Thursday, January 15, 2004


It was a Saturday and I had lots of people to visit.

On reaching Jakarta’s crowded Mayestic market I set about trying to find thirteen-year-old Hamid, the seller of newspapers who claimed his father had been shot dead and who claimed he had run away from his granny.

A shoeshine boy directed me to a dark indoor market, a bit like an underground car park, and the little shop where Hamid was working. The shop consisted of sacks of grains and spices and various canned goods.

"Hey mister, how are you?" said the slightly scowling, dark-eyed runaway.

"I’m fine, Hamid. How are you? Working hard?"

"I’m OK. I’ve just finished work." His scowl deepened. He looked depressed.

"Are you interested in a trip back to your grandmother?" I asked.

"OK," came the shy reply. There was a hint of hesitation.

"Good! Let’s go to my van and you can give the driver directions." I was elated at his change of attitude. I hurried him to my vehicle and we set off at speed.

After about thirty minutes we reached rice fields on the edge of Jakarta and then turned onto a narrow road running past some humble shacks.

"Slow down," ordered Hamid.

I looked at the simple houses with their grimy walls and wondered what sort of life the grandmother lived.

"Turn right," said Hamid. "A bit further. Now, stop. Here we are."

We got out of the vehicle. On our left stood two down at heel habitations. On our right there was a mansion. Hamid led us towards the latter.

"Grandmother’s house?" I gasped. The two storey mansion had a mock-Tudor look.


"She must be rich. This place is huge!"

"My grandfather was a banker. He’s dead now."

The garden had its fair share of weeds and the paint on the windows was flaking, but this was the house of one of the elite.

The front door was open and we entered the large front room where we were met by a bright-eyed boy slightly younger than Hamid.

"My brother, Dede" explained Hamid.

Grandmother appeared. She looked small, grey, weary and disappointed with life. For the lost boy there was neither hug nor warm smile of greeting. We were invited to sit down on a well-worn settee next a dusty pot plant. Hamid muttered a few words to his grandmother and then there was a moment of silence.

"I found Hamid in Pasar Mayestic," I said, by way of explanation.

"He runs away sometimes," said grandmother in a tired voice. "He doesn’t always attend school."

"Maybe the school’s not very good," I said.

"Hamid is not bright," said granny, putting her hand to her head, as if to suggest Hamid had something missing up top.

"What about his brother Dede? Does he like school?" I asked.

"Dede’s clever. He can speak English," said grandmother.

"I learnt English from watching TV," explained Dede, beaming.

"You know Hamid’s mother has remarried?" said grandmother. "She’s married a minibus driver. They’re both alcoholics and he takes drugs." Granny spoke softly and bitterly.

I let the information sink in. I guessed that granny had written off Hamid’s mother and new father as useless cases. I guessed she was not happy at having Hamid dumped on her.

"Is Hamid’s mother your daughter?" I asked.

"No. She’s my daughter-in-law. She was married to my late son," said granny.

"Hamid said your son was murdered," I said.

"That’s right," said granny, turning white.

"Where do Hamid’s parents live?" I asked.

"Ten minutes from here," said grandmother. "Do you want to meet them?"

"That would be nice," I said.

Hamid and I hopped into my van and were driven along a bumpy path to an estate built for the much less affluent, a place of litter, graffiti, tall weeds and stray dogs. Hamid’s mum’s home was a simple and basic concrete structure. The front door was open and we entered a room with little in the way of furniture; I was introduced to a relaxed looking mum and dad.

The couple were in their early thirties, thin, and poorly dressed but showed no obvious signs of drink or drugs. Again, as on our arrival at Granny’s house, there were no hugs for worried looking Hamid. Mum brought me a glass of water. Like her husband, she seemed friendly and polite, but why had she not put her arms around her son, or given him some sign of welcome? Why had she not started questioning Hamid about his absence and his return?

"Hamid said he wanted to come to visit granny," I said, breaking a long moment of silence. "I wondered why he doesn’t live with you here." I smiled, to compensate for my bluntness.

"He truants," she said, by way of explanation. "He’s not good at school." She smiled.

"He seems quite bright," I said.

"Not like his brother," she said.

