Tuesday, January 27, 2004


The second school term had begun and we were now well into 1991. The school was running fairly smoothly, I had hardly ever been bitten by mosquitoes, and my tummy was behaving itself. Best of all I had lots of time off, thanks to the short school day and the large number of public holidays to celebrate the holy days of Moslems, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. There were always exotic new people to meet and totally unfamiliar situations to offer a challenge.

One Saturday morning in February, I was being driven past the glitzy skyscrapers on Jakarta’s Jalan Sudirman towards the Hongkong Bank when I saw a body lying lifeless on the grass on the central reservation. The body was that of a small boy and he looked as if he might have been hit by a car. Two adults had stopped to have a look.

Should I get out and offer to take the child to hospital? In Indonesia there is the danger, when someone has been hit by a vehicle, that an enraged kampung mob will appear and try to grab the supposed driver so that they can kick and beat him to death. There was no sign of a mob. A quick decision was called for. To stop or not to stop?

"Stop! Park!" I yelled to Mo, my driver. The traffic slowed and I was able to get out of the Mitsubishi and over to where the body lay.

A policeman had arrived. The boy looked about ten years old, was poorly dressed and had the face of a youthful garden gnome. Fortunately he was breathing and had no obvious injuries.

"What happened?" I asked, in order to establish that I had nothing at all to do with the accident. "Is there a hospital nearby?"

A man pointed. We were right opposite the modern Jakarta Hospital. The policeman picked the kid up and I followed them all the way to the emergency room.

A young Chinese-looking doctor, having given the boy what seemed like a five second examination, declared that nothing seemed to be broken and that the urchin could be returned to the street. The boy’s eyes were now open and he was able to answer the nurse’s questions.

"He’s a street kid," said the smiling doctor, addressing me, "and he’s not right in the head. Probably also has epilepsy. He says he has no parents and his name is Bangbang."

It was becoming clear that indeed Bangbang wasn’t completely normal. He suddenly poked the doctor in the stomach and then stared at him hard with a wide-eyed manic grin. The doctor chuckled.

Back to the street? Surely not.

"Maybe he should have an x-ray to see if his head’s been injured," I suggested. "I’ll pay."

"He’ll need to go to the Dipo Hospital," said the doctor. "They’ve got a place for mentally disturbed children there."

So, with the policeman and Bangbang, we drove in my vehicle to the hospital I had previously visited with One Hand. Bangbang sat fairly quietly, enjoying the ride. Only occasionally did he poke me gently in the ribs and give me the staring grin.

The policeman, an affable chap, took us to the drab emergency room, where a doctor looked at Bangbang and decided he could be admitted for tests. The policeman showed me where to pay the deposit for Bangbang’s stay and then led us down long dingy corridors until we came to the absolutely vast quarters reserved for stressed, mentally ill and mentally backward kids. The high ceilings and dark walls reminded me of classrooms in Victorian schools. Bangbang seemed to be the only patient.

The three nurses on duty stopped watching their TV in their little office and started to chat to the policeman and the new little arrival. Jokes seemed to be being made but I couldn’t make out what was being said. They all seemed totally at ease, in a Javanese sort of way, and to be enjoying each other’s company. Bangbang looked content and I relaxed. The policeman shook my hand, accepted some money for his bus fare, and departed.

"Mister likes children?" asked the oldest nurse, a lady in her mid-thirties whose face, shoulders and hips made me think of a happy Hermann Goering. Her name was Fatma.

"I felt sorry for Bangbang," I explained. Fatma’s eyes suggested she might be sneering rather than smiling.

"Mister has no children?" she continued. The other two nurses were now grinning.

"Not yet," I said. "How about you?"

"Two children," said Fatma. I noticed on one of her fingers a chunky gold ring that didn’t look cheap.

"And now you’ve got Bangbang to look after," I said. "I’ll be back tomorrow evening."

"Bring us something nice," said Fatma.

"Maybe," I said, and left.

Next afternoon I brought some chocolates to the nurses who smiled and looked pleased. Bangbang trotted up to me, squeezed my arm, took my hand, and gave me a sudden punch in the stomach. Fortunately it was a gentle, friendly punch. Bangbang and I then took a walk around the ward.

A few evenings later, I was able to meet the Dipo Hospital’s child psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph, a round faced, middle aged Chinese Indonesian with thinning hair.

"Mr Kent, you are very kind to help Bangbang," said the doctor, sitting at the nurses’ desk, looking benevolent and calm.

"It gives me something to do," I said.

"The tests show Bangbang has no broken bones," explained the doctor.

"I find he can be quite affectionate," I said. "For brief periods he even appears quite normal."

"We’ve discovered that Bangbang has got parents," said the doctor. "They’ve been to visit him. They say Bangbang’s often gone missing."

"Do they want to take him home?" I asked.

"If you want him to stay here a little longer, I’m sure they’ll agree."

"What do you think is wrong with Bangbang?"

"He’s got epilepsy and he’s psychotic. He claims he gets beaten at home. Maybe he gets beaten because he has epileptic fits."

"Is the father poorly educated?"

"Yes. I’ve told him he must not beat the child."

"I think Bangbang should stay here a little longer," I said.

When I returned to the hospital the following evening, I found Bangbang strolling along one of the corridors, on his own. I took him by the hand and returned him to his ward.

"I found Bangbang wandering around the hospital," I said to Fatma, the nurse in charge. "He should be kept in the ward. He might try to run off."

Fatma and her assistant seemed unconcerned. They continued watching the TV in their little office.

Next evening I returned to the Dipo Hospital to find Fatma and her friend busy eating chicken stew. There were no patients to look after.

"Bangbang has run off," said Fatma, looking surprisingly happy.

"What!" I shouted. "Have you looked for him?"

"The hospital guards looked all over. He’s gone." They carried on eating, picking up bits of chicken in their fingers.

"All you do is sit in your office and eat and watch TV," I said. "You only have one child to look after and you manage to lose him!"

They smiled, refusing to be unfazed.

Oh dear. What would Bangbang’s parents say?

"I’m going to see the hospital’s director," I announced, hoarsely. I wanted someone to take the blame and I didn’t want it to be me.

I strode along corridors and up flights of stairs until I came to a grand hallway and the offices of the hospital’s top people. The Director of the Dipo Hospital had an office that reminded me of a ballroom at a Grand Hyatt. But it was empty, as was the office of the deputy.

"When will they be back?" I asked a secretary, seated at a desk in the hallway.

"Next month," she said. "They’ve both gone on the Haj pilgrimage."

There was no one at the hospital on whom I could vent my rage.

When I got home, I noticed that Rachmat, the house guard and gardener, had not cut the grass in the front garden and Ami, the maid, was not ready to serve supper.

"Rachmat!" I shouted.

A grining Rachmat poked his head around the kitchen door.

"Rachmat, the grass should have been cut days ago. Get it cut first thing tomorrow!" I found myself speaking like a colonial master.

"Ami, why is supper not ready? This is ridiculous." As I spoke, the roast chicken was rushed onto the dining room table.

I sank my knife into the chicken breast. Red blood oozed out.

"Ami! This chicken is not properly cooked. This is useless."

I had noticed, when I had first arrived in Jakarta, that certain expats addressed almost all Indonesians as if they were stupid ten year-olds. It was too easy to do. People like Ami and Rachmat did occasionally behave in a slightly sloppy way; and when they were told off they seemed to put up with it.

The problem was mine. I would need to learn not to take advantage of the politeness and servility of some Indonesians. I would need to learn to adjust to Jakarta’s occasional frustrations. I would need to be less like a volcano. What I needed was a soul-mate.

When the weekend came I visited little Budi in Bogor. Good news. His eyes shone, he smiled, his hair looked darker, and, although still seriously malnourished, he had put on a little weight.

I took a walk to see consumptive Asep in his damp little home under the trees.

"Have you had an x-ray?" I asked.

"Yes," said Asep, handing me an envelope containing the evidence. The doctor says I have TB. I’ve got some medicine."

"Got a receipt?"

"Yes," he said, handing over some slips of paper and some funny little plastic bags containing pills, all of which I examined with care.

"There’s a receipt for the x-ray and the consultation. I can’t see any receipt for the pills."

"I got the pills from the puskesmas, the local clinic. It’s cheaper."

"So what happened to the money left over?"

"For food."

"Is that a new TV I can see inside?" I could see a cheap little television sat on a table.

"No. We borrowed that from a friend. It’s an old TV."

"These pills from the clinic look odd. Are they as good as the pills from the hospital?"


"I’d prefer you to get the next lot of pills from the hospital and you must get a receipt!" I handed him the money for the next hospital visit.

As I set off back towards my van, I passed a falling down shack, outside which sat a very sick looking young teenage boy, by name Eddy. His face was grey.

"What are these strange green herbs stuck to your forehead?" I asked.

"The dukun, the medicine-man, put them there. I’ve got a fever."

"Are you getting better?"

"No, I feel very bad."

"Want to go to Bogor’s Menteng hospital?"

"Yes, but my father has no money."

"Don’t worry about that."

When we reached the hospital, the doctor did a blood test, diagnosed "typhoid", admitted him to a ward, and had him put on a drip. The boy’s hollow-cheeked father, who did not look very bright, signed the requisite admission form. I paid a deposit and left money for medicine.

"Eddy will need to stay here for at least a week," said the doctor. "He’s very dehydrated."

Three days later I returned to Bogor to find that Eddy was no longer in hospital . His father had taken him home.

"Why did you take the boy home?" I demanded of the father, when I reached his hut.

