Somehow in the rush Omar had packed the hotel prayer mat in his luggage. In the taxi searching for something it turned up. Of course it needed to be returned.
— They will think you are Muslim carrying it, said Omar.
On leaving the patisserie at Thambrin City for the bus Omar thought to collect a plastic bag for the mat. What he was given was a bag for croissants and bread. The mat would need to be carried under-arm through the hard streets and lanes of Tanah Abang, no alternative.
With the original Ecuadorean straw panama an unusual sight stepping out in that quarter.
In three and one half days in Tanah Abang there had not been another Westerner sighted, much less one bearing a prayer mat with such fetching head-cover.
Between 3 and 4 the traffic had not really started. Nevertheless, for fascinating entertainment the scramble of motorcycles, mikrolets, cars and pedestrians could hardly be beat. There was a danger of not paying sufficient attention to the broken pavement, that was the only thing.
The day before there had been a slight accident with our hire driver, Mr. Budi. Then this afternoon a light touch involving a 4‑wheel drive and a young lad on a motorcycle. Wisely, in the latter case the daughter in the back seat of the car had carried the argument with the bike and a couple of other riders who had taken the young man’s part.
One of the older bikers in the scrum had shown his anger and for a brief instant it seemed some kind of altercation was imminent. In the midst of the exchange the old biker had lunged toward the passenger window where the Madam sat behind darkened glass. In the movement the man had lifted his front wheels like a cowboy on a rearing steed—Roy Rogers more than the Duke. The woman within had remained head bowed throughout.
Luckily no harm done and the torrent resumed.
A car driver in Jakarta would not want to be involved in an accident in that particular part of town of all places. Land of Brothers—Tanah Abang.
The ride out for the airport bus in the taxi had taken twenty minutes; the same time needed to find a taxi in the first place. Cost: Rp30,000—four dollars. The cabbie had been on the road since early morning and was still some way short of covering the day’s expenses, he complained.
After parting with Omar and setting off back toward the hotel taxis were again difficult to find. Two Westerners had exited cars and instructed drivers to wait for them. Around Thamrin City, Hotel Indonesia and the Bunderan there were no shortage of Westerners.
A driver taking a smoke to the side laughed at the request.
— Tanah Abang? Well buddy, try shaking a leg… Almost certainly something like that.
As the chap tugged on his cigarette the distinctively Arabic form of Tanah Abang Blok A clothing emporium suddenly showed itself below. It was perfectly uncanny; as if a cloud had parted at precisely that moment.
The structure was none other than Tanah Abang Blok A. Care had been taken that morning to get the precise name and Omar had pointed out the sign. The six or seven storey tower, ornate and a little impressive, went by no other name.
In the cab out we had traveled a full twenty minutes, part way racing along a three lane highway, at Rp30k. Yet here within distance of a good flat punt stood the building that we had explored for the third time just that morning. One of the lads in school could have folded a paper aeroplane that might have covered the distance.
Hotel Kalisma was five minutes further. Keeping the beacon more or less in sight and two tall red and white communication towers for secondary reference, it was a cinch.
While not exactly the 5pm show, the choreography of traffic was still first class. Brilliant manouvering, deft turns, beautiful harmony and finesse in what looked at first sight like hellish lunacy.
Once the foot of the cream & green Blok A with its arabesques was reached the police tent appeared; then the coffee shop where Omar had bought his Arabica that morning. Downhill to the fruit-stalls. The turn at Jati Bundar needed care.
From whence a shower of greetings left and right, from passersby, customers at the stalls and the stall-holders, from shadowy corners, from balconies and seemingly underground. Bollywood celebrities in India did no better. There was hardly a beggar the whole stretch.
A marvelous fanfare.
Children, mothers, men young and old; pretty scarved girls dispensed with shyness.
Unintentionally developing the spectacle, a single large pisang had been bought at one of the stalls. There had been no time for lunch; a hurried croissant at the patisserie with the coffee had been all.
