Monday, January 31, 2005


Teaching adolescents is not the same as teaching adults or young children; and teaching Chinese adolescents is not the same as teaching Spanish ones; and the last lesson on a Friday can be a pain. I was thinking about this as I sat at my desk supervising my little class and watching the clock. The air-conditioning whirred, the palm trees in the garden swayed as the sky darkened, and I was tired. Well-disciplined Korea girl was onto her fifth page of neat writing which would take me hours to correct. Motivation was not a problem with her as she had a high respect for all things English, but, many of her paragraphs would be Pickwickian blather. Well-behaved Singapore girl and diligent Tokyo girl were onto their fourth sheets and I knew their efforts would be logical and clear. Singapore girl was a serious minded Christian and Tokyo girl had strict but lovely parents. Tokyo girl was the only one whose work would verge on the imaginative or lyrical. Bangkok girl, struggling with her third page of simple text, looked in my direction and smiled that well mannered, almost saucy, Siamese smile. Her upbringing made it impossible for her ever to be rude; but English grammar gave her nightmares. Polite Malaysian boy, still on his second page, tried to hide a yawn. He was not a lover of books or hard toil, but always did what he was told. All these kids were lovely and I could teach a hundred of them at a time without any stress.

Barcelona boy was different. He was spreading ink blots on his desk rather than getting on with his first page. He was the typical textbook teenager: desperate for peer approval, not greatly inspired by school work, and quite happy to annoy adults. Come to think of it, Barcelona boy was the only adolescent behaving like an adolescent. He had a Walkman stuck in his shirt pocket and his trainers were the hundred dollar sort. He was an expert in deceit; he didn’t know where the ink blots had come from. He was an expert in manipulation; he flashed his innocent smile in the direction of Bangkok girl. He was an expert in intimidation; he gave me that look that said: "I can make more trouble than you can ever produce and my rich dad will always back me up." I reckoned he could develop into the typical bully: a con-man, a seducer and a thug. The bell rang. I gently reprimanded Barcelona boy and complemented myself on my degree of calm. I reminded myself that I must try not to take things too personally and that there is a bit of Hitler in all of us. My driver would probably agree with that.

The October half-term holiday arrived and little Budi was still alive.

I decided to take a short holiday trip to the highland city of Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest metropolis, which lies 120 miles East of Jakarta. My driver and I motored up over the misty Puncak Pass, with its tea estates, past the rough-hewn town of Cisarua, volcanically active Mount Gede and then the dishevelled town of Cianjur. We moved leisurely on through a world of rice fields, wide muddy rivers and muddy looking children flying kites. As we began once more to climb narrow winding mountain roads I told Mo, the driver, to drive slowly and carefully. I may have had a Sunday-school upbringing, but I have a worrying lack of faith when it comes to cars and anything remotely dangerous. Mo speeded up and on a blind corner, with a precipitous drop below, decided to overtake the lorry in front of us. An enormous truck came speeding round the bend heading towards us.

We tried to squeeze between the two vehicles. There was a loud hooting of horns, a death threatening shout and a scraping sound. We just made it. All three vehicles.

"Stop the vehicle and park!" I commanded.

We parked. I inspected the minor scrapes and then lectured my driver.

"Mo!You’re of a mature age. You’ve got a wife and two children. You normally drive so slowly. Why choose the worst possible place to speed up and then overtake?"

There was no reply. Was he suffering from stress? Had he gone mad? He wasn’t going to enlighten me, but he did drive slowly from that point on. Too slowly.

After a four hour journey we entered the city of Bandung, once known as the Paris of Java. We drove past damp crumbling kampungs, faded colonial villas and modern factories, producing textiles and processed food; nearer the centre there were dark tree-lined boulevards, sinister army barracks, grey concrete shops and office blocks which were tall and of various vintages. We tried to find the Savoy Homann Hotel but Mo had never before driven a vehicle outside of the Jakarta area and he was as clueless as me about Bandung’s one way streets. I was hungry and grumbling. Half an hour passed as we circled the city.

