto?" I asked.

"He’s sick," said Ciah, standing up and beckoning me into the wood and bamboo house.

Lying on the black metal bed, which almost filled the stuffy room, was twelve-year-old Agosto. He looked fevered, withered and yellowy-green.

Two neighbours, having helped carry the boy down to the road and into the back of my van, accompanied us to the Menteng Hospital. I wondered if we would get there in time to save him. He closed his eyes but kept on breathing all the way through town.

We reached the emergency ward and Agosto was laid on a bed covered in stained plastic.

"How long has he been ill?" asked the young doctor.

"I think it’s about ten days," said Ciah in a tired voice.

"Cough?"

"Yes," said Ciah. Agosto seemed to be not quite aware of what was going on.

"Headache?"

"Yes."

"Stomach pain?"

"Yes."

"Constipation or diarrhoea?"

"Yes," said Ciah, sounding hesitant.

I got the feeling she was not too clear in her thinking.

The doctor looked at a rash on Agosto’s abdomen and peered down his throat. A nurse took his temperature, did a blood test and attached him to a drip.

"What do you think it is?" I asked the doctor.

"Typhoid, probably. Very common among children aged ten to fourteen. It can take several tests to be sure. Not easy to diagnose. We’ll give him antibiotics."

"Is he very seriously ill?" I said.

"It’s a pity Agosto wasn’t brought here much earlier," said the doctor frowning, "He’s very dehydrated and weak."

"Do you think he’s going to be OK?"

"We hope so. There’s always a risk of complications, especially when patients get here late."

"What kind of complications?"

"Meningitis, intestinal bleeding, pneumonia. There’s a problem if the infection gets into the bloodstream and moves to the liver."

"Why do so many kids get typhoid?" I asked.

"Patients who’ve recovered can still be carriers. The bacteria is in their faeces. So it spreads. Dirty food and dirty water."

"Kids don’t wash their hands?" I said.

"And food has to be boiled for twelve minutes to kill any bacteria in it."

"Why don’t kids get vaccinated?"

"Vaccination can cost a month’s wages and it only covers you for three years. Another problem is that some antibiotics don’t work anymore." The doctor gave a shrug and a friendly smile before heading to a desk to do some paperwork.

Agosto was wheeled through a section of garden and into the crowded third class children’s ward, a long shed-like building with big metal windows. Sitting beside the sick children were family members who had brought with them baskets of home made snacks and bottles of tea. In one corner of the ward, a mother and daughter guarded a little girl who was even more grey and wizened than Agosto.

"Who’s the girl in the corner bed?" I asked the nurse, as she adjusted Agosto’s drip.

"Suhartini."

"She’s not on a drip," I said.

"The parents are very poor," explained the nurse.

"Is she getting any medicine?"

"They can’t afford it," said the nurse.

"What’s wrong with Suhartini?" I asked.

"Typhoid. And there are complications."

I looked at Suhartini’s mother and older sister who were seated at the bedside. The tired looking mother wore a watch, although it may have been of little value. The older sister looked plump and wore a clean school uniform.

"I’ll pay for the medicine," I said to the nurse. "Has the mother got the prescription?"

"Yes, you can take it to the pharmacy near the entrance."

This was explained to the mother and I was accompanied to the chemist by the plump sister.

"How many days will Suhartini’s medicine last?" I asked the pharmacist.

"Three days."

"Can the doctor write out a prescription to last more than three days? I live in Jakarta and can’t get here every day."

"No," said the pharmacist. "The family must buy more medicine in three days time."

"I’ll need to give the mother some money for that," I said.

"Give me money for school," said the grinning sister. She seemed to show no trace of anxiety about her sibling, but then emotions are often difficult to detect.

Back at the children’s ward, I handed over some money to Ciah and to Suhartini’s mum.

"For medicine and food only," I said. "Not for other things."

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."

Friday, January 24, 2003

28. ENGAGED

Some days after our meeting in the supermarket at Kem Chiks, Tom invited me for an evening drink at the Houghmagandy Hotel in South Jakarta’s Blok M. The Houghmagandy, a modest concrete tower on a street full of noisy buses and traffic fumes, is frequented by the sort of businessmen who cannot afford Five Star establishments, or who do not mind being hassled by the multitude of young women in the extremely dark and crowded bar on the top floor.

"Kent, I need your advice," Tom whispered, as we sat down with our beers in the almost empty lower-floor restaurant. Tom was looking peaky, slightly unshaven and a trifle dishevelled in old T-shirt and baggy grey trousers.

"The sixteen-year-old girlfriend?" I said.

"Her name’s Kuntil," said Tom, his voice sounding a little more confident. "I’m in trouble."

"What’s happened?"

"She came to the office and asked to see the boss."

"You’re still working in Sudirman?"

"Yes. Anyway, the receptionist told her the boss was away. Our receptionist’s sweet. Kuntil said she’d be back and she was going to write a letter to the press. Can you imagine the story?"

" I can," I said. "‘British expatriate, aged 43, working for the well known British firm of whatever, has broken his promise to marry Moslem girl, aged 16.’ How would your boss react?"

"He’s a man of the world," said Tom, "but the firm doesn’t want that kind of publicity. My contract would probably be ended."

"Do you think she would write to the newspapers? I mean, what would she gain if you had to leave the country?"

"Revenge."

"Seems to be important in this part of the world."

"I’ve gone off her," said Tom, now speaking quite loudly. "She wants eighty million rupiahs because she says I’ve broken my promise to marry. I think it’s her friends from the karaoke bar who’ve put her up to it."

"Criminals, I reckon. Tell me, what age was she when you first met?"

"Fifteen. But, I didn’t get involved deeply until she was sixteen. I was careful."

"Have you negotiated with her?"

"I went to see her parents. They’re quite nice really. I explained that I had promised to marry her, but that I’d changed my mind."

"How did they take it?"

"They were polite and friendly. But Kuntil is sticking to her demands."

"She’s no doubt disappointed she’s not going to escape from the kampung into a life of luxury with maids and drivers and your retirement home in Madeira. My advice is to talk to her, kindly. Give her a way out that won’t involve loss of face."

"It’s not that I’m hard up, but I’ve saved my money so I can retire early."

"Is your money in shares?"

"It’s all in an Indonesian bank that’s giving a huge rate of interest."

"Is that safe?"

"The manager told me he’d let me know if there were ever any problems."

"If his bank was in difficulty, is it likely he’d let you know?"

"He’s a very decent guy," said Tom, stretching himself and beginning to look less tense. "What are you doing at the weekend? Bogor again?"

"Yes, Bogor again," I said.


In Bogor my first visit was to Ciah and her son Agosto, in their wooden shack under the dark, damp trees. Agosto was home from hospital, recovered from his typhoid, but looking pale, thin and unsmiling. I gave Ciah a small sum of money to buy food.

"Sorry it’s not much," I said, "but there have been a lot of people getting ill recently."

To be honest, I could have given a lot more, but for some reason I was feeling grumpy. Maybe it was the after effect of the beers with Tom.

In the children’s ward at Bogor’s mental hospital in Babakan I visited the mentally backward youngsters, John, Daud, Erwin and Saepul. John was naked, tied up, and sitting in a pool of diarrhoea. Erwin was locked behind bars in his usual small cell.

"John’s lost some weight," I said to the nurse named Diana, a well-nourished woman who looked happy in her work. "Has he seen the doctor?"

"Yes," she said, grinning in a way that suggested possible insensitivity or malice.

"What’s wrong with him?"

"He’s greedy. He ate too much and got sick."

"Is he getting any medicine?"

"He’s OK."

"He looks ill; malnourished."

"No. He’s fine." What was it about Diana’s smile?

I took Daud and Saepul for a short walk in the hospital grounds, and then washed my hands.

I dropped in on Asep and little Andi in Bogor Baru. Asep was still getting his TB medicine and had put on some weight around his face and chest. Andi was running around with his friends, but his stomach still had that swollen appearance of the malnourished.

Next stop was at the house of Dian, the sister of Melati and Tikus. Dian showed me her TB pills and smiled from a face that had put on more flesh and become prettier.


