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.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

2. NIGHT AND DAY

Our nightlife tour began at a massage parlour in Jakarta’s Pasar Jahat, a scruffy dimly-lit area containing shops and stalls selling everything from batik to bananas. From the parlour’s plush reception area, with its pink sofas and a glass tank containing an albino python, Fergus and I were escorted upstairs to our respective curtained cubicles in what looked like a hospital ward. The air conditioning was freezing. I examined the sheet on my bed and noticed the hairs and little flakes of skin left behind by previous occupants. My tummy began to misbehave. Could it be ‘Jakarta tum’?

"Satu jam?" said a figure appearing suddenly inside the cubicle and then disappearing before I could reply.

I removed my shoes and lay on the bed. A mosquito hovered somewhere above my head. My bloated tummy rumbled.

"Satu jam," announced the woman who had crept back into the cubicle. She was not young, she was not pretty and she had filthy fingernails. Where had these fingers been?

"Dutch?" she asked, as she began to haul off my socks. There was something callous about her mouth and she had the sniffles.

"English," I replied, while holding on to what remained of my clothing.

"You like massage here?" she said pointing somewhere at my middle.

"No thank you. Tidak boleh. It’s my shoulders that hurt."

With her cold wet hands she began torturing my toes and eventually reached my appendix scar an area which is peculiarly sensitive.

"Ouch. Not there. Tidak disana."

She tittered and pressed even harder. She didn’t like me.

"My shoulders. Here," I said.

After half an hour she began yawning and looking up at the ceiling. After thirty five minutes she stopped altogether.

"You have shower now. You give me tip," she said.

"I’m supposed to have an hour. Satu jam. If you want a tip, invest in Microsoft and avoid the Jakarta stock market."

She wasn’t listening so I got dressed and pulled back the curtain to make my exit.

"You give me tip," she said, grasping my arm hard.

I shook loose and went downstairs to wait for Fergus who eventually appeared with a slight grin on his face.

"What was she like?" I asked.

"A Sundanese girl. Really helped the old shoulders. Your massage?"

"Oh, fine," I lied. "And where are we off to next?"

"The Gamesman’s Bar in Blok M. It’s not far."

The Gamesman’s Bar, on a dark little street with potholes, was a place of bulky Brits, fat Americans, pool tables, mirrors, chrome, and numerous TV screens showing baseball games. It was here we met up with a fellow-Brit called Carmen, a small, bouncy, plainly dressed teacher in her middle years, who had volunteered to come with us as chaperone. We sat at a small table and ordered American beers and beef burgers and chips. As we ate, Fergus pointed to the spot near the door where an expatriate had been shot dead in some kind of gangster incident, the details of which Fergus was ignorant; and I had my shoes shined by a prosperous looking shoe shine boy who obviously knew the right location for meeting the rich and generous.

"Fergus and I are single," said Carmen, "so we’re allowed to come to places like this."

"It looks relatively respectable," I commented, "apart from the length of the waitress’s skirts."

"The waitresses have respectable legs," said Carmen.

"Not quite Paris catwalk," I commented unkindly. The girls looked as tired as the men at the bar.

"See the balding guy in shorts?" asked Fergus.

"At the bar next the hard-faced Indonesian girl in hot-pants?" I asked.

"That’s Rod," said Fergus. "Super guy. Great squash player. I feel sorry for his wife though. Stuck at home in Pondok Indah. It’s not always easy for the wives."

The next part of our tour involved crossing the road to a pub called Pop Gun. I could say that the decor looked refined, the oil men looked spotless, and the women were safely within their sell-by dates, but I might be lying. In fact the red walls, like the men and girls, were chipped and fading; the place had the simplicity of a Liverpool bus shelter.

"Makes me think of a bar in a film about Saigon," said Fergus, as we sat on bar stools with our backs to the bar.

"Mister," said a lady, as her hand brushed against my appendix scar.

I pushed her away. She was like a creature from scene one of ‘The Scottish Play.’

"She’s no spring-chicken," joked Fergus, who was being poked in the chest by a mini-skirted granny, the sort you see near Milan’s main railway station.

"You chaps enjoying yourselves?" asked Carmen.

"Well, it’s not quite the Sari Pacific," said Fergus. He didn’t look any more comfortable than I did. The plump, balding oil men were wearing T-shirts, trainers and jeans; Fergus had on dark glasses and was wearing shiny black shoes.

"OK," said Carmen after we had had a few sips of beer. "Now to the real night life. No expats apart from us.