"Eddy was better," came the reply.

"Has he got any medicine?"


"This is crazy. We must get back to the hospital immediately."

The father didn’t argue. We piled into my van and drove fast over the potholes towards the centre of town.

"Why," I asked the doctor at the Hospital, "was Eddy allowed to go home without any medicine?"

"We can’t force patients to stay," said the doctor, avoiding my eyes.

"Should he stay in hospital?" I asked.

"He’s not yet better but the father wants him home. However, he can get some outpatient medicine." The doctor began to write out a prescription.

Before going home I visited Budi’s house. It was empty but a little way along the road I came across the family on their way to visit neighbours. Budi was in tears, trailing behind his mum and dad. Mum was scolding Budi and her teeth were showing. I stopped to ask after the child’s health. I was assured that all was well.

By the time I got to the plush and exclusive Piste Top Bar that evening, to meet Fergus, I was ready for a drink. I had a lot on my mind. I was discovering that in the Third World it was not always so easy to help the waifs and strays. There was the problem of human nature. Nurses could let their child patients walk out of the ward; foolish TB patients seemed to prefer buying TV sets to buying hospital medicines; ignorant fathers could take their children out of hospital too soon; impatient mothers could reduce their sick children to tears. Perhaps it was the same in the slums of Liverpool or London.

I looked around the bar. The clientele were mainly Indonesians in dark suits or designer dresses. On several tables there were whisky bottles positioned beside the candles.

"How was your day?" I asked Fergus.

"Squash at ISCI. Well, I was thirsty. Went for a workout. Sunbathed at the Mandarin. How was your day?"

"Still no sign of Bangbang." I was aware that I had been in favour of Bangbang staying on at the Dipo hospital.

"Well, it’s not your fault."

"It’s crowded tonight," I said, changing the subject. "Who’s the guy getting all the attention over on our left?"

"Relation of Big Daddy, sitting with his body guards," said Fergus.

"Big Daddy?"

"The President," explained Fergus.

"And the guy in the dark blue suit at the back?" I asked.

"I could be wrong, but it looks like the general who organised the East Timor invasion in 1975. A good catholic."

"Surely not."

"And the CIA station chief is the guy at the next table who looks like a Colombian drugs baron."

"You’re having me on. That’s Carmen."

Indeed it was Carmen and she came to join us at our table. As the Philippino band began to play a song about "Money! Money! Money!" I began to relax with my beer.

A few days later my driver had good news. He had visited Eddy in Bogor and found that the boy was restored to good health. His typhoid was gone.

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."

Saturday, January 24, 2004


After ten months in Jakarta I was fully aware of just how comfortable the place could be for an expat, if he or she didn’t worry too much about the poverty and deaths in the slums. In the centre of Jakarta, the sky-scraper streets like Thamrin, Sudirman and Rasuna Said looked clean and safe and even a little green, thanks to the many trees; there were ritzy five star hotels where you could pop in for a coffee or a beer; gleaming new shopping malls were popping up; splendiferous supermarkets could sell you Scottish shortbread, English Marmite, American beef and French wine; there was no shortage of boutiques selling Armani or Patek Philippe or Chanel. At one’s residence there was no need to clean the car, or dig the garden, or wash the dishes; there were servants to do everything from the ironing to the cooking. At school there were lots of Indonesian assistants to prepare and photocopy materials and put up wall displays. It was always pleasantly warm and mainly sunny. And in Jakarta you were not so far from lots of other interesting tropical countries.

When the summer holidays began I decided to take a short flight North to the tropical island of Singapore, ruled at one time by Sumatrans, at another by Indians, and then in more recent times by the British, and even the Japanese. Three quarters of Singapore’s population are Chinese who came to Singapore as labourers in the 19th and early 20th century. The rest of the population are mainly of the Malay and Indian race.

Singapore was, fairly recently, a grubby Third World country with a bit of a reputation for poverty, racial problems and crime. Now part of its fame is due to its great wealth and incredibly safe, clean streets. In Singapore, unlike in so many towns and cities in Britain, you will not see filthy run-down housing estates, you will not normally see litter or graffiti, you will not see drug dealers at street corners, and you will not see knife-wielding teenagers mugging old ladies. There is censorship of nasty videos and zero tolerance of crime. Drug dealers are likely to be executed.

I took a taxi from Singapore’s Changi Airport and studied the scene. At first it was fast traffic, concrete motorway, concrete tower blocks, and neat patches of tropical garden and park. But then we slowed as we entered the heart of the hot, humid city. Slim brown school girls in white uniforms were walking sedately past green shuttered colonial buildings; in the shade of a cool veranda a thin pussy cat stretched itself and fell asleep; glistening Mercedes glid past villas with palladian pillars and gardens of ferns and palms; turbaned Malays were heading towards a mosque; incense drifted upwards from a Hindu temple. Wonderful; but was there something missing? Some colourful graffiti or a cow crossing the road? To be honest, since Singapore gained its independence, too many of the colourful old buildings have been knocked down, to be replaced by modern skyscrapers. And some unkind people have described Singapore as being a police state, where eccentricity and non-conformity have been outlawed.

Lee Kuan Yew, while prime minister of Singapore until 1990, seemed to believe in the idea of a nanny-state run by an elite; he did not entirely trust American capitalism; he supported the ideas of Confucius.

"How’s life in Singapore?" I asked the Malay taxi driver.


"Why’s that?"

"Housing’s expensive. It’s hard to pay all the bills."

"Singapore’s doing pretty well though, isn’t it? Compared to Indonesia."

"You have to work hard here because everything costs so much. All work, no play."

"It must be a good place to bring up children. The streets are safe."

"Yes, it’s safer than most places."

"No dengue fever. No malaria."

"You can get these here occasionally. There was dengue quite recently."

"No red-light districts."

"There are at least four. Want to go there?"

"No thanks." I had heard that the red-light areas were tame and strictly controlled.

I checked into a Malay-run four star hotel and was not wonderfully impressed. A large overflowing rubbish bin almost blocked the emergency stairs. Staff seemed sullen. Never mind, I would eat outside.

At a cheap hawker food stall I feasted on Malay chicken broth and an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes flavoured with shallots, prawn paste, lemon grass and tamarind.

I took a taxi to the enchanting area around Serangoon Road, known as Little India. There I sniffed spices and garlands of flowers; I pretended to be interested in buying cheap watches and Indian jewellery; I visited an elaborate and slightly erotic temple filled with incense.

I wandered happily through Chinatown taking photos of washing hanging from bamboo poles, tall crowded tenements, dusty old shophouses with ferns growing out of their tin roofs, and bald headed men sipping green tea and playing mahjong in high ceilinged restaurants. I stopped for a beer.

"Tourist?" said the young Chinese chap standing next to me. He was wearing a sober tie and looked like a businessman.

"Yes. I work in Indonesia."

"Enjoying it?"

"Very friendly people in Jakarta."

"Be careful with the Malay race. They are the majority in Indonesia, you know, and the minority here."

"Why the need to be careful?"

"They’ll be very friendly and invite you into their homes, but they’re expecting gifts. They’ll take more than they’ll give."

"Interesting." I decided not to argue with him. I was on holiday. "Singapore’s doing very well," I commented.

"I think we are now richer than Britain," he said. "In terms of people’s incomes."

"Why do you think you’ve done so well? This place used to be Third World. Just a muddy swamp."

He smiled, looking very pleased. "Where you have the Chinese people," he said, "and you have honest British-style institutions, like in Hong Kong and here in Singapore, then you get wealth."

"Why is Indonesia not so rich?" I asked. "It’s got millions of Chinese Indonesians."

"No honest institutions in Indonesia," he said. "The Chinese businessmen get away with murder."

Next day, I took the train from Singapore across the causeway to the Malaysian city of Johor Baru which lies at the bottom of peninsular Malaysia. Just before we reached our destination, the Chinese woman sitting opposite me decided to speak to me. She was smartly but soberly dressed, in her forties, and had the face of a kindly and hardworking nun.

"How do you like our Singapore?" she asked.

"It’s pretty clean. No graffiti or starving children, unlike Indonesia. That’s where I work."

"In Singapore you know you get fined if you drop litter? You get hanged if you get caught with lots of drugs?"

"So I’ve heard. Do you find Singapore too strict?"

"For a woman it’s good. You’re not going to get harassed there. You know back in 1959 we didn’t know how well Singapore would survive. We were worried about race riots and strikes. A lot of people welcomed a strict government, so long as it built houses and schools for everyone."

"What work do you do?" I asked.

"I run a boarding house for schoolchildren from Indonesia. They attend the international schools in Singapore."

"What sort of kids do you get?"

"Rich children, the sons of army people, civil servants, business people. They tell me the schools in Jakarta are not good."

"The teachers get paid very little," I commented, "and some of the children are always fighting."
"It’s sad," she said.

We drew into Johor Baru and I set off to find the most interesting tourist attractions. The sky was grey; many buildings seemed boringly Westernised; Abu Bakar’s Grand Palace didn’t seem particularly grand; the Abu Bakar Mosque was a vaguely interesting Victorian building. I settled eventually for a smart Indian restaurant.

While tucking into biryani and paratha, washed down with Tiger beer, I got into conversation with a bespectacled young Chinese who had been reading a computer magazine. He was sitting at the next table and was almost finished his meal.

"Malaysia’s making good progress with technology," I said.

"Thanks," he said, slightly shyly. "Our problem is that we’ll never catch up with the Americans. We just can’t compete with their wealth and their universities. They’re so far ahead." He sort-of laughed.

