Friday, December 16, 2005


Around Easter, I discovered that I was going to have to vacate the house in which I was living. The Chinese owner of the property wanted to do some redecoration and then increase the rent beyond what my school was prepared to pay. Moving house meant all the usual hassles, such as having to squash all my worldly goods into a few small cardboard boxes, having to go house hunting, and having to give lots of people my new address and telephone number.

House hunting in Jakarta requires great care. Many of the Indonesian houses built for the well-to-do look magnificent on the outside. There are Greek pillars, huge pediments, stained glass windows, and palatial entrances. But, inside, you may find that there is no hot water for the washing machine and no proper bath in the bathroom.

I eventually settled on a modern, white-walled villa with a sloping red roof. There were two small bedrooms; a sunny lounge-dining room provided views through glass doors to a little garden containing Heliconias and Hibiscus. The house appeared to have no major problems, such as broken air conditioners. A date was fixed for entry.

At this point, my driver pointed out that he would have a slightly longer journey to work and might need help to buy a motorbike. Rachmat, the house guard, was not sure whether or not he wanted to move to the new neighbourhood, away from all his friends. I ignored their comments, knowing that they were already being paid an above average wage.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Aldi and a new house

I was seated on the settee in the little front room of Min’s house. Light was streaming into the room from the open front door. Standing on the doorstep were two of the local children who had come to stare. Min’s mum, perched on a wooden chair, was mending an old shirt. As usual, she looked less than wildly happy and I wondered if this was confirmation of my fear that the family were not entirely at ease in their new home and new neighbourhood. Aldi, the pleasant looking middle child, then aged about thirteen, was squatting on the floor next to Min. Aldi reported that he was having problems with the local children.

"They’re horrid to me," he complained . I thought he was going to cry.

"Are you horrid to Aldi?" I asked Eko, one of the schoolboys who was standing at the front door.

"No," protested Eko, staring at me with his big dark eyes and trying to look sincere.

"They’re not being nice," muttered Aldi.

"Come in Eko," I said, "and I’ll take a photo of you, Min and Aldi on the sofa."

Aldi made a face but the three of them were persuaded to sit together. Min smiled happily. Eko gave a slightly phoney smile. Aldi temporarily relaxed and grinned.

"My leg’s very sore," said Aldi, who looked a bit flushed in the face.

"Has Aldi been to the doctor?" I asked Wati.

"Not yet," she replied.

My main concern was for Min. I felt it was up to Wati to sort out her other children’s problems. She didn’t seem to be totally without money as, scattered around the floor, there were new toys, including a plastic car big enough for a child to sit in.

Next afternoon I again called in on Min.

Aldi was hobbling about. Fairly high up on his left thigh there was an inflamed red lump, possibly the result of a cut or a sore.

Min’s five year old sister, Imah, had a cough.

"Do you want to take Aldi to the local doctor?" I asked mum. "Imah too."

"OK," said Wati.

We drove to the clinic a few streets away and a young doctor gave Imah some cough medicine. He then applied some cream to Aldi’s cut, and administered some kind of injection.

For the next few days I was busy preparing to move house. I seemed to have acquired rather a lot of books and files and I went through them trying to decide what to throw out. In the end, what I disposed of was mainly old socks full of holes, torn shirts, used exercise books and broken pens. When I had dumped this rubbish in the bin I noticed that the maid carefully took it all out again and carefully stored it away for future sale or use.

The new residence, I had been assured, had no problems with leaking roofs. But after moving in there was a downpour and small brown stains appeared on parts of the ceilings in the lounge and one bedroom. Maybe the stains had been there before and I had just not noticed. Come to think of it, many of the houses of colleagues had similar problems. I completed my unpacking and decided that I was going to enjoy my new home.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005



After the several days involving packing up and moving, I called in on Min. It was afternoon and Aldi was not long home from school. He was lying on the settee.

"Aldi’s very ill," said Wardi, sounding unusually nervous. "He came home from school and he was like this."

"What do you think is wrong?" I asked. I could see that Aldi was in pain.

"His neck’s sore," said Wardi. "He doesn’t want to get up. His neck feels stiff."

"We’d better get him to the Pertama Hospital," I said, referring to the large tower-block hospital a few miles distant. I felt angry that Aldi’s family had let him go to school that day. I felt guilty that I had not visited Min’s house a few days earlier. I felt worried that it was me who had argued in favour of Aldi moving from their old house in North Jakarta to this new one near Min’s school.

In the emergency ward, the doctor examined the patient, did some tests and came to a swift conclusion.

"Tetanus," he said.

Aldi, who was being attached to various tubes, was moaning and weeping.

I was relieved that we had got him admitted to the hospital and that he was now getting treatment. I did not know much about tetanus but I assumed that the same sorts of antibiotics which had cured the blue baby in Bogor would now also deal with Aldi’s problem.

"Don’t worry," I said to him, smiling, "you’re going to be all right now." Although Aldi was terrified and in pain, I felt there was something reassuring about the nurses and the tubes.

After leaving Min’s home I had a late dinner at The Meridien. I felt more relaxed, even pleased with myself.

After work next day I hurried to the Pertama Hospital where I met Aldi’s hollow-cheeked father who looked stressed and worn out. Aldi was alone in an isolation room which could be looked into through a glass screen. My heart began to pound when I saw the little boy was having huge and violent muscle spasms which made his whole body writhe. These intensely painful-looking spasms were rapid and continual. It just went on and on and on. It was as if he was being electrocuted for hours on end. I could not cope with this nightmarish scene and asked a nurse to fetch a doctor. A tall, unsmiling man arrived.

"What can be done about these spasms?" I asked. "Surely he should be getting some attention from a nurse or someone?"

"He’s got tetanus," said the doctor. There was a hint of irritability in his voice.

"But what’s being done for him? Is the medicine working?"

"He’s getting treatment for tetanus."

I wanted some detailed information and some sympathy but I was not going to get it from this particular doctor.

"What about the spasms?" I asked.

"You get that with tetanus," said the doctor, who then walked away.

I looked at Aldi’s father. The poor man looked near to tears.

That evening I could not relax. I lay down in bed but could not get to sleep. I sat up and looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes past eleven. Next time I looked it was twenty six minutes past eleven and thirteen seconds.


Monday, December 12, 2005


Photo by Kevin Aurell

There was a phone call for me midmorning while I was at work. Someone from the Pertama Hospital wanted my permission to move Aldi to intensive care.

"Of course you have my permission," I said aggressively. "Shouldn’t he have been in intensive care all along?"

"We also need your permission to increase the dosage of Diazepam. That’s Valium."

"I’m not a doctor. I have no idea about these things. Ask the boy’s father. Aldi’s not my child." I must have sounded extremely bad tempered.

"We need your permission because you signed the form when the patient was admitted."

"I can’t make a decision. You’ll need to ask the father."

"We have to ask you."

"So what happens if you don’t increase the dosage?"

"The present dosage is not sedating the child enough."

"And if you increase the dosage? Are there any problems with that?"

"There is a risk of heart failure, which is why he should be in intensive care."

"He should be in intensive care, but I can’t possibly make a medical decision about dosages."

"The doctor always needs permission before taking any important step like this."

"Tell the doctor he must do what’s best for the patient. I give permission for that. If he wants to increase the dosage, that’s OK. And please consult the father." I imagined that Aldi’s father would know as little as I did.

I was becoming superstitious. I looked at my watch and it was thirteen minutes past twelve. Next time I looked, it was thirteen minutes past one, the thirteenth hour. This was stupid, I thought. Just a coincidence. What was the significance of the number thirteen? According to some numerologists, thirteen means the end of a cycle and new beginnings.


Sunday, December 11, 2005


After school finished I was driven straight to the hospital, nerves shivering. I looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes past the hour. I wondered how the family would react towards me if anything had gone wrong. I remembered again that it was me who had helped persuade Aldi to move to the new house.

We reached the gates at the front of the hospital. Wardi was standing there. He signaled to us to stop and approached the car.

"Aldi is dead. He’s left this world. It’s all right Mr Kent." Wardi was speaking calmly and with no anger in his voice.

My brain felt numb, as if someone had given it a violent blow. I went with Wardi to find a doctor and was shown into a room where a middle aged woman sat at a desk. She looked sober minded and sympathetic. Judging by the room’s comfortable furniture, she was a senior doctor.

"What happened?" I asked.

"The child had a serious case of tetanus. He had had the disease many days before he came to us. I don’t think he had been immunised."

"He had an injection from a doctor at a clinic when he got the red lump," I pointed out.

"Yes but there are two different kinds of injection, those you get before an injury and those you get after an injury. It is the first kind that is vital."

"Did Wati get the children immunised?" I said, turning to Wardi. "After I gave her the money a few weeks ago."

"She went to the clinic," said Wardi, "but they said they didn’t do vaccinations."

"It is very important," continued the doctor, speaking softly, "that they get immunisation before any accident."

