Friday, September 30, 2005
I drove up to the glass and concrete shopping mall and stepped out of my air-conditioned Mitsubishi. The rains were bucketing down and it was wonderfully steamy and hot.
Three barefoot and bare-chested umbrella boys came charging through the puddles in my direction. All three arrived in front of me at the same time. How was I to choose which one to escort me the short distance to the front entrance to the mall? I picked the skinniest one as he seemed most in need of the few rupiahs I would pay him. And he had a cute face.
Once inside the air-conditioned building I began to feel distinctly cold. This seemed appropriate as a Christmas tree had been set up in the middle of the main hallway and Christmas carols were being broadcast from loudspeakers.
The shops were crowded with rich but unhappy-looking Chinese Indonesians buying everything from Italian designer clothes to Japanese computer games. Most of the money, in this, the largest Moslem country in the world, seemed to be circulating within the capital city, among the small elite.
Having bought some Christmas cards and some Scottish shortbread, I returned to my vehicle and drove to North Jakarta in order to see Min.
As there were floods in Min’s part of Teluk Gong, I had to find an ojek motorcycle to taxi me through the slums to Min’s house.
Min was in good humour but it was too wet to take him for a walk.
"When can we visit Iwan?" asked Min’s mum, who was busy patching up some well-worn items of clothing.
Iwan was the boy who had had leprosy and who was now living with his granny in Min’s former house in South Jakarta. The house was still owned by Min’s family, even though they had moved to Teluk Gong.
"We can go now," I said. I was guiltily aware that I had not seen poor Iwan for many, many months, although my driver had continued to visit him monthly, to deliver a little of my money.
It was over an hour and a half before we reached Cipete, such was the volume of traffic. There were just too many five-car families.
Iwan was at home with his granny and limping like a ragged puppet whose strings had got twisted. Min and Iwan were pleased to see each other, both grinning shyly.
I was not pleased to see that the walls of the front room had become grubby with finger marks and that on the kitchen floor there were dirty cloths, plates of abandoned food and broken pots. In the upstairs bedroom there was some pencilled graffiti on the walls and the curtains had been broken.
"You’re not keeping this place tidy," I complained to Iwan. "Look at the curtain rail."
"We haven’t got much money," said Iwan, looking at me with big dark eyes. "The kitchen pump needs repairing."
"But there’s no need for the graffiti," I said. I was perhaps forgetting that I had seen childish scribbles on the walls of many a front room in the poorer kampungs.
"It’s my friends from the rubbish tip," said Iwan.
"You must stop them," I insisted. "Remember this is Min’s house."
"Sorry, Mr Kent," said Iwan, looking down at the floor. Granny smiled an embarrassed smile.
"I’ll give you money for the pump. Can you find someone to paint the walls and sort the roof?"
"How much will it cost? Is one hundred thousand rupiahs enough?"
"Not enough, Mr Kent. Maybe three hundred thousand."
"OK. But make sure you get receipts." It was likely that Iwan would get some uncle or cousin to do the work, at an inflated price.
I had intended to be kind to poor limping Iwan, but the neglect of the house had brought out my grumpy side.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
January 1996 brought the worst floods for twenty years. My home suffered only from a slightly leaking kitchen roof, but houses beside some of Jakarta’s rivers were flooded above roof height, forcing their occupants to flee to higher ground. I escaped from Jakarta by taking a holiday trip to a hotel at Carita Beach, near the tiny port of Anyer, on Java’s west coast.
The route to Anyer is the same as that to Merak, except that you turn south rather than north, as you approach the sea. Although the coast at Anyer is not as dramatic as that at Pelabuhan Ratu, it has the sort of sultry charm that you might expect to find on an Indian Ocean shore. As always, I hoped that there would be no ten meter high tsunami, as there had been back in 1883, when nearby Krakatau had erupted. That tidal wave had left many hundreds of dead bodies floating in the bay; many stories, or carita, had been told about these departed ones.
The hotel was supposed to be of international standard but could have done with some refurbishment; the air conditioner seemed full of dust. On the other hand, by the time I had unpacked, the rains had stopped and the sun was shining.
Beside the hotel’s sparkling little swimming pool, I spied a long-legged Caucasian girl in sleeveless T-shirt, white ankle socks, and short culottes. Her pantat moved alertly, as Nabokov would have said. I thought of the words of the numerologist, about things of the flesh, and decided to chat to the much older woman over at the pool-side bar. Her name turned out to be Disa. She was a small, cheery Australian, in her early fifties, and she reminded me of one of these salt-of-the-earth mothers you get in Australian soap operas. Disa was a keen amateur historian, had formerly had a job as a librarian and was a regular church attender. Her husband, who normally worked hard in some office in Jakarta, was busy on the golf course.
"Always nice smiling people, the locals," I said, after the friendly barman had delivered my Singapore Sling.
"Smiling but not necessarily always nice," said Disa, in a gentle tone of voice. The lines around her eyes became pronounced.
"How do you mean?"
"The smile you get here, and in Thailand, could be a sanuk, fun-smile. But it’s often a smile of submission. Or hidden aggression. There are two sides to the people. One moment the Indonesians are smiling. Next moment a mob is beating to death some poor thief. Or a gang of schoolboys is stabbing to death a boy from a rival school."
"I see what you mean," I said. "Captain Cook found the girls on the Pacific islands more than friendly. But there was the other side to it. Things started to get stolen. And Cook discovered that the islanders went in for human sacrifice."
"There are always two sides to people," said Disa, grinning. "You get the Australian whose happy and jolly one moment and the next moment he’s hunting down Aborigines."
"Cook came to Jakarta, didn’t he?" I said, wanting to stay on the subject of Indonesia.
"He anchored in Jakarta, where most of them got sick. They’d been healthy until then. Jakarta gave them dysentery and malaria. Doctors couldn’t do much for them." Disa sipped her beer.
"I met a dukun recently," I said, remembering my session of foot reflexology. " Do you think these people can really cure sickness?"
"I’m sure they can. President Suharto’s supposed to make great use of advice from dukuns."
"Is it working?"
"Dukuns have warned that Suharto’s fortunes are changing, for the worse," said Disa. "I read that in the local press."
"Dukuns seem to be taken quite seriously," I said, "The majority of Moslems, the traditional Moslems, reportedly use dukuns."
"Wahid’s apparently a great believer in dukuns. Have you heard of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama? It’s the world’s biggest Moslem organisation. It’s headed by Abdurrahman Wahid."
"Wahid is the man who helped set up Forum Demokrasi," I said. "An opponent of the government."
"He’s very moderate. Wants to be friends with everyone, including Israel. Bit of a character."
"And what about Suharto? What’s your verdict?"
"It’s a mixed verdict," said Disa, looking serious. "The institutions are all so corrupt, as my husband could tell you. The courts, the banks, the civil service, the military. On the other hand, Suharto’s brought stability and prosperity. To some. I certainly can’t complain about our villa in Pondok Indah. We’ve more rooms than we know what to do with."
"Whose missing out?" I asked. Thinking of the slum dwellers, I thought I already knew the answer
"A lot of poor Moslems feel the oil and timber money has gone to Chinese Indonesians and government people. Also the people in the outer islands feel they’ve been colonised by the Javanese, and bullied by ignorant soldiers."
"East Timor?" I suggested.
"Yes. Then there’s Irian Jaya, in New Guinea: lots of mineral wealth but most of it goes to the Jakarta people. West Kalimanatan in Borneo: the Dayaks feel they’ve been invaded by the migrants from Madura. The Christians in Maluku are fed up with the Moslems who’ve come in from Sulawesi and taken over government jobs, and the various rackets."
"And in Bali," I said, feeling I should demonstrate some knowledge of the country, "some Hindus feel that the Javanese don’t always respect their shrines. And Moslems in Aceh feel their oil is being stolen and their people murdered by Javanese."
"Aceh used to be independent," said Disa, impressing me with her superior knowledge of History. "It was independent until 1903."
"Do you think there’s going to be big trouble in Indonesia? Like Yugoslavia?"
"Certain countries might like to see Indonesia broken up."
"Who would want that?
"Some of the generals are frightened that countries like America, Israel and Australia want to break Indonesia up. That would make it easier to control. Remember that Suharto’s getting old. After Suharto goes, it could be like it was here in the 1950’s."
"The 1950’s had some violence." I could vaguely remember being told of troubles in Ambon.
"There were revolts in Sumatra and elsewhere. The problem in the 1950’s was that the army was divided. Some soldiers sided with the rebels."
"Suharto sorted out the army?"
"In a sense."
The teenage girl who had been wearing the culottes was now attired in a light blue bikini and lying on a towel on the far side of the pool. I was momentarily distracted by the curves of her downy limbs. I tried to think of something to say to Disa, to prove that I had been listening to her.
"What was Suharto’s background?" I asked. I was sure Disa would know the answer.
"His mother was reportedly a peasant. There was a rumour that his father was Chinese, but that’s only a rumour. Young Suharto was brought up by a lot of different relatives. He joined the Dutch colonial army, then during the war he worked for the Japanese military, and then after the war he was part of the rebellion against the Dutch."