I wandered alongside one of Bogor’s red-brown river gorges. To my right was the volcano, Mount Salak. To my left little kampung houses were clinging to a series of steep terraces; colour was provided by sky blue doors, red-brown cockerels in cages and sheeny pink bougainvillea in tiny gardens; a food cart vendor was seeking attention by knocking on a hollow bamboo stick; a young girl in a too short skirt was slowly climbing some wide stone steps; drifting down the river was a raft covered in semi-naked children.

"Hey mister. Come in." It was the voice of young Dede, fan of English football, and brother of the fragrant and beautiful Rama. Dede, dressed in school uniform, was sitting on the wall outside his house.

"OK," I said, pleased to have some company.

Once seated on the concrete floor of his front room, Dede took a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it with a match he had rubbed against the wall. He began blowing smoke rings. There was a slight movement of the curtain leading to the bedroom, suggesting someone was on the other side.

Seated on the lumpy settee, I looked at a framed photo positioned on top of the TV. In the photo, Rama was holding hands with a tall, ungainly young man with a big forehead, hollow cheeks and a facial expression suited to a spivvish barrow-boy.

"My sister," said Dede. "She’s got engaged."

"To the man in the photo?" I asked with a slight croak in my voice. It seemed incredulous that Rama should want to marry someone so less attractive than herself.

"Correct."

"Does he live near here?"

"Round the corner," said Dede. "His mum is friends with my mum. They’re distant relations."

Before I had time to think too deeply about Rama’s fate, a small boy, dressed in a sarong, appeared at the open door and stared in. He was accompanied by a grey old lady I took to be his granny.

"This is Hadi," said Dede, pointing in the direction of the elfin kid. "He’s just been circumcised."

"Brave chap," I said.

"Hadi," said Dede, addressing the lad, "show mister where you’ve had the operation."

The boy grinned and shook his head.

"Want to see my barbet?" asked Dede, cocking his head to one side.

"Your what?"

"Barbet," said Dede, dark eyes widening.

"Barbet?"

"Do you like barbets?" asked Dede. "I’ll show you it."

He went into the small front garden and returned with a tiny quivering object.

"Do you like birds?" he said, as he opened his hands to reveal the feathery fledgling.

"Yes, but not in cages," I said, feeling sorry for the creature. "There are hardly any birds in the trees around here. They’re all in cages."

He sat on the floor and let the bird walk over his head.

"Be careful. It may not be clean," I advised. "You don’t want to catch some disease."

"Oman’s ill," said Dede.

"Who’s Oman?" I asked.

"A little kid down the road," said Hadi. "He’s got typhoid."

"Has he been to the doctor?" I asked, suspecting that I already knew the answer.

"The dukun’s been to see him," said Dede. "And, his aunt’s ill as well."

"What’s wrong with her?" I said.

"She’s all swollen up," said Hadi.

"Has she seen a doctor?" I asked.

"No," said Dede. "The dukun treated her as well."

"We’d better go and see them," I said, with some reluctance. I felt I had already had enough hassle for the day.

Dede led me to a white walled kampung house inside which were lots of small rooms, all dingy, dark and untidy. There were grubby paw marks on walls; and in one room, piles of threadbare clothes covered a torn settee. We entered a room smelling of rotting meat. Lying on a mattress on the floor was a middle aged woman, named Nurul, whose legs and arms looked swollen to twice their normal size.

"Have you seen a doctor?" I asked.

"She’s been getting treatment from the dukun," said a young man standing by the door. "The dukun did something which made her bleed. But she’s no better."

"She looks fevered. How long has she been like this?" I said.

"Maybe ten days," said the young man.

"Do you want to go to the hospital, if I pay?" I asked Nurul.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Where’s Oman?" I said.

I was taken into a room off a back courtyard. Ten year old Oman, who was lying on a settee, looked like a skeletal creature from a Japanese internment camp.

"Has he seen a doctor?" I asked.

"We took him to the government clinic," said a plump woman with a kindly face and broken sandals. "They gave him some pills for typhoid, but they didn’t work."

"You got pills for how many days?" I inquired.

"Three days," said the woman.

"Did you go back to the clinic when the pills were finished?"

"No," she said, smiling.

"How long ago was that?"

"About a week ago." She looked unsure.

"Do you want him to go to the hospital?"

"He’s been to the dukun," she said, avoiding looking at me.

"But he’s not better," I pointed out.

"Give us the money for the hospital and we’ll go later," said a man who appeared at the door of the room. Unshaven, and dressed in a snazzy shirt, he looked like a down-market used-car-salesman.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Joko, Oman’s father," said the man.

"Why can’t we go to the hospital now?" I asked.

"I’ve got to go off to the market to work," said Joko. "My wife’s got to look after the other children."

"We’ve got to go now," I insisted. "Look. Nurul’s being taken now." Six young men had appeared carrying the sick woman on a stretcher.

Joko put Oman on his shoulders and we set off towards my van.

At the Menteng Hospital the doctor looked worried after examining Nurul.

"She suffers from diabetes," said the doctor, "but she’s also got septicaemia, blood poisoning. She should have been here when she first got ill." Nurul was wheeled away to the third class women’s ward.

Oman was fitted to a drip and the nurse handed me a prescription for pills to last three days.

"Typhoid?" I asked.

"Yes," said the nurse, a pretty girl in a tight white uniform.

"Can we not get medicine to last more than three days?"

"No. It’s always three days," she said.

"But I live in Jakarta."

"Maybe Oman’s father can buy the next lot of medicine."

I turned to Joko. "If I give you medicine money to last ten days, will you make sure it’s used only to buy your son’s medicines?"

"OK," said Joko, avoiding my gaze.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

29. RAMADAN

Three days after I had taken ten-year-old Oman to the Menteng Hospital in Bogor there was an early evening phone call from a nurse at the hospital. She said that Oman was making good progress, but, the medicine had run out and I must come to the hospital immediately to buy some more. I explained to the nurse that I had already given Joko, the child’s father, more than enough money to pay for a further ten days typhoid medicine. The nurse said that the family claimed they had no money left to pay for the prescription.

Having had a quick supper, I got my driver to hurry me to the hospital in Bogor. Oman’s cheerful, chunky, poorly-dressed mother, accompanied by a bubbly-nosed toddler, was waiting at the boy’s bedside. Oman looked a little less grey and cadaverous.

"A few days ago I gave Joko the cash for the next lot of medicine," I said to the mother, trying to sound as stern as possible. "What’s happened to it?"

"I don’t know," she said, looking totally unflustered. "He hasn’t given me any."

"I gave him plenty," I growled.

"It would be better not to give him money," she said, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. It seemed that the lady did not necessarily have a high regard for her husband’s honesty.

I bought the required pills and handed them over to the nurse. After a quick visit to the women’s ward to see Nurul, whose septicaemia seemed to have made her flesh worryingly dark, I set off to Joko’s house. Joko, wearing a glittery shirt, was seated by his front door; he was playing chess with a shifty-looking friend.

"What happened to the money I gave you for Oman’s medicine?" I asked, with a combination of anger and nervousness.

"I haven’t got it," he said, keeping his eyes on the chess pieces.

"You know I gave you plenty."

"I had to pay for transport to the hospital," said Joko, giving me a quick glance with his untrustworthy eyes.

"I gave you enough for food, transport and loads of pills. The bus only costs a few cents. What happened to the cash?"

"It’s finished," he said, as he made his next chess move.

"It’s your son that’s sick," I said. At least I assumed it was his son. "What would have happened if I hadn’t come to the hospital this evening?"

There was no reply. He looked unmoved.

I glanced inside Joko’s house. Was that a new suite of furniture and were these new toys lying by the door?

I was going to have to get my poor driver to visit the hospital during the following days in order to buy the next lots of medicine for Oman.


A week and a half later I returned to the Menteng Hospital. A very young and pretty nurse told me that Oman had recovered from his typhoid and gone back home. But, Nurul, Oman’s aunt, had died as a result of her blood poisoning. I called in at Oman’s house to commiserate on the death of Nurul, and to remind the family that Oman would need to return to the hospital later in the week for a check up. Oman was painfully thin, but he was a normal colour and he was playing with a large plastic toy car.