"Where were you educated?" I asked.

"Sheffield University." His eyes lit up.

"Did you like it?"

"A lot. That was before Mrs Thatcher made foreign students pay more money. You’re British?"

"Yes," I said, "but I’m working in Jakarta. Are there close ties between Malaysia and Indonesia? They both speak the Malay language." I preferred to find out about Asia rather than discuss Mrs Thatcher.

"They don’t speak much English in Indonesia," he said, frowning. "You know about thirty years ago Indonesia went to war with us."

"Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president?"

"Right. Sukarno had a rebellion in Sumatra and trouble in other parts of Indonesia. There was big inflation and starvation. Big problems. To distract attention he tried to grab North Borneo from Malaysia. Britain helped us and Sukarno was defeated."

"The British and Americans didn’t like Sukarno, did they?"

"It’s complicated. The Dutch wanted the islands of the East Indies to be part of a loose federation; the Americans wanted the Indonesian army to have a strong control of all the islands, so as to fight communism. The Americans didn’t seem to mind the Indonesian generals taking over West Papua."

"But the Americans fell out with Sukarno," I commented, to show-off that I knew a little of the local history. "Sukarno didn’t last too long after failing to get North Borneo."

"Sukarno refused to be an American puppet. America replaced him with General Suharto; There was a big slaughter in Indonesia; maybe half a million opponents of the army were murdered. Suharto became Indonesia’s second president."

"Was it the communists who got murdered under Suharto?"

"They were not all communists. Some were innocent Chinese."

"Things seem peaceful and harmonious here, in Malaysia," I said.

"Not always," he whispered. "We’ve had race riots in the past."

"What happened?"

"As you know, we Malaysians are a mixture of races. About twelve million Malays, five million Chinese and one and a half million Indians. My parents remember when Chinese people had to flee for their lives. The police just stood and watched. Chinese Malaysians got attacked by Malay Malaysians. My parents were very, very scared."

"When was that?" I asked.

"1969. A lot of Chinese left the country."

"Sounds like it was racial?"

"It’s difficult. We can’t mix too easily. Sex between the Muslim Malays and the non-Muslim Chinese is illegal." He glanced around to check that nobody was listening in to our chat.


"Some Malays don’t like the Chinese success in business. They don’t like that we Chinese eat pork." He laughed.

"Your government is dominated by Malays?" I asked.

"Yes. The government is mainly Malays. Business is mainly Chinese. The Malaysian government has tried to help the Malays get into business. Malays are given extra help when it comes to jobs, education and owning shares. They set quotas." He gave me a quizzical look.

"So, are the Malay Malaysians catching up with the Chinese Malaysians?" I asked.

"Not much has changed," he said, grinning. "How do you get a rich Chinese family to hand over some of their business to Malays? How do you get a poor Malay family interested in running a big business? I think the Malays now have about twenty percent of the shares of companies. It’s below target."

"But aren’t there now quite a lot of Moslem Malay businessmen?"

"Some of them are just ‘front men’," he said. "You get the same in Indonesia. A company is headed by one of the President’s children or by an ex-general. But the real brains behind the business are likely to be Chinese."

"Why do you think the Malays have stayed poorer than the Chinese?"

"When we Chinese came to Malaysia, when it was a British colony, we came to work in the tin mines and on the rubber plantations. We were illiterate peasants. But we improved our education. We advanced."

"What about the Malays?"

"Some of them suffer from the Malaysian disease." He looked a little bit angry.

"What is that?"

"They want cars and all the modern conveniences. But they don’t want to study hard and they attack the materialism of the West."

"You think some of them want to go back to a simple Islamic way of life? Village life and schools teaching mainly religion?" I asked.

"A few of them do," he said.

"You wondered how you would get a rich Chinese family to loosen its grip on its business. In Indonesia the Chinese run certain monopolies like flour and sugar and they allegedly use dirty tactics, like bribery, to keep the non-Chinese out of business." I wondered if I was being too blunt.

"You are right, my friend," he said. "There are faults on both sides." He stood up, shook my hand warmly, and made for the exit.

Back in Singapore that evening, I took a clean and comfortable bus out to a housing estate near Jurong. The houses looked shapely and colourful and a zillion times better than the spare little concrete sheds lived in by workers in Jakarta. Gardens were well tended and there was no graffiti or litter. (Some of the older housing estates in Singapore are boring shoe-boxes.)

"Nice houses," I said to a Malay shopkeeper with a big stomach and funny little hat.

"That’s true," he said, looking a little suspicious, or even grumpy.

"Is it easy for Malay Singaporeans to get into business?"


"A lot of the top people are Chinese?" I said.

"It’s changing," he explained, relaxing a little and looking proud. "My second son goes to university. A good boy. We now have Malay accountants and lawyers."

"Your other children?" I asked in the Indonesian language, which is borrowed from Malay.

"My first son is a taxi driver," he said in Malay, grinning. "My third son’s a bit of a problem. He just drives around on his motorbike." He laughed, perhaps to show he wasn’t worried.

"Do you miss living in a kampung?"

"What?" He looked as if he hadn’t understood.

"Is it good living in one of the old Malay housing areas? With the little wooden houses?"

"It’s relaxed in the kampung. You can sit with your friends and watch the fishing boats or the children playing. No worries."

"Sounds nice. Got a big family?"

"Where my brother lives, in the kampung in Ponggol, we have lots of uncles and aunts, grandparents, cousins, nephews, nieces. We’re never lonely there. Everyone looks after everyone else."

"What about the new housing estates?"

"Some of the people in the new apartments never meet their neighbours. They’re working in an office or watching TV."

I decided that Singapore was a safe place, for the person who towed the line. It was a good place to bring up children. And it was not as dull and conformist as I had been led to believe. Yet, I was somehow pleased when I got back to Jakarta, with all its eccentricities and extremes. I felt that it was in Jakarta that I was more likely to find my soul-mate.

Friday, January 23, 2004


Sometime during the second half of 1991, something happened which I felt I might have previously glimpsed in my dreams.

My driver, Mo, had not turned up and I was in an ulcerous mood. It was a Sunday but I had no transport. I decided to go for a walk and headed along the dusty main road in the direction of the wonderfully scruffy market at Kebayoran Lama.

The market had its usual Congolese appearance, or perhaps it was Calcutta on a bad day. Rising from a choked and crumbling drainage ditch came the smell of bloated dead rats and human excrement; a three wheeled taxi with an explosive exhaust set down a woman in an Islamic headscarf outside a jerry-built shopping bloc; an orange bus covered in schoolboy graffiti swerved around a pothole as big as a car tyre; piles of fresh cassava, chilli and taro stood next to a mountain of steaming rotting vegetable matter; a bandaged leper was having money extracted from him by a uniformed official; a policeman was ignoring the unsmiling pickpockets and the tattooed street thugs with their army-style haircuts; big-eyed, thin-limbed street kids were selling plastic bags next the stalls selling shoddy shirts, pirate cassettes and toy guns; dangdut music blared from the stolen radios guarded by vendors seated on the railway tracks. In its own way the market was gorgeous and bewitching.

Down a narrow Dickensian lane there was a games arcade, unlit inside, and next to that a flea-pit cinema showing an Indian film.

Seated on the cracked pavement in front of the cinema, in a state of utter dejection, was a young boy. He was barefoot, dressed in a dirty ragged shirt, and long trousers several sizes too big. He was moving his head from side to side like a depressed young panda in a zoo. At his feet were a few scraps of cooked rice on a piece of brown paper. Was he about twelve years old? Difficult to tell as he was so undernourished. I decided to find out what was wrong with the boy.

"What’s your name?" I asked, as I squatted down in front of him.

There was no reply; he avoided eye contact. I asked a few more questions but got no answers. I stood up, moved back several paces and watched. Passers-by ignored him, or, in the case of three well dressed young men, mocked him with jeers and insults.

At one point he stood up, a little shakily, and walked to a stall selling drinks. He held his head high, and, in a surprisingly insistent manner, held out his hand to demand a drink. The young stall holder, no trace of emotion on his face, handed the boy a glass of coloured liquid. The kid drank thirstily before returning to his little patch of pavement.

What was I to do? The lad seemed like a hopeless case; he was not the sort of normal, cheerful, talkative waif or stray I had envisaged myself helping when I had first arrived in Jakarta. In any case, I had no money on me and without money there was no possibility of transporting him to some hospital or other institution, if indeed that was appropriate. He couldn’t stay with me at my house; I was not allowed by the terms of my lease to have any guests stay at my home, other than family and friends from Britain. And yet I couldn’t abandon this child.

I walked home at speed, a journey of twenty minutes along potholed pavements, and collected a few thousand rupiahs. As I hurried back to the market I hoped I would find the boy still in the same place. And if he was still there, what then? The sadness on his face had been haunting. He hadn’t looked manic or psychotic like Bangbang. In fact he had the delicate face of Botticelli boy or a Michelangelo Madonna. Had his family thrown him out? Why wouldn’t he speak? I grew more and more anxious to get back to the little cinema before any possible decision on his part to wander off and disappear for ever. I didn’t want another failure.

Sweating, and with nerves writhing, I reached the crowded bazaar, the games arcade and then the cinema. There he was seated on the pavement. Thank heavens. I took his hand and he accepted it. I was making progress. I walked with him towards the stall holder who had given him the free drink.

"Does this kid live here?" I asked.

"No," said the stall holder. "I don’t know where he’s from. He wandered into this area recently."

I took the boy round the corner to some kampung houses, stopped an old woman and said, "Do you know this child? Does he have a family?"

