Saturday 15 January 2022


20. BABY
Early next morning I collected Min from Wisma Utara and we set off for Teluk Gong where we were due to meet Min’s family. At the start of the journey, Min seemed a bit solemn but fortunately no worse than that. My new driver impressed me not only with his careful driving but also with his calm and sympathetic tone when addressing Min.

As we moved through the traffic I thought of what I had been writing in my diary the night before. How objective was it? I honestly couldn’t remember with one hundred per cent accuracy how each member of Min’s family had reacted to him on his return to his family home. I was not confident that I had recorded the conversations with total fairness and without error.

I suspected that my diary, like many works of non-fiction, was full of selectivity, prejudice and opinion, as opposed to fact. Probably I selected the bits that put me in a good light; probably I failed to notice lots of significant things that happened.

I suspect that if Min’s brother, Wardi, had written a diary of these events it would have contained some major differences of interpretation.

Did the family want Min to continue for a bit longer at his school? Were they interested in moving to a house near Wisma Utara? I did not know. They had a Sundanese-Javanese way of being reluctant to voice their opinions, particularly to someone richer than themselves. Their ideas and attitudes were influenced not only by universal human nature but also by their own local world which I did not fully understand.

Min perked up as we approached his home in the slums near the airport; he stood up in his seat and called out exultantly, "Min, Min."

We parked beside a vegetable stall, climbed out of the vehicle, and were met by Min’s big brother, Wardi, Min’s mother, Wati, Min’s two little brothers, Aldi, aged about eleven, and Itin, aged about five, and little sister Imah, aged about four. They had all put on their best clothes and were looking a bit ill at ease. It occurred to me that maybe they felt intimidated by people like me who arrived in big cars.

"How about a trip to Ragunan zoo in South Jakarta?" I asked, after we had exchanged greetings.

"OK," said Wardi, with a touch of a smile. Wati nodded in approval.

"Have you been there before?" I asked.

"No, Mr Kent. We have no money," explained Wardi.

We crowded into my Mitsubishi van and set off down the narrow potholed street. Happy, almost jubilant, expressions began to appear on the faces of Wati, Wardi and Aldi as we were chauffeur-driven past bemused neighbours, barefoot children and skinny goats. The morning sun was shining brightly and I was happy to be having another adventure.

As we drove towards the zoo in Pasar Mingu, I had lots of questions for Wardi and Wati. "Where does your family come from originally?" I inquired. "Have you always lived in Jakarta?"

"We used to live near Lamaya," said Wardi. "It’s a four hour journey from Jakarta. Lots of rice fields in Lamaya. We had to move because there’s no work there. Too many people."

"Would you like to go back to Lamaya one day?" I asked Wardi.

"Yes, but we have to live in Jakarta because that’s where the jobs are."

"Do you have other relatives here in Jakarta?" I asked.

"Lots, Mr Kent," said Wati, smiling. "In Teluk Gong and Cengkareng."

After a journey of about ten miles we reached the enormous park that contains Jakarta’s zoo, an institution that tries to keep at least some of its animals in quarters that resemble natural habitats. Having bought our inexpensive tickets at a dark little booth, we began our tour. We seemed to be almost the only visitors. There was something eerie about the atmosphere that morning. We passed under immense dark trees that completely blocked out sun and sky; we heard the constant screams of monkeys; there was a smell of rotting meat.

I noted that Min’s mum gave all her attention to four-year-old Imah, whom she carried in her arms; Wardi took the hand of five-year-old Itin; small, skinny, eleven-year-old Aldi walked on his own; Min held onto me. I was touched by Min’s trust, but would have preferred to see him take the hand of a member of his own family. In Indonesia I had noticed that many mothers devoted their energies almost exclusively to the baby of the family; older children either fended for themselves or were looked after by such people as uncles, big sisters and grannies. Who was going to be Min’s keeper?

We approached the compound containing the Java tiger. Min was terrified and tried to pull me away in the direction of the zoo’s exit.

We moved on swiftly to the monkeys. Min refused to look and again pulled at my arm. I couldn’t take him near the crocodiles or the Komodo dragons, but eleven year-old Aldi was enjoying himself.

I was fascinated by the weirdness of everything around me. What might make a being want to develop into something as big and ugly and savage as a Komodo dragon? Do beings such as trees and butterflies make choices? I had been told that a considerable number of Indonesians believe that even trees have spirits. Could Min perhaps see more than the rest of us? Was that why he was afraid?

After an hour-long visit to Ragunan zoo, and a quick snack of noodles, we battled back through Jakarta’s traffic to the family’s house in the Teluk Gong area, near the sea.

This time I wanted to have a closer look at the kampung, the local area, in which Min had been brought up. I wanted to get a clearer idea of how safe it was, or how dangerous.

"Shall we take a walk with Min?" I said to Wardi, as we stood at the front door of the wooden shack which was home to Min’s family.

"OK," came the reply. "You’ll need to watch your feet."

Wardi, Min and I walked along wooden gangways, taking us over fetid water, and then along muddy paths, taking us through narrow alleys sided by wooden shacks. The sky was a heavenly blue and the sun’s strong light created streaks of golden light and black shadow.

"Who’s this?" I asked Wardi about a little boy with deformed legs. The boy, who looked about ten years of age, was hauling himself along the ground towards his wooden house. One leg had a zigzag shape and looked beyond repair.

"Don’t know," he replied. But he asked the woman who came to the door.

"My son’s called Saepul," said the woman. Like her son, she had a facial expression that spoke of sadness, resignation and kindness. Every inch of her face and arms was covered in big fleshy lumps.

"Have you and your son been to a doctor?" I asked the woman.

"We’ve been to the hospital," she said. "Saepul was born this way. The doctors say an operation might not help him. They’re not sure."

"And you?" I asked.

"They can’t do anything for me. But it won’t get any worse."

"I hope to see you again sometime," I said. I presumed that if the doctor had recommended treatment, they would have had no money to pay for it.

We moved on and came across a windowless wooden shack the size of a large dog kennel. It was surrounded by muddy water and was flooded inside. A barefoot boy, aged about twelve, emerged from the tiny door. The skin on his face and hands was dreadfully lined and wrinkled. I supposed that his skin problems were caused by flood water and malnutrition.

"Do you live here?" I asked the lad.

"Yes, with my mother." He looked and sounded weary but managed a shy smile.

"What’s your name?" I said.

"Joko," said the boy.

"Does your father live here?" I inquired.

"He’s dead," said Joko, eyes moistening.

I gave the boy some money, continued the walk, and eventually returned Min to Wisma Utara.

I was glad that Min was still staying at Wisma Utara. Min’s family seemed to be decent people, but I wasn’t sure which of them was going to take responsibility for guarding Min, and stopping him from getting lost. More seriously, Min’s house was in the sort of area where kids could so easily catch diseases such as typhoid or TB. The sooner I moved Min’s family to a new house the better. I would, in the meantime, continue to take Min to visit his family each afternoon, after school.

The following sunny Saturday found Min, big-brother Wardi and I on a trip to the hilly town of Bogor. We drove past the perfect lawns of the elegant white 19th century Bogor Palace, once the official residence of governor-generals of the Dutch East Indies, and on through the busy central area with its churches and mosques, its crowded markets and green minibuses. Min and Wardi seemed to be enjoying the ride.

"Is this town like Lamaya, where you used to live?" I asked Wardi.

"A little similar," he said. "Lamaya is smaller and flatter."

"Bogor has some very rich people," I commented. "What about Lamaya?"

"A few of the Chinese Indonesians there are rich."

Three kilometres south of the town, we came to a neighbourhood known as Batutulis which is named after a famous piece of stone, kept in a small museum. The Batutulis is inscribed with several words of Sanskrit which tell of the supernatural powers of a 16th century Hindu ruler of the Pajajaran kingdom. The stone is said to have mystical powers and Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, had a home built next to it.

"Sukarno’s house," I said, pointing to my left. I wondered how much Wardi knew about Sukarno.

"Sukarno was good," said Wardi. "He is very popular in Indonesia."

"Did they teach you about him at school?"

"I only had a little schooling," he said.

We journeyed past the Sukarno residence, crossed the River Cisadane by an old and fragile looking bridge and eventually reached a railway track. It was time for a walk.

We set off along a narrow path which sided the railway track. To left and right were shanty houses and that meant peach coloured tiles, rosy bougainvillea, and the occasional red rooster. Kids in white shirts and shorts the colour of alizarin crimson danced along on their way home from school. The sky above the volcano, Mount Salak, was of a cerulean hue and above that ultramarine. The colours were as intense as any I had seen during summer holidays on the Mediterranean coast of Italy or on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. We did not see any trains.

"Hey mister," said a little school kid, "where are you from?"

"I’m from here," I replied. I felt I belonged to this world of happy smiles and immensely bright light.

"Where are you going?" said the now puzzled little person.

"Here." This was where I wanted to be. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular.

A boy came along carrying a pigeon.

"Your cat doesn’t look too well," I said.

"Pigeon," he responded, with a grin.

Wardi looked puzzled. Min yawned. Wardi might have been wondering why I had chosen to walk alongside a railway track, rather than visit the Botanic Gardens or some modern shopping centre.

"I love the Bogor countryside," I said. "I love the little houses."

