Pavle Radonic ~ Land of Brothers

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.

  1. 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.

Please. Please.

Ah. But…

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.