Tuesday, December 30, 2003

25. SAEPUL PUNCHES HIMSELF IN THE FACE

It was the morning after our return from Merak and Sue and I were driving in the direction of Min’s new home. The traffic seemed light and the sun was shining.

"All the cars seem to be Japanese," commented Sue, as we overtook a Toyota.

"In spite of the Japanese occupation during World War II," I said.

"Are the British popular in Indonesia?" asked Sue.

"I don’t know," I replied. "Why do you ask?"

"I’ve been reading Revolt in Paradise by K’tut Tantri."

"Which paradise is that?"

"Indonesia at the time of Dutch rule. K’tut was born in Britain but she went to live in Bali back in the 1930s."

Sue proceeded to tell me about K’tut becoming an American citizen, setting up a hotel on Bali, mixing with artists like Walter Spies and falling in love with a Balinese prince. When the Japanese invaded, K’tut stayed on in Indonesia and suffered torture. At the end of World War II, K’tut sided with the Indonesians fighting for independence from the Dutch. K’tut broadcast propaganda for the Indonesians and was nicknamed Surabaya Sue. In 1945 she was in Surabaya, in East Java, when it was bombed by the British, who were the allies of the Dutch.

The British did to Surabaya what Franco did to Guernica.

"I imagine the British may not be totally popular in Surabaya," I said.

"It was a long time ago."

We arrived at Min’s neighbourhood. "Do you want to meet Iwan, a child with leprosy?"

"Of course I do," she replied.

"You wouldn’t rather visit the shops?"

"I didn’t come to Asia to visit American-style malls. I want to meet Indonesians."

"Iwan lives next to a rather large rubbish tip. You don’t mind?"

"I want to see all that Jakarta has to offer."

Having collected a cheerful Min, we ambled along a series of concrete paths leading us to the tip. Min gave one of his happy shrieks as he spotted Iwan seated on an oil barrel. I was pleased to see that Iwan had put on some weight. He slid off the barrel and hobbled towards us, grinning shyly.

"Are you taking your leprosy medicine?" I asked.

"Yes, Mr Kent."

"He’s a sweet child," whispered Sue.

"Mr Kent," said Iwan, "there’s someone sick. Nuryati. Over by the smoke."

Iwan led us in the direction of the smoke which was rising from piles of dark grey refuse that was considered not worth recycling. Nuryati was a pretty ten year old girl living in a four-room wooden shack which had the spoil-heap as a garden. Her skin was scabby, crusty and cracked all over her body. Nuryati’s father, a bulky man with a rather untidy, unshaven appearance, was happy to receive our help.

We drove Nuryati and her dad to the relatively nearby Pertama Hospital where we were immediately able to see the skin specialist.

"It’s some kind of dermatitis," said the friendly little lady doctor. "Sometimes called eczema."

"What’s causing it?" I asked.

"She works on that garbage tip so she touches all sorts of chemicals and metals. Could be chlorine, formaldehyde, mercury or something like that."

"Can you treat it?" I said.

"I’ll give her some creams and lotions. There’s an antihistamine and a coal tar ointment. Ideally she should stay away from the tip."

After returning the little girl to her home, we went to chat to Wati, Min’s mum, who was sitting at her front door with her two youngest children. There was no sign of Wardi or middle child Aldi.

"Is Wardi not around?" I asked, after we had shaken hands.

"He’s in Teluk Gong," she said, looking a little tense. "At our old house, in North Jakarta."

"And Aldi?" I said.

"He’s at school in Teluk Gong. He’s a clever little boy. Doing well at school." Wati smiled proudly.

"Couldn’t Aldi go to school here?"

"I don’t know," she said, frowning.

The absence of Wardi and Aldi worried me. I didn’t want to be responsible for splitting the family. "Is Min’s dad going to sell vegetables here?" I asked Wati.

"We’re building the vegetable cart," she said, looking down at the ground.

"How is Min getting on at his school?" I inquired.

"Fine," she said, without much enthusiasm.

