THIS IS A FICTIONALISED ACCOUNT OF AN EXPAT'S NINE YEAR STAY IN JAKARTA
1. JAKARTA: SIX DEGREES SOUTH
The Jakarta Kid, Min.
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.
Bogor, near Jakarta.
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."
"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."
"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."
"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?"
"Garden?" I asked.
"We won’t walk around it now," said Fergus. "You get snakes at night."
"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."
"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.
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."
"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.
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."
"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.
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."
"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."
"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."
"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.
Teaching adolescents is not the same as teaching adults or young children; and teaching Chinese adolescents is not the same as teaching Spanish ones; and the last lesson on a Friday can be a pain. I was thinking about this as I sat at my desk supervising my little class and watching the clock. The air-conditioning whirred, the palm trees in the garden swayed as the sky darkened, and I was tired. Well-disciplined Korea girl was onto her fifth page of neat writing which would take me hours to correct. Motivation was not a problem with her as she had a high respect for all things English, but, many of her paragraphs would be Pickwickian blather. Well-behaved Singapore girl and diligent Tokyo girl were onto their fourth sheets and I knew their efforts would be logical and clear. Singapore girl was a serious minded Christian and Tokyo girl had strict but lovely parents. Tokyo girl was the only one whose work would verge on the imaginative or lyrical. Bangkok girl, struggling with her third page of simple text, looked in my direction and smiled that well mannered, almost saucy, Siamese smile. Her upbringing made it impossible for her ever to be rude; but English grammar gave her nightmares. Polite Malaysian boy, still on his second page, tried to hide a yawn. He was not a lover of books or hard toil, but always did what he was told. All these kids were lovely and I could teach a hundred of them at a time without any stress.
Barcelona boy was different. He was spreading ink blots on his desk rather than getting on with his first page. He was the typical textbook teenager: desperate for peer approval, not greatly inspired by school work, and quite happy to annoy adults. Come to think of it, Barcelona boy was the only adolescent behaving like an adolescent. He had a Walkman stuck in his shirt pocket and his trainers were the hundred dollar sort. He was an expert in deceit; he didn’t know where the ink blots had come from. He was an expert in manipulation; he flashed his innocent smile in the direction of Bangkok girl. He was an expert in intimidation; he gave me that look that said: "I can make more trouble than you can ever produce and my rich dad will always back me up." I reckoned he could develop into the typical bully: a con-man, a seducer and a thug. The bell rang. I gently reprimanded Barcelona boy and complemented myself on my degree of calm. I reminded myself that I must try not to take things too personally and that there is a bit of Hitler in all of us. My driver would probably agree with that.
The October half-term holiday arrived and little Budi was still alive.
I decided to take a short holiday trip to the highland city of Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest metropolis, which lies 120 miles East of Jakarta. My driver and I motored up over the misty Puncak Pass, with its tea estates, past the rough-hewn town of Cisarua, volcanically active Mount Gede and then the dishevelled town of Cianjur. We moved leisurely on through a world of rice fields, wide muddy rivers and muddy looking children flying kites. As we began once more to climb narrow winding mountain roads I told Mo, the driver, to drive slowly and carefully. I may have had a Sunday-school upbringing, but I have a worrying lack of faith when it comes to cars and anything remotely dangerous. Mo speeded up and on a blind corner, with a precipitous drop below, decided to overtake the lorry in front of us. An enormous truck came speeding round the bend heading towards us.
We tried to squeeze between the two vehicles. There was a loud hooting of horns, a death threatening shout and a scraping sound. We just made it. All three vehicles.
"Stop the vehicle and park!" I commanded.
We parked. I inspected the minor scrapes and then lectured my driver.
"Mo!You’re of a mature age. You’ve got a wife and two children. You normally drive so slowly. Why choose the worst possible place to speed up and then overtake?"
There was no reply. Was he suffering from stress? Had he gone mad? He wasn’t going to enlighten me, but he did drive slowly from that point on. Too slowly.
After a four hour journey we entered the city of Bandung, once known as the Paris of Java. We drove past damp crumbling kampungs, faded colonial villas and modern factories, producing textiles and processed food; nearer the centre there were dark tree-lined boulevards, sinister army barracks, grey concrete shops and office blocks which were tall and of various vintages. We tried to find the Savoy Homann Hotel but Mo had never before driven a vehicle outside of the Jakarta area and he was as clueless as me about Bandung’s one way streets. I was hungry and grumbling. Half an hour passed as we circled the city.
At last we found Jalan Asia Africa and the handsome hotel. The Savoy Homann hotel dates back to 1880, the year that the Jakarta to Bandung railway line was completed. The railway encouraged the building in Bandung of more villas and hotels; it brought to Bandung, for the purpose of recreation, the Dutch planters who grew coffee, tea and quinine in the surrounding highlands; and at weekends it brought Jakartans, escaping from the heat of the capital. In 1938 the architect A. F. Aabers rebuilt the Savoy Homann in an elegant Art Deco style which made it one of Bandung’s most famous landmarks. The hotel has had many famous guests, including India’s Nehru, China’s Chou En Lai, Egypt’s Nasser and Charlie Chaplin. It was my kind of place and it was not expensive. Having booked in to a room furnished in a 1930s style, I set off excitedly to explore the local streets in search of some supper.
The area around the central square reminded me more of the impoverished Belleville district of Paris rather than Paris’s posh Chaillot quarter. On one side of the square I began to cross over a busy main road by way of what looked like a deserted metal pedestrian bridge. Half way across I came upon a small body curled up and half asleep. This eight year old boy was not blessed with great good looks, and judging by the smell, he was as unwashed as any tramp on the London underground. His begrimed shirt was too big, his stomach and face were slightly swollen, one ear was cut and oozing, and he had no shoes.
"What’s your name?" I asked, as I knelt down beside him.
"Abdul," he said in a tiny voice.
"You should see a doctor," I said. "Do you want me to take you?"
"Yes," he whispered.
So, with the sky turned funereal, and the monsoon rain cascading down, we stood on the main road trying to hail a taxi.
"How much to the hospital?" I asked the first driver to come along.
"Ten thousand rupiahs."
This was about four times the normal fare. I had half-opened the taxi door but now I slammed it shut as my way of showing my rejection of his offer. Had he no sympathy for a sick child? When the next taxi appeared, two expensively dressed women, loaded with jewellery, pushed in ahead of us.
Eventually, with the help of a third taxi, we reached the hospital, an institution managed by Christians. Dripping with rain, we entered the classy reception area. Some of the wealthy visitors stared in surprise at the ragged Moslem urchin with the stick out ears and the rather unhappy little mouth.
In a green walled surgery, I introduced myself to the doctor, a thin Chinese Indonesian woman with a kindly face. I explained how I had found the child. Abdul’s ear was carefully washed and several types of pill were issued. The doctor asked the boy a few questions and then turned to me.
"He says he’s been abandoned by his parents," she said. "His ear will be OK, and his cough."
"Is there somewhere I can take him?" I asked. "He shouldn’t sleep on a bridge with the rain pouring down."
"I’ll give you the address of my church. You can talk to the pastor. He may be able to help." By taxi we reached the church, which was in a ritzy neighbourhood. A fat uniformed guard, wearing an angry sneer, barred the door.
"He can’t come in," said the guard, referring to the shivering eight year old Moslem boy.
"We’ve come to see the pastor," I said.
The guard lifted his arm as if to push the boy away. At the same moment, a middle aged Chinese woman, who had spent a fortune on her coiffure, came out of the church, staring at the child as if he was a gob of phlegm. The guard was distracted and we slipped inside the church.
We located pastor Simon, a big Dutchman with a twinkle in his eye, and sat down for a chat, in his comfortable wood panelled office. Pastor Simon asked Abdul lots of questions, which were answered by the boy in a trembling voice, as the tears flowed down his grubby little face.
"His parents have divorced," said the pastor, addressing me. "His mother’s gone off to some unknown address in Jakarta; his father’s taken up with another woman; he was being looked after by his grandmother but she beat him. That’s why he ended up sleeping in the central square in Bandung."
"How does he survive?" I asked.
"These children in the square, and there must be several dozen there, can earn up to a dollar a day. They do some begging and they shine shoes. On a good day there’s enough money to buy food at a stall and play the arcade games. But this little chap got sick."
"What can we do?"
"There’s little anyone can do. They enjoy the street life. It gives them freedom. They don’t want the discipline of home or school." Pastor Simon smiled cynically. Here he was, the Christian Pastor in the wealthy church, apparently writing these people off.
"Isn’t there a home for such children? Doesn’t Bandung have some institution that’ll take them in?"
"You could try Lembang, up in the hills, above Bandung. There’s an international children’s village there. It takes abandoned children." Pastor Simon wrote down the address, shook hands, and showed us to the door.
We left the church, still hungry, and found a three wheeled bicycle taxi to take us to a clothing shop. I was enjoying myself; I was having an adventure; and in a smug sort of way I felt I was behaving better than the average mortal.
For about two dollars we bought a T-shirt, trousers and shoes from the astonished Chinese Indonesian store owner. Abdul’s greasy old clothes were thrown into the gutter, but still Abdul didn’t lose his unwashed smell.
"Take us to the Savoy," I called to the grim-faced becak driver. "It’s very close to here and we’re extremely hungry."
In the darkness and the miserable rain he appeared to pedal us to the edge of Bandung, then back to the centre and then to an outer industrial suburb. Was the problem the one-way road system, or the driver’s lack of geography, or was it just possible the gentleman was trying to cheat the stupid foreigner? A piece of plastic sheeting gave us some protection from the rain and from the driver.
"Don’t you know the way?" I shouted through the deluge. My smugness and euphoria had evaporated.
"Hotel Savoy? It’s very near," called back the driver.
"You don’t know the flipping hotel," I wailed. "You don’t know where you’re going." I was determined I was not going to pay this guy more than a few cents. Never in a million years. At that moment we turned a corner and there was the hotel.