At last we found Jalan Asia Africa and the handsome hotel. The Savoy Homann hotel dates back to 1880, the year that the Jakarta to Bandung railway line was completed. The railway encouraged the building in Bandung of more villas and hotels; it brought to Bandung, for the purpose of recreation, the Dutch planters who grew coffee, tea and quinine in the surrounding highlands; and at weekends it brought Jakartans, escaping from the heat of the capital. In 1938 the architect A. F. Aabers rebuilt the Savoy Homann in an elegant Art Deco style which made it one of Bandung’s most famous landmarks. The hotel has had many famous guests, including India’s Nehru, China’s Chou En Lai, Egypt’s Nasser and Charlie Chaplin. It was my kind of place and it was not expensive. Having booked in to a room furnished in a 1930s style, I set off excitedly to explore the local streets in search of some supper.

The area around the central square reminded me more of the impoverished Belleville district of Paris rather than Paris’s posh Chaillot quarter. On one side of the square I began to cross over a busy main road by way of what looked like a deserted metal pedestrian bridge. Half way across I came upon a small body curled up and half asleep. This eight year old boy was not blessed with great good looks, and judging by the smell, he was as unwashed as any tramp on the London underground. His begrimed shirt was too big, his stomach and face were slightly swollen, one ear was cut and oozing, and he had no shoes.

"What’s your name?" I asked, as I knelt down beside him.

"Abdul," he said in a tiny voice.

"You should see a doctor," I said. "Do you want me to take you?"

"Yes," he whispered.

So, with the sky turned funereal, and the monsoon rain cascading down, we stood on the main road trying to hail a taxi.

"How much to the hospital?" I asked the first driver to come along.

"Ten thousand rupiahs."

This was about four times the normal fare. I had half-opened the taxi door but now I slammed it shut as my way of showing my rejection of his offer. Had he no sympathy for a sick child?
When the next taxi appeared, two expensively dressed women, loaded with jewellery, pushed in ahead of us.

Eventually, with the help of a third taxi, we reached the hospital, an institution managed by Christians. Dripping with rain, we entered the classy reception area. Some of the wealthy visitors stared in surprise at the ragged Moslem urchin with the stick out ears and the rather unhappy little mouth.

In a green walled surgery, I introduced myself to the doctor, a thin Chinese Indonesian woman with a kindly face. I explained how I had found the child. Abdul’s ear was carefully washed and several types of pill were issued. The doctor asked the boy a few questions and then turned to me.

"He says he’s been abandoned by his parents," she said. "His ear will be OK, and his cough."

"Is there somewhere I can take him?" I asked. "He shouldn’t sleep on a bridge with the rain pouring down."

"I’ll give you the address of my church. You can talk to the pastor. He may be able to help."
By taxi we reached the church, which was in a ritzy neighbourhood. A fat uniformed guard, wearing an angry sneer, barred the door.

"He can’t come in," said the guard, referring to the shivering eight year old Moslem boy.

"We’ve come to see the pastor," I said.

The guard lifted his arm as if to push the boy away. At the same moment, a middle aged Chinese woman, who had spent a fortune on her coiffure, came out of the church, staring at the child as if he was a gob of phlegm. The guard was distracted and we slipped inside the church.

We located pastor Simon, a big Dutchman with a twinkle in his eye, and sat down for a chat, in his comfortable wood panelled office. Pastor Simon asked Abdul lots of questions, which were answered by the boy in a trembling voice, as the tears flowed down his grubby little face.

"His parents have divorced," said the pastor, addressing me. "His mother’s gone off to some unknown address in Jakarta; his father’s taken up with another woman; he was being looked after by his grandmother but she beat him. That’s why he ended up sleeping in the central square in Bandung."

"How does he survive?" I asked.

"These children in the square, and there must be several dozen there, can earn up to a dollar a day. They do some begging and they shine shoes. On a good day there’s enough money to buy food at a stall and play the arcade games. But this little chap got sick."

"What can we do?"

"There’s little anyone can do. They enjoy the street life. It gives them freedom. They don’t want the discipline of home or school." Pastor Simon smiled cynically. Here he was, the Christian Pastor in the wealthy church, apparently writing these people off.

"Isn’t there a home for such children? Doesn’t Bandung have some institution that’ll take them in?"

