Monday, January 31, 2005

4 THE HIGHLAND CITY OF BANDUNG

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."

"Mmm."

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.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

5. TWO WEDDINGS

November brought school exams, occasional short downpours, and more weekend trips out of Jakarta.

While wandering along the tree-lined banks of the River Cisadane in Bogor, enjoying the perfumed tropical air and the cheerful grins of passing schoolchildren, I encountered a crinkled old woman with the sweetest of smiles. The woman was holding a wooden pole, suspended from which was a spooky looking fruit bat, as big as a poodle. With its wings stretched out, the bat looked bigger than the woman.

"Is it your pet?" I asked. On closer observation, the winged creature had a cute face like a sheep dog.

"Yes, it’s my friend," she said.

"Do you live here?" I pointed behind her to the simple little white-walled, red roofed house, which was part of a terrace clinging to a steep slope.

"Yes."

"You’re quite high above the river. Wonderful view of the rice fields and the volcano."

"Come into our house," called out a pretty girl appearing at the bright green door of one of the houses.

"She’s my grandchild," explained the old lady proudly. "Her name’s Melati. She’s learning English."

I climbed some stone steps, squeezed into the tiny front room and sat on a wooden chair next to a sewing machine. Melati, who was wearing white cycling shorts, stretched out on the torn settee, next to her young brother. Above their heads was a picture of a mosque. Granny stood with the fruit bat at the open door.

"I want to practise my English," said Melati, in Indonesian. "Can you help me?"

I switched to English. "You go to school in Bogor?" I said.

"Apa?"

"You live in Bogor?" I asked.

"Apa?"

I decided to continue in Bahasa Indonesia. "Who is this next to you?" I said.

"Adik saya," she said.

"Brother," I explained.

"What’s this?" Melati asked in Indonesian, while pointing to her head.

"Head," I said in English. She didn’t repeat the word.

"What’s this?" She pointed to her arm.

"Arm."

"What’s this?"

"Knee."

"What’s this?"

"Leg," I said. Young brother was having a fit of the giggles and I thought it was time to change direction. "What is this?" I said, pointing to the settee. "Settee."

"Settee," she repeated.

A good looking woman in her mid-thirties had appeared at the door and was standing next to granny.

"My mother," said Melati, seeing me looking in the direction of the newcomer. The mum smiled warmly and nodded in my direction.

"Mister, where are you from?" asked the boy.

"Ursa Major," I said. The lad looked puzzled and perhaps a little worried.

"Do you have a wife?" asked Melati.

"Do you want to marry me?" I asked.

This time they all grinned.

"I’d like to come to England," said Melati. "How long does it take to get there?"

"By boat, several weeks."

"Wahai! Is it near America?"

"No. It’s near Holland."

The conversation rambled on for some minutes. Then I noticed that the Mother was no longer smiling; no longer looking in my direction. I sensed this was a signal that it was time for me to go.

"I have to get some shopping done," I explained.

"Can I come with you?" asked Melati.

I looked at the mother but she was staring at the wall.

"Sorry, that’s not possible," I said.

"Come back soon," said Melati.

I always loved being invited into the homes of ordinary Indonesians. I loved the fact that they dropped whatever they were doing in order to make me feel welcome. I loved their warm smiles and normally relaxed body language. I loved their relatively uninhibited chatter. But, I had come to realise that there was a moment in any visit when someone would signal that it was time for me to go; they had work to get on with; it was time to feed the baby; they were getting bored; or mum had bad vibes. The signal might be a frown or a yawn or a remark such as: "What time is it?" Often the signal would come after only a short visit. In any case there was a limit to how many things we could chat about. My Indonesian vocabulary was too limited for discussions of anything other than the relatively trivial. Politics was out because they didn’t feel free to criticise their government. And although these people were earthy and flirtatious, there were sometimes limits to what the community would allow by way of risky repartee. They had their taboos.


