Saturday, January 17, 2004


"To Wisma Utara," I instructed Mo.

The traffic moved slower than a wingless pigeon as we journeyed past the discoloured concrete shops and restaurants on the dusty highway called Jalan Fatmawati. It was nearly twenty four hours since I had put Min into Wisma Utara and I was desperate to see him. I had been worrying about him since waking that morning. Would he think he had been abandoned? One hour after leaving work, I reached the children’s home.

I entered the lounge, with its faint aroma of urine, and there sat Min, solemn and sad, watching TV. Sitting next to him were Joan, half blind Tedi, pretty Diah, and bubbly nosed Dadang. At first Min didn’t notice my entrance. Then he turned and caught my eye. He jumped up from his seat, hurried towards me and took my hand. I ruffled his hair and his eyes sparkled. A lump came to my throat.

"How’s Min?" I asked Joan who looked tired, like a peasant woman who had too many rice fields and too many children to look after. She stood up and made an effort to smile.

"Just fine, Mr Kent," she responded. Her thick dark hair was cheaply cut, her legs were bare and her sandals were plastic.

"Is Min behaving himself?"

"No problem," said Joan.

"Can I take him for a walk? Maybe someone can come with us?"

"Certainly," she said. "Dan’s been looking after Min."

Youthful, amiable-looking Dan, wearing cheap T-shirt, slacks and plastic sandals, took Min’s hand and we set off through the local kampung. Although this was Jakarta, it seemed as if we were in a country village. There were banana trees , peacock flowers, clumps of bougainvillea and simple houses and tiny gardens, full of babies, cockerels and washing. Min was like a happy colt that had been allowed out into the fresh air. He laughed at a cat that darted across our path, jumped when a small dog barked and stared excitedly at a kite in the sky.

"What’s Min been doing today?" I asked.

"We have a school at the home," said Dan softly. "Min goes to that."

"Can he cope?"

"Some of the kids can’t do anything much, but I think Min can learn to kick a ball and hold a racket."

"Min’s speech is very limited," I said, "but in other ways he seems quite bright. He looks at you in a sensitive way."

We reached a wooden hut outside which stood a young teenage boy one of whose eyes was white and sightless. I decided to be friendly and stop to chat.

"Hi, this is Min," I said to the white-eyed boy. "He lives in Wisma Utara."

"Hello mister," said the kid, smiling politely at me, and giving Min a sympathetic look.

"What happened to your eye?" I asked White-Eye.

"I’ve had the problem since I was small. The doctor says it’s now too late to save it."

"Maybe glaucoma," I said. "Is this your house?"

"Yes. Come in."

We stepped inside. The one roomed house was just big enough to take a bed and four people standing very close together.

"How many people sleep here?" I asked White-Eye.

"Seven. I sleep under the bed with my brother and sister."

"Britain used to be like this," I said, as we made our exit. I felt like a time-traveller. I had moved, within a matter of minutes, from the late 20th Century buildings near Fatmawati to wooden huts that could have been built during Britain’s Middle Ages.

Having bid farewell to White-Eye, we continued our stroll. There were more questions I wanted to ask Dan.

"At Wisma Utara, are all these children from fairly rich families?"

"Yes," said Dan. "Apart from Tedi, whose mother’s blind and makes her living from massage. Tedi may have to leave soon, as his mother’s behind with her payments."

I had a suspicion that children like Tedi might be happier back with their mums and decided to make no comment on the child.

"Some of the orphanages I visited seem to take only rich children," I said. "You have to pay to get a child in. There doesn’t seem to be any free orphanage that’ll take street kids who’re mentally backward."

"You have to pay for everything in Jakarta."

"What do you get paid each month?"

"About twenty dollars a month," said Dan, grinning. "I send some of that to my parents in the countryside."

"The lady who set up Wisma Utara did it for her handicapped son," I said. "Does the son stay at the home?"

"The son went back to his mother," explained Dan. "He claims one of the staff hit him."

"Oh dear. Do you think someone really did hit him?" I was immediately worried about Min.

