Monday, February 28, 2005

1. JAKARTA: SIX DEGREES SOUTH

Seated on the pavement in front of the flea-pit cinema, in a state of utter dejection, was a young boy. He was barefoot and 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 crumpled piece of brown paper. Was he twelve years old? Difficult to tell as he was so undernourished.

"What’s your name?" I asked him in Indonesian.

There was no reply; he avoided eye contact. I asked a few more questions but got no answers. I stood back. 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 boy drank thirstily before returning to his patch of pavement.

What was I to do? The lad seemed like a hopeless case.

But let me begin at the beginning, back in the year 1990. It was partly the Robert Louis Stevenson Syndrome which persuaded me to give up a well-paid teaching job at a private school in London and go to live in the faraway city of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. As a child in Scotland I had dreamed of following the path of Robert Louis Stevenson; I had wanted to escape to a tropical land where I could have adventures and mix with the friendly local people. Of course, as Stevenson knew well, there is more than one side to a person’s personality. Part of me wanted an adventure, but part of me wanted stability and safety. Part of me wanted to live free of responsibility, but part of me felt that in order to be happy I had to be helping waifs and strays. Stevenson died at the age of 44, having lived for many years abroad. It wasn’t until I reached the age of 45 that I plucked up the courage to move to Indonesia. And in that wonderful country there were adventures and dilemmas galore.

But why did I choose Indonesia? Well, there was this edition of the National Geographic in which Indonesia looked so strangely, wildly beautiful. It was a land of erect blue volcanoes, exotic mosques, dark tropical skies and beautiful, uninhibited people; it was just the place for a not totally young, unattached chap like me who was tired of London and severely sick of some of his students.

I have taught difficult children both in a slummy Glasgow ghetto and in a wealthy London ghetto; I know that by the time British boys reach puberty, their vices have deepened and their parents have usually divorced, several times. To teach bolshy Britons, as opposed to respectful Asians, you need an unreasonable amount of stamina and tea. There are, in theory, hours and hours of preparation and each and every lesson you are supposed to enthuse these prickly, gum-chewing, pubescent and prepubescent boys. Teaching is like appearing live on television seven times a day, with a different script each time. I had fallen out of love with some of my audience (or vice versa), had secret self-doubts, and needed to appear on a different stage. I needed something to cure my neurosis.

There was an advert in the Times Educational Supplement for a teacher of English and Humanities at a school in Jakarta. I would not, under normal circumstances, have thought of applying. There would be hundreds of applicants and they would all be fantastically beautiful twenty-something-year-olds with doctorates from Cambridge. But I was desperate to get out of Britain. I applied and in some mysterious way I knew I was going to get to Indonesia; it was somehow ordained; maybe it was something to do with the fact that my interview was at 9 am on the ninth day of the month and it was 1990. But I don’t want to appear superstitious.

The interview, in a swanky London club, went well. I had had an expensive haircut and was wearing my Austin Reed suit. The Headmaster, tall, sun-tanned, in his late thirties, showed me pictures of the visit of a princess to his school and I said all the right things about his interests in jogging and art. I got the job. Fantastic!

Of course I began to worry about amoebas, hookworm, enteric parasites, giant leaping tree snakes, the sixteen hour flight and all the air turbulence that could be packed into such a journey. However, I was off to Java for adventure and discovery, for a chance to find a soul mate, and for an opportunity to help some waifs and strays.

Adventure and discovery? I wanted to lose myself in a distant Third World country and discover the answer to some of life’s big questions. I wanted to wander through shanty towns and rain forests and learn about animism and Islam.

Love? I was sometimes a bit of a fidgety loner and needed a soul mate, a fellow alien, someone I could be deeply attached to. And sometimes in my dreams there was a misty vision of a lost and lonely figure in a city that was a port. Could that be someone I was going to meet in Jakarta?

Waifs and strays? It was time I tried to do something useful. I had had a Sunday-school upbringing which had emphasised the gentler, kinder side of religion; the heroes had been people like The Good Samaritan and David Livingstone. I belonged to no church but felt that life was not simply an accident. I believed that there was a bit of Mother Teresa, a bit of Casanova and a bit of Hitler in each and all of us; we had to choose who to be; we reaped what we sowed. Could a discontented devil like me do any genuine good?