We got out to pay the bill. Eight thousand rupiahs.
"That’s far too much. You took us the wrong way. All round Bandung. It’s criminal."
"Eight thousand rupiahs," he growled. He had the look of a slavering hyena.
"OK, here you are," I said.
We entered the elegant hotel restaurant where Abdul, in spite of his new clothes, couldn’t help but look a little out of place. His table manners were good but somehow he didn’t look or smell like one of the elite. He ate huge quantities of oxtail soup, chicken with rice, and ice cream, and less than a fifth of it went on the floor.
As I drank my coffee I pondered the problem of what to do next. When I had first arrived at the Savoy, earlier in the day, I had allowed my driver to go off in search of accommodation for himself. The arrangement was that I would meet him again the following morning. I had no idea where he was, but I would need him if I was to ferry Abdul to the children’s village in Lembang. I took Abdul to the hotel manager’s office and introduced myself to the manager, a small serious-looking man in his forties.
"I found this abandoned child in the street," I explained, "and I have to locate Mo, my driver, but I don’t know where he is..." I went into some detail.
"I’m afraid I’ve no idea where your driver might be," said the manager sympathetically, "I don’t think we’ll find him tonight."
"Well, there’s a problem. Where can the child stay tonight, if not with the driver? I don’t want him back on the street. Do you have a room he can stay in at this hotel?"
"He can’t stay on his own. He has to be supervised, but he can stay in your room as it’s a double."
"I don’t think so." What if I bumped into other expats? What on earth would they think?
"It’s no problem."
I took Abdul out to the street and we headed back towards the central square. There was a stall selling food, just the sort of place where a driver might eat. Was that my driver shaking black sauce onto his noodles? The kerosene lamp was none too bright. It was indeed my wonderful driver.
"Mo, I just want to thank you," I said, "for driving so slowly and carefully today. It was a delightful journey. By the way, this child is called Abdul...."
Next morning, as we headed up the steep hills to Lembang, both Abdul and the driver were totally silent.
The children’s village was a collection of mainly low rise buildings, crowded with lively little children in red and white school uniforms. In his smart office I found the director, a middle aged Indonesian who spoke good English. He wore a sober suit, he had a sober manner, and he was most hospitable. I told him the story of Abdul.
"Yes, we can take him," said the director, much to my relief. "We’ll make inquiries about his family."
"I suppose you have to check his story."
"His family have a right to know what’s happening and to be consulted."
"What about payment?"
"These children are sponsored by people from all over the world. I’ll give you a form to sign. I think it is, in dollars, between one and two hundred for the year."
The director spoke softly to Abdul before handing him over to a female assistant. I handed over the required sum of money and speedily took off back to Bandung, with my wordless car wallah.
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.
"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.
"You live in Bogor?" I asked.
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.
"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?"
"Have you got receipts from the hospital?"
"Have you been back to the hospital for the twice weekly check up?"
"Have you still got the money?"
I noticed she was wearing new shoes and a thin gold chain.
"Has Budi been getting the medicine the hospital gave him?"
"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?"
"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.
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?"
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?"
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?"
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.
"What is Baudlaire saying some perfume makes him think of?"
"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."
"No. The British army in Malaysia."
"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.
THIS IS A FICTIONALISED ACCOUNT OF AN EXPAT'S NINE YEAR STAY IN JAKARTA, THE CAPITAL OF INDONESIA. THE MORAL RIGHT OF THE AUTHOR HAS BEEN ASSERTED. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2004
7. BANGBANG ON JALAN SUDIRMAN
The second school term had begun and we were now well into 1991. The school was running fairly smoothly, I had hardly ever been bitten by mosquitoes, and my tummy was behaving itself. Best of all I had lots of time off, thanks to the short school day and the large number of public holidays to celebrate the holy days of Moslems, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. There were always exotic new people to meet and totally unfamiliar situations to offer a challenge.
One Saturday morning in February, I was being driven past the glitzy skyscrapers on Jakarta’s Jalan Sudirman towards the Hongkong Bank when I saw a body lying lifeless on the grass on the central reservation. The body was that of a small boy and he looked as if he might have been hit by a car. Two adults had stopped to have a look.
Should I get out and offer to take the child to hospital? In Indonesia there is the danger, when someone has been hit by a vehicle, that an enraged kampung mob will appear and try to grab the supposed driver so that they can kick and beat him to death. There was no sign of a mob. A quick decision was called for. To stop or not to stop?
"Stop! Park!" I yelled to Mo, my driver. The traffic slowed and I was able to get out of the Mitsubishi and over to where the body lay.
A policeman had arrived. The boy looked about ten years old, was poorly dressed and had the face of a youthful garden gnome. Fortunately he was breathing and had no obvious injuries.
"What happened?" I asked, in order to establish that I had nothing at all to do with the accident. "Is there a hospital nearby?"
A man pointed. We were right opposite the modern Jakarta Hospital. The policeman picked the kid up and I followed them all the way to the emergency room.
A young Chinese-looking doctor, having given the boy what seemed like a five second examination, declared that nothing seemed to be broken and that the urchin could be returned to the street. The boy’s eyes were now open and he was able to answer the nurse’s questions.
"He’s a street kid," said the smiling doctor, addressing me, "and he’s not right in the head. Probably also has epilepsy. He says he has no parents and his name is Bangbang."
It was becoming clear that indeed Bangbang wasn’t completely normal. He suddenly poked the doctor in the stomach and then stared at him hard with a wide-eyed manic grin. The doctor chuckled.
Back to the street? Surely not.
"Maybe he should have an x-ray to see if his head’s been injured," I suggested. "I’ll pay."
"He’ll need to go to the Dipo Hospital," said the doctor. "They’ve got a place for mentally disturbed children there."
So, with the policeman and Bangbang, we drove in my vehicle to the hospital I had previously visited with One Hand. Bangbang sat fairly quietly, enjoying the ride. Only occasionally did he poke me gently in the ribs and give me the staring grin.
The policeman, an affable chap, took us to the drab emergency room, where a doctor looked at Bangbang and decided he could be admitted for tests. The policeman showed me where to pay the deposit for Bangbang’s stay and then led us down long dingy corridors until we came to the absolutely vast quarters reserved for stressed, mentally ill and mentally backward kids. The high ceilings and dark walls reminded me of classrooms in Victorian schools. Bangbang seemed to be the only patient.
The three nurses on duty stopped watching their TV in their little office and started to chat to the policeman and the new little arrival. Jokes seemed to be being made but I couldn’t make out what was being said. They all seemed totally at ease, in a Javanese sort of way, and to be enjoying each other’s company. Bangbang looked content and I relaxed. The policeman shook my hand, accepted some money for his bus fare, and departed.
"Mister likes children?" asked the oldest nurse, a lady in her mid-thirties whose face, shoulders and hips made me think of a happy Hermann Goering. Her name was Fatma.
"I felt sorry for Bangbang," I explained. Fatma’s eyes suggested she might be sneering rather than smiling.
"Mister has no children?" she continued. The other two nurses were now grinning.
"Not yet," I said. "How about you?"
"Two children," said Fatma. I noticed on one of her fingers a chunky gold ring that didn’t look cheap.
"And now you’ve got Bangbang to look after," I said. "I’ll be back tomorrow evening."
"Bring us something nice," said Fatma.
"Maybe," I said, and left.
Next afternoon I brought some chocolates to the nurses who smiled and looked pleased. Bangbang trotted up to me, squeezed my arm, took my hand, and gave me a sudden punch in the stomach. Fortunately it was a gentle, friendly punch. Bangbang and I then took a walk around the ward.
A few evenings later, I was able to meet the Dipo Hospital’s child psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph, a round faced, middle aged Chinese Indonesian with thinning hair.
"Mr Kent, you are very kind to help Bangbang," said the doctor, sitting at the nurses’ desk, looking benevolent and calm.
"It gives me something to do," I said.
"The tests show Bangbang has no broken bones," explained the doctor.
"I find he can be quite affectionate," I said. "For brief periods he even appears quite normal."
"We’ve discovered that Bangbang has got parents," said the doctor. "They’ve been to visit him. They say Bangbang’s often gone missing."
"Do they want to take him home?" I asked.
"If you want him to stay here a little longer, I’m sure they’ll agree."
"What do you think is wrong with Bangbang?"
"He’s got epilepsy and he’s psychotic. He claims he gets beaten at home. Maybe he gets beaten because he has epileptic fits."
"Is the father poorly educated?"
"Yes. I’ve told him he must not beat the child."
"I think Bangbang should stay here a little longer," I said.
When I returned to the hospital the following evening, I found Bangbang strolling along one of the corridors, on his own. I took him by the hand and returned him to his ward.
"I found Bangbang wandering around the hospital," I said to Fatma, the nurse in charge. "He should be kept in the ward. He might try to run off."
Fatma and her assistant seemed unconcerned. They continued watching the TV in their little office.
Next evening I returned to the Dipo Hospital to find Fatma and her friend busy eating chicken stew. There were no patients to look after.
"Bangbang has run off," said Fatma, looking surprisingly happy.
"What!" I shouted. "Have you looked for him?"
"The hospital guards looked all over. He’s gone." They carried on eating, picking up bits of chicken in their fingers.
"All you do is sit in your office and eat and watch TV," I said. "You only have one child to look after and you manage to lose him!"
They smiled, refusing to be unfazed.
Oh dear. What would Bangbang’s parents say?
"I’m going to see the hospital’s director," I announced, hoarsely. I wanted someone to take the blame and I didn’t want it to be me.
I strode along corridors and up flights of stairs until I came to a grand hallway and the offices of the hospital’s top people. The Director of the Dipo Hospital had an office that reminded me of a ballroom at a Grand Hyatt. But it was empty, as was the office of the deputy.