"What treatment did Aldi get here at the hospital?" I asked.

"I was in charge of his treatment," she said. "We gave him penicillin and diazepam. The penicillin is for the bacteria, but it does not deal with the toxin already produced by the bacteria. The toxin causes the spasms. The diazepam is to try to relax the muscles. There is a danger with the diazepam that the heart may stop which is why he was moved to intensive care. Unfortunately his heart gave out."

"Was there a doctor in intensive care to help him?" I said.

I must have sounded too angry because Wardi took my arm and said, "It’s all right Mr Kent."

"We did what we could," said the doctor.

There were forms to be filled in at the hospital, and bills to be paid. When we eventually reached Min’s house, Aldi’s small body, covered by a cloth, was already lying in the middle of the living room floor. Relations and neighbours were seated on the floor in a circle around the corpse, and I thought that I should join them. A smiling neighbour came in and read some Moslem prayers. This neighbour did not seem to be at all upset by events but I found tears flooding from my eyes. I hoped that, Lazarus-like, the little body might get up, but it didn’t. Min looked confused, unsure of what was going on.

Wati beckoned to me to come upstairs. There she sat close beside me, pressed against me in fact, and prepared herself to speak.

"Mr Kent, we need money. We have to pay for the burial."

"I’ll pay. Don’t worry."

"We need to go to Lamaya for the burial. It’s the small town where we used to live. It’s a long way."

"Yes, I know. A journey of four hours."

She was naturally in a disturbed state of mind. At one point she picked up a photo of her dead son, ripped it into pieces and then flung the pieces onto the floor.

I wanted to get some fresh air and took Min outside to the communal bench half way along the street, next to where the mobile food carts usually park. It was already dark and insects danced in the light of kerosene lamps. Min became quite jolly, obviously unaware of the true nature of events. Two or three of Aldi’s former school friends came and sat down beside us. They showed no signs of sorrow or unhappiness.

"Mr Kent," said Wardi, who had come to join us, "we need your driver to take the family to Lamaya."

"It’s nearly midnight," I said.

"It’s the Moslem custom that the body must be buried quickly."

"I understand that, but my driver has to get home to his family. What other form of transport is there?"

"An ambulance will be very expensive."

"I know. But it’ll have to be an ambulance."

I returned to my home and lay on my bed. "It’s all right Mr Kent," was what Wardi had said. To some Moslems, it was a simple matter of God’s will; one had to accept these sometimes mysterious events. But how could a good and all powerful God allow such things to happen? I remembered that when Budi had died, I had wondered why angels had not intervened. Buddhist Rahayu, whom I had met during the Idul Fitri holiday, might have seen all this suffering as something inevitable for beings who had not yet reached enlightenment. There would be continual reincarnations until attachments and illusions were got rid of. He did not apparently believe in a God in the Moslem or Christian sense of the word. I remembered what Tom had said: "They die of tetanus every week in the kampungs." What worried me most was memories of Aldi’s painful spasms and the thought that they might not have occurred if I had done things differently. I tried to comfort myself by thinking that my actions, such as moving Min’s family to their new home in South Jakarta, had seemed right at the time. Eventually I drifted off to some kind of sleep.


Saturday, December 10, 2005


I needed a new house guard. Rachmat, my previous guard, had decided he did not want to move to the new neighbourhood, away from all his friends. My maid found me a skinny replacement, a youth called Irfan.

Various sounds would waken me in the night. It was amazing just how many of my Indonesian neighbours kept dogs that went to bed very late and cockerels that woke very early. Part of the noise problem was due to the thinness of the walls. I suspected that when my alarm clock went off, the old man across the road would leap rather suddenly out of bed. Of course the main reason I was ill at ease was Aldi’s death. I was nervous about going back to see Min.

Min’s family had not been sleeping well. There were new lines under their eyes.

"Mr Kent," said a dispirited sounding Wati, who was sitting in her front room with her youngest child on her lap, "how much do you pay Wisma Utara for Min’s schooling?"

"Quite a lot," I said, wondering what Wati was leading up to.

"I don’t think Min needs to go to school," she said, in an unusually outspoken way.

"How do you mean?"

"I don’t think Wisma Utara is doing him much good."

"You may be right," I said. "I’ll have a word with Joan. If I’m not paying fees to Wisma Utara, I can give you the money instead."

Wati’s face seemed to relax.

"How’s the vegetable stall?" I asked.

"It’s not good. There are too many other people selling vegetables."

I guessed that Wati might be in real need of a boost to her income.

"Before I forget," I said, "We must all go to my doctor to get you immunised. Would tonight be suitable?"

"Tomorrow," said Wati, sounding hesitant.

"She’s frightened of needles," said Gani, Min’s brother-in-law, who had been hovering at the door.

"It’s no problem. I’ve had lots of injections," I said.

"My children," said Gani. "Can they come too?"

"Yes, of course," I said. "So tomorrow it is."

Min and I walked up the road to see Joan at Wisma Utara. We were invited to have a seat on a rather stained sofa in the lounge.

"How’s Min getting on with his schooling?" I asked.

"Just fine, Mr Kent, just fine," said Joan.

At this point I was distracted by a pair of mournful eyes belonging to a skinny boy seated on the floor.

"Who’s that very thin child with his finger in his ear?" I asked.

"Dadang. Sweet looking boy," said Joan.

"He looks poorly," I said. "There are bubbles coming out his nose." In fact he didn’t look as if he was long for this world.

"He’s fine. Everyone’s fine," said Joan, sounding tired and depressed.

"Can we take him to the doctor?" I knew Joan liked to get out of the home for a change of air.

"Yes, if you like."

I sat down beside Dadang, took his damp hand and asked him how he was feeling. He looked at me with his big sad eyes but said nothing. It was like looking into the eyes of a baby seal separated from its mother. When he coughed, cupfuls of phlegm exploded from his mouth and nose.

Having returned Min to his house, I took Dadang and Joan to a nearby clinic that did x-rays.

"Can you check for TB?" I said to the doctor. I didn’t want to think of Min sitting in school alongside a child with a serious infection.

"We’ll do all the tests. You’ll know by tomorrow," said the doctor. "Dadang is underweight."

After returning Dadang and Joan to Wisma Utara, I walked down to the rubbish tip to visit Iwan, the boy with leprosy. He was not at home.

"Where’s Iwan?" I asked one of the locals, a teenage girl with eyes that were a mixture of the sulky and the sultry.

"At his kampung. He’s still in Karawang."

As I eckoned that Iwan’s medicine must have run out yet again, I asked the girl if she would fetch Iwan’s uncle. She walked, slim hips swinging, to a nearby hut and returned with the thin little man.

"Can you go to Karawang and persuade Iwan to return?" I asked the uncle, "He must get his pills."

"I’ll go now," he said eagerly, as I handed him more than enough money for the bus.


Friday, December 09, 2005


That evening I met Fergus for a drink. As usual he was wearing immaculately pressed shirt and trousers and dark glasses.

"It’s been a bad week," I said to Fergus as we sat in the Tavern, a bistro-style bar crowded with overweight expats, Indonesian secretaries having a night out, and commercial girls. "An Indonesian child I knew died of tetanus."

"Very high death rate among Indonesian children," said Fergus, looking surreptitiously in the direction of a table surrounded by Indonesian women. "It’s been happening throughout history."

"Makes me feel guilty," I said.

"Remember what Buddha said. You’ll never find a family that’s not known some sadness. People die. We’re all bound to feel guilty. It’s like in these Greek tragedies."

"I didn’t know you were into Greek tragedies." The last book I had seen Fergus reading was a Wilbur Smith.

"We were talking about this at school. In a Greek tragedy, people have to decide between two possible actions. But they always end up feeling guilty whatever decision they make."

"That seems to be the way it is," I said.

"Buddha and Jesus pointed out that suffering is inevitable in this world."

A tall Indonesian girl, wearing too much makeup, walked past our table. As she did so she smiled in the direction of Fergus, who gave a quick smile in return.

"How’s Min?" asked Fergus, as his eyes followed the girls legs towards the exit.

"Fine. But I don’t think he’s gaining much from his schooling."

"I suppose there isn’t too much you can do with a child who can barely speak?"

"Agreed, but the children and staff at Wisma Utara seem to sit around a lot, not doing very much."

"Lack of supervision," said Fergus. "It’s a problem in Indonesia. I just had some problems with a travel agency. Staff not too well trained. Lot of hassle getting tickets for Thailand. Anyway, what are your plans for summer?"

"I might explore parts of Java. Maybe a trip to Borobudur."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Wisma Utara

Next evening I was sitting with Joan in the lounge at Wisma Utara. Children of various shapes and sizes were seated on the floor watching the black and white TV. Some of the children looked less than normal. One or two were rocking back and forward. It was very humid and there was a smell of urine.

"You remember Santo?" said Joan, before I had a chance to ask about Dadang’s x-rays.