Waifs and strays, and romance and adventure, I had come across during brief holiday trips to such places as Bombay, Bangkok, and Margate.

At Bombay’s Victoria terminus railway station, I had seen a boy with pencil limbs and half blind pearly eyes. He had been too weak to stand up. I had stuffed some money and some vitamin tablets into his mother’s hands and then guiltily rushed off to catch the train to Delhi. The boy had smiled. I should have taken him to hospital, but I didn’t.

I remembered a garden party in Rio de Janeiro when I had asked a vicar how I might help some of the poor people of the favelas. "It’s difficult when you’re only here for three days holiday," he had said. "A child with TB needs help over many months. Why not get a teaching job in a Third World country and then help these people in your spare time?" I had liked the sound of that, but, for many years I had put off making the move. I could be a highly nervous, windy character.

I had needed to be pushed by circumstances. My ennui with London meant that now I was off to the "Big Mango", the "City of Drains" and the "Queen of the East." Perhaps some valium?
"I’m going to live in Jakarta," I told Richard, one of my neighbours who used to travel a lot on business. "Have you been there?"

"Yes. It’s filthy. Rubbish everywhere. Dirtiest place I’ve ever seen. A horrible police state. You’ll hate it."

But I knew I was not going to hate it! I was going to be living on Java, Indonesia’s main island, a Garden of Eden, described by one writer as the most beautiful tropical island on Earth. And I had a teaching contract that promised me free medical insurance, a rent-free house, free electricity, a maid, a car, and even a driver. I couldn’t wait to get my packing done, say my goodbyes, and head to Heathrow.


British Airways flew me from London’s outdated and overcrowded Heathrow airport to the wealthy city of Singapore. At Singapore’s clean and efficient Changi airport, I transferred to a Singapore Airlines evening-flight to Indonesia. Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport proved to be a beautiful modern construction combining gardens with steep Javanese roofs.

I was to be met at Soekarno-Hata by my colleague-to-be Fergus, who had been teaching abroad for most of his twenty year career. Sure enough there he was in the midst of the airport throng, tall and smartly dressed in a Sean Connery way, holding up a piece of card bearing the words: "Welcome Kent."

I had made it across the Indian Ocean. My, these Jumbos are good at getting above air turbulence, most of the time. I was now six degrees south of the Equator and about to begin life in one of the world’s great hot steamy cities.

"Good flight?" asked Fergus, giving me a firm handshake, taking my bag and handing it to his driver to carry.

"I slept a lot," I responded dozily. "Sorry the flight was a little delayed."

"No problem. Just ignore the touts and taxi drivers and we’ll get you to the car park. How do you like the heat?"

"Great. I love it . And the smell of flowers."

"Frangipani," explained Fergus.

It was already dark, but, as we drove to my new home in Fergus’s air-conditioned Kijang, I could see well lit, stylish tower blocks which made it all look so comfortable. No, wait, there were smaller streets suggesting an East of mysterious dreams and exotic possibilities; two dark eyed girls hopped into a battered orange three wheeled taxi; barefoot newsboys plunged into the traffic to sell their wares; men with pirate mouth-coverings hung from the doors of an overcrowded bus; under a flyover a homeless family was settling down for the night; at ramshackle wooden stalls teenagers were hawking steaming noodles and hairy fruit; kerosene lanterns were being lit outside a shop selling bottles of weird liquids; a green and white prayer house was filling up with white-robed figures; pedicabs were being repaired in an oily tumbledown workshop; grinning little boys with sarongs around their waists were enjoying a wrestling match in the grounds of a mosque.

After a journey of enchantment we finally reached the two-storey, three bedroom house I was going to be renting in a posh, middle class part of a district called Kebayoran Lama. We walked through a dark front garden and entered a huge dimly lit but well furnished lounge-dining room where my servants awaited me. The room had a large dining table of dark wood, a three-piece suite in dark leather, a tiled floor, a picture of a mountain in Bali, and a broad staircase that led to the upper floor.

"Tomorrow the nightclubs!" said Fergus, eyes twinkling. "But tonight there’s only time to show you your house and introduce you to your maid and your house guard."

I shook hands with Ami, a smiling and rather pretty girl aged about thirty, and with middle-aged Rachmat, who looked much too skinny and gentle to be an effective guard. I wondered what the folks back home would think when they heard I could sit in the garden sipping gin and tonic while my servants scurried around doing all the work!