"Sue and I are off to get something to eat," I explained. "Good luck with the cart."

Min decided to do one of his strange war dances which involved making loud whooping sounds. The neighbours came out to stare. Sue and I crept away.


Sitting in the restaurant at the Meridien Hotel, I asked Sue what she thought about our conversation with Min’s mum.

"Wardi’s still living in their old home in North Jakarta," she said, "Aldi too. I reckon they don’t want to give that house up."

"It’s in an unhealthy area," I pointed out, as I cut into some sushi. "It’s a slum area, near the sea and the road to the airport."

"Does Wardi have a job in Teluk Gong?"

"I hadn’t thought about that," I confessed.

"He could have a job and a girl friend there. And Aldi will have all his school friends near their old house."

"Oh dear. I just thought it was good to get the family out of their slum and into a decent house. I was thinking also of Min being able to go to his school at Wisma Utara during the day, and being able to go home to his family in the afternoon."

"I’m sure it’ll all work out," said Sue sympathetically.

"Maybe I’ve been an idiot. I just hadn’t thought about things like Aldi’s schooling."

"They’re going to build a vegetable cart. That should help."

"I hope Min behaves himself," I said.

"One thing I noticed was that as we left Min’s house there was a woman near the corner shop who gave you a very hostile look." Sue emphasised the last three words.

"Worrying." And puzzling.

"Tomorrow," said Sue, "when I’m struggling through the streets of Manila in an old bus, I’ll be thinking of you being driven to the Meridien in your comfortable vehicle."

"I hope you’ve not minded meeting people like Min? And seeing lepers and rubbish tips?"

"No. I’ve loved it. I’m more excited by a shanty town than a museum." Sue gave me a sisterly smile.


The following Saturday I motored as usual to Bogor. Ciah had made good progress in recovering from her hepatitis, and had been able to go home to her cobwebby hut. Her sad looking little son Agosto, who had been guarding her in the hospital for ten days, was looking even more frail than his mother. I hoped their neighbours would keep an eye on them.

In the mental hospital at Babakan there was a new child patient, a muscular boy of about twelve called Saepul. He was sitting sullen faced at the entrance to the Pertama Ward. His chin, his forehead and his cheeks had large swollen bruises.

"Has someone been in a fight with Saepul?" I asked the female nurse, a motherly, round faced woman.

"Saepul punches himself in the face. That’s why his hands are tied behind his back."

"Surely he doesn’t punch himself!" I said, thinking the nurse was covering up some act of brutality by staff or other patients.

"Self inflicted wounds. It’s stress."

"Can he speak?"

"No. He’s retarded."

"You’re sure someone hasn’t hit him?"

As I spoke, Saepul rammed his bruised chin against his right knee with considerable force. Crunch. Blood began to ooze from the wound.

"You see. He hurts himself," said the nurse.

"That’s awful," I said. I could hardly believe it.

"Maybe he’d be better if he wasn’t tied up. Can I try taking him for a walk within the grounds, along with John and Daud?"

"If you like," said the nurse, rather to my amazement.

"Can you come with me?"

"OK. I’ll get the other two children."

John and Daud were untied from their beds and Saepul’s hands were unbound. As we walked through the gardens to the hospital’s shop, John and Daud tended to stagger. Saepul galloped along ahead of the rest of us, resisting the temptation to punch his own face. At the hut which served as the shop, I asked for biscuits and milk for the children and chocolate for the nurse. As I took possession of the food, there was a thump. Saepul had started to punch his cheek bone, making it more red and raw. I didn’t wait for my change. I took Saepul’s hand and hurried him out of the shop. I was relieved to find that Saepul stopped hurting himself once we were on the move back to the ward.


It was a wonderfully warm Sunday and I was seated with Anne, and her husband Bob, in their garden in Menteng. I was introduced to a new snack.

"You see the purple lance-shaped thing hanging down?" said Anne.

"The what?" I asked.

"At the end of the bunch of bananas," she explained.

"Ah yes."