When Oman’s father, Joko, emerged from a back courtyard, I prepared to launch into a verbal attack. But Joko presented me with a parcel, inside which was a black and gold batik shirt.
"Thank you, Mr Kent," said Joko, grinning.

We shook hands and I wondered if I had slightly misjudged the man.


"Lots of Indonesians getting ill recently," I said to Tom, as we sat down to a beer in the bar at the middle-range Marco Polo Hotel, "It’s amazing how many people get typhoid and TB."

"Too true," said Tom, who was looking vaguely in the direction of a long-legged young Indonesian girl seated on a black bar stool.

"I came across a kampung kid who nearly died of typhoid."

"They die of tetanus every week in the kampungs," said Tom, looking serious.

"And how are things with you ?" I asked, knowing that Tom had invited me out to talk about his girl problems rather than typhoid.

"Better. I’ve done a deal with Kuntil."

"What happened?"

"We had a long talk. I stayed quite calm about it all. I said she could have fifty million rupiahs and that was my final offer. She accepted and I got her to sign a piece of paper in which she promises to make no more trouble. We shook hands on that."

"That’s a lot of money."

"I wanted the thing settled. The lesson for me is that I’m not going to try any more long-lasting relationships with the locals."

"Long-lasting?"

"If I meet a girl in a bar, it’s for that night only."

"You don’t want to settle down?"

"The trouble with Kuntil was that, although she was nice to begin with, after a few weeks of living at my place there were problems. Things started to disappear. Money went missing. She asked for money for her relatives."

"Are you sure it was her that was taking things?"

"I found one of my watches in her handbag. Now, how could I marry a girl I couldn’t trust?"

"I see what you mean. But you did meet her in a karaoke bar."


We were into 1993 and the Moslem month of fasting, Ramadan, had come round again. I was seated with Carmen, my small, bubbly, middle-aged colleague, in the front room of my Moslem neighbour, Mr Samsu. A kindly, white haired, little polar-bear of a man, Samsu had not long retired from teaching science at a local university. His modest bungalow was full of books, many of them in English and many of them about Islam. Carmen and I liked to call in on Samsu because we could have a serious conversation with a Moslem who was traditional rather than orthodox. Traditional Moslems, the majority in Indonesia, tend to be more liberal than orthodox Moslems.

"Ramadan," said Carmen, beaming, "it’s a difficult time of year for me. My maid’s going off to East Java, to Surabaya, for the ten day Idul Fitri holiday. How am I going to survive? I’ve almost forgotten how to do housework."

"We have a maid," said Samsu, in a gentle voice, "but my wife has always got involved with the housework."

I looked at the spotless floor and at the cobwebs on the ceiling. In Indonesia, floors always seemed to have a higher priority than ceilings.

"Ramadan is supposed to remind Moslems what it feels like to be one of the poor," said Carmen, with a friendly giggle, "what it feels like to be hungry."

"Exactly," said Samsu, who was looking slightly grey, either because of the fasting or because of the room’s dull lighting. "As it says in Islam, unless you want for your neighbour what you want for yourself, you are not a faithful believer."

"How many Moslems and Christians remember that?" said Carmen, with a guffaw. "Think of all the religious leaders who have wanted to stone people to death. Would they have wanted themselves to be stoned to death?"

Samsu chose to ignore the remark. "Here’s another quote from Islam," said Samsu, gravely. "‘The man who goes to bed with his stomach full, while his neighbour is starving, is not a believer.’ Now think how many hungry people live around here, and think how many full-bellied Moslems and Christians there are in the rich neighbourhood of Pondok Indah."

"I heard of someone in the Ministry of Religious Affairs," said Carmen, "who allegedly owns four large houses and three large cars. Shouldn’t he be giving extra money to his maids?"

"What I’m worried about," I said, "is that my maid wants extra money, not because she’s hungry, but because she wants to buy posh clothes for the Idul Fitri holiday, and buy expensive travel tickets. I gather that ticket scalpers see this time of year as a chance to put up the price of bus tickets by three hundred per cent."

"It’s like Christmas," said Samsu, eyes twinkling. "Some people forget what Christmas is supposed to be about."

"More stories in the papers about Moslems and Christians in Bosnia," said Carmen, stirring things up. "Two years ago it was Iraq and the Gulf War."

"Always lots of problems," said Samsu.

"I saw some graffiti on a wall," continued Carmen. "It was graffiti supporting Saddam Hussein."

I decided to sit back and just listen to the two of them. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.

"Ignorant youth," said Samsu, grinning and shaking his head. "I don’t mean you. I mean the graffiti artist. Moslems are meant to support love, not war. ‘God does not love aggressors.’ That’s Chapter two, verse one hundred and ninety, from the Koran."

"So, is Saddam an aggressor?" asked Carmen.

"I was thinking the graffiti was perhaps aggressive," said Samsu, with a diplomat’s smile. "As for Saddam, let us consider some History. When the Turkish Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, the British created Iraq out of the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basrah. Kuwait was part of Basrah, but the British decided to keep Kuwait for themselves. Some people might say that Saddam was taking back land that should rightly be part of Iraq."

"Why is Saddam popular with some Indonesians?" continued Carmen.

"Because another neighbour’s land has been invaded, and that invasion has been supported by the United States," said Samsu, looking hard at Carmen to see her reaction.

"Another invasion?" asked Carmen.

"Israel has taken lots of Arab land," said Samsu, without any trace of aggression, "and Saddam is seen as someone who can stand up to Israel. Don’t forget that the Americans created the Saddam problem. Saddam was almost certainly put into power by the CIA."

"You think it’s like the mid-1960s," said Carmen.

"The mid-1960s," said Samsu. "That was when the CIA put the military into power in Greece."

"I was thinking of a different military," said Carmen.

"Think of 1963," said Samsu. "The Iraqi Prime Minister, Qasim, was not doing what the Americans wanted. Saddam was one of the people who helped to topple Qasim in 1963. Saddam was useful to the Americans, just as the Ayatollahs in Iran were useful to the Americans. Saddam killed off left-wingers. The Ayatollahs killed off left-wingers. America probably helped to topple the Shah of Iran when he became too powerful and independent. Of course the Americas did not want either the Ayatollahs or Saddam to become too powerful, so they encouraged Iraq and Iran to go to war in 1980. The CIA gave help to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. In 1990, the Americans achieved their aim of getting military bases in Saudi Arabia, thanks to Saddam’s adventure in Kuwait."

"The Americans are responsible for a lot of the world’s problems," said Carmen. "For a supposedly Christian-led nation, they can be very aggressive."

"Moslems are only allowed to fight back after there’s been continued injustice and oppression," said Samsu, smiling happily. "You remember when the Christian Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099? They killed every man, woman and child in the city. Saladin was merciful by comparison."

"I also saw some graffiti attacking Jesus," said Carmen.

I was definitely going to stay right out of this. Did Carmen want a war?

"Well that’s silly," said Samsu. "The graffiti, I mean. In the Koran, Jesus is described as a great prophet who cures people of sickness. Let me look it up in this book. Yes. ‘Jesus, son of Mary, highly distinguished in this world and in the next world, and one of those who is near to God. He is one of the righteous.’ That’s Chapter three, from verses forty five and forty six."

"But Moslems don’t see Jesus in quite the same way as Christians?" said Carmen

"Moslems worry about Jesus being seen as identical with God," explained Samsu. "To Moslems, Jesus and God are not exactly the same."

"But not all Christians see God and Jesus as identical in every way," said Carmen, a woman with a logical mind. "Jesus is a man who claims to have a special relationship with God. Jesus talks to God as his father. He’s presumably not talking to himself. He talks of himself as the Vine and his father as the Vinedresser, two separate things."

"John’s Gospel," said Samsu, knowledgeably.

"And Jesus is tempted in the wilderness," continued Carmen. "Surely God couldn’t be tempted?"

"You’d think not," said Samsu.

"I think," said Carmen, sounding serious for a change, "Jesus meant that in doing God’s will, in renouncing self, he is in some way linked up with God. Jesus talks about men becoming one with God."

