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.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Night Club

One November evening, I was invited by a teaching colleague called Ian to a night club in East Jakarta. Ian's thinning hair, pale face and tired-looking eyes suggested that either he was very conscientious about lesson preparation or that he spent many hours chatting to people in all-night bars. Or possibly both. Ian and I were accompanied by Ian's silver-haired, straight backed friend called Richard. The latter, who had a touch of Bogart about him, was a former North-of-England police officer who was helping to train Jakarta's police. I wondered if it was possible that he was working for the British secret service. Ian was single; Richard was married.

The night club was a long dark room with a small wooden stage at one end. On this stage, six shapely girls in skimpy black skirts and tight white T-shirts were dancing to Sundanese music. Brown was the colour of the walls, the soft furnishings and the paintwork around the neon-lit bar. The main clientele at that hour of the evening seemed to be small, middle-aged, male Indonesians, with enough money to buy decent shoes and suits. These gentlemen might well have been civil servants. The air carried an aroma of clove cigarette smoke and damp cellars.

"How did you find this place, Richard?" Ian asked, after we had found a table and ordered big wet Bintang beers. Ian's lack of a smile suggested that he might have been happier in a more elegant bar at a four star hotel.

"An Indonesian police officer brought me here," said Richard. His twinkling eyes gave me the impression that he rather liked this den.

"Must be safe then," I commented. I usually enjoyed new places like this, at least for the first half hour.

"Let's say," said Richard, "that certain army and police officers protect these clubs, for a fee. The only fighting is when different regiments fall out over territory. There was a fight around here a few months ago."

"I heard the protection doesn't always work," said Ian, stifling a yawn.

"True," said Richard. "Last year police raided a gambling place down the road. Upstairs from the snooker. They arrested a civilian and a soldier. They found some shabu-shabu and some heroin."

"Shabu-shabu?" I asked.

"Crystal methamphetamine. A drug."

"What happened?" I said.

"The civilian got what I'd call a short sentence," explained Richard, "In court the police only produced a small part of the shabu-shabu. They said the original weighing of the drug had been inaccurate, due to faulty equipment. The soldiers were handed over to the military police but have never been prosecuted, as far as I know."

"Are you helping to improve the police?" I asked Richard.

"The traffic police are becoming more professional all the time," he said, while looking in the direction of the stage.

"I was stopped by a traffic cop last week," said Ian, in a tired voice. "I had to hand over thirty thousand rupiahs. The cop said I hadn't seen this traffic sign, but nobody could have seen it. The money went straight into his pocket."

"That policeman probably gets paid not much more than five dollars a week," said Richard. "He can't survive on that. His family would starve without the payoffs."

"One of our neighbours had his house burgled," said Ian. "It turned out that it was soldiers who did the robbery. They caught them but I don't think they were punished."

"Detectives can make quite a bit of money," explained Richard. "When an arrested criminal is allowed to escape, he pays quite a lot to the detective."

"What I don't like," said Ian, "is when soldiers are used to turf poor people off their land. Some big guy wants to build luxury houses, so he employs soldiers to demolish shacks and evict the occupants. Some poor family that's worked hard to send its children to school loses its home."

"It's rumoured that about half the crime in Jakarta is committed by the armed forces," said Richard, looking very slightly amused.

"Are the Americans still training Indonesian officers?" I asked.

"That stopped, didn't it, after the massacre in East Timor, 1991?" said Ian.

"Most of the top generals and about half the other officers are American-trained," said Richard.

"But the American Congress banned funds for further training?" said Ian.

"The Pentagon has found ways to get round that," said Richard.

"Is the training improving the army?" I asked, naively.

"Who teaches torture, kidnapping and other dirty tricks to armies all around the world?" said Ian.

"The Yanks," said Richard.

"Not the Americans as such," said Ian, looking deadly serious, "but the fascist element within the Pentagon and CIA. These are the people who trained the Shah of Iran's secret police and the people who think nothing of killing children and then putting the blame on some group of left-wingers or Moslems."

"It's called demonisation," said Richard, "Blame everything on the Americans."

"Who should get the blame?" asked Ian. "Don't the Americans cause most of the problems of the world?"

"There's a bit of Henry Kissinger in all of us," said Richard. "And I think Mau was responsible for more deaths than most people."

A slim little girl, with a sweet but serious face, suddenly sat herself down at our table.

"Like to dance?" she said to Richard. Was he chosen because of his expensive suit?

"I'm married," said Richard, blushing happily, "but I need some exercise."

He got up, led the girl to a distant corner of the room, and began to dance. His body looked clumsy and convulsive. By comparison, the movements of the girl's wrists, ankles and neck were refined, delicate and fluid.

"How are things at school?" I asked Ian, who did not seem to want to turn round to look at the dancers.

"Most of the students are wonderful, especially the Asians," said Ian. "But I had two little problems this term. A French student called Michel was behaving less than perfectly. He's very cute-looking and thinks he can away with anything. I had a word with his mother. It seems that Michel's dad has got himself an Indonesian girlfriend and he's been parading her all around town. This may account for Michel's attention seeking behaviour. The latest development is that Michel has been in hospital in Singapore recovering from meningitis. His mother says he's better now and he promises to behave. Then there's Nan and Maryati. They allegedly had a fight in a corridor. I phoned up Maryati's mother and she explained that both girls are under stress. Nan's parents, who're Belgian, are getting divorced. Maryati's father, who's Dutch, has got himself an Indonesian boyfriend."

"It sounds like Britain," I commented. "Except that it's worse in Britain.I got a letter from an old friend who's a teacher back in England. He writes about how the majority of the children have been through divorce. His school seems to be full of disruptive schoolboys and pregnant schoolgirls."

When Richard returned from the dance floor, the girl joined us briefly at our table.

"This is Melati," said Richard. "Great dancer."

Ian surreptitiously took a card from his pocket and passed it to the girl.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Christmas was fast approaching and I felt it would be a good idea to spend a relaxing weekend down at the coast. I wanted some clean sea air and I wanted to take some pictures with my recently purchased video camera. I announced to Mo, my driver, that at the end of the week we would be going to the seaside town of Pelabuhan Ratu, if that was all right with him. Mo agreed, but his face showed a total lack of enthusiasm.