"Where do his rich Chinese Indonesian business partners come into this?"
"Bob Hasan and Uncle Liem? They were his partners. While he was in the army, Suharto went into business. He got into trouble for smuggling."
"Presumably Suharto also did some fighting?"
"He helped Sukarno put down a rebellion in South Sulawesi; He was part of Sukarno’s fight against Malaysia."
"He always manages a nice smile, Suharto."
"The smiling general." Disa finished her second beer.
"Is it modern history you’re interested in?" I asked.
"All history. I’ve been studying Java Man, also known as Homo Erectus, from Sangiran in Java." Disa bought us two colas.
"You can’t get much older than Java Man," I said naively.
"Java man’s about a million years old. The world’s at least 4,000 million years old. And so-called civilisation only began about five thousand years ago." She said it in a friendly way.
The girl on the towel was adjusting her blue bikini, but I was still taking in what was being said.
Disa enlightened me about the beginnings of civilisation. It seems that cities and writing probably began in Iraq with the Sumerians around 3000 BC. The Sumerian civilisation lasted about 1,500 years and it was apparently the Sumerians who came up with the first written stories of a flood, an ark, and a fall from innocence. The latter story involved a man called Enkidu, whose sin was sexual.
"When does Abraham come into all this?" I asked.
"If he existed, it was probably about 1800 BC."
"I suppose the problem with the Old Testament is that it was written down long after the events described."
"Our present version probably dates from around 600 BC," said Disa. "Not long ago. Some scholars think the idea of the Last Judgement, and heaven and hell, came from the Zoroastrians."
"Remind me about Zoroaster."
"The Iranian prophet who may have lived around 600 BC. He said that people have to choose between the Good Spirit and the Bad Spirit. Some Zoroastrians believed that a Saviour would come to save the world."
"What happened to Zoroastrianism?"
"Islam took over in Iran. Very few Zoroastrians are left."
"How come our Bible’s been so important throughout the world?"
"Maybe it’s brainwashing. Some of the Old Testament writers put the fear of God into the reader. The reader becomes frightened to think for herself. I don’t like the God who’s a tyrant."
"But you attend church."
"Some of the writers in the Bible see God as a good mate. Someone who loves everyone, even Australians. That’s my kind of God."
"There’s more than one point of view in the Bible?"
"In one book of the Bible it looks as if it’s only one particular tribe that gets to heaven. In another part of the Bible it’s clear that people like Samaritans get to heaven. People have their feet washed by God’s son."
"Competing views." I finished my cola.
"Here comes my daughter, looking hungry. Must go." Disa got up, smiled sweetly, took the hand of the teenage girl in the blue bikini, and departed.
I thought about the words of the numerologist and decided to walk along the beach, to get some exercise. The beach was a plane of misty sun, coconut palms, damp sand, steaming sea, distant islands and bathing children with sparkling skins.
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
When Ramadan came round again I made a point of visiting my former-neighbour, Samsu. Due to the heavy rain we sat in his dark and humid front room. Samsu drank nothing, but I was given a cup of tea.
"Tell me about your new paintings," I said, as I cast my eyes over a picture showing a group of Balinese women. "You seem to have added to your collection."
"They’re only cheap prints. The one you’re looking at is by the Dutchman, Willem Hofker. The girls look both beautiful and noble. It reminds me of a Tiepolo."
"Hofker only painted Balinese?"
"He found that some Moslems didn’t like being painted in a sensuous style, so he stuck with the Hindu Balinese."
"What about the big painting with the wonderful bright colours and the cartoon-like characters?
"That’s Bramantyo. His mother’s Scottish-Australian and his father’s a Javanese noble."
"And the portrait of the young man?"
"That’s by Auk Sonnega, another Dutchman. There’s something of the Art Deco about it. I find it has spiritual qualities. It’s more refined than a Matisse or a Modigliani."
"And the photo of the beautiful beach?"
"That’s East Timor."
"There’s still an awful lot of trouble in East Timor," I said, referring to the territory where a majority of the population was trying to break away from Indonesia. "Are you one of those people who blames foreigners for stirring up rebellion?"
"We should never have taken East Timor. It was never a Dutch colony."
"Why do people blame the Australians?"
"Scapegoats. The rich, right wing, Moslem elite can’t face up to their own mistakes. They blame Christians and the Pope. They can’t see why the Christian people of East Timor are angry with the Javanese."
"Who do you blame?"
"Indonesians are to blame for Indonesia’s problems," said Samsu, frowning. "We’ve been independent since 1949 and we still can’t get our civil servants to work properly."
"Police who have to be paid before they’ll come to investigate a burglary?"
"Soldiers who won’t stop riots because they’re too busy protecting gambling dens or collecting money from certain foreign sources. I went to a government building last week to get a license. It was mid-morning and the top people weren’t at their desks. There were some clerks there but they were sitting gossiping. The boss has more than one government job and he runs several private businesses."
"He must be a rich man."
"He’ll probably use the government cars for his various businesses. He’ll give jobs to his cousins, who probably won’t bother to turn up for work."
"No discipline," I commented. "Didn’t we have a conversation once before in which you blamed the Dutch for keeping the wages of civil servants too low, thus creating the need for bribes. You blamed the cutting down of Indonesia’s trees on the Americans’ need for toilet paper?"
Samsu smiled a great big smile. "I’ll agree that it’s a world-wide problem. Some of the problem is the foreigners. We all need a jihad."
"You’ve become a militant?"
"What the country needs is a jihad to change the minds of the government people. A non-violent jihad. A jihad against corrupt judges and soldiers."
"Make people good Moslems?"
"Honest, educated, tolerant Moslems. They will make this a happy, prosperous country like Switzerland. There’ll be no more manipulation by crooked businessmen or foreign powers. No more need to blame scapegoats."
"In the 19th Century," I volunteered, "Britain was full of riots and starving children. We had people like Florence Nightingale and Lord Shaftesbury struggling to put things right."
"We’ve got people like Y.B. Mangunwijaya, the pastor who fights poverty."
"You need more like him."
"You need someone to do something about your football hooligans," said Samsu with a giggle, "your Northern Irish and your British Broadcasting Corporation."
"What’s wrong with the BBC?" I asked, slightly surprised.
"I keep hoping it will tell us the truth about Indonesia, about the part played by the British in backing Suharto. But it doesn’t happen. I think it doesn’t want to endanger Britain’s trade. When I switch on the World Service, I seem to hear more Jewish voices than Moslem voices."
The rain suddenly stopped and there was a peaceful silence. My teacup was empty. It was time to let Samsu return to his books.
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
"Hello mister," said a young boy wearing a green, checked sarong. "Where are you from?"
"The astral plane," I said.
"Qantas?" he asked.
"This is a school," said a plump old man with a funny hat and a benign expression "Come and have a look." He spoke in English.
I was delighted by the invitation; I had always wondered what went on in these Islamic boarding schools; would they be full of violent militants dreaming of jihad in Afghanistan? We entered a small courtyard, which was cool and shaded, and then toured various dimly lit corridors and rooms. In one sparsely furnished classroom a teacher was reciting something in Arabic. In a spartan dormitory every inch of space seemed to be taken up with metal bunk beds. There was a primitive kitchen area and a space where washing hung on lines.
"Who runs this place?" I asked, as we returned to the courtyard.
"A cousin of mine," said the old man. "He’s the kyai, the head teacher. He and his family own the school."
"Do the children pay?"
"A little. We have some farm land and we do some printing. We get gifts from rich friends. This morning we had a visit from a member of the Supreme Advisory Council. Have you heard of that?"
"Yes. They give advice to the President. Are you political?"
He laughed. "We are religious. Not political."
"What do the children study?"
"Islam and other subjects."
"Do the students become good citizens?"
He laughed again. "We have a good effect on some of them. Around here there are many bad influences."
"I’ve heard there are hotels in the Puncak where there are things like gambling. And in Jakarta there are schoolchildren who fight each other with knives. But this country still seems more peaceful than most."
"Islam means peace," said my host, looking totally at ease with the world.
"You don’t want to go to war against Israel?"
He grinned. "The Koran says, ‘Don’t begin a war. God doesn’t love aggressors.’"
"Are there any militants around this part of Java?" The old man seemed so easy going that I doubted he would take offence at my probing questions.
"There are a few young men who are angry. There are the occasional militant preachers. But I’m not one of those rich young men educated in the Middle East."
"Here you have to worry about Aceh and East Timor," I commented.
He laughed again. "We have to worry about the gangsters controlling the bus stations and the markets; and golf courses springing up everywhere. Come into the office and have some tea."
We sat on well-worn armchairs in an office containing a rusty filing cabinet, various sports trophies and not much else. After some idle chit-chat, and the serving of the tea by a young boy with mischievous dark eyes, my host asked me a few questions about myself. After he had established that I was a harmless teacher, he lay back in his chair, and, after some prompting from me, proceeded to open up on the subject of militant Islam.
"There have been problems," he said. "In 1984, at Tanjung Priok in Jakarta, there was a serious incident. Do you know the story?"