After we had chatted about trivialities for a few minutes, Hamid’s father decided to go outside to have a smoke with his friends, and then Hamid’s mother decided to go off and clean the kitchen. What was I to make of these two parents? They reminded me of certain of the nurses in one of the hospitals I had visited: self-indulgent, empty-headed, cold-hearted and thick-skinned. I had expected them to kill the fatted calf for the return of the lost child. Instead there was strange indifference.

"Shall we get back to granny?" I asked Hamid.

Hamid nodded and we returned the van. The drive back was in silence. I was feeling uneasy.

"I hope he’s going to stay here," I said to granny, once we had returned to her front room.

She didn’t say anything.

"Are you staying here?" I asked Hamid.

Hamid nodded.

We all shook hands and off I went, leaving behind a tense and angry looking boy.

Having left Hamid, I traveled to see Min.

I was always highly nervous before meeting Min at Wisma Utara. Was he going to be in good spirits? Yes. He was in the middle of the lounge dancing vigorously to dangdut music being played on a big cassette recorder. He was grinning, enjoying having an audience made up of Joan, Dan and some of the children. He was having one of his good days. When he saw me, he strode confidently over to me and grabbed my hand. We went for our usual promenade.

We sauntered along the kampung’s narrow concrete pathways, under shady golden shower trees and past gardens full of hibiscus. Before long we came to the neighbourhood rubbish tip. The rubbish tip was big. This one hectare of rusting metal, plastic bags, rotting food and other junk was set between a school and some houses. Smoke rose at one end, darkening out the sky. Here we watched the rubbish collectors, searching for paper, plastic and metal to be sold for recycling. Min seemed quite relaxed in this down-market area.

One of the collectors, a handsome, rickety, skin-and-bone juvenile in a white T-shirt, was seated at the foot of a battered wooden cart. He looked ready to be put on a stretcher.

"What’s your name?" I asked.

"Iwan," he replied, looking awfully serious.

"How old are you?"


"Are you OK?"


"Where do you live?"

Iwan pointed to some huts made of bits of plywood.

"Do you live with your parents?" I asked.

"My father’s dead. I live with my grandmother."

"If you’d like to go to the doctor, I can arrange it with your grandmother."

Iwan stood up and we scrunched our way over the sea of rubbish in the direction of the scavengers’ houses. Barefoot Iwan was limping.

"Do you pay rent?" I asked him.


"Does your mother live here?"

"She lives in the countryside."

A white haired old woman, with an almost toothless grin, ambled up to us.

"This is my grandmother," said Iwan, "and this is our house. Come on in."

We entered the one room shanty. The furniture consisted of a bed and some shelves. There were a few items of clothing, some dishes and jars, a poster of Sukarno, and some pictures of young women which had been salvaged from old magazines. Min seemed quite at home and pleased to have the company of another child. I wondered if Min came from a home like this.

After a brief discussion, Iwan’s Granny agreed to an immediate trip with Iwan to the Pertama Hospital. We returned Min to Wisma Utara and then made the twenty minute journey to the hospital.

The doctor in the casualty ward took a close interest in Iwan’s feet.

"Leprosy," he said. "It’s like TB but spreads very much slower. Look at the holes on the soles of his feet."

I could see two holes the size of small coins, about half a centimetre deep. "Can you give him medicine?" I asked.

"He’ll need to go to the Leprosy Hospital in Bekasi."

"As an in-patient?" I asked.

"It would be better to be an in-patient, to make sure he takes his medicine. It’s not an expensive hospital. Very cheap. As an outpatient he’d need to attend once a month."

"Iwan, do you want to stay in the Leprosy Hospital?" I asked.

"Could my grandmother stay with me?" asked Iwan. He did not look happy.

"No," said the doctor.

"Then I’ll go as an outpatient," said Iwan.

It was agreed that next morning my driver would take the lad to Bekasi, a settlement on the edge of Jakarta.

My final visit of the day was to Bogor and this involved a thirty-five mile drive, mainly along a modern toll road, with pleasant views of flowers and hills. My destination was the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor. This was where I had taken Chong, the skinny young wreck I had found in the street.