"Better than the city," said Wardi.

We came to a cluster of little huts on top of a slope and I decided to take some photos. A cheery old man in a Tommy Cooper hat was seated in an armchair next to a slumbering cat and some cadmium orange cannas. Two boys were playing marbles. Above were tangles of electricity wires and a tall flowering rose of India. I got out my camera and looked through the lens. About twenty children had materialised from various alleys and they were pushing and shoving to get the best position in front of the camera. No sign of the old gentleman. He was hidden somewhere behind all these kids. There were whoops and yells and snorts. I took one photo and put my camera away.

"Hey mister," said a chunky lady with an aggressive face, "there’s a sick baby here."

"Where?" I asked.

"In the little house there," she said, pointing to a nearby one-roomed wooden hut.

It seemed like the sort of place where, in Britain, you might keep a lawnmower. While Wardi guarded Min, I stepped inside the tiny habitation. On the floor sat a young mother and a granny, and in front of them lay a baby, bluey-purple in colour, and struggling for air.

"How long has the baby been ill?" I asked.

"Five days," said the mum, who, on the surface, didn’t look particularly worried.

"The baby must go to a hospital immediately," I insisted. "Look, it’s blue because it can hardly breathe. Have you been to a doctor?"

"No," said the mum.

"We must go now," I said. "I’ll pay. OK?"

"Maybe we’ll go later," said the mum.

"When?" I asked her.


"That’ll be too late. The baby’s nearly dead." I pointed at the blue little face.

Granny spoke for the first time. "We’ve been to the dukun. He gave us some medicine."

"The witch doctor has not got oxygen and a drip," I said, sarcastically. "The baby needs to be in a hospital. Why can’t we go now?"

"My husband’s not home yet," said the mum. "We’ll need to ask him."

"When does he get home?" I inquired.

"Late tonight," said the mum.

"Where is he now?"

"Far away," she said.

"We must go now to save the baby," I said loudly.

Granny spoke for a second time. "She doesn’t want to go."

It occurred to me that it is the conservatism of the poor that causes them so many of their problems. The elite are more adventurous.

I was not going to give up. I stood at the door. Then I waited outside with Wardi and Min, the latter giving me a worried look. I explained the situation to Wardi, who was apparently happy to let me take the lead in this situation. If he thought I was wasting my time he was not going to tell me. We waited and waited. I was getting hungry, as I supposed were Wardi and Min.

I couldn’t wait for ever, so I went back in.

"Shall we go to the hospital?" I said fairly gently. "We can ask the doctor what’s wrong. We don’t have to accept any medicine. Come on."

The mother picked up the blue baby and without any further words we set off towards my van. As we drove to the Red Cross hospital I just hoped the baby was not going to die on the way.

In the emergency room the doctor got the baby fitted up to a supply of oxygen.

"How long has the baby been ill?" he asked.

"Five days," I explained.

"It’s amazing it’s still alive," said the doctor. "It’s got tetanus. The midwife, or whoever delivered the baby, probably used dirty scissors. It’ll have to be admitted to the children’s ward."

The doctor spoke to the mother and granny and they now seemed resigned to the fact that one or other of them would have to stay with the baby in the hospital. I paid the bills, left money with the mother, explained that I would be back a week later, and then hurried off with Wardi and Min to get some fried chicken and chips.

That evening I met Fergus for dinner at the Meridien hotel where a meal costs as much as one week’s stay in the third class ward of the Red Cross hospital. The restaurant reminded me of a lounge on a luxury cruise liner.

"Elections coming up," said Fergus, as he began to cut up his omelette. "and that means you have to be a bit careful when there are street demonstrations."

"Would you advise staying off the main roads?" I said.

"When they’re all out parading, yes," said Fergus. "But if you do happen to get caught up in the middle of the green lot, remember to hold up one finger. That’s their sign. The yellows are two fingers and the reds three."

"I’ve seen lots of people holding up three fingers."

"And I’ve seen a few drivers holding up one finger," said Fergus.

"How democratic are these elections?"

"Well, let’s say that the President’s party, the yellows, always win."

"Things should be calmer than last year, when they had the Gulf War," I commented. "Lots of Indonesians seemed to be supporting Saddam."

"Which might seem odd," said Fergus, "because Saddam was put into power by the Americans and armed by the Americans. He was very much a CIA-Pentagon asset."

"I suppose that what’s changed is that Saddam’s now presenting himself as the champion of the Palestinians. That’s why he’s popular here, but not in the Pentagon."

"Coming back to the subject of Indonesia’s elections," said Fergus, "There’s no need to worry.

Most Indonesians are pretty easygoing about life. They like to be hospitable to all visitors. But do avoid the street demonstrations."


Because it was a Sunday and my driver’s day off, I had employed a driver from an agency, a young hollow-cheeked fellow who seemed a trifle nervous. I explained to him that I wanted a trouble free ride to the countryside and the city of Bogor. I asked him to avoid the political rally going on in the centre of Jakarta. It was May 1992 and we were in the middle of a general election campaign.

"Which party is having its parade today?" I asked the driver.

"The red party, PDI. Very big crowds," he said, as he crashed the gears.

"Well, be careful which route you choose to get to the toll road," I warned.

We left my leafy residential area, drove past markets and railway stations, skirted the offices around Jakarta’s Panin Centre, turned into Sudirman Boulevard, and drove straight into the middle of a mile-long procession.

Here they were: thousands and thousands of wild-eyed PDI supporters in control of the streets; they were draped in red, waving giant red flags, and screaming like Liverpool fans; some danced on the tops of buses and trucks, hired for the day; some rode noisy motorbikes; the most battle-hungry youths had masked their faces with blood-red scarves.

Now my driver and I were part of the parade but we were not wearing red and everyone else was.

At various road junctions, small groups of tough-looking soldiers and military police stood stony-faced, breathing in the traffic fumes, aware that they were outnumbered. Democracy was sometimes said to be a fragile thing, but so too was the police state. Indonesia had an army of about 400,000 but the population of Indonesia was over 200 million. What would happen if all the people united in opposition to the army?

"Turn left!" I said hoarsely, while trying to remember if I should be holding up one finger, or two. I thought two fingers seemed appropriate.

"We can’t turn left," said the driver, a touch nervously. "The army won’t let us."

"We’ll be here all day," I grumbled. "We’ve got to find a road out."

I wondered if the driver had done all this deliberately or if he only knew one route to the Bogor toll road. Even he looked anxious when burly chaps began thumping their fists against the side of our van. The driver held up three fingers and the thumping stopped.

The worst of it was that I had a more than urgent need to empty my bladder. Too much coffee and juice at breakfast meant that I was bursting. What I wanted was a quiet spot, away from prying eyes, but here I was surrounded by a large proportion of the population of Jakarta, and they all seemed to be staring into my vehicle. Surely there was a bush or a tree somewhere.

We inched our way down the broad boulevard as I crossed my legs and fingers. Sudirman seemed to go on for ever. Under the flyover at Semanggi, past the Sahid Jaya Hotel and on and on we went.

"Try turning left into that office complex," I urged.

"OK. What now?" replied the driver as we drove into a car park.

"Look for a back way out," I said.

Eventually, by way of the back streets of Menteng, we somehow reached the toll road to Bogor.

"Stop!" I ordered, five minutes after leaving the toll gates. "I need to get out to go to the toilet."

"Can’t stop," said the driver. "This is a toll road. The police don’t allow people to stop."

"Stop or I won’t pay you."

We skidded to a stop on the hard shoulder and I hurried across some grass to where the trees were. Alas, every square meter in this part of Java seems to have someone on it. Up a tree an old man was collecting fruit; to my left an old woman was hanging washing on top of some bushes; to my right three kids were taking a toddler for a walk. I crouched down and the peasant people politely looked away. At last I could breathe more easily and enjoy the journey.

On reaching Bogor and the area known as Batutulis, I visited the home of the blue baby. The child was now pink and healthy looking. I hoped it was not brain damaged by its days with inadequate oxygen.

"Have you been back to the hospital for a check up?" I said to the baby’s mum.

"Not yet."

"We’d better go now then."

At the Red Cross hospital the doctor examined the child and issued some more medicine. The doctor assured me that the baby was fine.

My next stop was Bogor’s mental hospital to see Chong, the young man who had been a heap of skin and bones when I had found him lying in the street. Chong had been moved to a different ward as he had put on weight and looked human again. It was a locked ward, a single storey building with a certain amount of pealing white paint and green mould. I took Chong for a short walk but could not get any conversation out of him. I supposed that being mentally backward, having been rejected by his family, and being a penniless Chinese Indonesian, he had the cards stacked against him.

In the mental hospital’s children’s ward, John and Daud were again tied up. I was allowed to take them for a walk to the shop where we bought more milk and biscuits.

"Why do you keep these kids tied up when there’s a garden here for them to play in?" I asked the well fed female nurse. She was wearing an expensive watch and a necklace with a little crucifix.

"They’re idiots," she said, with what was either a smile or a smirk.

In their impoverished hamlet in Bogor Baru, little Andi was still looking malnourished and Asep was still pale. Asep gave me some more receipts for his TB medicine, which I examined carefully.