"He’s not from around here," she said.

I tried another stall holder next the cinema. "What should I do with this kid? Where can I take him?"

"He’s mental," said the elderly man, in a sympathetic tone. "You could try the Jiwa Hospital for the insane or the Dipo Hospital. They’re both in the city centre."

"Are you sure he doesn’t have a family? He doesn’t live near here?" I asked.

"He’s not from here," insisted the man.

I flagged down a bajaj, an orange three wheeled taxi, and found that the lad was happy to get in. No problem. No protests. No struggling child. No lynch mob to accuse me of kidnapping. The kid still held my hand.

"Take us to the Dipo Hospital," I said, as we set off.

"That’s an hour’s journey," said the bajaj driver. "This machine only does short runs." So after ten minutes we transferred to a red four wheeled taxi, with broken air conditioning, which took us by a circuitous route to our destination, the big hospital from which Bangbang had escaped. I asked the driver, a tall man with a gold chain round his neck, to wait while I went to the hospital’s front office.

"I found this kid in the street," I said to the two strongly built men at the desk. They looked like off-duty commandos. I briefly explained the story.

"What’s wrong with him?" asked the slightly fatter one, hardly able to contain his mirth as he studied the ragged, trembling waif.

"I don’t know, but I’d like to have him admitted to the hospital," I said.

"Has he got a fever?" said the slightly thinner one, derisively.

"No. I don’t know what’s wrong with him," I explained. I was incensed by their lack of sympathy for the boy.

"Well he can’t come into the hospital if there’s nothing wrong with him," said the fatter one.

"He’s very thin, he won’t speak and seems to have no family," I said.

"Maybe he’s mad," said the thinner one, and they both guffawed.

This was the hospital which had raised my blood pressure when it had managed to lose Bangbang. Now I realised it would be stupid to trust the same hospital again. I took the desperately worried looking child by the hand and returned to the taxi.

We drove to the Jiwa Hospital, a mental hospital, in the nearby Jakarta district of Johar Baru. The hospital was in an old colonial building, looking like a fort, surrounded by neglected grass, a few trees and some moderately poor housing. I dreaded to think what conditions might be like inside.

"Can I speak to a doctor?" I asked the guard, a young fellow in a uniform.

"They’ve gone home," he said.

"A nurse?"

He fetched a nurse, a middle aged lady with a sad and sympathetic face, and I told my story.

"We can’t help," she said in a quiet voice.

I was tired, hot and now angry. "Why not? This is a mental hospital and this is a kid who seems depressed and unable to speak."

"We only take adults," she said, "and then it’s only after they’ve seen the doctor. I’m sorry."

"But I was told this was a suitable place," I said. "This child has nowhere to go. I can’t return him to the street." I was raising my voice and the guard and the taxi driver seemed to be smirking. The kid was staring at me like a refugee begging not to be shot. Then he squatted in the grass to do the toilet.

"You could try Doctor Bahari’s private clinic in Menteng, not far from here," said the nurse. "It’s expensive but I’m sure they’ll take him."

"Great! We’ll try that. Thanks for your help." Suddenly I felt more optimistic. A private clinic would surely be a hundred times safer and more comfortable than a government run mental hospital. We got back into the taxi where it looked as if the driver had been fiddling with the meter as the fare had jumped enormously.

"Menteng," I said, and off we went by what seemed like an especially long route. The sky was darkening as we reached our destination, a dusty, treeless side street that had seen better times.

Doctor Bahari’s small clinic, housed in what had once been a sizeable middle class villa, was different from the Jiwa Hospital. It had a doctor, a small, grey haired, plainly dressed, thoughtful-looking lady, who invited us into her office. She asked the boy some questions in a respectful way. He remained silent. He looked puzzled and drained.

"We’ll call him Ujang," said the doctor.

I related what I knew about Ujang, which wasn’t much. Then I asked, "Can you take him into the clinic?"

"Yes. Certainly."

"Thank goodness!" I breathed deeply and smiled at Ujang, whose eyes possibly picked up the signals coming from my face. At least he was now looking me in the eye.

"You’ll need to buy him some sandals and new clothes," said the doctor looking at Ujang’s bare feet and over-long trousers.

"What’s wrong with Ujang?" I asked the doctor.

"It’s too early to say but it’s possible he’s mentally backward," she explained.

"Do you think Ujang has a family?"

"He probably does, as he seems socialised and able to show affection."

"Do you think we’ll be able to find his family?"

"It’s unlikely. Jakarta is a very big place. Even if we did find them, they might not want him back!"

The next stage was to pay for ten days stay at the clinic and for the purchase of some clothes. The clinic was certainly expensive. Not that I minded, as a place where you had to pay a lot of money was more likely to look after Ujang properly.

We entered the quarters for the less seriously ill patients, the majority of whom seemed to be middle class Chinese Indonesians suffering from stress or breakdowns. The appearance of this part of the clinic was that of a dimly lit, run-down boarding house There were pot plants, comfortable old chairs, and even individual bedrooms. There was a rat in the gutter, but it looked healthy and happy.

Then we entered the section protected by metal bars and a locked door. This was a large sparsely furnished courtyard with smaller cell-like bedrooms off. This prison-like area was where Ujang was to stay along with half a dozen or more patients who all looked heavily drugged and deranged. The only child, apart from Ujang, was an angry looking, lunatic girl, who followed me around, occasionaly grabbing at my arm. The fiercest patient was a man in his forties with staring eyes who staggered up to me and demanded a cigarette. A male nurse simply pushed him away. The nurses seemed to be the same types as at the Dipo Hospital, grinning like tigers.

I put my arm around Ujang’s shoulder and tried to explain things to him, but I think that to him my words were without meaning. Could I leave him in this place with its mentally disturbed adults? There seemed to be no alternative. He had to be in a secure place where he would receive food and shelter. Fingers crossed that nobody would hurt him.

I took Ujang for several walks around the courtyard and then stayed chatting to the nurses as long as possible, but eventually I had to move towards the exit. Ujang wanted to come with me. He looked like a pup about to be abandoned. He clung on to me very hard until the nurses prised him off.

"I’ll be back tomorrow evening," I promised.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004


When School was over next day, I hurried to my van.

"Doctor Bahari’s clinic, fast!" I instructed the driver. We moved at a reasonable pace until we hit the rush hour traffic and began to crawl down Sudirman Boulevard and past Le Meridien hotel. One hundred thousand families in Jakarta are five-car families. Mum, dad and three of the kids each have their own car. And then there are all the four-car families and three-car families and two-car families. Now you know where some of the World Bank’s money goes.

How would Ujang be faring among the mentally disturbed adults? Would he know I was coming back to his locked ward?

After a journey of at least an hour, we passed a Hero’s supermarket and drove up to the clinic. I jumped out of the vehicle and hurried in, looking carefully at people’s faces. All smiles. The heavy door was unlocked and there stood Ujang. He was alive and well; his skinny little body was dressed in new shirt and shorts. He wasn’t exactly smiling; more hesitant and worried. I took his hand and he gripped it strongly.

"How’s Ujang?" I asked a nurse.

"He’s fine," she said. "He’s eating well, and this morning, when he woke, he gave a whoop of joy!"

"Great." I felt like giving a whoop of joy.

"Come to the doctor’s office with Ujang," said the nurse, "Doctor Joseph would like to meet you."

Dr Joseph, round faced, middle aged and Chinese, sat in his comfortable leather chair looking totally relaxed. It was the child psychiatrist from the Dipo hospital, the doctor who had been attending to Bangbang before he got lost.

"We’ve met before," said Dr Joseph, smiling warmly. "You know Bangbang’s been found? He turned up at his parent’s house."

"Yes, I know," I said.

"We’ve an open door policy for those children at the Dipo hospital," said Dr Joseph, "but here there’s a locked door for some of the patients."

I thought it better not to comment on this.

Dr Joseph continued: "My colleague told me the story of your finding Ujang in the street. It’s very kind of you to help this poor child. Ujang still doesn’t speak. It may be depression. He may have been lost for some time."

"How’s his health? Do you think he might have TB or anything like that?" I looked at Ujang who was still looking rather frail and heartsick.

"No," said the doctor. "We’ve done some tests this morning. Apart from worms, he’s fine."

"Should I try to visit him every day, or is there a danger he may become too dependent on me?" I suspected that Ujang and I might well become dependent on each other.

"I think you should visit him because it’ll help him to come out of his depression. He hasn’t got anyone else to visit him," said the doctor, giving me the answer I had hoped for.

"Is he safe here with all these strange adults?" I asked.

"They’re all heavily sedated. There’s no problem." Dr Joseph smiled broadly.

"What treatment will Ujang get?" I said.

"We’re giving him some drugs to deal with the depression. We could try electric convulsion therapy."

"I don’t want that for Ujang!" I said, gulping, "It’s too controversial and Ujang’s only a child."

"But it can be very successful."

"Well, I’d prefer not to try it. Definitely not."

"OK. We’ll continue with the drug treatment."

"He seems to shake a little bit. Is that the drugs?" I asked.

"It could be."

"Can you please reduce the dosage, so he doesn’t shake?"

"We could do." Dr Joseph was politely indicating disagreement with me.

"Can I take Ujang for a short walk or for trips in my vehicle?" I hoped I could play uncle.

"Certainly. It’ll do him good."

"I’ll take him to the supermarket now," I said.

