Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Taking an early morning walk along an earthen footpath, five minutes from my house, I was aware of how so much of Jakarta was still made up of little villages, woodland, fruit trees, vegetable patches, fish ponds, and yards full of chickens and goats and the occasional abandoned car.

A pretty girl, in Islamic headscarf and short skirt, was seated on a wall, next to a cluster of simple houses with brown tiled roofs. On the opposite side of the path stood a bare-chested lad holding a baby. Next him sat a tired looking teenage boy wearing a black peci cap. A well fed man in a turban walked past, on his way to the mosque.

"Are you well?" I asked the boy with the cap.

"I’m well," he said. He was remarkably skinny and pale, possibly aged around thirteen, and quite tall.

"What’s your name?"

"Fajar," he said, looking down at the ground, in a bashful manner.

"Have you got a cough?"

"No, mister," said Fajar, sounding exhausted.

"Do you eat plenty?"

Fajar explained that his father, a tailor by profession, was unemployed and unwell. His father had had to sell his sewing machine in order to pay for medicines.

"Sometimes my father gets very tired," said Fajar.

"Has he been for an x-ray?"

"No. He’s been to the clinic. He gets vitamin tablets."

"Can I speak to him?"

"He’s visiting my sick brother in Sumatra."

"Maybe you’ve all got TB," I said. "You should get an x-ray."

Fajar shook his head.

I was aware that I had no money on me, and decided to walk on. A well-groomed little lady in a cheap but smart suit was coming in my direction and she stopped to talk.

"I’m a Christian," she said, smiling proudly. Presumably she saw me as an ally in a country that was mainly Moslem.

"Do you live near here?" I asked. I didn’t want to get dragged into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ conversation.

"Near the main road. Just over there." She pointed in the direction of some relatively modest little houses with gardens.

"What do you do for a living?" She looked like a woman on her way to work.

"I’m an administrator."

"I’ve just been talking to Fajar back there. His family is very poor. Maybe you can help."

"I don’t know Fajar."

"He lives near you. His father’s sick."

"I’m helping my church."

"Do you want to help Fajar?"

"We’re building a beautiful church. Bigger than the mosque. You should come and see it."

"Do you want to meet Fajar?" I looked at the woman’s hurt looking face and it occurred to me too late that I could be accused of being the rich expat bullying the poor native.

"I’ve got to be going," she said, looking at her watch and hurrying off.

A few hundred yards further on my ears were gently bashed by the sound of heavy metal music coming from massive speakers, set up in a small field. Five young men wearing offensive T-shirts, jeans with holes, chains and safety pins, were dancing around like drunken punks. There were only meters away from a small mosque.

"Hello mister," one of the punks shouted. "English music. Come and join us."

I smiled at them, turned, and swiftly headed back towards Fajar. What was wrong with me? I had failed to help Fajar, and I had rejected the friendly gestures of the Christian lady and the pro-English punks.

"If you want an x-ray," I said to Fajar, "come to my house for the money." I gave him my address and began to feel a bit less grumpy. "I’ll be expecting you within the next few days," I said.

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