Saturday 15 January 2022



It was late afternoon when I arrived at Dr. Agung’s clinic which was housed in a small villa in the upmarket district of Menteng. It was the day of the operation to remove the lump from the face of Daus, the boy with elephantiasis. An elderly receptionist pointed me in the direction of the ward where patients recovered from their operations.

The ward had only two patients. A hollow-cheeked little girl, who had had a hair lip operation, was sitting up in bed, reading a comic. Daus was lying half-asleep on his bed. Next to him sat his smiling aunt. As I approached the boy, he began to stir. His right hand moved up to his face and he began trying to remove his bandage. Then he sat up groggily, moaned, and made an attempt to get out of bed.

"Daus, stay in bed," I said, panicking ever so slightly. "Nurse! Daus is waking up."

But there was no nurse in sight. I searched along the corridor and eventually found a thin, little nurse in an office. "Come to the ward. Daus is waking up." The middle-aged nurse got up slowly from her seat and strolled along to the ward where we found Daus’s aunt holding her nephew down.

"The sedation can’t be very strong," I pointed out. "He seems to be trying to rip out his stitches." I used a mixture of Indonesian and sign language to try to make my point.

"Get back to sleep, Daus," said the nurse calmly, as she gently pushed him back under the covers. Daus obediently closed his eyes. It was fortunate Daus had his aunt to guard him. From time to time she would hold down his arms to stop him interfering with his wounds.

"How was the operation?" I asked the aunt.

"The doctor says it was fine."

"Daus has no parents? He’s always lived with you?"

"He has no father, as far as he knows," said the aunt, with a relaxed smile. "He was born in Sumatra. His mother died when he was aged two. He used to run away to the cemetery to sit by her grave."

"Very sad."

"His relatives stole the small piece of land he inherited from his mother."

"Could he do anything about that?"

"Nothing. No one paid him much attention."

"He’s been unlucky."

"The next thing was that he got hit by a vehicle."

"A serious accident?"

"He survived. And then he decided to come to Jakarta to visit us, his uncle and aunt. And he decided to stay. He enjoys working at our cold drinks stall in the market."

The nurse appeared with a bill. The neatly typed document showed that the operation was free, but that the clinic was rather expensive. I needed another weekend trip to Bogor to calm my nerves.

Rain was threatening as I strolled alongside one of Bogor’s canals, thinking I was in Burano, near Venice, in an earlier era. There was an aroma of toilet water with a hint of coriander and frog. White shirts, red dresses and blue jeans hung on a washing line silhouetted against a cloud-blackened sky. There was a chirrup of birds from cages hung beneath roofs.

"Hey mister," called a young voice. "Come in here."

It was Dede, fan of Manchester United, and I accepted his invitation to sit in his simple front room, where his granny was doing some sewing and the television was showing a Japanese cartoon.

"Look," said Dede. "My leg’s better."

"It should be by now, after all these months."

Dede and I practised some English for ten minutes. Then I noticed a curtain moving.

"Hello Mr. Kent," said a figure emerging from the bedroom. It was the lovely Rama, dressed in a little lilac mini skirt, and she had remembered my name. "Take my photo."


"You sit next to me on the sofa," she said, "and Dede’ll take the photo."

She sat beside me and placed her hand on my knee. Click.

"Take one of me and Rama," urged Dede.

As they sat back, ready to be photographed, four schoolboy friends of Dede pushed through the door and plonked themselves down on the floor in front of Rama. Then two older youths, one carrying a baby, sidled in and took up the remaining space on the sofa. Finally Rama’s mother, her uncle and aunt, two neighbours, and seven small toddlers came into view. The baby was crying, one schoolboy was scratching his groin and one was sticking out his tongue. Click.

Sweat was running down my forehead and over my glasses, leaving salty stains. I knew that I was there to be stared at and that the latest intruders were not going to go away. It was like being in an overcrowded broom cupboard with the door closed and several electric fires turned on.

"I’m sorry but I’ve got to go. Got an appointment," I lied.

It was raining as I left and I was followed by two of the youths.

"Where’re you going, mister?" asked the one with the earring in his nose.

"Back to my van," I explained.

"Do you like morphine?" asked the one with no earring, but lots of spots.

"Certainly not," I said, and began to speed along a series of little alleys and tracks until I had left them far behind.

The rain was of Bombay-monsoon proportions as I splashed my way up some steps to a house that I recognised. It was Melati’s house and I decided to seek refuge there.

"Hi mister." said Melati. "You help me with my English?"

"If you’d like." I wiped the rain off my glasses and sat by the window.

"You’re wet, said Melati."

"Some people say that," I admitted.

"So am I," said Tikus, Melati’s younger brother, who was dressed in sodden football shorts.

"You been playing football in the rain?" I inquired.

"No, swimming," said Tikus.

"You like music?" asked Melati, switching on a tape.

"Very good. I like dangdut. We don’t have it in England." But the music wasn’t dangdut.

"You like Michael Jackson?" asked Tikus, and he began a much exaggerated version of that singer’s dancing.

"Here’s my English text book," said Melati, handing me a thin publication, and turning down the music.

I opened it and began to read. "Ade meet his friend. They are going play badminton" I put the book down and closed it.

"You teach me words. What is this?" she said in Indonesian, as she pointed at the floor.


"What is this?"

"Picture. It’s Iwan Fals."

"What is this?" asked Tikus, not wanting to be left out.

"Your sister’s T-shirt." They looked puzzled by the string of words.

"Mister, we need money," said Melati, changing the subject, and pleading with her big dark eyes.

"What for?"

"For school."

"I only give money to people who are ill."

"I have a headache," said Melati brightly, as she held her hand to her brow.

"Then you should rest. I must be going."

"I’m very thin, mister," added Tikus, as he held in his tummy, and then turned to show the meagreness of his rump.

"Nonsense," I said.

A girl, who was genuinely wraithlike, stood grinning at the door. This was Melati’s sister, Dian, aged about eighteen, and cute like her sister.

"Dian’s got a bad cough," announced Melati.

"How long’s she had it?" I asked.

"Three years," said Melati.

"Has she had an x-ray?"

"Yes. She’s got TB," said Melati, emphasising the words to ensure I got the message.

My mood changed from flippancy-mode to serious-mode. "Is she getting any medicine?" I demanded.

"No. We can’t afford it," explained Melati.

"Why didn’t you tell me last time I was here!" I complained. "You are strange. Look, she must go immediately to the hospital for medicine. It can take a year to get better. She must take a cocktail of pills every day. You’ll all need a check-up." I think I used the word bodoh, meaning ‘stupid’. It’s difficult to be subtle when you don’t have mastery of the language.

I handed over some money.

"Thank you mister," said Dian, smiling prettily.

"I must have receipts," I said. "And I’ve given you enough money for you all to have an x-ray. Is that OK? "

"Thank you," said Melati.

"Look the rain’s stopped," I said. "I have to get back to Jakarta." I stood up, avoided shaking hands, and escaped into the cooler air of the alley. I would need to remember, next time I visited Melati, to keep a distance from anyone who coughed, and to avoid touching the hand of anyone who looked unusually thin and pale.

Late that afternoon, I took Min to Medan Merdeka, the vast parkland which lies at the heart of the administrative district of Jakarta. The main feature of the park is former President Sukarno’s big erection, the white, marble obelisk known as Monas. Sukarno, a man who reportedly had nine wives, although never more than four at any one time, had his 132 metre erection topped with a gold-plated flame, paid for apparently by the World Bank. Monas is an elegant monument and it commemorates Indonesian independence; the phallus shape symbolises fertility.

By day, Medan Merdeka can be a sunny green space filled with joggers, vendors selling balloons, children playing in ponds and office workers enjoying steaming, noodle snacks. By night the park is said to be home to runaway children, drug dealers, prostitutes and plainclothes policemen.

For Min and I, the first stop was a stall selling fruit, everything from custard apples to mangoes. Min grabbed a piece of melon without waiting to be asked. I could see how he had survived as a street child. The stall holder was laid back about ithe incident; I paid for the fruit and apologised on behalf of Min.

Min was having one of his better days. There was a little less of the sad, lost look about the skinny little creature and he was a bit more steady on his feet, in spite of the drugs Dr. Joseph was pouring into his fragile body.

As Min and I wandered along various paths, I tried to imagine this park as it had been in former times: a field for grazing cattle, a training ground for the soldiers of the Dutch East Indies, and, in the 1960s, the site of mass rallies where Sukarno made rousing speeches attacking the western imperialists.

It began to grow dark and we headed across an area of grass in the direction of the road where my vehicle was parked. Suddenly a straight backed man in a khaki T-shirt loomed up in front of us. He looked like trouble.

"Who’s this child?" he demanded to know. His rude tone didn’t put me in the mood for giving a friendly explanation.

"This is Min," I replied simply.

"What are you doing with an Indonesian child?" He stood in front of us, barring our way.

"We’re out for a walk,"

"What right have you to be with him?"

"He’s mentally backward. I found him in the street and now he lives in an institution."

Judging by the sneer on the man’s face he thought I was a kidnapper or worse.

But then I remembered Dr. Joseph’s note, took it from my pocket and handed it to the man to read. At the same moment, Min separated himself from my hand and began to do what looked like a drunken Maori war dance, accompanied by various simian, whooping sounds.

"Look, would you like to take this kid home with you? You can have him," I said, confident the man would not take me up on the offer.

The gentleman stared at Min, had an attack of the willies, turned, and slunk off. Min and I returned peacefully to the clinic.

As I was being driven back home to my house I was thinking how lucky I was to be in a place so full of exciting little adventures. And what about Min? I saw him as being a mixture of two-year-old and teenager. The speech part of his brain and the ice-cream-in your-face part of his brain suggested an age of two years. But the war dances, the moody expressions, and the reasonably advanced survival skills made me hope that part of his brain was teenage. Whatever his age, Min certainly had character.


We were now into a new year, 1992, and I had known Min for just over two months. Doctor Bahari’s clinic was proving to be expensive with large bills having to be paid for Min’s keep every ten days. I had begun looking around for alternatives and one of the places I decided to investigate was a Roman Catholic home for street children.

