Wednesday, January 07, 2004

20. BABY

Early next morning I collected Min from Wisma Utara and we set off for Teluk Gong where we were due to meet Min’s family. At the start of the journey, Min seemed a bit solemn but fortunately no worse than that. My new driver impressed me not only with his careful driving but also with his calm and sympathetic tone when addressing Min.

As we moved through the traffic I thought of what I had been writing in my diary the night before. How objective was it? I honestly couldn’t remember with one hundred per cent accuracy how each member of Min’s family had reacted to him on his return to his family home. I was not confident that I had recorded the conversations with total fairness and without error.

I suspected that my diary, like many works of non-fiction, was full of selectivity, prejudice and opinion, as opposed to fact. Probably I selected the bits that put me in a good light; probably I failed to notice lots of significant things that happened.

I suspect that if Min’s brother, Wardi, had written a diary of these events it would have contained some major differences of interpretation.

Did the family want Min to continue for a bit longer at his school? Were they interested in moving to a house near Wisma Utara? I did not know. They had a Sundanese-Javanese way of being reluctant to voice their opinions, particularly to someone richer than themselves. Their ideas and attitudes were influenced not only by universal human nature but also by their own local world which I did not fully understand.

Min perked up as we approached his home in the slums near the airport; he stood up in his seat and called out exultantly, "Min, Min."

We parked beside a vegetable stall, climbed out of the vehicle, and were met by Min’s big brother, Wardi, Min’s mother, Wati, Min’s two little brothers, Aldi, aged about eleven, and Itin, aged about five, and little sister Imah, aged about four. They had all put on their best clothes and were looking a bit ill at ease. It occurred to me that maybe they felt intimidated by people like me who arrived in big cars.

"How about a trip to Ragunan zoo in South Jakarta?" I asked, after we had exchanged greetings.

"OK," said Wardi, with a touch of a smile. Wati nodded in approval.

"Have you been there before?" I asked.

"No, Mr Kent. We have no money," explained Wardi.

We crowded into my Mitsubishi van and set off down the narrow potholed street. Happy, almost jubilant, expressions began to appear on the faces of Wati, Wardi and Aldi as we were chauffeur-driven past bemused neighbours, barefoot children and skinny goats. The morning sun was shining brightly and I was happy to be having another adventure.

As we drove towards the zoo in Pasar Mingu, I had lots of questions for Wardi and Wati. "Where does your family come from originally?" I inquired. "Have you always lived in Jakarta?"

"We used to live near Lamaya," said Wardi. "It’s a four hour journey from Jakarta. Lots of rice fields in Lamaya. We had to move because there’s no work there. Too many people."

"Would you like to go back to Lamaya one day?" I asked Wardi.

"Yes, but we have to live in Jakarta because that’s where the jobs are."

"Do you have other relatives here in Jakarta?" I asked.

"Lots, Mr Kent," said Wati, smiling. "In Teluk Gong and Cengkareng."

After a journey of about ten miles we reached the enormous park that contains Jakarta’s zoo, an institution that tries to keep at least some of its animals in quarters that resemble natural habitats. Having bought our inexpensive tickets at a dark little booth, we began our tour. We seemed to be almost the only visitors. There was something eerie about the atmosphere that morning. We passed under immense dark trees that completely blocked out sun and sky; we heard the constant screams of monkeys; there was a smell of rotting meat.

I noted that Min’s mum gave all her attention to four-year-old Imah, whom she carried in her arms; Wardi took the hand of five-year-old Itin; small, skinny, eleven-year-old Aldi walked on his own; Min held onto me. I was touched by Min’s trust, but would have preferred to see him take the hand of a member of his own family. In Indonesia I had noticed that many mothers devoted their energies almost exclusively to the baby of the family; older children either fended for themselves or were looked after by such people as uncles, big sisters and grannies. Who was going to be Min’s keeper?

We approached the compound containing the Java tiger. Min was terrified and tried to pull me away in the direction of the zoo’s exit.

We moved on swiftly to the monkeys. Min refused to look and again pulled at my arm. I couldn’t take him near the crocodiles or the Komodo dragons, but eleven year-old Aldi was enjoying himself.

I was fascinated by the weirdness of everything around me. What might make a being want to develop into something as big and ugly and savage as a Komodo dragon? Do beings such as trees and butterflies make choices? I had been told that a considerable number of Indonesians believe that even trees have spirits. Could Min perhaps see more than the rest of us? Was that why he was afraid?

After an hour-long visit to Ragunan zoo, and a quick snack of noodles, we battled back through Jakarta’s traffic to the family’s house in the Teluk Gong area, near the sea.

This time I wanted to have a closer look at the kampung, the local area, in which Min had been brought up. I wanted to get a clearer idea of how safe it was, or how dangerous.

