Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bayou, Min, Iwan, Economic Crisis, Elephantiasis, George Soros

At the mental hospital in Bogor I was greeted warmly by my two little orphan friends, Firdaus, the boy with the bumps and the scars, and Isaiah, who had one eye slightly higher than the other.

After having taken the children for a walk in the hospital grounds, I called in on Bayou, the depressed and withered young man who looked like an abandoned child. Bayou managed a slight smile of recognition.

The nurse on duty was happy to let me have Bayou’s home address, a location somewhere between Bogor and Jakarta, so that I could visit the parents and perhaps persuade them to take Bayou home.

My driver and I set off on the rather bleak and semi-industrial road to Depok. We found the house, a small bungalow of homemade appearance, located almost directly under an enormous electricity pylon.

Bayou’s parents looked thin and weary, but they gave me a sympathetic welcome. They explained that their house was rather crowded, as they had a number of grown-up children living at home, and they had found it convenient to place Bayou in the hospital.

I gave an account of conditions at the hospital as I had experienced them.

To my delight, it was agreed that my driver would arrange for Bayou to return to his family the following day.

Accompanied by Min and his big brother Wardi, I walked beside one of Jakarta’s many wide drainage canals.

We were about half a mile south of Min’s home. The houses here were made from wood, mainly scraps of plywood, and were three stories high. Malnourished children were bathing in the black and oily canal.

"The water is dirty," I shouted to the children. "It’s not safe."

The youngsters grinned.

"They have nowhere else to bathe," said Wardi, quietly.

"I hope Min keeps away from the water," I said.

"Mr Kent," said Wardi, "we have been thinking that, when you eventually go back to England, we will move back to the countryside. It’s cleaner and safer there."

"You don’t have to wait for me to go back to England," I said. "You’re free to make a move anytime you like." I supposed that Min’s family were postponing a move so that they could continue to get my financial help. Perhaps they did not want to upset me by taking Min to a place that would be more difficult for me to visit. Perhaps they were looking forward to the day when they would no longer have constant visits from an interfering foreigner.

"We were thinking of going to a small town where we have relatives."

"How far away?"

"About three hours by bus."

"You could open a bank account there, and I could continue to send a little money each month."

"Sometime soon we’ll start looking for a house."

My feelings were disturbed. It would be good for Min to be away from the unhealthy slums of North Jakarta. But how would I cope without my regular visits to Min?

There was a phone call from leper Iwan whom I had not visited for many months. Iwan said he was not well and needed money to see a doctor.

I motored over to his house, which was the one in South Jakarta formerly lived in by Min.

Iwan was limping as usual, seemed a bit depressed but otherwise looked in fair condition. I suspected that he had phoned me because he felt neglected and because his relatives were short of money. I had previously arranged for my driver to bring Iwan a little money each month for food and clothing.

I now decided to supplement this with a fairly generous lump sum which Iwan was to deposit in the bank and use only when he got ill and needed to see a doctor.

Under an August sky of Elysian blue I wandered through a section of countryside just south of Jakarta. Butterflies fluttered over little gardens of lettuce and various herbs and spices; plump fish swam in murky ponds; a few sheep and goats chewed weedy grass; an old lady with a funny hat was tending trees bearing big yellowish mangoes, round shaped guavas and star-shaped star apples.

On a wall outside a white painted kampung house sat two pretty girls wearing flamenco-style frilly, tiered dresses. I took out my camera and the girls smiled saucily, adjusted their legs, and fluttered their eyelids.

I moved on and came to a large wooden sign advertising a new ‘housing estate and golf course’. I had noted that an increasing number of orchards and rice fields around Jakarta had been turned into property developments for the elite.

Two winsome schoolboys in white shirts and red shorts approached and engaged me in conversation. Panca, the older boy, explained that he and his brother always walked through the new housing estate on their way home from school.

"The houses are only half built," I observed. "Nobody seems to live here."