The home, in North Jakarta, was situated in a dilapidated old building that might formerly have been a mixture of house, workshop and warehouse. Having made a Saturday morning appointment to see the director, I arrived slightly early. The place was strangely quiet. A cleaner, a skinny and cheerful teenage girl, seemed to be the only person on site. She led me from the hall into an empty office where I took a seat beneath a large picture of the Madonna. The office had a comfortable appearance, a lot of money having been spent on plush leather chairs, an almost roof-high music centre, and a hardwood desk.

While I waited for the director to arrive, my thoughts were of Indonesia’s Catholics. They made up around three percent of the population but many were stunningly powerful. In the early years of his presidency, Suharto ruled with the help of an army led by General Benny Murdani, a right-wing Roman Catholic. Towards the end of the 1980s, however, there were some changes. Sections of the army seemed to have become more critical of the president and his family. Suharto ‘sidelined’ General Murdani and began to promote some orthodox Moslem groups, perhaps as a way of countering the army and other possible opponents. On the other hand, there were still many generals who were nominally Christian; and most of Suharto’s business partners continued to be Chinese Indonesians, some of whom were of the Christian faith. Suharto’s wife was born a Roman Catholic.

After a twenty minute wait I decided to seek out the cleaner to ask if I could look around. She took me upstairs to see the dormitory.

"This is where the children sleep," she explained, with a smile.

All I could see were broken metal-framed windows, bare grey walls, empty shelves, and six wooden beds with no mattresses or sheets.

"You only have six children?"

"Yes. They’re at school now."

"You have lots of rooms in this huge building but only six beds?"

"We’re fairly new."

"Jakarta has at least fifty thousand street children. It’s strange you only have six beds and you seem to be the only person here." I tried not to sound cross.

She grinned and said nothing. I returned to the office, waited in vain for another half hour and then left. I reckoned the home would not be a secure environment for Min.

My next stop was the impressive skyscraper building of the Social Welfare Department. After making a few enquiries I located the easygoing, grey-haired lady in charge of provision for handicapped children. She sat in a bright and comfortable office which looked onto to a room crammed full of well-fed civil servants, typewriters and mugs of tea.

The lady gave me a very short list of non-government institutions which might suit Min but I had to explain that I had already tried these and they had proved unsuitable. There was, for example, the home for the multi-handicapped which only admitted children who were both blind and deaf. Then there was the home for the severely physically handicapped who spent their days lying on beds barely able to move.

"Min is apparently mentally backward and homeless. Do you have a place for such children?"

"No," she reluctantly admitted, after a long pause.

"No orphanage?"

"There are some street children in Jakarta," she said in a quiet, serious tone of voice. "Ideally these children should be with their families or extended families. There are some shelters, run privately, but only about 100 children choose to live in these places."

"I can understand that some of the children prefer the freedom of the streets," I said, trying to sound friendly. "They can have fun riding on train roofs and they can avoid school. But what about the street children who are mentally backward and can’t cope?"

"You know," she continued, "there are tens of thousands of mentally ill or mentally backward people wandering the streets in West Java. It is very difficult to help them all."

"So you have no government institution that provides free care for someone like Min?"

"No," she said, trying to look compassionate. "Remember we are a poor Third World country."

"Not so poor," I said. "Most of the cars parked downstairs are Mercedes and big station wagons. And you know, Indonesia has more billionaires than Britain."

She smiled politely, shook hands and returned to her tidy desk.

Later that afternoon, when I visited Min at Doctor Bahari’s clinic, I got talking to two of the nurses. One was a moderately good-looking, middle-aged female and the other was a big, muscular and moustachioed male. They told me about a twice weekly school for backward children, run at the relatively nearby Jiwa Hospital.

"I’d like Min to go to the school," I said. "How much will it cost?"

The two nurses took me into a side office to discuss prices.

"He’ll need to go on my motorbike," said the male nurse. "It’ll cost one hundred thousand rupiahs each trip."

"That’s crazy," I said, tired and furious after a long and frustrating day. I reckoned one hundred thousand rupiahs was around £30 sterling. "It should only cost around three thousand rupiahs a month for the schooling. A taxi would be about three thousand one way."

"One hundred thousand or he won’t get in," insisted the male nurse.

"He’s a poor street child who’d benefit from a bit of training.," I said, hoping for some sympathy. "I’ll pay twenty thousand."

"One hundred thousand."

I wanted some physical expression of my anger but decided it would be unwise to punch the muscular man. He was much bigger than me. I picked up a metal chair and slammed it down hard on the floor. It made a very loud noise. Neither of the nurses looked particularly moved or concerned, but Min looked white and scared. I thought I had better forget the schooling, calm down and make some kind of peace.

"I’m sorry to get stressed," I said. "Jakarta can be a difficult place sometimes."

A few days later, Margaret, the well-proportioned, middle-aged mother of one of my students, from a family that was half Indonesian and half Dutch, came to see me in my classroom. Margaret was a good soul and took an interest in charitable institutions. Seeing her looking so terribly chic, I found it difficult to believe that as a child during the war years she had lived in squalor in a Japanese internment camp.

"I hear you’re looking for a place for the child you found," she said, as we sipped cheap coffee. "I think I’ve found somewhere suitable."

"I certainly hope so."

"It’s called Wisma Utara," continued Margaret, "and it’s not far from Blok M. It’s not nearly as expensive as the place you’ve been using."

"That’s a relief."

"It was started by a widow with a mentally backward son. She was worried about what would happen to the son when she died and so she raised the money to build this home. It’s in a kampung but it looks not too bad an area. And they’ll definitely take your child. Shall I drive you there?"

"Let’s go."

Margaret and I collected Min and we motored to the suburb where Wisma Utara was situated. Having parked our vehicles, we walked along leafy little lanes sided by home-made brick and concrete houses with pretty gardens and brightly painted doors. This place was full of trees and light and little children, in contrast to the grey downtown area around Doctor Bahari’s clinic. Wisma Utara itself looked like a simple brick-built primary school and it had a long narrow front garden.

"Welcome. I’m Joan," said the girl from Flores, who greeted us in Wisma Utara’s lounge, a place cheaply furnished with dilapidated settees and a black and white TV. Joan was in her thirties, dark skinned, friendly and unpolished. "I’m the senior member of staff. I’ll show you the room where Min can sleep. It’s my room."

The bedroom had a crucifix, a picture of Mary, Joan’s bed, and a bunk bed with bright covers. I liked the room.

"It’s so much more cheerful than Dr Bahari’s clinic," I commented to Margaret. "There are no psychotic adults giving you frightening looks."

"Let’s meet some of the other children," said Joan, leading us to a back courtyard, where a dozen young people, both staff and inmates, were either seated or trying to play badminton.

"The Down’s syndrome one is Hari," said Joan. "The little one with poor eyesight is Tedi."

"Who’s the one with his finger stuck in his ear?" I asked, looking at an emaciated teenager sitting alone in a corner. Green bubbles oozed from his nose.

"That’s Dadang."

"Has he seen a doctor?"

"The doctor comes once a week to see any children who’re sick."

"And the pretty teenage girl?" I asked.

"That’s Diah. She’s a bit backward. She’ll be sharing the room with Min. And the young man next to her is Dan who’ll be helping to look after Min." Dan, in his twenties, looked cheerful, calm and decent. He lacked the tough, prison-warder-look of some of the nurses at Dr Bahari’s clinic.
"What do you think?" asked Margaret, smiling in my direction.

"I think it’s great," I said. "Min seems reasonably relaxed. When we visited the place for the severely physically handicapped, Min immediately tried to drag me out." I was referring to a privately run institution where the young patients had been lying motionless in bed.

"So we’ll leave him here at Wisma Utara," said Margaret. "After we’ve signed him in."

Joan put her arm around Min, and held on tight.

"Min, this is going to be your home," I said, looking into Min’s eyes and trying to look relaxed. He gave me the puppy-about-to-be-abandoned look.

I signed a piece of paper and then, with Margaret, made my exit.

"Best to leave him and forget about him," said Margaret, as we headed back to the main road.

"You mean not visit him?" I asked.

"Yes. Not visit him."

I was horrified. Of course I would visit him, but I wasn’t going to argue the point with Margaret. Min was my soul-mate. How can I explain that? The attraction was not particularly physical. Min had an appealing face but I had no interest in his body. The attraction was mental. Min and I liked each other’s funny ways; we were both outsiders; we depended on each other. I had friends like Fergus and Carmen, but I wouldn’t say that my attachment to them was particularly deep. That was my problem; I was not always particularly good at long-term, relaxed closeness with ordinary people, but, I could be devoted to waifs and strays. Possibly that was because I found I could trust them and not be hurt by them. A psychiatrist might suggest that I should sort myself out and get a wife and children, or maybe a dog or a cat.

"Many thanks for finding the home," I said, as I bade farewell to Margaret. "I’m off to Mayestic for some shopping."

Jakarta’s Pasar Mayestic market sells fabrics, animal intestines, coconut milk drinks, goat soup, sweet potatoes, lemon grass, elixirs to improve sexual performance, cheap stationery, and just about everything else. It has a cinema showing lurid films, a games arcade, beggar women carrying fat babies, shoe shine boys, massage parlours, street cafes and the strongest smell of rotting garbage in our entire galactic system. Slimy decomposed things, wormy bloated objects, frothy scummy stuff, and lots of other kinds of fly-covered ordure all get dumped in a great steaming midden on one side of the main street. Nobody ever seems to remove any of this putrefaction, apart from the pretty children who rummage through it looking for bits of plastic to sell.

I was standing near the dump, savouring the stench, when I was approached by a seller of newspapers, aged about thirteen. He was small for his age, slim, dark-eyed and dark haired.

"Newspaper?" he whispered, frowning deeply. His shoes and jeans looked expensive.

"I can’t read Indonesian. Sorry," I said.

"Where are you from?" the newspaper boy asked.

"England. Where’re are you from?"

"I sleep in the market."

"You don’t have a home?"

"I’ve run away from home." The frown grew deeper and the eyes more moist. I was deeply curious.

"Why did you run away?"

"My father was shot dead." He looked down at the ground, perhaps to hide tears.

"Why? What happened?" I said, taken aback by his news. I reckoned he wanted to unburden himself by telling his tale.

"Some people shot my father. They stole his land. In Sumatra."

What could I say? "They shot your father? Then you moved here?" I said.