Having left Melati’s house I visited Budi’s little windowless home to see how the sick five-year-old was getting on. His hollow-cheeked mother was seated by the door with a host of little children, including a pale fragile looking Budi.

"How is he?" I began

"Fine," she responded automatically.

"Did you get the last lot of money for the hospital visit?"

"Yes."

"Have you got receipts from the hospital?"

"Not yet."

"Have you been back to the hospital for the twice weekly check up?"

"Not yet."

"Have you still got the money?"

"No."

I noticed she was wearing new shoes and a thin gold chain.

"Has Budi been getting the medicine the hospital gave him?"

"It’s finished."

"It can’t be. Have you still got the bottles?"

"I threw them out."

I was boiling with indignation. She looked relaxed and unfazed; perhaps empty-headed rather than aggressive. I wondered if she had ever been to school. I wondered if hunger had robbed her of brain cells.

"Look, we must go to the hospital now for a check up," I said.

"I’m busy. Maybe tomorrow."

"Budi must get his medicine, and on the way back we can stop at the shops and buy some food for your family."

"OK." She seemed to like the idea of shopping for food.

"Have you got Budi’s medical card?"

"I’ve lost it."

"You are unbelievable," I said, unable to control my tongue. "You’ve not got Budi’s money, nor his medicine, nor his medical card, and you’ve bought yourself new shoes."

There was no reaction on her face.

And, when I repeated this information to the doctor at the hospital, he also didn’t blink. He simply wrote out another prescription.

"Doctor," I said, "how can I get this woman to bring her child to the hospital twice a week?"

"Maybe it’s better not to give her money. Maybe someone else can handle the cash. Can you come with her each time?"

"I work in Jakarta," I explained, "but I’ll send my driver here twice a week. He’ll bring her to the hospital."

On the way back from the hospital we stopped off at the modern supermarket at Internusa. I handed some money to Budi’s mother and left her to get on with the shopping. She bought several varieties of crisps.

"That’s no good," I said. "Give me the money you have left and I’ll buy some fruit, vegetables, fish and tinned milk."

Back at Budi’s house a small crowd of ragged children had gathered to await our return. Seated next to this brood was a pale spindle-shanked man in his thirties, who looked too tired to stand up.

This was Asep.

"Where do you live?" I asked the cadaverous chap.

"Near here. Along that path across the road."

"May I see your house?"

"Yes, I’ll take you."

At a funeral pace we walked alongside some fields of rice and tapioca until we came to trees and a small settlement of mouldering shacks. Asep’s earth floor house was in a damp shady hollow. Outside the house stood a shoeless and shirtless small boy with a swollen stomach and a slightly older girl with a sweet and innocent face.

"Do you work around here?" I inquired.

"I can’t work. I’m sick," said Asep.

"Would you like to get an x-ray at the hospital?"

"Yes."

"OK. Here’s some money. I’ll come back for the receipt next week. There’s enough there for medicine too, and some food.

"Thank you mister," said Asep smiling wanly.

There seemed something too passive, too submissive, and too docile in Asep’s body language. He did not seem like someone who would fight his illness. I hoped Budi was not the same.
I set off back through the trees.

"Hey mister!" said a ragged little boy standing next to some goats. "There’s a wedding. Come and join us!"

"That’s kind," I responded, and followed him to a cheerless hovel, outside which stood two old men and a table bearing two plates of meagre little grey coloured snacks. There was a strong smell of animal dung.

I was led into the two room house and briefly presented to the bride and groom, who were enthroned on gold painted chairs and dressed to look like figures from a Hindu epic. He looked pale and she looked sad. Back outside an old man handed me some rancid looking crisps, which I managed to make disappear into my pocket.


That evening, wearing a suit and tie, I attended a wedding reception at one of Jakarta’s five star hotels. In the ballroom, with its cream and gold walls and giant chandeliers, there must have been many hundreds of guests, mainly Indonesians. The bride was a demurely pretty girl called Rima, the niece of one of Fergus’s friends.