"Santo?" I said. I had a picture in my mind of a boy with wide apart eyes.

"He died," she said softly.

"Goodness. What of?"

"TB," said Joan.

"Was he getting treatment?"

"No, Mr Kent."

"Why not?" My voice was rising.

"His family is poor, Mr Kent." Joan, dressed as usual in cheap T-shirt, slacks and sandals, emphasised the word poor.

"But they’re rich enough to pay for him to stay at Wisma Utara. Anyway, I could have paid."

"Mr Kent is always very busy. He doesn’t come to see us often."

"But Santo must have been ill for years. Had he seen the doctor?"

"No, Mr Kent. We didn’t know he was ill."

"The doctor comes here once a week. Didn’t he examine Santo?"

"No, Mr Kent."

"I don’t understand," I said, my voice becoming high-pitched. "Santo had a family rich enough to put him into this place, but they didn’t check up to see if their child was ill. There’s a doctor comes here once a week but he didn’t check up to see if the child was ill. Nobody told me the child was ill."

To be fair, I had never noticed anything seriously amiss with Santo; so why should the doctor notice. Santo had always looked rotund and smiling. I wondered if it really was TB.

"Diah’s also ill," said Joan.

It seemed that Joan had suddenly decided to offload all of Wisma Utara’s unhappy secrets. Perhaps she thought that, as I had now taken an interest in undernourished Dadang, I might as well know about all the rest. Probably she felt better for telling the truth.

"Where is Diah?" I asked, remembering the pretty teenage girl and her happy smile.

"She’s gone home to stay with her family."

"What’s wrong?"

"A tumour on the brain."
"Can I help?" I asked. My brain was feeling dizzy as a result of all the bad news.

"No, Mr Kent. Her family are rich. They can pay for treatment."

"What about Madan? He looks very thin." I was looking at a boy with a morose but handsome face.

"His father’s a doctor at the Kota Hospital," said Joan.

"Heavens," I said, wondering why a doctor might dump his son in a home and then let him grow so thin. "What about a checkup for Madan?"

"His father knows you come here," said Joan. "He says Madan must not be taken to any doctor or clinic."

I decided not to pursue the matter. There was something in Joan’s tone of voice suggesting it could be dangerous to oppose the wishes of Madan’s father.

"Any results from Dadang’s x-ray?" I asked. I couldn’t see Dadang, who was normally seated in his corner with his finger in his ear.

"The doctor says it’s TB," said Joan. "We got the x-rays."

"Not good. Has he got medicine?"

"Dadang’s family have taken him home," explained Joan.

"Would they like me to help pay for the treatment?"

"No, Mr Kent. They’re rich."

"Do you think anyone else here has got TB?"

"Wira’s father has TB. Wira’s one of our staff."

"Is the father getting treatment?"

"No Mr Kent. Wira gets paid very little."

"OK. I’ll give Wira money if she gets me a hospital receipt each month. And Wira better have an x-ray too."

"Thanks Mr Kent."

"And where’s Gus who used to help look after Min?"

"He’s got cancer."

"You’re joking." I was beginning to wonder if there was anyone at Wisma Utara who was not sick.

"No," said Joan.

"Has he got x-rays or anything? Has he been to a hospital?"

"Not yet."

"Well how does he know he’s got cancer?"

"The doctor told him."

"Tell him to go to the hospital and get a proper check up."

It occurred to me that Fergus was right. Making decisions led to guilt. If I had left Min living in the North Jakarta slums, I would have felt guilty. But having moved him to the house near Wisma Utara, I now felt guilty. Wisma Utara seemed to be an institution lacking proper supervision, at least as far as health was concerned.

Leaving Wisma Utara, I walked down the narrow little lane leading to Min’s house. I found Min’s mum brushing her front doorstep with a homemade broom.

"Wati," I said, "I think Min should stop going to Wisma Utara. Tomorrow he should stay at home. I’ll give you the money I was going to pay them for the schooling."

"Right, Mr Kent," said Wati, looking supremely happy for a change. I got the feeling she didn’t have a totally high regard for the staff at Wisma Utara.

"Any ill effects from the injections?"

"No," said Wati, grinning widely, "but my arm was sore for a while."

"My doctor says your x-rays are all OK. No TB."


Wednesday, December 07, 2005


After my visit to Wati, I headed for the rubbish tip. Leper Iwan was back from visiting his mother in distant Karawang. As had happened on the previous occasion, he was distinctly unwell. He was looking more skeletal than a kampung chicken and parts of his feet were horribly mushy and infected.

We headed straight to the local clinic where the doctor declared that the boy must go to the leper hospital.

The following day, a Saturday, I took Iwan and his granny to the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi, where the leper hospital is located.

"He has to be admitted as an in-patient," said the muscular doctor in his green-walled surgery.

"He needs to have his wounds attended to every day, by a nurse. There’s a lot of puss. And he’s malnourished."

"It’s the best thing," I said to Iwan. "You’ve twice been off to your village without enough medicine. And you look as if you haven’t eaten for a month."

"What about my granny?" said Iwan, eyes watering. "The doctor says she can’t stay in the ward."

"I’ll give her money to stay in a local boarding house," I said, "and I’ll give her money for food." I knew the granny would probably be able to sneak into the hospital any time she wanted. There appeared to be no staff on duty in the latter part of the day.

"There are lots of other children in the ward," said the nurse. "You’ll have plenty of friends. OK?"

"OK," said Iwan.

We walked through the pleasant gardens and met some of Iwan’s fellow patients in a ward for young males. I was struck by the fact that the majority of these patients looked quite normal. Only one boy was limping as badly as Iwan and none was as undernourished. If only Iwan had looked after himself better.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005


At the end of the day, and after consuming the maid’s undercooked but re-heated chicken, I developed a headache. The maid called in young Irfan, the house guard, and suggested that he massage my feet. So I sat on the settee while he squeezed each toe in turn.

"Wahdoo! That’s too much," I protested. The pain in my toe was worse than the pain in my head.

"This will help your head," he explained.

I noticed Irfan’s dirty fingernails and I suspected that he didn’t wash his slightly tattered clothes or himself too frequently. He was quite a good-looking kid but he wore a worried expression.

"Irfan, where’s your family from?" I wanted to distract myself from my pain by thinking about something else.

"Central Java. My father died when I was very small My mother remarried after my dad died. I was left with my father’s first wife."

"Your stepmother? How did you get on?" I asked.

"I had to sleep in the mosque. My stepmother had no room in her house. It’s full of lodgers."

"Do you ever see your real mother?"

"Hardly ever. She lives in the middle of Java with her new children. It’s many hours by bus."

"And her new husband? What does he do?"

"He lives in Jakarta. He got a job here as a driver. He works for an Indonesian and gets paid very little."

I was beginning to feel really sorry for poor Irfan. "Have you been to school?" I asked.

"I reached Primary Three."

"What happened when you left school? What did you do all day?"

"I made money from guarding parked cars outside Hero’s supermarket. Mister, can I go back to school? It would only be in the mornings. I’d work the rest of the day." Irfan gave me his big-eyed, child-beggar look.

"Would you want extra money from me?"

"I haven’t enough money to pay for school. I have to give some of what I earn here to my sister. She’s unemployed."

"OK. Go and visit the school and see if they’ll take you. You may be too old now."

"Thanks mister."

"I think my head is a little better now," I said. My problems seemed slight compared to those of Irfan.

I few days later I spoke to Irfan while he was cutting the grass in the front garden.

"Irfan, how was school? What class have they put you in?"

"I’m in Primary Four," said Irfan. He was blushing.

Poor kid, I thought. He must be twice the size of all the other students. But at least he’s getting some kind of education.

The weeks and months went by; there was lots of tiring exam marking and report writing; Iwan made good progress in the hospital; Min stayed at home rather than going to his school; my bags were packed ready for a trip to Borobudur.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Fotograf: Michel Estermann

A Burmese lady called Nan introduced me to Central Java’s most famous monument: Borobudur. I had got talking to Nan, along with her jovial husband and pretty teenage daughter, in the bar of the Ambarrukmo Hotel in Yogyakarta, about twenty-five miles from Borobudur. Nan was in her mid-forties, had been educated in London, and now taught English at a school in Bandung; she dressed with a balance of the classical and the colourful; she had intelligent, almond shaped eyes and a permanent warm relaxed smile. Nan had offered to be my guide to what she called ‘Buddhism’s greatest work of art’. Nan would give me the tour of Borobudur, while her husband and daughter explored Yogyakarta’s markets.

"Borobudur looks quite mystical, doesn’t it?" said Nan, as we got out of my Mitsubishi, on that bright July morning. "I can never get enough of this place. You know that for hundreds of years it was covered up by jungle."