Therefore from the top: panama covering the white scone; collared white sleeveless that morning; prayer mat under arm; in the other hand a long barreled yellow banana—the quick-draw cowboy’s gun outta the holster.
Along the narrow lane of tiny front rooms where figures sprawled half-visible, people out on low benches and door-steps, wandering and staring children.
— You gonna take a bite outta that or is it something for your wife? one chap by the tone and sliding eye.
Cheap entertainment for the denizens of Tanah Abang, brothers and sisters all. A privileged role playing for that audience, albeit insincere at heart.
As anticipated, a good many closely scrutinized the mat, rolled and folded, its tassels flopping with each step forward.
— Assalamu’alaikum!… Assalamu’alaikum!… Every twenty-five metres, Assalamu’alaikum.
Many sounded it shyly from behind once they had been passed.
The greeting to a fellow Muslim. Peace be upon you. The standard response was Laykum’salam. It was difficult to hide the blushing.
Back at Joo Chiat in Singapore the cheeky Chinese greengrocer would playfully mimic the exchange, in the rejoinder swallowing the final consonant. Once or twice the reflexive play with that rascal almost tumbled from the tongue here.
The Land of Brothers was a captivating and a daunting quarter. On the second evening we had passed through one of the slums off Jalan Tikus, Rat Alley, on the other side of the hotel. The policed high-end sector around the swish hotels had been declined for the stay. Online the notices and reviews for hotels with “great location” meant a mall adjacent and Dunkin Donuts on the strip.
Omar had made the point earlier in the afternoon that all the greetings on the streets the first three days would mean good numbers of allies should any problem arise.
There was some comic by-play at the front desk where the young widower Irwan was the butt of the jokes. The standard of gila, crazy was tossed around. Who among us had the propensity? Who fell most prone? how? when? under what circumstances?
Mostly Irwan was fine and proper, the pleasant middle-aged woman who often partnered Irwan at reception testified. Truth be told, however, sometimes he could go a bit gila.
Possibly the fellow was prone to waywardness where perempuan, women were concerned, maybe.
This was let pass by the receptionist. Not something for her comment.
A chap behind seemed to appear from out of nowhere, thin air. From the rear access to the prayer room possibly.
Oh yes indeed. Certainly. Gila to the max our Irwan, take it from me. Flapping his arms and rolling shoulders.
The sign that followed left no room for doubt. With the fingers of both hands entwined the fellow impressed his point. Hands clasped as if in readiness for earnest prayer or beseeching, he started a rapid hammering of one palm onto the other. A kind of nut-cracker effect with the jaws in a frenzy of snapping.
Some kind of voracious creature that had leapt from the paddy or jungle was evoked, one native to the region.
WhooWhooHoo. Big wide smiles; cackling. A little adolescent.
Poor darkly eye-bagged Irwan thirteen months widowed from his dear wife. Irwan was also one of those incessant screw-tight blinkers that one commonly found in the Tropics. A few days before he had given the name of his departed partner. In his wallet the dead woman’s ID was kept by her mourning husband. The document showed a plain-looking woman in dull orange-brown scarf on one side of the card and a larger image of her finger-print on the other.
A year now after the loss Irwan, a good Muslim, could marry.
- But not easy you know, these days…
Someone backstage needed Irwan.
The substance and depth of these superficially plain, unmade-up and scarfed women had been established over the twenty-five months in the region. Sitting at Starbucks again after the jollity at the lobby one watched the familiar fashion parade over the polished tiles, recalling Irwan’s wife and others like her. If Irwan now went a little gila where women were concerned it would only be grief involved.
The disaster had been more terrible still as the wife had perished in child-birth, the baby with her.
Irwan lived with his parents, his brother and family close-by in the compound, an hour out of central Jakarta—always depending on the traffic.
