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.