"When will they be back?" I asked a secretary, seated at a desk in the hallway.
"Next month," she said. "They’ve both gone on the Haj pilgrimage."
There was no one at the hospital on whom I could vent my rage.
When I got home, I noticed that Rachmat, the house guard and gardener, had not cut the grass in the front garden and Ami, the maid, was not ready to serve supper.
"Rachmat!" I shouted.
A grining Rachmat poked his head around the kitchen door.
"Rachmat, the grass should have been cut days ago. Get it cut first thing tomorrow!" I found myself speaking like a colonial master.
"Ami, why is supper not ready? This is ridiculous." As I spoke, the roast chicken was rushed onto the dining room table.
I sank my knife into the chicken breast. Red blood oozed out.
"Ami! This chicken is not properly cooked. This is useless."
I had noticed, when I had first arrived in Jakarta, that certain expats addressed almost all Indonesians as if they were stupid ten year-olds. It was too easy to do. People like Ami and Rachmat did occasionally behave in a slightly sloppy way; and when they were told off they seemed to put up with it.
The problem was mine. I would need to learn not to take advantage of the politeness and servility of some Indonesians. I would need to learn to adjust to Jakarta’s occasional frustrations. I would need to be less like a volcano. What I needed was a soul-mate.
When the weekend came I visited little Budi in Bogor. Good news. His eyes shone, he smiled, his hair looked darker, and, although still seriously malnourished, he had put on a little weight.
I took a walk to see consumptive Asep in his damp little home under the trees.
"Have you had an x-ray?" I asked.
"Yes," said Asep, handing me an envelope containing the evidence. The doctor says I have TB. I’ve got some medicine."
"Got a receipt?"
"Yes," he said, handing over some slips of paper and some funny little plastic bags containing pills, all of which I examined with care.
"There’s a receipt for the x-ray and the consultation. I can’t see any receipt for the pills."
"I got the pills from the puskesmas, the local clinic. It’s cheaper."
"So what happened to the money left over?"
"Is that a new TV I can see inside?" I could see a cheap little television sat on a table.
"No. We borrowed that from a friend. It’s an old TV."
"These pills from the clinic look odd. Are they as good as the pills from the hospital?"
"I’d prefer you to get the next lot of pills from the hospital and you must get a receipt!" I handed him the money for the next hospital visit.
As I set off back towards my van, I passed a falling down shack, outside which sat a very sick looking young teenage boy, by name Eddy. His face was grey.
"What are these strange green herbs stuck to your forehead?" I asked.
"The dukun, the medicine-man, put them there. I’ve got a fever."
"Are you getting better?"
"No, I feel very bad."
"Want to go to Bogor’s Menteng hospital?"
"Yes, but my father has no money."
"Don’t worry about that."
When we reached the hospital, the doctor did a blood test, diagnosed "typhoid", admitted him to a ward, and had him put on a drip. The boy’s hollow-cheeked father, who did not look very bright, signed the requisite admission form. I paid a deposit and left money for medicine.
"Eddy will need to stay here for at least a week," said the doctor. "He’s very dehydrated."
Three days later I returned to Bogor to find that Eddy was no longer in hospital . His father had taken him home.
"Why did you take the boy home?" I demanded of the father, when I reached his hut.
"Eddy was better," came the reply.
"Has he got any medicine?"
"This is crazy. We must get back to the hospital immediately."
The father didn’t argue. We piled into my van and drove fast over the potholes towards the centre of town.
"Why," I asked the doctor at the Hospital, "was Eddy allowed to go home without any medicine?"
"We can’t force patients to stay," said the doctor, avoiding my eyes.
"Should he stay in hospital?" I asked.
"He’s not yet better but the father wants him home. However, he can get some outpatient medicine." The doctor began to write out a prescription.
Before going home I visited Budi’s house. It was empty but a little way along the road I came across the family on their way to visit neighbours. Budi was in tears, trailing behind his mum and dad. Mum was scolding Budi and her teeth were showing. I stopped to ask after the child’s health. I was assured that all was well.
By the time I got to the plush and exclusive Piste Top Bar that evening, to meet Fergus, I was ready for a drink. I had a lot on my mind. I was discovering that in the Third World it was not always so easy to help the waifs and strays. There was the problem of human nature. Nurses could let their child patients walk out of the ward; foolish TB patients seemed to prefer buying TV sets to buying hospital medicines; ignorant fathers could take their children out of hospital too soon; impatient mothers could reduce their sick children to tears. Perhaps it was the same in the slums of Liverpool or London.
I looked around the bar. The clientele were mainly Indonesians in dark suits or designer dresses. On several tables there were whisky bottles positioned beside the candles.
"How was your day?" I asked Fergus.
"Squash at ISCI. Well, I was thirsty. Went for a workout. Sunbathed at the Mandarin. How was your day?"
"Still no sign of Bangbang." I was aware that I had been in favour of Bangbang staying on at the Dipo hospital.
"Well, it’s not your fault."
"It’s crowded tonight," I said, changing the subject. "Who’s the guy getting all the attention over on our left?"
"Relation of Big Daddy, sitting with his body guards," said Fergus.
"The President," explained Fergus.
"And the guy in the dark blue suit at the back?" I asked.
"I could be wrong, but it looks like the general who organised the East Timor invasion in 1975. A good catholic."
"And the CIA station chief is the guy at the next table who looks like a Colombian drugs baron."
"You’re having me on. That’s Carmen."
Indeed it was Carmen and she came to join us at our table. As the Philippino band began to play a song about "Money! Money! Money!" I began to relax with my beer.
A few days later my driver had good news. He had visited Eddy in Bogor and found that the boy was restored to good health. His typhoid was gone.
8. PELABUHAN RATU
One March evening, as I was about to drink my after-supper coffee, the maid appeared with a startling message.
"Bangbang’s father is here to see you," she announced.
Various thoughts flashed through my head. How on earth had Bangbang’s father got my address? Had the Dipo hospital given it to him? Was he a big strong chap in the habit of carrying a machete?
I walked slowly to the door, trying not to think about what a father might say about the disappearance of his son from a hospital.
The father was a thin little man with a wonderfully warm smile. "Bangbang has returned home," he said, handing me some bananas. "I’ve come to thank you for helping him at the hospital."
"Thank you," I said, letting out a sigh. "I’m sorry Bangbang disappeared. I am very relieved he’s come back home."
"Would you like to visit my home? It’s near Kebun Jeruk," he said.
"I’d love to."
A half hour drive took us to Bangbang’s house, a narrow, garage-like building next to a busy highway. Bangbang’s smiling mother, bigger than her husband, had the gentle manner of a nun. The house seemed to be full of children. A shy but grinning Bangbang stepped forward, squeezed my hand and gave me a little punch.
I was given a quick tour of the small habitation. Cheap curtains acted as walls for the two bedrooms; water in the combined toilet and kitchen was supplied by a pump; Islamic pictures decorated some walls.
Father and I sat on a broken settee in the lounge and had a brief chat.
"Is Bangbang getting any medicine for his epilepsy?" I asked.
"Yes," said his father, sounding hesitant, "but it’s expensive."
I handed him a little money and received warm thanks. He did not look at all like a man who would beat his epileptic child.
"What work do you do?" I asked.
"I repair cars."
"You have a large family?"
"And how’s Bangbang?" "He keeps on running away."
From time to time Bangbang would make a face and punch one of his brothers or sisters on the arm. They just smiled. I hoped he wouldn’t punch his gentle-looking mother, who was heavily pregnant.
A staffroom is a useful place for picking up information.
"Where’s the very best place for a weekend break?" I asked John, a tall and adventurous young teacher who had been all over Indonesia.
"My favourite place is Pelabuhan Ratu," said John, placing his coffee mug on top of a pile of exercise books. "On the south coast, four hours from Jakarta; a fishing village in a large horseshoe bay."
"What do you think Alan?" I asked our sensitive and friendly lover of gamelan music and Indonesians. He was on his second clove cigarette of the break.
"Pelabuhan Ratu gives me bad vibes," he said. "I get a haunted feeling down there. Lots of people get drowned on that bit of coast and the locals believe the drownings are caused by Ratu Kidul, the goddess of the South Sea. She recruits drowned victims to her underwater kingdom."
"A goddess? Is that Islamic?" I asked.
"Nothing to do with Islam," said Alan, looking serious. "Ratu Kidul is queen of the spirits and there’s a very strong belief in her, particularly by the Sultans of Yogyakarta. The goddess is believed to marry each of the sultans in turn, down through the ages. Presumably the marriage is in a spiritual sense."
"Do they really take this stuff seriously?" I asked Alan.
"There’s only one big hotel in Pelabuhan Ratu, the Samudra Beach. The hotel keeps a locked room on the top floor for the goddess. They all take it seriously," he said. "I tell you Pelabuhan Ratu gives me bad vibes."
"My driver has a story about this," said John with a wide grin. "Near the Samudra Beach hotel there’s a small lava flow, called the Karang Hawu cliff. This is where the lady flung herself into the sea and became transformed into the goddess. What my driver says is that in the Karang Hawu area there are some very friendly ladies who will invite you into their homes, in return for a small fee."
The school bell rang to mark the end of break. I turned to Joanne, a kindly and mature lady from New Zealand, who was just finishing her mint tea.
"What do you think of Pelabuhan Ratu, Jane?"
"It’s lovely. You should go," she said. "It’s very unspoilt; you probably won’t see any other white men. There’s a lovely fish restaurant, a handful of shops and even a small hospital. "
"What’s the road like?"
"Good until you get to Ciawi and then it gradually gets worse and worse and worse."
She was right. After Cibadak the road became narrow, pot holed and twisting. Mo, my driver, had to concentrate hard while I was able to sit back and enjoy the scenery. We entered a wild and magical world of goblin hills, impoverished wooden huts and towering phthalo green rainforest. Occasionally there were sunny terraced rice fields, followed by dark and gloomy rubber plantations.