"I see what you mean," said Samsu. "It’s about doing what God wants us to do."

"So there’s only one God," continued Carmen. "But Jesus, and all the rest of us, can become one with God if we give up being selfish individuals and follow God’s will."

"The problem is with words trying to describe something spiritual," said Samsu. "You know the Koran suggests that we Moslems should respect Jews and Christians, the People of the Book. Let me see. Chapter two, verse sixty two, of the Koran. ‘Jews and Christians, whoever believes in God and behaves well, there will be no fear among them.’"

"What part does forgiveness play in Islam?" Carmen asked, provocatively. "You hear of people in some countries getting their hands cut off for stealing."

Samsu was too clever for Carmen. "St. Matthew’s Gospel. ‘If your hand or foot leads you into evil, cut it off.’"

"I take that," said Carmen, "as Jesus’s colourful way of saying that we should each cut the bad things out of our own lives. Our own lives, not others’ lives."

Now I had a question for Samsu. "What about the Christian idea of ‘turning the other cheek’? Would you agree with that?"

"Those who repent," said Samsu, "God will forgive them. God is Forgiving, Merciful."

"But what about turning the other cheek?" I insisted.

"In the Koran," said Samsu, "We have the story of Adam’s sons, Kane and Abel. Chapter five, verse twenty eight. Abel says to Kane, ‘Even if you stretch out your hand to kill me, I will not stretch out my hand to kill you.’"

"But what about murder?" said Carmen. "Aren’t the punishments in some Islamic countries extremely strict?"

"America, China and Singapore carry out the great majority of the executions in this world," said Samsu. "It’s the non-Moslem countries that carry out the most executions. Remember that in the great majority of Moslem countries there is no Sharia law. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan are the countries with extreme punishments, but I would suggest that if the Americans stopped interfering in these three countries, then life might become more liberal. Let me tell you a story. In a country with fundamentalist law, a man called Ali murders a man called Amin. Now, Ali will be hanged, if that is what Amin’s family want. But if Amin’s family is forgiving, Ali will not be hanged. Well, Ali begs for forgiveness. Amin’s family forgive Ali and Ali’s life is spared. That is what God would have wanted, I’m sure."

"I agree," said Carmen.

"I like the words from Jesus," said Samsu, "‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive each person who sins against us.’ In other words, if Amin’s family are not forgiving, then their own sins will not be forgiven by God."

"Let him who is without sin throw the first stone," I added, trying to keep up with my intellectual companions.

"My own view," said Samsu sinking into his armchair, "is that seeking revenge, and killing people, is always wrong."

"Right," said Carmen.

"As it says in Islam," said Samsu, "Unless you want for your neighbour what you want for yourself, you don’t have faith.’"

"It’s a pity the Crusaders didn’t think about that," said Carmen.

Samsu had the last word. "Remember that not all Christians are fanatical fundamentalists who want an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."


With Min’s brother-in-law Gani, I took Min for a walk in the direction of leper Iwan’s house.

"How’s the vegetable cart?" I asked.

"Min’s dad was out selling vegetables when he got robbed," said Gani. "Someone suddenly grabbed the cash box and ran off."

"During Ramadan?"

"People need money for the Idul Fitri holiday," said Gani.

"Is Min’s dad OK?"

"He’s got over it."

"And how’s Min getting on?" I asked.

"Fine."

Min chose that moment to spit in the direction of my face and giggle wildly. It was one of his hyperactive days and he was being playful.

"Min, don’t do that," said Gani gently. As I had observed before, Indonesians usually try the gentle approach with children.

We reached the scavengers’ kampung and found Iwan limping around outside his hut.

"You got your leprosy pills from the hospital didn’t you?" I asked, after we had greeted each other.

"Yes," said Iwan. "But remember that time you took me out of the hospital? The doctor was very angry about that. They nearly refused to see me this time."

"Are you going to your kampung in Karawang at Idul Fitri?" I asked Iwan.

"Yes."

"Make sure you’re back in time for your next lot of medicine," I said.

Iwan nodded.

Back at Min’s house I spoke to Wati, Min’s mum, who was washing clothes in an old plastic bucket.

"When Min was living at Dr Bahari’s clinic," I said, "I had Min vaccinated against typhoid and tetanus. Have the rest of the family been vaccinated?"

"Vaccinated?" asked Wati.

Gani explained what I was getting at.

"No, not yet," said Wati.

"You should all be vaccinated," I said. "If I give you the money will you go to the clinic?"

"Yes," said Wati, as she accepted a little bundle of rupiahs.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

30. ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

~

On the arrival of the Idul Fitri holiday, which follows the fasting month of Ramadan, I decided to drive to the fishing village of Pelabuhan Ratu, situated on Java’s south coast. I wanted to enjoy sea breezes; and I wanted to visit Marni, the little girl suffering from thalassaemia.

On the way to the coast I noticed that the trees were fast disappearing from many hillsides, causing soil erosion, and creating lunar landscapes. Environmentalists have claimed that over half of the logging in Indonesia is illegal. Now, who is powerful enough to remove the vegetation from entire hillsides? Certain military personnel are said to be behind much of the illegal felling of forests.

The first part of the road southwards was crowded with traffic, spewing out black fumes. When it comes to damaging the environment we should note that Indonesia ranks about number twenty one in terms of fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions; the USA is number one, producing one quarter of the world’s total of such gases. What is worrying is that in Indonesia fossil fuel emissions have grown tenfold since 1950.

Pelabuhan Ratu’s main street was packed with Indonesian backpackers of the raucous and sometimes insolent variety that make me feel uneasy; and the sea and sky were grey. I booked into the Samudra Beach Hotel, well away from the centre of the village.

In a rice field near the bat cave, I found Marni’s mother hard at work. Marni, looking swollen and yellow, was being carried on her mother’s back. A piece of wide cloth held her firm. The skin on mum’s fleshy limbs looked as weathered as her stained dress.

"Did Marni get a blood transfusion?" I asked the mum, after an exchange of greetings.

"No," she said, giving me a weary smile.

"The last time I was here I gave the RT money to help you buy food," I explained. "He said he was related to you. Did you get the money?"

"No."

"You know the RT? The community chief? Did he speak to you after my last visit?"

"No."

"Did he give you any money?"

"No."

I felt it was possible she was telling the truth and that the RT, if that was indeed what he was, might be the sort who liked to rob poor widows and take the best positions in the mosque. It is also possible that Marni’s mum, being a speaker of Sundanese, did not understand a single word I was saying.

"OK. I’m giving you some more cash now, only for food and medicine."

She took the money and gave me a shy smile.


Having bid farewell to little Marni, I motored along the coast, westwards of Pelabuhan Ratu, and very soon came to the pretty kampung village of Cisolok. As I strolled along the quiet tree-lined streets, I photographed gardenia, peacock flowers and ornate little cottages with pillars and verandahs. The sun was coming out. Bright eyed children skipped along the paths beside the misty green fields of rice. Fishermen were painting their wooden boats.

Following a narrow, leafy path inland, and signs advertising a ‘volcanic area’, I reached a shallow river. I watched a section of river bubble and boil and, in one spot, shoot up a jet of water. Java is at the dangerous meeting point of two of the plates that make up the earth’s thin skin . I felt a little nervous. Two hungry-looking boys approached and offered to sell me some semi-precious stones. I bought a small sparkly pebble for a few coins.

Beside a bamboo bridge I met a tourist, a short haired, bespectacled, young Chinese-Indonesian student. His name was Rahayu, he was from Central Java and he was studying physics.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Just out for a stroll," I said.

"I’ll join you."

He looked harmless, spoke good English, and at times was silent as a monk. I learnt, during bursts of conversation, that his father taught science at university level.

Following a well-worn path we reached some woodland, at the edge of which, giant, curving, sensuous leaves shone bright amber and mauve and lemon, against a background of a hundred different dark-grey greens. Further along the track, the forest was crammed with wet mosses, fan shaped ferns, and thick dangly lianas. The Jack-in-the-Beanstock trees, so immensely tall, were hairy and furry like orang-utans. Hobgoblin roots and branches twisted and turned in ways I could never have imagined. Resting on a web was a multicoloured spider as wide as my hand.