When Ujang and I arrived at Golden Truly supermarket, Ujang was swaying slightly and looking heavily doped. I took a trolley, persuaded Ujang to sit inside it, and wheeled him around. Great fun for me, and there just the hint of happiness on Ujang’s face. We picked up some milk and some papaya. What was upstairs? We came to the escalator.

Ujang stepped on and I followed, clutching two plastic bags with my right hand and the escalator rail with my left hand. We moved up rather fast. Ujang, who had not been holding on to the rail, began to fall backwards.

I let go of the rail and tried to support Ujang’s back which was moving swiftly towards my nose. I began to fall backwards and imagined collision with the spiky metal bits of the escalator and a nasty swift descent head first.

The woman behind me involuntarily provided temporary support for both me and Ujang. She was a big strong woman. Balance was restored, my heart thumped, and I fastened Ujang’s cold little hand on to the rubber rail. Crisis over. I had discovered that the kid was new to escalators.

I needed a drink and that meant a trip to a fast food restaurant. In a place selling fried chicken, Ujang and I sat on bright yellow chairs, next to green and red plastic flowers, and I ordered two colas.

Ujang gulped his down and then, deciding to have a pee, stood up abruptly, and moved over to a plastic tree, beside which he squatted down . As he was about to begin, a waiter gently took him by the arm and guided him to the gents.

Back at the clinic the problem was parting. Ujang looked at me wistfully and help on tight to my arm. We walked around the courtyard, warding off the poor demented girl and a tough looking skinhead who wanted a cigarette. Then we walked around again. And again. At last one of the nurses took hold of Ujang while I squeezed past the metal door to make my exit.

I couldn’t get Ujang out of my mind. Travelling into work next morning I wondered what would happen if I had to leave Indonesia? Would I always be able to pay the clinic for his keep? If I left Indonesia he wouldn’t have any visitors. Would he shrivel up and die of loneliness? I could imagine him in later years, sitting alone in a corner, staring into space, wondering what had happened, and why he had been deserted.

Over a cup of grotty coffee in the staff room, I spoke to Ian, who already knew the basics about Ujang. "Do you think Ujang will ever find his family?" I asked.

"Not a chance," said Ian, a keep-fit fanatic, bachelor and lover of nightclubs. He was the sort who would never give money to beggars, although I have to say he did have a soft spot for dogs.

"I felt so sorry for Ujang when I found him in the street," I said.

"He’d be better off in the street," said Ian.

"Some kids would be, but this one was different," I pointed out. "He wasn’t coping."

"Sometimes these people get violent when they’re older. You’ll need to watch out," continued Ian, frowning.

"Amanda, what do you think?" I asked.

"You’re taking an awful risk, taking a child off the streets," she said. "You could be in trouble with the police, the immigration authorities and goodness knows who else." Plainly dressed, unmarried, middle aged Amanda, a born administrator, was not the sort to mix with the locals or do anything unorthodox.

"Rubbish," said Fergus, looking up from his book, "The police couldn’t care less. If he’s a mentally backward street child, then officially he doesn’t exist. He’s better off in the private clinic. He wouldn’t make many friends on the streets of this city!"

"I don’t know about that," said Carmen. "I came across a mentally backward woman living on the street. Her hair was neatly cut, her clothes were clean and she was not malnourished. Some of the kampung people must have been helping her."

"Now that I come to think about," I said "Ujang’s hair was quite short and must have been cut quite recently."

"Watch he doesn’t get dependent on you," said Carmen. "He’d be awfully upset if you had to leave Jakarta. Another thing to watch: if you show favouritism to a child in an institution, the staff may take it out on the child when your back’s turned. They can be jealous."

"Surely not," I said. "Would professional staff do that?"

"Yes," said Carmen, emphatically.

"Talking of primitive emotions," said Fergus, "I heard that that massacre in the Dili churchyard was planned in advance."

"East Timor?" asked Ian.

"Yes," said Fergus. "They say the burial trenches were dug by the army before the massacre."

"That’s only a rumour," said Ian.

"Don’t forget the Amritsar Massacre," said Carmen. "And Bloody Sunday, and the Australians hunting down Aborigines like wild animals."

"Amritsar?" said Fergus.

"Well," explained Carmen, "that was unarmed Indians being mown down by a British general."

"I wonder if the Dili massacre will affect arms sales from Britain," said Ian.

"No chance," said Carmen, guffawing and almost spilling her coffee.

That evening brought another visit to Ujang and a chance to talk to Dr. Joseph.

"How’s he getting on?" I asked.

"We’ve discovered his name," the doctor replied, in his usual mellow, relaxed way. "Ujang whispered it to me this morning. He’s called Min. It rhymes with lean or seen."

Min was also feeling mellow, as he had his feet up on the doctor’s desk; obviously Dr Joseph had the knack of putting his patients at their ease.

I was feeling tense, but very happy that Min had broken his silence. We now knew he could speak!

"What else has he said?" I asked.

"Very little. Min seems to have extremely limited speech," continued the doctor. "That could be because of mental backwardness."

"Has he said anything about his family? His address?" I asked.

"Not yet. I don’t think he has the mental ability to understand a concept like ‘address’. He hasn’t mentioned any family."

"Do you think we’ll find his family?"

"Very unlikely."

"He still seems a bit dazed or even drunk," I said. "He shakes a lot. Could you reduce the strength of the drugs you’re giving him?"

"Yes, later we’ll reduce the strength. The drugs are to keep him peaceful and bring him out of his depression."

"Can I take Min out for a trip to the shops?"

"Of course."

We returned to the fast food restaurant and bought great big ice cream cones. Min grinned wickedly, licked his vanilla ice, and then swiftly jabbed it against my face. He shrieked like a happy two year old. Well, it was progress of a sort. I wiped my face clean, paid the bill to a bemused girl, and returned to the clinic. I didn’t mind getting a little taste of his food as long as he was happy. In earlier days I would never have imagined that an apparently mentally backward child could play an important role in my life; Min had filled a gap.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004


The weeks went by and I continued to visit Min every day. He began to put on a little weight. Some days there were moments of great cheerfulness but on other days he was moody and wouldn’t speak. On his bad days I looked at his shaky little legs and his sad, lost-looking little face and felt my own mood worsen. I worried about his unhappiness and but couldn’t think what on earth to do about it. I decided I needed a Saturday trip, to take my mind off things, and headed for Bogor, with Fergus.

Having arrived at Bogor’s Have A Nice Day Hotel, Fergus and I sat in the hotel’s shady garden supping Bintang beers. The sky was blue and the air was pleasantly warm.

"Why do we come to this hostelry?" asked Fergus, in a jovial mood.

"The view of Mount Salak, these Romanesque statues in the garden and the cool beer," I replied.

"It’s certainly not for the swimming pool," said Fergus. "It’s a black sort of green, like a smelly old durian."

"Look at that pile of bricks and muck dumped beyond the pool. And the wood under these tiles is rotted. This place has hardly been up a year."

"The owner was telling me he’s a civil servant," said Fergus.

"So how come he has the money to build a little inn? What does a civil servant earn? Thirty dollars a month?"

"It wouldn’t be so bad if they were making lots of money from tourists, or anybody else, but we seem to be the only customers."

"Tourism’s supposed to become Indonesia’s biggest industry," I said. "Bogor could make a fortune from tourists. It’s as magical as Bali."

"You’ve never been to Bali," pointed out Fergus.

"I’ve seen the postcards," I explained, "and Bogor has the same sort of mountains and rice fields."

"The locals live for the day," continued Fergus. "Piles of garbage as high as the houses, graffiti, pot holed roads jammed with minibuses, and sloppy service."

"Imagine if the Italians ran this city."

"The organised criminal ones from Naples and Bari?" asked Fergus, smiling.

"No, the hardworking ones from Sorrento and Capri."

"It could be full of street cafes and jam packed restaurants."

"So, why do we like the place?" I asked.

"Well, I’m always happy to lie beside the pool and read a book," explained Fergus, who liked to sport a good tan. "You couldn’t do this in England in December."

"I like the fact you can walk into someone’s funny little house and they’ll sing and dance. And every walk is an adventure; into a balmy nineteenth century world."

"Sounds poetic," said Fergus.

"Azure skies and African Tulip trees, butterflies and bananas, cockerels and kites, dishy girls and .... I’m stuck."

"Disgusting donuts from a certain franchise," said Fergus, "exotic ferns and endearing pot bellied children. And I’m stuck too."

"What are you reading?" I asked Fergus.

"Wilbur Smith. Always a good read. What have you been reading in that notebook?"

"Stuff for a school project," I explained. "It’s jottings I made at the British Council library; things people have written about Indonesians."

"So what do they say?"

"Alfred Russel Wallace, in the 1860’s, talks about the people here in Java being impassive, reserved, diffident and bashful. He says the upper classes are terribly polite and are like the best bred Europeans. Francis Drake believed the South Javanese are loving, true and just."

"And the bad news?" Fergus inquired.

"Wallace says the people have a reputation for being ferocious and bloodthirsty. Some guy called Nicolo Conti, in 1430, writes that the Javanese and Sumatrans are more cruel than all other races. They look on killing a man as a mere joke. And listen to this. Conti says that if one of them buys a new sword, and wants to try it out, he’ll thrust it into the first person he meets. And nobody will be all that bothered. So watch out if your maid buys a new can opener."

"She’s just bought a thing for grating carrots," said Fergus.

"Someone called Barbosa, writing round about 1860, thinks the Malay race, including the Javanese, is very subtle in its doings, very malicious, great deceivers, seldom telling the truth, prepared to do all sorts of wicked things and so on. Wallace believes they don’t have much appetite for knowledge."