I joined the queue to shake the hands of the bride and groom who were seated on gold painted thrones on a stage. Rima and her mate were both attired in traditional costumes including brown batik skirts. They looked rather serious but both made an attempt to smile as each guest appeared briefly in front of them.

After the handshakes came the food. The tables for the buffet meal were laden with dishes of mie goreng, leaf-wrapped spicy vegetables, chicken in coconut, gado gado, baked fish, slow cooked crispy beef and all the things you might expect in a good rijstaffel.

As I loaded up my plate, I got talking to Sarwoto, a small portly Javanese in his thirties. He was part owner of a bar called Hadrian. On our visits to Hadrian, Fergus, Carmen and I had always found Sarwoto to be good company. He was highly educated and spoke perfect English; he was a genial and rather complex character; he was a Christian with strong animist beliefs; he came from a wealthy and well connected Indonesian family.

"He’s not just marrying her for love," said Sarwoto, who was wearing a princely gold Batik shirt.

"How do you mean?" I asked. "Not just marrying her for love?"

"It’s an arranged marriage. It’s about money," explained Sarwoto, eyes twinkling.

"Which one’s rich?"

"Both. Rima’s father was a bank manager. There are also army and government connections. Her mother’s sister is married to a government minister. One member of the family owns five houses and five station wagons." Sarwoto grinned, perhaps admiring the family’s sagacity.

"And the groom?"

"Father’s in the Ministry of Social Welfare or something. Very rich. Giant mansion in Bambu Apus near Taman Mini, a house in Tebet and another in Bogor. Oh, and the groom works for Pertamina, the oil company. They’ll be able to send their kids to university in the States and have shopping trips to Paris."

"I was at another wedding today, in Bogor," I said.

"Two weddings in one day," said Sarwoto, looking in the direction of the food.

"There’s a lot of poverty in Bogor."

"You go to Bogor a lot?"

"It’s a beautiful place."

"I’m going to get some more of that beef," said Sarwoto, and off he went.

My first reaction to Sarwoto not picking up on my comment about poverty was disappointment, mixed with warm and comfortable feelings of moral superiority and false pride. Then, my chicken drumstick slipped off my plate. I remembered that Sarwoto regularly helped out at a home for handicapped children.

I sidled up to Jim, a young American businessman and pillar of the church.

"Hi Jim. You can help me," I began.

"Always willing to help," said Jim.

"I came across this little kid with TB, pneumonia and malnutrition. In a poor kampung out in Bogor. The problem is getting advice about medical treatments. And the kid’s mother needs some advice about child care."

"There’s a lot of them die in the kampungs. Very high death rate. Not a lot one can do."

"Do you know of any organisation that could help?"

"The women’s organisations can’t help individuals. My wife’s group raises money for an Indonesian charity that helps blind children."

"It’s just that I want to help this poor kid."

"You know how you could help, if you’re wanting to do something charitable? My Scout group could do with an extra volunteer."

"I don’t think that’s quite me."

"Excuse me, I’ve just seen someone I must speak to before he goes. See you again some time."
And off he went.

Jim was very rich but he was a genuinely decent sort. Maybe it was difficult for him to feel deep sympathy for a kid he had not actually met; maybe he wanted his charitable giving directed mainly towards Christian run institutions rather than individual Moslems; maybe be was a pessimist about the chances of a foreigner successfully intervening in the life of a slum family.
I wondered what my reaction would have been if Sarwoto or Jim had mentioned the existence of some poor child to me. I would have thought that it was vaguely interesting, but it was up to them to sort it out.

In the post next morning was a letter from the director of the International Children’s Village in Lembang, near Bandung. It was about Abdul, whom I had found asleep on the bridge. The director had visited the grandmother’s village, which had turned out to be not so poor, and discovered a few more facts about the child. Abdul had a little brother and sister, his parents were already divorced, and his mother might be working in Saudi Arabia. The grandmother had decided to keep Abdul and so he had been returned to her. I suppose a grandmother is better than a children’s home or sleeping in the street.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

6. ONE HAND AND HIS MOTHER

Christmas 1990 was approaching and I had shopping to do.