"These receipts only cover twenty thousand rupiahs. What about the other hundred thousand?" I asked.

"I don’t know," said Asep, smiling innocently.

"Have you still got the medicine? I gave you enough money to last a month."

"The medicine’s finished," explained Asep.

"You’d better go now to get some more. Here’s money to last a month and I must have receipts to cover the full amount. It’s not to be used for school fees or clothes or televisions."

I thought of what more than one expat had said to me about some of the locals. ‘They are like children.’

I went to see Dian, sister of Melati and Tikus, in their little house near the centre of Bogor. Dian had a smart new top and skirt.

"Have you got a receipt for your TB medicine?" I asked Dian.

"I lost it," she said.

"Have you got the TB medicine?"

"It’s finished."

"It can’t be," I complained. "I gave you enough money for one month. You know you have to take the medicine for six months to a year, or even longer?"


"We’d better go now to the doctor," I said, very crossly. "I’ll come with you to make sure we get the medicine." I felt more than ever that it was like dealing with foolish and naughty primary school kids, and I began grinding my teeth. But at least I was learning more about the Third World and how the world worked. And, I supposed, I was having a bit of an adventure.

Having dealt with Dian, I took a stroll through a section of Bogor near Empang. It was an area I had not been to before and I had a feeling of pleasant excitement. I dawdled contentedly past an old church with a sharp steeple and next to it a large Christian school painted in dark colours; I wandered down a long flight of very steep steps decorated with colourful graffiti; I roamed along a dark river bank. The air was hot and humid and filled with the scent of Peacock Flowers and urine. The narrow tree-lined lanes were crowded with street vendors with poles over their shoulders; some poles supported pots of steaming soup and noodles, some carried flashing mirrors, and some bore light tables and chairs. Children were pulling along home-made toy cars attached to sticks or attempting to play games of football. I could see that West Java was over populated. There were babies and pregnant women at every street corner, at every door, and in every room, or so it seemed.

I turned a corner and there, seated at a snack stall, was a girl with the most beautiful face I had ever seen. Shall I compare her to a summer’s day or a day during the rainy season? How come this face began, according to some versions of Big Bang theory, with nothingness? Billions of years ago, time and matter apparently didn’t exist. Then bang, the universe was created, leading to this lovely visage. I was giddy just thinking about it. Were there even more beautiful faces in some parallel universes?

You can’t stare forever at dark dilated eyes, soft curving cheeks and cute kissable lips. It gets boring.

So I continued my journey. Having passed a happy group of little children outside a green roofed mosque, I climbed up and down various steep concrete paths, and eventually descended to a muddy brown river sided by a terrace of wooden houses. Outside one tumbledown shack sat a young woman of striking appearance. She had once been beautiful but now she looked wasted and grey.

"Hello," I said, "are you well?"

"Not well," she said, giving me a sweet smile. "I have TB."

"Are you getting any medicine?" I asked.

"No. I used to take the pills."

"How long ago?"

"Three years ago."

"And you’re not yet better?"

"Not yet."

I went with her to Bogor’s Menteng hospital. On the way she was struggling for breath.

"It doesn’t look good," said the doctor, in English, holding up an x-ray. "Suti says she’s taken the pills, off and on, over many years. The trouble is that if they stop taking the medicine before they’re cured, then the disease becomes drug resistant. Over the years her organs have been seriously damaged. I’m afraid she won’t last long."

"Has she got a family?"

"She’s single and lives with her mother. The mother is apparently fit."

I arranged for Suti to get regular supplies of medicine, but learnt some months later that she had died. What a mixture Bogor was: the scent of flowers and the scent of death.

Next afternoon, Min was in good spirits when I collected him from Wisma Utara.

"Has his family been to see him?" I asked Joan, anxiously.

"No, but it’s a long way for them to travel," she said.

"It’s odd that they haven’t been to see him," I commented. I hoped this was not a sign that his family were indifferent to Min’s welfare.

"I’m taking him to visit his home now," I explained. "We’ll be back after supper."

On reaching Min’s house in Teluk Gong, Min was in a state of high excitement. Min’s mother, Wati, seemed a little subdued in her greeting. There was no sign of Min’s older brother Wardi. Maybe he was at work. Min’s brother in law, Gani, was delegated to accompany Min and I on a walk through the slums.

We squeezed past the huts of some collectors of rubbish and stooped under washing strung between windows on either side of our narrow path. The dripping shirts and blouses , silhouetted against a darkening blue sky, added a touch of colour to an otherwise grey landscape. We reached a rubbish tip and turned left into a dark alley crowded as always with people of all shapes and sizes. Looking in the open doors of the wooden houses we could see children sitting on mats and doing homework, men preparing sate to be sold later from carts, and women picking the nits out of each other’s hair. When we reached a house where children were watching a cartoon on TV, Min decided to enter the house and join the youngsters on the floor. Nobody objected. Gani waited patiently for several minutes before gently taking Min by the hand and leading him back out into the narrow street.

One wooden house on stilts had two little stick-insect children at the door.

"What are your names?" I asked the two kids, who looked about seven years old.

"Sani," whispered the boy.

"Indra," whispered the girl.

"They look too thin," I said to their big-boned mother, who had come to the door. "Would you like them to see a doctor?"

"They’ve been to a doctor and had an x-ray," said the mum, "but we’ve no money for the medicine."

"Would you like to come with me to a clinic?" I asked. "It’s a good clinic, in the centre of the city. It’s the one I use myself."

"I’ll ask my husband," she said. A smiling little man appeared from inside the house and a consultation took place involving mother, father, Gani and members of the small crowd which had gathered. There was agreement that a trip into town would be a good idea.

We took Sani, Indra, their mum and their skinny dad to see my doctor at Jakarta’s Kuningan Medical centre, an upmarket clinic with carpets, exotic pot plants, and glass tables covered in copies of Moneyweek.

"It’s TB," said Doctor Handoko, a cheerful, middle-aged Chinese Indonesian. "I’ll give them the usual cocktail of drugs."

Doctor Handoko seemed to be in a bit of a rush. I suppose he was not used to dealing with patients from the slums, people who arrived in dirty plastic sandals and ragged shirts.

Back in my van I asked Sani and Indra’s father what he did for a living.

"I’m a driver," he explained, grinning in friendly fashion.

"Who do you work for?" I inquired.

"A rich Chinese Indonesian," he said.

"How much do you get a month?"

"Eighty thousand rupiahs."

"That’s about twenty pounds sterling," I said. "That’s less than I’ve just paid the Kuningan Medical centre for the medicine and a ten minute consultation."

"He’s got two wives to support," whispered Min’s brother in law. "Two wives and two lots of children."

I could see why Sani and Indra were thin.

I could also see that neither Wati, Min’s mum, nor Wardi, Min’s big brother, had come with us.


The beginning of the May half term found me exploring the area around the small Sundanese hill town of Sukabumi, at the foot of the volcanoes Gede and Pangrango. Sukabumi, which lies between Bandung and Bogor, has more earthquakes and tremors than anywhere else in Indonesia, so I was watching out for signs of dogs or chickens behaving strangely. A major earthquake in 1972 killed over two thousand people in the region.

Having left my vehicle and driver on a quiet country road, I followed a path which ran below lofty flowering trees and above a muddy river. I was looking out anxiously for snakes, wild monkeys or even leopards, but all I saw, fortunately, were big blue dragonflies and orange-yellow butterflies flitting in and out of patches of brilliant dusty light and jet-black shadow. When I took a left turn and began to descend towards the river, I could hear splashing sounds and giggles.

"Hey mister," called a young voice behind me, "you can’t go down there."

I turned and saw two grinning boys, both aged about thirteen, and both dressed in threadbare shirts and shorts.

"Why not," I asked them.

"Women bathing," said the taller one, eyes gleaming with a hint of mischief.

"Ah," I said.

At that moment a young woman wrapped in towels, and carrying a basin full of damp clothes, came up from the river and hurried past me. She had Spanish good-looks and an enigmatic smile.

I returned to the main path and was followed by the two boys who introduced themselves as Hari and Dani.

"Are you going to school?" I asked.

"No," said Hari, with an amiable smile. "No money."

"You have to pay for school?"

"Yes. And for uniforms and books and outings," said Dani, putting on a serious face.

"Where are you going, mister?" asked Hari.

"Jalan jalan," I said. Just out for a walk.

"Ikut?" asked Hari. Follow you?

"OK," I replied, pleased to have some company.

Having passed some damp looking huts inhabited by grey faced people, and a stretch of green meadow which gave us views of the smudgy blue mountains, we arrived at a bridge made from bamboo. In the river below us, happy boys were swimming, washing and defecating. I could also see one child cleaning his teeth. This was a fast flowing river and not too crowded, but I imagined that, back in the overpopulated city of Bogor, the use of the river as a bathroom was a cause of that city’s ever-present typhoid.

Before I could say the word ‘salmonellosis’, Hari and Dani had stripped off their shirts and jumped feet first from the bridge into the river. Dripping with water, they then clambered back up to join me on the bridge.

As we continued our ramble through the hot sunny valley, steam rose from the boys’ wet clothes. I noticed that shirtless Hari’s ribs stuck out.

"How often do you eat each day?" I asked him.

"Sometimes only once a day."