"We’re off to Tanjung Priok," added Fergus, "to a little place Carmen was introduced to by some Indonesian student."

So we paid lots of rupiahs to a well-dressed urchin who had been guarding the Kijang and drove towards the docks and the Bintang Disco. On the outside, the disco looked sort of cheap and seedy, with lots of corrugated iron and no sign of any windows. An unsmiling old Chinese woman took our money, only a few rupiahs, and we entered a long, poorly lit room with some plain tables and chairs, and some space to dance. The clientele seemed to be exclusively teenagers and the music was the very latest. It could have been a scout hut in England, but there was a glittery, neon-lit bar, and the predominant colour in the room was black. We ordered large beers and took a seat.

"Is it safe here?" I asked. Something made me feel uneasy; maybe it was because we were near the docks where I imagined there were bound to be hoodlums and cut-throats; maybe it was the fact that we were the only foreigners.

Carmen took my arm and said, "See the smartly dressed gent near the door? He’s army. This place has military connections so it should be safe. The management’s Chinese, as always."

"Always?"

"Well, the place next door’s also Chinese."

"The posher looking place?"

"Yes," said Carmen. "We wouldn’t have got in there. An expat friend’s married to a high up British policeman who advises the local traffic police. He was taken to the place next door by an Indonesian police colonel. Topless girls. We definitely wouldn’t have got in. That sort of thing, topless girls, is very illegal. You have to be well connected."

"The girls here all look Chinese," explained Fergus. "They’ve got Chinese eyes and light skin and they’re expensively dressed. But some of the boys are indigenous Indonesians. They’ve got light chocolate skin like southern Italians and their eyes are different."

"It’s much nicer than the Blok M bars," said Carmen. " More relaxed. People smile more."

"Do you two frequent places like this?" I asked. Fergus, consumer of tinned tuna and American beef burgers, didn’t seem like the sort of person to go ethnic. And I couldn’t imagine Carmen, a woman devoid of make-up or frills, as a night-owl.

"Carmen’s usually at the sports club," said Fergus.

"And so is Fergus," said Carmen. "Although he might be seen occasionally in the Sportsman’s."

"I prefer places like the Hilton," said Fergus.

"The boys seem to be dancing with the boys and the girls with the girls," I noted. "Do the races mix?"

"Mmm," said Carmen. "There are lots of mixed race people, but this place could become like Yugoslavia. My driver hates the Chinese Indonesians. He points to a whole line of shops and businesses and tells me they’re all owned by the Chinese. Who owns the naughty bars and hotels? Usually the Chinese. Who owns the businesses cutting down the rain forests or burning them? Who runs the monopolies like flour? Mostly the Chinese."

"The Chinese don’t own everything," said Fergus. "It gets exaggerated."

"You’re right," said Carmen. "Some people also hate the Javanese because they’re the big bosses politically. In some parts of Indonesia there are wars between villages or kampungs on a regular basis, but it doesn’t get into the papers. People tend to live in tribal groups."

"Will it become like the Congo?" I asked.

"Suharto and the army keep a tight grip," said Carmen. "The army’s everywhere; it’s in every village; it’s in local government; in the cabinet; in the parliament; in the civil service; in the universities; in business. They run lots of businesses. Businesses of every sort. The army won’t want to lose its wealth and power."

"They say the army’s got few soldiers and little money," I said.

"The army’s got about one and a half million para-militaries as helpers," said Carmen. "Then their businesses provide most of their money."

"I visited a police state once," I said, "and couldn’t see any policemen. It all seemed jolly friendly. That was Baby Doc’s Port Au Prince."

"Here it’s subtle," said Carmen. "You can’t see Buru Island, where the political prisoners were sent."

"And they’ve buried the half million or so murdered in ‘65," said Fergus. "They don’t talk about it.

"What’s the music?" I asked, changing the subject.

"They’ve started playing dangdut," said Fergus, who got up and seemed to be moving to the dance floor where some of the teenagers had begun moving their arms and hips in slow, sensuous movements. In fact Fergus went straight to the toilet.

When our beers were finished we moved on to a place called something like ‘Ranamok’, back in the centre of Jakarta. There were lots of big cars parked outside and a long queue consisting of noisy young expats and silent Indonesians with pale, unhealthy faces. As we waited in line to buy our expensive entry tickets, I sniffed the pleasantly warm air; a security guard was smoking a clove cigarette; beef sate was sizzling at a fast-food cart lit by a hissing kerosene lamp; three street kids were seated on the cracked pavement playing dominoes and drinking fruit-jelly drinks.

