Richard Critchfield
Richard Critchfield

Fellowship Title:

Hello, Mister! Where Are You Going? The story of Husen, a Javanese Betjak Driver – Part II

Richard Critchfield
December 8, 1970

Fellowship Year

Part Two: The City

A study in two parts of the human impact of agricultural change and urbanization in the Javanese village of Pilangsari and the city of Djakarta


“You are millions…
But we are countless…”
Aleksandr Blok

In the heart of Kebajoran Baru, the richest and most aristocratic suburb of Djakarta, lies a large, low, swampy hollow which for most of its existence was planted in rice. Wet and steamy, sometimes flooded waist-deep by monsoon rains and too low to catch the cooling breezes from the Java Sea, the hollow for many years remained an enclave of green, pastoral countryside as the modern suburb, with its big, solid bungalows standing in their leafy, spacious compounds, grew up around it. Then, during Indonesia’s Moslem rebellion of the fifties and the population pressure of the sixties, as the trickle of job-seeking Javanese peasants into the capital city became a raging flood, a sprawling shantytown of densely-packed wooden and bamboo huts began spreading down the sides of the hollow, in time forming a community of several thousand inhabitants which came to be known as Simprug. It was almost hidden from view by rows of shops which faced Sinabung Street, a curving paved road which formed the hollow’s northern and western boundaries. Only the occasional glimpse of a teeming alleyway and atap roofs reminded the residents of Kebajoran that the community existed at all. It was completely cut off from the city’s water, electrical, sewage, garbage collection or educational systems and, as the years went by, Simprug became a little world of its own, a world of little lanes snaking through tightly-packed huts of bamboo, salvaged wood or beaten tin cans. Some of the huts clung to the hillsides and could be reached only by endless little stairways carved from mud, down which waters rushed in the rainy season, scouring away rubbish and dirt and pouring sometimes into the shacks themselves. The alleyways were always crowded with skinny chickens picking in the dirt, women washing and preparing food, men smoking or conversing and multitudes of children.

Yet one only had to emerge through the row of shops and cross Sinabung Street to enter the almost deserted, tree-shaded streets of Kebajoran Baru, with its handsome two-story white stone or plaster houses set amidst neatly-trimmed lawns and beds of marigolds, roses and bright red kana flowers, and every variety of tropical tree: the white-blossomed Cambodia, fiery red Flamboyants, groves of whispering Tjamara trees, thickets of bamboo and pink, lavender and orange bowers of bougainvillia. These houses and gardens, especially those nearest the kampong (literally, a village; in Djakarta, a slum community of bamboo, atap huts) as Simprug was called, were protected by high, barbed-wire fences; some, of them had been strung with coils of concertina wire and floodlit and guarded by uniformed men at night, resembling military encampments. But few of the houses were hidden from view and in the evening the people of Simprug could go for a stroll and look into the picture windows or the open terraces and see the draperies, rugs, television sets, book shelves, vases of flowers, gleaming silver and crystal on the tables and a way of life that seemed infinitely luxurious and refined, even if rather lonely and joyless. Some of Simprug’s inhabitants worked as chauffeurs, gardeners, guards, cooks, chambermaids or laundresses in the Kebajoran homes. In this way, sometimes it was the man of the newly arrived peasant family who grew sophisticated in the ways of the place, while his wife, like Husen’s, might be confined to the slum and remain largely innocent about the rudiments of urban living. Sometimes it was the wife, in service to a rich family, who first saw how the rich lived, what food they ate and the clothes they wore. And then in their little huts would appear a white cloth-covered table with a vase of artificial flowers or a framed watercolor or two on the walls. Many of the Simprug men were employed as construction laborers and cement and stone and paint was stolen, not only for cheap resale within the kampong, but to improve the facades of the houses so that in some of the alleyways one might come upon an impressive stone porch, gaily painted doors and window frames; there was even a picture window or two.

The shops along Sinabung Street supplied the basic needs of the kampong, grocery stores, little restaurants, a betjak stand, tailors, a baker and a barber shop, so that many of the tenants, especially those from the villages, seldom left the immediate neighborhood except to work; almost all of the wives were strangers to most of Djakarta. For a few pennies one could buy sate, a piece of fried mutton on a skewer stick; a coconut and lentil porridge, ice cream soda, coffee, tea, iced beer, rice, boiled eggs, fried chicken, sweet cakes, a pink lolly drink, roasted peanuts or peanut crisps, shrimp cakes and vegetable soup. The grocery shops sold dried fish, lentils, beans, dried peas, potatoes, onions, eggs, noodles, rice wafers, ketchup, coconut oil, kerosene, matches, tea, soap, mosquito repellent, noodles, cigarettes, apples, bananas, papayas, soap, combs, handkerchiefs, tooth brushes, toothpaste, little vials of perfume which men used to rub on their cigarettes or their upper lips, paper, ballpoint pens, notebooks, sugar, flour, rope, lamps and candles.

Many of the vendors had little moveable bamboo pole shops. At one of these a brush salesman sold enough merchandise to fill a storeroom: brooms, wicker laundry baskets, tin tubs, long-handled brushes, shoe brushes, whiskbrooms, hairbrushes and every other imaginable kind.

Sometimes there would be a cheap sale and the hawker’s voice magnified by a loudspeaker, would echo through the market, “I’m not a seller. I don’t sell anything here. I just give you prizes. Who wants to try? In all these packages are free gifts. All you have to do is…”

Husen and Karniti had moved into Simprug six months earlier. For Husen it meant pedaling his betjak nearly an extra three miles, usually without a fare, to the Hotel Indonesia and back returning home every night at two or three along dark and deserted Djalan Thamrin.

But he had wanted Karniti to have a more pleasant environment than the denser, filthier slums nearer in. As a betjak man he roamed freely about the city but Karniti was confined most of the time to the little shantytown. The night they returned from Pilangsari, snaking their way in the narrow alleyways past children playing ball – it was safer than the streets – women queuing up at the water pumps or calling to each other as they took in their laundry, and street vendors hawking their wares. Husen felt he had forgotten how crowded it was along the canal. Wooden toilets had been erected on stilts and a few people were squatting there visible to everyone. Along his lane garbage had been thrown in an open pile; no one seemed to collect it and Husen watched a black rat dart out of the refuse and then run back in again. But on the doorstep of their room, Karniti’s two cats were sitting, waiting, looking hungry and woebegone. As Karniti had feared, the inside of the shack they shared with another family was in a shambles: beer bottles and old newspapers were scattered about and a chair lay overturned. Without changing her clothes or another word, Karniti took a broom and started sweeping. Within minutes the place was in order. The room had been divided into three cubicles with bamboo partitions: a bedroom, a hallway for cooking and a living room. There was a big bamboo bed, an old cupboard, a primus stove, some pots and pans and dishes, a kerosene lamp, pillows and blankets, a water pail, and ten glasses. Karniti quickly unpacked her own batiks, jackets and underwear and Husen’s long-sleeved white shirt, his second pair of long trousers, six pairs of tight shorts he wore for work and six slip-over cotton jersey shirts, as well as a green windbreaker jacket and their toothbrushes and her mascara, lipstick, powder and perfume. Husen opened the three small windows in the living room that looked out on the alleyway and set about repairing the latch on the battered front door which someone had broken in their absence. Karniti scrubbed the cement floors so clean one could sit on them, covered the living room table with a clean white cloth and set three wooden chairs with plaited plastic seats around it, hung a silk print of an Arabian desert scene on the wall and prepared Husen a plate of cookies and glass of sweet black Javanese coffee. “You are a nice wife, Kar,” Husen grinned. He was aware that Karniti was an usually good homemaker.

Karniti laughed, happy to be in a household of their own again. She joked, “Maybe you want to take a second wife. Keep me to cook and clean the house.”

Husen laughed and reached out and slapped her bottom. “Maybe I want ten wives.” Then he added seriously, “No, Kar, I don’t want to marry another wife. Two-by-two, that is the best way in life.”

Within a half hour of their arrival, Bibi, Karniti’s aunt from Karanggetas, who lived on the other side of their shack, stuck her head in the doorway. “So you come back from the village again? How long are you going to stay this time, Kar?”

“I don’t know. Maybe long time.”

“Very good there? Many wajang and drama over there, Husen?”

“No. not much now. Before when the rice was harvest, there were many parties.”

“You know I have family not far from Pilangsari,” Bibi said. “My sister is in Wanasari.”

“You should go back when the mango season comes. There’s a lot of parties.”

Bibi sighed. She was a gaunt disheveled-looking woman in her forties. She had one son, a thirteen year old by a former marriage and was now living with a betjak driver of her own age. She was an old timer in Simprug, had lived there almost fifteen years, never went anywhere else in Djakarta and only visited Karanggetas once a year at New Year’s. “I almost never leave the kampong any more. I can buy everything I need here. You know Husen, before I was a maid and got around more. But now no job,” she sighed again. “More and more people are moving in all the time and they come from all parts of the country, especially on the south side of the kampong over by the road. It’s getting very crowded here. Not like the old days.”

Bibi’s husband, Kasum, joined them, “Hey, Husen,” he said, shaking hands. “I see you pasted newspaper on your walls already. If you want to paint it in color don’t buy Alkarim but imported paint. It comes on very good and doesn’t chip off. One can is only 1,300 roops. My friend has a couple of cans he’ll probably sell you. If you buy in a store it’s about 1,700 roops a can,” Husen assumed the paint had been pilfered from work.

“No, that’s too much,” he said. I don’t want to spend too much on painting. I can buy Alkarim. Never mind. If I have the money.”

“Like it is now is fine,” said Bibi. “Maybe you want to make it white?”

