Sunday, January 04, 2004


The beginning of the May half term found me exploring the area around the small Sundanese hill town of Sukabumi, at the foot of the volcanoes Gede and Pangrango. Sukabumi, which lies between Bandung and Bogor, has more earthquakes and tremors than anywhere else in Indonesia, so I was watching out for signs of dogs or chickens behaving strangely. A major earthquake in 1972 killed over two thousand people in the region.

Having left my vehicle and driver on a quiet country road, I followed a path which ran below lofty flowering trees and above a muddy river. I was looking out anxiously for snakes, wild monkeys or even leopards, but all I saw, fortunately, were big blue dragonflies and orange-yellow butterflies flitting in and out of patches of brilliant dusty light and jet-black shadow. When I took a left turn and began to descend towards the river, I could hear splashing sounds and giggles.

"Hey mister," called a young voice behind me, "you can’t go down there."

I turned and saw two grinning boys, both aged about thirteen, and both dressed in threadbare shirts and shorts.

"Why not," I asked them.

"Women bathing," said the taller one, eyes gleaming with a hint of mischief.

"Ah," I said.

At that moment a young woman wrapped in towels, and carrying a basin full of damp clothes, came up from the river and hurried past me. She had Spanish good-looks and an enigmatic smile.

I returned to the main path and was followed by the two boys who introduced themselves as Hari and Dani.

"Are you going to school?" I asked.

"No," said Hari, with an amiable smile. "No money."

"You have to pay for school?"

"Yes. And for uniforms and books and outings," said Dani, putting on a serious face.

"Where are you going, mister?" asked Hari.

"Jalan jalan," I said. Just out for a walk.

"Ikut?" asked Hari. Follow you?

"OK," I replied, pleased to have some company.

Having passed some damp looking huts inhabited by grey faced people, and a stretch of green meadow which gave us views of the smudgy blue mountains, we arrived at a bridge made from bamboo. In the river below us, happy boys were swimming, washing and defecating. I could also see one child cleaning his teeth. This was a fast flowing river and not too crowded, but I imagined that, back in the overpopulated city of Bogor, the use of the river as a bathroom was a cause of that city’s ever-present typhoid.

Before I could say the word ‘salmonellosis’, Hari and Dani had stripped off their shirts and jumped feet first from the bridge into the river. Dripping with water, they then clambered back up to join me on the bridge.

As we continued our ramble through the hot sunny valley, steam rose from the boys’ wet clothes. I noticed that shirtless Hari’s ribs stuck out.

"How often do you eat each day?" I asked him.

"Sometimes only once a day."

"What work does your father do?"

"He doesn’t work," said Hari. "My mum works in Jakarta."

"What work?"

"She’s a maid."

"Who looks after you? Who does the cooking and washing while your mum’s away in Jakarta?"

"My big sister," said Hari.

"What about your father?" I asked Dani, who was also undernourished.

"Coolie," he said

We came to a grand mansion in large grounds with neat lawns. Three large station-wagons were parked outside the pillared entrance.

"Who lives here?" I asked.

"Haji Amar," said Hari, sounding respectful.

"What does he do?"

"He was a judge," explained Dani. "He owns the land around here."

A judge would earn about one hundred and fifty pounds sterling a month. But then he might also receive the occasional gift.

"You’ve been useful guides," I said. "Now I’m heading back to Sukabumi for something to eat."

"Smoking, mister?" said Hari, rather shyly.

"Smoking?" I asked. Then I realised they wanted cigarettes.

I gave them a few coins.

"For food," I insisted.

"Thanks, mister!" they said, taking the money politely and skipping off happily.

Back in Sukabumi I walked around the potholed streets. In the open-air market, women with fat legs squatted beside their piles of sweet potatoes and skinny youths were selling cigarettes from baskets hung around their necks. On a street where the outside walls were black with fungus and mould I found a dark little cafe. I dined on biscuits and cola.

After a night at a clean, air-conditioned hotel in the nearby hill resort of Selabintana, a hotel apparently owned by the army, I motored to Pelabuhan Ratu on the South coast. I booked into the Samudra Beach Hotel.

Walking East from the harbour I took photos of fishing boats and palm trees and enjoyed the salty sea breeze. Near some rice fields and a bat cave, I stopped to talk to a barefoot woman carrying a girl aged about seven. The girl, called Marni, looked pale yellow and her stomach was swollen.

"Is she sick?" I asked.

"She’s been ill for years," said the mother, whose own body was podgy and pale.

"Have you been to the local hospital?"

"My husband’s dead. I’ve no money."

We reached the simple little hospital in five minutes and consulted an earnest young doctor who did a blood test.

"It looks like Thalassaemia," he said. "That’s anaemia caused by defects in the genes that make haemoglobin. It’s inherited and quite common in this part of Indonesia. The girl’s father seems to have died from it."

"What can be done?" I asked.

"She’ll need repeated blood transfusions," said the doctor, in English. "We could get some blood by tomorrow from Sukabumi. Kids like Marni don’t always live too long. It depends on the type of Thalassaemia and on the treatment."

The doctor explained some of this to the mother.

"Does she want Marni to have a blood transfusion?" I inquired.

"No," said the doctor. "She says the girl doesn’t want a transfusion."