"It’s beautiful around here, isn’t it," said Rahayu.

"Yes, apart from the spider," I said, and a period of silence followed as we continued our trek.

I gaped and wondered how all this had come about. When Mother Nature began her work, was the resulting jungle a mixture of the random and the non-random? In other words, was it all an accident, or did God play some limited part, or did God follow a blueprint designed in heaven and get everything perfect?

"Have you read about Wallace and Darwin and natural selection?" I asked Rahayu.

"I have. Wallace spent time in Indonesia. He helped produce the theory of natural selection."

"The idea that the butterfly with the best camouflage is the one most likely to survive," I said, vaguely remembering lessons on evolution. "Or that in Africa, giraffes developed because the longest necked creatures could reach the highest up leaves on the trees."

"Creatures are continually taking on new forms," said Rahayu.

"Is it random?" I asked. "Is it all an accident? Is the scary appearance of the spider the result of random change? Is the neat shape of the ferns just an accident?"

"Natural selection is non-random," said Rahayu, without elaborating.

There followed another period of silence. I began to consider the question of whether or not there was any divine intervention in the creation of the beautiful butterfly’s wing?

"Do you think God plays a part in all this?" I asked. "I mean, is it true, as they say, that God’s fingerprints are all over the universe?"

"God’s fingerprints?" Rahayu had apparently not heard the phrase before.

"Well, let’s imagine you are playing poker and keep on winning. That’s because you get good cards and because you apply your brains. But, is the fact that you keep on getting all the aces because the angels are on your side?"

"Scientists would say that if there are an infinite number of universes, then someone is bound, some day, to get all the aces."

Our path seemed to be curving and taking us back towards Cipanas.

"I was thinking of artists," I said. "Is the world like a painting? Let’s imagine the painter has an idea of what he wants. He starts applying his brush to the canvas. The paint goes all over the place. Now, is the finished painting partly something that was planned, and partly the result of chance?" My goodness, the heat of the jungle was doing funny things to my poor brain. Maybe I should go back to the hotel and have a nice cup of tea, and a lie down, and stop worrying about things that were beyond me.

"You mean the artist is like God," said Rahayu, "but can we be sure the artist exists?"

"You’re not sure?"

"I’m a Buddhist," said Rahayu. "The Dharma, the law of nature, is the only solid thing we can be sure of."

"I don’t understand. We can be sure that trees exist."

"The trees, and your body, are made up of subatomic particles and empty space. You probably know the subatomic particles are not really solid. They exist for only a trillionth of a second."

"I didn’t know."

"The particles continuously arise and then vanish. They come in and out of existence. The trees have no real being."

"They look solid to me." I stretched out my hand to touch a branch.

"That’s because you can’t see what’s really happening."

"What about spiders? What about all the suffering in nature?" I asked. I was thinking of Marni and thalassaemia.

"Suffering is not due to chance. There are causes. Our actions are the cause of suffering."

"Isn’t it possible," I said "that everything has come about by chance?"

"No. Mind precedes all phenomena. Everything is mind-made."

"When a baby dies, or an insect is swallowed up, could it just be bad luck?"

"Everything must have a cause," said Rahayu.

"But what about when a baby dies? How can you say its actions are the cause of its suffering?"

"Karma. The baby’s previous life. People who cause pain to other living things experience a lot of sickness. There’s a path leading to happiness and one that leads to suffering."

We turned a corner, and were suddenly returned to civilisation. Rahayu shook my hand and set off to the nearby boarding house where he said his girlfriend awaited him. I was not sure that I had been enlightened. I should have asked Rahayu more about this Dharma.


Back at the hotel bar I met a tall American with a furrowed face and a flowery T-shirt. He was working for some kind of aid organisation and living in Bandung with his Indonesian wife, and children by two marriages. We got onto the subject of Bandung and chatted about everything from the aircraft industry to architecture.

"Bandung is where they have the Indonesian Army Staff and Command School," he said. "The U.S. Military is rumoured to have had some influence there back in the 1960’s. They’re suspected of having helped set up the state-within-a-state."

"How do you mean?"

"The people who really run things here are the army people, whether at the village level or the district level or the regional level. The Americans are thought to have helped create this system."

"Why would they want to do that?"

"In the 1960’s they wanted to fight communism and help American business. So lots of money is said to have been handed over to certain generals, those whom the CIA approved of."

"So who organised the 1965 take-over?" I asked.

"Who organised the anti-Chinese riots in Bandung in 1963?" he responded, giving me a funny look.

"I’ve no idea."

"Who killed Kennedy?" he continued. "I suppose we’ll never know for sure. I was in the Philippines before this, in Baguio. We used to wonder if Marcos was a creature of the CIA. At first the American media made out he was a wonderful guy. Possibly stories were planted. The trouble was that Marcos and his cronies got so corrupt, the country was bankrupted and the communists grew stronger. What was Reagan to do?"

"What did he do?"

"He let Marcos retire. Maybe he had a quiet word with Ramos."

"Cory took over," I said, to demonstrate that I had heard of the Philippines.

"But the army continued to do its own thing. A-state-within-a-state. Military death squads continued to kill people. The rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor. Most of the wealth remained in the hands of a few families."

"What do you think’s going to happen here?" I asked.

"Who knows. I’ve got a house back in Texas if things go wrong. I like the East though. I liked Vietnam. I fought there."

"What went wrong in Vietnam, for the Americans?" I was full of questions.

"I think the top brass thought they were doing the right thing, bombing people, trying to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

"Greatest happiness. That was the idea of Jeremy Bentham." I felt quite clever remembering the name.

"They forgot about justice. If you kill some innocent peasants to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number, you’re forgetting about justice."

"What about the boat people?"

"Oh, both sides were bad. Don’t get me wrong."


Back in Bogor I paid a visit to the mental hospital to see how John was getting on. He’d lost weight again and looked sad.

"Has John seen the doctor?" I asked Diana, the nurse on duty.

"Yes, John’s OK."

"Has he still got diarrhoea?"

"He’s OK."

"Can I take some of the kids for a walk?"

"Mr Kent, you have no children of your own?" She looked at me with a distinct sneer.

"No. Who can I take for a walk?"

"Saepul." This was the boy who from time to time punched his own face.

"Will one of the nurses come with me?"

"No." She laughed.

Saepul’s hands were untied and I set off towards the shop. When I reached my vehicle I bravely, or foolishly, decided I would let the boy into the back seat so he could have a short excursion to the nearest kampung.

Saepul had still not punched his face and we had been travelling for ten minutes. We got out of the vehicle and started walking along a path which led to a warung, a food stall. We bought some pastries which Saepul wolfed down. Next to the warung, there was a strange bird at the end of a string and we sat down to look at it. The bird’s owner, a schoolboy, came to stare at Saepul, in a worried but sympathetic way. Saepul’s fist thudded against his right cheek. Pause. Then another thud. I stood up, took Saepul’s hand, and hurried him back to the van and his hospital ward.

~

Monday, January 20, 2003

31. ALDI

~

Around Easter, I discovered that I was going to have to vacate the house in which I was living. The Chinese owner of the property wanted to do some redecoration and then increase the rent beyond what my school was prepared to pay. Moving house meant all the usual hassles, such as having to squash all my worldly goods into a few small cardboard boxes, having to go house hunting, and having to give lots of people my new address and telephone number.

House hunting in Jakarta requires great care. Many of the Indonesian houses built for the well-to-do look magnificent on the outside. There are Greek pillars, huge pediments, stained glass windows, and palatial entrances. But, inside, you may find that there is no hot water for the washing machine and no proper bath in the bathroom.

I eventually settled on a modern, white-walled villa with a sloping red roof. There were two small bedrooms; a sunny lounge-dining room provided views through glass doors to a little garden containing Heliconias and Hibiscus. The house appeared to have no major problems, such as broken air conditioners. A date was fixed for entry.

At this point, my driver pointed out that he would have a slightly longer journey to work and might need help to buy a motorbike. Rachmat, the house guard, was not sure whether or not he wanted to move to the new neighbourhood, away from all his friends. I ignored their comments, knowing that they were already being paid an above average wage.