After a bumpy four hour journey the Indian Ocean came into view. The driver and I began our descent towards Pelabuhan Ratu and a giant glistening bay which was edged by forest-covered hills, abrupt cliffs, wide beaches and tall palms.
"Samudra Beach Hotel," I instructed Mo.
We drove past little fishing boats, with red and blue sails flapping in the breeze, and past tousled wooden houses decked in pink and peach bougainvillea, and on to the concrete box hotel built by President Sukarno in the 1960’s.
The hotel seemed to have only a handful of guests. My room looked as if it had not been redecorated since the 1960’s but at least there was air-conditioning and a shower. I could not feel the presence of any goddess.
I headed for the dimly-lit bar and ordered a glass of wine. I was the only customer. What appeared, after a ten minute wait, was a glass of something from a bottle which had probably first been opened back in 1960.
"The wine’s gone off," I told the bright-eyed young barman who looked as if he could have been a student.
"I’m sorry," he said, flashing me a smile. "Not many people ask for wine. Would you like a beer?"
"Yes please. The hotel seems a bit run down."
"It has been renovated," said the barman, putting on a serious face, and pouring me a Bintan.
"Not very well," I commented. "The fittings such as baths and air conditioners look thirty years old. And the schools I passed on the way here. They all look as if they’re falling down."
"What this country needs is a revolution." The barman seemed to be smiling as he said this. I wondered if he came from a simple house with no bathroom, or if he was one of the well-connected.
"That’s a dangerous thing to say," I pointed out.
"No. It’s true. We need a revolution."
"I prefer peaceful change," I said, in case anyone else was listening. "The trouble with revolutions is that the little people get killed."
I wondered, half seriously, if the barman was an agent provocateur, and decided it might be a good idea to go for a walk along the deserted beach.
My stroll took me to a collection of dilapidated little warungs, or stalls, next to some palm trees. Each simple wooden building acted as both bar and home. I chose the only stall where there was any sign of life and sat drinking a cola in the company of the owner, moustachioed middle-aged Rachman. From my bar stool I could watch the waves breaking on the sunny shore.
Rachman told me he had four children. Mira, a pretty girl in her late teens, was standing at the far end of the bar; she was combing her long dark hair. Budi and Udin, two little twins with eczema on their legs, were playing with a skinny dog. Abi, a winsome boy, aged about twelve, was using a broom to sweep a patch of earth in front of a shed containing chickens. The boy was limping and did not look happy.
"Abi doesn’t look well," I said to Rachman.
"He’s fine," said Rachman.
Abi, hearing our coversation, came over to the bar.
"I’ve got a fever and a headache," said Abi.
"Do you want me to take him to the local hospital?" I asked Rachman.
"That would be kind," he said.
"You’ll come with us?"
"No. It’s OK for you to go alone with the boy."
"I think the hospital will need to have you there in case they want to give him an injection or something."
"No. My wife and I don’t need to go."
"But he’s only about twelve years old."
"He’ll be all right."
Abi and I drove to the little hospital near the centre of town and consulted the doctor, who looked as if he was not long out of school.
"It’s polio," said the doctor. "Very common here because of the faeces in the sea water. Abi will be better soon if he looks after himself. This looks like a fairly mild case. But it was good you brought him here."
"I’m glad it’s not serious," I said. "Are there lots of serious diseases around here?"
"The south coast has malaria. Then there’s typhoid all year round, and TB, and hepatitis, and we suspect there’s a growing AIDS problem."
"I’ve seen a few people with skin diseases," I commented.
"Most of them have skin problems."
I spent much of the next day exploring the beautiful coastline, breathing the sea air and taking pictures of gorgeous little fishing boats in the turquoise sea. Each time a catamaran approached the beach, hordes of small boys would wade into the sea to unload long silvery fish.
Wherever I wandered, I was met with friendly faces. Outside some fishermen’s huts a small boy inched up a tall coconut tree, released a coconut, slid down to the ground, hacked off the tip of the nut with a machete, and offered me a drink of sweet refreshing liquid. Then he and his friends brought me a young goat to inspect.
I stopped off at the main market, which comprised a series of dark, low-ceilinged warehouse-like buildings linked by muddy pathways. Black shiny flies covered the chicken innards laid out on a blood-covered table; open sacks of everything from coriander to ginger gave off the aromas of the East; sensuous dangdut music flowed from stalls selling cassettes.
In the evening I returned to the warung to see Abi.
"How is he?" I asked Rachman.
"He’s fine. Getting lots of rest."
"How’s the warung doing? Lots of tourists?"
"No. We get lots of young Indonesians coming to the beach at holiday periods but they’ve no money. I need to restock the warung, but I can’t afford it. My daughter is studying in Bandung but it’s a struggle to pay the fees."
"How much do you need to restock?"
"One hundred thousand."
I counted out a few rupiah notes and handed them to Rachman.
"You’re very kind to us," said Rachman’s plump, soft-hearted-looking wife, who had appeared from inside the hut.
"You know some of the foreigners who come here like to sleep with the locals," said Rachman. "Is there anyone in our family you’d like to sleep with?"
"Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying," I lied. "I’ve got to go back to the hotel to get my packing done. Going home tomorrow." Somehow their words had disturbed the pleasant atmosphere.
"Are you driving back to the Samudra Beach?" asked Rachman.
"No. Walking," I said.
"Be careful around here," said Rachman. "Last week there was a woman tourist found dead next one of these huts."
"Goodness. What happened? Was she old?"
"She was young. The police don’t know what happened. No sign of violence."
I walked very carefully back to the hotel, glancing behind me from time to time. I was beginning to feel bad vibes. Would I have wanted to get close to any of Rachman’s family? There was a photo in their warung showing the daughter with a boyfriend. Then there was the question of what the hospital doctor had said about local diseases. And there was a question of my karma.
On the way back from Pelabuhan Ratu I stopped off in Bogor to see little five-year-old Budi. His mother came up to the van, before I had time to get out, and spoke to Mo, my driver.
"Budi’s dead," said Mo, with a face lacking expression.
I felt concussed. I felt my insides lacerated. "What happened?" I asked the mother.
"He got a fever," she said, grinning, in the way that Indonesians sometimes do when trying to soften the effect of bad news.
"Did you go to the doctor?"
"There was no time," she said.
Mo and I drove back to Jakarta in silence. My first big challenge in Indonesia had been to get Budi better, and I had failed. How could it happen? Where had I gone wrong? Shouldn’t there have been a happy ending? Where were the angels? I pictured Budi crying and his mother showing her teeth.
As we sped along the motorway I stared at the strange shapes of the clouds and tried to rest my brain. But I kept on thinking about Budi. And I kept on thinking of my failure, my hurt pride. In the months before Budi had died, I had made fewer and fewer visits to the child; I had left it to my driver to deliver the small sums of money for his medicine; I had given them the bare minimum in cash and time.
I had to go to the Piste Top Bar that evening to meet Fergus. The Filipino band were in a very jolly mood and they were talking to the audience.
"Hey mister Fergus," said the lead singer, "Your friend looks so sad."
9. SINGAPORE AND JOHOR BARU
After ten months in Jakarta I was fully aware of just how comfortable the place could be for an expat, if he or she didn’t worry too much about the poverty and deaths in the slums. In the centre of Jakarta, the sky-scraper streets like Thamrin, Sudirman and Rasuna Said looked clean and safe and even a little green, thanks to the many trees; there were ritzy five star hotels where you could pop in for a coffee or a beer; gleaming new shopping malls were popping up; splendiferous supermarkets could sell you Scottish shortbread, English Marmite, American beef and French wine; there was no shortage of boutiques selling Armani or Patek Philippe or Chanel. At one’s residence there was no need to clean the car, or dig the garden, or wash the dishes; there were servants to do everything from the ironing to the cooking. At school there were lots of Indonesian assistants to prepare and photocopy materials and put up wall displays. It was always pleasantly warm and mainly sunny. And in Jakarta you were not so far from lots of other interesting tropical countries.
When the summer holidays began I decided to take a short flight North to the tropical island of Singapore, ruled at one time by Sumatrans, at another by Indians, and then in more recent times by the British, and even the Japanese. Three quarters of Singapore’s population are Chinese who came to Singapore as labourers in the 19th and early 20th century. The rest of the population are mainly of the Malay and Indian race.
Singapore was, fairly recently, a grubby Third World country with a bit of a reputation for poverty, racial problems and crime. Now part of its fame is due to its great wealth and incredibly safe, clean streets. In Singapore, unlike in so many towns and cities in Britain, you will not see filthy run-down housing estates, you will not normally see litter or graffiti, you will not see drug dealers at street corners, and you will not see knife-wielding teenagers mugging old ladies. There is censorship of nasty videos and zero tolerance of crime. Drug dealers are likely to be executed.
I took a taxi from Singapore’s Changi Airport and studied the scene. At first it was fast traffic, concrete motorway, concrete tower blocks, and neat patches of tropical garden and park. But then we slowed as we entered the heart of the hot, humid city. Slim brown school girls in white uniforms were walking sedately past green shuttered colonial buildings; in the shade of a cool veranda a thin pussy cat stretched itself and fell asleep; glistening Mercedes glid past villas with palladian pillars and gardens of ferns and palms; turbaned Malays were heading towards a mosque; incense drifted upwards from a Hindu temple. Wonderful; but was there something missing? Some colourful graffiti or a cow crossing the road? To be honest, since Singapore gained its independence, too many of the colourful old buildings have been knocked down, to be replaced by modern skyscrapers. And some unkind people have described Singapore as being a police state, where eccentricity and non-conformity have been outlawed.
Lee Kuan Yew, while prime minister of Singapore until 1990, seemed to believe in the idea of a nanny-state run by an elite; he did not entirely trust American capitalism; he supported the ideas of Confucius.
