Sunday, March 01, 2009


Early next morning I collected Min from Wisma Utara and we set off for Teluk Gong where we were due to meet Min’s family. At the start of the journey, Min seemed a bit solemn but fortunately no worse than that. My new driver impressed me not only with his careful driving but also with his calm and sympathetic tone when addressing Min.

As we moved through the traffic I thought of what I had been writing in my diary the night before. How objective was it? I honestly couldn’t remember with one hundred per cent accuracy how each member of Min’s family had reacted to him on his return to his family home. I was not confident that I had recorded the conversations with total fairness and without error.

I suspected that my diary, like many works of non-fiction, was full of selectivity, prejudice and opinion, as opposed to fact. Probably I selected the bits that put me in a good light; probably I failed to notice lots of significant things that happened.

I suspect that if Min’s brother, Wardi, had written a diary of these events it would have contained some major differences of interpretation.

Did the family want Min to continue for a bit longer at his school? Were they interested in moving to a house near Wisma Utara? I did not know. They had a Sundanese-Javanese way of being reluctant to voice their opinions, particularly to someone richer than themselves. Their ideas and attitudes were influenced not only by universal human nature but also by their own local world which I did not fully understand.

Min perked up as we approached his home in the slums near the airport; he stood up in his seat and called out exultantly, "Min, Min."

We parked beside a vegetable stall, climbed out of the vehicle, and were met by Min’s big brother, Wardi, Min’s mother, Wati, Min’s two little brothers, Aldi, aged about eleven, and Itin, aged about five, and little sister Imah, aged about four. They had all put on their best clothes and were looking a bit ill at ease. It occurred to me that maybe they felt intimidated by people like me who arrived in big cars.

"How about a trip to Ragunan zoo in South Jakarta?" I asked, after we had exchanged greetings.
"OK," said Wardi, with a touch of a smile. Wati nodded in approval.

"Have you been there before?" I asked.

"No, Mr Kent. We have no money," explained Wardi.

We crowded into my Mitsubishi van and set off down the narrow potholed street. Happy, almost jubilant, expressions began to appear on the faces of Wati, Wardi and Aldi as we were chauffeur-driven past bemused neighbours, barefoot children and skinny goats. The morning sun was shining brightly and I was happy to be having another adventure.

As we drove towards the zoo in Pasar Mingu, I had lots of questions for Wardi and Wati. "Where does your family come from originally?" I inquired. "Have you always lived in Jakarta?"

"We used to live near Lamaya," said Wardi. "It’s a four hour journey from Jakarta. Lots of rice fields in Lamaya. We had to move because there’s no work there. Too many people."

"Would you like to go back to Lamaya one day?" I asked Wardi.

"Yes, but we have to live in Jakarta because that’s where the jobs are."

"Do you have other relatives here in Jakarta?" I asked.

"Lots, Mr Kent," said Wati, smiling. "In Teluk Gong and Cengkareng."

After a journey of about ten miles we reached the enormous park that contains Jakarta’s zoo, an institution that tries to keep at least some of its animals in quarters that resemble natural habitats. Having bought our inexpensive tickets at a dark little booth, we began our tour. We seemed to be almost the only visitors. There was something eerie about the atmosphere that morning. We passed under immense dark trees that completely blocked out sun and sky; we heard the constant screams of monkeys; there was a smell of rotting meat.

I noted that Min’s mum gave all her attention to four-year-old Imah, whom she carried in her arms; Wardi took the hand of five-year-old Itin; small, skinny, eleven-year-old Aldi walked on his own; Min held onto me. I was touched by Min’s trust, but would have preferred to see him take the hand of a member of his own family. In Indonesia I had noticed that many mothers devoted their energies almost exclusively to the baby of the family; older children either fended for themselves or were looked after by such people as uncles, big sisters and grannies. Who was going to be Min’s keeper?

We approached the compound containing the Java tiger. Min was terrified and tried to pull me away in the direction of the zoo’s exit.

We moved on swiftly to the monkeys. Min refused to look and again pulled at my arm. I couldn’t take him near the crocodiles or the Komodo dragons, but eleven year-old Aldi was enjoying himself.

I was fascinated by the weirdness of everything around me. What might make a being want to develop into something as big and ugly and savage as a Komodo dragon? Do beings such as trees and butterflies make choices? I had been told that a considerable number of Indonesians believe that even trees have spirits. Could Min perhaps see more than the rest of us? Was that why he was afraid?

After an hour-long visit to Ragunan zoo, and a quick snack of noodles, we battled back through Jakarta’s traffic to the family’s house in the Teluk Gong area, near the sea.

This time I wanted to have a closer look at the kampung, the local area, in which Min had been brought up. I wanted to get a clearer idea of how safe it was, or how dangerous.

"Shall we take a walk with Min?" I said to Wardi, as we stood at the front door of the wooden shack which was home to Min’s family.

"OK," came the reply. "You’ll need to watch your feet."

Wardi, Min and I walked along wooden gangways, taking us over fetid water, and then along muddy paths, taking us through narrow alleys sided by wooden shacks. The sky was a heavenly blue and the sun’s strong light created streaks of golden light and black shadow.

"Who’s this?" I asked Wardi about a little boy with deformed legs. The boy, who looked about ten years of age, was hauling himself along the ground towards his wooden house. One leg had a zigzag shape and looked beyond repair.

"Don’t know," he replied. But he asked the woman who came to the door.

"My son’s called Saepul," said the woman. Like her son, she had a facial expression that spoke of sadness, resignation and kindness. Every inch of her face and arms was covered in big fleshy lumps.

"Have you and your son been to a doctor?" I asked the woman.

"We’ve been to the hospital," she said. "Saepul was born this way. The doctors say an operation might not help him. They’re not sure."

"And you?" I asked.

"They can’t do anything for me. But it won’t get any worse."

"I hope to see you again sometime," I said. I presumed that if the doctor had recommended treatment, they would have had no money to pay for it.

We moved on and came across a windowless wooden shack the size of a large dog kennel. It was surrounded by muddy water and was flooded inside. A barefoot boy, aged about twelve, emerged from the tiny door. The skin on his face and hands was dreadfully lined and wrinkled. I supposed that his skin problems were caused by flood water and malnutrition.

"Do you live here?" I asked the lad.

"Yes, with my mother." He looked and sounded weary but managed a shy smile.

"What’s your name?" I said.

"Joko," said the boy.

"Does your father live here?" I inquired.

"He’s dead," said Joko, eyes moistening.

I gave the boy some money, continued the walk, and eventually returned Min to Wisma Utara.

I was glad that Min was still staying at Wisma Utara. Min’s family seemed to be decent people, but I wasn’t sure which of them was going to take responsibility for guarding Min, and stopping him from getting lost. More seriously, Min’s house was in the sort of area where kids could so easily catch diseases such as typhoid or TB. The sooner I moved Min’s family to a new house the better. I would, in the meantime, continue to take Min to visit his family each afternoon, after school.


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