The school library provided some information about the Queen of the Southern Seas, Nyai Loro Kidul, after whom Pelabuhan Ratu, the Harbour of the Queen, is named. There are a number of versions of the origin of Nyai Loro Kidul. In one version she was the daughter of Prabu Sindhula, the 13th century ruler of the West Javanese kingdom of Galuh. As a result of her pure and chaste life, the princess was transformed into a spirit, and became queen of all the spirits in Java.

A more popular version of the story has it that the lady was the beautiful daughter of Siliwangi, a Javanese King who had several wives. Jealousy of the beautiful princess and of her mother led to black magic being used against them. The princess and her mother became ill, lost their good looks, and were forced to leave the court. The mother died. One day the princess found herself on the Karang Hawu cliff near Pelabuhan Ratu. Mysterious voices persuaded her to leap into the sea, whereupon she was magically transformed into the beautiful Nyai Loro Kidul, Queen of the Southern Seas, a goddess ruling an undersea realm. Some Javanese males picture Nyai Loro Kidul as a sexy, long-haired nymph with swaying hips. The warning is given that she must not be looked at when she is bathing, otherwise misfortune will strike.

Saturday morning arrived, I dumped my suitcase in the back of the van , hummed a Christmassy tune and discovered that one of the vehicle's tyres was flat. That took Mo half an hour to fix. Then we discovered we had an empty petrol tank, which meant further delay. Was Mo trying to tell me something?

On the way to Pelabuhan Ratu I stopped off in Bogor, where I briefly called in at the house of Daud, the boy who had recently been taken home from the mental hospital. Mum was out at work, but Daud's brother, a handsome youth with a studious face, welcomed me in and took me upstairs to Daud's room. Daud had now been home from the hospital for some time and was cured of his diarrhoea. He was seated on the floor fiddling with a rubber band. Unlike Min, whose eyes could sparkle with intelligence and warmth, Daud's eyes seemed to stare with a puzzled blankness. But at least he was now well-fed and well-clothed, and that offered me some cheer.

From Bogor Mo and I drove on to Ciawi and then took the right fork to Cicurug. Just before Cibadak we stopped for a brief rest at a roadside stall. Over to our right lay Mount Halimun National Park, an area of misty mountains, unspoilt rainforest and what are reputed to be dangerous spirits. I had read that the loggers had not yet managed to enter this area , which was good news for the Hornbills, the Sunda Minivets, the Racket-tailed Drongos, the Javan gibbons, the Javan Leaf-monkeys, and the giant hardwood timber trees such as the Rasamala and the Meranti.

When Mo and I eventually arrived in Pelabuhan Ratu, the weather was breezy and grey, but one patch of cloud had a yellow brightness which suggested that the sun might be just about to burst through. As I got out of the Mitsubishi near the harbour, the sails of the fishing boats were flapping noisily and the tops of the coconut palms were being bent to one side. Next to the market there was a truckload of armed soldiers; and on the road into the town I had noticed two more military vehicles.

I entered a little wooden shop in order to buy a non-alcoholic drink called teh botol. "What's going on? Why the military?" I asked the thin woman behind the counter.

"There's been a riot," she said, without showing any emotion. "Some students tried to burn down the house of a Chinese businessman."


"The Chinese have opened a supermarket. They'll take business away from the small traders."

"Is it peaceful now?"

"Sort of. But I'd stay away from the area beyond the hospital."

When I booked into the Samudra Beach hotel I noticed there were two army officers in the lobby.

Having unpacked, I took a stroll along the wide wet sands in front of the hotel. At some distance off I spied a fisherwoman and her long-haired teenage daughter, both draped in towels, and both about to enter the sea. I stopped beside a clump of palm trees and unpacked my video camera. As I looked through the lens I could see the fisherwoman up to her neck in water, and the slim daughter up to her waist. Should I press the shutter? It was a perfect scene, comprising foamy sea, two distant fishing boats, a wild sky and a girl's beautiful naked back. I took some film.

I made more use of my camera at an open-air fish market where women and young boys were selling bright red tuna, shiny squid and long black eels. I moved my camera up close to a particularly large hammerhead shark. The air had a pleasing aroma of salty sea and mackerel.

My photography finished, I paid a visit to a fishing family in the centre of town. I wanted to see how Ali, a little hunchback boy, was getting on. His wooden house was simply furnished but its white interior walls and its sizeable windows gave it a bright and cheerful feel. A smiling Ali looked less starved than on my previous visit. His stressed looking mum offered me a glass of water, which I carefully avoided drinking.

Next I motored to the wooden hovel occupied by Marni, the thalassaemia girl. Marni's mum was standing at her front door and she was carrying Marni wrapped up in a cloth, like an oversized baby.

"Has she had a blood transfusion yet?" I asked, after we had exchanged pleasantries.

"No. She doesn't want one," said the mother quietly.

"Has your relative given you that money he was supposed to pass on?" As I said this I could see a fat, brown-uniformed policeman, shirt partly hanging out, standing across the road.

"Not yet."

I gave Marni's mum some more money and then went for a solitary wander along the beach, heading eastwards. My driver had instructions to drive slowly along the coast road which runs parallel to the beach, in case I wanted a lift back to town.

I came upon two boys in cheap anoraks sitting on a fishing boat and wondered if I should take a photo. No. The boys appeared terrified. They kept looking towards a tall crew-cut man standing on the road. I had never before seen Indonesian children so frightened and decided to move on swiftly. Goodness knows who the man was.

The further I walked, the more impoverished grew the fishermen's wooden huts and the blacker grew the sky. Rain began to patter down. I hurried over the soft sand, trying to avoid the occasional piles of human excrement. I could see my vehicle parked on the road, but I was making for an open-air stall selling snacks and cola. A jolt of thunder and torrential rain made me run the final yards to this warung, which had the benefit of a wooden roof.

I ordered a cola and took a seat. "What happened to your leg?" I said to the mop-headed boy stretched out on the wooden bench to my left. He looked about twelve, was wearing brown school shorts, and his left knee and part of his left thigh were red, swollen and puss covered.

"I got hit by a car. A military vehicle. It didn't stop."

"Not been to a doctor?"


"Like to go to the hospital?" I asked, while noting that my vehicle was still stopped on the nearby road, and that Mo was looking in our direction.

"Yes please," he said, suddenly looking cheerful. "Can my big sister come too?"

"Of course."