Mo, my middle aged driver, wasn’t smiling. I could tell, as I could see a tense little mouth in my vehicle’s front mirror. It was the late afternoon rush-hour and I had asked him to stop on a very busy street called Jalan Katedral, a street which has Jakarta’s main mosque on one side and its cathedral on the other. I had spotted something strange. Seated at the roadside with his rough featured, peasanty mum, and a plump baby, was a boy aged about six. The boy had no hair and no shoes. Even worse, he had no trousers and one of his hands was missing.

I don’t think Mo liked the look of the trio but I got out of the Mitsubishi and crossed the road to speak to them.

"Hello!" I said. "Do you live here?"

The mother pointed behind her at the broken fence and the patch of waste land behind.

"Has the boy got no trousers?" I asked. The boy had the sort of innocent look worn by little African children in Oxfam pictures; he had sores on his legs and bare bottom. And one of his front teeth was missing.

"We haven’t any money," said the mother. She had the face of a big tough Red Indian who had fallen on hard times.

"The boy has only one hand?"

"He lost his hand. His name is One Hand."

"And his tooth?" I asked.

She held up her fist, seemingly to indicate that someone had punched the six-year-old. Perhaps she had punched him.

I handed the woman some money, whereupon she got up and swiftly disappeared round the corner, with the baby, heading in the direction of the nearby market, called Pasar Baru.
One Hand clutched my leg and rubbed his head against it. Then he picked up a piece of grass and began to play with it, with one hand.

I walked round the corner to see where the mother had gone, but there was no sign of her. One Hand followed me. We crossed the road to Jalan Antara where several of the homeless slept. Mo, my driver, brought the vehicle over and acted as my translator as I spoke to one of the families. A ragged woman, with a thin but pretty face, told us that One Hand’s father no longer lived with them. At this point, One Hand wandered off, out of sight.

"Where will the mother be?" I asked the ragged woman.

"She’ll be back later," she replied with a cheery grin.

Having done some shopping, I returned to Jalan Antara. The sky had been darkened by black rain clouds and the air was warm and damp. One Hand’s mother, carrying her baby, emerged from the shadows. The lady appeared to be wearing a new dress and new earings. Where was One Hand? Round the corner he came, head down, still wearing only a shirt.

"One Hand still has no trousers," I said to the lady.

As I spoke, the baby produced some yellow diarrhoea.

"Is the baby OK?" I inquired. "Do you want to see a doctor?"

One Hand’s mother nodded approval.

Mo, my driver, was looking even less happy as I ushered One Hand, his mother and the baby into my van. It was a short journey to the huge and ancient Dipo Hospital. This was a place of dim lights, high ceilings and malodorous stains.

The doctor could see the baby was fat and smiling. "Not much wrong," he said, as he wrote out a prescription.

Outside the hospital I asked the mother, "Would you like some clothes and shoes for the boy?"

"Yes."

So we did some shopping in the traffic free streets of Pasar Baru, buying a shirt, a pair of shorts and some sandals. I felt like a happy Santa Claus dispensing gifts. I felt Christmassy.

"I’ll come back tomorrow at six o’clock to the spot where I met you," I explained. "Will you be there?"

"Yes."

I left them seated on the dark wet pavement watching the luxury cars go by.


Next evening, when I returned, there was no sign of them. I walked around the block and asked a stallholder, "Have you seen the boy with one hand?"

"They’ve gone to the canal to wash some clothes." I grew angry at having to wait.

Around seven o’clock a woman appeared carrying a baby and far behind trailed One Hand, trouserless and shoeless.

I met up with them and said, "I’ve been waiting one hour! Where are One Hand’s trousers? I bought some only yesterday."

"They’re being washed," said the mum.

"But the poor kid’s going around with no trousers and no shoes. And he has no hair!"