"How’s life in Singapore?" I asked the Malay taxi driver.
"Housing’s expensive. It’s hard to pay all the bills."
"Singapore’s doing pretty well though, isn’t it? Compared to Indonesia."
"You have to work hard here because everything costs so much. All work, no play."
"It must be a good place to bring up children. The streets are safe."
"Yes, it’s safer than most places."
"No dengue fever. No malaria."
"You can get these here occasionally. There was dengue quite recently."
"No red-light districts."
"There are at least four. Want to go there?"
"No thanks." I had heard that the red-light areas were tame and strictly controlled.
I checked into a Malay-run four star hotel and was not wonderfully impressed. A large overflowing rubbish bin almost blocked the emergency stairs. Staff seemed sullen. Never mind, I would eat outside.
At a cheap hawker food stall I feasted on Malay chicken broth and an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes flavoured with shallots, prawn paste, lemon grass and tamarind.
I took a taxi to the enchanting area around Serangoon Road, known as Little India. There I sniffed spices and garlands of flowers; I pretended to be interested in buying cheap watches and Indian jewellery; I visited an elaborate and slightly erotic temple filled with incense.
I wandered happily through Chinatown taking photos of washing hanging from bamboo poles, tall crowded tenements, dusty old shophouses with ferns growing out of their tin roofs, and bald headed men sipping green tea and playing mahjong in high ceilinged restaurants. I stopped for a beer.
"Tourist?" said the young Chinese chap standing next to me. He was wearing a sober tie and looked like a businessman.
"Yes. I work in Indonesia."
"Very friendly people in Jakarta."
"Be careful with the Malay race. They are the majority in Indonesia, you know, and the minority here."
"Why the need to be careful?"
"They’ll be very friendly and invite you into their homes, but they’re expecting gifts. They’ll take more than they’ll give."
"Interesting." I decided not to argue with him. I was on holiday. "Singapore’s doing very well," I commented.
"I think we are now richer than Britain," he said. "In terms of people’s incomes."
"Why do you think you’ve done so well? This place used to be Third World. Just a muddy swamp."
He smiled, looking very pleased. "Where you have the Chinese people," he said, "and you have honest British-style institutions, like in Hong Kong and here in Singapore, then you get wealth."
"Why is Indonesia not so rich?" I asked. "It’s got millions of Chinese Indonesians."
"No honest institutions in Indonesia," he said. "The Chinese businessmen get away with murder."
Next day, I took the train from Singapore across the causeway to the Malaysian city of Johor Baru which lies at the bottom of peninsular Malaysia. Just before we reached our destination, the Chinese woman sitting opposite me decided to speak to me. She was smartly but soberly dressed, in her forties, and had the face of a kindly and hardworking nun.
"How do you like our Singapore?" she asked.
"It’s pretty clean. No graffiti or starving children, unlike Indonesia. That’s where I work."
"In Singapore you know you get fined if you drop litter? You get hanged if you get caught with lots of drugs?"
"So I’ve heard. Do you find Singapore too strict?"
"For a woman it’s good. You’re not going to get harassed there. You know back in 1959 we didn’t know how well Singapore would survive. We were worried about race riots and strikes. A lot of people welcomed a strict government, so long as it built houses and schools for everyone."
"What work do you do?" I asked.
"I run a boarding house for schoolchildren from Indonesia. They attend the international schools in Singapore."
"What sort of kids do you get?"
"Rich children, the sons of army people, civil servants, business people. They tell me the schools in Jakarta are not good."
"The teachers get paid very little," I commented, "and some of the children are always fighting." "It’s sad," she said.
We drew into Johor Baru and I set off to find the most interesting tourist attractions. The sky was grey; many buildings seemed boringly Westernised; Abu Bakar’s Grand Palace didn’t seem particularly grand; the Abu Bakar Mosque was a vaguely interesting Victorian building. I settled eventually for a smart Indian restaurant.
While tucking into biryani and paratha, washed down with Tiger beer, I got into conversation with a bespectacled young Chinese who had been reading a computer magazine. He was sitting at the next table and was almost finished his meal.
"Malaysia’s making good progress with technology," I said.
"Thanks," he said, slightly shyly. "Our problem is that we’ll never catch up with the Americans. We just can’t compete with their wealth and their universities. They’re so far ahead." He sort-of laughed.
"Where were you educated?" I asked.
"Sheffield University." His eyes lit up.
"Did you like it?"
"A lot. That was before Mrs Thatcher made foreign students pay more money. You’re British?"
"Yes," I said, "but I’m working in Jakarta. Are there close ties between Malaysia and Indonesia? They both speak the Malay language." I preferred to find out about Asia rather than discuss Mrs Thatcher.
"They don’t speak much English in Indonesia," he said, frowning. "You know about thirty years ago Indonesia went to war with us."
"Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president?"
"Right. Sukarno had a rebellion in Sumatra and trouble in other parts of Indonesia. There was big inflation and starvation. Big problems. To distract attention he tried to grab North Borneo from Malaysia. Britain helped us and Sukarno was defeated."
"The British and Americans didn’t like Sukarno, did they?"
"It’s complicated. The Dutch wanted the islands of the East Indies to be part of a loose federation; the Americans wanted the Indonesian army to have a strong control of all the islands, so as to fight communism. The Americans didn’t seem to mind the Indonesian generals taking over West Papua."
"But the Americans fell out with Sukarno," I commented, to show-off that I knew a little of the local history. "Sukarno didn’t last too long after failing to get North Borneo."
"Sukarno refused to be an American puppet. America replaced him with General Suharto; There was a big slaughter in Indonesia; maybe half a million opponents of the army were murdered. Suharto became Indonesia’s second president."
"Was it the communists who got murdered under Suharto?"
"They were not all communists. Some were innocent Chinese."
"Things seem peaceful and harmonious here, in Malaysia," I said.
"Not always," he whispered. "We’ve had race riots in the past."
"As you know, we Malaysians are a mixture of races. About twelve million Malays, five million Chinese and one and a half million Indians. My parents remember when Chinese people had to flee for their lives. The police just stood and watched. Chinese Malaysians got attacked by Malay Malaysians. My parents were very, very scared."
"When was that?" I asked.
"1969. A lot of Chinese left the country."
"Sounds like it was racial?"
"It’s difficult. We can’t mix too easily. Sex between the Muslim Malays and the non-Muslim Chinese is illegal." He glanced around to check that nobody was listening in to our chat.
"Some Malays don’t like the Chinese success in business. They don’t like that we Chinese eat pork." He laughed.
"Your government is dominated by Malays?" I asked.
"Yes. The government is mainly Malays. Business is mainly Chinese. The Malaysian government has tried to help the Malays get into business. Malays are given extra help when it comes to jobs, education and owning shares. They set quotas." He gave me a quizzical look.
"So, are the Malay Malaysians catching up with the Chinese Malaysians?" I asked.
"Not much has changed," he said, grinning. "How do you get a rich Chinese family to hand over some of their business to Malays? How do you get a poor Malay family interested in running a big business? I think the Malays now have about twenty percent of the shares of companies. It’s below target."
"But aren’t there now quite a lot of Moslem Malay businessmen?"
"Some of them are just ‘front men’," he said. "You get the same in Indonesia. A company is headed by one of the President’s children or by an ex-general. But the real brains behind the business are likely to be Chinese."
"Why do you think the Malays have stayed poorer than the Chinese?"
"When we Chinese came to Malaysia, when it was a British colony, we came to work in the tin mines and on the rubber plantations. We were illiterate peasants. But we improved our education. We advanced."
"What about the Malays?"
"Some of them suffer from the Malaysian disease." He looked a little bit angry.
"What is that?"
"They want cars and all the modern conveniences. But they don’t want to study hard and they attack the materialism of the West."
"You think some of them want to go back to a simple Islamic way of life? Village life and schools teaching mainly religion?" I asked.
"A few of them do," he said.
"You wondered how you would get a rich Chinese family to loosen its grip on its business. In Indonesia the Chinese run certain monopolies like flour and sugar and they allegedly use dirty tactics, like bribery, to keep the non-Chinese out of business." I wondered if I was being too blunt.
"You are right, my friend," he said. "There are faults on both sides." He stood up, shook my hand warmly, and made for the exit.
Back in Singapore that evening, I took a clean and comfortable bus out to a housing estate near Jurong. The houses looked shapely and colourful and a zillion times better than the spare little concrete sheds lived in by workers in Jakarta. Gardens were well tended and there was no graffiti or litter. (Some of the older housing estates in Singapore are boring shoe-boxes.)
"Nice houses," I said to a Malay shopkeeper with a big stomach and funny little hat.
"That’s true," he said, looking a little suspicious, or even grumpy.
"Is it easy for Malay Singaporeans to get into business?"
"A lot of the top people are Chinese?" I said.
"It’s changing," he explained, relaxing a little and looking proud. "My second son goes to university. A good boy. We now have Malay accountants and lawyers."
"Your other children?" I asked in the Indonesian language, which is borrowed from Malay.
"My first son is a taxi driver," he said in Malay, grinning. "My third son’s a bit of a problem. He just drives around on his motorbike." He laughed, perhaps to show he wasn’t worried.
"Do you miss living in a kampung?"
"What?" He looked as if he hadn’t understood.
"Is it good living in one of the old Malay housing areas? With the little wooden houses?"
"It’s relaxed in the kampung. You can sit with your friends and watch the fishing boats or the children playing. No worries."
"Sounds nice. Got a big family?"
"Where my brother lives, in the kampung in Ponggol, we have lots of uncles and aunts, grandparents, cousins, nephews, nieces. We’re never lonely there. Everyone looks after everyone else."
"What about the new housing estates?"
"Some of the people in the new apartments never meet their neighbours. They’re working in an office or watching TV."