The girl was quietly weeping.

"But what about the mother?" I said.

"She says no."

"Are blood transfusions safe?" I asked.

"Blood transfusions can lead to a build up of iron, which can be fatal."

"What about AIDS?"

"That’s another risk."

The mother was determined that there should not be a transfusion, and maybe she was right, but I left her some money to pay for treatment in case she changed her mind.

I walked West from the harbour and after a few miles came to a wooden restaurant built on stilts. An old man appeared from inside and invited me to have a beer and some fresh fish. As I enjoyed my feast, I watched the surf roar in towards the blue and yellow fishing boats and thought that this could be paradise, if it wasn’t that the south coast suffered from poor roads and malaria.

Next morning, before returning to Jakarta via Bogor, I returned to Marni’s one room shack but there was no one there.

"The mother’s out working in the fields," said a middle aged man with strong muscles and thick dark hair, "I’m the community chief, the RT, and I’m related to Marni."

"I was going to give the mother some money for food," I said.

"Give it to me and I’ll make sure she gets it," said the man.

If he was the RT, the community chief, maybe he would be helpful. I gave him the money.

I stopped off in Bogor, and having collected hospital receipts from tubercular Asep, took a walk through some woodland beyond Bogor Baru. There were clusters of dingy wooden houses, steep ascents and descents on narrow paths, smelly goats in wooden enclosures, clumps of bamboo and occasional clouds of mosquitoes. The people here looked undernourished and were dressed in patched and tattered clothing.

Outside a cobwebbed wooden hovel, shaded by dark trees, sat a middle-aged woman and a boy aged about twelve. They gave me a tired but friendly smile and, intrigued by their appearance, I decided to introduce myself. The woman, whose name was Ciah, was yellow skinned and had the shrivelled look of the poorest of the poor. The boy, called Agosto, had a purple scar on his thigh and a sad look on his face.

"What do you do for a living?" I asked Ciah.

"Wash clothes," she replied in a weary voice.

"How much do you get?"

"About thirty thousand rupiahs a month." This was less than ten pounds sterling a month.

"Does you husband work in the fields?"

"My husband’s dead," she replied, smiling an embarrassed smile.

"My mother is sick," said Agosto.

"I get very tired," said Ciah.

When I suggested a trip to the hospital for a check-up, Ciah agreed immediately.

At the Menteng Hospital, the doctor diagnosed hepatitis and Ciah was admitted to the third class ward. Agosto sat by her bedside. He had a handsome little face but there was a look in his big dark eyes that spoke of lost hopes and despair. Not for him fishing trips with dad or games of football at school.

On returning to Jakarta, the first place I visited was Wisma Utara. Min was having one of his down days and refused to take my hand.

"Have his parents been to visit him?" I asked Joan.

"Not yet."

I thought of Hari, the kid in Sukabumi, who presumably didn’t see too much of his mother. Maybe Min’s family were all busy working.

"I’m off for a walk with Min," I explained. "I want to see if Iwan’s back yet to get his leprosy medicine."

Iwan was not back.

"He’s still at his kampung in Karawang," said a thin little man, who was standing beside a rubbish cart. He wore shabby clothes and had a grin that suggested possible slyness or a lack of intelligence.

"Do you know his address?" I asked.

"Yes. I’m Iwan’s uncle," said the man.

"I’m worried," I said, "because he’s not had his leprosy medicine for weeks and weeks."

"I could go and bring him back," said the man.

"Good. When can you go?"


I gave him the money for the bus.

Hamid, the runaway I had found in Pasar Mayestic, had not been visited for some time, so I drove with Min to Hamid’s grandmother’s mansion.

"How’s Hamid?" I asked granny, when she came to the door.

"He’s run away again," said the tired looking woman. "Probably gone back to the market."

"What went wrong?" I asked.

"He doesn’t like school."

I returned with Min to Wisma Utara. At least Min was in a safe place.

While enjoying a cup of coffee in the staffroom, I got talking to Carmen about the lives of Indonesian children. I told Carmen about Hamid in Pasar Mayestic, Marni the thalassaemia girl in Pelabuhan Ratu, sad Agosto in Bogor and Iwan the boy with leprosy.

"Hamid looks like a survivor," I said. "He must have guts to survive in Pasar Mayestic. But Marni and Agosto look near to giving up; and Iwan is heading for disaster if he doesn’t take his leprosy medicine."

"You know at the beginning of the 20th Century," said Carmen, "life was rough for some British children working on farms. I was reading about a child called Angus who had to work like a slave when he was a child. He had to be tough to stay alive"

"I suppose children were forced to leave school at a young age," I commented.

"Angus’s parents were poor and gave him to a farmer; they sold him," said Carmen. "Angus had to work seven days a week from early morning until late at night. He could be beaten if he complained. He lived in a freezing cold building with no toilet or bath and he’d be fed scraps. Britain this century. At least in Indonesia it’s warm and you can bathe in a river."

"Selabintana was cold at night!"

I told Carmen about the judge’s house.

"Maybe he has a rich wife," she said. "Anyway, people say there’s just as much corruption in Britain and Europe as in Indonesia."

"I suppose in the West it’s more cleverly covered up," I said.


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