"Maybe somebody restrained him," said Dan smiling. "Nothing serious."

After our stroll we returned to Wisma Utara’s lounge where I sat with Min for some time watching TV. When it was time for me to leave, Dan was kind enough to hold on tight to Min. Dan seemed to have the knack of handling Min in a calm and gentle manner. I felt reassured that he had been chosen to be Min’s minder. But I did note a deeply pained look in Min’s eyes as I waved goodbye.

I drove to South Jakarta’s Blok M shopping district to visit Daus, the boy who had had the operation to remove the lump on his face. Blok M had once been covered in orchards; now it was covered in oily buses, choking traffic fumes, potholed pavements, grubby office blocks, crowded markets, Japanese nightclubs and seedy hotels. Near Blok M’s bustling bus terminal, I found Daus helping his aunt at her stall which sold cold drinks. Some weeks had passed since teenage Daus had had his operation. Having lost both the bulge and the stitches, Daus looked happy and well. He wore a new flowery shirt and a wide grin. The doctor had said that Daus would never be completely cured, but at least he now looked more normal. I got a free drink of cola before happily heading off for home.

I was working my driver too hard at weekends. When Sunday arrived there was a phone call to tell me that Mo’s grandfather had died, for the third time, necessitating Mo to take a day off. For my day’s outing, I hired, from an agency, a driver called Agus. What unsettled me about this nervous and gaunt young fellow was his tendency to drive down the middle of the road in the wrong gear.

Although we somehow reached Bogor safely, we then became lost. We found ourselves on the edge of a small, deserted-looking shopping complex which I had never seen before. I got out to ask directions, but the only human I could find was a body lying on the ground beside a lockup door.

The body was alive and breathing but only just. The poor young man, around twenty years of age, seemed to have no cheeks on his face or his posterior. He seemed to consist mainly of bones, dirty skin and rags. He was like an Egyptian mummy, except that he was covered in flies.

"What’s your name?" I asked the body.

"Chong," he whispered, barely audible.

I fetched some biscuits and bottled tea and put them down beside Chong. He struggled to sit up and sip the tea

"Do you want a doctor?"

He nodded.

I summoned Agus who looked sympathetically at the corpselike creature.

"I don’t think we should risk putting him in my van," I said. "He might die or he might be infectious. We need an ambulance."

To my amazement, Agus, without further urging, shot off to phone for an ambulance, which duly arrived within five minutes.

I waited for the ambulance driver, who wore dark glasses and a gold watch, to help in lifting Chong, but it was not to be. Agus and I had to do the tricky manoeuvre of hoisting the bag of bones. I sat with Chong in the ambulance. Agus was to follow behind in my vehicle.

"Please drive slowly. The patient’s very weak," I said, as we set off.

The ambulance driver, as we approached the first of many deep potholes, put his foot down like a true rally driver, and our bodies bumped and jerked in every direction.

"Slow down," I shouted.

He stepped on the gas and we zoomed ahead, overtaking motorcycles and making everything rattle and vibrate.

On arrival at the Menteng Hospital, a stretcher, thank goodness, was provided to transport Chong into the emergency room. A tall young doctor gave the patient a brief examination.

"Can he be admitted?" I asked.

"No," said the doctor. "He’s mentally backward."

"But this is a hospital and this patient is almost dead from malnutrition," I said, almost spitting.

"He’ll need to go to the mental hospital."

"He’s not a danger to anyone. He’s not mentally ill, is he?"

"Mentally backward," said the doctor. "There’s a hospital at Babakan for mental patients. He must go there."

Chong was reloaded into the ambulance, driven the short distance to the mental hospital, and unloaded onto the pavement outside the admissions office. The hospital was made up of dozens of low-rise buildings, in various states of repair, within a vast area of parkland.

Agus explained the situation regarding Chong to a cheery young administrator who agreed to take the patient.

"Yes, he’ll need to go to the ward for the physically sick," said the administrator, who was wearing rather expensive leather shoes. "You can pay for a month’s treatment. It’s about a dollar a day. And you’ll need to pay for the ambulance."