I was seated on the settee in the little front room of Min’s house. Light was streaming into the room from the open front door. Standing on the doorstep were two of the local children who had come to stare. Min’s mum, perched on a wooden chair, was mending an old shirt. As usual, she looked less than wildly happy and I wondered if this was confirmation of my fear that the family were not entirely at ease in their new home and new neighbourhood. Aldi, the pleasant looking middle child, then aged about thirteen, was squatting on the floor next to Min. Aldi reported that he was having problems with the local children.

"They’re horrid to me," he complained . I thought he was going to cry.

"Are you horrid to Aldi?" I asked Eko, one of the schoolboys who was standing at the front door.

"No," protested Eko, staring at me with his big dark eyes and trying to look sincere.

"They’re not being nice," muttered Aldi.

"Come in Eko," I said, "and I’ll take a photo of you, Min and Aldi on the sofa."

Aldi made a face but the three of them were persuaded to sit together. Min smiled happily. Eko gave a slightly phoney smile. Aldi temporarily relaxed and grinned.

"My leg’s very sore," said Aldi, who looked a bit flushed in the face.

"Has Aldi been to the doctor?" I asked Wati.

"Not yet," she replied.

My main concern was for Min. I felt it was up to Wati to sort out her other children’s problems. She didn’t seem to be totally without money as, scattered around the floor, there were new toys, including a plastic car big enough for a child to sit in.


Next afternoon I again called in on Min.

Aldi was hobbling about. Fairly high up on his left thigh there was an inflamed red lump, possibly the result of a cut or a sore.

Min’s five year old sister, Imah, had a cough.

"Do you want to take Aldi to the local doctor?" I asked mum. "Imah too."

"OK," said Wati.

We drove to the clinic a few streets away and a young doctor gave Imah some cough medicine. He then applied some cream to Aldi’s cut, and administered some kind of injection.


For the next few days I was busy preparing to move house. I seemed to have acquired rather a lot of books and files and I went through them trying to decide what to throw out. In the end, what I disposed of was mainly old socks full of holes, torn shirts, used exercise books and broken pens. When I had dumped this rubbish in the bin I noticed that the maid carefully took it all out again and carefully stored it away for future sale or use.

The new residence, I had been assured, had no problems with leaking roofs. But after moving in there was a downpour and small brown stains appeared on parts of the ceilings in the lounge and one bedroom. Maybe the stains had been there before and I had just not noticed. Come to think of it, many of the houses of colleagues had similar problems. I completed my unpacking and decided that I was going to enjoy my new home.


After the several days involving packing up and moving, I called in on Min. It was afternoon and Aldi was not long home from school. He was lying on the settee.

"Aldi’s very ill," said Wardi, sounding unusually nervous. "He came home from school and he was like this."

"What do you think is wrong?" I asked. I could see that Aldi was in pain.

"His neck’s sore," said Wardi. "He doesn’t want to get up. His neck feels stiff."

"We’d better get him to the Pertama Hospital," I said, referring to the large tower-block hospital a few miles distant. I felt angry that Aldi’s family had let him go to school that day. I felt guilty that I had not visited Min’s house a few days earlier. I felt worried that it was me who had argued in favour of Aldi moving from their old house in North Jakarta to this new one near Min’s school.

In the emergency ward, the doctor examined the patient, did some tests and came to a swift conclusion.

"Tetanus," he said.

Aldi, who was being attached to various tubes, was moaning and weeping.

I was relieved that we had got him admitted to the hospital and that he was now getting treatment. I did not know much about tetanus but I assumed that the same sorts of antibiotics which had cured the blue baby in Bogor would now also deal with Aldi’s problem.

"Don’t worry," I said to him, smiling, "you’re going to be all right now." Although Aldi was terrified and in pain, I felt there was something reassuring about the nurses and the tubes.

After leaving Min’s home I had a late dinner at The Meridien. I felt more relaxed, even pleased with myself.


After work next day I hurried to the Pertama Hospital where I met Aldi’s hollow-cheeked father who looked stressed and worn out. Aldi was alone in an isolation room which could be looked into through a glass screen. My heart began to pound when I saw the little boy was having huge and violent muscle spasms which made his whole body writhe. These intensely painful-looking spasms were rapid and continual. It just went on and on and on. It was as if he was being electrocuted for hours on end. I could not cope with this nightmarish scene and asked a nurse to fetch a doctor. A tall, unsmiling man arrived.

"What can be done about these spasms?" I asked. "Surely he should be getting some attention from a nurse or someone?"

"He’s got tetanus," said the doctor. There was a hint of irritability in his voice.

"But what’s being done for him? Is the medicine working?"

"He’s getting treatment for tetanus."

I wanted some detailed information and some sympathy but I was not going to get it from this particular doctor.

"What about the spasms?" I asked.

"You get that with tetanus," said the doctor, who then walked away.

I looked at Aldi’s father. The poor man looked near to tears.

That evening I could not relax. I lay down in bed but could not get to sleep. I sat up and looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes past eleven. Next time I looked it was twenty six minutes past eleven and thirteen seconds.


There was a phone call for me midmorning while I was at work. Someone from the Pertama Hospital wanted my permission to move Aldi to intensive care.

"Of course you have my permission," I said aggressively. "Shouldn’t he have been in intensive care all along?"

"We also need your permission to increase the dosage of Diazepam. That’s Valium."

"I’m not a doctor. I have no idea about these things. Ask the boy’s father. Aldi’s not my child." I must have sounded extremely bad tempered.

"We need your permission because you signed the form when the patient was admitted."

"I can’t make a decision. You’ll need to ask the father."

"We have to ask you."

"So what happens if you don’t increase the dosage?"

"The present dosage is not sedating the child enough."

"And if you increase the dosage? Are there any problems with that?"

"There is a risk of heart failure, which is why he should be in intensive care."

"He should be in intensive care, but I can’t possibly make a medical decision about dosages."

"The doctor always needs permission before taking any important step like this."

"Tell the doctor he must do what’s best for the patient. I give permission for that. If he wants to increase the dosage, that’s OK. And please consult the father." I imagined that Aldi’s father would know as little as I did.

I was becoming superstitious. I looked at my watch and it was thirteen minutes past twelve. Next time I looked, it was thirteen minutes past one, the thirteenth hour. This was stupid, I thought. Just a coincidence. What was the significance of the number thirteen? According to some numerologists, thirteen means the end of a cycle and new beginnings.


After school finished I was driven straight to the hospital, nerves shivering. I looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes past the hour. I wondered how the family would react towards me if anything had gone wrong. I remembered again that it was me who had helped persuade Aldi to move to the new house.

We reached the gates at the front of the hospital. Wardi was standing there. He signaled to us to stop and approached the car.

"Aldi is dead. He’s left this world. It’s all right Mr Kent." Wardi was speaking calmly and with no anger in his voice.

My brain felt numb, as if someone had given it a violent blow. I went with Wardi to find a doctor and was shown into a room where a middle aged woman sat at a desk. She looked sober minded and sympathetic. Judging by the room’s comfortable furniture, she was a senior doctor.

"What happened?" I asked.

"The child had a serious case of tetanus. He had had the disease many days before he came to us. I don’t think he had been immunised."

"He had an injection from a doctor at a clinic when he got the red lump," I pointed out.

"Yes but there are two different kinds of injection, those you get before an injury and those you get after an injury. It is the first kind that is vital."

"Did Wati get the children immunised?" I said, turning to Wardi. "After I gave her the money a few weeks ago."

"She went to the clinic," said Wardi, "but they said they didn’t do vaccinations."

"It is very important," continued the doctor, speaking softly, "that they get immunisation before any accident."

"What treatment did Aldi get here at the hospital?" I asked.

"I was in charge of his treatment," she said. "We gave him penicillin and diazepam. The penicillin is for the bacteria, but it does not deal with the toxin already produced by the bacteria. The toxin causes the spasms. The diazepam is to try to relax the muscles. There is a danger with the diazepam that the heart may stop which is why he was moved to intensive care. Unfortunately his heart gave out."

"Was there a doctor in intensive care to help him?" I said.