Hotel Kalisma stood a kilometre from the Bunderan, the chief roundabout in the city; perhaps two kilometres from Monas, the main square with the Soekarno-era Freedom monument. Irwan’s home was kampung, village country-side. If there were roosters and chooks behind Room 120 at Kalisma one kilometre from Plaza Indonesia and Bunderan—as there certainly were—more would be found where Irwan lived. In a car trip well within the inner circle of the city there had been a small herd of goats roadside, evidently for sale.
Irwan the young widower wanted to show the foreigner, the Bule, White something of a Javanese kampung. There was much to see in Jakarta, a “dynamic city”, according to Irwan. The city was one thing; the kampungs something entirely other, the man insisted.
It had been difficult to convince Irwan that this Bule knew kampungs; that he indeed hailed from one in Europe actually. That Europe even today was not all Champs Elysees and Westminster. Indeed goats, roosters and thatched housing was a common heritage.
A trip that promised much. Toil over the pages prevented it that afternoon after Irwin’s work-shift.
Over a dozen times Omar has visited Jakarta. On each of the earlier occasions it had been the high-end of the city, the new, modern Jakarta that had been explored. When Omar traveled with his wife it had been particularly the case. A two hundred dollar hotel room had been taken on at least one recent occasion in the last twelve months, at the Millennium, a five star on one of the busy highways.
Most Singaporean visitors to Jakarta followed the same course, exchanging their commercial hub for the equivalent in Jakarta. In Jakarta of course lower prices promised bargains. (The annual Jakarta Great Sale scheduled during the long school holidays was on at the time of the trip.) We lunched at the Millennium on the second or third afternoon, the cost for two the equivalent of our room charge at two star Kalisma Hotel, a short distance away.
Rather unexpectedly, shortly after dinner on the first night, Omar wanted to enter the slum quarter, on the inner fringe of which stood Kalisma. On previous occasions Omar had not ventured there. This time he had a willing companion.
There was a vague pretext that the venture was for the benefit of the foreigner, in order to show him Third World living and hardship, when in fact Omar plunged into the matter like a man who had left important unfinished business wait too long.
In childhood, after the family left the mosque where the learned Arabic grandfather had been provided quarters, Omar spent his formative years in not dissimilar conditions in the kampung that had stood in present-day Geylang Serai—pretty much on the spot where a mock-up Malay Kampung was constructed when Lee Kwan Yue was taking the island republic on its own fateful Great Leap Forward. Clean, ordered, bland “pigeon-hole” living had been Omar’s fate subsequently, like for most Singaporeans of his generation.
Jalan Tubun on which Kalisma sat had been preparation for what lay beyond the thoroughfare. Some housing was retained on Tubun, usually of the better, more spacious kind behind high ornate fencing on large allotments. Tubun though was a commercial strip that included timber yards, a church, two or three mosques, a hospital and cemetery.
Because of the large textile market, Tanah Abang was the worst bottle-neck in Jakarta. The volume of traffic brought opportunity and drew all manner of hawkers, peddlers and fossickers to Tubun. At the make-shift stalls along the stretch from the river were old tools and appliances, shoes, clothing, a couple of rough shelters either side where painted women awaited customers, tyre and motor-cycle repairers. From their perch on the narrow road divider directly outside Kalisma a couple of men sold face-towels to drivers.
The traffic and heat oppressed equally in Jakarta. On Tubun the chaos of cars, bikes and scooters would be much worse without the young, self-appointed traffic wardens directing with illuminated batons and shrill whistles.
The poverty on Tubun was in the ragged carters, the more ragged solitary homeless with their bundles, the barefoot children trooping along in the gutter against the traffic hurtling inches away; above all in the bedraggled elderly, especially when they were found alone and seemingly abandoned. These elderly were either abandoned or else insisted on paying their way in their families with their scrounging on the street. Tubun was unsettling, and more so than what lay close behind it.
Omar’s move had been abrupt and made without notice.