"You could try Lembang, up in the hills, above Bandung. There’s an international children’s village there. It takes abandoned children." Pastor Simon wrote down the address, shook hands, and showed us to the door.

We left the church, still hungry, and found a three wheeled bicycle taxi to take us to a clothing shop. I was enjoying myself; I was having an adventure; and in a smug sort of way I felt I was behaving better than the average mortal.

For about two dollars we bought a T-shirt, trousers and shoes from the astonished Chinese Indonesian store owner. Abdul’s greasy old clothes were thrown into the gutter, but still Abdul didn’t lose his unwashed smell.

"Take us to the Savoy," I called to the grim-faced becak driver. "It’s very close to here and we’re extremely hungry."

In the darkness and the miserable rain he appeared to pedal us to the edge of Bandung, then back to the centre and then to an outer industrial suburb. Was the problem the one-way road system, or the driver’s lack of geography, or was it just possible the gentleman was trying to cheat the stupid foreigner? A piece of plastic sheeting gave us some protection from the rain and from the driver.

"Don’t you know the way?" I shouted through the deluge. My smugness and euphoria had evaporated.

"Hotel Savoy? It’s very near," called back the driver.

"You don’t know the flipping hotel," I wailed. "You don’t know where you’re going." I was determined I was not going to pay this guy more than a few cents. Never in a million years. At that moment we turned a corner and there was the hotel.

We got out to pay the bill. Eight thousand rupiahs.

"That’s far too much. You took us the wrong way. All round Bandung. It’s criminal."

"Eight thousand rupiahs," he growled. He had the look of a slavering hyena.

"OK, here you are," I said.

We entered the elegant hotel restaurant where Abdul, in spite of his new clothes, couldn’t help but look a little out of place. His table manners were good but somehow he didn’t look or smell like one of the elite. He ate huge quantities of oxtail soup, chicken with rice, and ice cream, and less than a fifth of it went on the floor.

As I drank my coffee I pondered the problem of what to do next. When I had first arrived at the Savoy, earlier in the day, I had allowed my driver to go off in search of accommodation for himself. The arrangement was that I would meet him again the following morning. I had no idea where he was, but I would need him if I was to ferry Abdul to the children’s village in Lembang.
I took Abdul to the hotel manager’s office and introduced myself to the manager, a small serious-looking man in his forties.

"I found this abandoned child in the street," I explained, "and I have to locate Mo, my driver, but I don’t know where he is..." I went into some detail.

"I’m afraid I’ve no idea where your driver might be," said the manager sympathetically, "I don’t think we’ll find him tonight."

"Well, there’s a problem. Where can the child stay tonight, if not with the driver? I don’t want him back on the street. Do you have a room he can stay in at this hotel?"

"He can’t stay on his own. He has to be supervised, but he can stay in your room as it’s a double."

"I don’t think so." What if I bumped into other expats? What on earth would they think?

"It’s no problem."


I took Abdul out to the street and we headed back towards the central square. There was a stall selling food, just the sort of place where a driver might eat. Was that my driver shaking black sauce onto his noodles? The kerosene lamp was none too bright. It was indeed my wonderful driver.

"Mo, I just want to thank you," I said, "for driving so slowly and carefully today. It was a delightful journey. By the way, this child is called Abdul...."

Next morning, as we headed up the steep hills to Lembang, both Abdul and the driver were totally silent.

The children’s village was a collection of mainly low rise buildings, crowded with lively little children in red and white school uniforms. In his smart office I found the director, a middle aged Indonesian who spoke good English. He wore a sober suit, he had a sober manner, and he was most hospitable. I told him the story of Abdul.

"Yes, we can take him," said the director, much to my relief. "We’ll make inquiries about his family."

"I suppose you have to check his story."

"His family have a right to know what’s happening and to be consulted."

"What about payment?"

"These children are sponsored by people from all over the world. I’ll give you a form to sign. I think it is, in dollars, between one and two hundred for the year."

The director spoke softly to Abdul before handing him over to a female assistant. I handed over the required sum of money and speedily took off back to Bandung, with my wordless car wallah.


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