Sunday, January 25, 2004


One March evening, as I was about to drink my after-supper coffee, the maid appeared with a startling message.

"Bangbang’s father is here to see you," she announced.

Various thoughts flashed through my head. How on earth had Bangbang’s father got my address? Had the Dipo hospital given it to him? Was he a big strong chap in the habit of carrying a machete?

I walked slowly to the door, trying not to think about what a father might say about the disappearance of his son from a hospital.

The father was a thin little man with a wonderfully warm smile. "Bangbang has returned home," he said, handing me some bananas. "I’ve come to thank you for helping him at the hospital."

"Thank you," I said, letting out a sigh. "I’m sorry Bangbang disappeared. I am very relieved he’s come back home."

"Would you like to visit my home? It’s near Kebun Jeruk," he said.

"I’d love to."

A half hour drive took us to Bangbang’s house, a narrow, garage-like building next to a busy highway. Bangbang’s smiling mother, bigger than her husband, had the gentle manner of a nun. The house seemed to be full of children. A shy but grinning Bangbang stepped forward, squeezed my hand and gave me a little punch.

I was given a quick tour of the small habitation. Cheap curtains acted as walls for the two bedrooms; water in the combined toilet and kitchen was supplied by a pump; Islamic pictures decorated some walls.

Father and I sat on a broken settee in the lounge and had a brief chat.

"Is Bangbang getting any medicine for his epilepsy?" I asked.

"Yes," said his father, sounding hesitant, "but it’s expensive."

I handed him a little money and received warm thanks. He did not look at all like a man who would beat his epileptic child.

"What work do you do?" I asked.

"I repair cars."

"You have a large family?"

"Ten children."

"And how’s Bangbang?"
"He keeps on running away."

From time to time Bangbang would make a face and punch one of his brothers or sisters on the arm. They just smiled. I hoped he wouldn’t punch his gentle-looking mother, who was heavily pregnant.

A staffroom is a useful place for picking up information.

"Where’s the very best place for a weekend break?" I asked John, a tall and adventurous young teacher who had been all over Indonesia.

"My favourite place is Pelabuhan Ratu," said John, placing his coffee mug on top of a pile of exercise books. "On the south coast, four hours from Jakarta; a fishing village in a large horseshoe bay."

"What do you think Alan?" I asked our sensitive and friendly lover of gamelan music and Indonesians. He was on his second clove cigarette of the break.

"Pelabuhan Ratu gives me bad vibes," he said. "I get a haunted feeling down there. Lots of people get drowned on that bit of coast and the locals believe the drownings are caused by Ratu Kidul, the goddess of the South Sea. She recruits drowned victims to her underwater kingdom."

"A goddess? Is that Islamic?" I asked.

"Nothing to do with Islam," said Alan, looking serious. "Ratu Kidul is queen of the spirits and there’s a very strong belief in her, particularly by the Sultans of Yogyakarta. The goddess is believed to marry each of the sultans in turn, down through the ages. Presumably the marriage is in a spiritual sense."

"Do they really take this stuff seriously?" I asked Alan.

"There’s only one big hotel in Pelabuhan Ratu, the Samudra Beach. The hotel keeps a locked room on the top floor for the goddess. They all take it seriously," he said. "I tell you Pelabuhan Ratu gives me bad vibes."

"My driver has a story about this," said John with a wide grin. "Near the Samudra Beach hotel there’s a small lava flow, called the Karang Hawu cliff. This is where the lady flung herself into the sea and became transformed into the goddess. What my driver says is that in the Karang Hawu area there are some very friendly ladies who will invite you into their homes, in return for a small fee."

The school bell rang to mark the end of break. I turned to Joanne, a kindly and mature lady from New Zealand, who was just finishing her mint tea.

"What do you think of Pelabuhan Ratu, Jane?"

"It’s lovely. You should go," she said. "It’s very unspoilt; you probably won’t see any other white men. There’s a lovely fish restaurant, a handful of shops and even a small hospital. "

"What’s the road like?"