I looked up at the giant bell-shaped stupa at the top of the pyramid-shaped grey-brown mass of stone. The pyramid had been built on a low hill. Beyond the hill were rice fields and palm trees and beyond that steep-sided volcanoes, ten thousand feet high. The giant yellow sun floodlit part of the scene, emphasising the blackness of the shadows and the orange-blueness of the sky. Cockerels were crowing and there was an aroma of warm flowers. This was surely a place as wondrous as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Bagan in Burma.

"It looks impressive," I said. "How old is Borobudur?"

"Begun in the eighth century AD," said Nan. "It’s actually bigger than it looks. It’s the biggest Buddhist monument in the world. If you wanted to see all the carvings it would take you many hours."

"Buddhism must have been important here."

"Buddhism and Hinduism," said Nan. "This island was Hindu-Buddhist for over a thousand years. Hence Indonesia’s Garuda symbol; and the Indian word puasa for fasting; and the gentle, unselfish nature of some Indonesians."

"They can be very unselfish," I said. "I’ve often noticed poor children sharing their food and toys."

We climbed some steep steps and reached the foot of the monument. Above us were nine terraces, four of them having half-enclosed galleries with lots of stone carvings.

"It’s in good condition," I commented, "apart from the litter and graffiti near the car park."

"It’s been restored," said Nan. "It’s now on a bed of reinforced concrete."

"You’re going to be my guide. Tell me all about Buddhism."

"Ha. I’ll try my best," said Nan, as a party of cheerful girl guides squeezed past us. The guides were followed a few moments later by a group of lively boy scouts.

We reached the first of the four galleries stretching around the monument. "There’s a great variety of beliefs," said Nan. "The Buddha, about 2500 years ago, didn’t write his teachings down. The Buddhists who completed Borobudur have different views from the Burmese Buddhists. Here, at Borobudur, people believed in lots of supernatural beings who helped you reach Nirvana. That’s no problem so long as people don’t sit back and think these magical beings are going to do all the work."

"You believe in free will?" I asked.

"The advertising agencies think they can predict what we’re going to do. But scientists like Heisenberg tell us that life is not always predictable."

"Heisenberg?" I asked, while running my fingers over one of the stone figures. I noticed that the carvings included dancing girls.

"Heisenberg was the scientist who said that the path of the electron is unpredictable."

"I’m not too good on science," I confessed. "Do you think that electrons have got free will?"

"Anything’s possible," said Nan, with a chuckle. "What I do know is that everything we are is the result of our thoughts. What we are going to become is the result of what we are thinking now."

We had caught up with some of the scouts and guides. Two scouts, arm in arm, were studying a carving of a ship. As we passed them there was a whiff of clove cigarettes. As we passed two guides who were sketching an elephant, I thought I detected an aroma of marshmallow.

"There are people who think we’re like robots," I said to Nan.

"Just think," she said. "What would happen if people stopped believing in free will? If I stole your car, I could claim that I had had no choice in the matter. I was acting like a robot."

"So Hitler was not forced by his environment, by his heredity or by his ignorance to choose the bad path?"

"Hitler knew what he was doing," said Nan. "He had decided to follow his selfish ego. He was deliberately ignoring what was good for the world as a whole."

"So Hitler was evil?"

"Buddha might have said that Hitler’s actions were unwise, unwholesome and undesirable, rather than evil."

"Is it all relative?" I said, while noting a stone carving of a camel. "Think of a lion killing a lamb. To the lion it’s good. To the lamb it’s bad."

"Perhaps the lion has chosen the path that leads to it being a lion."

"The lion might be reincarnated as a vegetarian?"

Nan laughed. "And the lamb might be reincarnated as a lion."

"Is it all relative? Take the bombing of Hiroshima. To some Americans, it was good. To some innocent Japanese children who got killed, it was bad."

"Some Buddhists would say that good and evil are relative. But killing is wrong.," said Nan. "It’s a matter of self-knowledge or enlightenment. We have to learn that we have a selfish ego. We then have to take the path of suffering, to learn to get rid of the selfish ego. We have to struggle."

"Struggle?" I noticed some immensely fat American tourists struggling up the steep steps below.
"Some effort is usually required if you are going to follow the right path: becoming loving and kind to all, not being bad tempered, not saying hurtful things. But love will be spontaneous for the more enlightened." Nan looked sunny and relaxed as she gave her tutorial.

"Does Borobudur help?"

"It’s thought that pilgrims would come here to learn more about the path to Nirvana. Look at this panel." We stopped at a carving showing a rather unhappy looking man. "I think," said Nan, "it’s meant to show the laws of cause and effect. You desire something bad and you automatically suffer as a result."

As we moved along the galleries we could not see the rice fields or the trees outside, only the sky. "It’s a long walk," I said, noticing the sweat on my face. We had moved faster than the American tourists, but slower than the guides and boy scouts. We passed a middle-aged couple who were probably Chinese-Indonesian; they looked as if they were dressed for a luxury cruise.

"It can be a long journey to Nirvana, said Nan. "In this part of the world you might find a rich Chinese Buddhist who makes a lot of money. He uses doubtful methods to get money from a bank and then takes land away from some poor Moslems and builds a factory or hotel. If he thinks he can achieve salvation by giving money to some temple or orphanage, he could be wrong. He won’t reach Nirvana until he learns to conquer greed and starts loving his poor neighbours. Good works are useless without love."

"Saint Paul said something about that."

"Paul? ‘I may give away all my money, but if I have no love, I am no better off. Our understanding of things is only partial. It will pass away. But love will never come to an end.’"

"You know Saint Paul?"

"I went to a Christian school," explained Nan.

"Where are we now? What are these carvings?"

"This is about where man is reminded about the need for self-sacrifice, to help others. He also learns about the escape from continual reincarnation."

Finally we reached the highest realm of Borobudur, the area from which you can view the whole world around you, from the rice fields to the mountains and beyond. There were no more galleries. Instead there were dozens of Buddhas, each one sitting serenely inside his stupa. The topmost stupa was empty.

"This is where you learn about Nirvana," said Nan.

"What do Buddhists believe about God, Nirvana, heaven, reincarnation? It all seems a bit obscure."

"Nirvana," said Nan, "cannot be described. It’s beyond our understanding. We can say that in Nirvana there are no longer lots of individual beings; there is no yin and no yang."

"So," I said, "how do we achieve this Nirvana?"

"We have to make the effort to achieve self knowledge. We shouldn’t think that we are our physical bodies. We should realise that we are part of God. As Jesus would say, remove the plank from your own eye. Love everyone. Love unites the yin and yang."

"Could take a while," I commented. "Might take many reincarnations."

"Reincarnation," said Nan, "is like the flame passing from one candle to another. The flame is the person’s consciousness, and the person’s karma, the seeds of good and bad deeds."

"In Nirvana, there is no individual self?"

"I don’t have a self that will always be Nan. But Buddha did believe that things which are real cannot cease to exist. In other words Nirvana is something positive and good."


"The person, let’s say Nan, who has certain lusts, who gets angry sometimes, who likes certain music and certain books, that person doesn’t continue for ever, unchanged. That person doesn’t enter Nirvana until the anger and lust have gone. But whatever there is about me that’s real, that real part doesn’t cease to exist."

"Can you remember a past life?"

"I get a sense of deja vu, that’s all. Mozart composed music at the age of five. Pascal invented some geometrical system at the age of eleven. Could be knowledge gained in a previous life."

To our left, a slim young girl guide was pointing out Mount Merapi to her excited friends. Below the volcano was a luscious landscape of coconut groves and rice-terraced hills.

"What about God?" I asked.

"The early Buddhists didn’t seem to take an interest in the kind of god who pulled all the levers of power. They were more interested in Nirvana."

"They didn’t believe in the sort of old man who’d help his people conquer cities and wipe out women and children? The sort of old man in the sky who’d create typhoid? "

"No. The typhoid has a cause. It has developed out of something. Its karma has led it to become typhoid."

"Don’t you need a God, or some mysterious something, to make reincarnation work and to make sure people are rewarded and so on?"

"Buddhists have the Dharma or law of nature. It’s inside us. It’s the mysterious something. Buddha believed you couldn’t grasp it with the mind alone. Some people can call it God if they like. Buddha didn’t speculate."

"Talking of mysterious somethings," I said, "are we going to see the Hindu temples at Prambanan?"

"It’s next on the itinerary. Let’s go before we melt in this heat. There are drinks in the car."
At the car park I noticed one particularly battered old bus. The faces of happy boy scouts were pressed against its back window. When the bus started, huge clouds of black smoke were emitted from the exhaust.


Sunday, December 04, 2005


We motored to the Loro Jonggrang temple complex, a series of gloriously elaborate stone monuments rising up, lingam-like, to sharp points, just like the volcanoes in the far distance. The largest temple is dedicated to Shiva, the Destroyer, and is forty seven metres high. It has stone carvings which tell the story of the Ramayana: the story of how Prince Rama, accompanied by the monkey king Hanuman, attack an ogre king and rescue a lady called Sita.

