The school term moved on and the rainy season arrived early. On a Saturday morning of black skies I made my daily check-up on Min at his home in South Jakarta. As I stepped into the little front room, Min got up from the frayed and stained settee and began dancing around and sort of singing. He was having one of his hyperactive days. I wondered if his more eccentric behaviour was related to his illness at age seven, which was presumably something like meningitis or encephalitis, or related to the poverty of his early environment, or related to something inherited. Probably it was a combination of factors.
"Kent," said Wati, Min’s mum, who was wearing her best batik dress, "Aldi’s now going to school here in Cipete."
"Great," I said.
It was good to hear that the middle child in the family, eleven-year-old Aldi, was now living in the new house, rather than back in the slums of North Jakarta. Aldi, looking handsome but not wildly happy, appeared at the kitchen door. He was frowning, but I presumed he was going to be able to settle-in and make new friends.
"Kent," continued Wati, in a begging voice, "Min’s relatives in Cengkareng. We’d like to visit them. Can you take us?"
"It’s near Min’s old house in Teluk Gong. Near the sea."
"I want to go to Teluk Gong," I said, "to visit Sani and Indra, the seven-year-olds with TB. So we can go to Cengkareng after that."
We trooped out of the house, me, Min, Min’s mum and dad, Wardi, eleven-year-old Aldi, and little Itin and Imah. In single file, and watched by the neighbours, we paraded down the street towards my vehicle.
It was raining heavily as we made the one and a half hour journey to North Jakarta through the more than usually jammed streets.
The area around Min’s old house looked different. Due to the heavy rains, and the high tide, it was under water. About two feet under water. There was a canoe sailing down the main street and happy kids in bathing costumes were swimming past the doctor’s clinic. Some citizens had moved furniture onto their roofs. We had to park the Mitsubishi on the higher ground at the entrance to the area.
"How do we get through here?" I asked.
"Motorbikes," said Wardi. "We can get ojeks."
The ojek drivers were doing a roaring trade. Wardi and Min got on the back of one bike and I got on the back of another. I kept my feet as high as possible as we drove along the Venice-like lanes to the wooden house on stilts occupied by little Sani and Indra. We didn’t hit too many deep potholes and we didn’t topple over.
"How are Sani and Indra?" I asked their mum, who was standing at her door. In fact I could see the two children and they were as puny and sickly as before.
"OK," said mum, wearing a vacant look.
"They’re twins, Sani and Indra," explained Wardi.
"Are they eating well?" I asked.
"No," said mum.
"Have they still got coughs?"
"Is the medicine finished?"
"Can I have a look?" I said, while stepping inside the house.
She hesitated. I could see the bed, and two shelves. There really wasn’t much else. On one shelf was a clear plastic bag and in the bag were the clear plastic cartons containing the TB pills. I pointed to the bag and she brought it over for me to have a look.
"The medicine cartons haven’t been opened since you got them from the hospital," I pointed out.
"Yes they have," she said.
"Look, the cartons are full to the brim. Have you been forgetting to give the kids their medicine?"
"No." She looked away.
"Have you got a calendar where you can tick off the medicine each day?"
I took a page from my notebook and made a simple calendar.
"My driver will come here next week to check you’ve remembered to give them their pills. They must get them every day. Are you going to forget tomorrow?"
Before leaving, I watched her give that day’s medicine to the twins and watched her tick off the date.
Leaving Teluk Gong, we drove East towards Cengkareng along minor roads that in places were about a foot under water.
"Look at those houses," said Wardi pointing leftwards to a middle class housing estate where flood water had reached window height. "These were only built a few years ago."
"They’ve cut down too many trees up in the Puncak," I said. "Instead of the trees they’ve got luxury houses and golf courses designed by these top name golfers from America."
"Yeah," said Wardi, looking blank.
"When it rains," I continued, "the water goes too quickly into the rivers. No trees to slow down the water. The rivers and drainage channels overflow their banks and Jakarta gets flooded. Friends of the President have taken over entire hills near Bogor."
"This area’s always flooding," said Wardi.
"If they’d built the houses on higher foundations they’d be OK," I said. "But the builder was too mean."
Not much further on we came to a man-made mountain range constructed of every kind of garbage. It was dark grey and smoking like a huge World War One battlefield after the guns had stopped; after all the sweet smelling flowers, all the cute furry bunny rabbits, and all the fluttery little song birds had been smashed, splintered and pulverised by machines and then buried in gangrenous filth .
Now, little children, with wicker baskets on their backs, were scavenging for soggy paper and plastic and perhaps finding the arms or legs from a settee or from something else. Dangerous looking machines moved among the infants. Being probably as big as any dump in the Philippines or Egypt, it would make a marvellous tourist attraction and perhaps the shanty dwellers living on the edge of the tip could offer bed and breakfast and unusual souvenirs.
We motored on past flat fields and over wide canals to a more heavily populated area. It had stopped raining.
"Is it much further to your relations’ house?" I asked. "You said it was near Teluk Gong." I was beginning to feel hungry and irritable.
"We’re almost there," said Wardi
We parked under some trees and set off on foot along a muddy path sided by high brick walls. This opened out onto a flat red-brown plain which stretched into the distance. It made me think of the outskirts of Marrakech on a cloudy day. I could see no trees or grass but lots of home made shanty houses built with brick, corrugated iron and even cardboard.
Improved kampungs have concrete paths and drainage ditches but such luxuries were absent here. Strange coloured human waste lay in puddles. Great chunks of red earth clung to my shoes.
"Here we are," said Wati.
We had arrived outside a small brick house and were greeted by various of Min’s cousins, uncles and aunts. The smaller children had thin limbs and slightly bulging tummies. We crammed into the front room where there was simply not enough space for us all to be comfortable. Small cakes and glasses of water were offered although I was careful to avoid actually consuming anything. Goodness knows what was in the water.
"Have another cake," said Wati.
"I’m fine thanks. Haven’t quite finished the first one yet," I said. I couldn’t hide the cake in my pocket as there was always someone staring at me.
The conversation was in Sundanese which was Greek to me. I grew tired of staring at their few possessions: a calendar showing a mosque, a metal bed, several school exercise books, a broken mirror and a battered wardrobe.
"Can I use the toilet?" I asked.
An uncle led me outside and pointed to a muddy ditch a few feet from the well. A mobile stall selling noodles had arrived in the street and a crowd had gathered. Oh dear. I wandered down the road but everywhere there were people: playing chess, flying kites, sweeping the path, hanging out washing, tending their fighting cocks, having a good gossip, or tinkering with motorbikes. I reached the canal where other people had gathered to wash their hands. Ah well, when in Cengkareng, do as the locals do.