A wider, darkened lane initially lined with small rickety traders of various sorts, where motor-bikes and adapted passenger scooters needed careful passage. Here the stalls that were still trading were mostly fixed rather than mobile, the commerce all local and not the passing of a busy dual motor-way. Many of the stalls seemed to have given up the ghost, left behind by Tubun’s draw. A number continued to trade small-scale—cigarettes, cold drinks, soap and sachets of coffee and shampoo. Ramshackle food stalls survived, hairdressing booths and small trades. There was a tooth-puller without the pretension of dentistry in the advertising, such as on Tubun and the other, larger thoroughfares.
This darker, less frenetic and cheaper back quarter that radiated off Tubun lowered the rhythms to relaxed, domestic level. In mid-evening’s sporadic street light the display of people and dwellings showed uncomfortably naked to an outsider—a White and a business-shirted Arab.
In the narrow passage that we entered two and one half or three metres separated the walls of the dwellings one side from the other. All the encounters here were touching distance.
One tried not to peer too closely. The day before Omar returned to Singapore he counseled that care be taken not to stare too hard, nor poke one’s nose too far in explorations of those quarters.
There was nothing shocking or disturbing. Long-tailed rats were well-established; a small monkey that was sighted a few days later startled only momentarily. Chaffing and unkemptness, ragged and soiled clothing, general dishevelment in a domestic, communal setting did not seem like the blight it appeared on Jalan Tubun.
Hopelessness and desperation were not apparent. The cramped living quarters needed an adjustment. The housing was all make-shift, weathered and grimed; jerry-built it used to be called in Australia. Most of the core building at least was sound enough; it was the lop-sided annexes and porches that produced a large part of the tumble-down effect.
Rusted tin, battens tied with rattan in lieu of nails—straightened old nails were sold on Tubun—plastic sheeting usually for screening the street and keeping out the sun. The warungs, the little roadside food stalls on Tubun, all used the same against the noise and dirt of the traffic.
Squares and levels had not been employed by these builders—such implements came too late onto the mass market. (They sold currently on Tubun.) Having fled the real estate bubble back home, the all-encompassing consumerism, none of this was liable to shock very much. Omar had spent early years in such dwellings, and indeed the author too. Father Lazar’s old fibro bungalow built out the back of the block before the brick veneer was slowly erected was not dissimilar. Like Omar, a dozen years older, we too had a night-soil man, dark-skinned in fact quite like the people of this region.
There was much refuse, plastic and paper wrapping; little of food scraps. As on Tubun, parfumeries surprised, the product usually in tall aluminum cylinders and decanted into the flasks women brought from home. Seeing this, the absence of odour suddenly became apparent.
The filthy water channel was disheartening. One could not call it a creek or stream. The water stood stagnant, more than likely a man-made, ill-considered diversion; certainly inadequate for large numbers of people. All manner of refuse littered there from one bank to the other. Presumably the rains when they came cleared the garbage.
Large areas of Jakarta had been under water only two months earlier. Much of the city sat below sea level. From the first President Soekarno’s time there had been projects to remove the capital to another site. Since then Jakarta had grown to over ten million.
The dwellings turned their backs on the water, a slippery, muddy rear access providing garbage chute. The sight of the water may have been what prompted Omar to an exploration at that place. Either the main dark thoroughfare or this narrow side was called Jalan Tikus, Rat Alley; presumably informally.
Small, seemingly stunted figures, men, women and children, the elderly among them, sat indoors and out. Others sprawled sleeping or resting, as often in Singapore, in the most grotesque postures. A small number of televisions churned the darkness with their colour. Back on the thoroughfare later a short distance off we came upon a police station, or community building adjoining the station, where a mounted TV facing the street collected a dozen men leaning against cars and lamp-posts for a football telecast.
Rickety narrow ladders led to make-shift mezzanines. There was no radio or music; even TVs were muted somehow—or else the visual blanketed the aural almost completely. Appropriately, the passage through the slum was without any filmic soundtrack.