When at last we got inside the Ranamok Disco, I began to suffer from smoke-and-sweaty-people phobia. The vast room was packed wall to wall and seemed to have only one way-out. There may have been fire-exits. It was just that, in the crush, I couldn’t see them. The rather obscene American music was deafening and finding a seat, or having a conversation, or even dancing, seemed impossible.

"Most of the Indonesians here are for sale," screamed Carmen. At least I think that’s what she said.

"We’re not staying long," shouted Fergus, starting to struggle through the crowds towards the exit.

Next on our itinerary was the J Bar, a small place of smoky blue light and mirrors, which had its fill of slim, doe-eyed, sickly looking teenage girls and fat, grandfatherly, sickly looking expatriates. The atmosphere was of one of chilling yet fascinating misery. The air conditioning was too cold.

"As we came in, " said Fergus, "did you see the man in the suit, by the door? The small, bulky, middle aged guy."

"Yes?" I said, recalling a dark skinned fellow whose eyes had avoided mine.

"That’s said to be the gentleman who carried out the murder in the Gamesman’s Bar," said Carmen.

"And that very thin bloke to the left of the bar is Henry," said Fergus. "Helps run one of the Indonesian banks."

"The one in the expensive suit, talking to the dark-skinned girl?" I asked.

"That’s him," said Fergus. "Poor man discovered dark spots on his skin. Doctor told him it’s skin cancer. His wife’s got cancer now as well."

"His wife is the dark girl?" I asked.

"No," said Fergus.

(I was told that some years later the K Bar was destroyed by an angry mob.)

The nightlife tour was enlightening, but I was relieved when it was all over. And I hadn’t yet met any deserving waifs or strays.

The new term began and I found everyone at the school, myself included, full of boundless energy and smiling enthusiasm. The school was housed in a large red-roofed mansion to which various annexes had been added. There was an open-air swimming pool and gardens coloured by oleander, orchid trees and peacock flowers. The school day was pleasantly short, which allowed me time in the afternoons to prepare lessons and go shopping. I now had an eight-seater Mitsubishi van and a small, thin, middle-aged driver called Mo, a man of few words.

And at weekends there was the Javanese countryside to explore.

"Take me to Bogor," would be my usual command to Mo on a Saturday morning.

Bogor, an hour’s drive from Jakarta, is nulli secundus, second to none. This moist, hillocky, and handsomely shaped little city lies languorously beneath a steep sided volcano, Mount Salak, and is crossed by rivers and canals on either side of which stretch miles of red tiled residences, and gardens overflowing with bougainvillea, hibiscus and jasmine. It could be Southern Europe in the nineteenth century: down a half-seen alley a veiled woman is hanging flimsy garments on a washing-line; fresh young ginger on a kaki lima cart is squeezed to extract its fragrant juice; in a half-hidden cul-de-sac goats nuzzle the haunches of slender kids; gorgeous cocks strut and crow in the backyard of an old Dutch house; schoolgirls in white uniforms walk arm in arm past the deer park and Palladian palace; blue and magenta kites soar high above the scarlet flame trees; in a deep gorge naked boys splash and tumble in the river; birds in gilded cages sing their siren song.

Bogor is full of little districts, or kampungs, which are free of road traffic and full of gossiping housewives, street vendors and hordes of grinning children. At first I was nervous of invading people’s privacy and kept to the main highways. But then I discovered that if I explored the narrower alleys and stared into people’s houses people didn’t seem to mind the intrusion. Maybe they were too polite to object; maybe they hoped I would give them money; maybe they were intrigued by the presence of a funny foreigner; probably in the crowded little neighbourhoods life tended to be communal and there was little expectation of privacy. As in many Third world countries, the children were not shy about following you down the street and beginning a conversation.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

3. THE HILL TOWN OF BOGOR

"Hey, mister!" said Dede, when I was on my third trip to Bogor. "Remember me?"

"Yes. How are you?" I said. It was a lad with a small gory lump on his leg and I’d met him previously, at around the same spot, during a stroll along the little lanes near Jalan Pledang.

"Fine. Where’re you going?"

"Just out for a walk. Jalan jalan." I was proud of my growing knowledge of the Indonesian language. (To be honest it’s the easiest language in the world to learn.)

"Come to my house?" asked Dede.

"OK. Where?" I was delighted that for the first time ever I was being invited into a real Indonesian’s house. This was real travel and I felt a wave of excitement.

"Right here." He pointed to a russet roofed bungalow the size of a large caravan. A small, grinning granny stood just inside the door.

