Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Because many expat parents had decided to educate their children a safe distance away from riot-torn Indonesia, my school now had a lot of spookily empty classrooms and far too many teachers. More than ever, our boss was praying that some of his staff would begin to look for jobs elsewhere. I wanted to stay because I still could not think of any other country with such alluring scenery and people. And yet I had anxieties that the competing factions within the Indonesian elite would continue to struggle against each other, causing more pain and stress.

A Saturday trip to Lamaya showed me that Min was in good health and pleased to see me. I noted that he had finally lost his boyish looks and manner; he had broad shoulders and the beginnings of a small moustache. His moods seemed more balanced; I saw no more episodes of deep gloom or over-wild exuberance.

Min’s family knew all about the recent political turmoil, but their quiet little town had not had any riots, only huge price rises for basic foods. Wardi asked me what I thought of the new president. I said that Habibie had the reputation of being extremely clever; he had apparently been a vice-president of Germany’s Messerschmitt and was intent on promoting high technology in Indonesia. Wardi was evidently proud that Indonesia could produce a top-class engineer; but he was noncommittal about Habibie’s politics.

I suggested a walk, but Min wanted a ride in my vehicle. Min, Wati, Wardi, Imah and I drove into the sunny centre of town, parked and took a stroll through the market. I was a little anxious in view of the recent troubles, but the local people seemed to be going about their business in their normal relaxed and friendly way. Three-wheeled becak taxis, filled with children and chickens, were being pedaled at a leisurely pace. Women shoppers took their time as they gossiped with their friends or bargained over the prices of sweet potatoes or fly-covered goat meat.

The air was filled with bright dusty light and a variety of wonderful smells from freshly ground coffee to fermented shrimp paste. Colour was provided by piles of chillies and tomatoes and mounds of saffron. The sounds were of caged birds and the hammering of scrap metal that was being made into small implements.

"This is not President Habibie’s high-tech world of aircraft manufacture," I said to Wardi, as we passed displays of recycled batteries and fans and small workshops making simple furniture and baskets.

"The Americans would not buy our planes or cars," said Wardi.

We came to a little shop which was gaudily painted like an Indian fairground stall. It was selling traditional medicines: liquids and powders made from roots, herbs, bark and other natural ingredients.

"What’s this medicine for?" I asked the sweet girl behind the counter, as I picked up a yellow package from a glass case.

"Bergairah dan digdaya," she said. She pointed to the illustration on the box and gave me a knowing look.

I got the impression that it was all about increasing a man’s passion.

"And this one?"

"For the woman," she said, grinning happily. "It brings back sexual delight after childbirth."

"And this one?"

"For teenage girls. To develop their bodies."

Min and his little sister Imah did not understand the conversation, but Wardi and Wati smiled.

Having left the market, we walked a little way alongside the town’s wide river. After watching women doing their washing and children enjoying a swim, we returned to my vehicle.

As I was finishing my evening meal, there arrived at my front door my young kampung neighbours, winsome Agung, tubercular Fajar, uncoordinated Saban and half-Chinese Andri. They were frequent visitors. I ushered them into the lounge where they were happy to sit on the floor and play their usual games of cards. Next to appear were the little musicians, Ali and Dikin, who performed some rousing street songs. The final visitor was happy Hermanto, who had brought along two young friends called Gadi and Ferry.

As I sipped my coffee and watched the card players, a thought occurred to me. There was someone missing, someone who had previously been a regular visitor but whom I had not seen for some weeks. The missing boy was called Herry and he was thin and had a dark pointy face.

"What’s happened to Herry?" I asked Hermanto, who had just finished a game of whist.

"He’s ill," replied Hermanto.

"What’s wrong with him?" I said.


"Typhoid!" My heart made a leap.

"He’s been ill for weeks."

"For weeks!" Now I was angry as well as shocked.

"He got some pills from the local clinic, the puskesmas, but that didn’t help."

"He should be in hospital!" I said, sounding furious. "You should have told me he was ill! You must always tell me when someone’s ill!"

I asked the maid to phone for a taxi and instructed young Irfan, the house guard and gardener, to go with Hermanto to Herry’s house. Once there, Irfan was to offer Herry’s family the money to pay for hospital treatment.

Later in the evening, Irfan returned with news of the patient. Herry had gone into hospital. The doctor was annoyed that the family had not taken action sooner. He said that Herry not only had typhoid but also dengue fever.

Fortunately, Herry got better. His small, hook-nosed father came to the house to thank me for my help and to ask for more money. I asked him for the hospital receipt so that I could see if there was any of my money left over after he had paid the bill. He explained, in a rather unctuous manner, that he was a low-paid government worker and needed cash to pay for possible future health checkups for Herry. I insisted on seeing the receipt. With some reluctance, he handed over the document and I saw that there should have been a substantial sum remaining.

"What about the change?" I asked.

"I need to keep it," he said, with what seemed like a weasel-faced grin, "for future health checkups."

I was decidedly angry but decided to give way rather than have a long argument. The boy had got better and that was what counted most.

The man made his exit. Herry never returned to my house. Much later, it occurred to me that the behaviour of Herry’s father was not so unreasonable. I might have behaved just like him had I been in his shoes.

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