"There's a sick baby in the house over there." He pointed to a thatch covered hut.

"It can come too, with its mum."

"And there's an old man who's sick."

By the time we reached the little hospital a desperately thin woman had also joined our company.

"You can't come in here with your camera," said a stout little man in a beige uniform who was standing at the hospital entrance. "You can't use a camera in this part of town."

I was annoyed by his officiousness and lack of charm. I wasn't going to give in. "I'm a tourist. Surely I can take pictures," I complained.

"Leave your camera in your hotel," he said, moving towards me with his teeth showing.

I gave the camera to my driver and waited in reception for my patients to see various doctors and collect an assortment of pills. I hoped Mo would not look at what I had been filming.


Monday, November 21, 2005


In the late afternoon Mo drove me to the town's small fishing harbour so I could take pictures of fishing boats. I passed two policeman standing near the wide open entrance at the harbour's eastern end.

"Have you paid to enter?" said one of the policemen, a tall thirty-something-year-old, with a sly face.

"Oh yes," I lied. I was sure you didn't have to pay to wander around this harbour which I had visited many times before.

I photographed a number of oily little fishing boats with bright painted lettering on their sides. These were relatively small scale vessels but they did have engines and nets and they were bigger than the wooden catamarans I had seen on the beach. Much of Indonesia's fishing fleet still uses hook and line but there is increasing use of more advanced gear. I spotted a couple of fishermen mending nets but they would not smile for the camera. They looked too anxious. I decided to return to my van where my driver was lounging against the front door. The two policeman were standing a few yards distant.

"The police want you to go to the police station," said Mo, smiling slightly.


"You have to go to the police station. You can go in your own vehicle."

As Mo and I made the five minute drive to the police station, I was wondering what I had done wrong. Had I failed to pay my TV license? They weren't to know. Had I deeply offended the two policemen by not giving them money? Surely not. Did they suspect me of being a Libyan agent trying to start a revolution? I wasn't wearing dark glasses and a funny hat. What was worrying me was the video shots of the naked girl's back. I could be blackmailed. I picked up my camera, found the start of the section relating to the girl, faced the camera towards the van's floor and started to record.

The police station was a low rise building occupying a narrow space between the main road and a steep tree covered bank. Inside I was invited to have a seat at a long table in a dimly-lit inner room. To my right stood a middle aged army officer with what looked like a submachine gun. He looked like the sort of big muscular chap you might find in a friendly rugby club bar. To my left sat an unsmiling, moustachioed little man who seemed to be the boss and who took a great interest in my passport. Opposite sat a tall young plainclothes policeman whose relaxed posture and bright eyes suggested an above average degree of wealth and education. The two policemen from the fishing harbour stood by the door.

"You are a teacher," said the boss. "Do you know an Australian called John Harris? He teaches at your school." I think he was trying to give me the impression that he knew absolutely everything that went on.

"Ah, I'm not sure about the name. We have a lot of changes of staff," I said. The John who taught at my school, and who had a young girlfriend in Pelabuhan Ratu, was not Australian and his name was John Harrison. John presumably did not show his passport to these chaps. Or maybe the boss was trying to trick me.

"We want you to tell us everything you've been doing in Pelabuhan Ratu," said the boss.

So I told them, in great detail, all about Ali, Marni, my walk along the beach, the kid with the car injury, the sick baby and all the others. I missed out the bit about the policeman with his shirt hanging out and the bit about the policemen asking if I had paid to look around the harbour. Fortunately I had not taken any photos of military installations, so far as I knew.

The young plainclothes policeman looked as if he was delighted to have come across a genuinely eccentric and harmless foreigner. He sat back in his chair, grinning widely.

The boss still looked stiff and stern. He called in Mo who was asked to relate everything I had been doing throughout day. Fortunately the two accounts were the same, although Mo decided to complete his narration with a comment about my character.

"Mr Kent likes children," said Mo.

I hoped that would not be interpreted in the wrong way, and that no plainclothes policeman had been watching me filming the girl in the sea.

The boss now seemed to believe it was safe to let me go, but first he wanted to demonstrate who was in charge.

"If you come back to Pelabuhan Ratu and go to visit these people you must first call in at this police station. We'll get someone to accompany you to these people's houses."

This angered me as it made Pelabuhan Ratu appear to be like Enver Hoxha's Albania or Kim Il-Sung's North Korea. However, deciding to be obsequious and diplomatic, I shook the hands of the various policemen and soldiers and made remarks about English football and the weather.

On the road back to the hotel I tried to work out in my mind what they had been after. Did they think I was a dangerous provocateur or did they want money? I decided to ask my driver.

"Mo, why did the police say they'd get someone to come with me next time I visit Ali or Marni?"

"I think they want to protect you, Mr Kent," said Mo. "If you go into a kampung, carrying money, it's not too safe."

"But this is a very small town, full of friendly people and plainclothes policemen. Nobody would dare mug a tourist in broad daylight. And isn't robbery very rare in a Moslem country?"


"If I see a child whose been hit by a military vehicle, surely I can take the child to the hospital without having to ask permission."

"Mr Kent, my son is ill," said Mo, suddenly changing the subject. There was also a change in his voice. He was trying to sound relaxed but he was sounding a little high-pitched. "Can you help with the bill?"

"Your son's ill! You didn't tell me. When did it happen?"

"Before we came away. He's only three. He fell off a chair."

"Has he been to the doctor?"

"Yes. The doctor examined him and told him to rest."

"Give me the receipt when we get back and I'll pay the bill."

Mo was a puzzle. Why had he not told me about his son before we set out?

Two days after returning to Jakarta, my driver assured me that his son was making a swift recovery. That evening, I played back the video film on my TV screen. I had successfully wiped out only four fifths of the footage of the girl's back. And prior to the pictures of Pelabuhan Ratu there was a scene showing Mount Salak, a small lake, and a raft on which stood various young people who were not exactly overdressed. But Indonesia is like that; the Jakarta Post frequently features photos of naked schoolboys bathing in rivers or in fountains in front of five star hotels.


Sunday, November 20, 2005


I was in Kem Chicks supermarket, shopping for Australian sirloin steak, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Tom, the amiable, slightly balding, forty-three-year-old expat who had once had a sixteen-year-old Indonesian girlfriend called Kuntil. Tom was looking less dishevelled than on the previous occasion when I had met him, but he still looked rather pale. We caught up on news while having a coffee in the upstairs restaurant.

