Saturday, January 03, 2004


Next evening I found Iwan and his granny back home at their shack beside the rubbish tip. Granny, dressed in her usual old shawl and smiling her nearly-toothless grin, looked fit and well. But Iwan was not well. He resembled a famine victim; he appeared to have a fever; mosquitoes, lit by the light from a kerosene lamp, were buzzing around a coin-sized, infected wound on his left calf.

"Why did you go off without your leprosy medicine?" I asked him indignantly.

"I wanted to visit my mum." He was looking down at the ground and sounded as if he was ready for a stretcher.

"But you should have waited till you’d got your next lot of medicine."

"Sorry Mr Kent," said Iwan quietly.

I turned to granny. "Why didn’t you bring Iwan back when he got sick?" I asked.

She grinned sheepishly and said nothing.

"And how did you get the wound on the leg?" I asked Iwan.

"I was playing with some children."

An hour later, Iwan, granny and I presented ourselves to Dr Handoko at Jakarta’s smart Kuningan Medical Centre. A nurse cleaned the leg wound and issued some pills. Dr Handoko decided that Iwan would need to be admitted to a hospital. He phoned the expensive Rasuna Said Hospital to check they had a bed.

"Yes, they can take him," he said. "You’d better get there straight away."

Ten minutes later we were at the Rasuna Said, a tall block with dark marble halls, looking as much like a five star hotel as a hospital. I was beginning to feel rather pleased with myself as I explained to the female receptionist how I was helping Iwan. She asked us to wait in a side corridor. A few minutes later we were approached by a woman who could easily have entered a Miss Indonesia contest; she was long-limbed, dressed in a slim grey suit, and wearing a badge that said ‘public relations’.

"I’m terribly sorry," she said, "but we’re full up tonight. We have no beds available."

"I was told you had a bed," I protested.

"That was a mistake. I’m sorry but the boy will need to go to the leprosy hospital in Bekasi."

"Is it because he’s a poor child wearing sandals?"

"I’m sorry. There is no bed available." She smiled a public relations smile.

"But I was told you had a bed."

"He’ll need to go to the leprosy hospital," she said quietly. "People with leprosy can only be treated in the leprosy hospital."

"But it’s late at night. We can’t go all the way to Bekasi tonight. Iwan’s here because of his fever, not his leprosy."

"I’m sorry." She tried to put on her most sympathetic face.

"You’re only interested in well dressed patients. If Iwan was rich you’d take him."

We argued for ten minutes but she wasn’t going to budge. I began to suspect that Dr Handoko at the Kuningan Medical Centre had told the Rasuna Said about the fever but not about the leprosy or the cheap plastic sandals.

Two other nearby hospitals also turned us down. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was standard practice that lepers, no matter what additional ailments they might have, could only be admitted to a leprosy hospital. Non-lepers would not want to be walking on the same hospital floors as lepers.

I returned Iwan and his granny to their home beside the rubbish tip and arranged that my driver would take the two of them to the leper hospital in Bekasi the following morning.

When my classes finished next day I hurried to the leprosy hospital, a journey of an hour and a half. The hospital wards were in plain-featured, red-roofed bungalows spread around spacious grounds consisting of lawns, trees and vegetable patches. It was a little bit like an army camp. In Iwan’s ward there were about a dozen male children and youths, most of whom showed no obvious signs of being ill. Some were standing chatting; some had just wandered in from the gardens; one had movie-star good looks. Iwan was lying on a lumpy, stained mattress on a battered metal bed. His granny sat beside him.

"Have you eaten?" I asked, as I handed over some snacks I had brought.

"I haven’t eaten all day," said Iwan. His face and limbs seemed to be all bone.

"Have you been given some medicine?"

"Not yet," he said. "When we got here it was too late to see the doctor. It was just before lunch time."

"Is there a nurse here?"


"Its four in the afternoon. There must be a nurse!" I was becoming an angry Scorpio.

With the help of the neatly uniformed guard at the hospital gate I searched the hospital and its grounds but we couldn’t find a single doctor or nurse or administrator. The only people on site were the patients.

"I’ve heard there’s a better leper place in Tangerang," said the guard, "but I don’t have its address."

"Where can I find one of this hospital’s doctors?" I said impatiently.

He directed me to a good-sized bungalow three minutes drive from the hospital. A maid showed me into the lounge where a swarthy, middle-aged doctor was seated on a settee watching a large TV. I explained Iwan’s problems to the scowling man.