"They stopped working on the houses many months ago," said Panca.

The houses were sizable affairs with large fancy pillars, but some had no roofs and all had become overgrown with weeds.

Panca pointed to small figures on the upper floor of a half-built concrete building. Three schoolboys were using the house as an adventure playground.

"Who owns this land?" I asked Panca.

"Chinese-Indonesians," he said, showing no emotion.

When we reached the edge of the estate, Panca and his brother led me down through some trees to his kampung village, a collection of humble, homemade houses with mildewed roofs. Outside Panca’s house stood a woman wearing a fawn-coloured uniform, and clutching some tattered books.

"My mother," said Panca, introducing me to this handsome woman. "She’s a teacher."

After some idle chat with the lady about the low pay of teachers, I raised the question of the abandoned housing estate.

"It’s the money crisis," said Panca’s mum. "There are lots and lots of abandoned housing estates around here."

We were well into a new school term and I needed a Saturday excursion to take my mind off paperwork and meetings. I turned off Jakarta’s airport toll road and drove down a series of minor roads towards an area called Dadap on the edge of the Java sea. The flat landscape was bright with sun. Fields of rice and vegetables gave way to rough grasslands, wild flowers and patches of mangrove. Motorised canoe-shaped fishing boats were sailing down a wide rust-coloured river towards the muddy sea. There was a lot of solid Van-Gogh colour: the bright blues and reds of the fishing boats, and, in the fields, the bright yellows of little fluttering flags used to scare away birds.

I tramped along the shore but was not enamoured by the filthiness of the water. It was grey with Jakarta’s waste. The smell was not one of salty sea air but of rotting matter.

I headed inland and began looking at the cultivated land, fish ponds and small hamlets. I passed three schoolgirls and wished them good morning. They giggled shyly but did not reply. Up a tree were two grinning boys with a kite. The taller boy had remarkably skinny limbs but otherwise seemed healthy. The slightly smaller boy had the puckish appearance of a happy little Romany. When they saw me, the boys jumped down from their perch and started up a conversation.

Where was I from? Where was I going? Could they come with me? We agreed they would show me their hamlet. The taller boy was called Aslori and the ‘little Romany’ was called Rozi. They hopped and skipped and danced along the narrow paths between the rice fields.

The houses in their little settlement could be described as wooden hovels. Outside one hut sat a rather ragged woman holding a woebegone baby, and a plump woman holding a smiling boy aged about four.

"Is the baby well?" I asked my guides.

"The baby is well," said Aslori.

"The little boy is sick," said Rozi, pointing to the four-year-old. "His name is Dis."

The mother of Dis pointed to her son’s crotch. "He needs to see a doctor," she said.

It turned out that close to the nearby main road there was a Chinese-Indonesian doctor’s surgery, in the middle of a new housing development. We set off to see the doctor.

While Dis and his mother consulted the doctor, Aslori and Rozi showed me round the new lower-middle-class housing estate. Most of the houses were empty and some were only half built. The only houses that had been occupied seemed to be owned by Chinese-Indonesians with small cars and large dogs. For my two guides I bought Walls ice creams, manufactured by Unilever at Cikarang industrial estate just outside Jakarta.

Back at the little surgery, the soberly-dressed young female doctor showed me what the problem was. Four-year-old Dis had his trousers down and he was still grinning. He had testicles the size of medium-large potatoes.

"It is parasitic worms," said the doctor solemnly. "Mosquitoes put the worms into the blood and then the testicles or lymph nodes swell up."

"What’s the disease called?" I asked.

"Lymphatic Filariasis or Elephantiasis."

I suddenly remembered Daus, the boy who’d had the operation on his swollen face. He had had Elephantiasis. "Is it rare?"

"Quite common. Many millions of people get it in tropical countries. There are drugs to kill the parasite but it’s best to take these before the scrotum swells up like this. This child will have to go to the hospital in Jakarta. A little surgical repair is needed."