"Shall we take a walk with Min?" I said to Wardi, as we stood at the front door of the wooden shack which was home to Min’s family.

"OK," came the reply. "You’ll need to watch your feet."

Wardi, Min and I walked along wooden gangways, taking us over fetid water, and then along muddy paths, taking us through narrow alleys sided by wooden shacks. The sky was a heavenly blue and the sun’s strong light created streaks of golden light and black shadow.

"Who’s this?" I asked Wardi about a little boy with deformed legs. The boy, who looked about ten years of age, was hauling himself along the ground towards his wooden house. One leg had a zigzag shape and looked beyond repair.

"Don’t know," he replied. But he asked the woman who came to the door.

"My son’s called Saepul," said the woman. Like her son, she had a facial expression that spoke of sadness, resignation and kindness. Every inch of her face and arms was covered in big fleshy lumps.

"Have you and your son been to a doctor?" I asked the woman.

"We’ve been to the hospital," she said. "Saepul was born this way. The doctors say an operation might not help him. They’re not sure."

"And you?" I asked.

"They can’t do anything for me. But it won’t get any worse."

"I hope to see you again sometime," I said. I presumed that if the doctor had recommended treatment, they would have had no money to pay for it.

We moved on and came across a windowless wooden shack the size of a large dog kennel. It was surrounded by muddy water and was flooded inside. A barefoot boy, aged about twelve, emerged from the tiny door. The skin on his face and hands was dreadfully lined and wrinkled. I supposed that his skin problems were caused by flood water and malnutrition.

"Do you live here?" I asked the lad.

"Yes, with my mother." He looked and sounded weary but managed a shy smile.

"What’s your name?" I said.

"Joko," said the boy.

"Does your father live here?" I inquired.

"He’s dead," said Joko, eyes moistening.

I gave the boy some money, continued the walk, and eventually returned Min to Wisma Utara.

I was glad that Min was still staying at Wisma Utara. Min’s family seemed to be decent people, but I wasn’t sure which of them was going to take responsibility for guarding Min, and stopping him from getting lost. More seriously, Min’s house was in the sort of area where kids could so easily catch diseases such as typhoid or TB. The sooner I moved Min’s family to a new house the better. I would, in the meantime, continue to take Min to visit his family each afternoon, after school.

The following sunny Saturday found Min, big-brother Wardi and I on a trip to the hilly town of Bogor. We drove past the perfect lawns of the elegant white 19th century Bogor Palace, once the official residence of governor-generals of the Dutch East Indies, and on through the busy central area with its churches and mosques, its crowded markets and green minibuses. Min and Wardi seemed to be enjoying the ride.

"Is this town like Lamaya, where you used to live?" I asked Wardi.

"A little similar," he said. "Lamaya is smaller and flatter."

"Bogor has some very rich people," I commented. "What about Lamaya?"

"A few of the Chinese Indonesians there are rich."

Three kilometres south of the town, we came to a neighbourhood known as Batutulis which is named after a famous piece of stone, kept in a small museum. The Batutulis is inscribed with several words of Sanskrit which tell of the supernatural powers of a 16th century Hindu ruler of the Pajajaran kingdom. The stone is said to have mystical powers and Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, had a home built next to it.

"Sukarno’s house," I said, pointing to my left. I wondered how much Wardi knew about Sukarno.

"Sukarno was good," said Wardi. "He is very popular in Indonesia."

"Did they teach you about him at school?"

"I only had a little schooling," he said.

We journeyed past the Sukarno residence, crossed the River Cisadane by an old and fragile looking bridge and eventually reached a railway track. It was time for a walk.

We set off along a narrow path which sided the railway track. To left and right were shanty houses and that meant peach coloured tiles, rosy bougainvillea, and the occasional red rooster. Kids in white shirts and shorts the colour of alizarin crimson danced along on their way home from school. The sky above the volcano, Mount Salak, was of a cerulean hue and above that ultramarine. The colours were as intense as any I had seen during summer holidays on the Mediterranean coast of Italy or on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. We did not see any trains.

"Hey mister," said a little school kid, "where are you from?"

"I’m from here," I replied. I felt I belonged to this world of happy smiles and immensely bright light.

"Where are you going?" said the now puzzled little person.

"Here." This was where I wanted to be. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular.

A boy came along carrying a pigeon.

"Your cat doesn’t look too well," I said.

"Pigeon," he responded, with a grin.

Wardi looked puzzled. Min yawned. Wardi might have been wondering why I had chosen to walk alongside a railway track, rather than visit the Botanic Gardens or some modern shopping centre.

"I love the Bogor countryside," I said. "I love the little houses."

"Better than the city," said Wardi.