"This is very roughly as old as Borobudur," said Nan, as we stood up close to the stonework.

"The Javanese of those times had an amazing culture. They must have been pretty prosperous. What do you think brought it to an end?"

"Maybe Mount Merapi erupted," said Nan.

"Their god did not protect them. What did these Hindus believe about God or gods?"

"Don’t think of these Hindus as primitive," said Nan. "Hindus have several gods but they are all aspects of the one God. The Hindu writers explain things in different ways at different times. God, or Brahman, is sometimes seen as being the impassive law, or word, that governs everything. Sometimes God is the being that the world is made out of, and to which people’s souls return. Sometimes God is seen as the hub and the rim of a wheel, while individual people are the spokes. Sometimes God is a God of love, namely Krishna."

"God is the Word?"

"Listen to John’s gospel," said Nan. "‘When everything began, the Word already existed.’ And this, when Jesus talks to God about his followers. ‘They may be one, just as you and I are one, I in them and you in me. They may be brought to perfect unity.’ I always think that sounds like Hindu-Buddhist thinking."

"You learnt that at school?" I asked.

"I learnt that part by heart. And this was said by Buddha: ‘In the beginning is the One and the One is the only thing that is. All things are One and have no life separate from the One. The One is everything and is not complete without the least of its parts. Yet the parts are parts within the whole, not merged in it."

"I sort-of understand that, but I still don’t see the entire picture. Where did we begin? How did we end up here?"

"Maybe we’ve always existed," said Nan, sitting down on a large stone. "Maybe we move up or down according to our actions. Good actions we move up. Bad actions we move down."

"We’ve done a lot of walking? How about a nice cup of tea?"

As we walked over well tended lawns towards the car park, I noticed a group of guides lying flat-out under some trees. Some scouts were disporting themselves on top of some ancient ruins.


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Do these things happen in Burma?

Back at the hotel, seated in a comfortable lounge, I shared some tea with Nan. We got onto the subject of life in Bandung, where Nan had her home.

"I imagine Bandung’s more peaceful than Jakarta," I said.

"Normally. Last week a church was burnt down."

"A church?" I said, startled. "It wasn’t in the papers."

"These things get hushed up," said Nan. "Government orders."

"Who’d want to burn it down?"

"Three groups. In Europe you get your hooligans; some of them might enjoy burning down a building and it’s the same here; young toughs with no decent family life or job or education. Next you have the Moslems who sell things in the street or traditional market; they feel threatened by the supermarkets, malls and fast food outlets; some of them want to attack the owners of the modern businesses who’re often Chinese Christians. Finally you have the fundamentalist Moslems; some of them see the Christians as part of a corrupt regime."

"My impression is that the overwhelming majority of Moslems are moderate, hospitable, peaceful people," I said.

"I agree," said Nan. "The people who’d burn down a church are a tiny minority. Like in Britain, hardly anyone would start a riot."

"But there are a few skinheads who cause trouble?"

"I’ve a friend in the police who was telling me they’re worried about extremists who might try to stir things up. First you burn a mosque, then a church, then a mosque. Soon the moderates get so angry, they become extremists. Like Yugoslavia. Who gains? The masterminds who end up in power. It could be an ambitious businessman or general or religious extremist."

"Do these things happen in Burma, or Myanmar?" I asked.

"Oh yes," said Nan. "Aung San, the country’s leader, was shot by gunmen hired by a right-wing politician. Soon there was warfare between the various ethnic groups and eventually a military dictatorship. When there’s a riot, there’s a suspicion it’s been planned by part of the elite so democracy can’t get a hold. So the army will stay in power. Not all of the Burmese are good Buddhists."

Friday, December 02, 2005


I received two young gap-year students from England. Paul and his girlfriend Helen had been exploring Sumatra and were about to make a trip to Bali. Paul was one of my former pupils from my days in London; I remembered him as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy: handsome and intelligent but also modest and polite. I remembered that he had sometimes worn a rather serious facial expression, perhaps the result of a troubled early childhood. Paul did not seem to have changed except in height. After his year of travel, he was planning to study politics and economics. Helen’s accent and grooming suggested that she was from a respectable upper-middle-class family; she had the quiet good manners of someone who had been to one of the better private schools. I was delighted to be able to take two such charming people on a tour of my city, a city of skyscrapers, shoeshine boys, canals and kampungs.

After breakfast we drove down to the heart of Old Jakarta to see the Stadhuis, the former City Hall built in 1710, a building as Dutch as a Vermeer painting. I explained to my guests that this place had once housed a famous prisoner, the Javanese Prince Diponegoro. Back in 1830, the prince had become a national hero after leading a war, on horseback, against the Dutch.

Having left the Stadhuis we took photos of an old Dutch drawbridge, a fish market and the Bugis sailing ships. Helen, who was going to be studying Geography at university, had done her homework; she was able to tell us that the Bugis, who come from Sulawesi, hand-build these wooden ships and use them to transport much of the cargo that travels from island to island within the Indonesian archipelago.

After lunch we took a look at the big concrete and marble Istiqlal Mosque, constructed in the 1960’s, and designed by a Christian architect. The vast rectangular prayer hall is covered by a central dome, forty five metres in diameter, supported by twelve round columns. Although it is a 1960’s concrete construction, the interior of the mosque has an atmosphere that is both classical and sublime. Paul and Helen were impressed.

Leaving the mosque we crossed the road to inspect the twin-spired Catholic Cathedral, built in 1901. To me it is like a Legoland copy of a European cathedral, being small and soulless, but Paul and Helen had no criticisms of it. After taking in Cikini Market , Merdeka Park and a few more monuments such as the little white-painted State Palace, we ended up having tea at the Grand Hyatt hotel.

"I hope you didn’t find my house too noisy last night," I said, as we munched the Grand Hyatt’s chocolate pastries and looked out over Jakarta through enormous glass windows.

"It was no problem," said Helen politely.

"There was just a little noise," said Paul, "but it wasn’t a problem."

"You heard the dogs?" I asked.

"There were some mad dogs barking," said Helen.

"And a very loud clunk," said Paul. "Someone banging a metal street pole with something hard."

"And a cockerel or two," said Helen.

"And the cry from the loudspeaker at the mosque," said Paul.

"There were some fire crackers," said Helen, who was finding it difficult to suppress a chuckle.

"Then a hollow tap-tap sound from someone selling food," said Paul, a grin beginning to appear on his face.

"We’re used to the noise," said Paul, who must have observed my worried look. "But the metal clunk was a puzzle."

"That was the night-time security patrol," I explained, noting with relief, that both Paul and Helen were now smiling broadly. "They’re letting you know they’re doing their rounds. How did you sleep?"

"The usual way, with my eyes closed, and my fingers in my ears," said Paul, eyes twinkling.

"I slept very well," said Helen.

"Me too," said Paul, "except when I was looking out the window wondering which of your books I could throw at the dogs."

"Was Sumatra quiet?" I asked.

"A little quieter," said Paul. "Incredibly friendly people. We got invited into houses and mosques."

"The secret is to dress appropriately," said Helen. "No bare legs or arms unless you want malaria and dengue fever, not to mention Japanese encephalitis."

"No hassles?" I asked.

"The bus drivers all seemed to be drunk or on drugs," said Paul, his worried expression returning to his face.

"Did you go to Aceh, the bit of Sumatra that wants independence?"

"We kept well away," said Helen. "The army seems to be very active there. We were mainly around Lake Toba."

"People kept on asking us what we thought of the army," said Paul.

"We were careful not to comment," said Helen.

"We asked them what they thought," said Paul. "Some of them hinted that they were scared of the army. One student said that the army used to be popular, but not any longer."

"What turned people against the military?" I asked.

"The soldiers have a reputation for raping and torturing people in Aceh," said Helen, putting down her dainty teacup. "The army turned the people against Jakarta."

"Don’t speak too loudly," I cautioned. "This hotel is owned by Indonesia’s most important person. Now, tell me, what did you think of Lake Toba?"

"It’s big," said Paul. "One hundred kilometres long. It was made by a volcano erupting masses of material from underneath itself. Then collapsing, leaving a big hole. That was 75,000 years ago."
"It must have been an unusually big volcano," I commented.

"It was a supervolcano," said Helen. "Some scientists think it wiped out masses of plants and animals throughout the world. They say that only a few thousand humans can have survived."

"It may have triggered the last Ice Age," explained Paul.

"Talking of Ice Ages," said Helen, "The air-conditioning in these hotels is quite fierce. Glad I brought a sweater."

Did you enjoy today’s walkabout in Old Batavia?" I queried.

"It was good," said Helen. "On the plane, I was reading about Jakarta’s Chinese population. It seems that in the eighteenth century about a third of the Jakartans were Chinese and often very rich from banking and business. The Dutch decided to push the Chinese out. There was big trouble and in one incident the Dutch killed about ten thousand Chinese. The Dutch Governor General ended up in jail."