"No more problems with young ladies demanding money?" I asked, while putting sugar into my cup of Old Java.

"No more problems," said Tom, in a relaxed tone of voice. "A couple of weeks ago I met a university student called Melati. We met at the Tavern. She was telling me that Indonesians are very relaxed about sex."

"Apart from those affected by Dutch Calvinism," I said. "And Islamic fundamentalism."

"That's right. Melati's father's a lecturer in Sociology. He's half Dutch. Melati knows all about Indonesia's culture. You'd be amazed what goes on."

"Such as?"

"You know about the banci? That's the Indonesian transvestites. There's evidently lots of them all over Jakarta."

"I don't think I've ever seen one."

"Melati was telling me that, in many parts of Indonesia, girls used to get married when they reached the age of puberty. There are these islands off Sumatra called the Mentawai Islands. Mentawai girls used to go in for free love from about the age of thirteen."

"Sounds like Manchester," I said, assuming that Tom, as a Manchunian, would not take offence.

"Manchester will never be as relaxed as this country," said Tom, with a slight grin. "Have you heard of the warok?"

"Something that goes on in the kitchen?"

"The warok come from East Java, from Ponorogo. They started as the followers of a poet in a fifteenth century kingdom. They're supposed to have magical powers, but only if they avoid sex with women. So they have sex with young boys. Melati was also telling me about the royal courts in Bali and in Aceh in Sumatra. Men there also had sex with boys. Have you heard of sedattis?"

"No, and I hope they're not too extreme," I said, almost in a whisper. "There's a couple sitting at a table behind you. Kind of big and porky. Might be Americans or Germans. Maybe unhappy Calvinists. Hope they're not parents of one of my students."

"Sedattis," said Tom in quiet voice, "were catamites, young dancing boys. You got them in both north and south Sumatra. Their job was to entertain men. There was something similar in other parts of Indonesia. On Bali, little boys, called gandrungs, would dress up as girls, and dance for the men."

"What about the women?" I asked, in my quietest voice.

"Women on Bali went in for the same sorts of things as the men. In the royal court in Yogyakarta, in Java, there was a women-only area. They had same-sex goings-on there."

"Where does Melati get all this information?"

"One of the people she mentioned was a German, back at the beginning of the century. Someone called Ferdinand Karsch-Haack."

"You've heard of Margaret Mead?" I asked.

"The anthropologist who went to Samoa."

"That's the one. Margaret Mead said the Samoans were much less stressed than the Americans, because they were more easygoing about sex. That was in the 1920's. More recently, some critics have said that Mead got her information from young people who exaggerated what they were getting up to. Maybe Melati's sources give an exaggerated picture?"

"Mead is still basically correct," insisted Tom. "Samoa was more relaxed in the 1920's. Now it's become Americanised and is full of born-again fundamentalists. They've got sweatshops, growing crime and incredibly high suicide rates."

"Melati's going to make you a world-expert on these things."

"I only met her twice. She's not been back to the Hyatt for at least a fortnight."

"Is she liberal in outlook?"

"I think she's in two minds."


Saturday, November 19, 2005


It was January 1994 and Min's house in South Jakarta, the one next to his former school at Wisma Utara, was still empty. It was time to find out if Iwan, the boy with leprosy, was ready to move out of the leprosy hospital and into Min's former home.

On a sunny Saturday morning I motored to the hospital in Bekasi to see Iwan and his granny. I have to admit that I might have misjudged the place. Now, as I arrived, I was noticing the hospital's flowering bushes, the neat patches of vegetables, and the training workshops. Iwan was seated beside his granny on a bench outside his ward.

"Iwan! How are you?" I asked. I could see he was now chunky, almost fat.

"Good, Mr Kent. We want to go home." Iwan wore a wistful, pleading expression.

"Let's go and see the doctor," I said, hoping I would not meet the middle-aged doctor with whom I had once quarrelled. "He may want you to stay."

Dr Agus was a friendly young man with intelligent eyes. There were a few damp patches on the ceiling in his surgery; the metal chairs were uncomfortable; but the doctor's white coat was spotless.

"Iwan would be better staying here, for physiotherapy," said the doctor, smiling warmly, "but he can treat himself at home as long as he calls in here once a month for any surgical work required on ulcers. He still has to get his medicine. There's some resistance to the drugs but they're still effective for most people and they are working for Iwan. You know it can take years to cure leprosy."

"Is he a risk to anyone?"

"Not as long as he's getting his medicine. It's like TB."

"What causes the leprosy?" I asked.

"Bacillus mycobacterium leprae is the bug. This kind is related to the TB bacteria but it grows much more slowly. We think you get leprosy by long term, close contact with an infected person. It's not easy to catch and most people seem to have immunity."

"So Iwan probably caught it from someone in his village in Karawang? Wouldn't he have kept a distance from someone with their flesh eaten away?"

"At first, people show no signs of the illness," said the doctor, "but they may still be infectious. And in some homes you may get a dozen people sleeping in one small room. You know we're still getting a lot of new cases."

"So what does leprosy do to you?"

"Skin sores and ulcers develop. There's numbness. Flesh and nerves get destroyed. The ends of toes and fingers may disappear."

"So Iwan will always be limping around?"

"I'm afraid so. Ideally we'd go into patient's homes and villages and wipe this disease out."

"Why's that not happening?"

"In Indonesia we don't spend enough on health. Much less than Malaysia. And some of the money is misused. Another problem is training. There's no minimum standard for doctors and nurses."

"How is money misused?"

"Let's just say that some administrators lead very comfortable lives. When you pay a bill, always get a receipt. Otherwise the money could go into someone's pocket."

"Does that happen here?"

"Not here." The doctor was looking at his broken filing cabinet.

"You mentioned nurses?" I said.

"It's a problem in this country. My mother was in Hospital. The doctors were good but some of the nurses would never have passed nursing exams in Singapore or elsewhere. One nurse was trying to attach a drip and managed to get blood all over the floor. No rubber gloves."

Iwan was looking unhappy.

"So," I said, turning to Iwan, "The doctor would prefer you to stay here."

"Mr Kent, I want to go home," he said, looking tearful.

"Will you remember to take the pills?" I asked.

"Yes, Mr Kent."