She didn’t reply. I wondered if she had sold the clothing.

"It’s not much of a life for the kid, is it?" I said. "Look, here’s some more money. Don’t waste it."
Mo gave me a disgruntled look as he and I drove off to the Meridien Hotel.


My next sighting of One Hand, his mum and the baby came a few days later when I was again in the vicinity of Pasar Baru. They were seated at the roadside, and One Hand was trouserless and shoeless.

"Things haven’t changed, have they," I said to One Hand’s mum.

"I want to go on the transmigration programme," she said.

"You mean go off to an outer island and cultivate a plot of malaria infested land in a region with poor soil and too much rain?" That’s roughly what I tried to say in Indonesian. The government’s controversial transmigration programme was aimed at reducing over-population on islands like Java by moving volunteers to the less crowded, outer islands. The transmigrants were given small plots of land and a little help with getting started.

"Apa?" she said.

"You want to go to an area which may not want to be invaded by Javanese like you?"

"Apa?" She didn’t seem to be getting my drift.

"You want a fresh start?" I asked in Indonesian.

"Yes, I want to go back to Sukabumi, but we need money for that."

"Sukabumi’s here on Java, near Bandung," I said. "You don’t want to go on the transmigration programme?"

"I want to go back to my family in Sukabumi," she insisted.

"How much money do you need?"

"Two hundred thousand rupiahs."

"If I give you the money will you use it properly?"

"Yes."

I gave her what she had asked for and returned to my van, from which Mo had been watching the proceedings. I was again in the Christmas mood. Two hundred thousand rupiahs was the equivalent of about one hundred American dollars.

"You gave her money?" said Mo, as he started up the engine.

"Yes. She hopes to go back to Sukabumi."

"You shouldn’t give these people anything!" said Mo, sounding bitter. "They are beggars. You should have reported them to the police. The police have places for such people."

"I’m sure they do."

Mo continued, "I’ve had to work hard all my life. My parents were poor. I had to work to pay for my education. That woman doesn’t work. She doesn’t deserve help."

For some reason this reminded me of an occasion in India when a middle class citizen of Bombay had said to me, as we drove past some pig-sty slums, "Filthy animals, these people!" Come to think of it, he had also pointed to some children who had had limbs chopped off to make them better beggars. Goodness! I hoped that was not what had happened to One Hand.

I invited Mo to join me for a meal in a cafe. We collected our plates of nasi goreng at a counter, I sat down at a table near the window and Mo went off to a table near the kitchens. I asked him if he wanted to join me but he said he preferred to sit separately. I suppose he may have been a bit shy, or maybe he hadn’t forgiven me for telling him off about his reckless driving at a certain point during our trip to Bandung.


I never saw One Hand again. Perhaps they really did go back to Sukabumi. That was better than begging on the streets of Jakarta.

But I missed the little kid.


Towards the end of the Christmas holiday I received a dinner invitation from a personable teaching colleague called Anne, who lived in the centre of Jakarta, in a posh district called Menteng. Anne had a businessman husband called Bob and a teenage daughter called Pauline.

The evening sky was full of dark pink clouds as my vehicle travelled through grey, traffic-filled Kebayoran Baru and on to Menteng, home to embassies and President Suharto. The bumpy ride was enlivened by a knife wielding gang of high school students hanging from the doors of a graffiti covered bus, the occasional plain clothes policeman at a street corner, and exhibitionist ragamuffins selling posters and toys.

Anne’s house was a 1930’s mansion full of ferns, antique furniture, faded photos in silver frames, and marble statues of Buddhas and fauns. A maid led me to the far end of the living room where Pauline, attired in T-shirt and jeans, was watching Taggart on TV. Next the TV was a desk with a computer and pile of school books.

Pauline stood up, stretched herself, and gave me an welcoming smile. She had a pretty nose.

"Hi. Mum’s on the phone," explained Pauline. "She’ll be here in a moment. I’m supposed to be doing homework. It’s Baudlaire. Can I read you a bit?" She picked up a book.