"The Chinese are still not too popular," I commented.

"I don’t suppose the Dutch were too popular," said Paul. "The Dutch East India Company was often brutal and corrupt."

"And sometimes bankrupt," added Helen.

"Things have never been too well managed," I said, thinking of my local supermarket and bank.

"I was interested in seeing the little white Presidential Palace," said Paul. "I was trying to imagine great hordes of people shouting ‘Merdeka’ , freedom, back in 1945 or ’49 or whenever."

"1945 was when the Japanese were defeated," I said, pleased I could remember a date.

"Sukarno declared independence, the British arrived and the Dutch tried to get their colony back. I remember reading about some senior British officer who got hacked to death by the locals in East Java. The British were blamed for letting the Dutch come back. The Dutch didn’t give up until 1949, when Sukarno became President."

"It seems Sukarno was popular," said Paul.

"His family’s still popular among the masses," I said.

"But in 1949 he had enormous problems," said Helen. "The fighting had left the economy in a mess."

"Then there were all the different factions, just like now," I said.

"Communists and Moslems," said Paul.

"Traditional Moslems, orthodox Moslems, extremist Moslems, secular Moslems, Chinese Christians, indigenous Christians, communists, socialists, capitalists, fascists, people in parts of Sumatra, Sulawesi and New Guinea who wanted to break away from Indonesia, and then the army with all its different factions." I had probably left out some vital groups.

"Didn’t Sukarno abolish political parties?" said Paul. "And eventually put some of the politicians in jail; not very democratic."

"He tried to be all things to all people but was eventually accused of being too friendly with the communists. Not a good idea in a Moslem nation believing in God."

"The Americans and British are supposed to have sent help to the rebels in Sumatra and Sulawesi," said Helen, impressing me again with her knowledge. "They were trying to undermine the Indonesian economy and topple Sukarno. Not very democratic trying to topple an elected leader by supporting terrorists and causing starvation."

"Sukarno had upset many people in the West," I said. "He grabbed the western part of Papua New Guinea from the Dutch. And he wanted to grab Sabah and Sarawak from Britain."

"Where are Sabah and Sarawak?" asked Helen.

"Same island as Borneo," I said, pleased I knew something Helen did not. "He wanted to stop the future Malaysia getting Sabah and Sarawak. So he attacked the British, unsuccessfully. He’d left the UN and become close friends with China by this time. People were starving."

"Hence the coup of 1965," said Paul, "and the takeover by Suharto. Was it a communist coup that failed, or a coup by part of the army and the CIA that succeeded, or both?"

"Don’t forget MI6," I whispered, aware that the waitress was listening.

"Up to a million people rounded up and murdered," said Paul, as he jabbed his fork into a piece of cake. "The army’s supposed to have been given a hit list by the Americans and the murders were well organised."

"Others disagree," I said, for the benefit of the waitress.

"It’s like the 1991 shootings in Dili," said Helen. "The army says it was not planned in advance. That they hadn’t dug trenches ready for the all the bodies about to be killed."

"So after 1965," I said, getting off the subject of East Timor, "Indonesia’s economy began to recover and it joined the UN."

"The army pulled all the strings," said Paul. "And American and British companies moved in to get the oil and the cheap labour."

"The army’s helped build a lot of infrastructure," I said. "And it’s helped keep the peace in most of Indonesia."

"Time for more sightseeing?" asked Helen, when the last crumbs had been scraped from our plates. "Someone recommended Sarinah Department Store."

We drove to Blok M, and while Paul and I strolled through the markets, Helen did some serious shopping on her own. We ended our pleasant day with some beers and satay in a little restaurant in the backpacker area of Jalan Jaksa. Next morning, before heading for the airport, Paul and Helen thoughtfully presented generous gifts to me, my maid and my driver.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Irfan; John

Irfan, my young house guard, was sitting in the garden having a smoke.

"Have you paid the school for last month’s tuition?" I inquired.

"Not yet." He was looking down at the grass.

"Are you still going to school?" I said, trying to sound sympathetic.

"I haven’t been recently. I’ve had a cold."

Ah well, I suppose it must be difficult for a teenager to sit in a class alongside little children. Irfan did not return to school.

It was September 1993. Another new academic year had arrived and I was thinking how good it was to be in Indonesia, with its sunshine and smiling faces. And what of all the waifs and strays? Min was in good health and I continued to see him regularly; Bangbang, the boy who liked to poke people in the stomach, was at home with his family, except on those occasions when he ran away; sad-faced Agosto in Bogor was as thin as ever; Iwan was in the leprosy hospital; John was probably not too well. It was ages since I had seen John, the less than good-looking, very mentally backward boy who had been losing weight last time I had seen him.

I made an evening visit to the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor and found John curled up on a bed like a dying animal, naked, almost fleshless, eyes strangely milky.

"Is John getting medicine?" I asked the young male nurse, who had been watching a music programme on the TV in the office next the dormitory.

"Yes," he said smiling in an amiable way.

"May I have a look at the medicine?"

"I think maybe it’s finished," he said, looking vaguely in the direction of an empty shelf.

"Do John’s parents know he’s like this?"

"He’s got a widowed mother. A Christian. I don’t know when she was last here."

"Would you like some cigarettes?" I said, trying to apply some charm. "I’ll get some from the shop."

"Thank you, mister."

"Can you get me the address of John’s family? The office couldn’t give it to me last time."

"I’ll write it down for you," said the nurse, grinning.


Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Teluk Gong Hospital

Photo of Jakarta skyscrapers by Kevin Aurell from Indonesian Wikipedia Category:Jakarta

Next day, my driver found John’s mother. She was occupying a room in a relatively large wooden house owned by her brother. This house was in a poor part of Teluk Gong, surprisingly near to Min’s old home. My driver explained to John’s mum that John was seriously ill and that I was prepared to pay for his treatment at a decent hospital in Jakarta.

On the Saturday morning, John’s mother, sister and an uncle met me at the main office of Bogor’s Babakan mental hospital. The uncle was a stern-faced captain in the army and the owner of an enormous Toyota. John’s sister was an attractive teenager wearing cord jeans. John’s mother was a relaxed-looking women wearing shoes, rather than sandals, and a cheap white dress.

"We’ve done all we can," said the full-faced doctor, "but the patient has not responded to the treatment."

"I can see that," I said. I wanted to ask the doctor how many times he had visited John and what treatment had been given, but then I thought that this was not the time to be getting people upset.

"We need a document signed if he’s to be transferred to another hospital," said the impassive doctor. "When he leaves here he ceases to be our responsibility. If anything happens to him, it becomes your responsibility."

John’s mother signed. I insisted that John be transported in the Uncle’s vehicle, as I was scared the boy might die and I didn’t want that happening in my Mitsubishi. John’s fragile body, with its bones sticking out, was eased into the back of the Toyota, which was then driven at speed all the way to the Teluk Gong Hospital in North Jakarta.

It occurred to me that the hospital might refuse to take John if they discovered he was mentally backward. But John was too weak to give any indications of his mental ability, and no-one was going to make an issue of it.

John was admitted to a gloomy third class ward, where a tough looking, female nurse tried unsuccessfully to fit a drip to John’s arm. John wailed, the nurse became cross, and the sharp looking attachment repeatedly failed to get lodged in the right place. I became concerned at the nurse’s roughness and apparent lack of skill.

We moved John to a brighter, cleaner, first class ward and the drip was successfully attached.

"During the car journey," said John’s mum, who had seated herself on a chair next to John’s bed, "we thought John was going to die. At one point he had one of his epileptic fits."

"Where’s John going to stay when he gets better?" I asked, determined to think about the future rather than the depressing past. "I don’t think he should go back to the mental hospital. He’s not dangerous is he?"

"Not dangerous. No," said mum.

"Just backward," I said.

"The problem is he can’t stay at my brother’s house," said mum. "They don’t want him there. That’s where I’ve been staying with my daughter."

"Could you rent a small house?" I asked.

"Yes, but I make very little money."

"What would the rent be?"

"Fifteen thousand a week," she said, smiling and blushing. "That’s about seven dollars."

"Well I’ll help with the rent," I said, "if you find somewhere suitable."


Tuesday, November 29, 2005


One Saturday morning in September I made a journey to the countryside around Ciomas, not so very far from Bogor. This was Java at its best.

The morning sky was deepest blue and all the poppy-coloured roofs and all the flame-green paddies seemed to sing and dance with light.
I passed a leafy playground where, accompanied by jolly dangdut music, dusky cherubs in white school uniforms were performing sensuous aerobics.
I headed along tree-flanked tracks, past diminutive shacks and mosques, and up through airless woodland until I reached a river in a deep-bottomed gorge. There was a musky aroma of warm and fleshy jungle and I could hear splashes and shouts. Young Tarzans, in their birthday suits, were swinging from dangly vines and leaping from enormous heights into deep, earth-brown water.
I continued up steep tree-covered slopes until suddenly I sighted the volcano, Mount Salak, and beneath it a lovely lake.