I decided that Singapore was a safe place, for the person who towed the line. It was a good place to bring up children. And it was not as dull and conformist as I had been led to believe. Yet, I was somehow pleased when I got back to Jakarta, with all its eccentricities and extremes. I felt that it was in Jakarta that I was more likely to find my soul-mate.
10. FOUND IN KEBAYORAN LAMA
Sometime during the second half of 1991, something happened which I felt I might have previously glimpsed in my dreams.
My driver, Mo, had not turned up and I was in an ulcerous mood. It was a Sunday but I had no transport. I decided to go for a walk and headed along the dusty main road in the direction of the wonderfully scruffy market at Kebayoran Lama.
The market had its usual Congolese appearance, or perhaps it was Calcutta on a bad day. Rising from a choked and crumbling drainage ditch came the smell of bloated dead rats and human excrement; a three wheeled taxi with an explosive exhaust set down a woman in an Islamic headscarf outside a jerry-built shopping bloc; an orange bus covered in schoolboy graffiti swerved around a pothole as big as a car tyre; piles of fresh cassava, chilli and taro stood next to a mountain of steaming rotting vegetable matter; a bandaged leper was having money extracted from him by a uniformed official; a policeman was ignoring the unsmiling pickpockets and the tattooed street thugs with their army-style haircuts; big-eyed, thin-limbed street kids were selling plastic bags next the stalls selling shoddy shirts, pirate cassettes and toy guns; dangdut music blared from the stolen radios guarded by vendors seated on the railway tracks. In its own way the market was gorgeous and bewitching.
Down a narrow Dickensian lane there was a games arcade, unlit inside, and next to that a flea-pit cinema showing an Indian film.
Seated on the cracked pavement in front of the cinema, in a state of utter dejection, was a young boy. He was barefoot, dressed in a dirty ragged shirt, and long trousers several sizes too big. He was moving his head from side to side like a depressed young panda in a zoo. At his feet were a few scraps of cooked rice on a piece of brown paper. Was he about twelve years old? Difficult to tell as he was so undernourished. I decided to find out what was wrong with the boy.
"What’s your name?" I asked, as I squatted down in front of him.
There was no reply; he avoided eye contact. I asked a few more questions but got no answers. I stood up, moved back several paces and watched. Passers-by ignored him, or, in the case of three well dressed young men, mocked him with jeers and insults.
At one point he stood up, a little shakily, and walked to a stall selling drinks. He held his head high, and, in a surprisingly insistent manner, held out his hand to demand a drink. The young stall holder, no trace of emotion on his face, handed the boy a glass of coloured liquid. The kid drank thirstily before returning to his little patch of pavement.
What was I to do? The lad seemed like a hopeless case; he was not the sort of normal, cheerful, talkative waif or stray I had envisaged myself helping when I had first arrived in Jakarta. In any case, I had no money on me and without money there was no possibility of transporting him to some hospital or other institution, if indeed that was appropriate. He couldn’t stay with me at my house; I was not allowed by the terms of my lease to have any guests stay at my home, other than family and friends from Britain. And yet I couldn’t abandon this child.
I walked home at speed, a journey of twenty minutes along potholed pavements, and collected a few thousand rupiahs. As I hurried back to the market I hoped I would find the boy still in the same place. And if he was still there, what then? The sadness on his face had been haunting. He hadn’t looked manic or psychotic like Bangbang. In fact he had the delicate face of Botticelli boy or a Michelangelo Madonna. Had his family thrown him out? Why wouldn’t he speak? I grew more and more anxious to get back to the little cinema before any possible decision on his part to wander off and disappear for ever. I didn’t want another failure.
Sweating, and with nerves writhing, I reached the crowded bazaar, the games arcade and then the cinema. There he was seated on the pavement. Thank heavens. I took his hand and he accepted it. I was making progress. I walked with him towards the stall holder who had given him the free drink.
"Does this kid live here?" I asked.
"No," said the stall holder. "I don’t know where he’s from. He wandered into this area recently."
I took the boy round the corner to some kampung houses, stopped an old woman and said, "Do you know this child? Does he have a family?"
"He’s not from around here," she said.
I tried another stall holder next the cinema. "What should I do with this kid? Where can I take him?"
"He’s mental," said the elderly man, in a sympathetic tone. "You could try the Jiwa Hospital for the insane or the Dipo Hospital. They’re both in the city centre."
"Are you sure he doesn’t have a family? He doesn’t live near here?" I asked.
"He’s not from here," insisted the man.
I flagged down a bajaj, an orange three wheeled taxi, and found that the lad was happy to get in. No problem. No protests. No struggling child. No lynch mob to accuse me of kidnapping. The kid still held my hand.
"Take us to the Dipo Hospital," I said, as we set off.
"That’s an hour’s journey," said the bajaj driver. "This machine only does short runs." So after ten minutes we transferred to a red four wheeled taxi, with broken air conditioning, which took us by a circuitous route to our destination, the big hospital from which Bangbang had escaped. I asked the driver, a tall man with a gold chain round his neck, to wait while I went to the hospital’s front office.
"I found this kid in the street," I said to the two strongly built men at the desk. They looked like off-duty commandos. I briefly explained the story.
"What’s wrong with him?" asked the slightly fatter one, hardly able to contain his mirth as he studied the ragged, trembling waif.
"I don’t know, but I’d like to have him admitted to the hospital," I said.
"Has he got a fever?" said the slightly thinner one, derisively.
"No. I don’t know what’s wrong with him," I explained. I was incensed by their lack of sympathy for the boy.
"Well he can’t come into the hospital if there’s nothing wrong with him," said the fatter one.
"He’s very thin, he won’t speak and seems to have no family," I said.
"Maybe he’s mad," said the thinner one, and they both guffawed.
This was the hospital which had raised my blood pressure when it had managed to lose Bangbang. Now I realised it would be stupid to trust the same hospital again. I took the desperately worried looking child by the hand and returned to the taxi.
We drove to the Jiwa Hospital, a mental hospital, in the nearby Jakarta district of Johar Baru. The hospital was in an old colonial building, looking like a fort, surrounded by neglected grass, a few trees and some moderately poor housing. I dreaded to think what conditions might be like inside.
"Can I speak to a doctor?" I asked the guard, a young fellow in a uniform.
"They’ve gone home," he said.
He fetched a nurse, a middle aged lady with a sad and sympathetic face, and I told my story.
"We can’t help," she said in a quiet voice.
I was tired, hot and now angry. "Why not? This is a mental hospital and this is a kid who seems depressed and unable to speak."
"We only take adults," she said, "and then it’s only after they’ve seen the doctor. I’m sorry."
"But I was told this was a suitable place," I said. "This child has nowhere to go. I can’t return him to the street." I was raising my voice and the guard and the taxi driver seemed to be smirking. The kid was staring at me like a refugee begging not to be shot. Then he squatted in the grass to do the toilet.
"You could try Doctor Bahari’s private clinic in Menteng, not far from here," said the nurse. "It’s expensive but I’m sure they’ll take him."
"Great! We’ll try that. Thanks for your help." Suddenly I felt more optimistic. A private clinic would surely be a hundred times safer and more comfortable than a government run mental hospital. We got back into the taxi where it looked as if the driver had been fiddling with the meter as the fare had jumped enormously.
"Menteng," I said, and off we went by what seemed like an especially long route. The sky was darkening as we reached our destination, a dusty, treeless side street that had seen better times.
Doctor Bahari’s small clinic, housed in what had once been a sizeable middle class villa, was different from the Jiwa Hospital. It had a doctor, a small, grey haired, plainly dressed, thoughtful-looking lady, who invited us into her office. She asked the boy some questions in a respectful way. He remained silent. He looked puzzled and drained.
"We’ll call him Ujang," said the doctor.
I related what I knew about Ujang, which wasn’t much. Then I asked, "Can you take him into the clinic?"
"Thank goodness!" I breathed deeply and smiled at Ujang, whose eyes possibly picked up the signals coming from my face. At least he was now looking me in the eye.
"You’ll need to buy him some sandals and new clothes," said the doctor looking at Ujang’s bare feet and over-long trousers.
"What’s wrong with Ujang?" I asked the doctor.
"It’s too early to say but it’s possible he’s mentally backward," she explained.
"Do you think Ujang has a family?"
"He probably does, as he seems socialised and able to show affection."
"Do you think we’ll be able to find his family?"
"It’s unlikely. Jakarta is a very big place. Even if we did find them, they might not want him back!"
The next stage was to pay for ten days stay at the clinic and for the purchase of some clothes. The clinic was certainly expensive. Not that I minded, as a place where you had to pay a lot of money was more likely to look after Ujang properly.
We entered the quarters for the less seriously ill patients, the majority of whom seemed to be middle class Chinese Indonesians suffering from stress or breakdowns. The appearance of this part of the clinic was that of a dimly lit, run-down boarding house There were pot plants, comfortable old chairs, and even individual bedrooms. There was a rat in the gutter, but it looked healthy and happy.
Then we entered the section protected by metal bars and a locked door. This was a large sparsely furnished courtyard with smaller cell-like bedrooms off. This prison-like area was where Ujang was to stay along with half a dozen or more patients who all looked heavily drugged and deranged. The only child, apart from Ujang, was an angry looking, lunatic girl, who followed me around, occasionaly grabbing at my arm. The fiercest patient was a man in his forties with staring eyes who staggered up to me and demanded a cigarette. A male nurse simply pushed him away. The nurses seemed to be the same types as at the Dipo Hospital, grinning like tigers.
I put my arm around Ujang’s shoulder and tried to explain things to him, but I think that to him my words were without meaning. Could I leave him in this place with its mentally disturbed adults? There seemed to be no alternative. He had to be in a secure place where he would receive food and shelter. Fingers crossed that nobody would hurt him.
I took Ujang for several walks around the courtyard and then stayed chatting to the nurses as long as possible, but eventually I had to move towards the exit. Ujang wanted to come with me. He looked like a pup about to be abandoned. He clung on to me very hard until the nurses prised him off.
