Sunday, March 01, 2009


Photo by David Lawrence

I was working my driver too hard at weekends. When Sunday arrived there was a phone call to tell me that Mo’s grandfather had died, for the third time, necessitating Mo to take a day off. For my day’s outing, I hired, from an agency, a driver called Agus. What unsettled me about this nervous and gaunt young fellow was his tendency to drive down the middle of the road in the wrong gear.

Although we somehow reached Bogor safely, we then became lost. We found ourselves on the edge of a small, deserted-looking shopping complex which I had never seen before. I got out to ask directions, but the only human I could find was a body lying on the ground beside a lockup door.

The body was alive and breathing but only just. The poor young man, around twenty years of age, seemed to have no cheeks on his face or his posterior. He seemed to consist mainly of bones, dirty skin and rags. He was like an Egyptian mummy, except that he was covered in flies.

"What’s your name?" I asked the body.

"Chong," he whispered, barely audible.

I fetched some biscuits and bottled tea and put them down beside Chong. He struggled to sit up and sip the tea.

"Do you want a doctor?"

He nodded.

I summoned Agus who looked sympathetically at the corpselike creature.

"I don’t think we should risk putting him in my van," I said. "He might die or he might be infectious. We need an ambulance."

To my amazement, Agus, without further urging, shot off to phone for an ambulance, which duly arrived within five minutes.

I waited for the ambulance driver, who wore dark glasses and a gold watch, to help in lifting Chong, but it was not to be. Agus and I had to do the tricky manoeuvre of hoisting the bag of bones. I sat with Chong in the ambulance. Agus was to follow behind in my vehicle.

"Please drive slowly. The patient’s very weak," I said, as we set off.

The ambulance driver, as we approached the first of many deep potholes, put his foot down like a true rally driver, and our bodies bumped and jerked in every direction.

"Slow down," I shouted.

He stepped on the gas and we zoomed ahead, overtaking motorcycles and making everything rattle and vibrate.

On arrival at the Menteng Hospital, a stretcher, thank goodness, was provided to transport Chong into the emergency room. A tall young doctor gave the patient a brief examination.

"Can he be admitted?" I asked.

"No," said the doctor. "He’s mentally backward."

"But this is a hospital and this patient is almost dead from malnutrition," I said, almost spitting.

"He’ll need to go to the mental hospital."

"He’s not a danger to anyone. He’s not mentally ill, is he?"

"Mentally backward," said the doctor. "There’s a hospital at Babakan for mental patients. He must go there."

Chong was reloaded into the ambulance, driven the short distance to the mental hospital, and unloaded onto the pavement outside the admissions office. The hospital was made up of dozens of low-rise buildings, in various states of repair, within a vast area of parkland.

Agus explained the situation regarding Chong to a cheery young administrator who agreed to take the patient.

"Yes, he’ll need to go to the ward for the physically sick," said the administrator, who was wearing rather expensive leather shoes. "You can pay for a month’s treatment. It’s about a dollar a day. And you’ll need to pay for the ambulance."

"How much do we pay for the journey?" I asked the ambulance driver.

"One hundred dollars," he said, adjusting his Mafia-style dark glasses.

"It can’t be," I said. "We’ve only travelled about three miles in all. A taxi would’ve cost us about one dollar."

"One hundred dollars," said the ambulance driver, looking like a Komodo dragon pretending to be half asleep.

"I’ll give you five," I said, trying to look tough. I was still not entirely used to the callousness of some Indonesian hospital workers.

"One hundred."

I appealed to the hospital administrator.

"You must pay," he said, grinning. No doubt they reckoned I was one of these rich and stupid foreigners.

Chong was still lying face down on the pavement.

I signed a form, paid the ambulance driver in full, and escorted Chong’s stretcher to the Merdeka ward. Built around a courtyard, the ward’s single-storey brick buildings put me in mind of a prisoner of war camp in need of renovation. The rooms were dimly lit, the iron beds had no sheets and the dark walls were losing some of their plaster. There were few patients.

"I’ll buy some tins of milk and some biscuits," I said to the genial male nurse, the only person on duty. " Please make sure they’re given to Chong."


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