Sunday, March 01, 2009


Another new school term found me filled with energy and enthusiasm. Honestly. But after the first five days of teaching it was good to escape, on the Saturday, from the oily traffic of Jakarta to the balmy hills beyond Bogor. Beneath a sky of tropical blue I motored up from Bogor towards the nearby Puncak Pass. I was hoping to find an interesting track that would lead me to some lost domain. Somewhere between the towns of Ciawi and Cisarua I found what I was looking for, although I don’t think I would ever be able to find the exact same spot again.

My path wandered through fields of sweet-smelling green papaya; it skirted rice paddies where muddy boys rode gentle water buffaloes; there was a primary school with a red and white flag and marching children; goats and ducks led me through a kampung where the houses had muddy brick and plaster walls, loose red tiles and gardens of jasmine; the children wore bright green sarongs.

I entered an area of dark shadows and spiky leaves. I passed beneath jackfruit, rambutan and durian, and squeezed through a tangle of lianas and bamboos. Help! I was in the middle of nowhere.

"Hello mister," said a lad, half way up a tree, collecting fruit. He was about thirteen years of age, dressed in clean blue school shorts and expensive-looking T-shirt, and had a happy and handsome Sundanese face.

"Hello," I said, relieved to find the voice came from a human. "Is there a restaurant near here?"

"There’s a hotel," said the lad beginning to climb down. He was followed by a younger boy wearing a mischievous smile and red school shorts and an older girl wearing a tight yellow blouse and tight jeans.

"How do I get there?" I asked.

"We’ll take you," said the older boy, scratching various insect bites.

"Thanks. What’s your name?"

"I’m Dede," said the older boy, "and this is my younger brother, Agus, and my sister, Melati."

"I’m Diego Maradona," I explained.

"The singer?" said Dede.

"No actually I’m Woody Allen," I said.

"Where are you from Mr Woody?" asked Dede, who apparently knew less about films than music.


"You want a place to stay?" asked Melati, who had lovely eyes and lips.

"No, just something to eat. Is it a good hotel?"

"Lots of girls there," piped up Agus, eyes sparkling.

"How do you mean?"

"Lots of women," said Melati, looking at Agus and giggling.

"You like drugs?" asked Dede.

"No. Definitely not. What kind of hotel is it?"

"They tried to burn it down," explained Dede.

"Who did?"

"A mob," said Dede.


"Some people round here don’t like these places," said Melati.

"Who owns it?"

"Chinese," said Dede.

"They didn’t manage to burn it down?"

"No. There were too many police and soldiers," said Dede.

"I think I’ll get something to eat at a roadside stall. Can you show me the way?"

"Certainly," said Dede, as he handed me some rambutan.

As we followed a narrow path through the woodland, I was thinking how good it was to still be able to find trees on the island of Java. Ninety percent of the island’s original forests have been cut down.

"Do you have any Gharu trees?" I asked. I had heard that such trees were to be found in western New Guinea and that the resin from the trees could be used as a drug to help you contact your ancestors.

Melati shook her head and looked puzzled.

"Left or right?" I asked, as we emerged from the dark and reached an area of rough grassland and scattered trees.

"Not left," said Dede.

"Ghosts on the left," said Agus, steering us to the right.

"Really?" I asked.

"An old man died near here," said Dede.

"What happened?" I said, noting the sober expressions on the faces of the two boys.

"People said he used black magic. He died suddenly," explained Agus.

"He was a dukun jilat," said Melati.

"What kind of dukun is that?" I asked.

Dede made sucking sounds with his mouth. "The dukun sucks the bit of you that’s sakit," he said, while scratching himself.

"Black magic?" I said.

"Some babies got sick," said Melati.

"The old man had some land," said Dede.

"A rich man from Jakarta now has the land," said Melati.

A red tiled school building came into view.

"My school," said Agus.

"Can I have a look?" I said.

Agus happily led us into the empty building which was made up of a handful of classrooms around a courtyard. I noted the rotting timbers, the graffiti on walls, and the complete absence of any kind of equipment or furniture other than cheap wooden desks with names carved on them.

Agus took a thick pen from his pocket and began to apply some scribbles to an exterior wall.

"I think we’d better move on," I said.

A small shop at a road junction provided a place for me to buy my meal of bananas, biscuits and cola. Mysteriously enough I could see my vehicle parked a few metres down the street. Before departing, I rewarded my guides.

"Thank you, Woody Allen," said Dede.


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