"We moved to Jakarta. My mother remarried. I had to stay with my grandmother. That’s out just beyond Ciputat."

"Why did you run away?"

"I don’t get on with my grandmother."

"I’m sorry," I said. "Couldn’t you get your land back?"

"No. These people are powerful. Soldiers support them."

The story had a ring of truth. I had read constantly in The Jakarta Post of land disputes, often involving the use of hired ‘muscle’ from the military.

"Do you have any friends?" I asked.

"There’s about six boys sleep in the market. There’s a man gives us food."

"Listen," I said. "If you want to go back home, my driver will take you. It’s only half an hour from here to Ciputat."

"No. My grandmother doesn’t like me. She thinks I’m stupid." He sounded very determined not to return.

"It would be better at home. You could go to school."

"I’m no good at school." His angry frown grew deeper.

"What’s your name?" I asked.


"Your grandmother will be worried about you, Hamid. How about my driver giving you a lift home?"


He wasn’t going to be persuaded, even after a further five minutes of chat. And I was aware that if I stood talking to the boy too long we might attract a crowd of nosy onlookers. The locals often like to listen-in on conversations between foreigners and Indonesians. Perhaps they might suspect illegal goings-on.

"Well, Hamid," I said, before leaving, "here’s my card with my phone number. Let me know if you want to go home." We shook hands on that.


"To Wisma Utara," I instructed Mo.

The traffic moved slower than a wingless pigeon as we journeyed past the discoloured concrete shops and restaurants on the dusty highway called Jalan Fatmawati. It was nearly twenty four hours since I had put Min into Wisma Utara and I was desperate to see him. I had been worrying about him since waking that morning. Would he think he had been abandoned? One hour after leaving work, I reached the children’s home.

I entered the lounge, with its faint aroma of urine, and there sat Min, solemn and sad, watching TV. Sitting next to him were Joan, half blind Tedi, pretty Diah, and bubbly nosed Dadang. At first Min didn’t notice my entrance. Then he turned and caught my eye. He jumped up from his seat, hurried towards me and took my hand. I ruffled his hair and his eyes sparkled. A lump came to my throat.

"How’s Min?" I asked Joan who looked tired, like a peasant woman who had too many rice fields and too many children to look after. She stood up and made an effort to smile.

"Just fine, Mr Kent," she responded. Her thick dark hair was cheaply cut, her legs were bare and her sandals were plastic.

"Is Min behaving himself?"

"No problem," said Joan.

"Can I take him for a walk? Maybe someone can come with us?"

"Certainly," she said. "Dan’s been looking after Min."

Youthful, amiable-looking Dan, wearing cheap T-shirt, slacks and plastic sandals, took Min’s hand and we set off through the local kampung. Although this was Jakarta, it seemed as if we were in a country village. There were banana trees , peacock flowers, clumps of bougainvillea and simple houses and tiny gardens, full of babies, cockerels and washing. Min was like a happy colt that had been allowed out into the fresh air. He laughed at a cat that darted across our path, jumped when a small dog barked and stared excitedly at a kite in the sky.

"What’s Min been doing today?" I asked.

"We have a school at the home," said Dan softly. "Min goes to that."

"Can he cope?"

"Some of the kids can’t do anything much, but I think Min can learn to kick a ball and hold a racket."

"Min’s speech is very limited," I said, "but in other ways he seems quite bright. He looks at you in a sensitive way."

We reached a wooden hut outside which stood a young teenage boy one of whose eyes was white and sightless. I decided to be friendly and stop to chat.

"Hi, this is Min," I said to the white-eyed boy. "He lives in Wisma Utara."

"Hello mister," said the kid, smiling politely at me, and giving Min a sympathetic look.

"What happened to your eye?" I asked White-Eye.

"I’ve had the problem since I was small. The doctor says it’s now too late to save it."

"Maybe glaucoma," I said. "Is this your house?"

"Yes. Come in."

We stepped inside. The one roomed house was just big enough to take a bed and four people standing very close together.

"How many people sleep here?" I asked White-Eye.

"Seven. I sleep under the bed with my brother and sister."

"Britain used to be like this," I said, as we made our exit. I felt like a time-traveller. I had moved, within a matter of minutes, from the late 20th Century buildings near Fatmawati to wooden huts that could have been built during Britain’s Middle Ages.

Having bid farewell to White-Eye, we continued our stroll. There were more questions I wanted to ask Dan.

"At Wisma Utara, are all these children from fairly rich families?"

"Yes," said Dan. "Apart from Tedi, whose mother’s blind and makes her living from massage. Tedi may have to leave soon, as his mother’s behind with her payments."

I had a suspicion that children like Tedi might be happier back with their mums and decided to make no comment on the child.

"Some of the orphanages I visited seem to take only rich children," I said. "You have to pay to get a child in. There doesn’t seem to be any free orphanage that’ll take street kids who’re mentally backward."

"You have to pay for everything in Jakarta."

"What do you get paid each month?"

"About twenty dollars a month," said Dan, grinning. "I send some of that to my parents in the countryside."

"The lady who set up Wisma Utara did it for her handicapped son," I said. "Does the son stay at the home?"

"The son went back to his mother," explained Dan. "He claims one of the staff hit him."

"Oh dear. Do you think someone really did hit him?" I was immediately worried about Min.

"Maybe somebody restrained him," said Dan smiling. "Nothing serious."

After our stroll we returned to Wisma Utara’s lounge where I sat with Min for some time watching TV. When it was time for me to leave, Dan was kind enough to hold on tight to Min. Dan seemed to have the knack of handling Min in a calm and gentle manner. I felt reassured that he had been chosen to be Min’s minder. But I did note a deeply pained look in Min’s eyes as I waved goodbye.

I drove to South Jakarta’s Blok M shopping district to visit Daus, the boy who had had the operation to remove the lump on his face. Blok M had once been covered in orchards; now it was covered in oily buses, choking traffic fumes, potholed pavements, grubby office blocks, crowded markets, Japanese nightclubs and seedy hotels. Near Blok M’s bustling bus terminal, I found Daus helping his aunt at her stall which sold cold drinks. Some weeks had passed since teenage Daus had had his operation. Having lost both the bulge and the stitches, Daus looked happy and well. He wore a new flowery shirt and a wide grin. The doctor had said that Daus would never be completely cured, but at least he now looked more normal. I got a free drink of cola before happily heading off for home.

I was working my driver too hard at weekends. When Sunday arrived there was a phone call to tell me that Mo’s grandfather had died, for the third time, necessitating Mo to take a day off. For my day’s outing, I hired, from an agency, a driver called Agus. What unsettled me about this nervous and gaunt young fellow was his tendency to drive down the middle of the road in the wrong gear.

Although we somehow reached Bogor safely, we then became lost. We found ourselves on the edge of a small, deserted-looking shopping complex which I had never seen before. I got out to ask directions, but the only human I could find was a body lying on the ground beside a lockup door.

The body was alive and breathing but only just. The poor young man, around twenty years of age, seemed to have no cheeks on his face or his posterior. He seemed to consist mainly of bones, dirty skin and rags. He was like an Egyptian mummy, except that he was covered in flies.

"What’s your name?" I asked the body.

"Chong," he whispered, barely audible.

I fetched some biscuits and bottled tea and put them down beside Chong. He struggled to sit up and sip the tea

"Do you want a doctor?"

He nodded.

I summoned Agus who looked sympathetically at the corpselike creature.

"I don’t think we should risk putting him in my van," I said. "He might die or he might be infectious. We need an ambulance."

To my amazement, Agus, without further urging, shot off to phone for an ambulance, which duly arrived within five minutes.

I waited for the ambulance driver, who wore dark glasses and a gold watch, to help in lifting Chong, but it was not to be. Agus and I had to do the tricky manoeuvre of hoisting the bag of bones. I sat with Chong in the ambulance. Agus was to follow behind in my vehicle.

"Please drive slowly. The patient’s very weak," I said, as we set off.

The ambulance driver, as we approached the first of many deep potholes, put his foot down like a true rally driver, and our bodies bumped and jerked in every direction.

"Slow down," I shouted.

He stepped on the gas and we zoomed ahead, overtaking motorcycles and making everything rattle and vibrate.

On arrival at the Menteng Hospital, a stretcher, thank goodness, was provided to transport Chong into the emergency room. A tall young doctor gave the patient a brief examination.

"Can he be admitted?" I asked.

"No," said the doctor. "He’s mentally backward."

"But this is a hospital and this patient is almost dead from malnutrition," I said, almost spitting.

"He’ll need to go to the mental hospital."

"He’s not a danger to anyone. He’s not mentally ill, is he?"

"Mentally backward," said the doctor. "There’s a hospital at Babakan for mental patients. He must go there."

Chong was reloaded into the ambulance, driven the short distance to the mental hospital, and unloaded onto the pavement outside the admissions office. The hospital was made up of dozens of low-rise buildings, in various states of repair, within a vast area of parkland.

Agus explained the situation regarding Chong to a cheery young administrator who agreed to take the patient.

"Yes, he’ll need to go to the ward for the physically sick," said the administrator, who was wearing rather expensive leather shoes. "You can pay for a month’s treatment. It’s about a dollar a day. And you’ll need to pay for the ambulance."

"How much do we pay for the journey?" I asked the ambulance driver.

"One hundred dollars," he said, adjusting his Mafia-style dark glasses.

"It can’t be," I said. "We’ve only travelled about three miles in all. A taxi would’ve cost us about one dollar."

"One hundred dollars," said the ambulance driver, looking like a Komodo dragon pretending to be half asleep.

"I’ll give you five," I said, trying to look tough. I was still not entirely used to the callousness of some Indonesian hospital workers.

"One hundred."

I appealed to the hospital administrator.

"You must pay," he said, grinning. No doubt they reckoned I was one of these rich and stupid foreigners.

Chong was still lying face down on the pavement.

I signed a form, paid the ambulance driver in full, and escorted Chong’s stretcher to the Merdeka ward. Built around a courtyard, the ward’s single-storey brick buildings put me in mind of a prisoner of war camp in need of renovation. The rooms were dimly lit, the iron beds had no sheets and the dark walls were losing some of their plaster. There were few patients.