“White is best,” Husen said. “It makes the lamplight brighter. It’s good.”

A little boy of about six or seven joined them and pulled at Kasum’s shirt. “I want to sleep, uncle.”

“Waiting short time,” Kasum turned to Bibi, “Shall we take this boy and go home?”

“No, no, no, no,” the boy cried. “I want to stay with uncle.”

“It’s my sister’s boy,” Kasum explained. “He’s staying here with us.”

“Oh, in the village life is very, very good,” Kasum said in a weak voice. He was a weary-looking, wiry little Javanese with a worn down, deeply-lined face. “Many people sit around like this. If you are a village boy Husen, you always have good stories.”

Husen laughed. “No, I know only a little. You like one now? I can give one only. It is short.” He related the story of the monkey and the turtle. When he came to the end, Kasum said, “Oh, you have stories and tell them good, Husen.”

“If I am not forget, okay, can tell many stories. But sometimes forget.”

“Husen, I watch you,” Kasum went on. “You not yet a long time stay in Simprug and you are very friendly with other people, so many know you. You stay here only a short time but already you know more than me. And I’ve been here almost fifteen years. Maybe in your village there is more people than here, more friendly people than here in the city.”

Husen smiled. He felt sorry for Bibi and Kasum; they seemed to personify what happened to people if they stayed too long in the city.

“I am always looking for friends,” Husen said, “I think many, many friends in Djakarta is good.”

“You like to stay here a long time? Okay, if play rummy very quickly make friends.”

After Bibi and Kasum left, Karniti, who had been chattering cheerfully with Bibi, abruptly sat down and held her face with her hands, “Husen,” she said, “it’s better you make food for yourself tonight.”

“You are ill?”

“You must be hungry. Can you make it yourself? I’m feverish.”

“Don’t take a bath because it’s dangerous. If you have a fever you should not get wet. I’ll bring some water from the pump and you can wash off. Do you like some ‘Tiger Balm’ medicine?”

“No, not like.”

“Please take a pill, an aspirin with some hot tea.”

But Karniti was emphatic. “No, no.”

Husen busied himself in the kitchen and prepared rice, an omelette and cut some chilies for nasi goreng. Karniti was now lying down on their bed and he brought her a dishful. “Do you like to eat, Kar, all right?”

“No. no.”

“But, please, Kar, you must eat rice.”

“Please you buy some ice. That’s all I want.”

“You. That is very dangerous. You cannot drink ice. Please, if you like, you must drink many, many hot tea.”

Husen decided not to drive the betjak that night. He had picked up the keys from the stand on their way from the bus but now took them down the alleyway to a neighbor who was out of work and told him he could use the betjak that evening.

“Have you any rice?” the man asked after thanking him for the use of the betjak. “I have no money.”

“No. My wife is ill. Maybe if she is well, maybe, please you can come and eat in my house.”

“All right. I’ll wash the betjak before I bring it back.”

The next morning, Husen rose early. Karniti was still feverish and stayed in bed and he spent the morning cleaning the house, cooking and washing clothes and dishes. By noon he too felt a little feverish and went to sleep by Karniti’s side, not waking until he heard the evening prayers coming from the mosque. He jumped up and went to bathe in the canal near Sinabung Street, then came back and dressed in his betjak clothes.

Karniti stirred. “Kar, you rest, I want to drive the betjak.”

“Please don’t go,” she murmured.

“I must, Kar. We have no money to eat tomorrow.”

Husen put his head into Bibi’s door to ask her to watch Karniti. But she was sick too, her head wrapped in a towel, her eyes watery and sneezing. “I have a terrible cold,” Bibi groaned. “Where’s Karniti?”

“She’s ill too. Maybe we’re all getting influenza.”

Bibi sneezed again, looking even more miserable. “Where is she?”


“If you’re going to everywhere, Husen, Karniti is afraid. Maybe you’ll have trouble in the street, maybe an accident. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t look well, Husen. Why didn’t she stay in the village?”

“She vomited tonight.”

“Oh, maybe she has a baby inside her that wants out. Send her to the dukun tomorrow, Husen.”

It took Husen more than half an hour to pedal to the hotel and when he arrived he already felt tired and a little feverish. He parked his betjak and climbed in resting. None of his usual friends seemed about, Tjasta, Tjasidi, Eddy or Jusup, all youths from villages close to Pilangsari. Nothing had changed at the Hotel Indonesia. Several betjak men squatted around a portable soup kitchen. There was the sound of a band from one of the top floors. Vendors moved by, yellow lights flashed as cars rumbled past, there was the sound of traffic. One betjak driver seemed sick at his stomach and sat with his eyes closed, his arms folded across his middle. Maybe influenza too, Husen thought.

He had no fare until midnight. He was thinking so much of life is spent waiting. The night seemed to grow sinister as time passed. Darting figures in the shadow down Djalan Thamrin, low murmurs of conversation. The headlights of speeding cars. It was getting late.

“Hey, mister! Where are you going?”

All the drivers moved forward eagerly, pushing their betjaks toward an elderly white-haired European who was approaching down the entranceway. By some stroke of luck he picked Husen’s betjak and told him to go to the Ramayana City Hotel, about half a mile’s distance.

He was a kindly old American and on the way asked Husen, “What’s the matter, son? You’re not looking well.”

“Because my wife is ill, tuan,” and Husen told him about returning from the village and that there was influenza in his kampong. When they reached their destination, the old man, to Husen’s surprise, pulled out a traveler’s check and presented it to him. It was for twenty U.S. dollars.

“One rupiah I not eat, tuan,” Husen promised his benefactor. “I give it all to my wife.” Husen hurried back to cash the check at the Hotel Indonesia but learned at the desk to his dismay that he needed the man’s passport number. He pedaled back again to the Ramayana City Hotel but learned from the desk clerk, a wavy-haired Balinese, that the guest had already retired and could not be disturbed. He was flying to Singapore the following morning at five a.m. Husen thought of spending the night in his betjak in front of the hotel but feared he might oversleep; he was also worried about Karniti. If he didn’t come home all night, what would she think?

In desperation he appealed to the hotel clerk once more. The clerk, who said he would still be on duty in the morning, agreed to give Husen five thousand rupiah in cash if he endorsed the check over to him. Husen knew the check’s real exchange value was seven thousand five hundred rupiah but he agreed. He was so relieved and happy as he pedaled home, he hardly noticed the distance. Five thousand rupiah meant he wouldn’t have to leave Karniti until she was well. With care they could stretch it out for two weeks, or even longer. He could buy some blue paint for the door and window shutters and some Alkarim to whitewash the walls. Simprug wasn’t like Bongkaren, where people were afraid to show if they had a little money. In Simprug, everyone wanted their house to be nice. He might even buy a guitar, he thought, and then remembered he still had his son, Rustam’s circumcision to pay for.

In the morning, Husen awoke early, listening to the voices of his neighbors; so thin were the bamboo walls and so densely-packed the houses, it sounded as if some of the voices were in the same room with him.

“In our family,” a woman said, “the man is number one.”

“That’s all right,” said a second woman. “I don’t mind if the man is kind with me.”

Through the kitchen wall he heard a policeman who lived behind scold a crying baby. “You don’t be cross, my girl.”

“Never mind,” said his wife. “She is only a baby.”

Karniti still slept and Husen, tying on his sarong more securely, stumbled out into the living room and lit a kretek. Bibi stuck her head in the door.

“Oh, Husen, already get up.”

“Yes, because I want to take a piss,” he growled.

Bibi was used to men being ill-tempered in the morning. She pushed the door open a crack wider. “Are you still sick now, Husen? Is your fever gone away?”

“Yah. I don’t know why I had it. Already I’m here in Simprug a long time and I never got sick before.”

“Where is Kar?”

“In the bedroom.”

“Husen, I know a man with three sacks of cement. You want to buy some?”

“No, because I haven’t money for cement.”

“Very cheap. Maybe he gives one sack for a hundred roops.”

Tida apa apa. Never mind. If you have to buy in a shop, it may be seven hundred.” Seeing Husen was not interested, Bibi went back to see Karniti.

Through the rear partition Husen could hear the policeman’s voice. “Where is matches?”

“On the table,” his wife replying.

“Yah, yah. Titin, get me cigarette from the table.”

“Get it yourself. My hands are wet. “Quickly,” the policeman’s voice raised, now. “Get cigarette!”

“Please, wait a minute then. Okay here it is.”

Farini, another woman neighbor, stuck her head in the door saying, “Husen, tell Karniti there’s water.”

“Where is?”

“There. The pump is working again. Is Kar already good?”

“Maybe a little better.”

“Where’s my sarong?” the policeman called.

“Over on the chair.”

From the house to the west came another voice, “That’s bad. The baby wet this blanket already.”

Husen opened the door and stood surveying the alleyway and smoking his kretek. A neighbor youth, Kuntio, was washing a Vespa by the pump.

“Where did you go last night, Husen?” Kuntio called.

“Drive the betjak.” “You look sick. What’s wrong?”

“My head is still a little stuffed up. Maybe influenza yesterday.”

“I’m making good my Vespa.”

“Oh, you already have Vespa?”

Bibi brushed past him on her way out.

“She’s still nauseated. You better send her to the dukun today, Husen.”

Husen could hear Karniti stirring in the next cubicle. “Already up, Kar? How you feel?”

But she was already talking through the partition to the policeman’s wife, “Are you last night from the Djakarta fair, Titin?” he heard Karniti ask.


“Your husband was asking everywhere for you about midnight.”

“Yah, I know, Kar. I know,” came a weary reply.

Husen poured some cold tea from the night before into a glass and drank some to clear his throat.