We came to a cluster of little huts on top of a slope and I decided to take some photos. A cheery old man in a Tommy Cooper hat was seated in an armchair next to a slumbering cat and some cadmium orange cannas. Two boys were playing marbles. Above were tangles of electricity wires and a tall flowering rose of India. I got out my camera and looked through the lens. About twenty children had materialised from various alleys and they were pushing and shoving to get the best position in front of the camera. No sign of the old gentleman. He was hidden somewhere behind all these kids. There were whoops and yells and snorts. I took one photo and put my camera away.

"Hey mister," said a chunky lady with an aggressive face, "there’s a sick baby here."

"Where?" I asked.

"In the little house there," she said, pointing to a nearby one-roomed wooden hut.

It seemed like the sort of place where, in Britain, you might keep a lawnmower. While Wardi guarded Min, I stepped inside the tiny habitation. On the floor sat a young mother and a granny, and in front of them lay a baby, bluey-purple in colour, and struggling for air.

"How long has the baby been ill?" I asked.

"Five days," said the mum, who, on the surface, didn’t look particularly worried.

"The baby must go to a hospital immediately," I insisted. "Look, it’s blue because it can hardly breathe. Have you been to a doctor?"

"No," said the mum.

"We must go now," I said. "I’ll pay. OK?"

"Maybe we’ll go later," said the mum.

"When?" I asked her.


"That’ll be too late. The baby’s nearly dead." I pointed at the blue little face.

Granny spoke for the first time. "We’ve been to the dukun. He gave us some medicine."

"The witch doctor has not got oxygen and a drip," I said, sarcastically. "The baby needs to be in a hospital. Why can’t we go now?"

"My husband’s not home yet," said the mum. "We’ll need to ask him."

"When does he get home?" I inquired.

"Late tonight," said the mum.

"Where is he now?"

"Far away," she said.

"We must go now to save the baby," I said loudly.

Granny spoke for a second time. "She doesn’t want to go."

It occurred to me that it is the conservatism of the poor that causes them so many of their problems. The elite are more adventurous.

I was not going to give up. I stood at the door. Then I waited outside with Wardi and Min, the latter giving me a worried look. I explained the situation to Wardi, who was apparently happy to let me take the lead in this situation. If he thought I was wasting my time he was not going to tell me. We waited and waited. I was getting hungry, as I supposed were Wardi and Min.

I couldn’t wait for ever, so I went back in.

"Shall we go to the hospital?" I said fairly gently. "We can ask the doctor what’s wrong. We don’t have to accept any medicine. Come on."

The mother picked up the blue baby and without any further words we set off towards my van. As we drove to the Red Cross hospital I just hoped the baby was not going to die on the way.

In the emergency room the doctor got the baby fitted up to a supply of oxygen.

"How long has the baby been ill?" he asked.

"Five days," I explained.

"It’s amazing it’s still alive," said the doctor. "It’s got tetanus. The midwife, or whoever delivered the baby, probably used dirty scissors. It’ll have to be admitted to the children’s ward."

The doctor spoke to the mother and granny and they now seemed resigned to the fact that one or other of them would have to stay with the baby in the hospital. I paid the bills, left money with the mother, explained that I would be back a week later, and then hurried off with Wardi and Min to get some fried chicken and chips.

That evening I met Fergus for dinner at the Meridien hotel where a meal costs as much as one week’s stay in the third class ward of the Red Cross hospital. The restaurant reminded me of a lounge on a luxury cruise liner.

"Elections coming up," said Fergus, as he began to cut up his omelette. "and that means you have to be a bit careful when there are street demonstrations."

"Would you advise staying off the main roads?" I said.

"When they’re all out parading, yes," said Fergus. "But if you do happen to get caught up in the middle of the green lot, remember to hold up one finger. That’s their sign. The yellows are two fingers and the reds three."

"I’ve seen lots of people holding up three fingers."

"And I’ve seen a few drivers holding up one finger," said Fergus.

"How democratic are these elections?"

"Well, let’s say that the President’s party, the yellows, always win."

"Things should be calmer than last year, when they had the Gulf War," I commented. "Lots of Indonesians seemed to be supporting Saddam."

"Which might seem odd," said Fergus, "because Saddam was put into power by the Americans and armed by the Americans. He was very much a CIA-Pentagon asset."

"I suppose that what’s changed is that Saddam’s now presenting himself as the champion of the Palestinians. That’s why he’s popular here, but not in the Pentagon."

"Coming back to the subject of Indonesia’s elections," said Fergus, "There’s no need to worry.

Most Indonesians are pretty easygoing about life. They like to be hospitable to all visitors. But do avoid the street demonstrations."


Blogger Joe Rose said...

I have read your journal and have been touched by your sensitivity and compassion for these children. I hope you will continue with your writting. Please tell me if there is anything I can do to help besides pray whih I shall do.

9:06 PM  

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