"What work does your father do?"

"He doesn’t work," said Hari. "My mum works in Jakarta."

"What work?"

"She’s a maid."

"Who looks after you? Who does the cooking and washing while your mum’s away in Jakarta?"

"My big sister," said Hari.

"What about your father?" I asked Dani, who was also undernourished.

"Coolie," he said

We came to a grand mansion in large grounds with neat lawns. Three large station-wagons were parked outside the pillared entrance.

"Who lives here?" I asked.

"Haji Amar," said Hari, sounding respectful.

"What does he do?"

"He was a judge," explained Dani. "He owns the land around here."

A judge would earn about one hundred and fifty pounds sterling a month. But then he might also receive the occasional gift.

"You’ve been useful guides," I said. "Now I’m heading back to Sukabumi for something to eat."

"Smoking, mister?" said Hari, rather shyly.

"Smoking?" I asked. Then I realised they wanted cigarettes.

I gave them a few coins.

"For food," I insisted.

"Thanks, mister!" they said, taking the money politely and skipping off happily.

Back in Sukabumi I walked around the potholed streets. In the open-air market, women with fat legs squatted beside their piles of sweet potatoes and skinny youths were selling cigarettes from baskets hung around their necks. On a street where the outside walls were black with fungus and mould I found a dark little cafe. I dined on biscuits and cola.

After a night at a clean, air-conditioned hotel in the nearby hill resort of Selabintana, a hotel apparently owned by the army, I motored to Pelabuhan Ratu on the South coast. I booked into the Samudra Beach Hotel.

Walking East from the harbour I took photos of fishing boats and palm trees and enjoyed the salty sea breeze. Near some rice fields and a bat cave, I stopped to talk to a barefoot woman carrying a girl aged about seven. The girl, called Marni, looked pale yellow and her stomach was swollen.

"Is she sick?" I asked.

"She’s been ill for years," said the mother, whose own body was podgy and pale.

"Have you been to the local hospital?"

"My husband’s dead. I’ve no money."

We reached the simple little hospital in five minutes and consulted an earnest young doctor who did a blood test.

"It looks like Thalassaemia," he said. "That’s anaemia caused by defects in the genes that make haemoglobin. It’s inherited and quite common in this part of Indonesia. The girl’s father seems to have died from it."

"What can be done?" I asked.

"She’ll need repeated blood transfusions," said the doctor, in English. "We could get some blood by tomorrow from Sukabumi. Kids like Marni don’t always live too long. It depends on the type of Thalassaemia and on the treatment."

The doctor explained some of this to the mother.

"Does she want Marni to have a blood transfusion?" I inquired.

"No," said the doctor. "She says the girl doesn’t want a transfusion."

The girl was quietly weeping.

"But what about the mother?" I said.

"She says no."

"Are blood transfusions safe?" I asked.

"Blood transfusions can lead to a build up of iron, which can be fatal."

"What about AIDS?"

"That’s another risk."

The mother was determined that there should not be a transfusion, and maybe she was right, but I left her some money to pay for treatment in case she changed her mind.

I walked West from the harbour and after a few miles came to a wooden restaurant built on stilts. An old man appeared from inside and invited me to have a beer and some fresh fish. As I enjoyed my feast, I watched the surf roar in towards the blue and yellow fishing boats and thought that this could be paradise, if it wasn’t that the south coast suffered from poor roads and malaria.

Next morning, before returning to Jakarta via Bogor, I returned to Marni’s one room shack but there was no one there.

"The mother’s out working in the fields," said a middle aged man with strong muscles and thick dark hair, "I’m the community chief, the RT, and I’m related to Marni."

"I was going to give the mother some money for food," I said.

"Give it to me and I’ll make sure she gets it," said the man.

If he was the RT, the community chief, maybe he would be helpful. I gave him the money.

I stopped off in Bogor, and having collected hospital receipts from tubercular Asep, took a walk through some woodland beyond Bogor Baru. There were clusters of dingy wooden houses, steep ascents and descents on narrow paths, smelly goats in wooden enclosures, clumps of bamboo and occasional clouds of mosquitoes. The people here looked undernourished and were dressed in patched and tattered clothing.

Outside a cobwebbed wooden hovel, shaded by dark trees, sat a middle-aged woman and a boy aged about twelve. They gave me a tired but friendly smile and, intrigued by their appearance, I decided to introduce myself. The woman, whose name was Ciah, was yellow skinned and had the shrivelled look of the poorest of the poor. The boy, called Agosto, had a purple scar on his thigh and a sad look on his face.

"What do you do for a living?" I asked Ciah.

"Wash clothes," she replied in a weary voice.

"How much do you get?"

"About thirty thousand rupiahs a month." This was less than ten pounds sterling a month.

"Does you husband work in the fields?"

"My husband’s dead," she replied, smiling an embarrassed smile.

"My mother is sick," said Agosto.

"I get very tired," said Ciah.

When I suggested a trip to the hospital for a check-up, Ciah agreed immediately.

At the Menteng Hospital, the doctor diagnosed hepatitis and Ciah was admitted to the third class ward. Agosto sat by her bedside. He had a handsome little face but there was a look in his big dark eyes that spoke of lost hopes and despair. Not for him fishing trips with dad or games of football at school.

On returning to Jakarta, the first place I visited was Wisma Utara. Min was having one of his down days and refused to take my hand.

"Have his parents been to visit him?" I asked Joan.

"Not yet."

I thought of Hari, the kid in Sukabumi, who presumably didn’t see too much of his mother. Maybe Min’s family were all busy working.

"I’m off for a walk with Min," I explained. "I want to see if Iwan’s back yet to get his leprosy medicine."

Iwan was not back.

"He’s still at his kampung in Karawang," said a thin little man, who was standing beside a rubbish cart. He wore shabby clothes and had a grin that suggested possible slyness or a lack of intelligence.

"Do you know his address?" I asked.

"Yes. I’m Iwan’s uncle," said the man.

"I’m worried," I said, "because he’s not had his leprosy medicine for weeks and weeks."

"I could go and bring him back," said the man.

"Good. When can you go?"


I gave him the money for the bus.

Hamid, the runaway I had found in Pasar Mayestic, had not been visited for some time, so I drove with Min to Hamid’s grandmother’s mansion.

"How’s Hamid?" I asked granny, when she came to the door.

"He’s run away again," said the tired looking woman. "Probably gone back to the market."

"What went wrong?" I asked.

"He doesn’t like school."

I returned with Min to Wisma Utara. At least Min was in a safe place.

While enjoying a cup of coffee in the staffroom, I got talking to Carmen about the lives of Indonesian children. I told Carmen about Hamid in Pasar Mayestic, Marni the thalassaemia girl in Pelabuhan Ratu, sad Agosto in Bogor and Iwan the boy with leprosy.

"Hamid looks like a survivor," I said. "He must have guts to survive in Pasar Mayestic. But Marni and Agosto look near to giving up; and Iwan is heading for disaster if he doesn’t take his leprosy medicine."

"You know at the beginning of the 20th Century," said Carmen, "life was rough for some British children working on farms. I was reading about a child called Angus who had to work like a slave when he was a child. He had to be tough to stay alive"

"I suppose children were forced to leave school at a young age," I commented.

"Angus’s parents were poor and gave him to a farmer; they sold him," said Carmen. "Angus had to work seven days a week from early morning until late at night. He could be beaten if he complained. He lived in a freezing cold building with no toilet or bath and he’d be fed scraps. Britain this century. At least in Indonesia it’s warm and you can bathe in a river."

"Selabintana was cold at night!"

I told Carmen about the judge’s house.

"Maybe he has a rich wife," she said. "Anyway, people say there’s just as much corruption in Britain and Europe as in Indonesia."

"I suppose in the West it’s more cleverly covered up," I said.


Next evening I found Iwan and his granny back home at their shack beside the rubbish tip. Granny, dressed in her usual old shawl and smiling her nearly-toothless grin, looked fit and well. But Iwan was not well. He resembled a famine victim; he appeared to have a fever; mosquitoes, lit by the light from a kerosene lamp, were buzzing around a coin-sized, infected wound on his left calf.

"Why did you go off without your leprosy medicine?" I asked him indignantly.

"I wanted to visit my mum." He was looking down at the ground and sounded as if he was ready for a stretcher.

"But you should have waited till you’d got your next lot of medicine."

"Sorry Mr Kent," said Iwan quietly.

I turned to granny. "Why didn’t you bring Iwan back when he got sick?" I asked.

She grinned sheepishly and said nothing.

"And how did you get the wound on the leg?" I asked Iwan.

"I was playing with some children."

An hour later, Iwan, granny and I presented ourselves to Dr Handoko at Jakarta’s smart Kuningan Medical Centre. A nurse cleaned the leg wound and issued some pills. Dr Handoko decided that Iwan would need to be admitted to a hospital. He phoned the expensive Rasuna Said Hospital to check they had a bed.

"Yes, they can take him," he said. "You’d better get there straight away."

Ten minutes later we were at the Rasuna Said, a tall block with dark marble halls, looking as much like a five star hotel as a hospital. I was beginning to feel rather pleased with myself as I explained to the female receptionist how I was helping Iwan. She asked us to wait in a side corridor. A few minutes later we were approached by a woman who could easily have entered a Miss Indonesia contest; she was long-limbed, dressed in a slim grey suit, and wearing a badge that said ‘public relations’.

