Monday, January 05, 2004


Because it was a Sunday and my driver’s day off, I had employed a driver from an agency, a young hollow-cheeked fellow who seemed a trifle nervous. I explained to him that I wanted a trouble free ride to the countryside and the city of Bogor. I asked him to avoid the political rally going on in the centre of Jakarta. It was May 1992 and we were in the middle of a general election campaign.

"Which party is having its parade today?" I asked the driver.

"The red party, PDI. Very big crowds," he said, as he crashed the gears.

"Well, be careful which route you choose to get to the toll road," I warned.

We left my leafy residential area, drove past markets and railway stations, skirted the offices around Jakarta’s Panin Centre, turned into Sudirman Boulevard, and drove straight into the middle of a mile-long procession.

Here they were: thousands and thousands of wild-eyed PDI supporters in control of the streets; they were draped in red, waving giant red flags, and screaming like Liverpool fans; some danced on the tops of buses and trucks, hired for the day; some rode noisy motorbikes; the most battle-hungry youths had masked their faces with blood-red scarves.

Now my driver and I were part of the parade but we were not wearing red and everyone else was.

At various road junctions, small groups of tough-looking soldiers and military police stood stony-faced, breathing in the traffic fumes, aware that they were outnumbered. Democracy was sometimes said to be a fragile thing, but so too was the police state. Indonesia had an army of about 400,000 but the population of Indonesia was over 200 million. What would happen if all the people united in opposition to the army?

"Turn left!" I said hoarsely, while trying to remember if I should be holding up one finger, or two. I thought two fingers seemed appropriate.

"We can’t turn left," said the driver, a touch nervously. "The army won’t let us."

"We’ll be here all day," I grumbled. "We’ve got to find a road out."

I wondered if the driver had done all this deliberately or if he only knew one route to the Bogor toll road. Even he looked anxious when burly chaps began thumping their fists against the side of our van. The driver held up three fingers and the thumping stopped.

The worst of it was that I had a more than urgent need to empty my bladder. Too much coffee and juice at breakfast meant that I was bursting. What I wanted was a quiet spot, away from prying eyes, but here I was surrounded by a large proportion of the population of Jakarta, and they all seemed to be staring into my vehicle. Surely there was a bush or a tree somewhere.

We inched our way down the broad boulevard as I crossed my legs and fingers. Sudirman seemed to go on for ever. Under the flyover at Semanggi, past the Sahid Jaya Hotel and on and on we went.

"Try turning left into that office complex," I urged.

"OK. What now?" replied the driver as we drove into a car park.

"Look for a back way out," I said.

Eventually, by way of the back streets of Menteng, we somehow reached the toll road to Bogor.

"Stop!" I ordered, five minutes after leaving the toll gates. "I need to get out to go to the toilet."

"Can’t stop," said the driver. "This is a toll road. The police don’t allow people to stop."

"Stop or I won’t pay you."

We skidded to a stop on the hard shoulder and I hurried across some grass to where the trees were. Alas, every square meter in this part of Java seems to have someone on it. Up a tree an old man was collecting fruit; to my left an old woman was hanging washing on top of some bushes; to my right three kids were taking a toddler for a walk. I crouched down and the peasant people politely looked away. At last I could breathe more easily and enjoy the journey.

On reaching Bogor and the area known as Batutulis, I visited the home of the blue baby. The child was now pink and healthy looking. I hoped it was not brain damaged by its days with inadequate oxygen.

"Have you been back to the hospital for a check up?" I said to the baby’s mum.

"Not yet."

"We’d better go now then."

At the Red Cross hospital the doctor examined the child and issued some more medicine. The doctor assured me that the baby was fine.

My next stop was Bogor’s mental hospital to see Chong, the young man who had been a heap of skin and bones when I had found him lying in the street. Chong had been moved to a different ward as he had put on weight and looked human again. It was a locked ward, a single storey building with a certain amount of pealing white paint and green mould. I took Chong for a short walk but could not get any conversation out of him. I supposed that being mentally backward, having been rejected by his family, and being a penniless Chinese Indonesian, he had the cards stacked against him.

In the mental hospital’s children’s ward, John and Daud were again tied up. I was allowed to take them for a walk to the shop where we bought more milk and biscuits.

"Why do you keep these kids tied up when there’s a garden here for them to play in?" I asked the well fed female nurse. She was wearing an expensive watch and a necklace with a little crucifix.

"They’re idiots," she said, with what was either a smile or a smirk.

In their impoverished hamlet in Bogor Baru, little Andi was still looking malnourished and Asep was still pale. Asep gave me some more receipts for his TB medicine, which I examined carefully.

"These receipts only cover twenty thousand rupiahs. What about the other hundred thousand?" I asked.

"I don’t know," said Asep, smiling innocently.

"Have you still got the medicine? I gave you enough money to last a month."

"The medicine’s finished," explained Asep.

"You’d better go now to get some more. Here’s money to last a month and I must have receipts to cover the full amount. It’s not to be used for school fees or clothes or televisions."

I thought of what more than one expat had said to me about some of the locals. ‘They are like children.’

I went to see Dian, sister of Melati and Tikus, in their little house near the centre of Bogor. Dian had a smart new top and skirt.

"Have you got a receipt for your TB medicine?" I asked Dian.

"I lost it," she said.

"Have you got the TB medicine?"

"It’s finished."

"It can’t be," I complained. "I gave you enough money for one month. You know you have to take the medicine for six months to a year, or even longer?"


"We’d better go now to the doctor," I said, very crossly. "I’ll come with you to make sure we get the medicine." I felt more than ever that it was like dealing with foolish and naughty primary school kids, and I began grinding my teeth. But at least I was learning more about the Third World and how the world worked. And, I supposed, I was having a bit of an adventure.

