Monday, April 20, 2009

Carmen


I had Sunday lunch with Carmen at a simple little Jakarta restaurant called Sari Bundo on a street called Jalan Juanda. We both had the rendang, which is thinly sliced beef loin cooked with coconut milk, lemongrass, turmeric, lime leaves, garlic, ginger, bayleaf and chillies. As we ate, I explained to Carmen the story of the malnourished child called Budi.

"Try one of the churches in Bogor," was Carmen’s simple advice. "They may know what to do about Budi. When I’ve been abroad I’ve always found the church useful in a crisis."

"I’m going to Bogor after lunch," I said, "I’ll call in at the big church near the main police station."

"Good luck."

"You’ve done lots of teaching abroad?" I asked.

"My last job was in Tanzania. I loved it." Carmen beamed.

"Why did you leave?"

"I thought I was missing England."

"And were you?"

"I came back home and found everything dull and grey. No mystery. No street life. The tedious nine-to-five job, teaching Maths. There are three types of student: those who can count and those who can’t. Sometimes those who can’t count decide to bait the teacher. I remember one kid who was an overactive baiter of masters."

"I know the type," I said, after almost choking on a piece of beef. "What were the Tanzanians like to teach? Could you mix with them?"

"The school kids were lovely," said Carmen with a giggle. "I thought I was getting on well with my garden boy. He was a wretchedly poor youth and I gave him a job, got him an education, and helped his family. Before I left Tanzania, he stole from me and ran off."

"Disappointing."

"I felt very hurt," continued Carmen, temporarily losing her normal sunny expression. "I think the local people were friendly on the surface but we expats were still from a foreign tribe."

"Is it the same here?" I asked.

"There’s a more complex civilisation here. So it varies."

"You like the Indonesians?"

"Very much," said Carmen. "I like the dolce far niente. The nearer you get to the Equator, the more friendly and easygoing people become."

"Italy rather than Switzerland."

"Mind you, there are disadvantages when things are very lax," said Carmen. "There was this Bangladeshi restaurant I used to use in London. Chap called Aziz said his town, North of Dacca, was a pleasant Moslem paradise. Then he told me the other side of the story. He said things didn’t work because too many people were cheats and liars. It was a mafia town. Girls were forced into marriage."

"The Indonesians seem to marry young," I commented.

"But not too many of the marriages last," explained Carmen. "Both my maid and my house guard have been married twice. The children get shared among members of the extended family."

"Sounds like England."

"Among the Indonesian poor, life is communal," said Carmen. "Children get shared around. Money gets shared around. If my gardener learns that his neighbour’s come into some money, he’ll want his share."

"Sounds friendly."

"It doesn’t encourage saving. They’re not too good at running a business." Carmen guffawed loudly in her good humoured way. She was a friendly soul.

3. THE HILL TOWN OF BOGOR
Budi
Doctor
Carmen
Brother John
The Third World

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