The narrow path followed the decline of the channel. Children were at play. There was no begging from them or anyone else until the very end. When it came the begging seemed to arrive as an afterthought.
Desperation or despair was not apparent in Rat Alley. There must have been an unconscious expectation and readying. It failed to appear anywhere on that first acquaintance, or any subsequent in Tanah Abang.
Greetings and smiles were offered and always returned when extended here. We had perhaps managed our exploration in a fitting enough manner, without too much intrusiveness. The absence of stricken looks may have helped.
Here and there through those quarters one came upon men and women, elderly usually, vacantly sitting and staring on the dirty, broken pavement. One chap recently was caught in this attitude seemingly fixated on the base of the tall plastic barrel that stood between his legs.
The effect of the prohibition of alcohol could not be underestimated. It was sold here and there on Tubun, where it sat on display on the plank shelving; no doubt it was consumed somewhere out of sight. Within the alleyways there was no sign, and none of its effects anywhere; neither public drunkedness nor the superficial gaiety.
In Rat Alley and all the other alleys there was little sinking of heart evident. Against expectation, first time visitors to slum areas were commonly struck by this more than anything else: the smooth process of orderly living in settled, measured rhythm. On the contrary, rather than any dark gloom, ease and relaxation were apparent, laughter and playfulness too on the first night within the alleys, and on every subsequent visit.
A foreigner offering the courtesy of even the most meagre greeting and enquiry in the native language always smoothed a path. For someone who grew up in an alien cultural setting the matter was clearly understood. Here weather-beaten dark faces showed their inner light all along the row shared with the rats. Pity was misplaced here; in fact it was one’s own resilience and strength, one’s own capacities that came into question there.
The strongest memory of the first evening was of the children’s play that was stumbled upon.
No doubt the narrow lane took numerous twists and turns ahead beyond the Maypole where we turned back. As an introduction we had ventured far enough. Jakarta sprawled over a large area, all the old housing low-level. The two main vectors had been discovered almost immediately running parallel beside Hotel Kalisma—the river and rail-line. Gambir, the main city station built by the Dutch as a conduit for the port, stood a short distance away. Rat Alley was by no means the most precarious living in this city; the rail-line was lined with much more flimsy, provisional shelter for new arrivals, including goats and sheep in the adjacent yard.
One always underestimated ages of children in particular here, and in Asia generally. This little band could not have been much beyond the six or seven year cohort.
In this case the leader of the group seemed to be at the lower end, a little dark lovely in green dress. Beside the tall iron pole where the group had congregated six or seven children squatted tightly bunched. The presence of outsiders, a highly unusual pair at that, failed to distract the children. In more than a fortnight in Tanah Abang, no other White had been sighted beyond the Mall precinct. Nowhere in the vicinity of Hotel Kalisma a single kilometre distant; certainly not along the narrow lanes and alleys in-between.
None of the children in the group at the pole gave the Bule, the White visitor and his companion any attention. Only one brief glance was raised by the green leader.
The girl marshaled attention in the circle, the spell that was brewing within more powerful than any outside distraction.
Nothing struck more deeply that first night in Jakarta than seeing the familiar children’s game in the corner away from the adults. This was far more striking than rats, monkeys or anything else.
Over twenty five months on the equator the extensive kinship of traditions and customs had been proved many times over. But to come upon here in a Jakartan slum quarter immediately adjacent the new shopping malls and the future they promised, this particular game from a distant playground of fifty years before seemed remarkable. There was great competition among kite-flying young boys here who gathered early evening on the grass in front of the local hospital. Pigeon racing was popular among the next age group. One came across infants blowing on little coloured windmills; on children adapting cardboard boxes for play. There was no poverty of spirit or lack of energy and imagination in the rat-infested slums.
The tall machined free-standing iron pole clearly had been chosen and claimed. Children from distant playgrounds fifty years before had adopted precisely the same kind of sites for their base of operation. These poles, stalks and trees stretching upward stood as springboards for the heavens.
