Tuesday, October 18, 2005


It was a balmy Saturday morning in April, and I was exploring Bogor’s riverbank kampungs with Min and his big brother Wardi.

The hilly city was like the brightly lit stage-set of a romantic operetta. The walls of the houses were a hundred shades of white and green and ochre. On a washing line the sun was illuminating a saffron-coloured shirt, a lavender skirt and violet stockings.

The perfumed bougainvillea in the gardens was flashing pink. An aroma of musky sweat drifted from the armpits of passing schoolchildren.

Big banana leaves swayed gently and darkly against the sky. A gong sounded softly, advertising a cart selling clove filled soup. Birds in high trees sang intoxicating songs and women from an Alma Tadema painting were bathing with their naked children in the brown river beneath the mighty volcano.

We followed one of the rivers until we came to an open space where a small fun fair had been assembled. The fun fair consisted of one carousel moved not by any motor but by muscle power. A brawny young teenager pushed and shoved while, small, ragged children whirled around, showing off sparkling eyes, bony knees and infectious Sundanese smiles. Jolly dangdut music quickened the pulse and incited some of the onlookers to dance.

"Hello mister!" said a small boy holding an ice lolly.

"Hello," I replied.

"Where are you from?"

"Bujumbura in Bongobongoland," I lied.

"Ah, yes," he said, looking puzzled.

Min climbed onto a seat on the carousel and like a happy six-year-old enjoyed ride after ride. It was good to see him happy.

When we eventually managed to drag Min away from the fun-fair, we all clambered aboard my vehicle and took the toll road back to Jakarta and Teluk Gong.

Outside Min’s house, I met Wardi’s wife for the first time. She was remarkably pretty in a Southern Italian way and I was reassured by her gentle, good-natured smile.

Min was not yet tired and insisted on going for a walk. As Min, Wardi and I strolled through the slums of Teluk Gong, over turd-filled ditches and past men in little shacks preparing sate and bakso, I decided to ask Wardi an important question.

"Who’s going to look after Min now you’re married?" I said.

"I’ll look after Min," said Wardi, in his usual serious-minded manner.

"Your wife doesn’t mind?"


"Does she like Min?"


"You also look after Min’s little brother?"


"Children don’t always stay with their parents, do they?"

"Sometimes Indonesian children stay with relatives and friends."

We stepped onto a tiny flat-bottomed ferryboat to take us across a black canal to where some rubbish-collectors had their shacks. It was there that we spotted Joko, the young boy who had once lived in a flooded hut and who had been orphaned by the death of his mother. I shook Joko’s hand and he gave me a warm smile of recognition. He told me he was now working with the rubbish-collectors. I was relieved to see that he was better clothed and better fed than previously, and that his skin looked normal, no longer having such a wrinkled appearance.

It was late afternoon, but Min wanted to continue his walk. We reached the home of the tiny twins, Sani and Indra, who were not looking so good. Their stomachs were still swollen, their ribs still stuck out, and their limbs still looked charcoal-stick fragile. I persuaded their mother to come with us immediately to the nearby Teluk Gong Hospital. Min insisted on joining the party and Wardi came too.

"TB," said Dr Andi, as we sat in his surgery. Young Dr Andi always struck me as someone intelligent and competent.

"The previous doctor said they’d got rid of their TB," I complained. "Do you think the doctor didn’t give them treatment for long enough?"

"TB can come back," said the doctor. "The twins live in an area of overcrowding and poor nutrition."

"This time, can you make sure they get cured?" I said.

"What does the father do?" asked Dr Andi.

"He’s a driver, and he has two wives," I explained.

"So he’s not rich."

"How do you become rich?" I asked.

"Join the army? Join the civil service? Work for the United Nations?"