Tuesday, January 20, 2004


The weeks went by and I continued to visit Min every day. He began to put on a little weight. Some days there were moments of great cheerfulness but on other days he was moody and wouldn’t speak. On his bad days I looked at his shaky little legs and his sad, lost-looking little face and felt my own mood worsen. I worried about his unhappiness and but couldn’t think what on earth to do about it. I decided I needed a Saturday trip, to take my mind off things, and headed for Bogor, with Fergus.

Having arrived at Bogor’s Have A Nice Day Hotel, Fergus and I sat in the hotel’s shady garden supping Bintang beers. The sky was blue and the air was pleasantly warm.

"Why do we come to this hostelry?" asked Fergus, in a jovial mood.

"The view of Mount Salak, these Romanesque statues in the garden and the cool beer," I replied.

"It’s certainly not for the swimming pool," said Fergus. "It’s a black sort of green, like a smelly old durian."

"Look at that pile of bricks and muck dumped beyond the pool. And the wood under these tiles is rotted. This place has hardly been up a year."

"The owner was telling me he’s a civil servant," said Fergus.

"So how come he has the money to build a little inn? What does a civil servant earn? Thirty dollars a month?"

"It wouldn’t be so bad if they were making lots of money from tourists, or anybody else, but we seem to be the only customers."

"Tourism’s supposed to become Indonesia’s biggest industry," I said. "Bogor could make a fortune from tourists. It’s as magical as Bali."

"You’ve never been to Bali," pointed out Fergus.

"I’ve seen the postcards," I explained, "and Bogor has the same sort of mountains and rice fields."

"The locals live for the day," continued Fergus. "Piles of garbage as high as the houses, graffiti, pot holed roads jammed with minibuses, and sloppy service."

"Imagine if the Italians ran this city."

"The organised criminal ones from Naples and Bari?" asked Fergus, smiling.

"No, the hardworking ones from Sorrento and Capri."

"It could be full of street cafes and jam packed restaurants."

"So, why do we like the place?" I asked.

"Well, I’m always happy to lie beside the pool and read a book," explained Fergus, who liked to sport a good tan. "You couldn’t do this in England in December."

"I like the fact you can walk into someone’s funny little house and they’ll sing and dance. And every walk is an adventure; into a balmy nineteenth century world."

"Sounds poetic," said Fergus.

"Azure skies and African Tulip trees, butterflies and bananas, cockerels and kites, dishy girls and .... I’m stuck."

"Disgusting donuts from a certain franchise," said Fergus, "exotic ferns and endearing pot bellied children. And I’m stuck too."

"What are you reading?" I asked Fergus.

"Wilbur Smith. Always a good read. What have you been reading in that notebook?"

"Stuff for a school project," I explained. "It’s jottings I made at the British Council library; things people have written about Indonesians."

"So what do they say?"

"Alfred Russel Wallace, in the 1860’s, talks about the people here in Java being impassive, reserved, diffident and bashful. He says the upper classes are terribly polite and are like the best bred Europeans. Francis Drake believed the South Javanese are loving, true and just."

"And the bad news?" Fergus inquired.

"Wallace says the people have a reputation for being ferocious and bloodthirsty. Some guy called Nicolo Conti, in 1430, writes that the Javanese and Sumatrans are more cruel than all other races. They look on killing a man as a mere joke. And listen to this. Conti says that if one of them buys a new sword, and wants to try it out, he’ll thrust it into the first person he meets. And nobody will be all that bothered. So watch out if your maid buys a new can opener."

"She’s just bought a thing for grating carrots," said Fergus.

"Someone called Barbosa, writing round about 1860, thinks the Malay race, including the Javanese, is very subtle in its doings, very malicious, great deceivers, seldom telling the truth, prepared to do all sorts of wicked things and so on. Wallace believes they don’t have much appetite for knowledge."

"Sounds like some of the kids I used to teach in Britain," commented Fergus.

"I wonder what a Javanese explorer coming to Europe or America in 1800 would’ve reported," I said. "Slavery in Russia and America? A large chunk of the British population starving?" I was showing off my limited knowledge of history.

"Children working down mines in England," added Fergus.

"Terribly polite upper classes who might look on the death of a black slave, or a deformed child worker in a factory, as a matter of no great importance."

"Talking of slavery, " asked Fergus, "I don’t think our waiter’s coming back to offer us another drink."

"The waiter was saying this used to be his father’s land but he sold it, and was able to buy a television and pay for some repairs to the roof of his little house."

"I reckon this land is worth half a million dollars. There are generals and judges with mansions around here."

I left Fergus at the pool and went to visit Eddy and tubercular Asep in another part of Bogor. Eddy looked fine but I discovered his little brother Andi, aged about six, had a swollen stomach and match stick arms. I gave the mother some money to get him checked up on, at the hospital. The mother looked quite chunky but seemed about as bright as a reading light in a hotel bedroom. They say that malnutrition has caused vast amounts of mental retardation in Indonesia.

Asep was looking more bright eyed.

"Any receipts, Asep?"

"Yes. For the hospital medicine. The TB medicine is very expensive."

"Jings. One hundred and twenty thousand rupiahs for the pills and the doctor’s included some imported vitamin tablets. The doctor must be getting commission."