Each child in this dark corner had extended a foot into an inner circle created behind their wall of bodies. Plastic sandals of a variety of colours were arrayed like the petals of some strange, hybrid flower. The exotic tropical fruits and flowers seemed to be represented in this dirty, broken alley-way.
Leading girl in green was fingering clock-wise each iridescent blossom, which in the gloom seemed to glow brighter.
Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe…
A Bahasa version would have substituted something for the English Nigger’s toe in the play of other lands.
The children watched the finger ticking like the hand of a clock around the circle. In their homes there would be no clocks, nor would their fathers wear timepieces on their wrists. The children had made their own beside the pole. A game without beginning or end, like the eternal clock.
A little cantina like from the Westerns, Mom and Pop affair near the bridge over the river on Jalan Tubun. Squid, 4–5 veg., pisang for dessert—not fried, natural in its skin—totalled Rp24k, perhaps for foreigners in panamas. Nevertheless, Rp5k cheaper than the average mall latte.
Pop had fallen from his mount chasing bad guys in a posse. Almost not a single word of English between the friendly, homely pair. Hello. Thank you.
Yesterday on departure Pop had got out something he recalled from Hollywood movies. Pop was softer; it was Mom’s eyes lighting up at the register.
— I love you! for his favourite new regular.
— Ah! You’re the best Pop.
A couple days earlier at a late lunch Pop had received two pals in the room behind—unrendered, unlit, couple of laundry tubs for wash-up. One could tell how far back the pals went as soon as they rocked up on their motor-cycles, Pop limping out to greet. On re-entry to settle the bill—bench out front gave a ringside seat for the captivating carnival of the street—the threesome were found on the floor of the second room, cardboard laid to soften the seating. That kind of cantina.
The event of that Sunday morning took place at the first lane along from the hotel drive, not fifty metres distant. Mom & Pop were on the other side of the bridge.
At the head of the lane one of the young traffic wardens directing bikes coming onto Tubun noticed a lad footing up the rise. Couple of quick words while the man waved three or four bikes safely through. The fellow tall, soiled white tee, knee-length shorts and baby-blue flip-flops. Usual wear in the heel and the balls of the feet.
How were the inner soles of the foot-wear spied so particularly? Well, therein lay the tale.
The pal coming up was shorter, tubby (where the other was the usual rake-thin). Darker tee and shorter length shorts; minus cap.
The traffic warden was equipped with head-cover.
Past midday; two days of rain previously. Now sun with a vengeance.
Ideally you would want head-cover, on point duty especially. Home-boy lacked both top and bottom— man was barefoot.
Unlike the children, not many of the adults on Tubun went barefoot. Not noticed immediately here. The fact of the matter was revealed only subsequently when the traffic warden called loudly after his man.
The tone told. Possibly the warden rose to his toes calling.
The chap hailed may have half-turned; only briefly going up Tubun in the gutter with the flow of the traffic. Wasn’t for stopping; clearly a march lay ahead.
What the warden had called was clarified by his action a moment later.
In his hailing the man had kicked out his feet in front of him, releasing the flip-flops. One foot, then the second, flipping the footwear before him. (Thereby partial wear revealed.)
Although the other may have half-turned and heard what his friend shouted, he did not see the corroborating action; the generous offer displayed. This was seen by others; possibly more than one on that busy street that was always a hive of activity.
One got such care and consideration, such brotherliness, in slums, true communities.
- The self-appointed traffic wardens were common both in Malaysia and Indonesia. In the case of Jakarta and its notorious traffic the lads provided an indispensable service. One young Blade at his crossing on Tubun paced the bitumen like a lord of the jungle, in turquoise tee and white flat-cap, former emblazoned: WHAT THE FUCK? UNBREAKABLE. Usually a twenty slipped the lads by appreciative drivers. Recently that particular bottle-neck in Jakarta had been relieved after the clearing of the street stalls by the new Governor, now President, Joko Wiwodo.