"OK. Do you want to live in Min's former house in Cipete?"

"OK, Mr Kent." Iwan smiled shyly and his granny gave a big toothless grin.

Friday, November 18, 2005


It was a drizzly Sunday morning and Min was having one of his depressed days. Seated in his front room, he was avoiding eye contact, keeping a physical distance from people, and looking as if he had a bad migraine headache. Of course, with his limited vocabulary, he couldn't explain how he felt.

"Do you know of anyone who could become Min's friend?" I asked Wati. "Maybe some local child. I'd pay him a monthly wage."

Wati looked up from the pile of clothes she was sorting. "Yes, I know of someone. Mustapha."

"Mustapha," whispered Min, cheering up a bit.

"Who's Mustapha?" I asked.

"His parents are dead. He lives with an uncle, five minutes from here."


"Very poor."


"Yes. Do you want to meet him?" asked Wati.

"Yes please."

We found Mustapha ironing clothes in a low-roofed shack down a narrow flooded lane. We had to bend our heads to enter the front room. Mustapha was about fifteen, although he could have passed for an eleven year old, and he was blind in one eye. He had the obedient look of a faithful old family servant.

"Hello Min," said Mustapha.

Min whispered something.

Wati explained why I had come and Mustapha nodded his head in agreement.

"How much will you pay him?" asked a big moustachioed man wearing a neatly pressed black shirt.

"Eighty thousand a month. Is that OK Mustapha?"

"OK," he said, with a wary smile.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dr Joseph

It was the wet season. When I returned to Min's house a few evenings later, the ground floor had been flooded by rainwater to a depth of half a metre. My shoes were full of slimy water, some of which I deposited on the upstairs floor. Min was in a happy, excitable mood.

Min's dad took Min by the arm, possibly to calm him down, but Min shook himself free and made a face suggesting a mixture of anger and fear. Min's dad was looking scraggy and tired.

"How's Min?" I asked.

"Naughty," said Wati, screwing up her face. "Very naughty. Mustapha complains that Min hits him. Sometimes Min won't come back into the house after he's been for a walk with Mustapha."

I turned to Min's dad. "Are you feeling all right?" I asked.

"I'm fine," he said. His words sounded slurred; and that worried me.

"Been enjoying a beer at the end of the day?" I asked, like some court prosecutor, pretending to sound friendly but in fact being very rude.

"We're Moslems, Mr Kent," said Wardi softly. "We don't drink."

"Sorry," I said, realising I had been much too blunt. "Would you like Min to see Dr Joseph? He's the child psychiatrist in Dr Bahari's clinic, the one who treated Min when I first found him. Maybe he can give Min something to control his moods."

"Yes," said Wati, sounding pleased.

"And Min's dad looks a bit thin," I said. "Would you like a check-up from Dr Joseph? He's got his own surgery at his house. And Wardi can come too."

"OK," said Min's dad.

Dr Joseph's grey little maid ushered us all into the large front room of his comfortable old bungalow. On one side of the room was an enormous, brightly lit statue of the Virgin Mary and on the other side some sort of red and gold Chinese shrine beside which some scraps of food had been placed.

"How are you?" said the smiling, balding, round-faced doctor, emerging from his bedroom. "Come on into the surgery."

"Min has his up days and down days," I explained, once we were seated in the little green walled room. "We wondered if you had any medicine he could take to even things out."

"It's day about," said Wardi. "One day happy. One day sad."

"I remember," said Dr Joseph, looking terribly relaxed. "He used to be on medication."

"When we spent a week with the grandparents in Lamaya ," said Wati, "Min cried every day. He kept on saying 'Mr Kent, Mr Kent.'"

"Maybe I shouldn't have been visiting him so often," I said, feeling uncomfortable. "Maybe he's got too dependent on me."

"But we don't want Min to become a recluse," said Dr Joseph, comfortingly. "It's good for him to have friends."

"He's now got a teenage friend called Mustapha," I explained, "but sometimes Mustapha finds Min difficult to control. Min's brother, Wardi, is the only person who can get Min to come back into the house when he's been dancing about out in the street."

"All children can be naughty at times," said Dr Joseph. "He'll be easier to deal with when he's older. I'll give you some pills to help control his behaviour."

"When he was living in Dr Bahari's clinic," I reminded the doctor, "Min's medicine made him shake and made him seem totally doped. Can you give him a less strong dosage?"

"Don't worry," said the doctor, who seemed to be slurring his words, just like Min's dad. Was I imagining things? Probably.

"Can you examine Min's father? He seems a bit pale and thin," I said.

Dr Joseph gave Min's dad a fairly quick check-over before declaring him to be fit and well.

"I just wondered if the dad had been consuming something," I said to Dr Joseph in English, so the family wouldn't cotton on. "I thought he was behaving strangely."

"No, there's no problem," said Dr Joseph, smiling. The pupils of the doctor's eyes looked strangely small.

When we got back to Min's house I sighted a banci wading down the dark flooded street. He was a big muscular chap and had on too much make-up and a much too short skirt. I wondered if there was a full moon.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Somewhere beyond Sindangsari, south of Bogor, I took a Saturday morning stroll. My path was prettified by Rangoon Creeper, Frangipani and Morning Glory. The sun was making tiger patterns on kampung walls and reflecting off the wings of orange dragonflies and specks of floating dust. Blue smoke was drifting heavenwards from wooden foodstalls. Children with the faces of angels were tending sleepy goats.

Hearing dangdut music coming from distant dreamy woods, I crossed fields of rich brown earth and tall papaya to find the source. Hidden in the trees was a hamlet in the centre of which a crowd had gathered for some kind of festivity. On a temporary wooden stage, three girls in tight trousers sang and danced, their sensual movements being copied by a host of small children assembled beneath. The girl taking centre stage had curvaceous lips, a pretty belly button and a tendency, from time to time, to touch certain parts of her body.

"A celebration?" I asked a stoop-shouldered old man who was leaning against a tree.

"It's a wedding," he said. "Come and meet the bridegroom." He took my arm and pulled me towards a group standing under a green canopy.

"Hi. I'm the groom," said a broad-chested young man whose relaxed face seemed full of self-assurance. His dark silky shirt and gold rings suggested a degree of prosperity. "That's my bride over there beside the food tables." He pointed nonchalantly in the direction of a grey faced woman who appeared less than ravishing.