"Sounds like some of the kids I used to teach in Britain," commented Fergus.

"I wonder what a Javanese explorer coming to Europe or America in 1800 would’ve reported," I said. "Slavery in Russia and America? A large chunk of the British population starving?" I was showing off my limited knowledge of history.

"Children working down mines in England," added Fergus.

"Terribly polite upper classes who might look on the death of a black slave, or a deformed child worker in a factory, as a matter of no great importance."

"Talking of slavery, " asked Fergus, "I don’t think our waiter’s coming back to offer us another drink."

"The waiter was saying this used to be his father’s land but he sold it, and was able to buy a television and pay for some repairs to the roof of his little house."

"I reckon this land is worth half a million dollars. There are generals and judges with mansions around here."

I left Fergus at the pool and went to visit Eddy and tubercular Asep in another part of Bogor. Eddy looked fine but I discovered his little brother Andi, aged about six, had a swollen stomach and match stick arms. I gave the mother some money to get him checked up on, at the hospital. The mother looked quite chunky but seemed about as bright as a reading light in a hotel bedroom. They say that malnutrition has caused vast amounts of mental retardation in Indonesia.

Asep was looking more bright eyed.

"Any receipts, Asep?"

"Yes. For the hospital medicine. The TB medicine is very expensive."

"Jings. One hundred and twenty thousand rupiahs for the pills and the doctor’s included some imported vitamin tablets. The doctor must be getting commission."

"There’s a little girl’s been burned," said Asep, changing the subject. "A cooking stove fell over. That’s her next to Eddy’s house." Asep pointed to a shy little barefoot girl with a cute grin. She looked about ten.

"How long ago?"

"About a week."

"Been to the doctor?"


"OK. If her mother agrees, we’ll take her to the hospital now."

The little girl’s leg had been badly scarred from knee to upper thigh and it wasn’t difficult to persuade both her and her mother to visit the hospital. The doctor applied some dressings and asked her to return the following week.

On returning to Jakarta in the late afternoon, I hurried to Dr Bahari’s clinic. Min was in high spirits and I decided to take him to an amusement park called Dunia Fantasi, which is at Ancol, to the West of the docks at Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok. We drove past black miserable slums populated by thin ragged people and then into the park with its beautiful golf course, gardens and well dressed pleasure seekers.

"Who’s this?" asked the thin little manager at the entrance gate, as he looked in a kindly way at the slightly shaky, waif-like Min.

"This is Min. He stays at a clinic." And by way of explanation I showed him a note from Dr Joseph.

"We can let you in free," said the manager.

"That’s very kind."

"I’m sure the lad will enjoy the clowns and the rides."

We passed through the turnstile and into a fantasy world. Recorded children’s voices singing celestial songs seemed to emerge from the hibiscus; florid wooden horses did their merry rounds; Dunia Fantasi employees dressed as clowns greeted all the grinning children. I call them clowns but they had ghastly ghoulish faces which delighted the school kids and their mums. Min reacted differently. At the sight of the clowns, he hid his face in my chest and then tried to drag me back through the turnstile. There was a look of panic and terror on his face.

"They’re only people..." But I would not be able to explain to Min. I held on tight and pulled him swiftly away from the ghouls and over to the merry-go-round. I hoisted Min onto a wooden horse and off we went. Yes, he liked this and wanted a second go.

When it came to the big toy cars I was just able to squash Min in. He must have been the oldest kid having a ride. We were refused a second shot on the grounds that Min was not a toddler.

Eventually we had a wander along the beach, near the Horison Hotel. Min was now feeling more confident and felt brave enough to grin into my face and then spit at me. This seemed to be his way of being playful and having a little joke. I frowned and tried to look disapproving, without much success. He spat again and seemed to find this wildly funny. Then he decided to knock my glasses off. Now I was just a little upset.

It was definitely time to return to the van and drive back to the clinic. Maybe I’m not very good with two year olds. On the other hand, I could forgive Min just about anything. Min was like me; he was a bit of an alien and an outsider. He was my soul-mate.

Another Saturday came along and another sort of adventure. After a hurried visit to Min, who was in a reasonable mood, I battled southwards through the traffic on a different mission.

My destination was Jakarta’s Pertama Hospital where I was to meet a young teenage boy called Daus, and his aunt. Daus was a cheery, guileless soul with a large bulge on the side of his face. His aunt was a smiling, plainly dressed woman. How had I met them? While out shopping, I had come across the lad and his aunt at a simple stall selling soft drinks, near the Blok M bus terminal. My suggestion of a future trip to the nearby Pertama hospital had been accepted.

Having arrived at the big concrete, tower-block hospital, and having met up with Daus and his aunt, we entered Dr Agung’s surgery. Tall, slim Dr Agung seemed mature and civilised. I explained how I had met Daus and then pointed to the obvious lump on the side of the boy’s face.

"It’s big," I said.

"It certainly is," said Dr Agung, running his finger over the boy’s face. "I’m going to arrange a blood test."

"Daus has no parents," I explained, "so he’s not been to hospital before."

"I look after Daus," said the aunt, "but we’re not rich."

The doctor spoke rapidly to Daus and his aunt and I couldn’t make out what was being said. He then turned to me, speaking in English.

"We can do something to help," said the doctor. "We can remove some of the swelling. Daus and his aunt tell me they’re keen to go ahead with the surgery."

Dr Agung then launched into a long technical account which was partly in Indonesian and partly in English. He seemed to be saying that Daus probably had elephantiasis. There was a reference to swelling being caused by a parasitic worm which blocks the lymph channels. I can’t claim that I understood much of what was being said.

"What’ll it cost to operate on Daus?" I asked.

"I will do the operation free of charge," said Dr Agung, "but you’ll have to pay my clinic for his bed there. We get lots of hair-lip patients brought to us by the British Women’s Association, but a case like Daus’s is not quite so common."

"Thank you for doing it free," I said. "When can you do the surgery?"

"The Monday after next." Dr Agung looked at his new calendar for 1992. "January 15th. Daus should be here at nine in the morning."

"My driver will bring him with his aunt. Thanks again for offering to do the op. free."

As I was being driven back home I began to think of some of the words that, according to Wallace, had been used to describe Indonesians: "impassive", "bashful", "polite", "loving", "just", "not much appetite for knowledge", "cruel", "ferocious", "subtle" and "great deceivers." My encounters with a whole host of Indonesians, from Min and Melati to Abdul and Dr Agung, suggested that the Indonesians were not much different from the British in terms of sins and virtues. What seemed to make the Indonesians different from the Brits was that the former lived in a world that was so much more intoxicating, unpredictable, precarious, dazzlingly bright, lusty, and full of children. Britain was grey clouds and the predictable nine to four.

Monday, January 19, 2004


It was late afternoon when I arrived at Dr. Agung’s clinic which was housed in a small villa in the upmarket district of Menteng. It was the day of the operation to remove the lump from the face of Daus, the boy with elephantiasis. An elderly receptionist pointed me in the direction of the ward where patients recovered from their operations.

The ward had only two patients. A hollow-cheeked little girl, who had had a hair lip operation, was sitting up in bed, reading a comic. Daus was lying half-asleep on his bed. Next to him sat his smiling aunt. As I approached the boy, he began to stir. His right hand moved up to his face and he began trying to remove his bandage. Then he sat up groggily, moaned, and made an attempt to get out of bed.

"Daus, stay in bed," I said, panicking ever so slightly. "Nurse! Daus is waking up."

But there was no nurse in sight. I searched along the corridor and eventually found a thin, little nurse in an office. "Come to the ward. Daus is waking up." The middle-aged nurse got up slowly from her seat and strolled along to the ward where we found Daus’s aunt holding her nephew down.

"The sedation can’t be very strong," I pointed out. "He seems to be trying to rip out his stitches." I used a mixture of Indonesian and sign language to try to make my point.

"Get back to sleep, Daus," said the nurse calmly, as she gently pushed him back under the covers. Daus obediently closed his eyes. It was fortunate Daus had his aunt to guard him. From time to time she would hold down his arms to stop him interfering with his wounds.

"How was the operation?" I asked the aunt.

"The doctor says it was fine."

"Daus has no parents? He’s always lived with you?"

"He has no father, as far as he knows," said the aunt, with a relaxed smile. "He was born in Sumatra. His mother died when he was aged two. He used to run away to the cemetery to sit by her grave."

"Very sad."

"His relatives stole the small piece of land he inherited from his mother."

"Could he do anything about that?"

"Nothing. No one paid him much attention."

"He’s been unlucky."

"The next thing was that he got hit by a vehicle."

"A serious accident?"

"He survived. And then he decided to come to Jakarta to visit us, his uncle and aunt. And he decided to stay. He enjoys working at our cold drinks stall in the market."

The nurse appeared with a bill. The neatly typed document showed that the operation was free, but that the clinic was rather expensive. I needed another weekend trip to Bogor to calm my nerves.

Rain was threatening as I strolled alongside one of Bogor’s canals, thinking I was in Burano, near Venice, in an earlier era. There was an aroma of toilet water with a hint of coriander and frog. White shirts, red dresses and blue jeans hung on a washing line silhouetted against a cloud-blackened sky. There was a chirrup of birds from cages hung beneath roofs.

"Hey mister," called a young voice. "Come in here."

It was Dede, fan of Manchester United, and I accepted his invitation to sit in his simple front room, where his granny was doing some sewing and the television was showing a Japanese cartoon.

"Look," said Dede. "My leg’s better."

"It should be by now, after all these months."