"Good until you get to Ciawi and then it gradually gets worse and worse and worse."

She was right. After Cibadak the road became narrow, pot holed and twisting. Mo, my driver, had to concentrate hard while I was able to sit back and enjoy the scenery. We entered a wild and magical world of goblin hills, impoverished wooden huts and towering phthalo green rainforest. Occasionally there were sunny terraced rice fields, followed by dark and gloomy rubber plantations.

After a bumpy four hour journey the Indian Ocean came into view. The driver and I began our descent towards Pelabuhan Ratu and a giant glistening bay which was edged by forest-covered hills, abrupt cliffs, wide beaches and tall palms.

"Samudra Beach Hotel," I instructed Mo.

We drove past little fishing boats, with red and blue sails flapping in the breeze, and past tousled wooden houses decked in pink and peach bougainvillea, and on to the concrete box hotel built by President Sukarno in the 1960’s.

The hotel seemed to have only a handful of guests. My room looked as if it had not been redecorated since the 1960’s but at least there was air-conditioning and a shower. I could not feel the presence of any goddess.

I headed for the dimly-lit bar and ordered a glass of wine. I was the only customer. What appeared, after a ten minute wait, was a glass of something from a bottle which had probably first been opened back in 1960.

"The wine’s gone off," I told the bright-eyed young barman who looked as if he could have been a student.

"I’m sorry," he said, flashing me a smile. "Not many people ask for wine. Would you like a beer?"

"Yes please. The hotel seems a bit run down."

"It has been renovated," said the barman, putting on a serious face, and pouring me a Bintan.

"Not very well," I commented. "The fittings such as baths and air conditioners look thirty years old. And the schools I passed on the way here. They all look as if they’re falling down."

"What this country needs is a revolution." The barman seemed to be smiling as he said this. I wondered if he came from a simple house with no bathroom, or if he was one of the well-connected.

"That’s a dangerous thing to say," I pointed out.

"No. It’s true. We need a revolution."

"I prefer peaceful change," I said, in case anyone else was listening. "The trouble with revolutions is that the little people get killed."

I wondered, half seriously, if the barman was an agent provocateur, and decided it might be a good idea to go for a walk along the deserted beach.

My stroll took me to a collection of dilapidated little warungs, or stalls, next to some palm trees. Each simple wooden building acted as both bar and home. I chose the only stall where there was any sign of life and sat drinking a cola in the company of the owner, moustachioed middle-aged Rachman. From my bar stool I could watch the waves breaking on the sunny shore.

Rachman told me he had four children. Mira, a pretty girl in her late teens, was standing at the far end of the bar; she was combing her long dark hair. Budi and Udin, two little twins with eczema on their legs, were playing with a skinny dog. Abi, a winsome boy, aged about twelve, was using a broom to sweep a patch of earth in front of a shed containing chickens. The boy was limping and did not look happy.

"Abi doesn’t look well," I said to Rachman.

"He’s fine," said Rachman.

Abi, hearing our coversation, came over to the bar.

"I’ve got a fever and a headache," said Abi.

"Do you want me to take him to the local hospital?" I asked Rachman.

"That would be kind," he said.

"You’ll come with us?"

"No. It’s OK for you to go alone with the boy."

"I think the hospital will need to have you there in case they want to give him an injection or something."

"No. My wife and I don’t need to go."

"But he’s only about twelve years old."

"He’ll be all right."

Abi and I drove to the little hospital near the centre of town and consulted the doctor, who looked as if he was not long out of school.

"It’s polio," said the doctor. "Very common here because of the faeces in the sea water.
Abi will be better soon if he looks after himself. This looks like a fairly mild case. But it was good you brought him here."

"I’m glad it’s not serious," I said. "Are there lots of serious diseases around here?"

"The south coast has malaria. Then there’s typhoid all year round, and TB, and hepatitis, and we suspect there’s a growing AIDS problem."