"I asked Ami to have some nasi goreng and some beers ready for us," said Fergus.

Rachmat retired to the front porch; Ami retired to her quarters, a room I discovered some weeks later, while Ami was out shopping, that was the size of a broom cupboard.

I sat at the stylish table and began to tuck-in to spicy fried rice. Fergus, sitting on the leather settee, refrained from eating. I began to ask some of the many questions circulating in my jet-lagged brain.

"Tell me about my staff," I asked.

"Ami is married," explained Fergus, "and she goes home to her husband every Sunday, her day off. Incidentally, it’s not a good idea to get too familiar with your domestic staff." Fergus’s tone was friendly and avuncular.

"Good point," I said, immediately conjuring up a picture of Ami’s husband wielding a machete. I had read that Indonesians smilingly put up with a certain amount of exploitation, and then they run amok.

"The maid will clean the house, wash your clothes and cook," explained Fergus.

"What do I pay her?"

"About fifty pounds a month."

"Heavens."

"Don’t pay her anymore," said Fergus "or she’ll take advantage. She’ll see you as a soft touch."
"The same pay for Rachmat?" I asked.

"Yes." said Fergus, "Your guard’s supposed to stay awake at night to guard the house but in practice they all fall sleep."

"What’s the teaching like?" I asked.

"Piece of cake," said Fergus, looking very serious. "The school sets high standards and the students and staff are mainly great. There’s the occasional young member of staff who’s scruffily dressed and who doesn’t worry about spelling. I don’t know why the boss appoints them."

Fortunately I was wearing a smart shirt. "You like it here?" I said.

"Yes. I was in Australia before this," explained Fergus. "The worst students are the Australians and the Brits. Spoiled and lazy. I prefer the Asians."

"Where else have you been?" I asked.

"Kenya. That was beautiful but there was hostility from the local people. I was in Oman. An attractive country. I started in the UK but only lasted a few months. I didn’t see why I should waste my time on brats."

"How do you spend your weekends?"

"Squash at the sports club or the Mandarin Hotel," said Fergus, "and working-out at the gym." Fergus was seemingly someone who took great care over his personal appearance.

"What about the poverty. That worry you?" I said.

"It’s not as bad as it used to be. Suharto’s ‘the father of development.’"

"Do you mix with the locals?" I asked.

"I’ve made friends with some of the secretaries in the office," said Fergus. "People like that."

I glanced at Fergus. Did his eyes suggest someone who carried some secret burden; or was it Scottish gloom, loneliness or simply temporary tiredness?

"This is the biggest Moslem country in the world," I said. "Does that create problems?"

"No, it’s only in Aceh they have fundamentalists. Jakarta’s very broad minded."

"Like Bangkok?" I asked.

"Not exactly. There are no go-go bars of the sort you’d get in Patpong. But the locals are very friendly and there are lots of bars. It’s not as fussy as Kuala Lumpur."

"Do you take malaria tablets?" I inquired.

"There’s no malaria in the city," pointed out Fergus. "The Thousand Islands can have malaria though. That’s just off the coast."

"When do you think my luggage will arrive? It’s coming by boat."

"Quite a few weeks," said Fergus. "Did you bring the basic essentials with you on the plane?"

"A few clothes. A few books. Most of my teaching materials will be on the ship."

"Have you got a lot of stuff coming over? Furniture?"

"No. I sold my London flat," I said "and most of the things in it. It’s amazing what you can do without. Do you miss Britain?"

"Not at all," said Fergus, grinning. "Each time I arrive back in Jakarta I think of it as home. We had one girl who came out here to teach and she just wasn’t suited. She was homesick within weeks. Missed the English way of life. Missed her friends. She had a boyfriend back in England."

"I like foreign places," I said, "and I’ve no attachments." At Heathrow there had been an ex-colleague who had been weeping at my departure, but I had never been romantically attached to her.

"You’ll love it here Kent," said Fergus cordially.

Fergus and I picked up our beers and began touring the house. Fergus seemed easy to get on with. He spoke highly of life in Jakarta. I was feeling tired but happy.