"I’m terribly sorry," she said, "but we’re full up tonight. We have no beds available."

"I was told you had a bed," I protested.

"That was a mistake. I’m sorry but the boy will need to go to the leprosy hospital in Bekasi."

"Is it because he’s a poor child wearing sandals?"

"I’m sorry. There is no bed available." She smiled a public relations smile.

"But I was told you had a bed."

"He’ll need to go to the leprosy hospital," she said quietly. "People with leprosy can only be treated in the leprosy hospital."

"But it’s late at night. We can’t go all the way to Bekasi tonight. Iwan’s here because of his fever, not his leprosy."

"I’m sorry." She tried to put on her most sympathetic face.

"You’re only interested in well dressed patients. If Iwan was rich you’d take him."

We argued for ten minutes but she wasn’t going to budge. I began to suspect that Dr Handoko at the Kuningan Medical Centre had told the Rasuna Said about the fever but not about the leprosy or the cheap plastic sandals.

Two other nearby hospitals also turned us down. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was standard practice that lepers, no matter what additional ailments they might have, could only be admitted to a leprosy hospital. Non-lepers would not want to be walking on the same hospital floors as lepers.

I returned Iwan and his granny to their home beside the rubbish tip and arranged that my driver would take the two of them to the leper hospital in Bekasi the following morning.

When my classes finished next day I hurried to the leprosy hospital, a journey of an hour and a half. The hospital wards were in plain-featured, red-roofed bungalows spread around spacious grounds consisting of lawns, trees and vegetable patches. It was a little bit like an army camp. In Iwan’s ward there were about a dozen male children and youths, most of whom showed no obvious signs of being ill. Some were standing chatting; some had just wandered in from the gardens; one had movie-star good looks. Iwan was lying on a lumpy, stained mattress on a battered metal bed. His granny sat beside him.

"Have you eaten?" I asked, as I handed over some snacks I had brought.

"I haven’t eaten all day," said Iwan. His face and limbs seemed to be all bone.

"Have you been given some medicine?"

"Not yet," he said. "When we got here it was too late to see the doctor. It was just before lunch time."

"Is there a nurse here?"


"Its four in the afternoon. There must be a nurse!" I was becoming an angry Scorpio.

With the help of the neatly uniformed guard at the hospital gate I searched the hospital and its grounds but we couldn’t find a single doctor or nurse or administrator. The only people on site were the patients.

"I’ve heard there’s a better leper place in Tangerang," said the guard, "but I don’t have its address."

"Where can I find one of this hospital’s doctors?" I said impatiently.

He directed me to a good-sized bungalow three minutes drive from the hospital. A maid showed me into the lounge where a swarthy, middle-aged doctor was seated on a settee watching a large TV. I explained Iwan’s problems to the scowling man.

"Iwan’s not yet been seen by a doctor," I grumbled. "He’s got an infected leg and a fever. Can you come and see him?"

"No," snapped the doctor. "He should have come earlier in the morning. He’ll be seen tomorrow." The doctor remained seated and the TV stayed on.

"Surely the hospital should have a doctor on duty or even a nurse?"



"I’m about to have my meal."

"Iwan hasn’t eaten all day. Should I speak to the hospital director?"

"He lives in Jakarta." This was said with what seemed like a defiant smirk.

"Can you give me his phone number?"

"I don’t have it here."

"Will the director be here tomorrow?"


After several minutes of unsuccessful confrontation I returned to the hospital, collected Iwan and his granny, and drove them back to the Kuningan Medical Centre in Jakarta. We related our sad story to my doctor.

"I’ll prescribe Iwan some leprosy medicine," said Doctor Handoko, smiling. "Don’t worry. His fever’s much reduced."

We picked up more bags of pills from the chemist and returned to Iwan’s shack beside the rubbish tip.

More than most people, the Javanese tend to dig in their heels when faced with an opponent who is angry. I wondered if I would have had more success at the leprosy hospital if I had been more patient. Probably not. The doctor was very much off-duty; and he believed he was part of a system which was immune to reform; or outside interference.

Next day I returned to Iwan’s kampung. At the edge of the rubbish tip, teenage boys, seated on oil barrels, were strumming guitars; women were sorting through piles of aerosol cans, plastic bottles and plastic bags; old bicycle wheels and car parts were being beaten into shape by young men wearing tattoos; beautiful gypsy-like girls were attending to babies; chickens were picking their way through the weeds; a nauseous smell of burning plastic filled my nostrils.

Iwan, smiling and looking less pale, was sitting outside his house, resting his bandaged leg.

"How are you?" I asked.

"Fine, Mr Kent."

Granny fetched some glasses of water for us to drink.

"Where’s the water from?" I asked.

"From a neighbour’s well," said granny. "We can’t use the river water anymore, not even for washing clothes. It’s too dirty."

"They found a body in the river last night," said Iwan, eyes widening.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Nobody knows," said Iwan.

I looked at my glass of water which was brown, smelt of dead rats and toads, and had creatures swimming in it.

"Would anyone like a cola?" I said. "From the little stall up the road."

We were into June and Iwan was looking better, having got rid of his fever. He appeared to be taking his leprosy pills.

I had been taking Min more or less every afternoon to see his family in North Jakarta; but with the arrival of summer it seemed time to move Min’s family out of the slums of Teluk Gong and into the leafy kampung next to Wisma Utara, where housing was of a higher standard. I was due to get my summer bonus from my school and that could pay for a home for Min and family. There was talk of Min’s dad making his living by selling vegetables from a mobile cart.

One sunny Saturday morning I collected Min’s mum and dad and his brother Wardi from Kapuk and we drove to Wisma Utara to look at houses. Wardi was wearing a smart dark shirt. Wati, dressed in a new ensemble of long purple skirt and traditional brown batik waist band, was looking almost regal. Dad wore his usual humble working clothes. Min, looking a little shy, had been dressed by Joan in checked shirt and blue shorts. I was in a happy mood, but Min’s family seemed a little sombre.

The staff at Wisma Utara, including Joan, reckoned it should be possible to find a small simple house for around twenty million rupiahs, which was less than six thousand pounds sterling.

"Mr Kent," said Joan, who was standing with Min at the gate of the children’s home, "there are two houses for sale near here. I’ll take you to them."

The first of the houses was situated immediately opposite Wisma Utara. It was a small, two storey, brick and concrete house, squashed between its neighbours. Wati, Min’s mum, liked it a lot. But it only had windows at the front, which made it seem gloomy and unhealthy inside, and, at thirty million rupiahs or nine thousand pounds, it was well above my price range. Like all the houses in the area it had a home made feel about it and the rooms were tiny, with low ceilings. The toilet was like a broom cupboard with a tiny hole in the floor.

"Would you accept twenty million?" I asked the pleasant-faced, middle aged man who owned the house.

"No," he said, smiling. "Nothing below thirty million."

I tried bargaining but he wouldn’t budge even a million rupiahs; he reminded me of an easy going but sharp Neapolitan. I decided to move on.

The next house was a cheap wooden affair with lots of windows, but it seemed a bit ramshackle and there was no water supply. The cost was only fourteen million rupiahs. Wati quite liked it. Perhaps it reminded her of her house in Kapuk.

"Joan, are there any other houses?" I asked. My happy mood had gone.

"Not today. It’s not always easy to find houses for sale. Too many people."

"What do you think, Wardi?" I said.

"The first house was nice, but it’s too expensive." His eyes had a deeply pained look.

"And the second house doesn’t have water or a toilet," I pointed out. "I want you to have a house with a toilet."

There was a period of silence. Should I buy them the second-rate wooden house? Or should I wait for something better to come along?

Joan broke the silence. "The woman who owns the corner shop says she has a house she can show us next week. It’s got a toilet and it’s about twenty million rupiahs."

Should I eat into my savings to buy the thirty million house, a house I didn’t particularly like, or wait another week? Thirty million was too expensive; the house was overpriced.

"Joan, do you think the thirty million price will come down?" I asked.

"No," she said. "He told me he won’t reduce the price."

I decided I would wait until the following week, which would mean disappointing everyone concerned and delaying Min’s return to his family. I gave my explanations to Wati and company. I think we all felt like children who had woken up on Christmas morning only to find that Santa had left us absolutely nothing.

The following Saturday morning we were all back at Wisma Utara. Joan led us to the third house.

It was a two storey brick and concrete construction down a little cul de sac where all the houses were joined together by the usual thin walls. Downstairs there was a living room, simple kitchen with a water pump, and simple bathroom with a hole in the floor. Upstairs there were two bedrooms, divided by a simple curtain. The owners had bright modern furniture which was perhaps why I found the place attractive. The settee was a particularly bright light blue. The price was twenty two million rupiahs, which was within my range; and the neighbours seemed friendly.

Min’s family had a quick conference. They wore worried expressions. Wati explained that she still preferred the first house we had looked at, the one costing thirty million. Dad and Wardi remained silent.

"So, what about this third house?" I asked.

"OK, Mr Kent," said Wardi. He looked and sounded hesitant. Wati was scowling.

"Are you sure you want me to buy you a house?" I asked Wati.