The mother was only too happy to agree that my driver would take her and Dis to the hospital on the following Monday. My driver later reported back that the treatment on Dis had gone well.

Bob and Anne invited me to dinner at the Wimbledon Grill at the Mercantile Athletic Club. This spacious restaurant, on the Penthouse Floor of Jakarta’s World Trade Centre, has the sort of standard ‘executive’ decor of characterless carpeting, wooden wall paneling and bland white plaster ceiling. The food was French. The conversation was mainly about the economic crisis.

As we enjoyed superbly grilled fish and imported steak, I told my hosts about the acres and acres of half built housing estates I had come across.

"The property bubble has burst," said Anne.

"As you know, it began in Thailand two years ago," said Bob. "Spread to the Thai stock market. Then Thai banks. Now it’s here."

"I thought Indonesia was supposed to be a successful Asian dragon," I said. "Indonesia was supposed to have become a middle income country. An annual growth rate of almost seven per cent. Sound fundamentals. High savings. Lots of exports."

"That’s all true," said Bob. "The fundamentals are fairly sound."

"Are you sure," said Anne. "I can think of a number of problems. Not enough kids getting a good education, most of the wealth going to the President and his cronies, and most of the new industries here being Japanese or Korean."

"That’s no different from Britain," said Bob, with a slight smile. "But what we have in Asia is panic. The Asian economies were urged by the West to liberalise and deregulate markets and allow in lots of European and Japanese money. Huge sums of money did flow in. Then someone shouted ‘fire’. And the money flowed out."

"Why the panic?" I asked. "Why the sudden withdrawals of cash?"

"The money that came in," explained Bob, "was short-term loans by investors looking for a quick and high rate of return. The money went into things like car making and textiles. When there was a slow down in exports, due to temporary problems like exchange rates and gluts in the market, investors switched money into property. Too many buildings were built. The bubble burst in Thailand. The Thai currency began to sink. The Japanese banks, who have lots of problems of their own, began to move money out of Thailand. The Indonesians let their currency float and it began to sink. Money began to leave the Asian dragons. Even the Chinese-Indonesians were taking their money out "

"All round panic," I said.

"What about conspiracy theories?" asked Anne. "Are their crooked financiers and horrid hedge funds behind all this?"

"George Soros caused the pound to fall," I commented.

"I’m sure the money-men in New York and London are taking advantage of events," said Bob, "but you can’t blame them for all the local mismanagement and corruption."

"I suspect that a lot of banks and businesses in this region could end up in American and British hands," said Anne.

"They talk about ‘fire-sale’ prices," said Bob. "I suspect though that the Indonesians will resist selling to foreigners."

"You mean the Chinese-Indonesians will resist," said Anne.

"Yes," said Bob, "don’t underestimate the Chinese-Indonesians."

"If the IMF has anything to do with it," said Anne, "then the Americans will buy up Asia."

"It happened in South America and Mexico," I said. "The USA moved in to buy things up after the IMF insisted on financial liberalization."

"It’s the ordinary Indonesians who’ll suffer," said Anne. "Malnutrition’s going to increase."

"What about the Indonesian elite?" I asked. "Won’t the generals and Chinese businessmen have lost a lot of money in the crisis?"

"Agreed," said Bob, "but remember that a lot of them will be moving their money into Swiss and Austrian bank accounts."

"Or they’ll have their money here in dollars," said Anne.

"The elite will suffer political consequences," I said. "Suharto will become less popular."

"The government can always blame the Chinese-Indonesians," said Bob. "Make them scapegoats."

"Or blame Jewish financiers," said Anne.

"Will the Asian dragons recover?" I asked. "I’m thinking of my Asian unit trust."

"In the long term," said Bob, "countries like China and South Korea should do well. They can manufacture things better and more cheaply than the Americans."

"I find Korean and Chinese students far ahead of British and American ones in almost everything," I said.


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