"I’ll buy some tins of milk and some biscuits," I said to the genial male nurse, the only person on duty. " Please make sure they’re given to Chong."

Sunday evening found me enjoying dinner at the home of Anne, Bob and their daughter Pauline.

"Delicious food, as always," I said, as I finished the first course.

"The soup," explained Anne, "is sayur asam. The cook makes it with beef broth, tamarind juice, candlenuts, shallots, garlic, chillies and shrimp paste. And various fruits and vegetables such as long beans and sweet corn."

"And the beef we’re about to eat?" I inquired.

"Beef empal," said Anne. "It’s spicy fried beef cooked with bay leaf and coriander and it’s usually served this way with rice and fresh raw vegetables. Imported Australian vegetables, washed by me."

"Your beef and chicken are always good," I said.

"I don’t buy the supermarket chicken," said Anne, looking pleased. "Sometimes their refrigeration doesn’t work and the meat’s rotten."

"Why do you think their fridges don’t work?" asked Pauline, with a naughty grin. "Has someone stolen the money for the repairs, or are the repair people incompetent, or do the managers just not care?"

"All three," responded Anne. "They say a few bad germs are good for you but think of all the kids who die of dysentery and typhoid. Hygiene saves lives."

"At least we can afford antibiotics," said Bob, "unlike some of the kampung people."

"You have to be careful with certain locally made medicines," said Anne. "One pill might contain five milligrams of the antibiotic and the next pill none."

"Goodness," I said. I was learning a bit more about the Developing World.

"Where have you been on your travels this weekend?" asked Bob, looking in my direction.

"Bogor. I love the fact it’s alive with people." I supposed Chong was still alive.

"I know what you mean," said Anne. "Bob and I like places like Tunis and Fes. Full of life."

"Fes is nice," I commented.

"Andre Gide, or his character Michel, speaks of the North Africans living their art," said Anne. "I suppose he meant their art is not so much in their paintings but more in their markets and colourful houses and everyday life."

"Bogor’s a bit like that," I said. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that Anne was a well-read lady.

As Bob poured some more Australian Chardonnay into our glasses, I glanced at a pile of school books on a side table. Anne noticed the direction of my gaze.

"Pauline, what is it you’ve been reading for your latest project?" asked Anne.

"Plato," she said, looking bright eyed. "Plato writing about Socrates. It’s for Religious studies."

"Socrates is interesting," said Anne.

"Interesting?" asked Pauline, looking cynical.

"Socrates," said Anne, "argued that a lover likes his loved one to be poor. That gives the lover more control."

"Lots of male expatriates," said Bob, with a hint of a smile, "find it convenient that some of the local girls are short of money."

"But I thought," said Pauline, "that there was a difference between love and lust. A decent lover would not want his loved one to be short of anything."

"How many lovers are decent?" asked Anne, rhetorically. "Not too many."

Pudding arrived and conversation was suspended as we tucked into something creamy and meringuey. I wondered what Min and White-Eye and Chong were getting for supper.


It was a Saturday and I had lots of people to visit.

On reaching Jakarta’s crowded Mayestic market I set about trying to find thirteen-year-old Hamid, the seller of newspapers who claimed his father had been shot dead and who claimed he had run away from his granny.

A shoeshine boy directed me to a dark indoor market, a bit like an underground car park, and the little shop where Hamid was working. The shop consisted of sacks of grains and spices and various canned goods.

"Hey mister, how are you?" said the slightly scowling, dark-eyed runaway.

"I’m fine, Hamid. How are you? Working hard?"

"I’m OK. I’ve just finished work." His scowl deepened. He looked depressed.

"Are you interested in a trip back to your grandmother?" I asked.

"OK," came the shy reply. There was a hint of hesitation.

"Good! Let’s go to my van and you can give the driver directions." I was elated at his change of attitude. I hurried him to my vehicle and we set off at speed.

After about thirty minutes we reached rice fields on the edge of Jakarta and then turned onto a narrow road running past some humble shacks.

"Slow down," ordered Hamid.

I looked at the simple houses with their grimy walls and wondered what sort of life the grandmother lived.

"Turn right," said Hamid. "A bit further. Now, stop. Here we are."

We got out of the vehicle. On our left stood two down at heel habitations. On our right there was a mansion. Hamid led us towards the latter.

"Grandmother’s house?" I gasped. The two storey mansion had a mock-Tudor look.


"She must be rich. This place is huge!"

"My grandfather was a banker. He’s dead now."

The garden had its fair share of weeds and the paint on the windows was flaking, but this was the house of one of the elite.

The front door was open and we entered the large front room where we were met by a bright-eyed boy slightly younger than Hamid.

"My brother, Dede" explained Hamid.

Grandmother appeared. She looked small, grey, weary and disappointed with life. For the lost boy there was neither hug nor warm smile of greeting. We were invited to sit down on a well-worn settee next a dusty pot plant. Hamid muttered a few words to his grandmother and then there was a moment of silence.

"I found Hamid in Pasar Mayestic," I said, by way of explanation.

"He runs away sometimes," said grandmother in a tired voice. "He doesn’t always attend school."

"Maybe the school’s not very good," I said.

"Hamid is not bright," said granny, putting her hand to her head, as if to suggest Hamid had something missing up top.

"What about his brother Dede? Does he like school?" I asked.

"Dede’s clever. He can speak English," said grandmother.

"I learnt English from watching TV," explained Dede, beaming.

"You know Hamid’s mother has remarried?" said grandmother. "She’s married a minibus driver. They’re both alcoholics and he takes drugs." Granny spoke softly and bitterly.

I let the information sink in. I guessed that granny had written off Hamid’s mother and new father as useless cases. I guessed she was not happy at having Hamid dumped on her.

"Is Hamid’s mother your daughter?" I asked.

"No. She’s my daughter-in-law. She was married to my late son," said granny.

"Hamid said your son was murdered," I said.

"That’s right," said granny, turning white.

"Where do Hamid’s parents live?" I asked.

"Ten minutes from here," said grandmother. "Do you want to meet them?"

"That would be nice," I said.

Hamid and I hopped into my van and were driven along a bumpy path to an estate built for the much less affluent, a place of litter, graffiti, tall weeds and stray dogs. Hamid’s mum’s home was a simple and basic concrete structure. The front door was open and we entered a room with little in the way of furniture; I was introduced to a relaxed looking mum and dad.

The couple were in their early thirties, thin, and poorly dressed but showed no obvious signs of drink or drugs. Again, as on our arrival at Granny’s house, there were no hugs for worried looking Hamid. Mum brought me a glass of water. Like her husband, she seemed friendly and polite, but why had she not put her arms around her son, or given him some sign of welcome? Why had she not started questioning Hamid about his absence and his return?

"Hamid said he wanted to come to visit granny," I said, breaking a long moment of silence. "I wondered why he doesn’t live with you here." I smiled, to compensate for my bluntness.

"He truants," she said, by way of explanation. "He’s not good at school." She smiled.

"He seems quite bright," I said.

"Not like his brother," she said.

After we had chatted about trivialities for a few minutes, Hamid’s father decided to go outside to have a smoke with his friends, and then Hamid’s mother decided to go off and clean the kitchen. What was I to make of these two parents? They reminded me of certain of the nurses in one of the hospitals I had visited: self-indulgent, empty-headed, cold-hearted and thick-skinned. I had expected them to kill the fatted calf for the return of the lost child. Instead there was strange indifference.

"Shall we get back to granny?" I asked Hamid.

Hamid nodded and we returned the van. The drive back was in silence. I was feeling uneasy.

"I hope he’s going to stay here," I said to granny, once we had returned to her front room.

She didn’t say anything.

"Are you staying here?" I asked Hamid.

Hamid nodded.

We all shook hands and off I went, leaving behind a tense and angry looking boy.

Having left Hamid, I traveled to see Min.

I was always highly nervous before meeting Min at Wisma Utara. Was he going to be in good spirits? Yes. He was in the middle of the lounge dancing vigorously to dangdut music being played on a big cassette recorder. He was grinning, enjoying having an audience made up of Joan, Dan and some of the children. He was having one of his good days. When he saw me, he strode confidently over to me and grabbed my hand. We went for our usual promenade.

We sauntered along the kampung’s narrow concrete pathways, under shady golden shower trees and past gardens full of hibiscus. Before long we came to the neighbourhood rubbish tip. The rubbish tip was big. This one hectare of rusting metal, plastic bags, rotting food and other junk was set between a school and some houses. Smoke rose at one end, darkening out the sky. Here we watched the rubbish collectors, searching for paper, plastic and metal to be sold for recycling. Min seemed quite relaxed in this down-market area.

One of the collectors, a handsome, rickety, skin-and-bone juvenile in a white T-shirt, was seated at the foot of a battered wooden cart. He looked ready to be put on a stretcher.

"What’s your name?" I asked.

"Iwan," he replied, looking awfully serious.

"How old are you?"


"Are you OK?"


"Where do you live?"

Iwan pointed to some huts made of bits of plywood.

"Do you live with your parents?" I asked.

"My father’s dead. I live with my grandmother."

"If you’d like to go to the doctor, I can arrange it with your grandmother."

Iwan stood up and we scrunched our way over the sea of rubbish in the direction of the scavengers’ houses. Barefoot Iwan was limping.

"Do you pay rent?" I asked him.


"Does your mother live here?"

"She lives in the countryside."

A white haired old woman, with an almost toothless grin, ambled up to us.

"This is my grandmother," said Iwan, "and this is our house. Come on in."

We entered the one room shanty. The furniture consisted of a bed and some shelves. There were a few items of clothing, some dishes and jars, a poster of Sukarno, and some pictures of young women which had been salvaged from old magazines. Min seemed quite at home and pleased to have the company of another child. I wondered if Min came from a home like this.

After a brief discussion, Iwan’s Granny agreed to an immediate trip with Iwan to the Pertama Hospital. We returned Min to Wisma Utara and then made the twenty minute journey to the hospital.

The doctor in the casualty ward took a close interest in Iwan’s feet.

"Leprosy," he said. "It’s like TB but spreads very much slower. Look at the holes on the soles of his feet."

I could see two holes the size of small coins, about half a centimetre deep. "Can you give him medicine?" I asked.

"He’ll need to go to the Leprosy Hospital in Bekasi."