"I heard that a soldier went into a prayer house to tear down some posters. There was a scuffle. Some Moslems were taken to the police station. There was then a march by over a thousand Moslems to the police station to try to free these prisoners. Soldiers opened fire. The army said that about thirty people died."
"Some people say the army killed about four hundred people," said the old man, in a slight whisper, "and then buried the bodies in secret graves. That was when Murdani was army chief and Sutrisno was Jakarta military commander. You can understand that some Moslems were not pleased with these two generals, one a Christian, one a Moslem."
"Was the army worried that the protesters wanted more democracy or wanted a more Islamic state?"
"Probably both. I think it was mainly about poverty. Very few Indonesians want an Islamic state."
"Some Indonesians want an Islamic state?"
"About forty years ago, there was an organisation called Negara Islam Indonesia, or NII. It wanted to set up an Islamic state. In recent months the authorities have arrested about one thousand people said to be linked to NII." He paused to sip his tea.
"Who are these people? Middle class?" I asked.
"One of the leaders is supposed to be a former army officer. Another is rumoured to be a teacher at an Islamic school. But most of them are probably lower class, and worried about poverty and injustice."
"Are these NII people dangerous?"
"If there was a fair election, they’d get very, very few votes. Megawati would win with her secular party."
"So the NII are not a problem?"
"Who knows? It depends how much support they have from any foreign country wanting to change the government?"
"Which foreign country?"
"Certain Western countries have supported extremist Moslems in the past. They did it here in the 1950s. They did it in Afghanistan."
"How much support is there for NII within the Indonesian army?"
"It’s probably just a handful of the middle and lower ranks of the army who support NII. They’ll be people who’re fed up with corruption. In the future though things could change."
"Overpopulation and lack of education. One hundred years ago Java had only 4 million people. Now it’s 100 million. There’s not enough jobs or land. Good jobs in Jakarta go to the rich who can use computers. These are often people educated in Christian schools. Often Chinese or children of the elite."
"Do you have computers here?"
"No." My host looked slightly embarrassed.
"The education here is mainly about Islam?" I asked. "Arab law, Arab culture and so on?"
"We are traditional Moslems. Not orthodox Moslems. It’s not just religion we teach. We do the normal school subjects. We teach farming skills. Some of the students, those who think about these things, want to live in the way their grandparents lived. They want to be simple farmers and good Moslems."
"A world from the past. No hamburgers or internet."
"No drugs or nightclubs. I think it’s not just here that people want a simpler Islamic world."
"Malaysia?" I suggested.
"Malaysia has had its Al Arqam Islamic group. In Malaysia it’s often the Chinese who have the education and the top jobs."
"The Moslems in Mindanao feel their land is being taken over by Christians from other islands. In some churches, in the Philippines, the Moslems are referred to as ‘the enemy’. You know the Moslems were in Mindanao before the Christians."
"There is a problem for Moslems," I said, feeling it was safe to be outspoken. "In the Middle Ages, in the 14th century, Islamic civilisation was the most advanced in the world. But now some Moslem schools lack things like computers. And a lot of the students seem to be being seduced by American junk culture."
My host smiled. "We have to trust in God," he said.
"I’m sure you’re right. I think the students around here look happier than American schoolchildren."
The glasses which had contained our tea were empty. I stood up, my host escorted me back into the sunlight and I received a firm and friendly handshake. Outside the boarding school, some young teenagers posed alongside the old man for a photograph. They did not look like disciplined, brainwashed fanatics. The grinning boys jostled each other for the best position in the centre of the group; several of them had their arms around each other; the bolder ones thrust out their hips like pop stars; one held up his hand with a three finger salute; and one was scratching his crotch.
Monday, September 26, 2005
The slums of Teluk Gong were hot and dusty and the morning sky was grey.
"Can I take Min for a walk?" I asked Wardi.
"Is all of this area safe?" I asked. "I’m going to explore the area to the south, for a change."
"It’s all safe," said Wardi, sounding positive.
Min and I set off along alleyways sided by wooden shacks outside which sat overweight women with underweight toddlers and babies. One baby had a lump on its head but its mother refused my offer of help.
We turned a corner. A boy with a Chinese face and a mincing walk stuck out his tongue at us. A man mending a bicycle gave us a cold stare. The omens were not good. Min took my hand and we turned another corner.
Two drunken toughs barred our way. They were unsteady on their feet and had the sinister, smirking look of characters from a nightmarish movie. One took hold of Min’s arm and I immediately feared a kidnapping. With some force, I tugged Min free and dragged him into the shack on our right.
"Nice house," I said to the bemused owner of the shack. "This is my friend Min. We’re out for a walk. Is this your house?"
"Yes," said the man, staring at me.
I continued talking. The two thugs waited just beyond the door. "Min lives near here," I said. "Do you know his brother Wardi?"
The man shook his head.
"I have friends in the army," I lied. "I know lots of people around here."
After a few minutes the two drunks were no longer in view.
"Well, I must be going," I said, and gingerly made my exit.
No sign of the bad guys. I pulled Min along at speed back to his little house.
"Mardi, " I said. "We had a problem." I told him the tale.
"Yes, Mr Kent," said Mardi. "You have to be careful. Maybe some people think you are very rich and want to get hold of Min. To get a ransom."
"You said this area was safe," I complained.
"It’s better to walk in the area towards our old house on stilts," said Wardi. "We know all the people there. Lots of relatives."
"Will you come with us?"
We walked down the main road with its goats and potholes. Min held on tight to Wardi’s hand. We passed a tiny mosque and came to a collection of grey-brown hovels with sagging roofs. Standing beside a dog with sticking-out ribs was a small boy with a sad face and a swollen tummy.
"What’s your name?" I asked the boy, who looked about ten.
"Are you ill?" I asked. He had bags under his eyes and the strained look of someone who did not sleep well.
"Yes," he said shyly.
"Is your mum around?" I said.
"His mother’s dead," whispered Mardi. "He has a step mother."
A man with a slight paunch, and the face of a happy publican, came out of a wooden shack and introduced himself as Saib’s father.
"Saib’s got a stone in his bladder," said the dad. "There’s blood when he urinates."
"How long has he been ill?"
"Seven years," said dad. "Since he was about five. It’s very painful."
"Has he had treatment?"
"The hospital says he needs an operation, but we’ve got no money."
"I’ll pay if you want him to go to the Teluk Gong Hospital," I explained.
It was agreed and we drove to the local hospital to consult a Dr Benny, a friendly young man in a clean white coat. He arranged some x-rays and blood tests.
"Saib has an enormous stone in the bladder," said the doctor, as we sat in his white-walled surgery. "He also has TB. Shall we have him admitted?"
"Yes please, " I said. "Who’ll keep an eye on Saib while he’s in hospital?"
"He’s got relations who’ll come in," said dad.
Saib gave a wan smile.
Sunday, September 25, 2005
About ten days later I went to visit Saib and his father at their home in Teluk Gong. The boy had had his operation.
"How’s Saib," I asked. The child did not look happy.
"Fine," said his dad.
"How are the stitches?" I asked.
Saib lifted up his shirt. "Liquid comes out from the stitches," said Saib. Sure enough, there were traces of light yellow liquid.
We returned to the hospital and consulted Dr Benny. I was worried and angry that the hospital did not seem to have got things right.
"It’s nothing to be anxious about," said the doctor. "There’s a little infection. The main thing is to keep his wound clean."
"Does he need to be readmitted?"
"No need," said the doctor.
A few weeks later, much to my relief, Saib was back to normal. I started paying for him to go to school, and made sure he made regular visits to the hospital for his TB medicine.
I was on my way to Bogor for a Saturday morning jaunt and couldn’t help noticing that the road out of Jakarta was lined with people.
"What’s going on?" I asked Mo, who was driving more slowly than normal.
"Ibu Tien, the president’s wife, has died," said Mo speaking softly and politely. "She’ll probably be buried in Central Java. The cars will come this way on the trip to the airport."
"Everyone looks very subdued," I commented.
"Ibu Tien was very important," said Mo. "She was related to the royal family in Surakarta."
"Was she powerful?"
"The Javanese say that when a wife dies, a person loses half his soul. Some of the dukuns say that Suharto is losing his special power."
When I reached the home of Dede and Rama, in Bogor, I found the family and neighbours were watching events on TV. Ibu Tien’s body was being moved from the Cendana residence, in Jakarta’s Menteng area, to a local airport. Dede and friends were not giving anything away. Their faces were impassive.
Around this time I was told that I had to vacate the house that I was occupying. The owners wanted to move back in. I began the search for a new home and eventually found a handsome two storey detached villa not too far from the old neighbourhood. The air-conditioning worked and the bathroom and kitchen were of the modern variety.
Saturday, September 24, 2005
The air was filled with dusty sunlight, the smell of roasting fish and the happy squeals of little girls; in front of us lay the pool, the tropical ferns, the Hindu carvings and the semi-naked bodies of the rich; sprawled on seats to our left were bronzed young men with something of the lordly arrogance of Lebanese arms dealers or Colombian drugs barons.