“He’ll never let me hear the end of it,” the policeman’s wife went on. “I went with my sister, first time out of the house in five months. He’s afraid to let me go anywhere because he thinks there might be a fire here.”

The two women began speaking in whispers and Husen could only hear snatches of their words. “Oh, he looks like his father…” “He never smiles…” “I think the baby’s shirt…” followed by Karniti’s high, infectious, tinkling laughter. “I know the woman who sells them…” “Walking all day…” Then they began talking in mock little girls’ voices and started giggling.

Husen smiled and went off to the canal.

Karniti prepared nasi goreng and a fresh pot of coffee and after breakfast she stood in their doorstoop. Titin, a pretty girl in her early twenties came by with her baby son. “Here, Kar,” she said, “Hold my baby. I want to go to the shop and buy bananas.”

Karniti took the baby and cradled it in her arms, rocking it gently and speaking to it in a hushed voice. “Are you a nice boy? When you are big, you mustn’t be cross. Oh, you are very clean. Like my little boy before.”

The policeman came. “Is that my boy with you, Karniti? Where is Titin?”

“I don’t know. She went to buy bananas.”

“It’s a long time already.”

“Maybe she is going to find her girlfriend,” Karniti suggested, “Because her house is just around the corner from the banana stall. She should come right back.”

“Here, I’ll take the baby,” the policeman said. “You look tired.”

“No, never mind.”

“Back from work, Husen?” the policeman asked.

“Yah. Very nice your son. Ours was like that.” Husen joined Karniti on the doorstoop. “White, like Holland peoples. With a long nose. And big. But he was too hot. Like influenza.”

Bibi stuck her head out her door. “If your little baby had only lived, Kar. It was very pretty. It could be playing with this little one now.”

“When did you get back from the village, Husen?” the policeman asked.

“Three days ago. Okay, very happy to be back in Djakarta. Do you like that policeman’s life?”

“Ah, you’re better off being a betjak man. You are only looking for money passengers. If you have money you can go home.”

“Yah, it is different for the policeman. But every month you can find rice, much money and eat fish and many good foods.”

“Yah, sure, but I must stay all the time in the station and if I want to do like you, going everywhere, I cannot. Okay let’s go, baby. Husen, please you come to my house. Now better I looking for Titin.”

“Thank you, I come later on.”

When they had gone inside Karniti sat on the edge of the bed and told Husen, “I want going to the dukun for a massage. I want to know about myself.”

“Please. Where is? Give me money, Husen.”

“How much?” He had not told her about the five thousand rupiah.

“Two hundred.”

“Where are you going, Dukun where?”

“Just over there. In Simprug.”

That morning a letter came from the village. Husen thought it was from his father, but when he opened it he saw it was from Abu. The student sounded a little discouraged:

“Sometimes the government leaves sprayers, fertilizer and insecticides but because of mismanagement in the village the help doesn’t get to the farmers. There is too little cooperation and too much mismanagement in the administration. If the government gives five sprayers and the people only get four…but I must write about the technical side only. If I talk about kortuptsi here, Husen, it is possible I will not get rice or a place to live. I could become persona non grata. But from year to year it gets better. Perhaps the chief is too old.

Then the letter brightened and Abu reported he had met a beautiful girl, Tarwi, who lived not far from Husen in Pilangsari.

Husen hooted out loud. Tarwi! She was only eighteen and had already had five husbands. The first was only her father’s household servant and the marriage had lasted only two months. Now Tarwi had given up matrimony in favor of singing at wajangs and dramas.

Husen read the passage to Karniti and laughed. “Be careful, old Abu,” he chuckled. “Awas! Watch out! You will be Tarwi’s sixth husband.”

“Her father is rich, Husen,” Karniti answered from the kitchen.

The letter closed with Abu urging Husen to return to the village and farm. “Your father’s is only the primitive agriculture, Husen. Only open the soil and drop the seed. What you need is a mixed economy, maybe have a shop on the road and sell things during the slow times. Your earth is good. All you need is to improve the soil texture and soil structure. Never sell your land, Husen.” Abu concluded by saying he felt very tired.

“Abu should take vitamins,” Husen called to Karniti. “He should exercise and get strong.” And he thought to himself, “No, if sell the land is finish for the farmer and he have not land again. If have not land, garden, life in the village is very difficult.” And he mused, “Maybe if I can ever get capital to open a small warung, okay, very good. I stay in village. Maybe buy mangos or bananas and sell in Djatibarang. If you have 100,000 roops or have four people who all together have 400,000, you can buy many mangoes from the farmers and sell in Djakarta.” And Husen decided not to buy paint but to secretly put the money aside as the beginning of savings to buy a warung, or small shop in the village.

That evening Husen stayed home and did not drive the betjak as Karniti’s fever returned slightly in the afternoon. Instead, after the evening meal, he sat reading aloud to her from a Djakarta newspaper.

“Oh, a robber was shot near the Ramayana Hotel.” Husen always enjoyed a newspaper and puffed on his kretek, absently slapping a mosquito on his leg. “Oh, a student kills his friend. Will get three years in the black house. They were friends of a professor at Bogor. An old Dutchman. He hired one to do it. Homosex. Fifty thousand roops to kill his boy friend.”

Karniti brought in a fresh pot of sweet, steaming Javanese, coffee. “Oh, a Japanese got stabbed in a betjak on Djalan Thamrin. You know, Kar, if I see some men who look like robbers I smile and shout, ‘Hello!’ and I think they don’t rob me. That is my tactics. Fifteen years in Djakarta and never been robbed.”

“Yah, maybe someday you smile and shout and they stab you anyway. You must be careful, Husen. Not going to everywhere.”

A husky youth with high cheekbones and an unruly shock of coarse black hair stuck his head in the doorway. It was Tarman, a fellow betjak driver.

“Hello, Husen.”

“Ah, Tarman, what do you like? Come in. Please sit, down. Have some coffee?”

“You not drive your betjak tonight?”

“Yah. How about you? Are you driving tonight?”

“Yah, am. It’s over on Sinabung.”

“How come you’re out here so early? No business at the Hotel Indonesia?”

“First, I wanted to find you and, second, I wanted to tell you about my boy. I want to take my boy back to the village for to get his pipe cut (Djakarta vernacular for circumcised). But my only pair of pants is dirty and I wanted to go tonight. Can you loan me one pair of pants?”

“Oh, yah. All right. I have. Wait a short time. I’ll go and get.” Husen went to the bedroom where Karniti was already lying down and took his clean pair of pants from the cupboard.

Tarman was very grateful. “Oh, thank you very much, Husen. Because I got a letter from my uncle this evening. I must go quickly to the village. I must go right away tonight.”

Husen: “I don’t know if these will fit or not. Try first. If they don’t fit you can take the ones I have on.”

Tarman: “Oh, I’m sure. I mean you and me are the same size. If I think I want to borrow from another friend, I think I won’t get. All the betjak drivers aren’t like you. You all the time wear good pants and clean ones.”

Husen: “Yah, for me it is custom already. Maybe if dirty pants and shirt, much sweating maybe, not good for me. I must change all the time.”

Tarman: “Oh, yah, your friend, Kanil, he is already working again. I forget the street. If you want to find him, you can go there.”

Husen: “Oh, is he already working?”

Tarman: “Yah.”

Husen: “Before he is one place with me. You can ask him about me and him. If he hasn’t money, I give him. It is the same with him. All the time, sama sama. We were good friends.”

Tarman: “You are all the time easy-going. If somebody’s in trouble, you always help, so I come to you. In Djakarta I always tell myself, if I am this minute want to go back to the village, okay, I’ll leave right now. If time of trouble or dangerous in the streets in Djakarta, okay, I’m not afraid. I can go home.”

Husen: “Yah. This is very important. You must go home because they’re cutting your boy’s pipe. You must be there.”

Tarman: “Before also, if I want to go home, okay, any time, day or night, I go home. From Pilangsari you have to cross the rice fields. There’s a short cut of about ten kilometers. One time I was robbed there. Four men were waiting in the field with knives and I had to jump into the Tjimanuk. Halfway from Tjelang to my village. I must jump into the river because I’m not strong enough to handle four men. My money and cakes got wet and my clothes were dripping wet but I swam across the river. I left Djakarta by bus at three o’clock in the afternoon but didn’t reach Tjelang until after midnight. And so I must go through empty streets and across the rice fields. My money got wet in the river but I could dry it out. I had seven thousand roops with me to get married with. And the river was full after the rains. Very dangerous to jump in. But I thought it’s up to Allah. And after that I am walking along the bank and it gave way and the river flooded into the rice field. Maybe twenty meters or so. By that time I was far from Tjelang but I couldn’t get across so I had to walk all the way back again. I thought, okay, I’ve survived robbers and snakes so I can go back and try swimming across the river in a low place. The water was up to my chest. When I reached my girl’s house finally and knocked and called, “Marmar!” she shouted back like she was really angry. ‘Who is that? Who do you think you are to pound on the door and call out my name at this time of night?’ Wah! She was angry! And I shouted, ‘It’s me! Tarman!’ She recognized my voice and said, ‘C’mon inside. What time did you leave Djakarta?’ I told her the story and she wasn’t angry any more. We got married and now my boy is seven.”

Husen: “When will you get his pipe cut?”

Tarman: “Very soon. Maybe Friday. Are you coming back to the village by then?”


“I’m just staying a short time myself. Maybe just a week and then come back here again. Okay, Husen, trimakasih, I’ll go now.”

Karniti, who had been listening to them talk, called to Husen, “Why did you give him your pants? He’ll be gone for a week.”