"As an in-patient?" I asked.

"It would be better to be an in-patient, to make sure he takes his medicine. It’s not an expensive hospital. Very cheap. As an outpatient he’d need to attend once a month."

"Iwan, do you want to stay in the Leprosy Hospital?" I asked.

"Could my grandmother stay with me?" asked Iwan. He did not look happy.

"No," said the doctor.

"Then I’ll go as an outpatient," said Iwan.

It was agreed that next morning my driver would take the lad to Bekasi, a settlement on the edge of Jakarta.

My final visit of the day was to Bogor and this involved a thirty-five mile drive, mainly along a modern toll road, with pleasant views of flowers and hills. My destination was the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor. This was where I had taken Chong, the skinny young wreck I had found in the street.

Leaving the mental hospital’s carpark with its posh Toyotas and Jeeps, I walked through the hospital’s pleasant gardens with their gorgeous flowering trees, skirted the palatial office of the director, and arrived at the pre-Florence-Nightingale Merdeka ward. To my relief I found Chong was still alive, had perhaps put on a little weight, and was in fact being attended to by an amiable female nurse. I smiled at Chong and patted him on the shoulder. He smiled wanly. I bought him some more milk and biscuits from the hospital shop before making my excuses and returning to Jakarta. I had dinner at the Hilton.

Come Sunday my driver and I took the road to Ciomas, in the hills above Bogor. The sky was clear and the hills, when we reached them, were the sort of sharp grey-blue you might see in Spain’s sunny Sierra Nevada. We parked beside a roadside stall where I bought a plant called Red Ginger. The plant’s bright red luminous flowers must have been nearly thirty centimetres tall.

Leaving the vehicle behind, I set off on a long country walk. I passed a falling down primary school, a tiny mosque with an onion shaped dome, fields growing maize, and a little hamlet with lots of banana trees and light pink bougainvillea.

After a pause to take some photos, I took a path through some woodland, which had that dark steamy smell of rotting flowers. Some way into the wood I came upon an old man and three schoolboys, aged roughly twelve to thirteen. The boys looked as if they were on their way home from school.

"Where are you from? Where are you going?" one boy asked.

"I’m from Proxima Centauri," I replied.

They tittered politely, presuming that I had tried to make some kind of joke.

The boy with the cleanest white shirt was called Lukman; the one with buttons missing from various parts of his clothing was called Andi; and the lad with a cigarette packet in the back pocket of his red shorts was Udin. The gnarled and cheery old peasant was called Herry, and he was the grandfather of Andi.

"We’re going to look for lizards," said Lukman. "Do you want to see one?"

"Yes, please," I replied.

We passed through a wilderness of boulders and bushes and came upon a small, wooden, open-fronted hut or pendopa half-hidden in the middle of a zone of tall grasses, rocks and small trees.

Herry and I sat on the front steps of the hut; Andi searched in the undergrowth and almost immediately pulled out a small lizard which he placed on his head; Lukman found an even smaller lizard and let it crawl under his shirt and then up his leg; Udin lay on the ground and smoked a kretek cigarette.

"Are there snakes here?" I asked.

"Yes," said Udin. "Lukman got bitten once. Had to go to hospital. His leg all swelled up."

Lukman pointed to a small mark on his skin.

"Any spiders?"

"Up there in the branches," said Andi, who immediately began to climb up the nearest tree like a circus acrobat. He swung from a branch making Tarzan noises, while Lukman tried unsuccessfully to pull him down, by grabbing at his clothing. To Andi’s left I could see a spider’s web and an elegant red and blue coloured spider whose body was the size of a thumb.

When Andi returned to the ground he was scratching his bare limbs.

"Ants and mosquitoes," explained Andi.

This area seemed like a Huckleberry Finn paradise for children, a domain from a South Sea treasure island; and yet it had mosquitoes and snakes and maybe even leprosy. My tummy rumbled.

"I think it’s time for me to get back to my vehicle," I said. "Can you show me the way back to the road that goes to Bogor."

"Which road? There are lots of roads," said the old man.

"I don’t know," I said. Not for the first time, I was lost. It happens sometimes.

We walked and walked until we reached a narrow stretch of road. I didn’t recognise it, but, there was a leather-jacketed young man standing there with a motorbike.

"Can you take me to the road that goes to Bogor?" I asked the man with the bike.

"No problem," he said, smiling.

Having said goodbye to Andi and Lukman, Udin and I were given a wonderful motorbike tour of the Ciomas countryside. We bumped along under tall dark trees, past a boy carrying a great bundle of grass on his head, over rivers full of kids pretending to be Mowgli, past a little fairground in a field, through hamlets with geese and goats, and on and on. The light was fading. Then we reached a roadside stall.

"Hey!" I said. "That white van down that path. I think it’s mine. Yes it is." My flipping driver must have taken it off the main road and hidden it in a camouflaged position.

I paid the bike driver and Udin and got driven home in silence.


After a Saturday breakfast of fresher than fresh eggs, porridge oats with papaya and cream, croissants and coffee, Asiaweek, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Inside Indonesia and The Jakarta Post, I was ready for the day’s adventure. I strolled out to the garage to see my driver.

"Mo, did Iwan get his leprosy medicine?"

"Yes. Enough for a month," he said.

"Right, Mo, we’re off to Bogor. And later we’ll see Min, back in Jakarta."

Mo’s immobile face managed to show displeasure.

We sped along the narrow twisty roads, which were crowded with wandering bikes and children, but crawled along the wide, smooth toll road. As I sat comfortably at the back of my van, I began reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, in preparation for one of Monday’s lessons. In 1948, someone called Leslie Fiedler wrote an essay, in the Partisan Review, in which he described Huck and Jim as enjoying a sexual relationship. In old age, Mark Twain organized the Angelfish Club, a group of schoolage girls, called Angelfish, whom he regularly wrote to and invited to stay with him.

When I looked up from my book it occurred to me that the toll road was rather pleasant because of the views of golf-courses and bougainvillea. The only thing that disturbed me was that when I looked in the vehicle’s front mirror I could see that Mo’s eyes would occasionally close for a few seconds, and then open with a blink. My guess was that Mo was putting on some kind of act.

We reached Bogor safely and motored along sunny, tree-lined streets to the mental hospital. In the hospital’s Merdeka ward I found Chong watching an old black and white TV that was situated in the shabby lounge area. He had already grown strong enough to sit up unsupported.

"Hello Chong," I said.

He nodded. He was too shy to look either at me or at the maternal looking female nurse sitting near him.

"Chong’s been drinking the milk," said the nurse. "He’s put on weight already."

"He’s certainly no longer skin and bones," I said. "What does the doctor say?"

"The doctor said Chong’s suffering from depression," explained the nurse, in a quiet and sympathetic tone. "Chong is Chinese Indonesian. He’s a bit retarded and his family have rejected him."

"Oh dear," I said. "So he’ll be able to stay here?"

"Yes. When he’s put on a bit more weight, he’ll be transferred to another ward."

"Chong, how are you getting on?" I asked

Chong stared downwards and responded with a whispered word, which I could not make out.

"Chong, do you like watching TV?" I asked.

There was a pause and then a slight nod.

"Are there any children in this hospital?" I asked the nurse. I wondered if there were any poor children like Min.

"In the Pertama ward," said the nurse. "There are about five patients. To get there, you cross the grass and turn right, then left. Five minutes walk. You’ll see a single storey building with white walls and red tiles."

"May I visit them?"

"Of course."

"Would I be allowed to take them for walks in the grounds?"

"I think so. You can ask someone at the Director’s office."

I delivered some more milk and biscuits to Chong and then called in at the main office where a plump, bespectacled doctor, having asked me a few questions about my place of work, agreed to me giving the children some exercise. In Britain things would not have been so simple.

The red roofed building for the children was relatively basic, but it had some bright painted walls and it was surrounded by beautiful garden. The only person on duty was a little old man with a slender frame and a gentle smile. His name was Nano and he agreed to show me round.

The office, where Nano had been watching TV and eating rice and vegetables off a piece of brown paper, contained a battered filing cabinet and a table covered in dog-eared files. Next to the office, there was a long dormitory, the austerity of which was lessened by the cartoon characters painted on one section of wall. Two teenage girls, looking well-fed, respectably dressed and quite normal, were sitting on wooden beds, reading comics. At one end of the dormitory was a small cell which had barred windows but no furniture. Sitting on the concrete floor of the cell was a big, muscular, shaven-headed teenage boy who looked harmless but less than normal. He smiled at me in an open-mouthed, vacant-sort-of way.

"Who’s this in the cell?" I asked.

"Erwin," said Nano.

"Why’s he in the cell?"

"He’s very backward. Very strong. He might run away."

"And the two girls reading comics?"

"Wira and Sum. Suffering from stress," explained Nano.

"How many children all together?"


"The other two?"

Nano led me through the toilets to a backyard, where, against a damp black wall, stood a bare boards bed. On the bed, in uncomfortable crouching positions, were two teenage boys. Their heads were shaven; their skins were covered in sores; they were tied very firmly to the bed by flat looking ropes or cords; they were completely naked.

"John on the left and Daud on the right," explained Nano. "They have very low mental ages."

Daud had quite a pleasant face. John was less than handsome.

"Are they dangerous?" I asked.

"No," said Nano. "But they might try to run away."

"Has Daud always been backward?"

"His mother says Daud was normal until the age of nine when he caught some infection which damaged his brain. He has epilepsy, just like Erwin and John. John was born mentally backward."

"Were these children put in the hospital by their families?" I asked.

"Yes, their families pay for them to be here."

"Do they get medicine?"


I wondered if Min might have ended up in a place like this, if he’d been unlucky. Probably not, because there would have been no one to pay the hospital bills.

"Can I take these kids for a walk?" I asked Nano.

"Erwin is very big and strong. He might try to run away," said Nano gently.

"What about John and Daud?"

"They are idiots," said Nano, smiling.

"But they might want to go for a short walk in the garden," I suggested.

"How far?"

"We could go to the little shop within the grounds," I explained. "Is there anything you need?"

"Cigarettes," said Nano, grinning. "Djarum filter."

"OK. And we can get some biscuits and milk," I added.

