Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Aryo's Heart; Min's Rice Field; Dancow

When the maid brought me my after-dinner coffee, she was smiling in an overemphatic manner. She had something to ask me. Would I like to meet Aryo, a small child who needed a heart operation? Aryo and family lived in a nearby kampung. I told the maid I would think about it.

I did not know what a heart operation might cost, but guessed that it would be at least fifty million rupiahs.

I looked at the Jakarta Post. There were more stories of riots, and there was news that one American dollar was now worth seventeen thousand rupiahs. I looked in my wallet and saw that it contained two million rupiahs, which was the sort of sum expatriates regularly took from the bank.

The following Saturday I took Aryo and his family to the concrete tower block which houses Jakarta’s heart hospital, a place designed to cater mainly for the rich. Aryo was about five years of age and had a cheerful little face. His mum and dad seemed to be decent, kindly kampung folk, poorly dressed and thin about the face. I had memories of little Oya, who had had an operation to help her cope with her Hydrocephalus. Mum had not visited Oya in hospital, and when Oya later caught an infection, Oya’s mum had refused to have the child readmitted to hospital. Oya had died.

The heart doctor assured me that an operation was necessary for Aryo, if he was to have the chance of a normal life. The parents assured me that they wanted the operation and would stay with Aryo in hospital. And the cost? The hospital’s prices had not gone up, in spite of the fact that the rupiah had crashed.

Several weeks later a smiling Aryo was brought to my house by mum and dad. There was a deep scar on the child’s chest, much bigger than I would have imagined. But I was assured that the operation had gone well.

It was time to see how Min was getting on. This meant the usual longish journey during which there was time for anxiety to build. Was Min safe and well? Were the family getting on happily with each other and managing to make a successful living? As we bumped over the potholes on the minor roads I found myself becoming bad-tempered. When I arrived outside Min’s house in Lamaya, Wardi was in the front garden, but there was no sign of Min.

"Min’s with his mum," said Wardi, giving me a nervous smile.

"I thought Min was going to be staying with you," I said. My stomach was grumbling and I found it difficult not to sound aggressive.

"We all look after Min," said Wardi. "Shall we go and see the new house Min’s mum and dad have moved into?"

Wardi and I walked along a path between assorted fruit trees and came to a sunny house very similar to the one we had just left. The walls were white, the roof was red and the windows were smart and modern. Min and Wati appeared at the front door. Min looked as if he might be having one of his slightly ‘down’ days. Wati, forcing a smile but appearing ill at ease, invited us in. Were Min’s family picking up the signs of my stress or was I picking up the signs of their tension? Min’s dad was looking pale.

"Very nice house," I commented. "Big bright rooms."

Wati’s shoulders relaxed.

"Do you want to see our rice field?" asked Wardi, his eyes twinkling.

"Yes, please."

My mood changed for the better as we began our walk down the leafy street. Min’s young brother hopped and skipped round the potholes and sleeping dogs. Becak taxis pedalled past carrying cheerful fat ladies, slim-limbed schoolgirls and piles of pineapples and sweet potatoes. A teenage girl with cherub lips and a white school uniform gave me a voluptuous smile. The gardens were full of Rangoon Creeper and Rose of India.

We took a left turn, passed scores of banana trees and eventually reached a nutbrown river where naked boys were bathing. We made our crossing by means of another flat bottomed ferry boat attached to a rope which stretched between the banks.

A flat green plain lay before us: rice fields, drainage canals, and occasional patches of trees.

"Our rice field," announced Wardi, pointing to a rectangle of green, the size of a large football pitch.

"Will you have enough to live on?" I asked.

"I’ve got a job helping at a shop in the market," said Wardi. "That brings in extra money."

Everyone seemed to be at ease as we walked back into town.

On the way back from Lamaya I asked the driver to stop at a shop in a small village. I bought some milk and biscuits and set off on an exploration of the village’s hinterland. There was a sweet little mosque with an onion-shaped dome, a sunny meadow with goats, a collection of neat vegetables patches, a line of trees next an embankment and finally a wide meandering river. Two girls and two boys began to follow me as I walked a narrow path beside the river. Soon three more children joined our procession. When I stopped to eat some biscuits I saw that around fifteen young faces were staring at me. They all looked happy, but thin and possibly hungry. I felt guilty as I drank my expensive milk.

On returning to the village shop, I decided to feed the multitude, now twenty in number. I invited the children into the shop’s dark and sweet-smelling interior. I could see packs of clove-flavoured cigarettes, piles of tropical fruits and earthy vegetables, bottles of soybean sauce, sacks of rice, bottles of cola, packets of noodles, cosmetics and shampoos with American brand names, and on a shelf behind the counter, Dancow milk powder. I asked the shop owner, an elderly Chinese-Indonesian, to give me twenty cans of Dancow.

The cans were placed in a cardboard box on the floor. The children pressed towards me. I picked up two cans and handed one to the nearest girl. Hands stretched out to grab the second can.

"Mister! Mister!" cried the bigger, bolder boys as they struggled to reach the front of the scrum.

"Take the milk outside," said the shop owner with a degree of ferocity. He did not want a riot on his property.

I picked up the flimsy box, fought my way outside and positioned the heavy load on the pavement. As I handed out one can to a small boy on my left, bigger boys started helping themselves. One lad grabbed two cans. Three well-built young men, who had been standing beside parked motorbikes, came forward to grab their share of the loot and then drove off with smirking faces.

The Dancow was gone within seconds and half a dozen of the children had ended up empty handed. I bought the last of the shop’s supply of powdered milk and, with the aid of two muscular shop assistants, dispensed it to the six kids. But new children were hurrying towards the shop from both ends of the street. I hurried to my van and escaped.


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