“Oh, Kar, I think it could be me. Tarman has no money and I know he has no pair of long pants. All he has got are those ragged betjak clothes he was wearing. Maybe someday I could fall down like that in Djakarta and have no long pants. I think difficult.”

Tarman stuck his head back in the door. “Oh, Husen, I forgot. Kanil said with me he is looking for you. They want to have a sampion* match here next week. Kanil wants to know if you’ll fight.”

A sampion match is peculiar to western Java’s Tjirebon region. Two teams are paired off, one by one, to beat each other on the ankles with staves; it is rather like a cockfight and anyone who flinches can be hit on the head.

When he had gone Bibi stuck her head in the door. She said she was upset. “Somebody told me my boy got into a fight and I can’t find him. If Kasum comes, tell him I went out looking for my boy.”

Alone, Husen went outside to join some men who were sitting in the cool of the evening on a porch across the alleyway. One of them had a guitar and Husen asked to borrow it, first strumming some chords and then singing a few strange, melancholy Tjirebon songs, his voice sliding up and down the scale from bass to falsetto.

Thousands of stars in the sky
But the moon shines unconquerably
Thousands of girls of beauty
But my love is unconquerable

A black cloud covers the sky
Like Armadillo’s broad shield
Take, hear and remember
The moments of our love

Volunteers, volunteers, men and women
Virgins must be cautious

Adiguru is a king of the universe
Narada crowns himself with a basket
Don’t hurry for a divorce
Beware of the life of a grass widow

Then, warming up, he sang a couple of tunes in English he had learned in his schooldays in Indramaju:

Twinkle, twinkle, Little Star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky
When the blazing sun is gone
When he nothing shines upon
Then you show your little light
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

“What’s it mean, Husen?”

“Ah. Twinkle, twinkle, Little Star. I am not understand about you. Very high in the sky. Maybe something like a diamond. What you like to hear now?”

Oh, I went down south for to see my Sal
Singing Pollywollydoodle all the day
My Sally Ann was friendly gal
Singing Pollywollydoodle all the day…

My Bonnie is over the ocean
My Bonnie is over the sea
My Bonnie is over the ocean
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me…

Dashing through the snow
In a one horse open sleigh
Over the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun is this to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight.

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way
Oh, what fun it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh.

“What’s a one horse open sleigh, Husen?”

He chuckled. “I am not know. Maybe something, and so on and so on.” And he went back to Tjirebon tunes:

Jingling of the lollypop seller
Even though not sold it is offered
The beautiful girl with the waving hair and yellow skin
I know I can’t have her. But I’ll ask.

Oh, passing the Pegagan River
I saw that Slijag Village had no chief…

“Hey, Husen!”

It was Muri, a very tall, powerfully-built Javanese in his forties who lived down the alleyway from Husen. He had bushy black curly hair. His forehead was broad and high, and when he grinned, as he almost always did, the skin in the corner of his eyes would wrinkle into crow’s feet. Muri was almost always amused about something, giving him an ironic air. Now he looked sleepy; he practiced sorcery and claimed to have not slept for forty nights, although he went to work every day at his job in the Djakarta mint. Like most Javanese, Muri believed that unless you fast and deliberately deny the body sleep you cannot understand magic and the occult. Back home in the village, Abu, although fasting was forbidden by Islam, once went without eating for five days to see if it would improve his work effectiveness.” Husen, who did not even observe the Moslem month of fasting, Ramadan, when it is forbidden to eat between dawn and dusk, had once gone without food for three days. At the end of the third day, Husen thought, Wah! I’m hungry. And he ate.

But Muri was a serious sorcerer and was believed to have occult powers, even over some of the foreigners who were employed by the mint. Through the thin bamboo walls of his shack, where Muri lived alone, having left his wife in his village, Husen had once heard the sorcerer chanting in a low voice.

As the head of the buffalo hangs down
Stiff as a seashell
May Sujono lower his head as my servant
Bow down as if he were the servant of my penis.

But whatever magic deeds, for good or evil, Muri had ever performed, Husen did not know. But he liked Muri’s joking manner and air of amusement, and he and Husen had become good friends.

“Husen, when you come back from the village? I want to speak with you. Come, we go to your house.”

As they sat down, Husen noticed Muri was carrying a small stone idol in his hands. It seemed to have once been in human shape, that of a man sitting Buddha-like with his hands raised. But it was very old and had been worn smooth and almost shapeless. Husen knew that this was Muri’s djimat (magic talisman) and that like some krises, or ceremonial daggers, and even certain human hair, possessed the quality of magic. Muri claimed to have found it one moonless night in a field, when it suddenly erupted with a fountain of sparks. He said he turned his flashlight on it and the light slowly went out, the last faint ray falling upon this stone.

“Last night this stone had a fight with another ghost,” Muri now said with a straight face, even if he grinned as he always did. “My friends called me – I was outside – and said, ‘Muri, Muri, come here!’ We could hear drum beating in my room where the stone was. ‘Tomtom te tomtom, tom te tom te tom, tomtom, tomtom, tomtom!’ ‘Please, what is, that?’ my friends ask. I went inside and the room was empty. Came outside again and the stone started making the sound of drums again. My friends said, ‘Muri, you take your stone outside tomorrow night. We’re afraid to sleep in the same house with it.’ So, Husen, maybe you want to borrow my stone tonight and I can leave it here.”

“What for?” Husen chuckled. “If I get your stone I’ll break it with a hammer. And if your stone is really a setan or ghost, I’ll die.”

Muri laughed. “Okay, please try.”

Husen took the djimat and a hammer and squatted on the floor, moving as if he were really going to hit the stone.

“Okay, already,” he chuckled.

But Muri was alarmed now Husen might be serious. “No, no, Husen, please. I’ll have trouble finding another one like that.”

“Wah, Muri, I’m not afraid of setans or ghosts. I’m not afraid of this stone.” Okay, leave it here. If it has magic maybe I’ll be like you, Muri. Not much work, at night going to everywhere, not sleep.”

Muri stripped off his shirt, revealing his powerful shoulders and biceps. “Okay, Husen, here’s Titin’s father. He wants to play cards. Bring two friends more and we’ll play some rummy.”

“No,” Husen said. Karniti is sick. You go play cards. I am very tired if I have to wait for you all the time in rummy. I like to play quick.”

Titin’s father, a wiry old man with a brown, wrinkled face, like a walnut, joined them. “Oh, never mind, Kar,” he called into the bedroom. “We won’t play for money.”

Karniti, whose temperature had risen steadily during the evening, called back in a faint voice, “Yah, father, but it is difficult. Once Husen takes the cards in his hand, he doesn’t like to come home.”

A third player had been found in the lane and he too came in and urged Husen to join them, saying “C’mon, brother Husen. Please, if you don’t play where can we find a fourth man? Because my uncle, he will get angry if you don’t play.”

Husen went back into the bedroom. “Wait a short time, Kar, and I’ll make you some hot tea. I want to play cards for a short time. Just across the lane at Titin’s father’s house. We’ll be out front on the porch and you can call.” Karniti murmured something which Husen took as assent. Outside he could hear the murmur of voices, especially Muri’s deep-throated chuckle and he hurried to join them.

A table was brought and once seated, Muri shuffled their cards rapidly and expertly.

Husen began to enjoy himself. “Muri, please, your magic and your setans are helping you to get good cards.”

Muri laughed. “Oh, play only for fun. Not money. I don’t need help from my setans.”

A very old man, the local masseur came in to watch them.

“Uncle, uncle, you have money?” Husen greeted him.

“No, no money.”

“All right, if you have no money, you sit behind Muri.”


“Because Muri is such a fast dealer, he’ll get tired soon. So uncle can massage his shoulders.”

Muri cursed Husen under his breath, “Bohong, Husen. Kurang adjar, sialan!” [Roughly translated, “Damn you, Husen, you have no education; I wish you bad luck, you bastard.”] Husen chuckled, “See, he is tired already.”

“That’s a damned lie. Goddamit, Husen, go to hell. Shut your mouth.”

“Oh, Muri, you are taking a long time shuffling those cards. You looked tired. Please, the massage man is already behind you. If you’re broke I can give you a little money. Here, here’s fifty roops for a massage. Get change for this hundred.”

Muri chuckled. “Husen, okay, if you want to try to play cards with me, okay. Please stand behind me, then you can see my cards.”

“Ah, so slow. I am must wait for you to finish shuffling all night. Better I go to sleep now.”

“Wah! Husen, you must play with the children. Not with the men. You are a stupid.”

Titin’s father joined in the good natured banter. “Oh, please, Muri, Husen. If Muri keeps shuffling those cards all night, I’ll cut his ear off. You must be careful with Muri. He has ilmu (has supernatural powers). Sometimes he has four eyes. Two for his cards and two for yours.”

“No,” said Husen. “Because Muri has magic. All time not sleep, for forty nights. Oh, Muri, please scratch my back. Something bit me and I can’t reach it.” Muri, taking him seriously, reached over. “No, not there, further down.” As Muri leaned over, Husen broke wind and all four men roared with laughter at the success of the old Javanese ruse.

“When you go back to the village, Husen,” Titin’s father said, “after you cut your rice, you can buy shirts in Djakarta for three hundred fifty roops and sell them for five hundred.”

“Yah,” Husen agreed. “It is not difficult to buy things here and sell them in the village. If you have money. One time I bought straw hats in Djakarta for four hundred and sold them in Pilangsari for five hundred fifty.”

“C’mon, Husen,” the fourth player said. “This table is empty of cards. We’ve got three already. You play first.”

For several hours the men played; all the people in the nearby houses could hear the hum of their voices.

“If somebody has the eight of spades…

“All right.”

“Up to how much?”

“Oh, one thousand.”