"You're very lucky," I said.

"I've got two wives now," said the groom. "Today's marriage is an arranged one. It's about money. Not love."

I felt and probably looked embarrassed. "I see," I said. I avoided drinking the potion in the glass brought to me by a pretty girl.

"In Indonesia we don't have to be in love all the time," said the groom. "An arranged marriage is best."

"Different from my country," I said.

"A man only fancies a woman for a short time. But marriage should last a lifetime."

"So you marry a woman who'll be your best friend," I suggested.

"No. Marriage is about money and about producing children."

"What about physical closeness?"

"That comes from my family and my pals." As he said this he put his arm around the man standing next to him. I presumed this was a brother or a former schoolmate.

"You must get some food," said the old man.

I wandered over to the food table but had no wish to risk eating anything. When I had had my fill of listening to the music and watching the dancing, I sneaked away through the trees in the direction of the neighbouring village.

I had walked quite a distance along a narrow path before I realised I was being followed by a short-skirted girl, aged about fourteen, and a boy aged about thirteen. "Mister, where are you going? Looking for your hotel?" asked the impish boy.

"I want to get lunch," I said.

"My mother works in the local hotel," said the boy. "Come with us. We'll show you."


"My name's Hassan," said boy, who had a packet of cigarettes sticking out of one of the pockets in his blue school shorts.

Off the main road, beside a sign saying 'Motel', stood a disappointingly dull villa in a large grey garden. Hassan accompanied me into the entrance hall. The girl vanished.

"Mister wants to eat," announced Hassan to the attractive looking woman behind the reception desk. He muttered some additional words to the woman in Sundanese, and then, turning to me, said, "This is my mum." Mum smiled without much conviction.

"Through there," said the woman pointing to a shabby room with a bar, small tables, some arcade games, and one large table being used by two schoolboys to play snooker.

I thanked her, went to look at a menu, and ordered chicken and chips and a beer. Hassan played electronic games while I chewed tough overcooked flesh and took the occasional glance at a sulky, sickly girl who had arrived at the bar.

When I had finished my meal, Mum came over to my table and sat down. Her hair was immaculate and her eyes shone with good health.

"Mister is staying in Bogor?"

"No. I'm going back to Jakarta. I've got a house there."

"Here is no good," she said, winking. "Around here there are preman. Hoodlums."


"Smuggling, protection rackets, drugs." She looked serious.

I had read that smuggling was big business in Indonesia and involved such things as oil, cars, timber, sugar, parrots, primates and people. "You're not frightened?" I asked.

"We are protected."

Two men wearing army-style trousers and T-shirts came in and sat at the bar.

"I think I'll go for a walk," I said.

Hassan insisted on following me along a canal path that ran through the local village.

"Up there," said Hassan, pointing to a smart little white bungalow, with a neat garden, at the top of a wooded slope.

"What's that?"

"My house. Come and meet my sister."

"Is your father at home?"

"He works in Jakarta."

We entered what seemed to be an empty house, the front door of which had not been locked. My emotions were a mixture of pleasant excitement and guilt. What would the sister look like? Should I be entering this house without a chaperone?

"Want a drink?" asked Hassan, moving towards an expensive fridge from which he extracted two cans of cola.

"Thanks." My eyes surveyed the Islamic pictures, the TV, the video and the music centre. Mum was earning good money.

"Istirahat. Have a rest," said Hassan.

I sat in a comfortable chair to sip my drink. Hassan entered a side room and returned wearing a Liverpool T-shirt. Grinning, he held up a poster showing the football team.

"You play football?" I asked.

"In goal." He sat on the floor.

"Where did the T-shirt come from?"

"The market. Who do you support?"

"Arsenal." To be honest I don't even know which part of London that team comes from.

"There was an incident down at the river last week," said Hassan, as he lit a kretek cigarette.

"Ah? What happened?"

"A man tried to steal a motorbike. He got caught by some of the local people. They beat him up."

"He was seriously injured?"

"The police came along just in time to save his life and took him to hospital."

"Anyone get arrested?"


"How did the local people know the man was stealing the bike?"

Hassan sucked on his cigarette. "Everyone keeps an eye on things. Everyone knows what's happening."

"At night?"

"There's a patrol."

"Anyone ever go the police?"

"People don't usually go to the police. But every village has someone from the army."

Now I could understand why it was safe to leave a house unlocked.

"I think I should be continuing my walk. I've got some people to see," I said.

Hassan lay back on the floor with his hands behind his head. "Relax, mister. Too hot outside. You haven't met my sister."

"Is she at work?"

"She's behind you."

I turned my head and my eyes stared. Sat behind me, near the door, was a cute young lady, exhibiting lots of eye shadow, nail varnish and slim leg. She must have been there for some minutes.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi," she said, flashing her eye lashes and adjusting her seating position. She had the sweet gypsy look of the Sundanese and must have been about eighteen years of age.

"My sister was ill last week," said Hassan. "Dysentery."

An old woman waddled into the room. Behind her, in the hall way, was a bare-chested yokel with a machete in one hand.

"I really must be on my way," I said. I had a fear that the entire village was about to come and stare through the windows.

"Mister, relax," said Hassan, scratching himself.

"No. I must go." I got up and headed for the exit. Hassan escorted me to my van, near which stood a military policeman and his motorbike. My heart jumped. I shook hands with Hassan and slowly got into my vehicle. Mo and I drove off.

"What was the military policeman doing?" I asked Mo.

"He said we shouldn't be parked there."

"Did you give him any money?"

"I had to."

"I wonder how he knew you were parked there?"


Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Back in Bogor I went to see tubercular Asep and malnourished little Andi in order to hand out the usual money for food and medicines. Asep seemed to have lost weight again and Andi's swollen tummy suggested he still had worms.

I was walking back to my vehicle when I spotted Agosto, the pale, sad child who had had typhoid, and Ciah, his mother, who had had hepatitis. We were close to their miserable, damp shack which stood beneath some gloomy trees. I did not really want to meet them as I had not much money left in my pocket and I felt I had helped them both quite a bit already. Surely some of the rich local people could help. There were several large mansions within one hundred metres, including the home of a Regent, or some such official, and the home of a man working for the oil company Pertamina. I had once asked the Pertamina man for help to buy medicine but had been turned down. He had been busy watching one of his large vehicles being polished by a servant.