Dede and I practised some English for ten minutes. Then I noticed a curtain moving.

"Hello Mr. Kent," said a figure emerging from the bedroom. It was the lovely Rama, dressed in a little lilac mini skirt, and she had remembered my name. "Take my photo."


"You sit next to me on the sofa," she said, "and Dede’ll take the photo."

She sat beside me and placed her hand on my knee. Click.

"Take one of me and Rama," urged Dede.

As they sat back, ready to be photographed, four schoolboy friends of Dede pushed through the door and plonked themselves down on the floor in front of Rama. Then two older youths, one carrying a baby, sidled in and took up the remaining space on the sofa. Finally Rama’s mother, her uncle and aunt, two neighbours, and seven small toddlers came into view. The baby was crying, one schoolboy was scratching his groin and one was sticking out his tongue. Click.

Sweat was running down my forehead and over my glasses, leaving salty stains. I knew that I was there to be stared at and that the latest intruders were not going to go away. It was like being in an overcrowded broom cupboard with the door closed and several electric fires turned on.

"I’m sorry but I’ve got to go. Got an appointment," I lied.

It was raining as I left and I was followed by two of the youths.

"Where’re you going, mister?" asked the one with the earring in his nose.

"Back to my van," I explained.

"Do you like morphine?" asked the one with no earring, but lots of spots.

"Certainly not," I said, and began to speed along a series of little alleys and tracks until I had left them far behind.

The rain was of Bombay-monsoon proportions as I splashed my way up some steps to a house that I recognised. It was Melati’s house and I decided to seek refuge there.

"Hi mister." said Melati. "You help me with my English?"

"If you’d like." I wiped the rain off my glasses and sat by the window.

"You’re wet, said Melati."

"Some people say that," I admitted.

"So am I," said Tikus, Melati’s younger brother, who was dressed in sodden football shorts.

"You been playing football in the rain?" I inquired.

"No, swimming," said Tikus.

"You like music?" asked Melati, switching on a tape.

"Very good. I like dangdut. We don’t have it in England." But the music wasn’t dangdut.

"You like Michael Jackson?" asked Tikus, and he began a much exaggerated version of that singer’s dancing.

"Here’s my English text book," said Melati, handing me a thin publication, and turning down the music.

I opened it and began to read. "Ade meet his friend. They are going play badminton" I put the book down and closed it.

"You teach me words. What is this?" she said in Indonesian, as she pointed at the floor.


"What is this?"

"Picture. It’s Iwan Fals."

"What is this?" asked Tikus, not wanting to be left out.

"Your sister’s T-shirt." They looked puzzled by the string of words.

"Mister, we need money," said Melati, changing the subject, and pleading with her big dark eyes.

"What for?"

"For school."

"I only give money to people who are ill."

"I have a headache," said Melati brightly, as she held her hand to her brow.

"Then you should rest. I must be going."

"I’m very thin, mister," added Tikus, as he held in his tummy, and then turned to show the meagreness of his rump.

"Nonsense," I said.

A girl, who was genuinely wraithlike, stood grinning at the door. This was Melati’s sister, Dian, aged about eighteen, and cute like her sister.

"Dian’s got a bad cough," announced Melati.

"How long’s she had it?" I asked.

"Three years," said Melati.

"Has she had an x-ray?"

"Yes. She’s got TB," said Melati, emphasising the words to ensure I got the message.

My mood changed from flippancy-mode to serious-mode. "Is she getting any medicine?" I demanded.

"No. We can’t afford it," explained Melati.

"Why didn’t you tell me last time I was here!" I complained. "You are strange. Look, she must go immediately to the hospital for medicine. It can take a year to get better. She must take a cocktail of pills every day. You’ll all need a check-up." I think I used the word bodoh, meaning ‘stupid’. It’s difficult to be subtle when you don’t have mastery of the language.

I handed over some money.

"Thank you mister," said Dian, smiling prettily.

"I must have receipts," I said. "And I’ve given you enough money for you all to have an x-ray. Is that OK? "

"Thank you," said Melati.

"Look the rain’s stopped," I said. "I have to get back to Jakarta." I stood up, avoided shaking hands, and escaped into the cooler air of the alley. I would need to remember, next time I visited Melati, to keep a distance from anyone who coughed, and to avoid touching the hand of anyone who looked unusually thin and pale.

Late that afternoon, I took Min to Medan Merdeka, the vast parkland which lies at the heart of the administrative district of Jakarta. The main feature of the park is former President Sukarno’s big erection, the white, marble obelisk known as Monas. Sukarno, a man who reportedly had nine wives, although never more than four at any one time, had his 132 metre erection topped with a gold-plated flame, paid for apparently by the World Bank. Monas is an elegant monument and it commemorates Indonesian independence; the phallus shape symbolises fertility.

By day, Medan Merdeka can be a sunny green space filled with joggers, vendors selling balloons, children playing in ponds and office workers enjoying steaming, noodle snacks. By night the park is said to be home to runaway children, drug dealers, prostitutes and plainclothes policemen.

For Min and I, the first stop was a stall selling fruit, everything from custard apples to mangoes. Min grabbed a piece of melon without waiting to be asked. I could see how he had survived as a street child. The stall holder was laid back about ithe incident; I paid for the fruit and apologised on behalf of Min.

Min was having one of his better days. There was a little less of the sad, lost look about the skinny little creature and he was a bit more steady on his feet, in spite of the drugs Dr. Joseph was pouring into his fragile body.

As Min and I wandered along various paths, I tried to imagine this park as it had been in former times: a field for grazing cattle, a training ground for the soldiers of the Dutch East Indies, and, in the 1960s, the site of mass rallies where Sukarno made rousing speeches attacking the western imperialists.

It began to grow dark and we headed across an area of grass in the direction of the road where my vehicle was parked. Suddenly a straight backed man in a khaki T-shirt loomed up in front of us. He looked like trouble.

"Who’s this child?" he demanded to know. His rude tone didn’t put me in the mood for giving a friendly explanation.

"This is Min," I replied simply.

"What are you doing with an Indonesian child?" He stood in front of us, barring our way.

"We’re out for a walk,"

"What right have you to be with him?"

"He’s mentally backward. I found him in the street and now he lives in an institution."

Judging by the sneer on the man’s face he thought I was a kidnapper or worse.

But then I remembered Dr. Joseph’s note, took it from my pocket and handed it to the man to read. At the same moment, Min separated himself from my hand and began to do what looked like a drunken Maori war dance, accompanied by various simian, whooping sounds.

"Look, would you like to take this kid home with you? You can have him," I said, confident the man would not take me up on the offer.

The gentleman stared at Min, had an attack of the willies, turned, and slunk off. Min and I returned peacefully to the clinic.

As I was being driven back home to my house I was thinking how lucky I was to be in a place so full of exciting little adventures. And what about Min? I saw him as being a mixture of two-year-old and teenager. The speech part of his brain and the ice-cream-in your-face part of his brain suggested an age of two years. But the war dances, the moody expressions, and the reasonably advanced survival skills made me hope that part of his brain was teenage. Whatever his age, Min certainly had character.

Sunday, January 18, 2004


We were now into a new year, 1992, and I had known Min for just over two months. Doctor Bahari’s clinic was proving to be expensive with large bills having to be paid for Min’s keep every ten days. I had begun looking around for alternatives and one of the places I decided to investigate was a Roman Catholic home for street children.

The home, in North Jakarta, was situated in a dilapidated old building that might formerly have been a mixture of house, workshop and warehouse. Having made a Saturday morning appointment to see the director, I arrived slightly early. The place was strangely quiet. A cleaner, a skinny and cheerful teenage girl, seemed to be the only person on site. She led me from the hall into an empty office where I took a seat beneath a large picture of the Madonna. The office had a comfortable appearance, a lot of money having been spent on plush leather chairs, an almost roof-high music centre, and a hardwood desk.

While I waited for the director to arrive, my thoughts were of Indonesia’s Catholics. They made up around three percent of the population but many were stunningly powerful. In the early years of his presidency, Suharto ruled with the help of an army led by General Benny Murdani, a right-wing Roman Catholic. Towards the end of the 1980s, however, there were some changes. Sections of the army seemed to have become more critical of the president and his family. Suharto ‘sidelined’ General Murdani and began to promote some orthodox Moslem groups, perhaps as a way of countering the army and other possible opponents. On the other hand, there were still many generals who were nominally Christian; and most of Suharto’s business partners continued to be Chinese Indonesians, some of whom were of the Christian faith. Suharto’s wife was born a Roman Catholic.

After a twenty minute wait I decided to seek out the cleaner to ask if I could look around. She took me upstairs to see the dormitory.

"This is where the children sleep," she explained, with a smile.

All I could see were broken metal-framed windows, bare grey walls, empty shelves, and six wooden beds with no mattresses or sheets.

"You only have six children?"

"Yes. They’re at school now."

"You have lots of rooms in this huge building but only six beds?"

"We’re fairly new."

"Jakarta has at least fifty thousand street children. It’s strange you only have six beds and you seem to be the only person here." I tried not to sound cross.

She grinned and said nothing. I returned to the office, waited in vain for another half hour and then left. I reckoned the home would not be a secure environment for Min.

My next stop was the impressive skyscraper building of the Social Welfare Department. After making a few enquiries I located the easygoing, grey-haired lady in charge of provision for handicapped children. She sat in a bright and comfortable office which looked onto to a room crammed full of well-fed civil servants, typewriters and mugs of tea.