It was like being in one of the posher parts of Bali, but we were in fact in the restaurant beside the sparkling rooftop pool of Jakarta’s luxurious Grand Hyatt hotel, only metres above a major road junction with worryingly high levels of air pollution.
I was having lunch with Carmen, and my colleague Ian, the pallid faced lover of late-night bars and frequent opponent of Carmen in games of tennis.
"How’s Melati?" I asked Ian, remembering the girl I had once observed him meeting at a night club in East Jakarta.
"Melati? That was a long time ago. She was getting too keen on the idea of marriage." Ian kept a straight face and took a tiny sip of diet cola.
"The President’s wife died," I said, breaking a period of silence.
"Strange that," said Ian, adjusting his dark glasses. "They rushed the body off pretty quickly. No TV cameras viewing the corpse. My driver said it was suspicious."
"Indonesian Moslems like to get bodies buried quickly," I commented, remembering the death from tetanus of Min’s young brother.
"What do you think the Suharto family are worth?" asked Ian, looking in the direction of the turquoise waters and two slim girls sitting beneath some Balinese statuary.
"Many many billions of US Dollars," said Carmen, putting down her glass of Muscadet.
"How do they do it?" I asked.
"Well they own this hotel for a start," said Carmen with her usual giggle. "The gossip is that Suharto family businesses do work for the government oil company; the family make money from taking pilgrims to Mecca; they own half of East Timor and millions of hectares elsewhere."
"They’re into timber and mining," said Ian.
"Not forgetting cloves, sugar, rice, and wheat," said Carmen.
"And they’re said to be middlemen when weapons are bought for the army," said Ian.
"What about the Suharto charities that build mosques and schools?" I asked.
"That wins Moslem votes," said Ian.
"The rumour is," said Carmen, "that the charities are slush funds for the family’s businesses. The family is not poor. Property and investments all over the world, or so they say."
"I don’t imagine that people like Clinton or Bush are poor," I said.
Two plates of giant spicy prawns arrived for Carmen and myself. Ian was on a diet.
"How’s the book going?" I asked Ian, who had once told me he liked to write about his travels.
"I’ve been writing about Borneo," said Ian. "Last holiday I was in Samarinda in East Kalimantan."
"You’re brave," said Carmen, as she pulled the head off a prawn.
"Flying there in a Garuda plane, you mean?" asked Ian.
"Not just that," said Carmen. "Aren’t Borneo’s Dayaks headhunters?"
"They’re headhunters," said Ian, grinning, "but mainly Christian. I found them actually rather easy going and pretty honest."
"So what’s it like in Borneo?" I asked.
"Lots of rain forest," said Ian, sitting back happily in his chair, "except where the forests are being cleared by fires; there are tiny subsistence farms with pigs and sweet potatoes; Samarinda’s on a very wide river; it’s got some modern housing and the usual mosques and open air markets; the usual minibuses; the usual children in white shirts and red skirts."
"Don’t the Dayaks hate the immigrants who’ve come in from Java?" I asked.
"Probably," said Ian. "I imagine some Dayaks might like to hunt the heads of the Chinese timber barons who’re destroying their forests."
"Is your book non-fiction?" asked Carmen.
"Non-fiction," said Ian. "Except that writing about people always involves a wee bit of fiction."
"Always?" I asked.
"I was writing about an Australian girl called Mary," said Ian. "Met her at the Hotel Mesra in Samarinda. Now, let’s imagine Mary says, ‘Eh, Ian, what did you think of the whatsit, you know, the place with the monkeys?’ I would write that down as, ‘Clint, that was a wonderful trip to the Kutei Game Reserve, where we saw these gentle orang-utan. And weren’t these gibbons great?’ It is a fact that we went to the game reserve."
"Who’s Clint?" asked Carmen.
"I change everyone’s name," explained Ian.
"Did Mary see gibbons?" queried Carmen.
"She probably did," said Ian. "Mary’s a composite character based on Mary and Veronica. In the book she’s called Jean. Otherwise she’d recognise herself."
"So if you write about me," said Carmen, with a titter, "I’ll be a mixture of two people, and will be young and beautiful."
"My book would be unreadable if I didn’t edit my notes," explained Ian, with a grin. "I don’t take notes while I’m talking to a girl on some trip. I make notes months afterwards, when I feel in the mood. And then I do a bit of editing."
"Deconstruction and slippage of meaning," said Carmen, giggling loudly.
"What’s that then?" I queried.
"I’m not sure," admitted Carmen. "I think the supporters of deconstruction argue that words mean different things at different times, and different things to different people. This bloke called Jacques Derrida argues that there’s some slippage of meaning with words."
"Ah," I said, "Like ‘handicapped child’ means someone worthless or someone good, depending on who you’re speaking to." At the back of my mind was a memory of Ian once suggesting that I should have left Min in the street, rather than trying to rescue him.
"Yes," said Ian. "Words like ‘immigrant’ or ‘Moslem’ can mean lots of different things."
"Giant prawn," said Carmen, "means something deliciously lemony and salty to one person, and something puke-making to someone else."
"I like fish," said Ian, "but I’m going for a workout when I leave here."
"Have you heard of Jean-Francois Lyotard?" asked Carmen.
"Sounds like a keep-fit man," said Ian, smiling.
"Lyotard" said Carmen, "argues there’s no longer any religion or philosophy, like Marxism or Christianity, that can explain everything. Unless it’s a religion or philosophy that constantly changes as new discoveries are made."
"Lyotard? A writer?" I asked.
"A deconstructionist," said Carmen. "The religion or philosophy has to evolve."
"Because of scientific discoveries?" I said.
"Science now has its uncertainties and paradoxes," explained Carmen.
"Uncertainties and paradoxes," I said. "That sounds like real life."
"So Ian’s book," said Carmen, "could never be pure fact."
"My book may not be Gospel truth," said Ian, "but it’s got some relation to reality."
"Gospel truth?" said Carmen. "Mark’s Gospel claims Jesus’s last words were, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me? Luke had the last words as, ‘Father, to your hands I entrust my spirit.’"
"John?" I asked.
Carmen chuckled. "According to John, Jesus said: ‘The task is done.’"
"So it’s OK to make slight changes," said Ian.
"It seems to happen," said Carmen. "As time passes. And audiences change."
"But is there a danger that a work intended to be non-fiction develops into a work of fiction?" I said.
"Well Luke seems to have added bits," said Carmen, sounding serious for a change. "But I don’t think he was trying to mislead people. He wasn’t intending to change the basic message. He was just trying to give added value."
"The danger is if you unwittingly add bits that are fundamentally untrue," I commented.
"Scientists sometimes slightly fiddle their results," said Carmen, "when they know they’ve got a good case, and are desperate to convince people."
"Just like spiritual mediums and policemen," said Ian.
Friday, September 23, 2005
Walking near the mental hospital in Bogor’s Babakan district, I passed a group of small children playing football in a muddy field. Like most Indonesian boys they knew how to enjoy themselves and they had few inhibitions. They skated on the slippery red earth, hurled themselves into puddles, and wallowed in mucky wetness like happy little hippos. When they stood up they shook mud from their hair, wiped mud from their cheeks and eyelids, and slapped mud off the seats of their shorts.
Sitting under a mango tree, dressed in Islamic headgear, were three teenage girls, one with a motorbike. They giggled as some of the boys made their tummy muscles ripple or did clownish handstands and cartwheels which always ended in more floundering in the mud.
My conscience was troubling me as I had not visited the mental hospital for some time. I called in at the office of the children’s ward to speak to the nurses on duty and was told that over in the Merdeka ward there was one little boy who was rather sick.
The large open courtyard of the Merdeka ward was peaceful and sunny in the way that a farmyard or orphanage in Rumania could be peaceful and sunny; in one corner an elderly patient was helping to feed a malnourished friend who was lying on a lumpy mattress; in another corner a ragged woman was scratching her hair.
"This is Firdaus," said the motherly nurse in charge of the office, as she patted the head of a boy aged about ten. "The police found him on the railway track. He can’t speak."
Firdaus had a most appealing appearance apart from egg-sized bumps on his forehead and absolutely enormous lumpy fleshy scars on his chest. It looked as if, at some time in the past, he had been involved in a major accident or been attacked by a maniac; and not had his wounds attended to by a doctor.
"He doesn’t look very happy," I said.
"He’s depressed. No family. No friends," said the nurse.
I took him for a walk around the hospital grounds and bought him some chocolate milk and some savoury snacks. On our way back to the ward, he squeezed my hand and stared at me hard. His big gentle innocent eyes told me he was feeling a little better.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
I get nervous before going to certain sorts of party. This particular party at the sports club was full of tall confident people talking about surfing, diving, sailing, shopping, and soap operas. I felt self-conscious, awkward and out-of-place. Maybe it was the cheap wine.
"You OK , Kent?" said a voice. I turned and was overjoyed to see Anne, wife of Bob.
"Fine," I said.
"You looked sad."
"It’s just me."
"I know how you feel. Some of these people are not our type."
"What type are we?"
Anne paused and sipped her wine before replying. "I like to think I’m a little bit cultured, independent, tolerant, intuitive. Pauline and Bob might say I’m changeable. Maybe we change moment by moment." She sort of laughed.