Wardi answered. "Yes, Mr Kent." He was frowning.

I got the feeling that they definitely wanted me to buy them a house, but, something was worrying them. Was it a question of trying to get the best house possible? That was to be expected. Did Wati not believe me when I said I couldn’t afford the first house we viewed as I only had around six thousand pounds to spare? I supposed she thought all foreigners were infinitely rich. Was it a question of the hassle of having to move to a new home? I supposed that was natural. I couldn’t ask Min what he thought, as he wouldn’t understand. And I couldn’t have a deep conversation with Wati as my Indonesian vocabulary was so very limited.

"When can they move in?" I asked the attractive and astute looking young woman who owned the third house. Her tight blouse, short skirt and expensive shoes suggested she was a modern entrepreneur rather than a traditional shop owner.

"Any day," she said. "You pay the cheque on the day they move in."

"And you give us the documentation."

"Yes. They’ll need to fill in some forms at the lurah’s office."

"And we’ll also have to get identity cards," said Wardi.

"How much do they cost" I asked him.

"Very expensive to get a card for Jakarta. It costs extra if you want one quickly. Maybe a few hundred thousand rupiahs."

It was agreed that Min’s family would move into the new house within two to three weeks. I felt relieved that at last Min would be living with his family; living in what I considered to be a safe environment; and living right next to his school. I hoped I hadn’t rushed them into making a decision. I had a niggling feeling that Wati was not entirely happy with the way things had worked out.

The following Saturday, at Jakarta’s Pasar Mayestic, I searched the dimly lit concrete corridors of the market buildings for Hamid, the runaway with the rich granny and alcoholic bus-driving stepfather. I sniffed the cloves, nutmeg, and mace, listened to the flies dancing on bits of chicken, and eyed the fake designer sunglasses and watches.

"Shoe shine please," I said to a schoolboy carrying a wooden box.

I sat on the box and handed over my brown suede shoes.

"Have you seen this kid?" I said, handing him a photo of Hamid.

"He’s in the next building," he said, as he began applying the black polish.

"How much do you earn shining shoes?"

"About a dollar a day if I’m lucky. It’s to pay for school and help my mum."

After my shoes had been transformed, the shoeshine boy led me across a concrete bridge into the next building. Hamid was sitting outside a grocery stall.

"Hi. You’re living here again?" I said.

"Yes," he replied, tensing his brow.

"Why did you leave your granny’s house?"

"They say I’m stupid because I don’t like school."

"Do you want to go back?"


"How about some fried chicken?"

We sat in a little cafe and talked and ate. He wasn’t going to be persuaded to return home.


It was a warm sultry evening in downtown Jakarta, back in July 1992, and I was with someone who looked like Maureen O'Sullivan, star of many a Tarzan film. My companion was Sue: in her late twenties, demure good looks, slim figure, long dark hair and long black dress. I had got to know Sue while teaching in London; we had spent quite a few evenings eating out or watching films such as ‘My Life as a Dog’ and ‘Life is a Long Quiet River.’ Back in London, Sue had seemed a relatively reserved sort of person, but also someone who could think for herself. Sue had a kind and sympathetic side to her nature and she was someone with whom I felt relaxed and comfortable. What was Sue doing in Jakarta? She was spending some days in Indonesia’s capital as part of her six week holiday in Asia. She was taking a sabbatical from her work as a secretary and having an adventure.

We stepped out of my vehicle and through the small front garden of a very large bungalow. A gong sounded, a uniformed footman opened the door, and Sue and I were ushered into the Oasis restaurant, the former home of a Dutch millionaire. After a Singapore Sling in the bar, we were shown to a table between the musicians and the marble statues of the Italian garden.

"You’re half way through your Asian journey," I said, as I studied the menu. "What made you decide to do all this traveling?"

"I’d been reading a book called ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, by Joseph Campbell," said Sue, as she stared at the melting candle in the middle of the table. "Campbell argues that in all the world’s cultures, heroes go on journeys. Think of Marco Polo and Luke Skywalker. Journeys help us to understand how the world works."

"All the world’s cultures have the same dreams?"

"Campbell thinks we all share the same subconscious. Consciousness is a form of energy and it’s in everything, all over the world."

"We all go on similar types of journeys?"

"Campbell says that all journeys have the same pattern. First you get the inspiration to go on an adventure, but when you think about it you see all the possible dangers and you’re reluctant to set off. Then a series of events push you into the adventure. As you travel on your way, you face a number of difficulties. At some point you are tempted to take detours from the correct path. Eventually everything works out fine and you return home safely."

"I was reluctant to leave London," I said. "I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to cope abroad. Then I felt events pushing me; some of the children I was teaching became so awful. There may be something in all this."

A waitress had arrived and she was trying to look cheerful and trying to catch our attention.

"I’m having the rijstaffell," said Sue. "A mixture of dishes."

"Me too," I said. "And to drink, the Australian white."

"This place is how I imagine a colonial club," said Sue. "Lots of wood paneling."

"Makes me think of a scene from the film Casablanca," I added. "The dim lighting and the rich and shady customers."

"I’ve been to some shady restaurants recently," said Sue. "In Bangkok I had lunch at a little restaurant near Silom Road. When I went back in the evening it had completely changed. The tables and food were gone. It was just crawling with scantily dressed teenage girls. Probably run by the German Mafia."

"You’ve been having an exciting time," I said, as I glanced at the beautiful young Chinese girl at the table behind Sue. "Is Thailand a Mafia country?"

"In a subtle way. I liked Bangkok because of the wats and golden stupas, but I didn’t like Pattaya. It seemed like a tacky gangster town."

"A bit rough?"

"Quite a few tourists die there," said Sue, giving me one of her serious looks. "They say it’s heart attacks or accidents; but one Thai businessman told me people get murdered and it’s covered up."

"Murdered for money?"

"Or because the locals secretly hate some of the single male tourists."

"What about the military? Are they powerful in Thailand?"

"Discreetly so. But then they’re powerful here too. Someone on the plane told me Indonesia’s controlled by the military."

"So they say. And how did you like India?" I asked.

"It’s the most foreign of the places I’ve been to. You know, giant lingams and temple sculptures showing people in acrobatic positions. I took scores of photos of sahdus and ghats."

"And the food?"

"It’s my favourite, but you get better tasting Indian food in Ealing. Some restaurants in India didn’t have lime pickle."

Our rijstaffel arrived, brought to our table by about fifteen maidens.

"It’s the same with Indonesian food," I commented, as I ladled spoonfuls of spicy chicken and beef onto my plate. "It seems to taste better in Amsterdam than it does here, although this place is good."

"I’d expected India to be more spiritual," said Sue solemnly, as she helped herself to salad, "but it seemed pretty earthy. Some of my chief memories are of cockroaches, crashed buses all along the highway, women in cages, lines of people squatting on the pavements emptying their bowels. I’d been hoping to find some kind of enlightenment, but it didn’t happen."

"And what about Jakarta?" I asked.

"The airport was clean and efficient; and the centre’s got some amazing looking bank buildings. I’ve been to some impressive shopping malls. Better than Singapore’s malls. Friendly smiling faces."

"According to the Jakarta Post," I explained, "about sixty per cent of Indonesia’s wealth ends up in the posh parts of Jakarta. The people of Sumatra and Irian Jaya are not very happy about that."

"They say Indonesia’s an empire run by Java," said Sue.

"I’ve heard it’s an empire run by the Jakarta elite, mainly generals and ex-generals and their Chinese-Indonesian friends." I spoke quietly, as the elite might be at the next table.

"Do you think that’s true?"

"It’s what some people say. I suppose in Britain in the 19th Century there was a small upper class that owned most of the land or the industry."

"Not much has changed," said Sue. "The Third World’s not so different from parts of London or Birmingham. Civilised bits and primitive bits."

"What makes the bad bits bad?" I asked.

"The Third World should be called the Low Standards World," said Sue. "Singapore used to be slummy but they raised their standards. Careful family upbringing, efficient civil service, clean hospitals, good schools, decent housing."

"Whereas in Low Standards Areas, you get low standards of honesty and cleanliness." Was the wine leading me to silly generalisations?

"Low standards," said Sue. "Uncaring parents. Uncaring employers. Corrupt police and so on."

"Indonesia’s not all low standards," I pointed out, in case the waitress was listening.

"How are you liking living here?" asked Sue.

"It’s wonderful. Sunshine, heat, bright colours, friendly people, no depressing winters, streets full of interest. I could go on."

"Any bad bits?"

"The traffic’s getting worse. And too many kids have TB."

Our conversation began to be drowned out by the Batak singers.

On the Friday afternoon I took Sue to see what was to be Min’s new house and hopefully hand over the money for its purchase.

"Nice neighbourhood," said Sue, as we walked down the lane leading to Wisma Utara. "The houses look clean. Look at all the flowers."

"My driver was telling me," I pointed out, "that even in a peaceful area like this, you get occasional drunkenness and student brawls. Touch wood, I’ve never seen any trouble around here."

"Student brawls?" queried Sue.

"From time to time gangs of school kids fight each other. Kids get killed."

"The children all look friendly."

"I saw a bunch of them once, in the middle of town, jumping onto a crowded bus. They were all armed with sharp weapons. Be careful with buses, by the way."