Nano untied John and Daud, and then rummaged in a cupboard for some clothes. The two boys stood reasonably still while they were fitted into shirts and shorts several sizes too big. They had to hold the shorts up as they walked.

I took John in one hand and Daud in the other. John seemed well dosed with medicine and a bit wobbly on his feet. Daud was a trifle wilder and tended to pull me forward while making strange faces and noises. To my surprise, Nano didn’t come with us, but the two girls, Wira and Sum, followed me at a distance.

We progressed through the garden, reached the tiny hospital shop, and bought our supplies. The packets of biscuits were a problem as the two boys found them impossible to open. It took me only three or four minutes to break into the plastic wrappings. John and Daud scoffed down the food as if they hadn’t been fed for days. Wira and Sum ate more slowly.

"Do you like it here?" I asked the girls, as we headed back through the gardens, past flowering frangipani and alamanda.

"It’s OK," said Wira, smiling sweetly. Sum looked less happy, as if she might burst into tears.

Safely back at the ward I handed over some clove cigarettes to a relaxed-looking Nano. I suspected that, like the nurses who had been looking after Bangbang when he vanished from the Dipo hospital, Nano would not have been too worried if any of his patients had disappeared. I felt extremely pleased that I had made the journey to and from the shop without major incident. Nobody had tried to escape. Nobody had had a fit. I returned to my vehicle in a good mood.

"To Andi’s house, beyond Internusa," I said to Mo.

While we made our thirty minute journey to the other side of Bogor, I gave my hands a clean with some medicinal alcohol.

Little Andi, playing in the mud outside his falling-down hut, still looked malnourished but at least his mother had taken him to the hospital for a check-up.

"The doctor says he hasn’t got TB," said mum, holding up an x-ray.

"Has the doctor given him any medicine?" I asked.

"Worm medicine, vitamins and milk powder," said mum.

I gave her some more cash and then went to see Asep, in his nearby hovel beneath tall trees.

"Are you still taking the TB medicine?" I asked.

"Yes," said Asep, who looked cheerful but pale and thin.

"How’s the little girl with the burns?"

"She’s right behind you," said Asep.

There she was, grinning happily, wearing a grubby little dress, and holding out a hospital receipt. Her leg looked a fraction better.

"Thanks for getting a receipt," I said to the little creature.

Having returned to the Mitsubishi, I requested Mo to take us back to the centre of Bogor. We bumped along, squeezing past buffalo and hordes of pretty school girls, and then past minibuses and crowded open-air markets. Eventually we reached the canal that was ten minutes walk from the humble home of the fruit bat, Melati, Tikus and Dian. Leaving the vehicle, I strode along narrow lanes and down steep steps. I was anxious to find out if Dian had got some TB medicine.

"Hi mister," said Melati, as I entered her small front room with its dreamy view of the river Cisadane and Mount Salak.

Dian came forward to present me with her x-ray, little packets of pills for TB and various receipts.

"Well done," I said.

I sat down near the door, in order to get as much fresh air as possible. Fortunately, Dian had been taking her pills for at least a fortnight and so she was not so likely to infect others.

"Mister, what’s your name?" asked Melati as she lay back on the sofa, showing lots of slim leg.

"Mr Been," I said.

"Mr Been," repeated Melati, impassively.

Tikus arrived, fresh from school, and sat between Melati and Dian. A shifty-looking young man, whom I guessed might be Dian’s husband, hovered at the door. He was no doubt ensuring that the foreigner caused no mischief.

"Have you been x-rayed, Melati?" I asked.

"Yes, all of us," said Melati. "My grandfather also has TB."

"Is he getting medicine?"


Granny arrived with the fruit bat and squeezed onto the sofa.

"Take a photo, Mr Been," pleaded Melati.

As I began to get my camera ready, Dian decided to get up and leave; the fruit bat tried unsuccessfully to stretch its wings; granny posed nicely; Tikus decided to tickle Melati.

"Keep still," I said.

Melati gave Tikus a pretend punch below the belt.

"Keep still," I complained. Click. "Now I’m off to have lunch," I explained, and made my exit.

Throughout my morning in Bogor I had been thinking about Min. Now I was in a hurry to see him and after a quick lunch of pizza, and a journey of an hour and a half, I had reached Wisma Utara, back in Jakarta. During the journey I had noted, from viewing the front mirror, that Mo’s eyes would occasionally close for a few seconds.

Min was looking well, and sidled up to me to take my hand. We went for one of our walks, heading on this occasion through an area of interesting, twisting little lanes. Outside a two storey kampung house with a smart green door, I got chatting to a girl, called Ijah. She was in her late teens, pretty like a nun from the Sound of Music, and dressed in green and white Islamic gear including headscarf. I told her a bit about Min. She listened politely and seemed interested.

"We have someone like Min in our house," she said quietly. "Would you like to meet him?"

"We’d love to," I said.

We stepped inside and climbed some narrow wooden stairs to an attic. Lying on a bed was someone who looked like a malnourished Extra Terrestrial with withered legs. He was maybe in his thirties or maybe forties. Min put on a worried face.

"This is my brother Tejo," said Ijah.

"Hello Tejo," I said, but got no reply. He avoided eye contact and looked nervous.

"What’s wrong with him?" I inquired of Ijah.

"He got ill when he was a child," said Ijah. "He can’t use his legs."

"Perhaps polio," I said. "Does he stay in this attic all the time?"


"Have you got a wheelchair?"

"No," said Ijah.

"Would you like me to buy one for Tejo?" I asked.

"If you like."

"Tejo, would you like a wheelchair?" I asked.

He nodded.

"Can he speak?"

"Oh yes," said Ijah, "but he’s not used to people."

"It’s nice to meet you Tejo," I said. "This is my friend Min. We’d like to come and visit you again." I rambled on for a bit, but got no reply from Tejo, although he did smile when I shook his hand and said my goodbyes.

Min and I walked back to Wisma Utara, but on reaching the entrance, Min decided he was not going to go back in. He decided instead to do a kind of dance in the middle of the street. I took his arm and tried to haul him in, but he broke free and continued his gyrations. I fetched Dan, the member of Wisma Utara’s staff who had been allotted to caring for Min. Dan gently took Min by the hand and Min obediently went in to supper.

As I was being driven home from Wisma Utara, my driver announced that he would not be unhappy if I dispensed with his services. In other words, he wanted me to find a new driver. My immediate reaction was relief. There would be no more eyes closing while driving along the toll road. When I had first arrived in Indonesia I had thought that I would be capable of treating people like maids and drivers with respect and consideration; but I had sometimes made Mo work seven days a week; and I did not necessarily have Mo’s total sympathy when dealing with certain waifs and strays.

I paid Mo his monthly salary plus the usual ‘extra’ that one is expected to pay when saying goodbye to an employee. Mo departed with a broad smile and I began making phonecalls in order to find a new driver. Fortunately the family of one of my students, a family that was about to leave the country for good, were anxious to find employment for their excellent driver, whose name was Mo. The new Mo was a married man in his thirties, tall, kind-faced and calm. I promised him that he would normally have Sundays off and that I would pay generous overtime for extra duties such as visiting hospitals.


As the school term wore on, it was natural that the students’ stamina and enthusiasm diminished, as did mine. We had done the grammar game, the vocabulary game, the move-round the-class game, the reading game, the map game, the computer game, the quiz game, the murder game and the fifty other such fun activities to help them practise their English. We had moved on to rather more routine exercises which provoked the occasional yawn. School terms were too long. Ever more frequently I looked forward to the retreats to the staff room for cups of coffee and comfort.

There were two staffrooms, one large and one small. I preferred the smaller room, which had space for only half a dozen people, and which seemed to encourage more intimate conversation.

"How’s your least favourite student?" Carmen asked me, as we sat in front of piles of uncorrected work and several half-drunk cups of staff room tea.

"You mean John?" I queried.

"I mean John," said Carmen with a happy giggle. "You know he doesn’t do any work for any of us. And he’s not just disruptive in lessons. He’s disruptive everywhere. He’s fallen out with all his friends."

"I had a chat with his mother," I said.

"She thinks it’s all our fault," said Carmen.

"Not any more," I explained. "She at last came out with the truth. It seems she’s been fighting with her husband and there’s going to be a divorce."

"I suspected as much," said Fergus, looking up briefly from his newspaper. "Now I won’t take the boy’s behaviour so personally.

"I imagine the Indonesians have less of a problem over divorce than the Europeans," I commented.

"Don’t you believe it," said Carmen. "One of the school secretaries was telling me that about half of all the Indonesians she knows have been divorced. Most Indonesian girls seem to get married in their late teens and there’s a high divorce rate among the early married."

"There’s less stigma attached to divorce in Indonesia," said Fergus.

"Divorce leads to poverty for some Indonesian women," said Carmen.

"I suppose a lot of the Blok M bar girls are the product of broken homes," said Fergus.

"And how’s Min?" asked Carmen, changing the subject.

"He seems OK," I said. "One day he can be very cheerful and the next day down in the dumps." I handed Carmen a photo of Min on one of his good days.

"He looks rather sweet but awfully sad," said Carmen, as she studied the print. "Do you think you’re ever going to find his family?"

"Not a chance," said Ian, a colleague with a pessimistic view of kampung people. "His family could be dead. You know the problem’s going to be when you leave Indonesia for good. He’s going to be left on his own."

"Anything’s possible," I said, not wanting to pursue the point. I turned to speak to Fergus. "Where are you off to for the Easter holiday?" I asked. It was already March and time to think of escape from the classroom.

"Thailand. And you?"

"Visiting my parents in the UK," I said. And I knew I would be worrying about Min each day I was away from him. Min wouldn’t understand any explanation I tried to give him.

I bought a wheelchair in the down-town area of Glodok, collected an anxious-looking Min from Wisma Utara, and walked, with the chair, to the house of Tejo, the man in the attic.

"Hi, Ijah," I said, on entering the house. "Can we take Tejo out in this wheelchair?"

"Ah, you bought it for him. Thank you. Yes." Ijah was again wearing her Islamic uniform. She smiled demurely.

"Are you coming with us?" I asked her.

"No thanks," she said.

Ijah and I carried a surprisingly light Tejo down the narrow wooden stairs and sat him in the wheelchair. He was smiling as Min and I wheeled him out the door and down the sunny lane.