The lady gave me a very short list of non-government institutions which might suit Min but I had to explain that I had already tried these and they had proved unsuitable. There was, for example, the home for the multi-handicapped which only admitted children who were both blind and deaf. Then there was the home for the severely physically handicapped who spent their days lying on beds barely able to move.

"Min is apparently mentally backward and homeless. Do you have a place for such children?"

"No," she reluctantly admitted, after a long pause.

"No orphanage?"

"There are some street children in Jakarta," she said in a quiet, serious tone of voice. "Ideally these children should be with their families or extended families. There are some shelters, run privately, but only about 100 children choose to live in these places."

"I can understand that some of the children prefer the freedom of the streets," I said, trying to sound friendly. "They can have fun riding on train roofs and they can avoid school. But what about the street children who are mentally backward and can’t cope?"

"You know," she continued, "there are tens of thousands of mentally ill or mentally backward people wandering the streets in West Java. It is very difficult to help them all."

"So you have no government institution that provides free care for someone like Min?"

"No," she said, trying to look compassionate. "Remember we are a poor Third World country."

"Not so poor," I said. "Most of the cars parked downstairs are Mercedes and big station wagons. And you know, Indonesia has more billionaires than Britain."

She smiled politely, shook hands and returned to her tidy desk.

Later that afternoon, when I visited Min at Doctor Bahari’s clinic, I got talking to two of the nurses. One was a moderately good-looking, middle-aged female and the other was a big, muscular and moustachioed male. They told me about a twice weekly school for backward children, run at the relatively nearby Jiwa Hospital.

"I’d like Min to go to the school," I said. "How much will it cost?"

The two nurses took me into a side office to discuss prices.

"He’ll need to go on my motorbike," said the male nurse. "It’ll cost one hundred thousand rupiahs each trip."

"That’s crazy," I said, tired and furious after a long and frustrating day. I reckoned one hundred thousand rupiahs was around £30 sterling. "It should only cost around three thousand rupiahs a month for the schooling. A taxi would be about three thousand one way."

"One hundred thousand or he won’t get in," insisted the male nurse.

"He’s a poor street child who’d benefit from a bit of training.," I said, hoping for some sympathy. "I’ll pay twenty thousand."

"One hundred thousand."

I wanted some physical expression of my anger but decided it would be unwise to punch the muscular man. He was much bigger than me. I picked up a metal chair and slammed it down hard on the floor. It made a very loud noise. Neither of the nurses looked particularly moved or concerned, but Min looked white and scared. I thought I had better forget the schooling, calm down and make some kind of peace.

"I’m sorry to get stressed," I said. "Jakarta can be a difficult place sometimes."

A few days later, Margaret, the well-proportioned, middle-aged mother of one of my students, from a family that was half Indonesian and half Dutch, came to see me in my classroom. Margaret was a good soul and took an interest in charitable institutions. Seeing her looking so terribly chic, I found it difficult to believe that as a child during the war years she had lived in squalor in a Japanese internment camp.

"I hear you’re looking for a place for the child you found," she said, as we sipped cheap coffee. "I think I’ve found somewhere suitable."

"I certainly hope so."

"It’s called Wisma Utara," continued Margaret, "and it’s not far from Blok M. It’s not nearly as expensive as the place you’ve been using."

"That’s a relief."

"It was started by a widow with a mentally backward son. She was worried about what would happen to the son when she died and so she raised the money to build this home. It’s in a kampung but it looks not too bad an area. And they’ll definitely take your child. Shall I drive you there?"

"Let’s go."

Margaret and I collected Min and we motored to the suburb where Wisma Utara was situated. Having parked our vehicles, we walked along leafy little lanes sided by home-made brick and concrete houses with pretty gardens and brightly painted doors. This place was full of trees and light and little children, in contrast to the grey downtown area around Doctor Bahari’s clinic. Wisma Utara itself looked like a simple brick-built primary school and it had a long narrow front garden.

"Welcome. I’m Joan," said the girl from Flores, who greeted us in Wisma Utara’s lounge, a place cheaply furnished with dilapidated settees and a black and white TV. Joan was in her thirties, dark skinned, friendly and unpolished. "I’m the senior member of staff. I’ll show you the room where Min can sleep. It’s my room."

The bedroom had a crucifix, a picture of Mary, Joan’s bed, and a bunk bed with bright covers. I liked the room.

"It’s so much more cheerful than Dr Bahari’s clinic," I commented to Margaret. "There are no psychotic adults giving you frightening looks."

"Let’s meet some of the other children," said Joan, leading us to a back courtyard, where a dozen young people, both staff and inmates, were either seated or trying to play badminton.

"The Down’s syndrome one is Hari," said Joan. "The little one with poor eyesight is Tedi."

"Who’s the one with his finger stuck in his ear?" I asked, looking at an emaciated teenager sitting alone in a corner. Green bubbles oozed from his nose.

"That’s Dadang."

"Has he seen a doctor?"

"The doctor comes once a week to see any children who’re sick."

"And the pretty teenage girl?" I asked.

"That’s Diah. She’s a bit backward. She’ll be sharing the room with Min. And the young man next to her is Dan who’ll be helping to look after Min." Dan, in his twenties, looked cheerful, calm and decent. He lacked the tough, prison-warder-look of some of the nurses at Dr Bahari’s clinic.
"What do you think?" asked Margaret, smiling in my direction.

"I think it’s great," I said. "Min seems reasonably relaxed. When we visited the place for the severely physically handicapped, Min immediately tried to drag me out." I was referring to a privately run institution where the young patients had been lying motionless in bed.

"So we’ll leave him here at Wisma Utara," said Margaret. "After we’ve signed him in."

Joan put her arm around Min, and held on tight.

"Min, this is going to be your home," I said, looking into Min’s eyes and trying to look relaxed. He gave me the puppy-about-to-be-abandoned look.

I signed a piece of paper and then, with Margaret, made my exit.

"Best to leave him and forget about him," said Margaret, as we headed back to the main road.

"You mean not visit him?" I asked.

"Yes. Not visit him."

I was horrified. Of course I would visit him, but I wasn’t going to argue the point with Margaret. Min was my soul-mate. How can I explain that? The attraction was not particularly physical. Min had an appealing face but I had no interest in his body. The attraction was mental. Min and I liked each other’s funny ways; we were both outsiders; we depended on each other. I had friends like Fergus and Carmen, but I wouldn’t say that my attachment to them was particularly deep. That was my problem; I was not always particularly good at long-term, relaxed closeness with ordinary people, but, I could be devoted to waifs and strays. Possibly that was because I found I could trust them and not be hurt by them. A psychiatrist might suggest that I should sort myself out and get a wife and children, or maybe a dog or a cat.

"Many thanks for finding the home," I said, as I bade farewell to Margaret. "I’m off to Mayestic for some shopping."

Jakarta’s Pasar Mayestic market sells fabrics, animal intestines, coconut milk drinks, goat soup, sweet potatoes, lemon grass, elixirs to improve sexual performance, cheap stationery, and just about everything else. It has a cinema showing lurid films, a games arcade, beggar women carrying fat babies, shoe shine boys, massage parlours, street cafes and the strongest smell of rotting garbage in our entire galactic system. Slimy decomposed things, wormy bloated objects, frothy scummy stuff, and lots of other kinds of fly-covered ordure all get dumped in a great steaming midden on one side of the main street. Nobody ever seems to remove any of this putrefaction, apart from the pretty children who rummage through it looking for bits of plastic to sell.

I was standing near the dump, savouring the stench, when I was approached by a seller of newspapers, aged about thirteen. He was small for his age, slim, dark-eyed and dark haired.

"Newspaper?" he whispered, frowning deeply. His shoes and jeans looked expensive.

"I can’t read Indonesian. Sorry," I said.

"Where are you from?" the newspaper boy asked.

"England. Where’re are you from?"

"I sleep in the market."

"You don’t have a home?"

"I’ve run away from home." The frown grew deeper and the eyes more moist. I was deeply curious.

"Why did you run away?"

"My father was shot dead." He looked down at the ground, perhaps to hide tears.

"Why? What happened?" I said, taken aback by his news. I reckoned he wanted to unburden himself by telling his tale.

"Some people shot my father. They stole his land. In Sumatra."

What could I say? "They shot your father? Then you moved here?" I said.

"We moved to Jakarta. My mother remarried. I had to stay with my grandmother. That’s out just beyond Ciputat."

"Why did you run away?"

"I don’t get on with my grandmother."

"I’m sorry," I said. "Couldn’t you get your land back?"

"No. These people are powerful. Soldiers support them."

The story had a ring of truth. I had read constantly in The Jakarta Post of land disputes, often involving the use of hired ‘muscle’ from the military.

"Do you have any friends?" I asked.

"There’s about six boys sleep in the market. There’s a man gives us food."

"Listen," I said. "If you want to go back home, my driver will take you. It’s only half an hour from here to Ciputat."

"No. My grandmother doesn’t like me. She thinks I’m stupid." He sounded very determined not to return.

"It would be better at home. You could go to school."

"I’m no good at school." His angry frown grew deeper.

"What’s your name?" I asked.


"Your grandmother will be worried about you, Hamid. How about my driver giving you a lift home?"


He wasn’t going to be persuaded, even after a further five minutes of chat. And I was aware that if I stood talking to the boy too long we might attract a crowd of nosy onlookers. The locals often like to listen-in on conversations between foreigners and Indonesians. Perhaps they might suspect illegal goings-on.

"Well, Hamid," I said, before leaving, "here’s my card with my phone number. Let me know if you want to go home." We shook hands on that.