Fat Budi the turd put one over in the fare out to Irwan’s kampung in South Jakarta. Three hundred thousand initially quoted; half-hearted challenge led to fifty reduction.
Two hour ride. Traffic. Benzene alone would cost him Rp100k, fat Budi the fuck lied. (The return cab totalled Rp75k.)
A few days before during an exploration of old Batavia near the port the prick had the damage from an accident he was responsible for voluntarily paid. (Two hundred thousand Rupiah split with another passenger—$AU25. Chinese Madame in a Toyota with Indo driver.)
An hour saw us arrived at Jagakarsa, outer south of the city. Trafficless toll-way. Narrow pot-holed streets. Hundreds upon hundreds of darting motor-cycles, riders angling up on the wrong side of the road.
Low-rise ramshackle buildings, screened stalls at that early hour. The one sight was the 7am Bogor train with the newscast image of passengers up on the roof under the cabling.
The Jagakarsa kampung was a kampung in name now only, an administrative relic. Irwan’s father had bought the house a number of years before from the proceeds of a modest motor spares business. Four or five room dwelling on 300sqm. With earnings from a few years on the international cruise ships and in partnership with an auditor brother, Irwan had bought two small neighbouring shops on the main drag, where a small cell-phone business was established. The auditor lived in Bandung; two other siblings with children in the house with Irwan and their parents. All smooth sailing until Irwan was widowed during his wife’s delivery.
Small traders along the road; the mosque where Irwan and family worshipped new and well-presented; a vegetable market. A short distance away a plantation of trees was difficult to identify initially. One looked for coconuts, despite the fact these were not the common type. Finally, the memory of the pisang at Mersing in Malaysia a year previous. (Bananas were out of season.)
Close by the market a roof on an impressive double storey house bore some kind of mounting high on the ridge. Clearly not a garuda—the mythic eagle-like totem in Java. Closer inspection showed an enlarged black and white crowing cock, a beauty.
We drank heavily sweetened teh in the sitting room that lacked a television (the box sat in the adjoining room). Delicious home-baked chocolate cake was served. Irwan had been implored, No feast please, no special reception. A short visit—a first in a Muslim home—merely to consolidate the friendship and visit a Javanese kampung. (One had vainly hoped for rice paddies, even in present-day Jakarta..)
Half through the visit a chap turned up on a motor-cycle needing to talk to Irwan. Some matter requiring attention. Irwan excused himself for five minutes. Enough time for the brief exploration—banana plantation, crowing cock, &etc. Unexpectedly at a news-stand a current edition of the Jak Post, not easy to find even in Tanah Abang.
Strolling in the shade casually, on the opposite side of the road there was Irwan’s mother, was it? Yes, footing back toward the house.
Helloes across the traffic. Hello. Hello. A couple of small white paper bags waved aloft.
Yes, yes. A little turn around the neighbourhood, back soon. Circling in the air with a finger.
The woman had no English and the Bahasa Malay learnt in Singapore was dicey in Java.
At home Irwan was waiting. Conversation resumed.
How to explain a writer’s life? Man traveling solo without family of any kind. No sign of the wealth like the cruise ship passengers that were Irwan’s index.
Feverish work Irwin; little dollaro you can believe what I say, my man.
Halting communication that was interrupted by the mother’s entry with another plate, carrying two small paper bags.
Hamburger and fries, Irwan announced.
Hamburger? And fries?…
Oh. Well. Thank you.
The mother had been picked in a trice, the very first moment. The way she angled her head, hunched her shoulders somehow and sought you out with reaching eyes. That outward flow like a river in flood was known. There was a definite type in any kampung the world over.
Australian by birth and Montenegrin origin, Pavle Radonic’s eight years living in SE Asia provided unexpected stimulus. Previous work has appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, including Ambit, Big Bridge, Panoply, The Blue Nib & New World Writing.