"Mister," said Ciah, sounding tired, "I need money."

"My mother's sick," said Agosto.

"I need to go back to the hospital" said Ciah.

"What's the problem?" I asked. She didn't look too bad. She was standing up and there was no sign of fever.

"I don't feel well."

"I haven't much money left on me at the moment," I explained, "but I'll give you enough to see a doctor." I gave her some rupiahs.

"That's not enough to go into hospital," said Ciah quietly.

"But it's enough to consult the doctor and get outpatient medicine. See what the doctor says."


Monday, November 14, 2005


I was being driven homewards along a narrow country road, relatively near to the mental hospital in Bogor's Babakan. Through the vehicle window I glimpsed a child standing by the roadside, a child who looked both solitary and disturbed. In Indonesia, children are seldom on their own. I asked the driver to stop and went to investigate. In front of me stood a barefoot boy of about eleven with a cheerful and handsome face. He looked well fed but unwashed; he repeatedly put his hand up to his mouth as if to eat and chew nonexistent food; and he repeatedly moved his head to one side in jerky movements.

"Hello. What's your name?" I asked.

He looked at me quizzically but seemed unable to speak. After several more unanswered questions I took his hand and led him down the street to a little shop. The shopkeeper helped us find the local community official or R.T. to whom I explained the situation.

"Do you know where the boy comes from?" I asked. "Does he belong to this area?"

"No," said the R.T., a large man with a bristly chin. He looked as if he might have been a retired sergeant-major.

"Can you keep an eye on him? I'll give you some money to buy soap and things."

"Certainly," said the R.T.

"I'll come back in a week's time and see how he is. I'll take a photo of him to show to the police and hospitals and Pos Kota newspaper."

"Good," said the R.T.

Things seemed to be suddenly organised. Already the boy was being hosed down in front of the mosque and he didn't seem to mind all the attention. His head had stopped jerking.

"How has he been getting food?" I asked the R.T.

"There's an old widow who gives him scraps," he replied.

"Does he have a name?"

"We'll call him Wisnu."


Saturday, November 12, 2005


A week had passed and I was back again in Bogor, this time visiting Kebun Raya, the Great Garden, 87 hectares of flora and fauna.

I passed through the gloomy main gates, with their statues of the Hindu god Ganesh, and strolled along the dark tree lined avenues. There were Javanese almond trees, huge strangling figs, mighty flame trees and fifty-meter-high king trees with buttress roots almost as big as the arches that hold up cathedrals.

Eventually I came to lovely English-style lawns, where adults were practising tai-chi, and lotus ponds, where children were looking for fish. Sitting down in the tea house, I decided to consult my guide book.

The Bogor Botanic Garden was the idea of Sir Stamford Raffles, who temporarily ran Java for the British between 1811 and 1816.

The Dutch used the garden to develop various crops such as quinine and cassava. Quinine, from the cinchona tree, came originally from Peru and was used to treat malaria. Cassava, originally found in Batam off Sumatra, became an important source of food.

The Botanic Garden contains a monument in memory of Raffle's wife, Olivia, who died of a tropical disease in 1814. The beautiful Olivia was rumoured to have had an affair, prior to the marriage, with one of Raffles' superiors, a man called Ramsay.

Four of Raffles' five children died in Sumatra of tropical diseases. What must Raffles have felt about the survival of only one of his children?


Friday, November 11, 2005

Agosto and Ciah

Having left the Bogor Botanic Garden, I drove to Bogor Baru. As my vehicle approached the hamlet where Ciah lived, I spotted Agosto, Ciah's young son, standing by the side of the dark tree-lined road. Agosto could have been described as handsome if he had not been looking so dreadfully faded, grey and heartsick. I got out of my vehicle feeling nervous.

"How's your mum?" I asked.

"She's dead," said Agosto, sounding quietly angry, and staring at me.

"Dead? Ciah?" I felt like a doctor who has made a fatal error, or driver who has been involved in an accident which has led to someone's death. I could remember the encounter with Ciah the previous week and picture her lined little face and faint smile. I could recall her asking for money to go into hospital. I could hear myself saying I was giving her only enough to visit the doctor. "Did she see a doctor?"

"Yes. At the local clinic," said Agosto.

"Did the doctor say it was TB or Dengue Fever or Hepatitis or something?" I was looking for something or someone to blame. I wanted to think that it was something beyond our control.

"I don't know what the illness was," said Agosto. "The doctor gave her some pills." Agosto's dull eyes suggested deep depression. All he had left was his married sister.

"The pills didn't work?"

"Blood came up when she vomited." His voice sounded shaky.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't realise she was so ill."

"Mister, can I come to Jakarta and work for you?" The voice sounded pleading.

"I've got staff at the moment, but I'll let you know if there's any change." At the back of my mind was the thought that I did not want someone living in my house who seemed so deeply unhealthy. I gave him a little money and crept guiltily away.


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Wisnu and Saepul

I tried to push Agosto's news to the back of my brain and concentrate on smiling little Wisnu, the mentally backward child I had found on a Bogor street the previous week. I motored to one of the main police stations in Bogor, a low-rise military-style complex, next to a department store. Seated at a desk at the entrance was a hard-faced young officer, dressed a little like a Los Angeles traffic cop. I handed him the photo I had taken of Wisnu and briefly explained the situation.

"So you'll try and find his family?" I said.

The policeman nodded but did not smile.

"You can keep the photo," I said. "Do you want me to bring Wisnu here?"

He shook his head. He made no move to fill in a form.

"OK. Thanks for your help," I said, without intended irony. I handed him a piece of paper bearing my name and phone number.

My next stop was the children's ward of the nearby mental hospital at Babakan. Nurse Diana and her colleague looked at the photo of Wisnu and shook their heads. They said they had never seen the child before.

"How's young Saepul?" I asked. "Is he still punching his face?" It was a while since I had seen Saepul or taken him for a walk.

"Saepul's gone," said Diana, looking straight faced.

"Run away?"

"No. Gone to an institution down the road, in Cimanggu."

"Can you give me the address?"

Diana wrote it down and I motored the short distance to the home in Cimanggu. It was an old house in a dull garden, on the edge of Bogor, about a mile from where I had found Wisnu.

"Have you got a child here called Saepul?" I asked at the office.