"What about me?"
"I’d say Kent that you’re adventurous."
For two seconds I felt rather good about Anne’s comments. Was it flattery? "So, how come I’m scared of things like flying?" I said. "And most sports terrify me."
"But you’re the sort of person who wanders into the slums. You’re a nonconformist."
Again I felt good momentarily. "I’m usually a conformist when it comes to taking orders from the boss. I keep quiet at staff meetings."
"It can be a good quality to be self-effacing. I’d say you’re sensitive and painstaking."
Did that sound good? "I’m sensitive if people criticise my work. And I’m sometimes lazy about marking and reports."
"Be more sanguine, and you’ll find it’s good for your health," said Anne, whose frown seemed to suggest that she was about to give up on her attempts to cheer me up. "Now, come and meet this American, called Lane. He’s in mining. He’s very in touch with what’s going on."
Before Anne wandered off I was introduced to a middle-aged man with a smart suit and a grey, heavily-lined face that suggested too much stress Anne told him I was interested in politics.
"How is the political situation?" I asked. "What do the Americans think is going on?"
"Two schools of thought," said Lane. "Some people at the embassy want us to be sympathetic to Pakpahan." He looked around, as if to see who might be listening.
"Pakpahan? The union leader?"
"That’s him. There’s a feeling that workers should not be paid starvation wages, and allegedly tortured and killed if they try to improve things. There’s a worry that the corruption in high places creates instability. Leads to Moslem extremism."
"The other school of thought?"
"The hawks at the embassy support the Indonesian military. They believe the military holds the country together and is a useful bulwark against China. They think that in the real world you have to be Machiavellian. Suharto and the military are good for American business."
"Mobil, Nike, Caterpillar," I said.
"There’s more," said Lane, "Hughes Aircraft, Reebok, Freeport, Mattel, Levi Strauss, all the fast food people."
"What about when Suharto retires? Are the Americans worried?"
"Our defence and intelligence people seem to be keeping in with certain top generals who may take over from Suharto. Probably generals from the elite regiments: Kopassus and Kostrad. The embassy also tries to keep in with Megawati, of course."
"Will the Americans choose the right people?"
"If you remember Nicaragua, Vietnam and Cambodia you’ll know that we Americans are expert when it comes to dirty tricks and torture. We train torturers and terrorists, put them into power, and then decide to topple them."
"Is Suharto’s position weakening?"
"There’s a group within the Indonesian army that claims to be loyal to Suharto and very Islamic. Although their Islam is probably only a means to gaining power. These generals try to spread rumours about the loyalty of the more secular generals. So, who can Suharto trust? Murdani, Sudrajat, Faisal Tanjung, Wiranto, Yudhoyono, Hartono or Prabowo? I think Suharto tries to keep a balance between the factions. It’s all shifting alliances. The Catholic Murdani may talk to the pro-democracy Abdurrahman Wahid and his traditional Moslems. Some pro-Suharto Moslem leaders seem to like General Hartono."
"The newspapers talk about a Moslem ‘Green’ faction and a Nationalist ‘red and white’ faction. Are these ‘red and whites’ in favour of democracy?"
"No," said Lane, screwing up his face. "They want continued army rule so they can stay rich. It’s just that they want to avoid a take over by a faction making use of Islam. It’s all about power."
"You think most people in your government and business community support army rule?"
"Most do. Not all of them. I’m in mining and the army is our problem. It wants money from us for protection."
"What happens if you don’t pay?"
"What happens when you don’t pay protection money in Palermo? You may be forced to close down."
"What’s your solution?"
"Close down the army," said Lane, in a whisper. "Then you’ll get less crime. Less illegal mining. Less illegal logging. How do you close down the army? No more money from the World Bank, the IMF, the donor countries. Then the army would shrink."
"Who’s then going to buy British and American jets?"
"That’s it, isn’t it. We support the army so we can sell them weapons. I wonder if any people in this country are giving money to political parties in the States?"
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Taking an early morning walk along an earthen footpath, five minutes from my house, I was aware of how so much of Jakarta was still made up of little villages, woodland, fruit trees, vegetable patches, fish ponds, and yards full of chickens and goats and the occasional abandoned car.
A pretty girl, in Islamic headscarf and short skirt, was seated on a wall, next to a cluster of simple houses with brown tiled roofs. On the opposite side of the path stood a bare-chested lad holding a baby. Next him sat a tired looking teenage boy wearing a black peci cap. A well fed man in a turban walked past, on his way to the mosque.
"Are you well?" I asked the boy with the cap.
"I’m well," he said. He was remarkably skinny and pale, possibly aged around thirteen, and quite tall.
"What’s your name?"
"Fajar," he said, looking down at the ground, in a bashful manner.
"Have you got a cough?"
"No, mister," said Fajar, sounding exhausted.
"Do you eat plenty?"
Fajar explained that his father, a tailor by profession, was unemployed and unwell. His father had had to sell his sewing machine in order to pay for medicines.
"Sometimes my father gets very tired," said Fajar.
"Has he been for an x-ray?"
"No. He’s been to the clinic. He gets vitamin tablets."
"Can I speak to him?"
"He’s visiting my sick brother in Sumatra."
"Maybe you’ve all got TB," I said. "You should get an x-ray."
Fajar shook his head.
I was aware that I had no money on me, and decided to walk on. A well-groomed little lady in a cheap but smart suit was coming in my direction and she stopped to talk.
"I’m a Christian," she said, smiling proudly. Presumably she saw me as an ally in a country that was mainly Moslem.
"Do you live near here?" I asked. I didn’t want to get dragged into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ conversation.
"Near the main road. Just over there." She pointed in the direction of some relatively modest little houses with gardens.
"What do you do for a living?" She looked like a woman on her way to work.
"I’m an administrator."
"I’ve just been talking to Fajar back there. His family is very poor. Maybe you can help."
"I don’t know Fajar."
"He lives near you. His father’s sick."
"I’m helping my church."
"Do you want to help Fajar?"
"We’re building a beautiful church. Bigger than the mosque. You should come and see it."
"Do you want to meet Fajar?" I looked at the woman’s hurt looking face and it occurred to me too late that I could be accused of being the rich expat bullying the poor native.
"I’ve got to be going," she said, looking at her watch and hurrying off.
A few hundred yards further on my ears were gently bashed by the sound of heavy metal music coming from massive speakers, set up in a small field. Five young men wearing offensive T-shirts, jeans with holes, chains and safety pins, were dancing around like drunken punks. There were only meters away from a small mosque.
"Hello mister," one of the punks shouted. "English music. Come and join us."
I smiled at them, turned, and swiftly headed back towards Fajar. What was wrong with me? I had failed to help Fajar, and I had rejected the friendly gestures of the Christian lady and the pro-English punks.
"If you want an x-ray," I said to Fajar, "come to my house for the money." I gave him my address and began to feel a bit less grumpy. "I’ll be expecting you within the next few days," I said.
The Merdeka Ward of the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor lies in one corner of extensive grounds. When I reached the ward I could not find Firdaus. He was not in the sunny central courtyard, nor in the unlocked room on one side of the courtyard, nor in any of the cage-like cells on the opposite side of the courtyard. There seemed to be about half a dozen patients, and most of them were wandering around enjoying the morning air.
"Where’s Firdaus?" I asked the under-sized male nurse who was standing in the middle of the open courtyard. "The little boy with the scars on his chest and the bumps on his head." I was ready to punch someone’s face or rearrange someone’s limbs.
"He’s been moved to the children’s ward," said the nurse, much to the benefit of my blood pressure. "He’s no longer sick."
I glanced around the courtyard and spotted a figure in one of the cells fronted with bars. "Who’s the pretty young lady in the cage?" I asked.
"She’s got TB. Don’t go too close."
"Is she getting medicine?"
I had my doubts about the hospital providing the expensive cocktail of drugs usually necessary for a cure. "Are you sure?"
I set off through the gardens, following the directions given to me by the nurse. The children’s ward, now housed in a different building from the one I had visited in the past, was a low rise affair with clean white walls, a relatively new red roof and its own enclosed garden. I entered the office and spoke to the middle-aged lady on duty. She wore a Moslem headscarf and she had a kindly expression.
"Firdaus is watching TV," she said smiling.
As I entered the lounge area, Firdaus leapt to his feet and rushed over to me to take my hand. I felt wanted and appreciated. This was a good little kid.
"Things have improved," I said to the nurse. "No one tied up."
She explained that her Christian colleague had departed permanently to another part of the hospital.
Firdaus and I went for a pleasant walk in the hospital grounds and I bought snacks for Firdaus and the nurse.
Skinny, gangling Fajar, accompanied by two young friends called Ali and Dikin, arrived at my house late one afternoon. Ali had a thin ten-year-old body, a pleasant happy cartoon-character face and a banjo. Dikin looked like a ten year-old from a Lassie film, and he was carrying a drum.
The two musicians sat on the living room floor. Fajar slumped in an armchair.
I suspected that all three children were several years older than they looked and I decided to ask them their ages. Ali and Dikin were thirteen. Fajar was sixteen.