"Master-bedroom," said Fergus, as he pointed into a high-ceilinged room with tiled floor, king sized bed, shuttered windows, desk, and large wardrobe. "It’s a good idea to have the filter on the air-conditioning cleaned from time to time and remember to spray the room with insect killer."

"Are mosquitoes a problem?"

"You don’t want to get dengue fever," said Fergus. "It gives you dreadful headaches and you can start vomiting blood."

"Ah."

"You should have no problems with noise at night. Apart from the pre-recorded call of the muezzin, coming from a distant mosque. If you have problems sleeping, move to the edge of the bed and you’ll soon drop off."

"Aha."

"En suite bathroom with light blue tiles," announced Fergus, as we entered a spacious loo fit for a five star hotel. "Make sure the maid doesn’t use the same cloth for cleaning the toilet bowl and the dishes in the kitchen."

"Is she likely to?"

"Yes."

"Garden?" I asked.

"We won’t walk around it now," said Fergus. "You get snakes at night."

"OK."

"Kitchen," said Fergus, once we were back downstairs. "Nice big fridge. I should mention that Ami had typhoid last year. They’ve nearly all got it most of the time. I would keep an eye on her to make sure she washes her hands occasionally. At home I do most of my own cooking."

"What do you eat?" I asked.

"Tinned corned beef and tuna."

"No nasi goreng. And what about security?"

"Security shouldn’t be a problem," said Fergus. "There was a spate of violent robberies a few years ago but the army rounded up the worst offenders, shot them and left their bodies lying around for all to see."

"Goodness."

"OK," said Fergus. "Tomorrow I’ll take you to the bank to open an account. In the evening it’s a trip to one or two bars. It’s not long until term starts so you need to know where things are."

With Fergus gone, and my bags unpacked, I lay in bed and thought about my new life. I had had my typhoid jags so I didn’t need to worry about a serious dose of that particular infection; the house was luxurious; the school was apparently well-managed; the country was magical. This was going to be paradise, so long as I behaved myself. I wondered about the nightlife tour that Fergus had organised.

8 Comments:

Blogger Nick said...

This is utterly insane. How can you write so much? Its a good story with some rich characters in there, so keep up the good work and keep writing ;)

1:12 AM  
Blogger JimR99 said...

check out my everybodystory blog. i think your creative input would be valued.

jimr99

12:41 AM  
Blogger tuklong said...

I would really like to finish reading all your blogs. A very nicely narrated blogs. I am a Malay Malaysian, a teacher and will be retiring next year. I really love Indonesia and in 1998 I married a girl from Sukabumi. I have my mind on part-time teaching either English or Technical subject in Jakarta or Bandung after my retirement. And I find your blogs very informative and entertaning.
Keep on the good works.

8:39 AM  
Blogger tuklong said...

Kent,
Kumaha Damang. Thank you for appearing in my blog. I am rather new in blogging.
By the way I was in Cornwall for a couple of years in early 80s (Falklands war). I found it not as dull ang gray as you stated. I still miss such lovely places as Penzance, Truro, Torquay
and Falmouth (I learned boat and yacht building here).

5:27 AM  
Blogger Edward Ott said...

fascinating, i really enjoyed the story, guess cause i have always thought of going overseas to teach. look forward to reading more of your blog.

6:02 AM  
Blogger *The Dreamer* said...

I've lived in Indonesia all my life and I'm currently studying in London, but it's amazing to see my country in the eyes of a foreigner!I'm intrigued.

12:51 PM  
Blogger mata leo said...

it is nice to read your story about my country and the people.. and i read it in different perspective. you write good stories, very inspiring. i will come here again to see if there is a new story. hope you like live in indonesia. call me if you need local company to do anything positive here, like photo hunting or else.. so you can post some photo about your journey here in your blog :)

12:00 AM  
Blogger Igor Prawn said...

Sounds as if you're writing a book. I found this interesting, but hard to follow - everything's out of sequence.

I'm Alex Masterley from flickr - being English you'll no doubt realise that that's not my real name. (dear Alex, I wish I were more like him). Check out my blog at http://prawnseyeview.blogspot.com/ - there I post as Igor Prawn, which is even more obviously a nom-de-blog. But the pics are nice. I live (sometimes) in Phnom Penh, and visit Burma rather a lot - the pics are mostly from those two places, but some from Bali.

Cheers

12:45 AM  

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