Deciding that it was picnic time, I sat myself down on a tree root of enormous size. It was good to put down my pack and start the laying out of lunch. It was a typical day near the equator, in terms of heat. But I had the shady trees, the flask of Muscadet, the ham and mustard sandwiches, the melting brie, the hot anchovy-stuffed olives and two of the finest almond croissants you can ever imagine.

As I began munching a sandwich I became aware that I had company. A small girl and a small boy had come to stare at me. They looked about eleven years old and had pleasant elfin faces. I decided to offer them one half of an almond croissant each. These offerings were eaten slowly and with relish. Not a single crumb was wasted.

As I polished off the olives and the brie I noticed that four more children had come to have a look.

"I can’t offer you a sandwich," I said to the group. "They’re ham sandwiches."

The children smiled politely. I looked at the yet uneaten almond croissant and decided that I would get considerable pleasure from offering it to the four hungry-looking newcomers, more pleasure than I would get from eating the thing on my own. Picnics are more fun when you have company.

I handed the croissant to the largest boy in the group and he carefully broke it into four small pieces. The result was four happy smiling faces.

When the food was finished, I took a stroll around the lake, followed at a discreet distance by the children. I was thinking to myself that this was better than Bali.


Monday, November 28, 2005


That evening I went shopping at Kem Chicks supermarket, a red-roofed building that looks like a large private house. While walking the aisles, I bumped into Carmen and we decided to have a coffee and a chat in the little upstairs restaurant.

"How was your weekend holiday?" I asked, once we had settled ourselves down at a table.

"In Bali you never need to be short of company," said Carmen, with the sort of loud chuckle that makes heads turn.

"What sort?" I asked, as I began applying my fork to the first of two large almond croissants.

"I remember two teenagers in particular: Andi and Andri: earrings and cool shades and skinny bodies. They were sitting outside an American fast-food restaurant. Andri was sitting on Andi’s lap and the two of them were being quite affectionate to each other. They’re like that in this country. Even the police. Andri and Andi insisted that they should act as my guides in Kuta."

"You couldn’t get rid of them?"

"I told them that I was a local and didn’t need a guide. I asked them if they were Balinese and really knew Bali. They admitted that they were migrants from Java. I asked them if there were any problems between the Balinese and all the Javanese who’ve come into the island. They admitted that there were problems. They said that the immigrants got blamed for spreading AIDS, selling drugs, selling sex and extorting money. I asked them if they were going to try to extract money from me. They gave me friendly smiles and I wandered off unmolested."

"Has Indonesia got much of a problem with AIDS?" I asked.

"An expatriate nurse once told me that in the naughty parts of Surabaya, and other such places, it could be the same high rate as in Bangkok’s Patpong."

"I don’t suppose the Balinese can do much to get rid of the incomers."

"They’ve tried to fight against the drug trade and so on, but the criminal gangs are protected by the security forces."

"The army is important in Bali?"

"In lots of ways. Around 80,000 Balinese were murdered by the army people, back around 1965, when the Americans put Suharto into power. Now a lot of the tourist industry seems to be owned by army generals and the Suharto clan. Also, Bali is the base for the Udayana Army Command."

"Udayana Army Command?"

"These are the army people that control East Timor."

"And did you enjoy Bali?"

"It got me away from all the useless meetings and paperwork at school. Was I happy in Bali? I was happy when I could see the temples, the mountains and the sea. I wasn’t happy with the queues at the airport. I think, to be happy, you have to learn not to cry over spilt coconut milk. When the Garuda flight’s delayed, you just have to adjust. You just have to say to yourself that it’s not the end of the world. In fact the delay can be seen as a bonus, because it teaches you patience."

"And if there are mosquitoes in the sandwiches, it won’t spoil the picnic."

"That’s it," said Carmen. "Live for the moment."

"Are you good at doing that?"

"Not in the slightest. To be happy you have to be able to move on, otherwise you get bored. I’m not always good at moving on."

"Moving on?"

"Forgetting about yesterday’s problems with maids and traffic and moving on to today’s adventure."

"I have problems with maids and traffic and lazy students."

"I thought you were the charitable type." Carmen gave me a look which suggested just a hint of doubt.

"There’s often an opposite side to people," I said.

"Ah! So what’s your opposite side?" Carmen’s eyes had developed a wicked twinkle.

"There is nobody more irritable than me in a queue in a Hero supermarket," I confessed. "And when I don’t get the right change there is no one more quick to take it personally. I’m always complaining to restaurant managers about cold soup and poor service."

"We shouldn’t take things so seriously?"

"A friend at university once said I shouldn’t look down my nose at people. Then a numerologist warned me against false pride."

"You didn’t hit them?"

"I didn’t believe them, especially about the false pride," I said. "I didn’t believe them until that child called Budi died. Then I thought, well, I should have visited Budi more often. I’ve got nothing to feel proud about."

"I sometimes go from one extreme to the other," admitted Carmen. "One moment I think everything’s going wonderfully and next moment I think I’m a complete failure. We need a balanced position. We’re not as good as we think. But we’re not as bad as we think."

"Do you have a negative side?" I asked.

"I’m bad when it comes to patience. I think all my traveling’s got something to do with impatience. The traveling is an escape."

"An escape from what?"

"An escape from making the necessary adjustments. The Balinese make a big thing about making adjustments and keeping life in balance. When a boy reaches the age of puberty, there’s a ceremony in which he has his upper canine teeth filed down. This is all about him getting rid of his less desirable characteristics, and becoming more balanced in his behaviour."

"Bali is the biggest Hindu place after India."

"Bali’s religion is a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism," said Carmen.

"A balanced approach."

"When you look at the depressed and drunken British and Australian tourists in Bali, you think that the Balinese have a superior way of life. But I’m not sure that the Balinese religion is necessarily perfect. Bali still has a little bit of the caste system. And I’m not sure, if I was Balinese, that I could cope with all these priests and endless rituals. I wouldn’t want to see a cock being killed during a cock fight and then the blood being used in some purifying ceremony. That seems too primitive. On the other hand, I love the beating of the gongs and bits of bamboo when they’re driving out evil spirits. And I like the Balinese idea of communicating with your dead relatives."

"On balance, you’d rather be Balinese than British."

"Oh definitely Balinese," said Carmen.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

John and Martha

On the Monday afternoon I made another visit to Jakarta’s Teluk Gong Hospital. John was alive and well and looking positively chubby. His mother, wearing sandals and a simple white dress, was smiling happily.

"He can go home now," said the doctor whose expensive suit suggested high status and middle-aged spread.

"What was wrong with John?" I asked.

"Simply dysentery," said the beaming doctor. "Sometimes it goes undetected because there are no obvious symptoms. We did a series of stool tests. It was easy to clear up. Then we gave John a good diet. His mother must be careful in future with hygiene because John is very retarded and gets his hands dirty."

"He had marks all over his skin," said John’s mother. "Looked like cigarette burns."

"Well I hope he doesn’t go back to the mental hospital in Babakan," I said. "Have you found a place to stay?"

"Yes, in Teluk Gong. Want to have a look?"

"Yes please."

I accompanied John and his mum to their new home. The furniture had already arrived. The house was like a large garage divided into three rooms, but, with its white painted walls, fridge, TV, beds and settee, it looked bright and homely. I handed over the money for the rent. I had some niggling doubts about whether or not John would survive into a comfortable old age. But for the moment everything seemed fine.

"Where did the furniture come from?" I asked.

"Relations," said mum. She was seated on the settee and a smiling John had his arms around her.

John’s sister arrived, again dressed in cord jeans. She had the pale skin and curvaceous lips that I associated with some Sumatrans.

"Hi. I’m Martha," she said. "Thank you for helping John."

"You’ll have new neighbours now," I said to Martha. "Do you think they’ll be friendly?"

"We’ve got three lots of relations in the neighbourhood," said Martha. "We’re not far from our church and my school."

"Christian school?" I asked.


"Has it got any Moslem students?" I asked.

"Most of them are Moslem," said Martha, suddenly cold-eyed and unsmiling. "The rich Moslems want their children to go to Christian schools."

"Have you got a Moslem boyfriend?"

"I don’t like Indonesian boys," said Martha, making a sour face.

"None of them?"

"None. I’ve got a pen friend." She took a photo from a pocket in her tight blouse and handed it to me.

"Where’s he from?" I said, as I studied the picture of a handsome Semitic-looking youth in his twenties.

"The Middle East. He’s Jewish."

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Back to Teluk Gong?

When I visited Min, next afternoon, he was having one of his hyper days. His eyes sparkled, he was grinning from ear to ear, and his body was charged with jerky energy.

"How’s Min?" I asked Wati, who was preparing vegetables on her living-room floor.