We reached Min’s house and were greeted by Wardi, Min, Min’s mum and dad, and all Min’s siblings. They seemed in a good humour and they were intrigued by the sight of Sue.

"Goodness! Your furniture’s here already," I said to Min’s mum. "How did you get it to the house?"

"A neighbour’s truck," explained Wardi.

The smart looking young lady who was selling the house arrived and we all sat down in the house’s low-ceilinged lounge. Gone was the bright blue settee, replaced by Min’s family’s simpler furniture.

"I’ve got the cheque," I told the lady-owner. "Have you got the documents?"

She handed over a piece of paper which didn’t seem to be related to ownership of the house.

"This is not what we need," I said, pretending to be an expert. "I can’t give you the cheque without the proper document. Can you get it for us?"

Off she went, presumably to find the missing bit of paper.

"What does her family do for a living?" I asked Wardi.

"They own the tiny shop at the corner."

"It’s good to find a non-Chinese person owning a shop and property," I commented.

"Her husband’s Chinese," said Wati.

"Are there lots of Chinese Indonesians?" asked Sue, wearing her earnest look.

"About four percent of the population," I explained. "But there have been mixed marriages over the years, so it’s difficult to be exact. They’re not all rich and they’re not all Buddhist or Christian. You get Moslem Chinese."

The lady returned with the necessary certificate, took my cheque and departed with a smile and a handshake.

"I must have some photos of you all in your new home," I said to Wardi.

Min put his arms around his dad and both smiled ecstatically. Click. Things seemed to be going well.

"What did you think of Min?" I asked Sue as we headed back to my Mitsubishi.

"He’s lovely. And I liked his family."

Sue and I used the Saturday to head West from Jakarta.

"To Banten and Merak," I instructed the driver and off we drove, past industrial Tangerang, with its textile and rubber factories, and then over a flat green landscape. Occasionally we would see long, low barn-like buildings, used by the brick and tile industry. The journey, mainly along a wide, straight Toll road, gave us another chance to talk about travel and life.

"The guidebook," explained Sue, "states that Banten used to have a harbour, before it silted up, and it’s where the Dutch had their first settlement."

"And before that the Portuguese." I had my guide books on my knee.

"What’s it famous for now?" asked Sue

"My maid told me it’s famous for magic."


"Dervish dancers who eat glass."

"Is magic a big thing in Indonesia?"

"Nyai Loro Kidul, Goddess of the South Seas, gets a lot of attention," I said. "There’s a story that, in the late 1970’s, high up government people, wanting to help the president increase his power, arranged some ceremony involving the sea goddess."

"So it’s not just for the peasants," said Sue. "What about witch doctors or shamans?"

"They’re called dukuns. They say that dukuns have been used by President Suharto, and by former President Sukarno. Oil men get dukuns to help find oil. Businessmen and civil servants use them to ensure they grow rich. Women go to dukuns if they want men to fall in love with them. Sick people go to them for cures. Bad people use wicked dukuns to kill their enemies. You can have someone killed for about fifty pounds."

"That’s cheap. How do they get people to fall in love?" asked Sue, smiling.

"A businessman friend, who shall be nameless, was told that a girlfriend had secretly given some powder to his maid. The maid was supposed to sprinkle it over his clothes."

"Did it work?"

"Well Mike hasn’t married her, yet, but she’s done very nicely out of him financially."

"Where does Islam come into this?" asked Sue.

"Even some orthodox Moslems believe in good and bad spirits. Most traditional Moslems certainly believe in spirits. Last year there was a big Moslem rally in Jakarta and the newspapers quoted Moslems as saying there were thousands of genies in the air, protecting the meeting."

"Flying about in the air?"

"Like angels. In Java you get Islam mixing with ideas that are animist or Buddhist or Hindu. The government doesn’t mind, so long as everyone believes in God. The most important thing for the traditional Javanese Moslem is avoiding being selfish or self-assertive, which sounds good to me. That’s how it should be and I’ve met lots of Moslems like that."

"I told you that in India I was disappointed not to find things more spiritual," said Sue.

"Same here in some ways. A lot of the top people simply want to loot and pillage. Although they pretend to be good Christians or Moslems."

"You’re more likely to get in touch with the spiritual by keeping away from priests."

"You’ve given up on the Church?"

"I have," said Sue, with a touch of firmness. "Joseph Campbell argues that all religions are true but their stories mustn’t be taken literally. The Bible is not necessarily the word of God. God wouldn’t really want the Israelites to slaughter the people of Canaan or Egypt."

"Time for a snack?" I had spotted a food stall at the side of the road and wanted to stretch my legs.

"Yes please," said Sue. "I’m beginning to find the air-conditioning in this van rather fierce. It’ll be nice to get some heat."

We reached Banten about midmorning. The sky was full of soot-black clouds which made the houses, the trees and the ruined 16th century Sultan’s Palace look dark and eerie. There wasn’t much to see at the palace, other than its foundations. We had a look at the Agung Mosque, built around 1559 and recently restored. It had a slightly Chinese appearance, because of its pagoda-shape.

"I’m surprised how small Banten is," said Sue.

"Why’s that?"

"It’s like a farming village, yet the guide book says it was once the largest city in South East Asia and one of the world’s greatest ports. The spice trade made this place world famous."

Sue was going to take a photo of some schoolboys standing beneath tall palm trees, but one of the boys decided it would be fun to urinate and Sue put her camera away.

"On to the hotel for lunch," I announced, and soon we were passing by Indonesia’s biggest steel works at Cilegon, and then coming in sight of the little port of Merak.

After lunch at the Merak Beach Hotel we explored the town and a nearby beach. The sun was managing to shine full blast on gorgeous blue and red fishing boats and wooden houses built on stilts. Merak itself seemed to be a delightfully mucky little town, reminding me of certain ports in Italy like Barletta.

"It’s frightening to think," I said, "that Merak, and the other settlements along this coast, were wiped out by a tidal wave, taller than the palm trees."

"The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa," said Sue.

"The guide book says the tidal waves reached the coast of France."

"Are we going to be safe if we go along the coast to Anyer?"

"You can see Anak Krakatoa from the beach. If there’s a major eruption, we might consider leaving."

"Have you noticed the large number of provocatively dressed young women outside the cafes and restaurants here?" said Sue, eyes twinkling.

"It is a port," I said, as I noted the tight little skirts and long schoolgirl legs of a group seated outside a wooden shack selling beer.

"There’s the ferry to Sumatra, all the truck traffic and the Pertamina oil base. Lots of potential customers. Lots of risk of disease."

"Let’s have a beer and watch the world go by," said Sue.


It was the morning after our return from Merak and Sue and I were driving in the direction of Min’s new home. The traffic seemed light and the sun was shining.

"All the cars seem to be Japanese," commented Sue, as we overtook a Toyota.

"In spite of the Japanese occupation during World War II," I said.

"Are the British popular in Indonesia?" asked Sue.

"I don’t know," I replied. "Why do you ask?"

"I’ve been reading Revolt in Paradise by K’tut Tantri."

"Which paradise is that?"

"Indonesia at the time of Dutch rule. K’tut was born in Britain but she went to live in Bali back in the 1930s."

Sue proceeded to tell me about K’tut becoming an American citizen, setting up a hotel on Bali, mixing with artists like Walter Spies and falling in love with a Balinese prince. When the Japanese invaded, K’tut stayed on in Indonesia and suffered torture. At the end of World War II, K’tut sided with the Indonesians fighting for independence from the Dutch. K’tut broadcast propaganda for the Indonesians and was nicknamed Surabaya Sue. In 1945 she was in Surabaya, in East Java, when it was bombed by the British, who were the allies of the Dutch.

The British did to Surabaya what Franco did to Guernica.

"I imagine the British may not be totally popular in Surabaya," I said.

"It was a long time ago."

We arrived at Min’s neighbourhood. "Do you want to meet Iwan, a child with leprosy?"

"Of course I do," she replied.

"You wouldn’t rather visit the shops?"

"I didn’t come to Asia to visit American-style malls. I want to meet Indonesians."

"Iwan lives next to a rather large rubbish tip. You don’t mind?"

"I want to see all that Jakarta has to offer."

Having collected a cheerful Min, we ambled along a series of concrete paths leading us to the tip. Min gave one of his happy shrieks as he spotted Iwan seated on an oil barrel. I was pleased to see that Iwan had put on some weight. He slid off the barrel and hobbled towards us, grinning shyly.

"Are you taking your leprosy medicine?" I asked.

"Yes, Mr Kent."

"He’s a sweet child," whispered Sue.

"Mr Kent," said Iwan, "there’s someone sick. Nuryati. Over by the smoke."

Iwan led us in the direction of the smoke which was rising from piles of dark grey refuse that was considered not worth recycling. Nuryati was a pretty ten year old girl living in a four-room wooden shack which had the spoil-heap as a garden. Her skin was scabby, crusty and cracked all over her body. Nuryati’s father, a bulky man with a rather untidy, unshaven appearance, was happy to receive our help.

We drove Nuryati and her dad to the relatively nearby Pertama Hospital where we were immediately able to see the skin specialist.

"It’s some kind of dermatitis," said the friendly little lady doctor. "Sometimes called eczema."