"We've no children here," said the vacant-looking young man behind the desk. "I don't recognise the name."

"He's a child who punches his own face. Lots of bruises. You'd remember him."

"No. We've nobody like that. This is a small place. I know everyone."

So, no more Ciah and possibly no more Saepul.

I went to find little Wisnu, expecting him also to have disappeared; but in fact he was seated by the roadside at the same spot where I had sighted him the previous week. When I approached him, he got up to take my hand. He was smiling. We went to see the local official, the bristly-faced R.T., who was standing outside his little house, tending a fruit tree. I wondered how close a watch the R.T. had been keeping on Wisnu.

"Have you found Wisnu's family?" I asked the R.T.

"No. We don't know where the boy comes from." The R.T. was trying to sound as if he cared.

"Could he have come from the mental hospital in Babakan?" I asked.

"Very likely," he said. "Lots of patients walk out of there and wander the streets of Bogor."

"Just like in London," I said. Wisnu blinked, moved his head to one side, put his hand up to his mouth, and chewed imaginary food.

"The same in London?"

"Almost. Should I take Wisnu to a children's home? I know a place in Jakarta called Wisma Utara."

"Yes," said the R.T.

I was forming the impression that Wisnu was unlikely to be taken into the home of the R.T. or anyone else.

"I've sent his photo to the newspaper and I've been to the police. Do you think we'll find his family?"

"Maybe," said the R.T.

"I'll leave you one of the photos. It's got my phone number on the back."

Wisnu seemed happy to get into my van and off we drove to Wisma Utara in Jakarta, the institution where Min had been staying before his family had turned up. I reckoned that if Wisnu remained on the street, he might disappear, and if I took him to the mental hospital, he might also disappear.

"Mr Kent! It's so good to see you," said Joan, as we entered Wisma Utara's front room, which was smelling of urine. "You've been neglecting us. We miss you." Joan's simple hair style, plastic sandals, and lack of make-up, suggested neglect caused by low wages.

"I've been busy," I said.

"How's Min's family? I miss Min," said Joan.

"They're all fine. I've come here to ask if you can take this child here. This is Wisnu." Wisnu moved the side of his head onto his shoulder and then began his blinking and chewing movements.

"Where's he from?"

I told Joan the story.

"Mr Kent, it's very difficult," said Joan. We need to have permission from Ibu Ani."

"This child has nowhere else to go. You took Min without any problems."

"There always has to be a consultation. It takes days We also need a letter from a doctor."

I turned to Wira, the member of staff whose father was receiving money from me for TB treatment. "Wira, what do you think?"

"Joan's right. It can take several days to arrange things."

"This child has to stay somewhere," I pointed out. I thought of the times I had brought clothes and toys for the children at the home; yet now they would not let Wisnu stay the night. I wondered if I should ask them what had happened to the clothes and toys? Then I thought of Gus, who had once helped look after Min.

"How's Gus?" I said.

"Gus died," said Joan, gently.

"Died!" I exclaimed. "What of?"

"Cancer," said Joan.

It occurred to me that, at Wisma Utara, Santo had died of TB, Dadang had been almost dead from TB, Wira had TB in her family, Diah had developed a brain tumour, Tedi had almost died of typhoid, and now young Gus was allegedly dead. Wisnu would be better elsewhere.

I drove with Wisnu to the house of Dr Joseph, the child psychologist who formerly had treated Min. It was already evening and I imagined Wisnu was as confused and tired as I was.

"Mr Kent, how are you?" said the always friendly Chinese doctor as he welcomed us into the surgery.

I related the tale.

"We can certainly take him," he said. "We won't put him into Dr Bahari's clinic though. I have my own clinic now. The Jeruk Clinic. It'll be more suitable."

I was beginning to feel better. "Sounds good," I said. "Where is it?"

"Not far from here. I'll examine Wisnu and then take you over there."

The Jeruk Clinic was in a beautiful white villa. Dr Joseph was doing well. The central lounge area contained a giant TV, a plush white leather suite, a tank full of exotic fish, a white uniformed nurse and an overweight Chinese girl who looked a bit backward and who seemed to be the only patient. The nurse was someone I had met before, both in Dr Bahari's clinic and in the mental hospital in Johor Baru. I assumed she worked in all three places, at different times during the day or week.

"How much is this going to cost?" I asked.

"It's nine hundred thousand a month."

"Gosh. Expensive," I said.

"That includes all medicines and food. The medicines are not cheap."

"Can you give some kind of discount for a long-stay patient? Wisnu might be here for years."

"Mr Kent," said the grinning doctor, "we can't do it any cheaper."

I was in a weak bargaining position. It was the evening, I was hungry, and I couldn't think of any alternative institution. I had failed Ciah and Agosto, and I did not want to fail Wisnu. "It seems more expensive than Dr Bahari's clinic," I said.

"Dr Bahari charges for periods of ten days. I'm charging by the month. And this place is more comfortable."

"No schizophrenic adults or cockroaches."

"It's only children here."



Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Photo: Sianok Canyon, Sumatra -

Next evening I returned to the Jeruk Clinic to visit Wisnu. The nurse was alone in the lounge, feet up, watching TV.

"Hello," I said. "Can I take Wisnu for a walk?"

She gave me what seemed like a cynical smile and, after a bit of a pause, got up and led me to a small side room. The Chinese girl was asleep on a bed. Wisnu was seated in a wooden chair, imprisoned in a straight jacket. He looked doped. I felt sick.

"Why is he tied up?" I asked, trying not to sound angry.

"To stop him being a nuisance," she said.

"He doesn't need to be tied up."

She didn't answer, but released him from the chair.

I took Wisnu for a walk and he was well behaved and even smiled. We passed the art deco mansions of the rich, who were mainly Chinese. The biggest house took up almost the entire length of one street.

I stopped a scavenger, who was collecting litter for his sack, and asked, "Who owns that palace?"

"A Batak, from Sumatra," he said.

"How does the Batak earn his money?"

"He rents out houses in the slums. Very, very rich."

I was worrying about the Jeruk clinic and its straight jacket and its drugs. I wondered if I should return Wisnu to the clinic or release him back onto the street in Bogor. His photo had now been in the newspaper, so I supposed I had better have him kept in a safe place, in the Jeruk clinic, in case his family turned up. Life is not a long quiet river.