"There’s a little girl’s been burned," said Asep, changing the subject. "A cooking stove fell over. That’s her next to Eddy’s house." Asep pointed to a shy little barefoot girl with a cute grin. She looked about ten.

"How long ago?"

"About a week."

"Been to the doctor?"


"OK. If her mother agrees, we’ll take her to the hospital now."

The little girl’s leg had been badly scarred from knee to upper thigh and it wasn’t difficult to persuade both her and her mother to visit the hospital. The doctor applied some dressings and asked her to return the following week.

On returning to Jakarta in the late afternoon, I hurried to Dr Bahari’s clinic. Min was in high spirits and I decided to take him to an amusement park called Dunia Fantasi, which is at Ancol, to the West of the docks at Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok. We drove past black miserable slums populated by thin ragged people and then into the park with its beautiful golf course, gardens and well dressed pleasure seekers.

"Who’s this?" asked the thin little manager at the entrance gate, as he looked in a kindly way at the slightly shaky, waif-like Min.

"This is Min. He stays at a clinic." And by way of explanation I showed him a note from Dr Joseph.

"We can let you in free," said the manager.

"That’s very kind."

"I’m sure the lad will enjoy the clowns and the rides."

We passed through the turnstile and into a fantasy world. Recorded children’s voices singing celestial songs seemed to emerge from the hibiscus; florid wooden horses did their merry rounds; Dunia Fantasi employees dressed as clowns greeted all the grinning children. I call them clowns but they had ghastly ghoulish faces which delighted the school kids and their mums. Min reacted differently. At the sight of the clowns, he hid his face in my chest and then tried to drag me back through the turnstile. There was a look of panic and terror on his face.

"They’re only people..." But I would not be able to explain to Min. I held on tight and pulled him swiftly away from the ghouls and over to the merry-go-round. I hoisted Min onto a wooden horse and off we went. Yes, he liked this and wanted a second go.

When it came to the big toy cars I was just able to squash Min in. He must have been the oldest kid having a ride. We were refused a second shot on the grounds that Min was not a toddler.

Eventually we had a wander along the beach, near the Horison Hotel. Min was now feeling more confident and felt brave enough to grin into my face and then spit at me. This seemed to be his way of being playful and having a little joke. I frowned and tried to look disapproving, without much success. He spat again and seemed to find this wildly funny. Then he decided to knock my glasses off. Now I was just a little upset.

It was definitely time to return to the van and drive back to the clinic. Maybe I’m not very good with two year olds. On the other hand, I could forgive Min just about anything. Min was like me; he was a bit of an alien and an outsider. He was my soul-mate.

Another Saturday came along and another sort of adventure. After a hurried visit to Min, who was in a reasonable mood, I battled southwards through the traffic on a different mission.

My destination was Jakarta’s Pertama Hospital where I was to meet a young teenage boy called Daus, and his aunt. Daus was a cheery, guileless soul with a large bulge on the side of his face. His aunt was a smiling, plainly dressed woman. How had I met them? While out shopping, I had come across the lad and his aunt at a simple stall selling soft drinks, near the Blok M bus terminal. My suggestion of a future trip to the nearby Pertama hospital had been accepted.

Having arrived at the big concrete, tower-block hospital, and having met up with Daus and his aunt, we entered Dr Agung’s surgery. Tall, slim Dr Agung seemed mature and civilised. I explained how I had met Daus and then pointed to the obvious lump on the side of the boy’s face.

"It’s big," I said.

"It certainly is," said Dr Agung, running his finger over the boy’s face. "I’m going to arrange a blood test."

"Daus has no parents," I explained, "so he’s not been to hospital before."

"I look after Daus," said the aunt, "but we’re not rich."

The doctor spoke rapidly to Daus and his aunt and I couldn’t make out what was being said. He then turned to me, speaking in English.

"We can do something to help," said the doctor. "We can remove some of the swelling. Daus and his aunt tell me they’re keen to go ahead with the surgery."

Dr Agung then launched into a long technical account which was partly in Indonesian and partly in English. He seemed to be saying that Daus probably had elephantiasis. There was a reference to swelling being caused by a parasitic worm which blocks the lymph channels. I can’t claim that I understood much of what was being said.

"What’ll it cost to operate on Daus?" I asked.

"I will do the operation free of charge," said Dr Agung, "but you’ll have to pay my clinic for his bed there. We get lots of hair-lip patients brought to us by the British Women’s Association, but a case like Daus’s is not quite so common."

"Thank you for doing it free," I said. "When can you do the surgery?"

"The Monday after next." Dr Agung looked at his new calendar for 1992. "January 15th. Daus should be here at nine in the morning."

"My driver will bring him with his aunt. Thanks again for offering to do the op. free."

As I was being driven back home I began to think of some of the words that, according to Wallace, had been used to describe Indonesians: "impassive", "bashful", "polite", "loving", "just", "not much appetite for knowledge", "cruel", "ferocious", "subtle" and "great deceivers." My encounters with a whole host of Indonesians, from Min and Melati to Abdul and Dr Agung, suggested that the Indonesians were not much different from the British in terms of sins and virtues. What seemed to make the Indonesians different from the Brits was that the former lived in a world that was so much more intoxicating, unpredictable, precarious, dazzlingly bright, lusty, and full of children. Britain was grey clouds and the predictable nine to four.


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