"Iwan’s not yet been seen by a doctor," I grumbled. "He’s got an infected leg and a fever. Can you come and see him?"

"No," snapped the doctor. "He should have come earlier in the morning. He’ll be seen tomorrow." The doctor remained seated and the TV stayed on.

"Surely the hospital should have a doctor on duty or even a nurse?"



"I’m about to have my meal."

"Iwan hasn’t eaten all day. Should I speak to the hospital director?"

"He lives in Jakarta." This was said with what seemed like a defiant smirk.

"Can you give me his phone number?"

"I don’t have it here."

"Will the director be here tomorrow?"


After several minutes of unsuccessful confrontation I returned to the hospital, collected Iwan and his granny, and drove them back to the Kuningan Medical Centre in Jakarta. We related our sad story to my doctor.

"I’ll prescribe Iwan some leprosy medicine," said Doctor Handoko, smiling. "Don’t worry. His fever’s much reduced."

We picked up more bags of pills from the chemist and returned to Iwan’s shack beside the rubbish tip.

More than most people, the Javanese tend to dig in their heels when faced with an opponent who is angry. I wondered if I would have had more success at the leprosy hospital if I had been more patient. Probably not. The doctor was very much off-duty; and he believed he was part of a system which was immune to reform; or outside interference.

Next day I returned to Iwan’s kampung. At the edge of the rubbish tip, teenage boys, seated on oil barrels, were strumming guitars; women were sorting through piles of aerosol cans, plastic bottles and plastic bags; old bicycle wheels and car parts were being beaten into shape by young men wearing tattoos; beautiful gypsy-like girls were attending to babies; chickens were picking their way through the weeds; a nauseous smell of burning plastic filled my nostrils.

Iwan, smiling and looking less pale, was sitting outside his house, resting his bandaged leg.

"How are you?" I asked.

"Fine, Mr Kent."

Granny fetched some glasses of water for us to drink.

"Where’s the water from?" I asked.

"From a neighbour’s well," said granny. "We can’t use the river water anymore, not even for washing clothes. It’s too dirty."

"They found a body in the river last night," said Iwan, eyes widening.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Nobody knows," said Iwan.

I looked at my glass of water which was brown, smelt of dead rats and toads, and had creatures swimming in it.

"Would anyone like a cola?" I said. "From the little stall up the road."

We were into June and Iwan was looking better, having got rid of his fever. He appeared to be taking his leprosy pills.

I had been taking Min more or less every afternoon to see his family in North Jakarta; but with the arrival of summer it seemed time to move Min’s family out of the slums of Teluk Gong and into the leafy kampung next to Wisma Utara, where housing was of a higher standard. I was due to get my summer bonus from my school and that could pay for a home for Min and family. There was talk of Min’s dad making his living by selling vegetables from a mobile cart.

One sunny Saturday morning I collected Min’s mum and dad and his brother Wardi from Kapuk and we drove to Wisma Utara to look at houses. Wardi was wearing a smart dark shirt. Wati, dressed in a new ensemble of long purple skirt and traditional brown batik waist band, was looking almost regal. Dad wore his usual humble working clothes. Min, looking a little shy, had been dressed by Joan in checked shirt and blue shorts. I was in a happy mood, but Min’s family seemed a little sombre.

The staff at Wisma Utara, including Joan, reckoned it should be possible to find a small simple house for around twenty million rupiahs, which was less than six thousand pounds sterling.

"Mr Kent," said Joan, who was standing with Min at the gate of the children’s home, "there are two houses for sale near here. I’ll take you to them."

The first of the houses was situated immediately opposite Wisma Utara. It was a small, two storey, brick and concrete house, squashed between its neighbours. Wati, Min’s mum, liked it a lot. But it only had windows at the front, which made it seem gloomy and unhealthy inside, and, at thirty million rupiahs or nine thousand pounds, it was well above my price range. Like all the houses in the area it had a home made feel about it and the rooms were tiny, with low ceilings. The toilet was like a broom cupboard with a tiny hole in the floor.

"Would you accept twenty million?" I asked the pleasant-faced, middle aged man who owned the house.

"No," he said, smiling. "Nothing below thirty million."

I tried bargaining but he wouldn’t budge even a million rupiahs; he reminded me of an easy going but sharp Neapolitan. I decided to move on.

The next house was a cheap wooden affair with lots of windows, but it seemed a bit ramshackle and there was no water supply. The cost was only fourteen million rupiahs. Wati quite liked it. Perhaps it reminded her of her house in Kapuk.

"Joan, are there any other houses?" I asked. My happy mood had gone.

