Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Jasmin; Plantations; Dekker; Bayou

I called in at Jakarta’s Christian-run Teluk Gong Hospital to see Jasmin, the woman I had found on the rubbish tip, and who was suffering from TB.

She had been in hospital for some weeks but had not put on any weight. Her bones still stuck out, as they would on an African child near death from starvation. Her eyes looked slightly glazed and she did not respond to my questions.

The hospital ward was far superior to what I would have found in most government hospitals. The floors and walls seemed generally bright and shiny clean and there was a cheerfulness about the nurses.

An attractive and self-assured young female doctor called me over to the nurses’ desk at one end of the ward.

"Jasmin has had TB for a very long time and there are complications," said the doctor, smiling broadly. "She cannot control her bowels and she makes a wailing sound which disturbs the other patients. We are going to have to ask you to take Jasmin to a mental hospital."

I pointed out the inadequacies of mental hospitals but the doctor maintained her self-confident grin as she told me that the hospital had made its decision. It was their policy not to take mental patients.

We loaded Jasmin into the back of my van and set off for Bogor. I was angry with myself for having failed to achieve success with Jasmin; I was angry with the Teluk Gong hospital for its apparent lack of charity; and now I was angry with Jasmin for the continual loud wailing sounds she was making.

I turned round in my seat and poked her in the arm, to try to get her to keep quiet. But on and on she wailed. I poked her harder. And then it occurred to me that Jasmin still looked like a victim of a concentration camp and that I was behaving like a Nazi guard.

The mental hospital, in Bogor’s Babakan district, admitted Jasmin as a patient. She was laid on a bare brown mattress in the nearly empty ward. I bought her some milk and biscuits.

Having left Jasmin, I scuttled over to the children’s ward to see Firdaus, the young boy with the bumps on his forehead and the enormous scars on his chest. Firdaus, and his friend with the strange eyes, squealed with delight. They grabbed my hands and I took them for a walk in the hospital grounds.

Intent on finding fun and relaxation, I instructed my driver to take the road that rises from Bogor to the nearby town of Ciawi.

The area is heavily urbanised and has a few small factories. Wealthy Indonesians use this crowded route to reach their villas up in the highland area of tea estates known as the Puncak.

As we headed uphill I thought of the Dutch who had built the first modern roads on this island; the first major road from the west coast of Java to its east coast was only completed at the beginning of the 19th Century. That work involved forced labour and the deaths of an estimated 30,000 Javanese.

From Ciawi, a traffic-filled route-centre with a big modern mosque and numerous grubby kampungs, we took the relatively quiet road south towards the sleepy little towns of Cigombong and Cicurug.

We were in a gap in Java’s long and mighty mountain spine. Sleeping volcanoes lay on either side: Mount Salak to the right and Mount Gede to the left; next to Gede was its twin summit of Pangrano just over three thousand metres high, and now an extinct volcano. These mystical mountains, with their misty rain forests and dreamy sub-alpine meadows, are home to quinine, coffee and great big forest cats including panthers. We were roughly on the same latitude as the Amazon and the Congo.

Wealthy Dutch planters once ran huge plantations in this Garden of Eden, plantations that were seen either as ‘enlightened’ or as mere ‘labour camps’.

Alfred Russel Wallace, in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago, considered that the Javanese must have prospered under the Dutch as their population rose from around 3 million in 1800 to around 14 million in 1865. Wallace explained that the Dutch used the Javanese princes and the village chiefs to help them rule their colony. He admitted that just occasionally these princes and chiefs may have behaved badly.

In 1860, Eduard Douwes Dekker, who had been a civil servant in Lebak in West Java, wrote the autobiographical Max Havelaar. This novel described a cruel and corrupt government which sometimes treated the Indonesians like slaves and which sometimes failed to cope with terrible famines. Critics disagree about the accuracy of Dekker’s work. But what we do know is that by the end of the 19th century Java was the world’s largest supplier of coffee.

Somewhere on the road to Cicurug I stopped the Mitsubishi and set off on a walk along a narrow country track which rose gently through terraced rice fields and patches of forest. I imagined I was Alfred Russel Wallace on the lookout for black and crimson orioles, minivet flycatchers and large and brilliantly coloured butterflies. In fact I saw no birds or insects of particular interest but I did encounter lots of wonderful tree ferns and massive leaves of every shape and texture.

I reached a small hamlet, the first house in which was a surprisingly modern bungalow with clean white walls. The bungalow had a well-tended garden full of orchids and there was a large Japanese station-wagon parked in the drive; a young boy in designer jeans was playing with a healthy-looking dog. I reckoned that this house might be the weekend retreat of some wealthy civil servant

A few steps further along the track were the usual kampung houses with their mildewed roofs, rotting timbers, and muddy courtyards. Outside one medium-sized house stood a thin woman with a pale tubercular face and rather disdainful eyes. Her name, she told me, was Umi, and her husband worked in Bogor.

"Sakit?" I asked her.

"Yes," said Umi, in Indonesian. She made no attempt to smile.

"Sakit TB?" I asked.


"Are you getting TB medicine?"


"Do you need any help paying for it?"

"No." Umi’s look suggested suspicion and hostility.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes." She turned and went inside her dark and gloomy house.

I thought of my failure to provide effective help for Jasmin. Maybe I should be less interfering. Perhaps it was part of my karma, and part of Umi’s karma, that the two of us should meet and that she would not want any help.

I continued my walk but the sky was darkening. I reached a graveyard surrounded by a low falling-down wall on which was seated a group of ragged boys. The grave stones were smothered in moss and lichens; the boys bare legs bore evidence of former sores and lesions; the trees were overwhelmed by parasitic vines. The rains were coming and I decided it was time to return to Bogor.

I made a Saturday morning trip to the mental hospital to visit Jasmin. She was lying on a mattress in a corner of the big sunny courtyard of the ward for the physically sick. Providing her with company was one of the middle-aged patients, a slightly mentally-backward man with the gentle manner and beatific smile of a wise old angel. I tried feeding some milk to Jasmin but she closed her mouth and, with her thin bony arm, tried to push my hand away.

Having failed to make progress with Jasmin, I wandered into a room off the courtyard and found a solitary patient, a withered young man with sensitive eyes. He was sitting up in bed looking like a child whose parents had long deserted him.

His name, I discovered later from a nurse, was Bayou. I tried speaking to Bayou, but he seemed too shy or depressed to do anything other than nod or shake his head. A nurse in the office told me that Bayou was slightly mentally backward; and he did have a family.

A few days later I received a phone call from the Bogor mental hospital.. I was informed that Jasmin had died. Her body had apparently been so severely wrecked by TB that her death was inevitable and a release from suffering.

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