“Hey, I am first.”

“Who dealt this?”

“Loser deals.”

Near one o’clock in the morning the fourth player, a man from central Java, yawned. “Wah! I am tired.”

The game went on.

“A, b, c, d. Twenty-five for Husen, Forty, thirty-five, five.”

“Okay, please deal.”


Muri’s voice. I can close now if Husen will give me.

Husen chuckled. He had taken a “little look” at Muri’s hand and knew Muri was waiting for him to discard the ace of spades. He threw the jack of clubs down.

Muri drew from the pack. “Oh, maybe this time.”

“Wah! Maybe under from you, that card you want, Muri.”

“Noooooo, I’m sure it’s in the deck.”

“How many fingers do you, have?” the central Java man asked.


“Oh, you bodoh tolol (stupid ass). What a stupid!”

“Why you calling me stupid?”

“Count your fingers. How much?”

“This is ten again.”

“No, twenty, stupid.”

“Oh, you mean counting the toes as well.”

“If ten, okay. You can close.”

Muri drew for the last time. Only three cards were left on the table.

With a shout, Husen slammed down the ace of spades and laughed, “This is for you, Muri!”

“Ah, you are a bastard. You don’t give me.”

“Maybe I was sitting on it. I think you are going to take until sunup to shuffle the pack, Muri. C’mon, don’t take all night.”

“I’m in my village; I play first.”

“All right, all right.”

“Let’s go.”


After each picked up his seven cards, Husen pretended to knock some ash off his kretek so he could lower his head and glimpse Muri’s cards. He left the burning kretek lying on the floor, then reached down and picked it up again. Muri needed only the deuce of clubs which Husen had in his hand. “Okay, let’s go,” Husen said with mock impatience.

Muri wanted to close. “I’m sure all are less,” he said. Husen teasingly played the six and then the seven of clubs but not the deuce.

This time Titin’s father discarded a deuce, giving Husen three and he played them on the table.

Muri swore, “Wah, a triple three and I have two fours and two fives, both clubs. Husen, you’re crazy. You always give me the wrong cards. Kurang adjar! Sialan! Yah, I’m waiting for you next time. For I know you’re clever about cards.”

Husen laughed.

“If I play all the time with you, I watch my cards every minute, Husen, you bastard. Okay, deal. Please, Husen, try again.”

“Maybe it is I have magic.”

“I understand now about you and your magic. Deal.”

“Okay, please.”

“You’re a clever bastard.”

Husen grinned. “I’ve got 955, only forty-five more so maybe I quit, okay. I like sleep.”

It was after two. Husen shook hands with the other players and went down to the pump to splash water on his face. Wah! Too many cigarettes. As he moved back toward his shack he heard a series of moans and what sounded like terrified gasps. He started to run. Maybe Karniti was having a nightmare. Then he heard a scream such as he had never heard; no one would have thought so small a girl as Karniti could have uttered such a scream. A silence fell over the lane and Husen burst into the house.

Only a small oil lamp lit the bedroom. Karniti was sitting up, her hands to her mouth, staring with wide, terrified eyes at the far bamboo wall, “It’s there! It’s there!” she cried.

“Where?” Husen called.

“There, there!” Husen took her in his arms. “There’s a ghost, Husen. Oh, I was so afraid!”

“I can’t see anything. What is it?”

He took the broom and flayed it around the dark corners of the small room.

“He’s gone! He’s run away already!”

“Oh, already gone. If go away, why you ‘fraid, Kar? I am not ‘fraid with ghosts.” He felt Karniti shivering in his arms and with her head on his shoulder she began to cry. “Before when I am buffalo boy, must stay out in the fields after dark. I not ‘fraid of setans and ghosts.” Husen could hear people calling from the neighboring houses. There were excited voices just outside in the lane. “You wait here, Kar. I want to go out a minute.”

Karniti clung to him, sobbing and gasping for breath. She had been sleeping, she said, and was awakened when the figure of a man dressed in black and much taller than Husen entered the little bedroom. She had instinctively reached out on the bed for Husen, but he was not there. She continued to clutch out for Husen as the setan’s body had closed over hers; struggling, choked with fear and horror, she felt his arms tightly embrace her; the weight of his heavy body, his panting and rasping breath. Paralyzed with fright, it was only when she opened her eyes wide and saw not the man’s whole face but his black, open mouth with pointed, fang-like teeth, that she was able to scream.

“I cannot see; there is nothing there,” Husen kept telling her. Someone started pounding on the door outside, and Husen rose to open it. It was Muri and a dozen or so anxious neighbors. Husen explained what happened. He said his wife must have had a nightmare.

“No,” said Muri. “I also saw him, but I did not know he comes from your house. Like a very big man dressed in black. It was a setan.”

“Are you sure you saw the ghost?” Husen was doubtful.

“Yes, he ran through that alleyway.”

Bibi, pulling a batik around her shoulders apprehensively, was thrilled with excitement. “That girl, Karniti’s cousin, ran away one night while you were in the village after seeing the same setan. He tried to embrace her too.” Bibi rushed past Husen into the house. He and Muri followed her.

“Why? Why?” Bibi shrieked at Karniti, who began to cry again.

“I don’t know,” Husen said. “My wife, she sees the setan. But I cannot see. I don’t know.”

“You must read from the Koran, Husen,” Bibi advised and Husen recited a short prayer.

Bibi sat on the edge of the bed, wrapping her arms around Karniti and gently rocking her as one would a small child, “All right, Kar. Better you come and sleep in my room, get out of this place.”

“No, no,” Karniti sobbed.

“Never mind,” Husen interjected. “The ghost won’t come again now.”

“Before also, your cousin like you also,” Bibi went on in a soothing voice. “Last week she saw a setan and ran away in the night. Then she came and slept at night in my house.” Bibi looked accusingly at Husen. “Where were you? Play cards all night, going everywhere, leaving your wife alone. There, there, Kar. So all right. If you can already get up, come, we go to my house.”

“Wah! You don’t be afraid, Kar,” Husen was getting impatient with Bibi. “Setans don’t eat people. Where is the setan that eats people? No.”

“I saw it running down the lane,” Muri offered. “For forty days and forty nights I not sleep and so I can see him. If in Java, many, many setans” (a generic term for ghosts, not necessarily the Christian “satan”).

Husen remembered that Muri had left his djimat in their other room. “Okay, Muri, better you take away your stone. Better you take it back to your place.”

They went to look for it and Muri told Husen he had seen setans before on Dieng Mountain. To gain supernatural powers, he said, he had also visited the Bantan village of Bodwe, west of Djakarta, where the men wore only black shirts, black pants and black capes and carried suitcases made from pandan. One was called Kaneron. The Bodwe men never traveled by vehicle but always walked and no white man had ever dared visit their village.

When all the neighbors had gone home, Husen took his flashlight and went about the two small rooms, flashing its beam in all the corners and crannies, even crushing an ant crawling up a wall to be on the safe side. Then he sat on the bed by Karniti’s side, confused and so worried and apologetic, his eyes watered. “I thought you were good, Kar. That’s why I played cards. Oh, Kar, I’m so sorry. In all the world, I have only you to look after me and in all the world you have only me to look after you. Your mother and father are in the village.”

Karniti smiled. Now that Husen was back by her side, it seemed as if she had come to the end of her strength. Her fever was higher now and she felt drowsy and sinking into sleep. Husen rose and poured her a glass of steaming hot tea. Her voice heavy and drowsy, Karniti murmured, “Go back to your game. Go to bed, Husen. Why do you just sit there? I’m all right now. Go to sleep.”

But Husen was too confused and bewildered now to sleep. “I’ll just sit here, Kar. If any setans come, I have this,” and he brandished the heavy flashlight. “I remember how it was when I was sick that time in Bongkaren, Kar. With no one to help me, even to go to the toilet. I wanted to die, Kar.”

Karniti opened her blurred, feverish eyes and stared at her husband’s worried face. There was something she had wanted to tell him, she thought drowsily. What was it?

Husen wiped her wet, feverish forehead with his handkerchief. “Go to sleep now, Kar. Everything’s all right. I’ll be here beside you.”

“I went to the dukun today…”

“Just go to sleep now.”

“Husen. I have baby now in myself. Two months already,” she said calmly. He looked at his wife and she looked back at him. Her hair was wet with her fever and her eyes were sunken. Beyond this, she was as she always was. To Husen, she was unbearably touching lying there. His heart rushed out to her and he said, not knowing what else there was that could be said, “Alhamdullillah!* (“Allah be praised!”) I hope God gives us happy.”

“Yah,” she whispered. “I am also.”

“Kar, if this time I have a little success finding money in Djakarta, a little success, if not too bad; then we save everything and go back to the village.”

“Yah, maybe in the village…the air is good…” She was drifting off to sleep.

“In Tjirebon there’s cholera, Kar. I read it in the newspaper. I think better you stay here until the rains come and I will try to find money and if success, then maybe we go home to stay this time.”

“All right.”

“If Abu helps me, I want to know the new ways and the different things about planting. I want to try, Kar. And I want to build you a little warung by the road, where you can sell things like you want, maybe a little tea, coffee, cakes. Not big.

Just a little one at first and maybe little by little…”

Her voice was barely audible. “Yes, I hope it is success. Do what you like.”