I must have sounded too angry because Wardi took my arm and said, "It’s all right Mr Kent."

"We did what we could," said the doctor.

There were forms to be filled in at the hospital, and bills to be paid. When we eventually reached Min’s house, Aldi’s small body, covered by a cloth, was already lying in the middle of the living room floor. Relations and neighbours were seated on the floor in a circle around the corpse, and I thought that I should join them. A smiling neighbour came in and read some Moslem prayers. This neighbour did not seem to be at all upset by events but I found tears flooding from my eyes. I hoped that, Lazarus-like, the little body might get up, but it didn’t. Min looked confused, unsure of what was going on.

Wati beckoned to me to come upstairs. There she sat close beside me, pressed against me in fact, and prepared herself to speak.

"Mr Kent, we need money. We have to pay for the burial."

"I’ll pay. Don’t worry."

"We need to go to Lamaya for the burial. It’s the small town where we used to live. It’s a long way."

"Yes, I know. A journey of four hours."

She was naturally in a disturbed state of mind. At one point she picked up a photo of her dead son, ripped it into pieces and then flung the pieces onto the floor.

I wanted to get some fresh air and took Min outside to the communal bench half way along the street, next to where the mobile food carts usually park. It was already dark and insects danced in the light of kerosene lamps. Min became quite jolly, obviously unaware of the true nature of events. Two or three of Aldi’s former school friends came and sat down beside us. They showed no signs of sorrow or unhappiness.

"Mr Kent," said Wardi, who had come to join us, "we need your driver to take the family to Lamaya."

"It’s nearly midnight," I said.

"It’s the Moslem custom that the body must be buried quickly."

"I understand that, but my driver has to get home to his family. What other form of transport is there?"

"An ambulance will be very expensive."

"I know. But it’ll have to be an ambulance."

I returned to my home and lay on my bed. "It’s all right Mr Kent," was what Wardi had said. To some Moslems, it was a simple matter of God’s will; one had to accept these sometimes mysterious events. But how could a good and all powerful God allow such things to happen? I remembered that when Budi had died, I had wondered why angels had not intervened. Buddhist Rahayu, whom I had met during the Idul Fitri holiday, might have seen all this suffering as something inevitable for beings who had not yet reached enlightenment. There would be continual reincarnations until attachments and illusions were got rid of. He did not apparently believe in a God in the Moslem or Christian sense of the word. I remembered what Tom had said: "They die of tetanus every week in the kampungs." What worried me most was memories of Aldi’s painful spasms and the thought that they might not have occurred if I had done things differently. I tried to comfort myself by thinking that my actions, such as moving Min’s family to their new home in South Jakarta, had seemed right at the time. Eventually I drifted off to some kind of sleep.

~

Sunday, January 19, 2003

32. DADANG

~~


I needed a new house guard. Rachmat, my previous guard, had decided he did not want to move to the new neighbourhood, away from all his friends. My maid found me a skinny replacement, a youth called Irfan.

Various sounds would waken me in the night. It was amazing just how many of my Indonesian neighbours kept dogs that went to bed very late and cockerels that woke very early. Part of the noise problem was due to the thinness of the walls. I suspected that when my alarm clock went off, the old man across the road would leap rather suddenly out of bed. Of course the main reason I was ill at ease was Aldi’s death. I was nervous about going back to see Min.

Min’s family had not been sleeping well. There were new lines under their eyes.

"Mr Kent," said a dispirited sounding Wati, who was sitting in her front room with her youngest child on her lap, "how much do you pay Wisma Utara for Min’s schooling?"

"Quite a lot," I said, wondering what Wati was leading up to.

"I don’t think Min needs to go to school," she said, in an unusually outspoken way.

"How do you mean?"

"I don’t think Wisma Utara is doing him much good."

"You may be right," I said. "I’ll have a word with Joan. If I’m not paying fees to Wisma Utara, I can give you the money instead."

Wati’s face seemed to relax.

"How’s the vegetable stall?" I asked.

"It’s not good. There are too many other people selling vegetables."

I guessed that Wati might be in real need of a boost to her income.

"Before I forget," I said, "We must all go to my doctor to get you immunised. Would tonight be suitable?"

"Tomorrow," said Wati, sounding hesitant.

"She’s frightened of needles," said Gani, Min’s brother-in-law, who had been hovering at the door.

"It’s no problem. I’ve had lots of injections," I said.

"My children," said Gani. "Can they come too?"

"Yes, of course," I said. "So tomorrow it is."

Min and I walked up the road to see Joan at Wisma Utara. We were invited to have a seat on a rather stained sofa in the lounge.

"How’s Min getting on with his schooling?" I asked.

"Just fine, Mr Kent, just fine," said Joan.

At this point I was distracted by a pair of mournful eyes belonging to a skinny boy seated on the floor.

"Who’s that very thin child with his finger in his ear?" I asked.

"Dadang. Sweet looking boy," said Joan.

"He looks poorly," I said. "There are bubbles coming out his nose." In fact he didn’t look as if he was long for this world.

"He’s fine. Everyone’s fine," said Joan, sounding tired and depressed.

"Can we take him to the doctor?" I knew Joan liked to get out of the home for a change of air.

"Yes, if you like."

I sat down beside Dadang, took his damp hand and asked him how he was feeling. He looked at me with his big sad eyes but said nothing. It was like looking into the eyes of a baby seal separated from its mother. When he coughed, cupfuls of phlegm exploded from his mouth and nose.

Having returned Min to his house, I took Dadang and Joan to a nearby clinic that did x-rays.

"Can you check for TB?" I said to the doctor. I didn’t want to think of Min sitting in school alongside a child with a serious infection.

"We’ll do all the tests. You’ll know by tomorrow," said the doctor. "Dadang is underweight."

After returning Dadang and Joan to Wisma Utara, I walked down to the rubbish tip to visit Iwan, the boy with leprosy. He was not at home.

"Where’s Iwan?" I asked one of the locals, a teenage girl with eyes that were a mixture of the sulky and the sultry.

"At his Kampung. He’s still in Karawang."

As I reckoned that Iwan’s medicine must have run out yet again, I asked the girl if she would fetch Iwan’s uncle. She walked, slim hips swinging, to a nearby hut and returned with the thin little man.

"Can you go to Karawang and persuade Iwan to return?" I asked the uncle, "He must get his pills."

"I’ll go now," he said eagerly, as I handed him more than enough money for the bus.


That evening I met Fergus for a drink. As usual he was wearing immaculately pressed shirt and trousers and dark glasses.

"It’s been a bad week," I said to Fergus as we sat in the Tavern, a bistro-style bar crowded with overweight expats, Indonesian secretaries having a night out, and commercial girls. "An Indonesian child I knew died of tetanus."

"Very high death rate among Indonesian children," said Fergus, looking surreptitiously in the direction of a table surrounded by Indonesian women. "It’s been happening throughout history."

"Makes me feel guilty," I said.

"Remember what Buddha said. You’ll never find a family that’s not known some sadness. People die. We’re all bound to feel guilty. It’s like in these Greek tragedies."

"I didn’t know you were into Greek tragedies." The last book I had seen Fergus reading was a Wilbur Smith.

"We were talking about this at school. In a Greek tragedy, people have to decide between two possible actions. But they always end up feeling guilty whatever decision they make."

"That seems to be the way it is," I said.

"Buddha and Jesus pointed out that suffering is inevitable in this world."

A tall Indonesian girl, wearing too much makeup, walked past our table. As she did so she smiled in the direction of Fergus, who gave a quick smile in return.

"How’s Min?" asked Fergus, as his eyes followed the girls legs towards the exit.

"Fine. But I don’t think he’s gaining much from his schooling."

"I suppose there isn’t too much you can do with a child who can barely speak?"

"Agreed, but the children and staff at Wisma Utara seem to sit around a lot, not doing very much."

"Lack of supervision," said Fergus. "It’s a problem in Indonesia. I just had some problems with a travel agency. Staff not too well trained. Lot of hassle getting tickets for Thailand. Anyway, what are your plans for summer?"

"I might explore parts of Java. Maybe a trip to Borobudur."