"You’ve decided to get an X-ray?" I asked Fajar.
Fajar nodded and I handed over the money.
"Your friends are musicians?" I asked.
"Ali and Dikin are street musicians," said Fajar.
"Are we going to have some music?"
The two musicians beamed, picked up their instruments and began to sing a typical Jakartan street song: ‘My bonnee lees over the ocean, my bonnee lees over the sea...’ It was sung with hundred per cent gusto, and a lump came to my throat.
The maid brought in some biscuits and glasses of water for the three hungry children.
"When you wash the glasses, wash them thoroughly," I said to Ami. I noticed that Ali had a cough.
As the trio departed from the house one of my neighbours was at her gate, looking vaguely puzzled. I said to myself that one of the joys of living abroad is that you don’t have to be too conventional.
Min, his family and I took a trip to Jakarta’s giant Taman Mini recreation park and took out small boats on the lake. The boats, shaped like swans, were intended to be operated by the application of one’s feet to revolving paddles. I had a boat to myself and found the paddles relatively easy to use. Min, occupying a boat with his big brother, decided it was too difficult to use his feet. He knelt down and used his hands to move the paddles. This worked, and it gave him enormous pleasure.
I wondered about Min’s brain. He had the speech of a child aged one or two, yet he was capable of the actions of a much older person. At an earlier time, he had been able to survive alone in the city; he had deep feelings, if his eyes and facial expressions were to be believed; he had a sense of humour and a mind of his own; he was capable of showing great affection to his siblings. It was as if the computer operator, consciousness, was normal, but the computer, the brain, was damaged.
Min was now almost the tallest in his family and thankfully his behaviour had calmed down. He no longer gave people friendly punches when he was feeling playful. He behaved like an adult.
Fergus and I were having afternoon tea among the potted palms at the Borobudur Hotel. The chamber music and the elegant clientele put me in mind of Florian or Quadri in Venice’s Piazza San Marco.
"How are you?" I asked Fergus.
"Masuk Angin," he said. "It’s the computer in the office and the air-conditioner in the car that cause it. Pain in the neck and shoulder and sore sinuses. Maybe I should move the computer mouse to the left hand side."
"Have you tried rubbing on menthol cream?"
"Frequently," said Fergus. "Reflexology too. I think anger comes into it. Stress."
"Due to the traffic?"
"And nasty students. Anger makes me a pain in the neck." Fergus gave a half-smile.
"They say shoulder pains are caused by a lack of flexibility, stomach pains are caused by fear and lower back pain by being fed-up."
"You been talking to a dukun?"
"No," said Fergus, as he helped himself to another dainty sandwich, "but I’ve been talking to some of our Indonesian staff. They’re depressed by what’s been happening with the PDI."
"This meeting of Megawati’s party in Medan?"
"The story is that Suharto, or maybe one of his ministers, arranged for Mega to be deposed. Officially she’s no longer party leader. This bloke called Soerjadi has taken over."
"But Mega still claims to be boss and her faction is holding on to the party HQ in Jakarta."
Carmen and I were enjoying a bottled tea in a cafe overlooking the sunny market place next to Bogor’s railway station, a little, white, nineteenth century building.
There were no donkeys but I was reminded of Marrakech’s Place Jemaa El Fna; there was was a man in a white robe examining round red fezzes and prayer mats on a wooden stall; a pack of frisky schoolboys were admiring wriggly little snakes; to the throb of drums a monkey was being jerked about on a string; the sound of sensuous Arab songs issued from a battered cassette player.
"One of the girls in the office saw something interesting," said Carmen, "not far from Jakarta’s Monas. Some kind of riot."
"When was this?"
"Last Thursday. About five thousand of Megawati’s PDI party had been demonstrating. Stones got thrown. Police and soldiers charged."
"Did the girl in the office see all this?"
"The aftermath," said Carmen, sounding unusually serious. "People running. Banners saying: ‘Megawati for President.’"
"The Telegraph had something about it."
"There’s a rumour two people were run down by army vehicles and killed," said Carmen quietly.
"Mega's not giving up," I commented. "Her people still hold onto the party HQ on Jalan Diponegoro, East of the British Embassy."
"One party. Two leaders," said Carmen, giggling. "Soerjadi supposedly approved of by Suharto and Mega supported by most of the PDI."
"So the PDI is made up of factions, just like the army?" I asked.
"There’s a moderate Moslem faction that wants Moslems to play a bigger part in Indonesian life. There’s a Christian faction but it’s relatively small. There’s a faction that wants to keep in with the powers-that-be. Lots of factions, but Mega is respected by most of them because she’s the daughter of the first president. How’s the tea Kent?"
"Interesting. I’m looking forward to some strong British tea during my August holiday."
"You planning to stay in Indonesia a few more years?"
"Yep," I said, "I want to see Min settled down, somewhere nice in the countryside; a quiet country village; a decent house; a plot of rice. How about you Carmen? Planning to stay?"
"Until I retire. There’s nowhere else with such sweet people. Such a fun way of life. Look at those kids beside that stall, dancing to the music, wiggling their hips. Got enough material for your book?"
"1990 to 1996. Yes. Then on to part two."
"How have your seven years been? Good?"
"I was fed-up just before I left London," I explained. "I was bored and neurotic. Indonesia’s almost paradise. The only bad thing is the people who get sick. Budi, Aldi, Agosto, Oya and so on."
"It happens," said Carmen, looking down at the table.
"Why do certain people get sick? Why them? Agosto got sick again and again."
"Typhoid is poor hygiene," said Carmen. "But, physical illness may be tied in with spiritual illness. Emotional illness."
"That’s what the dukuns say. Give me an example."
"When I left Africa I wasn’t feeling totally well," said Carmen, with a giggle. "I was feeling just a little unloved, broken hearted, angry. No particular reason. It’s just what happens when you leave a place."
"Not really," said Carmen. "I loved Africa but the physical appeal wore off after about three years. I became negative about the place. I needed to either change within myself, and try to love Africa warts and all, or move on. It’s important that our minds don’t get too rigid."
"You didn’t change within yourself?"
"I would have needed help for that."
"So the dukun may be needed to cure our minds," I said. "Cast out the negative spirit from the patient or those around him."
"Yes. It doesn’t always work though, as we know. I doubt the dukun could have done much for your Aldi once he had his tetanus or Oya had her water on the brain. These were hospital cases."
"I wonder if it was more than physical illness," I said. "I mean, did someone hate Aldi or his family? Aldi felt persecuted by the neighbourhood kids. Was Oya a nuisance to her mother and the new boyfriend? Was it just bad luck?"
"My drink’s finished." Carmen wiped her mouth with a tissue.
"OK. I’m taking you to visit Firdaus at the mental hospital," I said.
It was bumper to bumper blue and green minibuses as we drove by degrees along Muslihat, past Ramayana and then past the prison.
"She looks as if she’s escaped from the hospital," said Carmen pointing to a thin, ragged, barefoot woman walking slowly along the pavement past giant piles of rotting garbage. "Her hair’s absolutely filthy."
"They have an open-door policy for some of the patients," I commented.
We reached the hospital car park and began walking through the gardens.
"It’s not as bad as I thought it would be," said Carmen. "It’s like the Botanic Gardens: red frangipani, pink hibiscus, crimson rangoon creeper."
There were childish shouts of "Mister Kent! Mister Kent!" And assorted happy shrieking sounds. As we entered the children’s compound Firdaus and his mate rushed up to grab my hands. I felt appreciated.
"The one on the left is Firdaus," I said. "Look at the strange bulges on his forehead. Tumours? Wounds?" I unbuttoned Firdaus’s shirt. "Look at the scars on his chest. They think he may have fallen off the roof of a train. And the kid on the left is going blind. He’s got a funny little face, hasn’t he? One eye seems to be in the wrong place."
"Should they get treatment from a private hospital?"
"The doctors here won’t agree to that. If I take them out, they become my children. I don’t think that can be done legally."
"Don’t look now," said Carmen, "but there’s a lad over by the swing who’s just unzipped his shorts and he’s having a pee."
"Let’s take a walk to the little shop and buy some snacks. Then we’d better give our hands a thorough wash."
After our mental hospital visit, we took the back road home from Bogor, the road that twists and turns and bumps you along, making it almost impossible to read The Jakarta Post or the FT.
"There’s a story here about President Suharto going to Germany," said Carmen, "for a health checkup. He may have a heart condition or something. If he goes, permanently, things could get rough."
"You think there’s a need for a strong leader?"
"What they need is someone like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Someone tough enough to prevent factional fighting. Someone clean."
It was late afternoon and my door bell was ringing.
Thin, gangling Fajar had arrived with the two little street musicians Ali and Dikin.
As they sat themselves down on the tiled floor of my spacious lounge, the door bell rang again. The maid announced the arrival of an old man, an itinerant musician with a harp-like instrument. Seeing that the old man had the appearance of a happy little elf, I welcomed him in.