Karniti slept. But Husen, in his bewilderment, remorse, confusion and happiness, talked on. “I will ask my father to give me a little land along the road, yah, better, because maybe next year the government will widen for the Tjirebon bypass. A little land from father’s rice field and I want to carry earth from the garden and sand from the river to make the ground higher. I will get Tarja and Djuned to help me. Yah, also better, maybe plant some banana, kersem, papaya and so on. I think maybe I can make the house for twenty thousand. Because we are poor, Kar, we must go slowly. Maybe long time complete. Yah, and buy red stone from my uncle and djati trees from Tjibanteng Garden. Three rooms, one for the warung, a little kitchen and one for us to sleep. Maybe five or six months more and I can find the money, Kar. Yah, we’ll go back to the village. You must eat good and have good air so the baby will be happy. And now I must be a good man, not drinking or going to everywhere so the baby will be a good boy. Because I am tired, Kar. Fifteen years in Djakarta, a long time already. I think better we go home now. Stay in the village. I want to try…” In the morning when she awoke, refreshed by a deep sleep and her fever gone, Karniti found Husen still sitting there, one hand on her arm, his head toppled to one side and the flashlight still clutched in his hand.

Forty Dollars And A Wedding Ring


Twilight at the Hotel Indonesia. In the traffic of Welcome Circle, polished cars glistened in the setting sun. There was the pleasant, clear atmosphere of the Djakarta evening, a deep blue sky overhead and a fresh breeze. European guests moved along the lighted, open terraces of the hotel, looking expensive and luxurious. Some betjak drivers gathered around a food vendor’s stall; others sat in their betjaks, resting and waiting for passengers. A few were playing paper dominoes on the sidewalk and others squatted over a betjak cushion, gambling for money.

“Hello, Mister! Where are you going?”

A foreigner was approaching – a man of unusual height. His balding head was uncovered, he was dressed in black and smelled of alcohol. On his pallid, bony, corpse-like face stood out a damp, lank black moustache. Nodding politely in Husen’s direction, the man passed several other betjaks and noiselessly climbed in Husen’s. As Husen started pedaling, the man said softly, half turning in his seat, “Better your betjak.”

Husen grinned. “Do you like going around with me? Okay, let’s go. Where are you going, tuan?”

“That’s up to you,” said the man, half-turning and smiling faintly. Husen noticed he had yellowish, protuberant teeth and that, his hand, resting on the back of the betjak, had long, bony, nicotine-stained fingers.

“Maybe you want going to the bar, okay?”

“No, not to a bar.”

“What do you like, mister?” They were moving down Djalan Thamrin now and when they passed Sarinah department store, Husen turned the betjak into Kebon Sirih, a large thoroughfare leading to many bars, and restaurants. Under the heavy foliage, the street was dark and the man, stirring slightly, reached back and clasped Husen’s leg just above the knee in a tight grasp. “This…your leg is very strong.”

“Okay, mister, of course, because I am long time driver of betjak.” Husen was not unfamiliar with such approaches from foreign guests at the Hotel Indonesia and he quickly asked, “Do you like boy, tuan?”


“Do you like with me?”


“If you like with me, tuan, I am not like. Because I have wife.” Husen, who had been working very hard since Karniti had told him she was pregnant, did not want to lose the fare. He thought for a moment and considered looking for Rodon, another betjak driver, from the Hotel Indonesia stand who was unmarried and sometimes slept with the bantjis (male prostitutes; transvestites).

“I have friend, tuan, if you like boy,” Husen said after some time. His name is Rodon. He is very smart and tall. He is a betjak driver sometimes at the hotel.”

“Where is he?”

“Over there in Senen Market, tuan. Over there I can look for my friend. He is many times stop in Senen Market, in a small restaurant there.”

The passenger agreed but when they reached the crowded marketplace, with its thousands of electric bulbs gleaming like fireflies in the night, its glare of moving cars and the smells of food exuding from the stalls and restaurants, the man said again in his soft voice. “Okay, driver, stop here. I want to drink beer. Please go look for your friend. Hey, what’s your name?”


“Okay, Husen, I’ll wait for you here.”

Husen searched through the bazaar for an hour but could not find Rodon; it was ten o’clock when he returned to the restaurant, and found the foreigner sitting with a youth with a pale, sorrowful, sickly face; he looked a mere boy. The two were speaking English and six empty beer bottles were on the table. Their glasses were still about a third full so Husen approached them and the foreigner offered him a glass of beer, saying, “Okay, Husen, this boy is also all right.”

Husen said to the youth in Indonesian, “Do you really want to go out with the gentleman? Are you sure?”

The Indonesian youth, who looked ill and frightened, asked Husen, also in the vernacular, “Where does he want to take me?”

Husen asked the man where they wanted to go.

“Surapati Park,” he said.

They returned to the betjak and the tall foreigner squeezed in beside the youth, first taking off his black coat and spreading it over his lap. Husen pedaled them toward the park without attempting conversation. But as they neared the park, the youth, who told the foreigner he was a student, and seemed small, sickly and feeble, suddenly turned back to Husen. “Oh, let’s find another place. I’m afraid here.” Husen answered him in Javanese also, “All right, better find another place. Maybe he wants to rent a room in Pedjampogang?”

The student spoke with the foreigner, who reached back to pinch Husen’s thigh with his bony fingers and said impatiently, “All right, whatever you say is okay with me.”

Husen turned the betjak toward Pedjampogang once more passing the Hotel Indonesia and having to dismount and push the betjak over the big bridge behind it. Neither the foreigner nor the student got out and it was all Husen could do to bring them up the long incline. Then he turned off broad, brightly lighted Djalan Thamrin onto a dirt road by a canal and passed Rodon’s house. There Rodon, a healthy, muscular driver with broad shoulders, was standing in front of his father’s tea stall. He grinned at Husen, stroking his moustache and was wearing a clean white shirt over his betjak shorts.

“Who is that?”

“That’s Rodon.”

“Oh, that one is better.” The foreigner gave a faint laugh. “That one is better.”

“It’s up to you, tuan.”

Husen asked Rodon in Javanese, “Well, Rodon, what do you think? Do you want to go with this white man? He’s looking for a boy.”

Rodon ignored the question, but when the foreigner got out, handing his coat to the student, and said, “Ah, this one is nice. I’m going inside. You wait here,” the betjak driver, without a word, led the man into a dark alleyway.

The foreigner emerged alone in half an hour and told Husen, “Let’s ride back to the hotel.” He did not speak to the student but told Husen to stop the betjak when they reached Djalan Thamrin, where he gave the student some rupiah and the youth vanished into the crowds.

The next afternoon as Husen sat in his betjak in the line in front of the hotel, a bellhop brought him a note from the man written in English. It asked him to bring Rodon to his room that afternoon. Husen pedaled to Rodon’s house where the other quickly dressed in a white shirt and long trousers and they returned to the hotel.

Rodon was inside less than twenty minutes and when he returned he brought with him a note and a package of Salem Cigarettes. The note said, “Last night I lost some money – $40 in American money and 20,000 Indonesian rupiahs. Help me to find this money or I shall notify the police.” Husen was worried. “Did you take the money, Rodon?” “No, no. I didn’t.” “Okay, Rodon, we’d better go find who stole the money. If you didn’t take it I think the tuan means me.” He felt himself getting angry. Husen had never been in trouble before and now, more than ever, he had reason to stay out of it. He and Rodon borrowed a betjak and returned to Senen Market where the foreigner had met the student the night before. It was around seven o’clock and the evening crowds were just beginning to gather. When Husen saw a youth who looked like he might be a student, he approached him and asked if he knew the boy who was with a tall foreigner in black the night before. With luck, the student knew his friends address in Kali Barutim, a nearby slum neighborhood, and gave it, thinking the foreigner again, wanted to see his friend.

“Do you know how much money he got last night?” Husen grinned, trying to hide his anxiety.

“No, except he has two pieces of green money with ‘twenty’ in the corner.”

With great relief, Husen went back to the betjak and told Rodon, “He has $40 so it must be he who took the money.”

A few minutes later the student himself entered the restaurant. Husen went up to him, trying to be calm.

“Hey, how are you?” he grinned. “You were with the tuan here last night, weren’t you?”

“Yah. You took us around in your betjak.”

“I think you got a lot of money last night.”

“No, only five hundred. You saw him give it to me.”

“Only five hundred,” Husen laughed, “Why he gave me fifty thousand roops with two shirts and two trousers. That tuan is really rich. I came here especially to meet you and bring a message from him. He needs you to come to the Hotel Indonesia.”


“Because he’s going to Tokyo tomorrow.”

The student narrowed his eyes and said in his sickly, nervous voice, “I don’t want to go.”

“I think you better,” Husen smiled. “I have come here especially to call you. I think the tuan was very nice to you and he wants to give you a souvenir.” At last the student agreed to go, but he cried out in protest as Husen and Rodon squeezed into the betjak on either side of him, getting a friend to pedal it back to the hotel. As they neared the hotel, the student looked with terror first at Husen, and then Rodon. He blinked and little drops stood out on his brow. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve and drew a deep breath.

“I am not student,” he cried in his sickly voice. “I only sell cigarettes in the street. Please, I am a poor man.” His eyes filled with tears, almost moving Husen to pity, and then the boy confessed that he had taken the money. Together they went up to the man’s room in the Hotel Indonesia. It was a large suite, expensive and luxurious, and Husen knew it must have cost almost twenty or thirty thousand rupiah a day.

The foreigner again wore black but now he had heavy-rimmed spectacles and the air of a stern businessman. After he heard Husen’s story, he asked, “Where’s the money now?”

“I sold the dollars for eight thousand rupiah,” the cigarette man cried.

“No, impossible! If you changed the dollars you could have got fifteen thousand. If you cannot give me back all my money, I’ll bring you to the police.”

The youth was terrified. He asked the foreigner to wait an hour and with Rodon and Husen went back to Senen market where he borrowed seven thousand rupiah more from a Chinese moneylender. As they returned again to the hotel the student said it might take him half a year to pay it back.