We stepped through a tiny garden and into a simple little lounge with concrete floor, a threadbare settee, a slightly broken wooden chair, a shelf sporting football trophies, a TV and a picture of a mosque. The granny retreated behind a canvas curtain to a primitive kitchen where I glimpsed pots and pans on the floor. I sat on the chair while Dede sank into the settee. Fergus would have hated this place, but I loved it. It was like being one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five meeting the gypsies; or the children of Coral Island encountering the natives.

"How’s your leg?" I asked Dede. " Did you go to the doctor with the money I gave you?

"I got some ointment." Dede pulled up the hem of his school shorts to show me the wound. It was no worse than before.

"Did you get a receipt?"

"I lost it," said Dede.

From behind a curtained door, a girl in a short black skirt appeared. She can’t have been more than twenty and she was alpha double plus in a dark-eyed Sundanese sort of way. Is it the big eyes, or the curvy lips, or the gypsy face that marks out the Sundanese?

"My sister." said Dede, "Her name is Rama."

"Hi," I said, trying unsuccessfully not to stare.

"Hi," she said, smiling like a heavenly body from a brighter universe. "Where are you from?"

"I teach in Jakarta," I said. She looked away. I should have said I owned a computer software company and lived in Washington state. "What do you do?"

She turned to me again and said, "I haven’t got a job. Can you give me work as a maid at your house?"

"Sorry, I’ve already got a maid," I responded.

She looked away again. Why hadn’t I said I needed someone to open doors for me or something like that?

"I have to go to the market," she said and slipped out the door.

Dede sat with his knees under his chin looking like a hungry rabbit. "Do you like Newcastle?" he said suddenly.

"I’ve never been there."

"I’ve seen them on TV. And Manchester United."

"Ah. Football."

"You like something to drink?"

"No thanks," I said. I didn’t want to risk drinking the local water; and I felt an urge to go to the loo. "May I use your toilet?" I asked.

Dede smiled in a slightly embarrassed fashion. "We haven’t got one. You can use the canal or the river."

"OK. I must be going then. Thank you for letting me see your house."

"You come back next week?" asked Dede.

"Yes, that would be nice."

I had no intention of squatting above the canal or the river next to a lot of other cheery squatters. I got my driver to hurry me to a high street fast food restaurant which was blessed with a real latrine. My image of Rama and Dede was slightly changed by my discovery that their house did not possess a privy.


As the weeks went by I made lots of weekend trips to the countryside.

One sunny October day I discovered a particularly magical realm on the outskirts of Bogor. Along a bosky country lane I found myself taking photographs of buffalo, fields of tapioca, dark wooden shacks among tall trees, and smiling children carrying huge baskets of mangoes and bananas. There was an aroma of burning wood and goat manure. Some of the houses along the lane were simply grubby slums, full of naked babies and toddlers, but some had decent brick walls, concrete floors, peach-coloured tile roofs and glass windows. The occasional house even had a car parked in the front yard and one mansion, belonging no doubt to a government official, had five cars. Some of the children wore clean, red and white school uniforms while others wore ragged shirts, skirts and shorts, but all of them, at least on the surface, looked fairly healthy.

Not quite all of them. There was a clearly unhealthy child crouched outside a windowless, wooden hut and he cried miserably when I pointed the camera in his direction. He had the head of a five year old but the body looked younger. Although his stomach was enormous, his limbs were rickety and withered as in pictures of starving children in Africa. He was too weak to stand up. For the first time I had met one of the waifs and strays that I was anxious to help, but unfortunately it was a rather an extreme case.

The four year old boy was named Budi. I spoke to his hollow-cheeked mother and gave her money so she could take the child to a doctor. The father, who looked tired and unwell, told me he worked in the mornings as a farm labourer, earning about 60 pence per day for his family of six. One litre of milk cost about 60 pence.

I had encountered the Third World and, naively, thought I had achieved something useful.


On a sunny Saturday morning, one week later, I returned to Budi’s house to find him looking even more sick and fragile. I asked his mother if she had taken him to the doctor. No, she had not. But I noticed she had what appeared to be a new set of earrings, and the other children in the family, who looked healthy enough, had some cheap toys which also appeared to be new. I was angry and let it show.

"Budi must go to the doctor!" I growled. "I’ll come with you. I’ll pay the bill."

I seemed like the pushy, know-all, foreigner treating the locals as inferiors. But I felt justified in my aggressiveness; Budi looked dangerously ill; his parents seemed pretty ignorant and needed help; I came from a culture where we had learnt that doctors could help children. Also, I’m sorry to say, I had got used to ordering around my driver and maid, and having doors opened for me at the Hilton.

