Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Carmen and I were enjoying a bottled tea in a cafe overlooking the sunny market place next to Bogor’s railway station, a little, white, nineteenth century building.

There were no donkeys but I was reminded of Marrakech’s Place Jemaa El Fna; there was was a man in a white robe examining round red fezzes and prayer mats on a wooden stall; a pack of frisky schoolboys were admiring wriggly little snakes; to the throb of drums a monkey was being jerked about on a string; the sound of sensuous Arab songs issued from a battered cassette player.

"One of the girls in the office saw something interesting," said Carmen, "not far from Jakarta’s Monas. Some kind of riot."

"When was this?"

"Last Thursday. About five thousand of Megawati’s PDI party had been demonstrating. Stones got thrown. Police and soldiers charged."

"Did the girl in the office see all this?"

"The aftermath," said Carmen, sounding unusually serious. "People running. Banners saying: ‘Megawati for President.’"

"The Telegraph had something about it."

"There’s a rumour two people were run down by army vehicles and killed," said Carmen quietly.
"Mega's not giving up," I commented. "Her people still hold onto the party HQ on Jalan Diponegoro, East of the British Embassy."

"One party. Two leaders," said Carmen, giggling. "Soerjadi supposedly approved of by Suharto and Mega supported by most of the PDI."

"So the PDI is made up of factions, just like the army?" I asked.

"There’s a moderate Moslem faction that wants Moslems to play a bigger part in Indonesian life. There’s a Christian faction but it’s relatively small. There’s a faction that wants to keep in with the powers-that-be. Lots of factions, but Mega is respected by most of them because she’s the daughter of the first president. How’s the tea Kent?"

"Interesting. I’m looking forward to some strong British tea during my August holiday."

"You planning to stay in Indonesia a few more years?"

"Yep," I said, "I want to see Min settled down, somewhere nice in the countryside; a quiet country village; a decent house; a plot of rice. How about you Carmen? Planning to stay?"

"Until I retire. There’s nowhere else with such sweet people. Such a fun way of life. Look at those kids beside that stall, dancing to the music, wiggling their hips. Got enough material for your book?"

"1990 to 1996. Yes. Then on to part two."

"How have your seven years been? Good?"

"I was fed-up just before I left London," I explained. "I was bored and neurotic. Indonesia’s almost paradise. The only bad thing is the people who get sick. Budi, Aldi, Agosto, Oya and so on."

"It happens," said Carmen, looking down at the table.

"Why do certain people get sick? Why them? Agosto got sick again and again."

"Typhoid is poor hygiene," said Carmen. "But, physical illness may be tied in with spiritual illness. Emotional illness."

"That’s what the dukuns say. Give me an example."

"When I left Africa I wasn’t feeling totally well," said Carmen, with a giggle. "I was feeling just a little unloved, broken hearted, angry. No particular reason. It’s just what happens when you leave a place."

"Sounds bad."

"Not really," said Carmen. "I loved Africa but the physical appeal wore off after about three years. I became negative about the place. I needed to either change within myself, and try to love Africa warts and all, or move on. It’s important that our minds don’t get too rigid."

"You didn’t change within yourself?"

"I would have needed help for that."

"So the dukun may be needed to cure our minds," I said. "Cast out the negative spirit from the patient or those around him."

"Yes. It doesn’t always work though, as we know. I doubt the dukun could have done much for your Aldi once he had his tetanus or Oya had her water on the brain. These were hospital cases."
"I wonder if it was more than physical illness," I said. "I mean, did someone hate Aldi or his family? Aldi felt persecuted by the neighbourhood kids. Was Oya a nuisance to her mother and the new boyfriend? Was it just bad luck?"

"My drink’s finished." Carmen wiped her mouth with a tissue.

"OK. I’m taking you to visit Firdaus at the mental hospital," I said.

It was bumper to bumper blue and green minibuses as we drove by degrees along Muslihat, past Ramayana and then past the prison.

"She looks as if she’s escaped from the hospital," said Carmen pointing to a thin, ragged, barefoot woman walking slowly along the pavement past giant piles of rotting garbage. "Her hair’s absolutely filthy."

"They have an open-door policy for some of the patients," I commented.

We reached the hospital car park and began walking through the gardens.

"It’s not as bad as I thought it would be," said Carmen. "It’s like the Botanic Gardens: red frangipani, pink hibiscus, crimson rangoon creeper."

There were childish shouts of "Mister Kent! Mister Kent!" And assorted happy shrieking sounds. As we entered the children’s compound Firdaus and his mate rushed up to grab my hands. I felt appreciated.

"The one on the left is Firdaus," I said. "Look at the strange bulges on his forehead. Tumours? Wounds?" I unbuttoned Firdaus’s shirt. "Look at the scars on his chest. They think he may have fallen off the roof of a train. And the kid on the left is going blind. He’s got a funny little face, hasn’t he? One eye seems to be in the wrong place."

"Should they get treatment from a private hospital?"

"The doctors here won’t agree to that. If I take them out, they become my children. I don’t think that can be done legally."

"Don’t look now," said Carmen, "but there’s a lad over by the swing who’s just unzipped his shorts and he’s having a pee."

"Let’s take a walk to the little shop and buy some snacks. Then we’d better give our hands a thorough wash."

After our mental hospital visit, we took the back road home from Bogor, the road that twists and turns and bumps you along, making it almost impossible to read The Jakarta Post or the FT.

"There’s a story here about President Suharto going to Germany," said Carmen, "for a health checkup. He may have a heart condition or something. If he goes, permanently, things could get rough."

"You think there’s a need for a strong leader?"

"What they need is someone like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Someone tough enough to prevent factional fighting. Someone clean."


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