"Go ahead," I said.

"There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children," she read. "Sweet as oboes, green as the prairies." I was aware of two maids hovering in the background.

"Does it make any sense?" I asked.

"Sort of."

"What is Baudlaire saying some perfume makes him think of?"

"Cold flesh."

"And?"

"Oboe music."

"What do you think?"

"Children’s flesh around here makes me think of ringworm, fungal infections and scabies."

A smiling Anne emerged from the kitchen. Anne always reminded me of Monaco’s Princess Grace, or perhaps a respectably dressed Madonna, the singer. Yet she worked as a humble teacher and her face suggested genuine compassion and concern for the world.

"Kent, sorry to be neglecting you," she said. "I was hearing awful things about torture and murder carried out by the military."

"Aceh?"

"No. The British army in Malaysia."

"Oh dear."

"Let’s go out to the garden," suggested Anne.

Anne and I went to sit on comfortable chairs positioned on a terrace that overlooked the dimly lit swimming pool. The frogs were making loud frog noises and frightening away the mosquitoes. A maid brought us glasses of white wine; Pauline fetched some olives.

By the time our glasses were empty, Bob had arrived, and a maid, positioned beside a table at one end of the terrace, was ready to serve supper. Bob was wearing a smart grey suit and looked like a slightly tired film star, used to playing the part of a kind and respectable husband.

"What have you been getting up to?" asked Bob, after we had loaded our plates with beef sate, peanut sauce, red peppers, French beans, new potatoes, green mango, avocado and lettuce.

I told them about my trip with One Hand to the Dipo Hospital.

"You have to be careful with hospitals," said Anne, looking pensive.

"British ones," said Bob, as he refilled my glass with meaty red wine. "Over a thousand people die each year in British hospitals because of mistakes with medicines."

"I was thinking about Florence Nightingale," said Anne. "She thought she was helping the soldiers in the Crimea, but the death rate went up at her hospital after she arrived. Her hospital had the worst record in the area."

"Why was that?" asked Pauline.

"She was a bit of an amateur," explained Anne. "At first, she didn’t understand enough about hygiene."

"The problem in Indonesia," said Bob, "is that medical standards are not always very high."

"I gather you weren’t totally impressed with Carmen’s nightlife tour?" said Anne, changing the subject.

"That seems a very long time ago!" I replied. "Actually, it was interesting, but after teaching I’ve no energy for that sort of thing."

"I know what you mean," said Bob, looking sincere.

"One or two people in Bob’s office seem to find the energy," said Anne. "What is it Baudelaire says? ‘After debauchery one always feels more alone, more abandoned.’"

"Mmm," said Pauline, smiling faintly. "Mummy’s been visiting the library again."

"I was interested in the life of this poet Pauline’s been studying," explained Anne. "He seemed to find it difficult to resist the Paris nightlife, and ended up feeling like someone expelled from Paradise."

"Talking of the office," said Bob, "that new chap Carl was comparing this country to Nigeria. That was his last posting."

"Different civilisation," said Anne. "Nigeria’s never had anything quite like Borobudur and Buddhism."

"That’s what I said," continued Bob. "But he went on about corrupt politicians and soldiers, the potential for clashes between Moslems and Christians, tribal wars with primitive weapons, and so on. He’d been to New Guinea. He said the Christians there believed in evil spells and killing each other with bows and arrows, except on Sundays. He said the parents trade their daughters like cattle."

"Kent," said Anne, "you’ll find Indonesia is much more diverse than Nigeria."

Diverse it certainly was. As I was being driven home, a host of images passed through my mind: massage parlours and mosques, volcanoes and flame trees, shanty houses and luxury mansions, and Budi, Abdul and One Hand. I was slowly learning about the Third World, but I hadn’t yet made any deep friendships with Indonesians. I hoped I wouldn’t have to wait too long before finding my soul mate.