"Fine." As she spoke, Min poked little sister Imah in the stomach. Imah looked puzzled.

"Min’s not getting any medicine these days, is he?" I said.

"He’s not, and he can still be naughty," said Wati, looking cross.

"How’s the vegetable stall?"

"Not good. We have to give money to this person and that." Wati avoided looking at me.

"Who gets money?"

"Municipal security officials, and others."

"Is this legal?"

"No. They just want money."

"Is it like that where you used to live, in Teluk Gong?"

"Not the same. In Teluk Gong we have lots of family."

"How many?"

"Lots. Uncles, nephews, cousins, grandparents."

"So people won’t take money off you."

"Some of the people around here are bad."

"How do you mean?"
"Some of them drink too much. Some of them don’t like Min."
I was beginning to get the message, and it was confirming some of the thoughts that had been floating around in my mind for some time. Wati and family wanted to return to North Jakarta.

"Do you want to go back to Teluk Gong?" I asked.

She didn’t want to offend me by replying in the affirmative. She simply carried on putting vegetables into little plastic bags.

"It’s difficult to get work here," said Gani, from the kitchen.

"If you go back to Teluk Gong," I said, "you’d need to find a house that’s better than your old one on stilts. You want a place with a proper toilet and kitchen. Are there houses like that in Teluk Gong?"

"Yes, Mr Kent," said Wati, suddenly looking happier. "Lots."

"Do you want to start looking for a house in Teluk Gong?" I asked.

"It’s up to you, Mr Kent," said Wati. I interpreted this as a ‘yes.’

"Would you sell this house here in Cipete, to get the money to buy one in Teluk Gong?" I asked.

"It’s up to you, Mr Kent," said Wati. I interpreted this as a ‘no.’

"If you didn’t sell this house, what would you do with it? Rent it out?"

"I don’t know," said Wati. It occurred to me that she had a big family and she’d be reluctant to see a house being sold.

"OK," I said. "You find a house in Teluk Gong and I’ll come and have a look at it."

Friday, November 25, 2005


One grey Friday afternoon in mid October, Min’s family invited me to the new house they had found for themselves in Teluk Gong in North Jakarta. It was not as primitive as their original Teluk Gong house, the one built on stilts, but it was in the same slum area which was largely devoid of trees and flowers. The front door looked onto a narrow, potholed, flooded street, along which travelled everything from diesel spewing trucks to trash consuming goats. To the right of the house was a yard storing battered oil drums. Across the street was a shack outside which bits of cars were being hammered and banged by mechanics.

I was greeted by Min and family at their front door.

"Nice, isn’t it?" said Wardi, as he showed me into the low-ceilinged front room, which was lit by one dim light bulb and one small window. The house was built of brick, had a toilet and a well, and upstairs there was a bedroom area.

"Yes," I said, thinking that these things are relative. I had visited the house previously but now it was looking more lived-in, as the family’s furniture had arrived. "Can you drink the water?" I asked.

"It’s too salty," said Min’s big brother, as we briefly inspected the windowless kitchen area.

"We’re near the sea. But we can use the well water for washing."

"For drinking, you buy water and boil it?" I asked.

"That’s right. And we’re near our relations." Wardi was referring to the family members who still lived in the houses on stilts near the bottom end of the street.

"Min’s dad has got a job as a coolie," said a relaxed looked Wati, as we returned to the front room, "and Wardi can work with the fishing boats."

"Sounds ideal," I said. The house was as good as could be got for the price I had been prepared to pay. Wati had earlier insisted on looking at a brand new house on a nearby middle class estate but I had had to tell her that, at over ten thousand pounds sterling, it was much too expensive.

"The former owners of this place have given us the documents," said Wardi. "The house is in Min’s father’s name."

"Same as before," I said. "You’re a three house family. The house on stilts, the one in Cipete and now this one."

"Yes," said Wardi, who was looking at the concrete floor.

"Are you going to rent out the house in Cipete?" I asked, "or can Iwan, the leper kid, move in, when he comes out of hospital?"

"It’s up to you Mr Kent."

"It’s not my house. You decide," I said.

"Iwan can live there, if Mr Kent wants that," said Wati.

"OK," I said. "Iwan can move in. Min must be missing Iwan. He’s his only friend." I was always worried at Min’s lack of friends. Who but a leper child would want to befriend a mentally backward boy?

"Min’s got lots of relations here," said Wati.

I supposed he had, but would any of them take him for a walk through the kampung? I had noticed that it was mostly Gani, Min’s brother-in-law, who was delegated to come with me on walks with Min. "Shall we take Min for a walk now?" I asked.

I was pleased that on this occasion it was older brother Wardi who came with us on our saunter down the street to the area where wooden shacks and toxic mud predominated. Min, who was in a sober mood, took Wardi’s hand. We took a side lane and eventually reached the wooden home of the little twins with TB, Sani and Indra. They were still match stick children but their mum was able to show us a half empty plastic medicine container, to prove they were receiving their pills.

We continued our travels along wooden gangways and bumped into the little boy called Joko, the one with the wrinkled skin who lived with his mother in what looked like a flooded dog kennel. Joko looked worn out, like a decrepit old soldier.

"Joko’s mother died," whispered Wardi. "He’s staying with friends."

My stomach tightened. "Hello," I said to the little soul.

"Hello," he whispered.

"Where are you living?"

He pointed across the black waters of the canal to where some scavengers had built their wood and cardboard shelters.

"The authorities want to knock these shelters down," said Wardi.

"Why?" I asked.

"Maybe to widen the canal. You know they’re planning to build thousands of luxury houses around here. They might knock down our old house. The one on stilts."

It occurred to me that almost everywhere you looked in the world there was a feudal society, with the corrupt elite backed by military might; and the military might was usually backed by the Americans and the British.

As I handed Joko a small sum of money, he gave me an almost tearful smile.


Thursday, November 24, 2005


Photo from:

I made a Saturday morning visit to the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor. It had been praying on my conscience that, while dealing with John’s problems, I had been neglecting Daud and the other children still in the hospital. Last time I had been to Babakan, John’s friend Daud had been looking poorly. I wondered if Daud had the same diarrhoea infection that John had had.

"How’s Daud?" I asked Diana, the nurse on duty in the office within the children’s ward. She was the one who had told me she was a regular church attender.

"He’s OK. How’s John?" she said, with a look that puzzled me. Was it sympathy or sourness?

"John is cured, has put on weight, and is safely at home," I announced, triumphantly. "Can I see Daud?"

"He’s round the back," she said. She was watching TV and apparently trusted me to explore the place on my own.

In the back yard I found Daud was tied to a metal bed and he had lost a lot of weight. His eyes looked misty. His naked body was lying in a pool of diarrhoea.

"What do Daud’s parents do?" I asked Diana when I returned to the office. I had decided to avoid conflict, and be practical.

"Mother’s a nurse at the children’s clinic at the Laja Hospital," said Diana. "Father works for the government."

I wondered how a nurse could let her son get into the state that Daud was in and decided to take a trip to Bogor’s Laja Hospital to find out.

The Laja Hospital was an old government hospital, a smaller version of Jakarta’s Dipo. After making a few enquiries, I found Daud’s mother in a grubby room where she was sorting out patients’ files, prior to ending her shift. She was small, had greying hair and had the sort of serious, caring face you would expect of a good nurse. I introduced myself and explained why I was there.

"I haven’t seen Daud for some time," she admitted. "I’m grateful you’ve come."

"Has he always been backward?" I asked.

"He was normal until the age of nine. A good student at school. Then he got a fever and his brain got damaged. Meningitis. We had to put him in the Babakan Hospital because both my husband and I go out to work."

"How much do you get paid at the Laja Hospital?" I asked.

"About eighty thousand rupiahs a month. That’s about forty US dollars a month. My husband doesn’t get much more."

"If I paid you that amount, would you look after Daud at home?" I asked.

"Perhaps I could find a relative to look after him while I’m at work. We’ve been thinking about bringing him home some day. My husband’s building a room upstairs where Daud could live. Do you want to see it?"

Daud’s mum and I motored to the nearby government housing estate where Daud’s family lived. It was a place of pleasant villas, large and small, with gardens of bougainvillea and hibiscus. The largest houses were luxurious six bedroom affairs occupied by people like judges. Daud’s home was of a more modest three bedrooms. I noted it had a large TV, a music centre, two posh bicycles, a smart settee, photos of a girl still at school and a boy at university, and a big framed photo of the cute little eight-year-old schoolboy who was now in the mental hospital. Upstairs there was indeed a sunny room that had been prepared for Daud. Daud’s mum and dad were evidently doing quite well in their government jobs. I assumed there were all sorts of perks and that that was why mum did not want to give up her work as a nurse.

"I think you should take him out of the Babakan Hospital as soon as possible," I said. "When can you see him?"

"My husband will take me there this evening."

"What does your husband do for a living?"

"He works in the prison service," she said.