Some nights later the foreigner, again apparently coming from the bar, passed Husen’s betjak and laughed. “You should be a detective, Husen.” Husen grinned back but he thought to himself, “And if not find the student, what then? Maybe jail for three months.”

But after that Husen enjoyed some reputation among his fellow betjak drivers for shrewdness in dealing with the foreign tuans. Some weeks later, when a friend, Tardja, got into similar trouble, he came to Husen.

Tardja said a foreigner had come out of the hotel one night and asked for “a good girl.” He had taken him to Planet, the city’s center of prostitution just behind Senen Market. The next day a security man or plain-clothes detective from the hotel had approached Tardja and told him someone had stolen his passenger’s wedding ring the night before. Tardja told Husen he feared he might be arrested and beaten by the police. “Don’t be afraid, brother,” Husen told him. “Because there is a Javanese proverb: ‘An innocent man knows not fear.'”

Together he and Tardja went to Planet, searching among the girls, with their powdered and rouged faces, trying to find the one who had gone with Tardja’s passenger. It was early and the little alleyways of Planet, formed mostly by abandoned freight cars from nearby Senen Railway Station, were just filling up with youths looking for girls among the tables and small orchestras. There were many soldiers sitting around drinking beer. Husen had not been inside Planet before – he usually waited outside at a betjak stand if he brought passengers there – and he was relieved when Tardja finally cried out, “Look, ‘Sen. That’s the girl. The girl tuan had last night. Let us stop her.”

Husen did the talking. The girl, with a plump, cheerful village face, listened with an air of bored indifference.

“You were with a white man, who wore a batik shirt, last night, weren’t you?”

“Sure. What’s wrong?”

He decided to repeat his tactic. “Oh, nothing. The tuan just wants to meet you. He sent us here to ask you to come to him. He needs you right now in his hotel room.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

Husen said nothing about the wedding ring until they reached the hotel. The man was waiting in his room. He was an American of middle height, gray-haired and stout, with a paunchy stomach. Two heavy-lidded, black mustached security men were waiting with him.

“That’s not the girl I was with last night!” the American protested.

“Oh, honey, I sure was. You forget me already?”

“Oh, yeah. I guess she was. Hmmmm.”

A security man spoke, “Sister, where is the ring of this tuan?”

The girl made a face at Husen. “Is that why you brought me here, you?”

The security man went on. “You stole this man’s ring, eh, yah?”

The girl laughed a rich, warm laugh. It seemed to Husen that the American gentleman turned a shade paler.

“No. Pak. I didn’t steal nothing. I was given the ring by this tuan. He said he was in love with me. He said that he never wanted me to forget him. He was happy, happy.” Her eyes shone with amusement. “He wanted me to have the ring so as not to forget him. But it was only white, not gold. I figured, who wants a ring like that? So I sold it to my boyfriend for two hundred roops. He’s wearing it. Why? Is it valuable or something?”

“It was platinum,” the American muttered in a small voice.

“Where’s your friend now?”

“He hangs out at the Djakarta Fair.”

The girl, Husen, Tardja and the two security men, with two betjak men pedaling them, all proceeded down Djalan Thamrin to the fairgrounds at huge Merdeka square.

The boy friend was there, standing idly outside the casino. “Hey, what’s up?” he grinned, holding a kretek jauntily in his, teeth.

“C’mere, Tjas, give me that ring back.”

“Okay. Take it. What the hell kind of ring is it anyway. It is not even gold. What’s it got? Some kind of magic?”

On the way back to the hotel the security men were apologetic. “This is a foolish tuan to give his ring away and want it back again. But we have to worry about our jobs too.”

The American was delighted to have the ring recovered. He gave Tardja a six thousand rupiah tip, half of which the betjak man promptly passed on to the detectives, sharing the rest equally with Husen.

They were ready to leave but the American wanted to pour everyone a glass of whiskey to celebrate and he, the girl, her boyfriend, Tardja, the two security men and Husen all raised their glasses in a toast. “Forgive me, everybody,” the tuan said, pouring another round. “If I hadn’t got this ring back I couldn’t go home to my wife. I dunno. Maybe she’d even divorce me.” Everyone laughed and Husen, feeling the warmth of the whiskey and the one thousand five hundred rupiah tucked in his pocket, told the American, “Tuan, I believe if you don’t do bad things, God will take care of you. That’s what I tell my friend Tardja here. So. I think, just don’t suspect someone in the future. Who knows? Maybe that one doesn’t do anything wrong. I myself was once accused of stealing.” With that, they all drank another toast.

The Bantjis

“Hello, mister! Where are you going?”

Another night in front of the Hotel Indonesia. A chubby, smiling, bespectacled Japanese businessman settles into Husen’s betjak.

“You like round the town?” Husen asks cheerily. “Aruku kah. Sampo sampo? Maybe you going to Casino? Bar? Senen Market?”

“Oh, thank you. Just around. I want to see Djakarta.”

“How are you tonight, sir?” Husen took the betjak out in the circle and crossed to Deponegoro Street.

“Oh, you can speak English very well.”

“No, just a leetle. You like going for round. Casino? Night club?”

“Just around the hotel. Because it is late.”

Husen pointed to the dark frame of an unfinished skyscraper.

“This is Wisma Nusantara. Japanese construction.”

“Oh, Japanese construction. Ah, so.”

They turned into Deponegoro. It was a cool, pleasant evening and not much traffic in the streets. From out of the darkness under the heavy foliage of some tamarind trees a feminine voice called out invitingly, “Hello, mister! Where are you going?”

“Oh, stop, stop,” said Husen’s passenger. “I want to talk to that girl there. Very nice, the young girl.”

“No, tuan,” Husen told him . “That is not woman, that is queer.”

But the creature that emerged from the darkness now gave every appearance of being a beautiful young girl. She was tall and slender with wavy long black hair, heavily-mascaraed eyes and moved with mincing steps, her hips swaying back and forth like a heroine’s in a sandiwara drama.

“No, no, tuan, that is queer,” Husen hissed in the ear of the Japanese, recognizing under the disguise Yan, a farmer from Babadan village, not far from his own.

“No, no, no, no! Stop! Stop!” his passenger sputtered and Husen put on the brakes and pulled over to the curb. Yan came over to the betjak and stood, running his hand up and down the sleeve of the passenger’s jacket. “Hello, mister.”

“Hello, there, heh, heh, heh. Do you have a room?”

“Oh, yes. I have a room. Just behind the Kartika Plaza hotel in Badu Radja Street.”

“Oh, that’s too far,” the Japanese giggled nervously.

“No, it’s very near,” replied Yan in an emphatic voice, climbing into the betjak beside him in an elaborately grand manner. “C’mon, please, let’s go.”

Husen started to pedal. But when they passed under a streetlight down the street, the Japanese backed away from Yan a little and stared at him for a better look. “Are you a woman?” he asked.

“Yes,” Yan answered, caressing his cheek. “I am a woman.” The Japanese, encouraged, put his arm around Yan.

For a few moments they rode on in silence. Then Husen heard Yan mumble in protest, “No, no. Don’t do like that.” Another silence and only the sound of the Japanese’s labored breathing when suddenly he exclaimed, “Hey, you’re not a girl! You’re a man. Stop this betjak! Please get out!” His voice rose to a shrill cry. “Get out! Get out!”

In his own male voice Yan said gruffly, “Please give me money.”

“You must be a girl to get money from me,” the Japanese sputtered angrily. “Now, get out, get out.” He half turned to Husen, looking for help, but the betjak driver’s countenance was one of studied neutrality.

“Look, mister,” said Yan, getting tough, “you already brought me too far. And not pay. Maybe I lost a customer back there. Give me two hundred roops.”

With relief that the price was not higher, the Japanese pulled out his billfold and thrust the money into Yan’s outstretched hand. Once paid, Yan got out of the betjak and disappeared down the dark street once more.

“Take me back to the hotel!” cried the Japanese.

“Okay, right or not?” said Husen. “That is not girl. What I tell you?”

“Yes, yes. Just take me back to the hotel!”

When Husen related the event to some of the other betjak drivers back at the hotel they all laughed. One said that some of the bantjis wore foam rubber vaginas and turned the lights out so that sometimes foreigners never did know they were men and not girls. Tjasidi, a friend of Husen’s, said that he had heard that recently one of the bantjis had washed his foam rubber apparatus and left it on the roof of his house to dry. A cat had come along and carried it down into the street to every neighbor’s amusement. Just then Husen saw Yan crossing Djalan Thamrin past the hotel entrance and he pedaled off toward him, telling the other betjak men, “Ah, I go speak with the bantjis. I am very much like joking with queer.”

Yan was sitting with two other bantjis, Ringit and Moomoo, on a low cement wall in back of the hotel along Djalan Thamrin; they were screened off from view by a thick hedge which surrounded the hotel’s gardens and swimming pool.

“Hey, Yan!” Husen called as he pulled up beside them. “Now my Japanese tuan won’t come back outside for a week.”

He parked the betjak and walked over to sit beside them. In their heavy makeup and false eyelashes and wigs, all three youths looked alike. Unlike Yan, most of the bantjis were Javanese from the city of Djogjakarta, or Sundanese from around Djakarta. A few of them were educated students or even professional men with families who chose to become transvestites in the evening either for money or their own sexual preference. But most of them, like Yan, were village boys who farmed some of the year and had turned to this way of life to earn money without the hard physical labor of driving a betjak or working as a coolie. They were to be found in several places in the city at night, even the spacious, leafy residential streets of Kebajoran Baru; but the biggest concentration was around the Hotel Indonesia and it was widely said that most of their customers were foreigners, although this seemed highly doubtful. The governor of Djakarta, Lieutenant General Ali Sadikin, a tolerant Javanese, had arranged for the bantjis to have their own stand at the Djakarta Fair, and there they gave musical and dance performances. Like the kangkung welanda, they only came forth at night; one almost never saw a bantji in Djakarta before the sun went down.