"How much do we pay for the journey?" I asked the ambulance driver.

"One hundred dollars," he said, adjusting his Mafia-style dark glasses.

"It can’t be," I said. "We’ve only travelled about three miles in all. A taxi would’ve cost us about one dollar."

"One hundred dollars," said the ambulance driver, looking like a Komodo dragon pretending to be half asleep.

"I’ll give you five," I said, trying to look tough. I was still not entirely used to the callousness of some Indonesian hospital workers.

"One hundred."

I appealed to the hospital administrator.

"You must pay," he said, grinning. No doubt they reckoned I was one of these rich and stupid foreigners.

Chong was still lying face down on the pavement.

I signed a form, paid the ambulance driver in full, and escorted Chong’s stretcher to the Merdeka ward. Built around a courtyard, the ward’s single-storey brick buildings put me in mind of a prisoner of war camp in need of renovation. The rooms were dimly lit, the iron beds had no sheets and the dark walls were losing some of their plaster. There were few patients.

"I’ll buy some tins of milk and some biscuits," I said to the genial male nurse, the only person on duty. " Please make sure they’re given to Chong."

Sunday evening found me enjoying dinner at the home of Anne, Bob and their daughter Pauline.

"Delicious food, as always," I said, as I finished the first course.

"The soup," explained Anne, "is sayur asam. The cook makes it with beef broth, tamarind juice, candlenuts, shallots, garlic, chillies and shrimp paste. And various fruits and vegetables such as long beans and sweet corn."

"And the beef we’re about to eat?" I inquired.

"Beef empal," said Anne. "It’s spicy fried beef cooked with bay leaf and coriander and it’s usually served this way with rice and fresh raw vegetables. Imported Australian vegetables, washed by me."

"Your beef and chicken are always good," I said.

"I don’t buy the supermarket chicken," said Anne, looking pleased. "Sometimes their refrigeration doesn’t work and the meat’s rotten."

"Why do you think their fridges don’t work?" asked Pauline, with a naughty grin. "Has someone stolen the money for the repairs, or are the repair people incompetent, or do the managers just not care?"

"All three," responded Anne. "They say a few bad germs are good for you but think of all the kids who die of dysentery and typhoid. Hygiene saves lives."

"At least we can afford antibiotics," said Bob, "unlike some of the kampung people."

"You have to be careful with certain locally made medicines," said Anne. "One pill might contain five milligrams of the antibiotic and the next pill none."

"Goodness," I said. I was learning a bit more about the Developing World.

"Where have you been on your travels this weekend?" asked Bob, looking in my direction.

"Bogor. I love the fact it’s alive with people." I supposed Chong was still alive.

"I know what you mean," said Anne. "Bob and I like places like Tunis and Fes. Full of life."

"Fes is nice," I commented.

"Andre Gide, or his character Michel, speaks of the North Africans living their art," said Anne. "I suppose he meant their art is not so much in their paintings but more in their markets and colourful houses and everyday life."

"Bogor’s a bit like that," I said. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that Anne was a well-read lady.

As Bob poured some more Australian Chardonnay into our glasses, I glanced at a pile of school books on a side table. Anne noticed the direction of my gaze.

"Pauline, what is it you’ve been reading for your latest project?" asked Anne.

"Plato," she said, looking bright eyed. "Plato writing about Socrates. It’s for Religious studies."

"Socrates is interesting," said Anne.

"Interesting?" asked Pauline, looking cynical.

"Socrates," said Anne, "argued that a lover likes his loved one to be poor. That gives the lover more control."

"Lots of male expatriates," said Bob, with a hint of a smile, "find it convenient that some of the local girls are short of money."

"But I thought," said Pauline, "that there was a difference between love and lust. A decent lover would not want his loved one to be short of anything."

"How many lovers are decent?" asked Anne, rhetorically. "Not too many."

Pudding arrived and conversation was suspended as we tucked into something creamy and meringuey. I wondered what Min and White-Eye and Chong were getting for supper.


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