Wednesday, September 21, 2005


I was finishing my Sunday breakfast toast and coffee and regarding with pleasure the fleshy pot plants out in the sun-dappled courtyard.

A cock crowed loudly and then the door bell buzzed. My young kampung neighbours, tubercular Fajar, half-Chinese Andri, and cheeky-faced Hermanto, had arrived at the front door. They were accompanied by two boys I hadn’t met before.

"Jalan jalan?" said Andri.

"A walk. Good idea," I said, anticipating adventure. "Who are your two friends?"

"Agung and Saban," said Andri, in his usual chirpy voice.

As we set off down the steamy, tree-lined street I observed the newcomers.

Thirteen-year-old Agung was the typically graceful, winsome Javanese; he had a snub nose, big dark eyes and curvy lips; in his blue school shorts he had the appearance of a happy Pierre Joubert boy scout.

Fourteen-year-old Saban was the odd one out in the group; he was a Huckleberry Finn with slightly uncoordinated movements; his face was that of a boxer who had lost a few fights; his shirt was stained and missing some buttons, his baggy long trousers were too short, and his plastic sandals were broken.

"Look," said Agung, pointing to a metal cage next the garden gate of a sizeable art-nouveau villa.

Agung and his friends jumped into the garden and started talking to the occupant of the cage, a depressed young macaque monkey.

"Are we allowed into this garden?" I asked, after gingerly following my guides.

"No problem," said Agung.

In view of the recent riots, I wondered how long it would be before some of the rich began putting barbed wire on their fences and gates, thus becoming ‘prisoners’ like the macaque.

"The monkey is stressed and unhappy," I said. "It’s lost its parents."

The poor creature grabbed a piece of ragged cloth from the floor of its cage, placed it over its head, and began swaying from side to side. Saban gave out a nervous sounding giggle.

We moved on, and having passed a cart where a couple of maids were buying pieces of fly-covered meat for their masters, reached a street with kampung houses. On our left, seated on a mat, was a plump and jolly woman who was selling knickers and bras. To our right was a wheelbarrow-shaped cart filled with what looked like light grey ash.

Hermanto pointed at the ash and said, "Soap."

"Kampung people use it for washing," said Andri, rubbing his face with his hands. "It’s cheaper than soap."

We passed some wooden shacks with rusting corrugated iron roofs and came to an open doorway at which Agung stopped.

"My house," said Agung, with a grin that perhaps combined pride and embarrassment. "Come in."

I stepped inside the dark front room where I could make out a chair piled high with clothes, a curtain leading to a back kitchen, and a narrow twisting stair leading to an upstairs bedroom. Nobody seemed to be at home.

"You have brothers and sisters?" I asked.

"Many sisters," said Agung. "No brothers."

A high whistle sound reached our ears from somewhere out in the street.

"What’s that?" I asked, while putting on my puzzled face.

Agung led us outside. "Fish restaurant," he said, pointing to a man pushing a cart with a whistle-shaped funnel. When steam shot out, there was a high pitched flute note.

We continued our walk and came to a narrow passageway that led down to a marshy river. On each side of the river a wooden platform had been erected, and between the platforms stretched a rope. Attached to the rope was a flat bottomed ferryboat, big enough to take about a dozen passengers. We paid our few rupiahs to the young ferryman and began our crossing.

"A crocodile?" I said, pointing to a creature on the bank ahead of us.

"It’s only a cecak," said Agung, referring to the little reptiles that climb the walls of living rooms.

"It’s a lizard," said Fajar, trying to be adult and reassuring. I supposed he meant a Monitor Lizard.

We passed a school and a mosque and entered a vast cemetery that seemed to stretch for miles. There were sweet smelling frangipani trees, graves covered with fresh white flowers, tomb stones decorated with crosses and angels, areas for military heroes, and there was one shiny black headstone above which hung a bird cage containing a live bird.

Agung came to a halt beside a simple wooden memorial.

"My father," he announced.

"Your father is dead?" I said, resisting the urge to put my arm around his poor young shoulders.

"He died of tetanus," said Agung, staring at the grave. "He was a joiner. He died a few years ago."

We stood quietly for a few moments. Passing through my mind were distressed memories of Min’s young brother Aldi who had died of tetanus. Agung seemed quite calm. Saban fidgeted.

The sound of a passing diesel locomotive broke the silence. Off to our right, several hundred metres away, we could see the train, packed with passengers on its roof.

"Do you want to see where Saban lives?" asked Fajar.

"OK," I said.

My guides led me to the edge of the cemetery, across the railway track, through an area of colourful kampung houses followed by an estate of modest villas and onwards to an area of waste ground. In one corner of the grassland was a white painted hut, and that was where Fajar was leading us.

The hut had a window with a metal grill rather than a glass pane. Through the open door I could see that the hut’s only furniture was a wooden bench, stuck against one wall.

"This is where Saban lives," said Andri, in a sympathetic tone of voice.

"This is the neighbourhood guard’s post," explained Fajar. "The guard stays here at night. He allows Saban to sleep here."

"Saban has no family?" I asked, turning to look in the direction of Saban.

Saban said nothing, but his eyes reminded me of those of Min, when Min had been lost.

"Saban does have parents," said Andri, with a look of seriousness.

"Why doesn’t he stay with them?" I asked.

"Saban woke up one morning and found his parents were gone," said Andri.

"Saban," I said, a strong note of incredulity in my voice, "your parents had gone?"

"That’s right mister," said Saban, sounding both sincere and indignant.

"I don’t understand," I said, addressing the group in general. "What happened to Saban’s parents?"

"His mother lives in the countryside," said Fajar.

"Saban’s father?" I asked.

"He sleeps in Gambir railway station," said Saban.

"Why did your parents leave?" I asked, hoping Saban would not break down.

"Don’t know, mister," said Saban, appearing genuinely puzzled.

I was gaining the impression that Saban was not too sharp. "Have you visited your mother?"

Saban nodded.

"Why don’t you stay with her?"

"Her house has no room," said Saban.

I looked at Fajar. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say that certain families were both a problem and a puzzle. I looked at Saban and imagined that his father was possibly the sort of gentleman who frequented the darker corners of downtown Jakarta.

Black clouds were filling the sky and it was time for me to return home.

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