The sky was brilliant blue, the birds twittered happily and the gardenia was in full bloom. At the bottom of the road we met a girl collecting washing from a line strung up outside her little house. The girl had sparkly eyes, lovely lips and long, slim legs. I noticed that Tejo was grinning happily.

"Who’s this in the wheelchair?" the girl asked, while giving us a cheerful smile.

"This is Tejo who lives in that big house up the street," I said. "The one with the green shutters."

"I’ve never seen him before," said the girl. "That’s the neighbourhood chief’s house up there."

"I don’t think Tejo ever gets out," I said. "So I’m letting him get some fresh air."

"That’s good," she said.

We did a circuit of the area and then returned a happy Tejo to his home. There, in the lounge, we were met by a worried looking Ijah and a cross faced young man.

"This is Tejo’s brother, Harjo," said Ijah, introducing Cross-Face and looking down at the ground. Cross-Face wore a smart shirt and his thin face had the scowling look of a bad-tempered Sicilian.

"You can’t take Tejo out of the house!" said Harjo, sulphurously.

"We were giving him some fresh air," I explained. "I bought the wheelchair for him so he can get out and about." Taken aback by Harjo’s fury, I found myself shaking. Min was staring at me and looking scared.

"You can’t take Tejo out," said Harjo.

"Are you going to take him out?" I asked angrily.

"No," said Harjo.

"Do you want me to take the wheelchair away for someone else to use?" I asked.

"No," said Harjo.

"Is Ijah going to take him out?" I said.

"No," said Harjo.

"Well what’s the point of having the chair if he’s not allowed to go out?" I protested.

An older, taller man appeared from a back room. He had the muscular look of a soldier and a face that showed no emotion.

"He might go out in the evening," said the older man, "when it’s dark"

"Can’t I take him out?" I pleaded.

"No," said the older man.

"There are institutions for people like Tejo," said Harjo, looking like a mad crusader or jihad warrior. "We may put him in a home for the handicapped."

There was a period of silence and then Min and I made our exit and returned to Wisma Utara.

I decided it would be better not to try to take Tejo out again, in case that made his family decide to banish him to some mental home. The male members of the family were obviously embarrassed by their crippled relative and felt they would lose face in the neighbourhood if he was seen around. I hoped I had not already done irreparable damage to Tejo. Oh dear! I had meant well.

For two days, work and school social events kept me from visiting Min. When I returned to see him I thought he looked pale and sick.

"How’s Min?" I asked Joan, who was sitting in the lounge area. She was dressed in cheap black trousers and T-shirt, and looked fed-up.

"I think Min was worried about you not coming here. He kept on mentioning your name. Yesterday he refused to eat."

This brought a lump to my throat. It was gratifying that Min liked me so much, but, deeply worrying that he couldn’t cope with my short absence. "How is he today?" I asked nervously.

"Just fine," she said. "Everyone’s fine."

"Are you sure? Min seems a bit white," I said. Min looked like an anguished ghost.

"No, he’s healthy," insisted Joan.

"Has he been feeling sick?"


"There are lumps of dried food on his T-shirt," I pointed out.

"Don’t worry, Mr Kent. He’s very healthy." Joan smiled unconvincingly.

"Has the doctor been here this week?"

"Yes. We told him everyone is OK."

At this point Min vomited buckets of white stuff onto the floor.

"Sick," said Min staring at me with big anxious eyes. This was one of his rare comments.

"I’d better take him to a doctor," I said, firmly. "Is that all right?"

"Yes. I’ll come with you," said Joan. "And can little Tedi come too? He’s been very sick for two weeks."

"Two weeks!" I fumed. "You said everyone was fine! Let’s go immediately." I was still learning about the Third World, and its sometimes odd attitude to truth and accuracy.

We bundled Tedi, a pale, tearful, half-blind, eight-year-old, into the back of my van, along with Min, and drove to the nearby doctor. The clinic was in a modest middle-class house and was modest in terms of equipment and cleanliness. The walls had been long stained by dirty fingers and damp. The shy young female doctor examined Min and issued some pills.

"What’s wrong with Min?" I asked.

"Nothing serious," said the doctor. "His temperature is normal. Blood pressure’s OK. Just something he’s eaten."

Half blind Tedi was examined next.

"Tedi will need to go to the hospital," said the doctor. "He has a high fever and is dehydrated. It’s urgent that he gets onto a drip."

"I’ll pay for his treatment," I said.

"We’ll have to ask the permission of Ibu Ani," said Joan. "Tedi’s mother lives far away in Central Java. It would take days to contact her."

We got back into the van and drove the short distance to the old, Dutch-style bungalow of Ibu Ani, the elderly lady who had built Wisma Utara for her Down’s Syndrome son. Tedi stayed in my van while the rest of us sat on chairs in the garden. Joan and I explained the situation regarding Tedi, but Ibu Ani didn’t seem keen to discuss the subject. She looked grey and tired.

"How are you liking Jakarta?" Ibu Ani asked me.

"It’s great, but I’m here to ask about Tedi," I pointed out.

"And is Min liking Wisma Utara?" continued Ibu Ani.

"Yes, but what about Tedi?" I said.

"His mother must deal with the problem," said the Ibu, quietly. "That’s the policy."

"But his mother will take days to contact," I said.

"There’s nothing we can do," said Ibu Ani.

"But the doctor says Tedi must get onto a drip immediately. I’ll pay for the treatment."

The arguments were repeated over and over again for thirty minutes until I think I simply wore her down. She agreed to Tedi going to the Pertama hospital.

In the emergency room at the hospital, Tedi was given a blood test, put on a drip and taken to the children’s ward.

"It’s almost certainly Typhoid," said the doctor. "It’s a pity he didn’t come to the hospital a bit sooner. We’ll need to hope no complications set in."

Next evening, Tedi was no worse.

Back at Wisma Utara, Min no longer looked pale and in fact was dancing to pop music when I arrived. Music seemed to make him really happy.

"We’ve sent Min’s photo to a newspaper called Pos Kota," said Joan. "They have a column with photos of lost children. Maybe Min’s family will see it."

"That’s fantastic," I said. "It’s a pity Doctor Bahari’s clinic didn’t think of using the press."

"Not many people read newspapers," said Joan. "Poor people can’t afford them. But maybe we’ll be lucky."

"At the end of the week, I’m off to Britain for a ten day holiday," I explained to Joan. "Min won’t understand why I’m not visiting him. Please give him lots of care and attention. Can Dan take him for walks?"

"Yes, Mr Kent. Don’t worry."

"I am worried," I said. "Min is used to me visiting every day."

"Dan will take him for walks," said Joan.

"I’ll take Min for a walk now, if I may," I said. "I want to see if Iwan, the boy with leprosy, is back at home. My driver told me yesterday that when he went to the rubbish dump to collect Iwan, to take him to the leprosy hospital, there was nobody there."

Min and I walked through the kampung towards the rubbish dump and after ten minutes had arrived at Iwan’s house. It was locked. There was no sign of life.

"Iwan’s gone to visit relations," said the old woman in the next hut. "He went two days ago."

"His medicine’s finished this week," I said. "Will he be back soon?"

"I don’t know. Maybe he’s gone for a few weeks," said the old woman.

"Do you have the address of the place he’s gone to?"

"No. It’s very far away. At least six hours by bus."

"Well, my driver will call back here tomorrow," I told her. "In case Iwan’s come back."

It was Saturday. Tedi was making good progress in hospital. Iwan, the leper child, was still not back in Jakarta. Hamid, hopefully, was still with granny in her big house. Andi and Asep and Dian and the others in Bogor had been given money to buy their next lot of medicine. Chong was putting on weight. I said goodbye to Min and set off to the airport for my flight to London.


It is difficult when you want to be with two sets of people at the same time, but know that the sets are separated by oceans and continents. I wanted to be with my parents, but, during my ten days in chilly, grey Britain I worried all the time about Min, back in Jakarta. Was Min fully recovered from his sickness? Was he eating? Was he getting any exercise? If only he could have understood the idea of me being away for a ten day holiday, exploring the Lake District, with my mum and dad. How do you explain such things to someone with the vocabulary of a two-year-old? He would be thinking he had been abandoned.

During the five months I had known Min, he seemed to have made such a lot of progress. He had grown taller and stronger; he had started to speak again, even if it was only simple words or phrases like ‘hungry’ or ‘how are you?’; he could eat with a knife and fork; he could kick a ball.

On the flight back to Jakarta there was big dipper turbulence and a flashing thunderstorm over Kuala Lumpur. Big dippers can be scary. The lady sitting next to me vomited into her sick-bag, and I held on tight to the arm rests, trying to hold the plane up. On my headphones I listened to Clair de Lune, thought of Min, and prayed.

We touched down safely in Jakarta. It was wonderfully warm outside the terminal and my driver was waiting for me; I asked him to take me straight to Wisma Utara, an hour and a half journey through the dark. As always the traffic was heavy and I was tired and nervous.

We parked in our usual spot and I hurried down the poorly lit lane to the children’s home.

Min was alive. He must have been eating! He was sitting up straight on a bench looking worried and upset. He avoided eye contact. I sat beside him and took his hand. He withdrew it. I supposed he was angry and sulking because, in not visiting him, I had caused him days of heartbreak. But at least he was alive.

And there was eight-year-old Tedi, back from the hospital, and looking healthy. He had survived his bout of typhoid.

"Mr Kent, nice to have you back," said a very happy looking Joan, coming to sit beside me.

"How’s Min been?" I asked.

"He missed you Mr Kent," said Joan. "He kept on saying ‘long time’, ‘long time’."

I put my arm around Min’s shoulder and he sort of smiled.

"Mr Kent," said Joan "I have great news. You remember the photo in the newspaper? Min’s older brother came here!"

Min’s older brother had come to Wisma Utara! Min had a family! I felt a surge of joy. But it was joy mixed with anxiety and jet lag. "Fantastic," I said, "Are his family going to take him home?"
Various thoughts raced through my mind. I wondered why his family had not already taken him home. That was strange. And if they had taken him home before I had got back, would I ever have seen him again? And if they had taken him home, would he have been at risk of going missing again?

"The brother’s name is Wardi," explained Joan. "Wardi said he’d wait until you returned before doing anything. He wants to meet you."

"Where do they live?" I asked.