"I’ll be back tomorrow evening," I promised.
11. DOCTOR JOSEPH
When School was over next day, I hurried to my van.
"Doctor Bahari’s clinic, fast!" I instructed the driver. We moved at a reasonable pace until we hit the rush hour traffic and began to crawl down Sudirman Boulevard and past Le Meridien hotel. One hundred thousand families in Jakarta are five-car families. Mum, dad and three of the kids each have their own car. And then there are all the four-car families and three-car families and two-car families. Now you know where some of the World Bank’s money goes.
How would Ujang be faring among the mentally disturbed adults? Would he know I was coming back to his locked ward?
After a journey of at least an hour, we passed a Hero’s supermarket and drove up to the clinic. I jumped out of the vehicle and hurried in, looking carefully at people’s faces. All smiles. The heavy door was unlocked and there stood Ujang. He was alive and well; his skinny little body was dressed in new shirt and shorts. He wasn’t exactly smiling; more hesitant and worried. I took his hand and he gripped it strongly.
"How’s Ujang?" I asked a nurse.
"He’s fine," she said. "He’s eating well, and this morning, when he woke, he gave a whoop of joy!"
"Great." I felt like giving a whoop of joy.
"Come to the doctor’s office with Ujang," said the nurse, "Doctor Joseph would like to meet you."
Dr Joseph, round faced, middle aged and Chinese, sat in his comfortable leather chair looking totally relaxed. It was the child psychiatrist from the Dipo hospital, the doctor who had been attending to Bangbang before he got lost.
"We’ve met before," said Dr Joseph, smiling warmly. "You know Bangbang’s been found? He turned up at his parent’s house."
"Yes, I know," I said.
"We’ve an open door policy for those children at the Dipo hospital," said Dr Joseph, "but here there’s a locked door for some of the patients."
I thought it better not to comment on this.
Dr Joseph continued: "My colleague told me the story of your finding Ujang in the street. It’s very kind of you to help this poor child. Ujang still doesn’t speak. It may be depression. He may have been lost for some time."
"How’s his health? Do you think he might have TB or anything like that?" I looked at Ujang who was still looking rather frail and heartsick.
"No," said the doctor. "We’ve done some tests this morning. Apart from worms, he’s fine."
"Should I try to visit him every day, or is there a danger he may become too dependent on me?" I suspected that Ujang and I might well become dependent on each other.
"I think you should visit him because it’ll help him to come out of his depression. He hasn’t got anyone else to visit him," said the doctor, giving me the answer I had hoped for.
"Is he safe here with all these strange adults?" I asked.
"They’re all heavily sedated. There’s no problem." Dr Joseph smiled broadly.
"What treatment will Ujang get?" I said.
"We’re giving him some drugs to deal with the depression. We could try electric convulsion therapy."
"I don’t want that for Ujang!" I said, gulping, "It’s too controversial and Ujang’s only a child."
"But it can be very successful."
"Well, I’d prefer not to try it. Definitely not."
"OK. We’ll continue with the drug treatment."
"He seems to shake a little bit. Is that the drugs?" I asked.
"It could be."
"Can you please reduce the dosage, so he doesn’t shake?"
"We could do." Dr Joseph was politely indicating disagreement with me.
"Can I take Ujang for a short walk or for trips in my vehicle?" I hoped I could play uncle.
"Certainly. It’ll do him good."
"I’ll take him to the supermarket now," I said.
When Ujang and I arrived at Golden Truly supermarket, Ujang was swaying slightly and looking heavily doped. I took a trolley, persuaded Ujang to sit inside it, and wheeled him around. Great fun for me, and there just the hint of happiness on Ujang’s face. We picked up some milk and some papaya. What was upstairs? We came to the escalator.
Ujang stepped on and I followed, clutching two plastic bags with my right hand and the escalator rail with my left hand. We moved up rather fast. Ujang, who had not been holding on to the rail, began to fall backwards.
I let go of the rail and tried to support Ujang’s back which was moving swiftly towards my nose. I began to fall backwards and imagined collision with the spiky metal bits of the escalator and a nasty swift descent head first.
The woman behind me involuntarily provided temporary support for both me and Ujang. She was a big strong woman. Balance was restored, my heart thumped, and I fastened Ujang’s cold little hand on to the rubber rail. Crisis over. I had discovered that the kid was new to escalators.
I needed a drink and that meant a trip to a fast food restaurant. In a place selling fried chicken, Ujang and I sat on bright yellow chairs, next to green and red plastic flowers, and I ordered two colas.
Ujang gulped his down and then, deciding to have a pee, stood up abruptly, and moved over to a plastic tree, beside which he squatted down . As he was about to begin, a waiter gently took him by the arm and guided him to the gents.
Back at the clinic the problem was parting. Ujang looked at me wistfully and help on tight to my arm. We walked around the courtyard, warding off the poor demented girl and a tough looking skinhead who wanted a cigarette. Then we walked around again. And again. At last one of the nurses took hold of Ujang while I squeezed past the metal door to make my exit.
I couldn’t get Ujang out of my mind. Travelling into work next morning I wondered what would happen if I had to leave Indonesia? Would I always be able to pay the clinic for his keep? If I left Indonesia he wouldn’t have any visitors. Would he shrivel up and die of loneliness? I could imagine him in later years, sitting alone in a corner, staring into space, wondering what had happened, and why he had been deserted.
Over a cup of grotty coffee in the staff room, I spoke to Ian, who already knew the basics about Ujang. "Do you think Ujang will ever find his family?" I asked.
"Not a chance," said Ian, a keep-fit fanatic, bachelor and lover of nightclubs. He was the sort who would never give money to beggars, although I have to say he did have a soft spot for dogs.
"I felt so sorry for Ujang when I found him in the street," I said.
"He’d be better off in the street," said Ian.
"Some kids would be, but this one was different," I pointed out. "He wasn’t coping."
"Sometimes these people get violent when they’re older. You’ll need to watch out," continued Ian, frowning.
"Amanda, what do you think?" I asked.
"You’re taking an awful risk, taking a child off the streets," she said. "You could be in trouble with the police, the immigration authorities and goodness knows who else." Plainly dressed, unmarried, middle aged Amanda, a born administrator, was not the sort to mix with the locals or do anything unorthodox.
"Rubbish," said Fergus, looking up from his book, "The police couldn’t care less. If he’s a mentally backward street child, then officially he doesn’t exist. He’s better off in the private clinic. He wouldn’t make many friends on the streets of this city!"
"I don’t know about that," said Carmen. "I came across a mentally backward woman living on the street. Her hair was neatly cut, her clothes were clean and she was not malnourished. Some of the kampung people must have been helping her."
"Now that I come to think about," I said "Ujang’s hair was quite short and must have been cut quite recently."
"Watch he doesn’t get dependent on you," said Carmen. "He’d be awfully upset if you had to leave Jakarta. Another thing to watch: if you show favouritism to a child in an institution, the staff may take it out on the child when your back’s turned. They can be jealous."
"Surely not," I said. "Would professional staff do that?"
"Yes," said Carmen, emphatically.
"Talking of primitive emotions," said Fergus, "I heard that that massacre in the Dili churchyard was planned in advance."
"East Timor?" asked Ian.
"Yes," said Fergus. "They say the burial trenches were dug by the army before the massacre."
"That’s only a rumour," said Ian.
"Don’t forget the Amritsar Massacre," said Carmen. "And Bloody Sunday, and the Australians hunting down Aborigines like wild animals."
"Amritsar?" said Fergus.
"Well," explained Carmen, "that was unarmed Indians being mown down by a British general."
"I wonder if the Dili massacre will affect arms sales from Britain," said Ian.
"No chance," said Carmen, guffawing and almost spilling her coffee.
That evening brought another visit to Ujang and a chance to talk to Dr. Joseph.
"How’s he getting on?" I asked.
"We’ve discovered his name," the doctor replied, in his usual mellow, relaxed way. "Ujang whispered it to me this morning. He’s called Min. It rhymes with lean or seen."
Min was also feeling mellow, as he had his feet up on the doctor’s desk; obviously Dr Joseph had the knack of putting his patients at their ease.
I was feeling tense, but very happy that Min had broken his silence. We now knew he could speak!
"What else has he said?" I asked.
"Very little. Min seems to have extremely limited speech," continued the doctor. "That could be because of mental backwardness."
"Has he said anything about his family? His address?" I asked.
"Not yet. I don’t think he has the mental ability to understand a concept like ‘address’. He hasn’t mentioned any family."
"Do you think we’ll find his family?"
"He still seems a bit dazed or even drunk," I said. "He shakes a lot. Could you reduce the strength of the drugs you’re giving him?"
"Yes, later we’ll reduce the strength. The drugs are to keep him peaceful and bring him out of his depression."
"Can I take Min out for a trip to the shops?"
We returned to the fast food restaurant and bought great big ice cream cones. Min grinned wickedly, licked his vanilla ice, and then swiftly jabbed it against my face. He shrieked like a happy two year old. Well, it was progress of a sort. I wiped my face clean, paid the bill to a bemused girl, and returned to the clinic. I didn’t mind getting a little taste of his food as long as he was happy. In earlier days I would never have imagined that an apparently mentally backward child could play an important role in my life; Min had filled a gap.
12 THE HAVE A NICE DAY HOTEL
The weeks went by and I continued to visit Min every day. He began to put on a little weight. Some days there were moments of great cheerfulness but on other days he was moody and wouldn’t speak. On his bad days I looked at his shaky little legs and his sad, lost-looking little face and felt my own mood worsen. I worried about his unhappiness and but couldn’t think what on earth to do about it. I decided I needed a Saturday trip, to take my mind off things, and headed for Bogor, with Fergus.
Having arrived at Bogor’s Have A Nice Day Hotel, Fergus and I sat in the hotel’s shady garden supping Bintang beers. The sky was blue and the air was pleasantly warm.