Another ring of the bell and this time it was young friends of Fajar. There was permanently smiling twelve-year-old Andri, who was curious to see the inside of my house, handsome eleven-year-old Hermanto, who sometimes accompanied Ali and Dikin on the banjo, and Hermanto’s comely teenage neighbours Sinta and Farah, who claimed to be learning English at school but who couldn’t say more than ‘Hello’. Acting as chaperones were my maid and her husband.
"Fajar," I said, "how long have you been taking the TB medicine?"
"Four weeks." He still looked tired.
"So, you’re not going to infect anyone," I said. "Is your father now taking his TB medicine?"
"Yes," said Fajar quietly.
"How’s your brother in Sumatra?"
"He was vomiting blood. He’s gone to hospital."
"Maybe he should come to a hospital in Jakarta."
"He’s got lots of relations in Sumatra."
"Your family is from Sumatra?"
"Yes, from Lampung."
I turned to smiling Andri. "Where are you from Andri?"
"Jakarta," said Andri. "I’m a local, a Betawi." I noticed his threadbare clothes.
"Andri’s Chinese," said Hermanto, smirking.
"Half," said Andri, blushing. "My mum’s not Chinese."
"Are you Moslem?" I asked Andri.
"Yes," said Andri, looking pleased.
The maid brought in plates of rice and vegetables every morsel of which was pressed into hungry mouths. The music began with a high wailing song from the old man. This was followed by street songs, from Ali and Dikin, which everyone joined in. Next came dangdut music, prompting Andri and Hermanto to get up and dance. You can never be lonely in Java.
It was a Saturday morning.
My vehicle inched its way into the little market town of Parung, which is on the back road to Bogor, and which is the meeting place of two narrow and particularly busy roads.
The traffic stopped and became completely jammed.
A very fat little policeman and a skeletally thin policeman looked as if they had given up trying to get the traffic moving and were resignedly breathing in the thick brown fumes of buses and lorries.
After a wait of ten minutes, my stomach began to tense up.
I ordered Mo to park at the side of the road, jumped out of my vehicle and set off on a walk.
I left the long dusty street of concrete, garage-like shops and crossed an area of weed-covered parkland where small barefoot boys were playing football under a deep blue sky.
At the edge of the parkland stood a home-made wooden shack, outside which sat a barefoot old crone, possibly in her late forties.
Beside her sat her depressed-looking little son, aged about four.
I felt instantly sorry for the four-year-old as he and his mother conjured up images of Victorian poverty and distressed characters in Grimms’ fairy stories.
The woman told me that she was unwell and pulled down part of her grey blouse to reveal a large dark misshapen growth on one of her meagre breasts. She told me her name was Nurul and that her husband lived in Jakarta.
Nurul seemed resigned to her condition, but was eventually persuaded to come with me to the nearest doctor’s clinic. We set off on foot.
A serious-looking woman doctor examined Nurul, diagnosed breast cancer, and explained that surgery at a hospital was almost certainly required.
Nurul was adamant that she was not going to a hospital and was certainly not going to let anyone get at her with a knife.
The doctor failed to change Nurul’s mind and so dispensed some rather expensive pills. I assumed the doctor knew what she was doing.
Having said goodbye to Nurul, and having promised to return within a few weeks to get her more pills, I returned to my vehicle and found that the traffic had eased and that my journey could continue.
Somewhere between Parung and Bogor I asked the driver to stop. I needed some exercise and it is always exciting getting out in the middle of nowhere. I set off down an unknown track.
There was a steep descent, through some trees and an impoverished hamlet, down to some fish ponds.
And at the water's edge there was a wonderful surprise: a house-sized statue of a fat grinning dwarf-creature sat above a stupa.
Some giggly young girls and boys had followed me and they were now disporting themselves around the base of the monument.
From the trees came a very old man of diminutive stature. He had the same roundish body and the same friendly smile as the statue.
"President Suharto comes here at particular dates," said the man.
"Suharto?" It was difficult to imagine the elderly president walking down the rough path past the falling down shacks of the hamlet.
"Yes, the President. This structure is linked to others in different parts of Java."
"What’s the link?" I asked.
"It’s to do with energy flow," said the man. "Energy flows along lines between holy sites."
"Ley lines?" I asked, but the man had not heard that term before.
"The energy can help you to understand things better, can help you to be in harmony with God."
"We need all things to be in harmony to avoid disease and disaster."
"How does the energy work?"
"Every object contains energy or power. The trees and mountains and animals. It is important to have things in balance."
"So, is this place here very special? Is it a special place in the universe?"
"Everywhere is special. The universe is in every person and in every place." The man smiled his gnome-like laughing smile.
The funny thing was that I sort-of believed him.
Thanks to Samsu, I had read about physicist David Bohm’s belief that all the information about the entire universe is contained within each of its many parts. It’s like a hologram. The whole is in every part. The world is an indivisible whole. There is only one of us.
I had read about physicist Alain Aspect's discovery that small particles, many miles apart, could appear to communicate with each other, as if they were part of the same whole. Well, these physicists do do strange things.
"The universe is in everything?" I said. "Have you heard of quantum physics?"
The man gave me a blank stare. "I don’t know about that," he said.
"Is this statue Islamic?" I was remembering that Indonesia has more Moslems than the entire Arab world and that Islam in Indonesia has a strong spiritual side.
"No," said the man, shaking his head.
"So the statue is animist? Or it’s linked to Hinduism?"
"It’s something traditional," said the old man, who didn’t seem to understand the words ‘animist’ or ‘Hinduism’.
There was a call from somewhere up near the hamlet and the old man shook my hand and wandered off into the trees.
I decided to continue my walk and followed a path alongside a narrow river sided by rice fields and the occasional banana tree. Some of the children decided to follow me through this sunny world of magical colours.
It was near the end of July 1996 and, while I was in my bedroom doing my packing for my holiday trip to Britain, I was listening to the world service of the BBC.
To my alarm, the news was about rioting in Jakarta.
It seems that, early in the morning, the party headquarters of Megawati had been attacked by men claiming to be supporters of her rival Soerjadi. After a two hour clash, the police had moved in and Megawati’s people had been ejected.
Scores of people had been taken to hospital with serious wounds and scores of Megawati’s supporters had been arrested.
During the afternoon stones had been thrown at the military and rioting had taken place in more than one part of central Jakarta. I switched on the television to watch the evening news and saw scenes of smoke rising from burning vehicles and buildings.
Then the phone rang. It was Fergus wondering if I had seen the TV news.
"Nothing to worry about," said Fergus, in his usual calm voice. "The authorities seem to have got things under control."
"Is it going to be safe if I go into town tomorrow?" I tried not to make my voice go too high.
"This trouble is only in one very small part of Jakarta," said Fergus. "There have been troubles before. Suharto will stamp on it hard. I’ve been out to the shops and it’s all perfectly calm. And now I’m off to play squash."
The day before my holiday trip to Britain I met Carmen for a coffee at cafe in Kemang in South Jakarta. It was one of those American franchises with bright coloured plastic tables and uncomfortable seats.
"What’s in your Telegraph?" asked Carmen.
"It’s an old Telegraph. There’s a story about some women in Britain raiding an airfield where Hawk fighters were based. It seems the Hawk is used in East Timor. The rumour is that the Indonesians often get aid on condition they buy British-made water cannons or jets."
"I remember a Labour government in 1969 selling weapons to Nigeria," said Carmen with her habitual chuckle, "and not seeming to worry too much about the Biafrans."
"There’s not been much in the British papers about the take over of Megawati’s HQ," I commented. "Fergus seems to think the recent riots are nothing to worry about."
"I’m not so sure," said Carmen. "My driver said that thousands of people poured out of the slums and that a number of people were killed. Worst riots since 1974."
"What happened in 1974?"
"Ah," said Carmen, almost convulsed with excitement, "the ’74 riots were started by undercover intelligence agents."
"You’re a conspiracy theorist?"
"The Guy Fawkes plot," said Carmen, "was probably the work of King James’s spy master. He set up the plot so he could clamp down on Catholics and increase his own power."
"So, in 1974, was it President Suharto who was behind the riots?"
"Not necessarily," said Carmen. "King James didn’t know what his spy master was up to. Now, in 1974, one of the chiefs of one of the spy agencies may have been looking for an excuse to clamp down on student dissidents, and may have been looking for a way to increase his own power."
"You’re suggesting that Suharto may not always be in control of his own spy agencies."
"Exactly," said Carmen with a giggle. "President Kennedy obviously didn’t foresee that part of his intelligence apparatus was plotting against him."
"So, these recent riots, are the work of some hidden force?"
"Suharto benefits from the removal of Megawati, because Megawati is very popular. But the riots don’t help Suharto."
"Don’t the riots allow the government to clamp down on students and people like the Democratic People’s Party?"
"Yes," said Carmen, "but the riots make Suharto look weak. They may be part of a long-term plan to topple the president."
"Any other scandal, rumour and gossip to cheer me up?"
"Yes," said Carmen. "My driver said he had heard a rumour that Suharto’s wife did not die from natural causes. She was allegedly accidentally shot during an argument between her sons Tommy and Bambang."
"Any details? Any proof?"
"None. But listen to this. You’ve heard of Eddy Tansil?"