"Near Teluk Gong, down near the sea and the road to the airport."

"That’s miles from where I found Min. Right the other side of Jakarta!"

"A very long way," agreed Joan.

"Has Min got parents?" I inquired anxiously.

"Yes, a father and a mother and two sisters and three brothers. They’re very poor people, Mr Kent, very poor."

"How did Min get lost?" I asked.

"Wardi said that Min just wandered off. Just disappeared. He said they looked for him for days and his mother cried."

"How long has he been missing?"

"Some months," said Joan. "They’re not sure about the exact dates. The parents are uneducated people."

"Do they know what’s wrong with Min?"

"Wardi said Min was a normal child until about the age of seven, when he got an extremely high fever. He was desperately ill for weeks. After that, he wasn’t right in the head. Several times, he wandered off and got temporarily lost."

"When are they coming back to Wisma Utara?" I asked.

"Min’s older sister is coming here tomorrow morning. You can meet her then."

"Yes, that’s good," I said. "She can take us to see Min’s family in Teluk Gong."

"Can I come with you, Mr Kent?" asked Joan.

"Yes, that would be helpful," I said. There was so much to think about.

I took Min for a short walk around the dimly lit block of streets and tried to sort things out in my mind. How strange this all was. Strange, but wonderful that his family had found him. If he had been my child, I would have taken him home to Teluk Gong straight away. I wondered what Min must be thinking? I hoped his family wanted him back. The fact that they had responded to the photo in the newspaper presumably meant that they did want him back. Maybe there was a case to be made for Min staying a little longer at Wisma Utara where he could get regular schooling and food, and where he might be less likely to go missing. His behaviour could still be a bit wild at times. On the other hand, maybe Min was desperate to get home. Oh dear! What was best for Min?

The main things were that he should have a permanent family home and that he shouldn’t get lost again.

I thought of all the people who had said originally that I should have left Min on the street. They had said we would never find his parents. Well, we had found them and now we had to make sure that his return to his family was a success.

I looked at Min, who was now happy to take my hand, but whose face still suggested worry and stress. With his limited verbal ability, he couldn’t answer any questions I might ask. He could not tell me what sort of people his parents were. I thought of poor, deceased Budi whose parents were sickly, not very bright, and more keen to spend money on earrings rather than doctors. I thought of little Abdul whom I had found on a bridge in Bandung, after he had run away from his granny who had beaten him. I thought of Bangbang who seemed to find it so easy to run away, either from his family or from the Dipo Hospital. I thought of Hamid who did not seem to be wanted by his alcoholic parents or by his granny in the big house. I thought of Chong, rejected by his family, and ending up in the street. I prayed that Min’s family would be better than all of those.

I returned Min to Wisma Utara and walked back to my van.

"Back home now. I’m exhausted," I said to the driver. "How is Iwan, the leper kid? Has he come back yet for his leprosy medicine?"

"Not yet," said Mo.

Next morning, in Margaret’s room at Wisma Utara, I met Min’s older sister, Siti, and Siti’s husband, Gani. They looked as if they were in their late twenties or early thirties. Older sister had an attractive face that could have been painted by Raphael, a face that suggested someone calm, sensible and open-hearted. She was wearing her best country-peasant dress. Husband Gani was in T-shirt and cheap trousers and his narrow eyes and strained smile made his face more difficult to read. Both of them wore cheap sandals.

The greetings were amazingly formal. When Siti first arrived she took Min’s hands in hers and then Min shyly kissed her fingers. Everyone looked so very serious, including Min. It was like something from a previous century. But then Siti hugged Min and tears came to her eyes.

"It’s wonderful that you’ve found Min again," I said. "You saw his photo in the newspaper?"

"Yes," said Siti. "It was a neighbour who brought the newspaper to us. He asked if we thought it might be Min. We said it could be. The boy in the photo looked slightly bigger than we expected."

"Did you recognise Min when you came to Wisma Utara?" I asked.

"Min looked older, and in nice clothes, but we recognised the moles on his face and neck."

It occurred to me that Siti and family might be fakes, but there was some resemblance between Siti and Min, and they had been observant about Min’s moles, some of which were hidden by his shirt.

"Shall we go to Min’s home in Teluk Gong?" I said.

"Yes," said Siti.

So it was off in my van to North Jakarta with Min, Joan, Siti and Gani. I wondered if Min knew where we were going.

Having crossed the city from South to North we reached Teluk Gong’s street of cheap market stalls, unsavoury discos and grey concrete warehouses. Min was now in high spirits, seemingly recognising the scene. We drove over the wide black Angke canal and right down a narrow little street, squeezing past goats, undernourished school girls with cute faces, and old men pushing water carts. Min puffed his chest out and gave a squeal of delight. He was arriving home in style.

The road narrowed further and became a muddy track, which in places was flooded to a depth of about a foot. To left and right were miserable hovels as bad as any in Bombay. We bumped and juddered over pot holes, some hidden in black water, and then reached the end of the track.

On foot we passed through a sad little unofficial graveyard where tiny mounds of earth suggested the deaths of many babies. We crossed over sewage-filled waters by way of narrow planks and came in view of Min’s home. It was part of a terrace of wooden shanties built on stilts above the swamp. It was not an ideal home.

A crowd of ragged neighbourhood children called out friendly greetings to Min and then ushered us into Min’s crowded one room home. There were two beds, a chair, a chest of drawers, a few pots and pans and not much else. A little light came through gaps in the wooden and canvas walls.

Min was given handshakes and hugs by various people and his eyes twinkled with delight. The biggest hug was from a little old woman with a cheerful grin and kindly eyes. This, I later discovered, was his grandmother. Min then sat on the floor with a host of children and adults. Joan sat on the edge of a bed.

"This is Min’s mother, Wati," said Siti, introducing me to a small woman in her late forties. Wati was dressed in a faded and well worn skirt of the type worn in the countryside. Wati gave me an inquisitorial look as she sort of bowed and shook hands. Something about her piercing eyes suggested someone with a strong will.

"And this is Wardi, Min’s older brother," said Siti. Wardi , a strong, slightly frowning fellow, who looked about twenty, gave me a firm handshake. He had the same dark eyebrows as Min. I imagined that he might also be capable of the same dark moods as Min.

"And Min’s father?" I asked.

"That’s him sitting by the door," explained Siti.

I went across to shake the hand of a small, tired-looking man with a friendly smile. I suspected that he had had a life of hard physical toil and poor nutrition.

I was given the chair to sit on and I exchanged pleasantries for a short while with Wati and Wardi. Then I came to the point.

"Do you want Min to stay here with you tonight, or do you want him to continue for a bit longer at Wisma Utara?" I asked.

Wati and Wardi exchanged words in Sundanese, the local language of West Java. Then Wardi said, "It’s up to you Mr Kent."

"He’s not my child," I pointed out. "The decision has to be made by you. It may be best for Min to be back with his family immediately. He can’t stay at Wisma Utara for the rest of his life. It’s not as good as a real family home." I turned to Joan. "What do you think?" I asked her.

"Mr Kent," said Joan "It’s best for Min to stay a few more weeks at Wisma Utara because he’s getting schooling there and you’ve paid up to the end of the month."

"And he can’t get lost at Wisma Utara," I added. I was in two minds. To help me decide what was best, I was looking for clues from what I could see around me. Min seemed at ease and to be enjoying all the attention. I had not yet come to any conclusions about the family. The primitive house seemed dangerous, with its absence of clean water. "Wardi, what do you think?" I asked the older brother.

"It’s very difficult to decide," said Wardi, after more discussion with Wati. "We think you should decide."

"I can’t make the decision," I said.

Wardi conferred with members of the family before turning to me and saying, "It’s up to you, Mr Kent."

"You have to decide," I pointed out again. "What do you think Min would like?"

"He doesn’t understand," said Wardi.

I turned to Wati and asked, "How many children do you have?"

"I’ve had ten children," she said, frowning deeply, "but four died when they were very young."

"When Min was aged seven and got very ill, were you able to get a doctor?" I asked.

"No. We lived further out on the marsh in a tiny hut," said Wati. "There were no doctors and we had no money."

"What age is Min now?"

"About fourteen," said Wardi.

"I thought he was between nine and twelve years old," I said.

"But he’s got bigger recently," said Wardi.

"What work does Min’s father do?" I asked.

"He’s a labourer. He earns about thirty thousand rupiahs a month."

I worked this out as being about ten pounds a month, but my maths isn’t good.

And then a thought occurred to me.

"Joan," I said, "What would a small house cost in the kampung beside Wisma Utara?"

"I don’t know Mr Kent," said Joan. "I think very expensive."

I was due to get more money from my employer sometime in the summer.

"Would you like to live near Wisma Utara?" I asked Wati. " I haven’t got enough money at the moment, but I might have enough by August. I can’t promise anything Would you be interested?"

Wati and Wardi conferred again with family members.

"Min could go to the school by day and stay with you at night," I said. "Would you like a house there? A house with a water supply."

"Yes," said Wardi. "But it might be very expensive."

"Yes, it might be," said Wati. "We’ll need to give it some thought."

I was coming to the conclusion that I would prefer Min safely back at Wisma Utara for a few more weeks. I was not yet convinced that Min would be entirely safe in his family’s shanty house. I was beginning to think that a move by the whole family to the area around Wisma Utara was the solution to the problem. That would ensure Min got some kind of schooling and the family had a healthier environment. "So what about Min?" I said. "Is he staying here tonight or going back to Wisma Utara?"

"It’s up to you, Mr Kent," said Wardi.

"Well, I’ve paid Wisma Utara up to the end of this month," I said. "Shall we take Min back? We could walk with him to the van and see if he’s happy to get back in. Shall we try that?"

"OK, Mr Kent," said Wardi.

We all walked back to my vehicle and Min seemed happy to climb on board.

"Min will want to see you again tomorrow," I said to Wardi, before departing, " I can pick you up at nine in the morning and then we can give Min some exercise. Would that be possible?"

"OK, Mr Kent," said Wardi. "Tomorrow at nine."

I wondered what Min was thinking but his face wasn’t giving anything away. I felt relieved that Min was going to be sleeping in his safe and comfortable room at Wisma Utara, but I felt deeply anxious that I was separating Min from his mum and dad.


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