Next evening I was sitting with Joan in the lounge at Wisma Utara. Children of various shapes and sizes were seated on the floor watching the black and white TV. Some of the children looked less than normal. One or two were rocking back and forward. It was very humid and there was a smell of urine.

"You remember Santo?" said Joan, before I had a chance to ask about Dadang’s x-rays.

"Santo?" I said. I had a picture in my mind of a boy with wide apart eyes.

"He died," she said softly.

"Goodness. What of?"

"TB," said Joan.

"Was he getting treatment?"

"No, Mr Kent."

"Why not?" My voice was rising.

"His family is poor, Mr Kent." Joan, dressed as usual in cheap T-shirt, slacks and sandals, emphasised the word poor.

"But they’re rich enough to pay for him to stay at Wisma Utara. Anyway, I could have paid."

"Mr Kent is always very busy. He doesn’t come to see us often."

"But Santo must have been ill for years. Had he seen the doctor?"

"No, Mr Kent. We didn’t know he was ill."

"The doctor comes here once a week. Didn’t he examine Santo?"

"No, Mr Kent."

"I don’t understand," I said, my voice becoming high-pitched. "Santo had a family rich enough to put him into this place, but they didn’t check up to see if their child was ill. There’s a doctor comes here once a week but he didn’t check up to see if the child was ill. Nobody told me the child was ill."

To be fair, I had never noticed anything seriously amiss with Santo; so why should the doctor notice. Santo had always looked rotund and smiling. I wondered if it really was TB.

"Diah’s also ill," said Joan.

It seemed that Joan had suddenly decided to offload all of Wisma Utara’s unhappy secrets. Perhaps she thought that, as I had now taken an interest in undernourished Dadang, I might as well know about all the rest. Probably she felt better for telling the truth.

"Where is Diah?" I asked, remembering the pretty teenage girl and her happy smile.

"She’s gone home to stay with her family."

"What’s wrong?"

"A tumour on the brain."

"Can I help?" I asked. My brain was feeling dizzy as a result of all the bad news.

"No, Mr Kent. Her family are rich. They can pay for treatment."

"What about Madan? He looks very thin." I was looking at a boy with a morose but handsome face.

"His father’s a doctor at the Kota Hospital," said Joan.

"Heavens," I said, wondering why a doctor might dump his son in a home and then let him grow so thin. "What about a checkup for Madan?"

"His father knows you come here," said Joan. "He says Madan must not be taken to any doctor or clinic."

I decided not to pursue the matter. There was something in Joan’s tone of voice suggesting it could be dangerous to oppose the wishes of Madan’s father.

"Any results from Dadang’s x-ray?" I asked. I couldn’t see Dadang, who was normally seated in his corner with his finger in his ear.

"The doctor says it’s TB," said Joan. "We got the x-rays."

"Not good. Has he got medicine?"

"Dadang’s family have taken him home," explained Joan.

"Would they like me to help pay for the treatment?"

"No, Mr Kent. They’re rich."

"Do you think anyone else here has got TB?"

"Wira’s father has TB. Wira’s one of our staff."

"Is the father getting treatment?"

"No Mr Kent. Wira gets paid very little."

"OK. I’ll give Wira money if she gets me a hospital receipt each month. And Wira better have an x-ray too."

"Thanks Mr Kent."

"And where’s Gus who used to help look after Min?"

"He’s got cancer."

"You’re joking." I was beginning to wonder if there was anyone at Wisma Utara who was not sick.

"No," said Joan.

"Has he got x-rays or anything? Has he been to a hospital?"

"Not yet."

"Well how does he know he’s got cancer?"

"The doctor told him."

"Tell him to go to the hospital and get a proper check up."

It occurred to me that Fergus was right. Making decisions led to guilt. If I had left Min living in the North Jakarta slums, I would have felt guilty. But having moved him to the house near Wisma Utara, I now felt guilty. Wisma Utara seemed to be an institution lacking proper supervision, at least as far as health was concerned.

Leaving Wisma Utara, I walked down the narrow little lane leading to Min’s house. I found Min’s mum brushing her front doorstep with a homemade broom.

"Wati," I said, "I think Min should stop going to Wisma Utara. Tomorrow he should stay at home. I’ll give you the money I was going to pay them for the schooling."

"Right, Mr Kent," said Wati, looking supremely happy for a change. I got the feeling she didn’t have a totally high regard for the staff at Wisma Utara.

"Any ill effects from the injections?"

"No," said Wati, grinning widely, "but my arm was sore for a while."

"My doctor says your x-rays are all OK. No TB."


After my visit to Wati, I headed for the rubbish tip. Leper Iwan was back from visiting his mother in distant Karawang. As had happened on the previous occasion, he was distinctly unwell. He was looking more skeletal than a kampung chicken and parts of his feet were horribly mushy and infected.

We headed straight to the local clinic where the doctor declared that the boy must go to the leper hospital.

The following day, a Saturday, I took Iwan and his granny to the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi, where the leper hospital is located.

"He has to be admitted as an in-patient," said the muscular doctor in his green-walled surgery.

"He needs to have his wounds attended to every day, by a nurse. There’s a lot of puss. And he’s malnourished."

"It’s the best thing," I said to Iwan. "You’ve twice been off to your village without enough medicine. And you look as if you haven’t eaten for a month."

"What about my granny?" said Iwan, eyes watering. "The doctor says she can’t stay in the ward."

"I’ll give her money to stay in a local boarding house," I said, "and I’ll give her money for food." I knew the granny would probably be able to sneak into the hospital any time she wanted. There appeared to be no staff on duty in the latter part of the day.

"There are lots of other children in the ward," said the nurse. "You’ll have plenty of friends. OK?"

"OK," said Iwan.

We walked through the pleasant gardens and met some of Iwan’s fellow patients in a ward for young males. I was struck by the fact that the majority of these patients looked quite normal. Only one boy was limping as badly as Iwan and none was as undernourished. If only Iwan had looked after himself better.


At the end of the day, and after consuming the maid’s undercooked but re-heated chicken, I developed a headache. The maid called in young Irfan, the house guard, and suggested that he massage my feet. So I sat on the settee while he squeezed each toe in turn.

"Wahdoo! That’s too much," I protested. The pain in my toe was worse than the pain in my head.

"This will help your head," he explained.

I noticed Irfan’s dirty fingernails and I suspected that he didn’t wash his slightly tattered clothes or himself too frequently. He was quite a good-looking kid but he wore a worried expression.

"Irfan, where’s your family from?" I wanted to distract myself from my pain by thinking about something else.

"Central Java. My father died when I was very small My mother remarried after my dad died. I was left with my father’s first wife."

"Your stepmother? How did you get on?" I asked.

"I had to sleep in the mosque. My stepmother had no room in her house. It’s full of lodgers."

"Do you ever see your real mother?"

"Hardly ever. She lives in the middle of Java with her new children. It’s many hours by bus."

"And her new husband? What does he do?"

"He lives in Jakarta. He got a job here as a driver. He works for an Indonesian and gets paid very little."

I was beginning to feel really sorry for poor Irfan. "Have you been to school?" I asked.

"I reached Primary Three."

"What happened when you left school? What did you do all day?"

"I made money from guarding parked cars outside Hero’s supermarket. Mister, can I go back to school? It would only be in the mornings. I’d work the rest of the day." Irfan gave me his big-eyed, child-beggar look.

"Would you want extra money from me?"

"I haven’t enough money to pay for school. I have to give some of what I earn here to my sister. She’s unemployed."

"OK. Go and visit the school and see if they’ll take you. You may be too old now."

"Thanks mister."

"I think my head is a little better now," I said. My problems seemed slight compared to those of Irfan.

I few days later I spoke to Irfan while he was cutting the grass in the front garden.

"Irfan, how was school? What class have they put you in?"

"I’m in Primary Four," said Irfan. He was blushing.

Poor kid, I thought. He must be twice the size of all the other students. But at least he’s getting some kind of education.


The weeks and months went by; there was lots of tiring exam marking and report writing; Iwan made good progress in the hospital; Min stayed at home rather than going to his school; my bags were packed ready for a trip to Borobudur.

~~