"Eddy Tansil," I said. "Chinese-Indonesian businessman, given a twenty year jail sentence about two years ago. He was said to have bribed people at one of the state banks. The bank gave him a loan to build a factory. The money was misspent. He supposedly stole about five hundred million US dollars."
"And, as you know," said Carmen, "he escaped from Cipinang jail a few months ago. Well, the rumour is that, to pay for his escape, he bribed the late president’s wife and bribed Liem Sioe Liong, also known as Salim. You know Salim?"
"Salim is the rich Chinese business partner of Suharto. He’s into everything from noodles and cement to textiles and electronics."
"Right. One of the six richest people in the world."
"So, does Salim own Indonesia?"
"No," said Carmen, as she finished her coffee. "It’s not just Salim. There are the other ultra-rich Chinese-Indonesians, such as Prajogo, Pangestu and Widjaja."
"You’re forgetting certain non-Chinese Indonesians, certain pribumi."
"I’d forgotten," said Carmen with her usual laugh. "The President’s family. And his friends like Habibie."
"And you’re forgetting the Americans. Freeport and all those other American companies."
"Yes," said Carmen, "but the point is that certain people in the army are not too happy about the wealth of certain Chinese and certain members of the Suharto clan."
Before heading for the airport and my brief holiday in England, I made sure that I called in on Min. Was it going to be safe to drive deep into the city? The streets seemed quieter than usual; but there were no signs of the military or of damaged property.
Min’s kampung appeared no different from usual; goats wandered peacefully, schoolchildren smiled happily and workmen hammered away as usual at bits of car and bike in little repair shops. Min was looking well and his mum seemed unconcerned by the political situation.
"We don’t have time to worry about these things," she said. "We just get on with our work."
As I left for the airport I was thinking about physicist Alain Aspect’s discovery that particles, thousands of miles apart, could apparently communicate with each other. Would I be able to communicate telepathically with Min while I was in England? I would never know. Min’s vocabulary was so limited that he would not be able to tell me what had gone through his mind while I was away.
I was back in Indonesia, having endured the usual sixteen hour flight from London. I walked smartly through the glass-walled halls of Soekarno-Hatta Airport and hurried out into the warm balmy air to be met by my faithful driver.
We travelled along the toll expressway towards Jakarta, city of over fourteen million souls. In spite of the recent riots, Jakarta looked no different from usual.
I was looking forward to more explorations and adventures in the countryside around the city. But first I was desperate to see Min.
As I drove up to Min’s house, I could see that Min was standing at his front door staring out onto the street. Did he know I was going to arrive at that particular moment, or was it just coincidence? Did he normally stand there much of the day? He gave me a nervous, tight-faced smile as I patted him on the arm. His mum assured me that Min was in good health. For at least a year I had been making my meetings with Min less and less frequent, so as to condition him for the day when I would eventually have to leave Indonesia. I hoped the conditioning was working.
Min, his mum and I took a walk to the home of the little tubercular twins Sani and Indra. The twins had grown taller, but no fatter. We met little Saib, the boy who had had a stone removed from his bladder. Saib gave us a shy smile and assured us he was still attending school.
On my second evening back in Jakarta, tubercular Fajar and the little musicians, Ali and Dikin, arrived at my house. Fajar looked a little brighter in his eyes, but Ali was complaining of a headache and weariness. We took Ali to the hospital and it turned out that he was yet another victim of TB. He started to take his cocktail of medicines.
On a morning journey to Bogor I stopped off in Parung to see Nurul, the woman with lumps on her breasts. She was sitting on a mat at the front door of her wooden shack, her big-eyed little son at her side. I asked her if she had changed her mind about going to the hospital. She was still determined not to go. I asked her how much of the medicine she had left. She said that she had stopped taking the medicine as it made her feel sick. After failing to persuade her to change her mind about medical treatment, I left her some money, and motored on to Bogor to visit the family of Asep.
In Bogor Baru I walked through the fields of rice and tapioca until I came to the dark, damp hollow under the trees and the damp, earth-floor house where Asep had once lived, before dying of TB. Standing outside the house were Asep’s son, grinning and looking taller and less malnourished, and Asep’s daughter, still innocent and sweet in appearance. My driver had been coming to Asep’s house once a month to deliver a little money for the family. I confirmed with Asep’s smiling wife that she had been receiving the money and apparently making good use of it.
Near Asep’s house I spotted little Andi. He too was taller, but his swollen tummy suggested he still had worms.
At the mental hospital I was met with shrieks of joy by both Firdaus, the boy with the scars and lumps, and by the boy with the strange eyes. The female nurse who was in charge suggested we take the two children for a short run in my van, and stop off at a shop. We drove past the golf course, stopped at a little store, bought packets of noodles, tinned milk and biscuits and then returned to the hospital.
Near Bogor’s Jalan Pledeng, I called in at the simple red-roofed home of elfin schoolboy Dede, brother of gypsy-faced Rama.
"How are you and how is your sister?" I asked Dede who was sprawled out on the settee. I noted that his hair had grown long and that he was wearing dark glasses, an earring, a heavy-metal T-shirt, and ripped jeans. There was no sign of Rama or granny.
"Fine, mister," said Dede. "But I’ve had dysentery."
Now, what did I know about dysentery? There is bacillary dysentery caused by bacteria. There is amoebic dysentery caused by a tiny amoeba. And sometimes dysentery can be caused by parasitic worms. One study done on a sample of several hundred apparently healthy Indonesian schoolchildren showed that over 70% of them had some type of parasitic infection.
In some areas, 80% of Indonesians have had bacillary dysentery by the time they’re aged five. With bacillary dysentery, the disease strikes suddenly. At its worst there is abdominal pain, stools may become watery, there may be fever, nausea and vomiting, and there may be muscular pains, chills, backache and headache. After one or two days there can be pain in the rectum and lower abdomen and frequent small stools which may or may not contain mucus and blood. In severe cases there may be rapid weight loss and dehydration; the bug invades the lining of the large bowel and multiplies there, killing cells. Occasionally the bug invades the bowel beyond the surface lining. One form of bacillary dysentery produces a toxin, which causes additional tissue damage, and may lead to kidney failure. A doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Some strains of the bug are becoming resistant.
Amoebic Dysentery is common in Indonesia. In some regions over half the population are carriers of amoebic cysts. This is partly because human excrement is used as fertiliser. The cyst is the inactive stage. When cysts enter the body with contaminated food or water they are changed inside the intestine into active amoebas and may cause dysentery. The symptoms usually begin gradually. Some people who have the amoeba show no symptoms. But if the amoeba gets through the intestinal wall, ulceration takes place and there is diarrhoea which may be mild or which may involve high fever and frequent watery stools with blood and mucus.
With chronic amoebic dysentery, the patient gets diarrhoea, lasting for 1 to 2 weeks, several times a year. This can be dangerous if the amoebae spread to the liver or brain, and form abscesses there. Destruction of liver tissue is the most frequent complication of amoebic dysentery. Infection by amoebas, whether of the intestine alone or of other parts of the body, is called amebiasis. To diagnose dysentery a hospital should take several fresh stool samples over a number of days. This is because some of the stool samples of infected people will show no signs of amoeba. The disease may be treated with a ten day course of a drug like metronidazole to remove the amoeba from the intestines, with a drug such as iodoquinol to make sure the bug is completely killed off, with an antibiotic to deal with any bacterial infection, and finally with a drug to deal with any infection of the liver.
"What kind of dysentery have you had?" I asked Dede.
"Don’t know," said Dede.
"Did the doctor do any tests? Did he take a sample of any diarrhoea?"
"No," said Dede, with an amused look on his face.
"What medicine did he give you?"
Dede showed me a small cheap plastic envelope which failed to list the name of the medicine it had once contained.
"The doctor told me to keep my finger nails clean," said Dede, holding up nails that looked cleaner than those of your average Indonesian.
"Are you better now?" I asked. I had noted that Dede showed no obvious signs of weight loss.
"I’m better now," said Dede.
I politely declined the offer of tea and cakes.
After lunch of cola and biscuits at the Internusa shopping centre, I went for a stroll. Outside a brightly painted Moslem school, a brick structure that appeared to consist of perhaps only one or two classrooms, a skinny young boy with skinny bare legs was selling cakes from a tray. Around the boy, tropical sunlight created Matisse-like blocks of brilliant colour: the blue of the school door, the green of the wall, the pink of the boy’s shirt. The boy’s eyes sparkled with joy and his smile was wide and almost saucy. I took a photo and gave the child a few coins. He told me his name was Chandra.
I continued my walk, ascending steep stone paths and following winding lanes. It was Bogor at its best: a jumble of house walls and flowering shrubs with different shapes and textures and smells, a host of happy children, and the sort of air of gaiety you might expect on a sunny day on Italy’s Amalfi coast.
After half an hour I found myself back near the Moslem school and sighted Chandra with a group of small friends.
"Give me some money," said Chandra, holding out his hand and not smiling.
"I’ve already given you some," I explained.
"I need money," said Chandra, scowling.
"I’m not giving you any more."
Chandra’s eyes looked moist. He turned his back on me and stomped off.