"What’s causing it?" I asked.

"She works on that garbage tip so she touches all sorts of chemicals and metals. Could be chlorine, formaldehyde, mercury or something like that."

"Can you treat it?" I said.

"I’ll give her some creams and lotions. There’s an antihistamine and a coal tar ointment. Ideally she should stay away from the tip."

After returning the little girl to her home, we went to chat to Wati, Min’s mum, who was sitting at her front door with her two youngest children. There was no sign of Wardi or middle child Aldi.

"Is Wardi not around?" I asked, after we had shaken hands.

"He’s in Teluk Gong," she said, looking a little tense. "At our old house, in North Jakarta."

"And Aldi?" I said.

"He’s at school in Teluk Gong. He’s a clever little boy. Doing well at school." Wati smiled proudly.

"Couldn’t Aldi go to school here?"

"I don’t know," she said, frowning.

The absence of Wardi and Aldi worried me. I didn’t want to be responsible for splitting the family. "Is Min’s dad going to sell vegetables here?" I asked Wati.

"We’re building the vegetable cart," she said, looking down at the ground.

"How is Min getting on at his school?" I inquired.

"Fine," she said, without much enthusiasm.

"Sue and I are off to get something to eat," I explained. "Good luck with the cart."

Min decided to do one of his strange war dances which involved making loud whooping sounds. The neighbours came out to stare. Sue and I crept away.

Sitting in the restaurant at the Meridien Hotel, I asked Sue what she thought about our conversation with Min’s mum.

"Wardi’s still living in their old home in North Jakarta," she said, "Aldi too. I reckon they don’t want to give that house up."

"It’s in an unhealthy area," I pointed out, as I cut into some sushi. "It’s a slum area, near the sea and the road to the airport."

"Does Wardi have a job in Teluk Gong?"

"I hadn’t thought about that," I confessed.

"He could have a job and a girl friend there. And Aldi will have all his school friends near their old house."

"Oh dear. I just thought it was good to get the family out of their slum and into a decent house. I was thinking also of Min being able to go to his school at Wisma Utara during the day, and being able to go home to his family in the afternoon."

"I’m sure it’ll all work out," said Sue sympathetically.

"Maybe I’ve been an idiot. I just hadn’t thought about things like Aldi’s schooling."

"They’re going to build a vegetable cart. That should help."

"I hope Min behaves himself," I said.

"One thing I noticed was that as we left Min’s house there was a woman near the corner shop who gave you a very hostile look." Sue emphasised the last three words.

"Worrying." And puzzling.

"Tomorrow," said Sue, "when I’m struggling through the streets of Manila in an old bus, I’ll be thinking of you being driven to the Meridien in your comfortable vehicle."

"I hope you’ve not minded meeting people like Min? And seeing lepers and rubbish tips?"

"No. I’ve loved it. I’m more excited by a shanty town than a museum." Sue gave me a sisterly smile.

The following Saturday I motored as usual to Bogor. Ciah had made good progress in recovering from her hepatitis, and had been able to go home to her cobwebby hut. Her sad looking little son Agosto, who had been guarding her in the hospital for ten days, was looking even more frail than his mother. I hoped their neighbours would keep an eye on them.

In the mental hospital at Babakan there was a new child patient, a muscular boy of about twelve called Saepul. He was sitting sullen faced at the entrance to the Pertama Ward. His chin, his forehead and his cheeks had large swollen bruises.

"Has someone been in a fight with Saepul?" I asked the female nurse, a motherly, round faced woman.

"Saepul punches himself in the face. That’s why his hands are tied behind his back."

"Surely he doesn’t punch himself!" I said, thinking the nurse was covering up some act of brutality by staff or other patients.

"Self inflicted wounds. It’s stress."

"Can he speak?"

"No. He’s retarded."

"You’re sure someone hasn’t hit him?"

As I spoke, Saepul rammed his bruised chin against his right knee with considerable force. Crunch. Blood began to ooze from the wound.

"You see. He hurts himself," said the nurse.

"That’s awful," I said. I could hardly believe it.

"Maybe he’d be better if he wasn’t tied up. Can I try taking him for a walk within the grounds, along with John and Daud?"

"If you like," said the nurse, rather to my amazement.

"Can you come with me?"

"OK. I’ll get the other two children."

John and Daud were untied from their beds and Saepul’s hands were unbound. As we walked through the gardens to the hospital’s shop, John and Daud tended to stagger. Saepul galloped along ahead of the rest of us, resisting the temptation to punch his own face. At the hut which served as the shop, I asked for biscuits and milk for the children and chocolate for the nurse. As I took possession of the food, there was a thump. Saepul had started to punch his cheek bone, making it more red and raw. I didn’t wait for my change. I took Saepul’s hand and hurried him out of the shop. I was relieved to find that Saepul stopped hurting himself once we were on the move back to the ward.

It was a wonderfully warm Sunday and I was seated with Anne, and her husband Bob, in their garden in Menteng. I was introduced to a new snack.

"You see the purple lance-shaped thing hanging down?" said Anne.

"The what?" I asked.

"At the end of the bunch of bananas," she explained.

"Ah yes."

"OK," continued Anne. "You take the bud. You pull off the outer sheathes, until you can see the pinkish white bit inside."


"Pull the hard stamen."

"The what?"

"The stamen. Pull it from the centre. Then you eat the bud with coconut milk."

"Sounds easy."

"Here’s some I made earlier," said Anne.

We glugged down luscious Bordeaux dessert wine, ate the buds, and listened to Agnus Dei, on a cassette player.

"It’s been a hard week," said Bob when the music tape ended. He had slight bags under his eyes and looked a touch grey.

"Problems?" I asked.

"It can sometimes be very odd doing business in this country," said Bob.

"How’s that?"

"The army," explained Bob. "Last week I visited a factory in Jemba. Both my taxi from the airport and my hotel were army-owned. The factory boss is a retired colonel. The local governor is a former general. The regent and sub district chief are former soldiers. Retired officers tend to end up as government ministers, bank directors, civil service bosses, regents or chiefs of cooperatives. If you are in business you can’t avoid dealing with the army."

"The army’s not too short of money?"

"Probably three quarters of their money comes from the businesses they run, and only a quarter from the government. Generals and colonels live in big houses and run big cars, although I suppose that would also be true in Britain. Depends on the size of the house."

"And they’ve got muscle?"

"Well, any army has. If the workers here go on strike, the army would not find it too difficult to sort it out."

"What about the lower ranks?"

"Bad elements are rumoured to get extra money, shall we say, from illegal levies."

"The soldiers don’t get paid much."

"To be fair," said Bob, "the army simply doesn’t get enough money from the government. In a sense they’re forced to go into business. Some of them are actually useful people. There’s a retired officer I work with quite a lot. Very devoted Moslem. He tells me the country needs the army to hold it together."

"The news magazines say the economy’s been doing well," I said.

"Kent," said Bob, putting down his glass, "you take a Chinese Indonesian businessman. He gets a big loan from the bank, with the help of his political contacts. He builds his factory, and maybe buys a big mansion and a Mercedes or two. He has to pay a lot of people. His profits disappear. He has to go back to the bank. That’s no problem, because he’s got contacts. But is the bank ever going to get its money back?"

"One report said that thirty percent of the government’s budget disappears corruptly," I commented.

"Yes," said Bob, "but what about the vast sums of non budgeted funds that are stolen? Think of all the bribes and gifts that can never be traced."

"Would you invest in the stock market here?" I asked.

"Not for many years to come," said Bob, shaking his head. "If the international media found out everything that’s going on there could be trouble."

"This country should be rich," I stated. "Unlike Singapore it’s got oil, timber, minerals, oil palms, rubber, thousands of islands with great tourist potential."

"It’s rich in its people and its village life," said Anne.

"But, can you trust the banks?" said Bob

It being the summer holidays, I made a brief trip to Singapore to eat and shop.

On return to Jakarta I went straight to Min’s house to see if he had survived my few days absence. A pale and mournful-looking Min took my hand and squeezed it.

"How’s Min?" I asked Wati, Min’s mum.

"He hasn’t been sleeping well," she said. "He was calling out your name."

That made me feel worried and guilty. I changed the subject. "How’s the vegetable cart?" I asked.

"Min’s dad has been out selling vegetables," said Wati, frowning.

"Where does he get them from?" I asked.

"He has to get up before dawn and go to the market at Kebayoran Lama. That’s a long walk. Hours."

"And how’s Aldi? Is he going to go to school here in Cipete or stay in North Jakarta?"

"He’s got to finish the term at his old school," said Wati, "back where we used to live."

Gani, Min’s brother-in-law, came for a walk with me and Min to the home of Nuryati, the girl with the skin problem. Her skin looked less red and crusty.

"How are you feeling?" I asked her.

"A little better," she said with a charming grin.

I gave her moustachioed father more money for the next lot of medicine. I noticed that he looked well fed and he had a good skin. Presumably, unlike his daughter, he didn’t get his hands dirty on the rubbish tip.


At 9 January 2022 at 02:05 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Photo of homeless children in Jakarta sleeping on the floor of a large public building

The above from article
'The 15 Most Homeless Cities In The World'
Jakarta #6
Manila #1


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