Mother, father and sick child were persuaded to get into my vehicle and off we drove, a short distance, to a clinic.

It was a dirty little concrete house with cobwebbed walls and virtually no furniture. The sullen young man, who claimed to be a doctor, gave Budi a brief examination and muttered something to the parents. I was being ignored.

"What’s wrong with the child?" I asked.

"Malnutrition," said the doctor, scowling.

"Anything else?"

"Maybe TB."

That seemed to be the end of the conversation. I wondered if the doctor was going to write out a prescription or make some recommendation about further treatment, but he remained silent. I guessed that he hated his country-clinic work and would rather have been doing something in a comfortable part of Jakarta.

"Should the child go to hospital?" I asked.

"Yes," said the doctor.

I waited for him to say something else. More sunless silence.

"Will the parents agree to the child going to hospital?" I persisted.

The doctor spoke to the parents and then said, "They don’t want to go to the hospital."

"Can you persuade them?" I urged.

"They don’t want to go," repeated the doctor, in a tone of voice that signalled he’d be happy to see me leave immediately and never return.

"Should the child get some medicine now?" I asked

The doctor shook his head and we retreated outside.

"You must take the child to the hospital," I said to Budi’s father.

"We’re too busy," he replied.

I appealed to my driver to see if he could persuade the parents to see sense and he had a brief word with them.

"Nothing doing," said the driver.

It seemed that the locals would smile, and be polite, and put up with all sorts of indignities. But when they dug their heels in, they dug them in hard. I needed some advice and resolved to speak to my colleague Carmen whom I was due to meet for lunch the following day.


I had Sunday lunch with Carmen at a simple little Jakarta restaurant called Sari Bundo on a street called Jalan Juanda. We both had the rendang, which is thinly sliced beef loin cooked with coconut milk, lemongrass, turmeric, lime leaves, garlic, ginger, bayleaf and chillies. As we ate, I explained to Carmen the story of the malnourished child called Budi.

"Try one of the churches in Bogor," was Carmen’s simple advice. "They may know what to do about Budi.When I’ve been abroad I’ve always found the church useful in a crisis."

"I’m going to Bogor after lunch," I said, "I’ll call in at the big church near the main police station."

"Good luck."

"You’ve done lots of teaching abroad?" I asked.

"My last job was in Tanzania. I loved it." Carmen beamed.

"Why did you leave?"

"I thought I was missing England."

"And were you?"

"I came back home and found everything dull and grey. No mystery. No street life. The tedious nine-to-five job, teaching Maths. There are three types of student: those who can count and those who can’t. Sometimes those who can’t count decide to bait the teacher. I remember one kid who was an overactive baiter of masters."

"I know the type," I said, after almost choking on a piece of beef. "What were the Tanzanians like to teach? Could you mix with them?"

"The school kids were lovely," said Carmen with a giggle. "I thought I was getting on well with my garden boy. He was a wretchedly poor youth and I gave him a job, got him an education, and helped his family. Before I left Tanzania, he stole from me and ran off."

"Disappointing."

"I felt very hurt," continued Carmen, temporarily losing her normal sunny expression. "I think the local people were friendly on the surface but we expats were still from a foreign tribe."

"Is it the same here?" I asked.

"There’s a more complex civilisation here. So it varies."

"You like the Indonesians?"

"Very much," said Carmen. "I like the dolce far niente. The nearer you get to the Equator, the more friendly and easygoing people become."

"Italy rather than Switzerland."

"Mind you, there are disadvantages when things are very lax," said Carmen. "There was this Bangladeshi restaurant I used to use in London. Chap called Aziz said his town, North of Dacca, was a pleasant Moslem paradise. Then he told me the other side of the story. He said things didn’t work because too many people were cheats and liars. It was a mafia town. Girls were forced into marriage."

"The Indonesians seem to marry young," I commented.

"But not too many of the marriages last," explained Carmen. "Both my maid and my house guard have been married twice. The children get shared among members of the extended family."

"Sounds like England."

"Among the Indonesian poor, life is communal," said Carmen. "Children get shared around. Money gets shared around. If my gardener learns that his neighbour’s come into some money, he’ll want his share."

"Sounds friendly."

"It doesn’t encourage saving. They’re not too good at running a business." Carmen guffawed loudly in her good humoured way. She was a friendly soul.