"OK," continued Anne. "You take the bud. You pull off the outer sheathes, until you can see the pinkish white bit inside."

"Yup."

"Pull the hard stamen."

"The what?"

"The stamen. Pull it from the centre. Then you eat the bud with coconut milk."

"Sounds easy."

"Here’s some I made earlier," said Anne.

We glugged down luscious Bordeaux dessert wine, ate the buds, and listened to Agnus Dei, on a cassette player.

"It’s been a hard week," said Bob when the music tape ended. He had slight bags under his eyes and looked a touch grey.

"Problems?" I asked.

"It can sometimes be very odd doing business in this country," said Bob.

"How’s that?"

"The army," explained Bob. "Last week I visited a factory in Jemba. Both my taxi from the airport and my hotel were army-owned. The factory boss is a retired colonel. The local governor is a former general. The regent and sub district chief are former soldiers. Retired officers tend to end up as government ministers, bank directors, civil service bosses, regents or chiefs of cooperatives. If you are in business you can’t avoid dealing with the army."

"The army’s not too short of money?"

"Probably three quarters of their money comes from the businesses they run, and only a quarter from the government. Generals and colonels live in big houses and run big cars, although I suppose that would also be true in Britain. Depends on the size of the house."

"And they’ve got muscle?"

"Well, any army has. If the workers here go on strike, the army would not find it too difficult to sort it out."

"What about the lower ranks?"

"Bad elements are rumoured to get extra money, shall we say, from illegal levies."

"The soldiers don’t get paid much."

"To be fair," said Bob, "the army simply doesn’t get enough money from the government. In a sense they’re forced to go into business. Some of them are actually useful people. There’s a retired officer I work with quite a lot. Very devoted Moslem. He tells me the country needs the army to hold it together."

"The news magazines say the economy’s been doing well," I said.

"Kent," said Bob, putting down his glass, "you take a Chinese Indonesian businessman. He gets a big loan from the bank, with the help of his political contacts. He builds his factory, and maybe buys a big mansion and a Mercedes or two. He has to pay a lot of people. His profits disappear. He has to go back to the bank. That’s no problem, because he’s got contacts. But is the bank ever going to get its money back?"

"One report said that thirty percent of the government’s budget disappears corruptly," I commented.

"Yes," said Bob, "but what about the vast sums of non budgeted funds that are stolen? Think of all the bribes and gifts that can never be traced."

"Would you invest in the stock market here?" I asked.

"Not for many years to come," said Bob, shaking his head. "If the international media found out everything that’s going on there could be trouble."

"This country should be rich," I stated. "Unlike Singapore it’s got oil, timber, minerals, oil palms, rubber, thousands of islands with great tourist potential."

"It’s rich in its people and its village life," said Anne.

"But, can you trust the banks?" said Bob


It being the summer holidays, I made a brief trip to Singapore to eat and shop.

On return to Jakarta I went straight to Min’s house to see if he had survived my few days absence. A pale and mournful-looking Min took my hand and squeezed it.

"How’s Min?" I asked Wati, Min’s mum.

"He hasn’t been sleeping well," she said. "He was calling out your name."

That made me feel worried and guilty. I changed the subject. "How’s the vegetable cart?" I asked.

"Min’s dad has been out selling vegetables," said Wati, frowning.

"Where does he get them from?" I asked.

"He has to get up before dawn and go to the market at Kebayoran Lama. That’s a long walk. Hours."

"And how’s Aldi? Is he going to go to school here in Cipete or stay in North Jakarta?"

"He’s got to finish the term at his old school," said Wati, "back where we used to live."

Gani, Min’s brother-in-law, came for a walk with me and Min to the home of Nuryati, the girl with the skin problem. Her skin looked less red and crusty.

"How are you feeling?" I asked her.

"A little better," she said with a charming grin.

I gave her moustachioed father more money for the next lot of medicine. I noticed that he looked well fed and he had a good skin. Presumably, unlike his daughter, he didn’t get his hands dirty on the rubbish tip.