"Why do we come to this hostelry?" asked Fergus, in a jovial mood.
"The view of Mount Salak, these Romanesque statues in the garden and the cool beer," I replied.
"It’s certainly not for the swimming pool," said Fergus. "It’s a black sort of green, like a smelly old durian."
"Look at that pile of bricks and muck dumped beyond the pool. And the wood under these tiles is rotted. This place has hardly been up a year."
"The owner was telling me he’s a civil servant," said Fergus.
"So how come he has the money to build a little inn? What does a civil servant earn? Thirty dollars a month?"
"It wouldn’t be so bad if they were making lots of money from tourists, or anybody else, but we seem to be the only customers."
"Tourism’s supposed to become Indonesia’s biggest industry," I said. "Bogor could make a fortune from tourists. It’s as magical as Bali."
"You’ve never been to Bali," pointed out Fergus.
"I’ve seen the postcards," I explained, "and Bogor has the same sort of mountains and rice fields."
"The locals live for the day," continued Fergus. "Piles of garbage as high as the houses, graffiti, pot holed roads jammed with minibuses, and sloppy service."
"Imagine if the Italians ran this city."
"The organised criminal ones from Naples and Bari?" asked Fergus, smiling.
"No, the hardworking ones from Sorrento and Capri."
"It could be full of street cafes and jam packed restaurants."
"So, why do we like the place?" I asked.
"Well, I’m always happy to lie beside the pool and read a book," explained Fergus, who liked to sport a good tan. "You couldn’t do this in England in December."
"I like the fact you can walk into someone’s funny little house and they’ll sing and dance. And every walk is an adventure; into a balmy nineteenth century world."
"Sounds poetic," said Fergus.
"Azure skies and African Tulip trees, butterflies and bananas, cockerels and kites, dishy girls and .... I’m stuck."
"Disgusting donuts from a certain franchise," said Fergus, "exotic ferns and endearing pot bellied children. And I’m stuck too."
"What are you reading?" I asked Fergus.
"Wilbur Smith. Always a good read. What have you been reading in that notebook?"
"Stuff for a school project," I explained. "It’s jottings I made at the British Council library; things people have written about Indonesians."
"So what do they say?"
"Alfred Russel Wallace, in the 1860’s, talks about the people here in Java being impassive, reserved, diffident and bashful. He says the upper classes are terribly polite and are like the best bred Europeans. Francis Drake believed the South Javanese are loving, true and just."
"And the bad news?" Fergus inquired.
"Wallace says the people have a reputation for being ferocious and bloodthirsty. Some guy called Nicolo Conti, in 1430, writes that the Javanese and Sumatrans are more cruel than all other races. They look on killing a man as a mere joke. And listen to this. Conti says that if one of them buys a new sword, and wants to try it out, he’ll thrust it into the first person he meets. And nobody will be all that bothered. So watch out if your maid buys a new can opener."
"She’s just bought a thing for grating carrots," said Fergus.
"Someone called Barbosa, writing round about 1860, thinks the Malay race, including the Javanese, is very subtle in its doings, very malicious, great deceivers, seldom telling the truth, prepared to do all sorts of wicked things and so on. Wallace believes they don’t have much appetite for knowledge."
"Sounds like some of the kids I used to teach in Britain," commented Fergus.
"I wonder what a Javanese explorer coming to Europe or America in 1800 would’ve reported," I said. "Slavery in Russia and America? A large chunk of the British population starving?" I was showing off my limited knowledge of history.
"Children working down mines in England," added Fergus.
"Terribly polite upper classes who might look on the death of a black slave, or a deformed child worker in a factory, as a matter of no great importance."
"Talking of slavery, " asked Fergus, "I don’t think our waiter’s coming back to offer us another drink."
"The waiter was saying this used to be his father’s land but he sold it, and was able to buy a television and pay for some repairs to the roof of his little house."
"I reckon this land is worth half a million dollars. There are generals and judges with mansions around here."
I left Fergus at the pool and went to visit Eddy and tubercular Asep in another part of Bogor. Eddy looked fine but I discovered his little brother Andi, aged about six, had a swollen stomach and match stick arms. I gave the mother some money to get him checked up on, at the hospital. The mother looked quite chunky but seemed about as bright as a reading light in a hotel bedroom. They say that malnutrition has caused vast amounts of mental retardation in Indonesia.
Asep was looking more bright eyed.
"Any receipts, Asep?"
"Yes. For the hospital medicine. The TB medicine is very expensive."
"Jings. One hundred and twenty thousand rupiahs for the pills and the doctor’s included some imported vitamin tablets. The doctor must be getting commission."
"There’s a little girl’s been burned," said Asep, changing the subject. "A cooking stove fell over. That’s her next to Eddy’s house." Asep pointed to a shy little barefoot girl with a cute grin. She looked about ten.
"How long ago?"
"About a week."
"Been to the doctor?"
"OK. If her mother agrees, we’ll take her to the hospital now."
The little girl’s leg had been badly scarred from knee to upper thigh and it wasn’t difficult to persuade both her and her mother to visit the hospital. The doctor applied some dressings and asked her to return the following week.
On returning to Jakarta in the late afternoon, I hurried to Dr Bahari’s clinic. Min was in high spirits and I decided to take him to an amusement park called Dunia Fantasi, which is at Ancol, to the West of the docks at Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok. We drove past black miserable slums populated by thin ragged people and then into the park with its beautiful golf course, gardens and well dressed pleasure seekers.
"Who’s this?" asked the thin little manager at the entrance gate, as he looked in a kindly way at the slightly shaky, waif-like Min.
"This is Min. He stays at a clinic." And by way of explanation I showed him a note from Dr Joseph.
"We can let you in free," said the manager.
"That’s very kind."
"I’m sure the lad will enjoy the clowns and the rides."
We passed through the turnstile and into a fantasy world. Recorded children’s voices singing celestial songs seemed to emerge from the hibiscus; florid wooden horses did their merry rounds; Dunia Fantasi employees dressed as clowns greeted all the grinning children. I call them clowns but they had ghastly ghoulish faces which delighted the school kids and their mums. Min reacted differently. At the sight of the clowns, he hid his face in my chest and then tried to drag me back through the turnstile. There was a look of panic and terror on his face.
"They’re only people..." But I would not be able to explain to Min. I held on tight and pulled him swiftly away from the ghouls and over to the merry-go-round. I hoisted Min onto a wooden horse and off we went. Yes, he liked this and wanted a second go.
When it came to the big toy cars I was just able to squash Min in. He must have been the oldest kid having a ride. We were refused a second shot on the grounds that Min was not a toddler.
Eventually we had a wander along the beach, near the Horison Hotel. Min was now feeling more confident and felt brave enough to grin into my face and then spit at me. This seemed to be his way of being playful and having a little joke. I frowned and tried to look disapproving, without much success. He spat again and seemed to find this wildly funny. Then he decided to knock my glasses off. Now I was just a little upset.
It was definitely time to return to the van and drive back to the clinic. Maybe I’m not very good with two year olds. On the other hand, I could forgive Min just about anything. Min was like me; he was a bit of an alien and an outsider. He was my soul-mate.
Another Saturday came along and another sort of adventure. After a hurried visit to Min, who was in a reasonable mood, I battled southwards through the traffic on a different mission.
My destination was Jakarta’s Pertama Hospital where I was to meet a young teenage boy called Daus, and his aunt. Daus was a cheery, guileless soul with a large bulge on the side of his face. His aunt was a smiling, plainly dressed woman. How had I met them? While out shopping, I had come across the lad and his aunt at a simple stall selling soft drinks, near the Blok M bus terminal. My suggestion of a future trip to the nearby Pertama hospital had been accepted.
Having arrived at the big concrete, tower-block hospital, and having met up with Daus and his aunt, we entered Dr Agung’s surgery. Tall, slim Dr Agung seemed mature and civilised. I explained how I had met Daus and then pointed to the obvious lump on the side of the boy’s face.
"It’s big," I said.
"It certainly is," said Dr Agung, running his finger over the boy’s face. "I’m going to arrange a blood test."
"Daus has no parents," I explained, "so he’s not been to hospital before."
"I look after Daus," said the aunt, "but we’re not rich."
The doctor spoke rapidly to Daus and his aunt and I couldn’t make out what was being said. He then turned to me, speaking in English.
"We can do something to help," said the doctor. "We can remove some of the swelling. Daus and his aunt tell me they’re keen to go ahead with the surgery."
Dr Agung then launched into a long technical account which was partly in Indonesian and partly in English. He seemed to be saying that Daus probably had elephantiasis. There was a reference to swelling being caused by a parasitic worm which blocks the lymph channels. I can’t claim that I understood much of what was being said.
"What’ll it cost to operate on Daus?" I asked.
"I will do the operation free of charge," said Dr Agung, "but you’ll have to pay my clinic for his bed there. We get lots of hair-lip patients brought to us by the British Women’s Association, but a case like Daus’s is not quite so common."
"Thank you for doing it free," I said. "When can you do the surgery?"
"The Monday after next." Dr Agung looked at his new calendar for 1992. "January 15th. Daus should be here at nine in the morning."
"My driver will bring him with his aunt. Thanks again for offering to do the op. free."
As I was being driven back home I began to think of some of the words that, according to Wallace, had been used to describe Indonesians: "impassive", "bashful", "polite", "loving", "just", "not much appetite for knowledge", "cruel", "ferocious", "subtle" and "great deceivers." My encounters with a whole host of Indonesians, from Min and Melati to Abdul and Dr Agung, suggested that the Indonesians were not much different from the British in terms of sins and virtues. What seemed to make the Indonesians different from the Brits was that the former lived in a world that was so much more intoxicating, unpredictable, precarious, dazzlingly bright, lusty, and full of children. Britain was grey clouds and the predictable nine to four.