Leaving the mental hospital’s carpark with its posh Toyotas and Jeeps, I walked through the hospital’s pleasant gardens with their gorgeous flowering trees, skirted the palatial office of the director, and arrived at the pre-Florence-Nightingale Merdeka ward. To my relief I found Chong was still alive, had perhaps put on a little weight, and was in fact being attended to by an amiable female nurse. I smiled at Chong and patted him on the shoulder. He smiled wanly. I bought him some more milk and biscuits from the hospital shop before making my excuses and returning to Jakarta. I had dinner at the Hilton.

Come Sunday my driver and I took the road to Ciomas, in the hills above Bogor. The sky was clear and the hills, when we reached them, were the sort of sharp grey-blue you might see in Spain’s sunny Sierra Nevada. We parked beside a roadside stall where I bought a plant called Red Ginger. The plant’s bright red luminous flowers must have been nearly thirty centimetres tall.

Leaving the vehicle behind, I set off on a long country walk. I passed a falling down primary school, a tiny mosque with an onion shaped dome, fields growing maize, and a little hamlet with lots of banana trees and light pink bougainvillea.

After a pause to take some photos, I took a path through some woodland, which had that dark steamy smell of rotting flowers. Some way into the wood I came upon an old man and three schoolboys, aged roughly twelve to thirteen. The boys looked as if they were on their way home from school.

"Where are you from? Where are you going?" one boy asked.

"I’m from Proxima Centauri," I replied.

They tittered politely, presuming that I had tried to make some kind of joke.

The boy with the cleanest white shirt was called Lukman; the one with buttons missing from various parts of his clothing was called Andi; and the lad with a cigarette packet in the back pocket of his red shorts was Udin. The gnarled and cheery old peasant was called Herry, and he was the grandfather of Andi.

"We’re going to look for lizards," said Lukman. "Do you want to see one?"

"Yes, please," I replied.

We passed through a wilderness of boulders and bushes and came upon a small, wooden, open-fronted hut or pendopa half-hidden in the middle of a zone of tall grasses, rocks and small trees.

Herry and I sat on the front steps of the hut; Andi searched in the undergrowth and almost immediately pulled out a small lizard which he placed on his head; Lukman found an even smaller lizard and let it crawl under his shirt and then up his leg; Udin lay on the ground and smoked a kretek cigarette.

"Are there snakes here?" I asked.

"Yes," said Udin. "Lukman got bitten once. Had to go to hospital. His leg all swelled up."

Lukman pointed to a small mark on his skin.

"Any spiders?"

"Up there in the branches," said Andi, who immediately began to climb up the nearest tree like a circus acrobat. He swung from a branch making Tarzan noises, while Lukman tried unsuccessfully to pull him down, by grabbing at his clothing. To Andi’s left I could see a spider’s web and an elegant red and blue coloured spider whose body was the size of a thumb.

When Andi returned to the ground he was scratching his bare limbs.

"Ants and mosquitoes," explained Andi.

This area seemed like a Huckleberry Finn paradise for children, a domain from a South Sea treasure island; and yet it had mosquitoes and snakes and maybe even leprosy. My tummy rumbled.

"I think it’s time for me to get back to my vehicle," I said. "Can you show me the way back to the road that goes to Bogor."

"Which road? There are lots of roads," said the old man.

"I don’t know," I said. Not for the first time, I was lost. It happens sometimes.

We walked and walked until we reached a narrow stretch of road. I didn’t recognise it, but, there was a leather-jacketed young man standing there with a motorbike.

"Can you take me to the road that goes to Bogor?" I asked the man with the bike.

"No problem," he said, smiling.

Having said goodbye to Andi and Lukman, Udin and I were given a wonderful motorbike tour of the Ciomas countryside. We bumped along under tall dark trees, past a boy carrying a great bundle of grass on his head, over rivers full of kids pretending to be Mowgli, past a little fairground in a field, through hamlets with geese and goats, and on and on. The light was fading. Then we reached a roadside stall.

"Hey!" I said. "That white van down that path. I think it’s mine. Yes it is." My flipping driver must have taken it off the main road and hidden it in a camouflaged position.

I paid the bike driver and Udin and got driven home in silence.


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