"I’ve seen a few people with skin diseases," I commented.

"Most of them have skin problems."

I spent much of the next day exploring the beautiful coastline, breathing the sea air and taking pictures of gorgeous little fishing boats in the turquoise sea. Each time a catamaran approached the beach, hordes of small boys would wade into the sea to unload long silvery fish.

Wherever I wandered, I was met with friendly faces. Outside some fishermen’s huts a small boy inched up a tall coconut tree, released a coconut, slid down to the ground, hacked off the tip of the nut with a machete, and offered me a drink of sweet refreshing liquid. Then he and his friends brought me a young goat to inspect.

I stopped off at the main market, which comprised a series of dark, low-ceilinged warehouse-like buildings linked by muddy pathways. Black shiny flies covered the chicken innards laid out on a blood-covered table; open sacks of everything from coriander to ginger gave off the aromas of the East; sensuous dangdut music flowed from stalls selling cassettes.

In the evening I returned to the warung to see Abi.

"How is he?" I asked Rachman.

"He’s fine. Getting lots of rest."

"How’s the warung doing? Lots of tourists?"

"No. We get lots of young Indonesians coming to the beach at holiday periods but they’ve no money. I need to restock the warung, but I can’t afford it. My daughter is studying in Bandung but it’s a struggle to pay the fees."

"How much do you need to restock?"

"One hundred thousand."

I counted out a few rupiah notes and handed them to Rachman.

"You’re very kind to us," said Rachman’s plump, soft-hearted-looking wife, who had appeared from inside the hut.

"You know some of the foreigners who come here like to sleep with the locals," said Rachman. "Is there anyone in our family you’d like to sleep with?"

"Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying," I lied. "I’ve got to go back to the hotel to get my packing done. Going home tomorrow." Somehow their words had disturbed the pleasant atmosphere.

"Are you driving back to the Samudra Beach?" asked Rachman.

"No. Walking," I said.

"Be careful around here," said Rachman. "Last week there was a woman tourist found dead next one of these huts."

"Goodness. What happened? Was she old?"

"She was young. The police don’t know what happened. No sign of violence."

I walked very carefully back to the hotel, glancing behind me from time to time. I was beginning to feel bad vibes. Would I have wanted to get close to any of Rachman’s family? There was a photo in their warung showing the daughter with a boyfriend. Then there was the question of what the hospital doctor had said about local diseases. And there was a question of my karma.

On the way back from Pelabuhan Ratu I stopped off in Bogor to see little five-year-old Budi. His mother came up to the van, before I had time to get out, and spoke to Mo, my driver.

"Budi’s dead," said Mo, with a face lacking expression.

I felt concussed. I felt my insides lacerated. "What happened?" I asked the mother.

"He got a fever," she said, grinning, in the way that Indonesians sometimes do when trying to soften the effect of bad news.

"Did you go to the doctor?"

"There was no time," she said.

Mo and I drove back to Jakarta in silence. My first big challenge in Indonesia had been to get Budi better, and I had failed. How could it happen? Where had I gone wrong? Shouldn’t there have been a happy ending? Where were the angels? I pictured Budi crying and his mother showing her teeth.

As we sped along the motorway I stared at the strange shapes of the clouds and tried to rest my brain. But I kept on thinking about Budi. And I kept on thinking of my failure, my hurt pride. In the months before Budi had died, I had made fewer and fewer visits to the child; I had left it to my driver to deliver the small sums of money for his medicine; I had given them the bare minimum in cash and time.

I had to go to the Piste Top Bar that evening to meet Fergus. The Filipino band were in a very jolly mood and they were talking to the audience.

"Hey mister Fergus," said the lead singer, "Your friend looks so sad."


Blogger Brandon said...

I have some imagery that may go well with your story, as I am very much in love with Pelabuhan Ratu -

Great stuff. Keep it up.

1:44 AM  

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