After the lunch with Carmen I shot off to seek the help of the church. On Bogor’s busy Jalan Veteran, near the Botanic Gardens, I found a big Catholic church built of stone and next to it a venerable old building housing some sort of Catholic order. I introduced myself to a brother John, a relaxed, comfortable looking, middle aged Dutchman. He showed me into the shaded inside garden, where, seated on cushioned rattan chairs, we had a chat with two other elderly Dutch brothers about the problem of Budi.

"There’s a high death rate among these infants," said Brother John. "I’ve been here, off and on, over thirty years. Seen a lot of funerals. But, it’s not as bad as it used to be. Now they’ve got more clinics and there’s more to eat. In fact the population has soared."

Brother Michael, a well fed figure with a white beard, said, "I used to work among some poor rural communities. You know you have to take account of these people’s culture. You have to get to know their way of seeing the world. Otherwise you can’t achieve much."

"But," I said, feeling indignant, "to me, as a newcomer, it’s a simple matter of getting the child to a hospital, which I’ll pay for. The mother spent the last lot of money on some earrings. That’s a problem of human nature, not local culture." I thought it would be silly for me to spend the next six months studying local customs and arts before taking any further action.

"Look at it this way," continued Brother Michael. "These people, by training and habit, expect to go to a dukun, that’s a shaman or witch doctor, when someone’s ill. They’re scared of hospitals. They’ve probably heard of some neighbour whose treatment in hospital went horribly wrong. These folks are used to the idea that, when you’re ill, you stay at home, treated by the dukun, and sometimes you live and sometimes you die. They expect some of their children to die."

"Could it be that the mother is simply lazy and can’t be bothered to go to the hospital?" I asked.

"I think she’s scared of hospitals," said Brother Michael.

"Kent, I’ll see what I can do," said Brother John, "I’ll go and visit them. Maybe we’ll make progress."

"Thanks," I said, "You make me feel better."


A few days later, having had a phone call from Brother John, I was in the reception area of the Menteng Hospital in Bogor. Supposedly Bogor’s best hospital, the Menteng consisted of a series of simple, single storey buildings in pleasant gardens.

"Do you know how long it took?" said Brother John grinning. "I spent six hours trying to persuade Budi’s family to bring him here to the children’s ward, and here he is!"

"Well done," I said. "Six hours! You’ve got stamina. And how’s little Budi?"

"The doctor says he’s severely malnourished and has TB and pneumonia. He says the child must have many weeks of hospital care and that it could take five years to get him restored to good health."

"What do the parents say?"

"I’m afraid they want to take Budi home today."

My heart sank. "What does the doctor say about that?" I asked.

"The doctor said Budi will probably die if he goes home, but he can’t stop the parents doing what they want."

"Let’s go and speak to the parents." I was feeling growing rage.

We walked through an area of garden to the third class children’s ward, a shed-like building which certainly looked third class. There were rows of simple iron beds on each side of the long graceless room. A host of thin-faced female relatives, wearing traditional headscarves and plastic sandals, stood at Budi’s bedside while tiny Budi howled and sobbed.

"Budi must stay in hospital," I said to the mother. I tried not to sound too aggressive.

"He wants to go home," she replied, looking impassively at Budi.

"But the doctor says he may die if he goes home," I continued.

"I’ve got to get home to look after the other children," she said, almost sharply.

"You’ve got other relatives who can help," I pointed out.

"Budi doesn’t like it here," she exclaimed.

"He’s only a child. He doesn’t understand," I said.

"We’re taking Budi home today," she insisted. She bared her teeth as she spoke.

I approached the three extremely young nurses who were gossiping at the other end of the ward.

"Can you help Budi?" I asked. "He keeps on crying. Can you give him something to calm him?" I think that’s what I said, but my grasp of the main Indonesian language was still not great.

The nurses giggled like shop girls and retreated out of the ward.

I turned to Brother John. "Can I speak to the doctor?" I said.

Brother John set off in search of the doctor while I tried to speak to Budi. The child was in no mood for listening to a frightening looking foreigner and shrieked even louder.

"The doctor’s busy," said Brother John, on his return, "but he says he has arranged for Budi to have outpatient treatment twice a week."

"So what do we do now?"

"We can’t force them to stay here," said Brother John.

"I’ll arrange for my driver to come here once a week," I said, "to give them money for the outpatient treatment."

"OK," said Brother John.

On that particular day, the Third World seemed to be a place of ignorance, obstinacy and stupidity. As I was driven back to Jakarta, I wondered if Brother John and I had given in too easily.