"Not today. It’s not always easy to find houses for sale. Too many people."

"What do you think, Wardi?" I said.

"The first house was nice, but it’s too expensive." His eyes had a deeply pained look.

"And the second house doesn’t have water or a toilet," I pointed out. "I want you to have a house with a toilet."

There was a period of silence. Should I buy them the second-rate wooden house? Or should I wait for something better to come along?

Joan broke the silence. "The woman who owns the corner shop says she has a house she can show us next week. It’s got a toilet and it’s about twenty million rupiahs."

Should I eat into my savings to buy the thirty million house, a house I didn’t particularly like, or wait another week? Thirty million was too expensive; the house was overpriced.

"Joan, do you think the thirty million price will come down?" I asked.

"No," she said. "He told me he won’t reduce the price."

I decided I would wait until the following week, which would mean disappointing everyone concerned and delaying Min’s return to his family. I gave my explanations to Wati and company. I think we all felt like children who had woken up on Christmas morning only to find that Santa had left us absolutely nothing.

The following Saturday morning we were all back at Wisma Utara. Joan led us to the third house.

It was a two storey brick and concrete construction down a little cul de sac where all the houses were joined together by the usual thin walls. Downstairs there was a living room, simple kitchen with a water pump, and simple bathroom with a hole in the floor. Upstairs there were two bedrooms, divided by a simple curtain. The owners had bright modern furniture which was perhaps why I found the place attractive. The settee was a particularly bright light blue. The price was twenty two million rupiahs, which was within my range; and the neighbours seemed friendly.

Min’s family had a quick conference. They wore worried expressions. Wati explained that she still preferred the first house we had looked at, the one costing thirty million. Dad and Wardi remained silent.

"So, what about this third house?" I asked.

"OK, Mr Kent," said Wardi. He looked and sounded hesitant. Wati was scowling.

"Are you sure you want me to buy you a house?" I asked Wati.

Wardi answered. "Yes, Mr Kent." He was frowning.

I got the feeling that they definitely wanted me to buy them a house, but, something was worrying them. Was it a question of trying to get the best house possible? That was to be expected. Did Wati not believe me when I said I couldn’t afford the first house we viewed as I only had around six thousand pounds to spare? I supposed she thought all foreigners were infinitely rich. Was it a question of the hassle of having to move to a new home? I supposed that was natural. I couldn’t ask Min what he thought, as he wouldn’t understand. And I couldn’t have a deep conversation with Wati as my Indonesian vocabulary was so very limited.

"When can they move in?" I asked the attractive and astute looking young woman who owned the third house. Her tight blouse, short skirt and expensive shoes suggested she was a modern entrepreneur rather than a traditional shop owner.

"Any day," she said. "You pay the cheque on the day they move in."

"And you give us the documentation."

"Yes. They’ll need to fill in some forms at the lurah’s office."

"And we’ll also have to get identity cards," said Wardi.

"How much do they cost" I asked him.

"Very expensive to get a card for Jakarta. It costs extra if you want one quickly. Maybe a few hundred thousand rupiahs."

It was agreed that Min’s family would move into the new house within two to three weeks. I felt relieved that at last Min would be living with his family; living in what I considered to be a safe environment; and living right next to his school. I hoped I hadn’t rushed them into making a decision. I had a niggling feeling that Wati was not entirely happy with the way things had worked out.

The following Saturday, at Jakarta’s Pasar Mayestic, I searched the dimly lit concrete corridors of the market buildings for Hamid, the runaway with the rich granny and alcoholic bus-driving stepfather. I sniffed the cloves, nutmeg, and mace, listened to the flies dancing on bits of chicken, and eyed the fake designer sunglasses and watches.

"Shoe shine please," I said to a schoolboy carrying a wooden box.

I sat on the box and handed over my brown suede shoes.

"Have you seen this kid?" I said, handing him a photo of Hamid.

"He’s in the next building," he said, as he began applying the black polish.

"How much do you earn shining shoes?"

"About a dollar a day if I’m lucky. It’s to pay for school and help my mum."

After my shoes had been transformed, the shoeshine boy led me across a concrete bridge into the next building. Hamid was sitting outside a grocery stall.

"Hi. You’re living here again?" I said.

"Yes," he replied, tensing his brow.

"Why did you leave your granny’s house?"

"They say I’m stupid because I don’t like school."

"Do you want to go back?"


"How about some fried chicken?"

We sat in a little cafe and talked and ate. He wasn’t going to be persuaded to return home.


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