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.