Having dealt with Dian, I took a stroll through a section of Bogor near Empang. It was an area I had not been to before and I had a feeling of pleasant excitement. I dawdled contentedly past an old church with a sharp steeple and next to it a large Christian school painted in dark colours; I wandered down a long flight of very steep steps decorated with colourful graffiti; I roamed along a dark river bank. The air was hot and humid and filled with the scent of Peacock Flowers and urine. The narrow tree-lined lanes were crowded with street vendors with poles over their shoulders; some poles supported pots of steaming soup and noodles, some carried flashing mirrors, and some bore light tables and chairs. Children were pulling along home-made toy cars attached to sticks or attempting to play games of football. I could see that West Java was over populated. There were babies and pregnant women at every street corner, at every door, and in every room, or so it seemed.

I turned a corner and there, seated at a snack stall, was a girl with the most beautiful face I had ever seen. Shall I compare her to a summer’s day or a day during the rainy season? How come this face began, according to some versions of Big Bang theory, with nothingness? Billions of years ago, time and matter apparently didn’t exist. Then bang, the universe was created, leading to this lovely visage. I was giddy just thinking about it. Were there even more beautiful faces in some parallel universes?

You can’t stare forever at dark dilated eyes, soft curving cheeks and cute kissable lips. It gets boring.

So I continued my journey. Having passed a happy group of little children outside a green roofed mosque, I climbed up and down various steep concrete paths, and eventually descended to a muddy brown river sided by a terrace of wooden houses. Outside one tumbledown shack sat a young woman of striking appearance. She had once been beautiful but now she looked wasted and grey.

"Hello," I said, "are you well?"

"Not well," she said, giving me a sweet smile. "I have TB."

"Are you getting any medicine?" I asked.

"No. I used to take the pills."

"How long ago?"

"Three years ago."

"And you’re not yet better?"

"Not yet."

I went with her to Bogor’s Menteng hospital. On the way she was struggling for breath.

"It doesn’t look good," said the doctor, in English, holding up an x-ray. "Suti says she’s taken the pills, off and on, over many years. The trouble is that if they stop taking the medicine before they’re cured, then the disease becomes drug resistant. Over the years her organs have been seriously damaged. I’m afraid she won’t last long."

"Has she got a family?"

"She’s single and lives with her mother. The mother is apparently fit."

I arranged for Suti to get regular supplies of medicine, but learnt some months later that she had died. What a mixture Bogor was: the scent of flowers and the scent of death.

Next afternoon, Min was in good spirits when I collected him from Wisma Utara.

"Has his family been to see him?" I asked Joan, anxiously.

"No, but it’s a long way for them to travel," she said.

"It’s odd that they haven’t been to see him," I commented. I hoped this was not a sign that his family were indifferent to Min’s welfare.

"I’m taking him to visit his home now," I explained. "We’ll be back after supper."

On reaching Min’s house in Teluk Gong, Min was in a state of high excitement. Min’s mother, Wati, seemed a little subdued in her greeting. There was no sign of Min’s older brother Wardi. Maybe he was at work. Min’s brother in law, Gani, was delegated to accompany Min and I on a walk through the slums.

We squeezed past the huts of some collectors of rubbish and stooped under washing strung between windows on either side of our narrow path. The dripping shirts and blouses , silhouetted against a darkening blue sky, added a touch of colour to an otherwise grey landscape. We reached a rubbish tip and turned left into a dark alley crowded as always with people of all shapes and sizes. Looking in the open doors of the wooden houses we could see children sitting on mats and doing homework, men preparing sate to be sold later from carts, and women picking the nits out of each other’s hair. When we reached a house where children were watching a cartoon on TV, Min decided to enter the house and join the youngsters on the floor. Nobody objected. Gani waited patiently for several minutes before gently taking Min by the hand and leading him back out into the narrow street.

One wooden house on stilts had two little stick-insect children at the door.

"What are your names?" I asked the two kids, who looked about seven years old.

"Sani," whispered the boy.

"Indra," whispered the girl.

"They look too thin," I said to their big-boned mother, who had come to the door. "Would you like them to see a doctor?"

"They’ve been to a doctor and had an x-ray," said the mum, "but we’ve no money for the medicine."

"Would you like to come with me to a clinic?" I asked. "It’s a good clinic, in the centre of the city. It’s the one I use myself."

"I’ll ask my husband," she said. A smiling little man appeared from inside the house and a consultation took place involving mother, father, Gani and members of the small crowd which had gathered. There was agreement that a trip into town would be a good idea.

We took Sani, Indra, their mum and their skinny dad to see my doctor at Jakarta’s Kuningan Medical centre, an upmarket clinic with carpets, exotic pot plants, and glass tables covered in copies of Moneyweek.

"It’s TB," said Doctor Handoko, a cheerful, middle-aged Chinese Indonesian. "I’ll give them the usual cocktail of drugs."

Doctor Handoko seemed to be in a bit of a rush. I suppose he was not used to dealing with patients from the slums, people who arrived in dirty plastic sandals and ragged shirts.

Back in my van I asked Sani and Indra’s father what he did for a living.

"I’m a driver," he explained, grinning in friendly fashion.

"Who do you work for?" I inquired.

"A rich Chinese Indonesian," he said.

"How much do you get a month?"

"Eighty thousand rupiahs."

"That’s about twenty pounds sterling," I said. "That’s less than I’ve just paid the Kuningan Medical centre for the medicine and a ten minute consultation."

"He’s got two wives to support," whispered Min’s brother in law. "Two wives and two lots of children."

I could see why Sani and Indra were thin.

I could also see that neither Wati, Min’s mum, nor Wardi, Min’s big brother, had come with us.


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