“Now are you looking for money?” Husen asked them in his good-natured way. “Give me fifty roops and I’ll go and bring a foreign tuan for you.”

“I know you, Husen,” Yan said in his own male voice. “We give the fifty roops and when I ask where’s the foreigner you say, ‘Oh, he’s sleeping now.’ Husen chuckled. It was a trick he had played on them before.

“Not yet find money, Husen,” complained Moomoo.

“If I am looking for you these days, Husen, I not see,” complained Ringit, whose falsetto voice and padded red dress could not conceal the broad shoulders and muscular legs of a farm youth who had worked in the fields most of his life. “You are not stopping here for a long time. I always watch you. All the time you stay with the other betjaks in front of the hotel. You look very happy. Joking with friends.”

“Why are you sitting here, not standing under the bridge of Dukuhatas?” Husen asked. “It is late already, maybe eleven o’clock.”

“If I am seeing you, you look very happy,” Ringit went on, “I know about you, Husen. You are nice boy. You are sometimes many joking with your friends. You never look angry, but many joking.”

Moomoo, who was not listening to his friend, put his arm around Husen, saying, “Can I kiss you?”

Husen laughed and pulled away. “Why? You are boy? Why you want to kiss me? You are sama sama me. If you are girl, all right then, I kiss. But you have beard. Your chin is kasar, rough.” He reached over and patted Moomoo’s lap, laughing, “Oh, you have a big one, big pipe.”

Ngentot lo!” Moomoo cursed him [Note: “fuck you,” and expression heard in Djakarta, but like most four letter words, never in the Javanese villages].

“If I haven’t husband already, I like living with you, Husen,” Ringit said.

“You have husband?” Husen laughed. “Please, also get married with me. So I not have to work driving betjak. Buy me pants, buy me shirt, buy me watch. You looking for money and I stay in house waiting for you. But if not enough money, I not like.”

“Have you been to school, Husen?” Moomoo asked.

“My school is in front of Hotel Indonesia speaking with foreigners and my passengers.”

“Why you can speak English so well? I see you understand when the foreigner speaks with you, like one Indonesian with another Indonesian. Not so difficult for you.”

“Because much practice. You must listen closely with both ears when the foreigner speaks. Then maybe you can speak like me. And you must also read sometimes you must read in the easy English book. And you must borrow book from your friends if your friend is student.”

There was a pause in the conversation and the four Javanese sat there, watching the traffic go by on Djalan Thamrin. Husen broke the silence, “Hey, Ringit, where you buy that wig?”

“In a shop.”

“You have much money to do like that. Oh, but why you dress like that? You are a man. Better you are looking for a job like a man. Selling something. Betjak driver.”

“No. I cannot do like a man. I am not a man, but woman.”

“If you haven’t house, Husen, please sleep with me,” said Moomoo idly. “We have a house now in Kebon Katjang,” he added, naming a center of prostitution.

Husen, wanting to engage in some horseplay, reached across and grabbed Yan’s purse. He opened it, turning his back, and saw the two hundred rupiah from the Japanese inside. He took out a fifty rupiah note and handed the purse back just as Ringit noticed it was missing. “Hey, Husen, why you do like that?”

Husen yawned nonchalantly. “Waiting short time,” he said. “I want to buy cigarette. Kretek, one packet.” He purchases a package of ten Bentoul cigarettes from a vendor down the sidewalk and returned, offering a clove-spiced cigarette to each of the bantjis.

“Do you have money, Yan?” he asked.

“No. I have no money. Only two hundred from that Japanese one.”

“Please, I want to look at your money. Where is it? I want to see your money.” Husen reached out for Ringit’s purse but he snatched it out of his grasp.

“No, no, no, no,” Ringit said.

“Oh, I only want to look inside your handbag.” He grabbed it from Ringit and held it open, “Your handbag is like woman’s. Powder, mirror, lipstick, comb and black for the eyes. Oh, you are like girl to bring like this.”

“I am a girl. Why you think me not a girl?”

“Okay, if see from far away, you look like girl, okay. But, open your blouse and pull up your skirt. If you are not sama sama like me, I be sure you are girl.” He gave a hoot of laughter.

Ringit flounced down the sidewalk in mock anger. “Ah. Husen, sometimes you don’t speak so many with Husen. He is crazy boy, this Husen.”

Husen puffed at his kretek with relish. “Hey, Yan, look at your money. I want to borrow.”

“Oh, I have only two hundred. From that Japanese.”

“Sure? Is enough or not? Better you look in your handbag.”

“Oh, Husen. Sialan lo! You bangbat. Bedbug. You took. It is only one hundred fifty now.”

“You smoke your own cigarettes, not mine.”

“Okay, Husen, but awas. Beware when you see me next time. If you aren’t looking, I’ll reach into your pocket and take your money.”

“Please. Maybe you find something else in my pocket.”

Just then four foreign sailors in white bell-bottoms came around the corner of the hotel. With high-pitched squeals of “Hello, hello, mister. Where are you going?” the three bantjis jumped off the wall and ran to intercept them. Husen watched them go and felt just a twinge of remorse over the fifty rupiah. Moomoo called back, “When we go home tonight we get to take your betjak for that fifty roops.” And Husen thought, maybe I will. They have no money.


“The street is the stage.” (Jerry Rubin in “Do It”)

“The urban guerrilla represents a form of reaction to urbanization. Though part of the city, he feels alienated from it.” (The Economist, October 24, 1970, summarizing the opinion of some British social scientists asked what makes urban terrorists tick)

Since the Communist Party had been crushed by Moslem forces and the Indonesian army in 1966 – a third of a million of its members killed and the rest jailed or driven underground – Djakarta, unlike Calcutta, Quebec, Paris, Montevideo or New York, had no visible urban guerrilla movement. And yet, as this new kind of violence began spattering the world’s headlines of 1969 and 1970, Djakarta, too, began to experience something new as well.

There were nearly spontaneous mob-led riots between the city’s poorest ethnic and occupational groups, mobs of poor men who apparently took to fighting in the streets out of the feeling they could not otherwise redress their grievances by conventional means.

On the eve of World War II, Djakarta had been just a sleepy port city of 400,000 people. The name, Djakarta, came from an ancient fortressed city chosen as a capital and port by Dutch Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen in 1619. His soldiers seized it, burned it, and began the construction of Batavia, which in time became the Dutch metropolis of the Dutch East Indies Empire and was, up until the Japanese invasion, a Dutch city on the edge of the tropical jungle with canals and short bridges and little houses with brown-tiled roofs and diamond-paned windows to remind them of those they left behind in Holland. Lying at the head of a deep bay sprinkled with almost a thousand tiny islands, Djakarta was an odd choice for a capital, being neither central to Java or the 7,900 islands of the Indonesian archipelago itself. Moreover it was built on swampland and the network of canals which covered the whole city area were really a system of drainage ditches, which even today in the festering equatorial heat, were breeding grounds for mosquitoes and diseases. These ditches, since many people lack any other source of water, continue to answer the need for a place to relieve oneself, wash one’s body or launder one’s clothes.

By the end of the war, Djakarta’s population was approaching 600,000; by 1951, fed by the Darul Island rebellion against Sukarno’s secular state, as thousands and thousands of village refugees poured in daily from the countryside, it had reached 1,661,000.

In 1955, when, Husen arrived as a sixteen-year-old, there were just over two million people in Djakarta. Within six years, by 1961, it had reached three million. In late 1970, when Husen was now thirty-one, the city passed the five million mark. Aside from a natural growth rate of 2.8 per cent, the city’s rapid expansion was fed by a flood of incoming peasant migrants at the rate of at least 300,000 a year. City municipal government officials estimated Djakarta’s population would reach six or seven million by 1980, but some predicted it would redouble and reach something like ten million by 1985.

Inundated in this way by a flood of peasantry, mostly from the island of Java itself, Djakarta seemed less a conventional city that a vast conglomeration of atap-roofed, bamboo-built kampongs held loosely together by a network of roads.

There were, to be sure, aside from the old Dutch city, many towering new glass and concrete buildings and many large middleclass residential areas, with their big solid bungalows standing in leafy, spacious compounds. Here lived the 15 per cent of Djakarta’s people who paid property taxes, the 12.5 per cent whose homes were electrified, the 15 per cent who drank purified water supplied by the city.

The rest of the population – almost four-and-a-half million men, women and children – went without.

Most seriously, Djakarta could not provide its existing inhabitants with jobs, much less the constant flood of new arrivals. Although the discovery of offshore oil staved off disaster, the industrial revolution had come to Indonesia too late. There was plenty of new investment, both foreign and domestic, and the Hotel Indonesia was jammed with business investors from all over the world. But the new industries were almost all technologically sophisticated, capital intensive and required some, $5,000 investment for every man employed, sixty times what it took during the industrial revolution in Europe a century before. There was little demand for an unskilled Javanese peasant in plants that manufactured electronics, precision machinery, communications equipment, medicine and metals.

So most of the immigrants did what they could to keep from starvation – betjak pedaling, street vending, petty hawking, message running, rice selling, shoe shining – which contributed all but nothing to Djakarta’s development nor to their own acquisition of skills and confidence.

Nor did Javanese alone pour into Djakarta. Sumatra was a rich, under-populated island, yet 400,000 of its people had moved to the capital city. Indeed, the capital city of modern Indonesia was a unique racial melting pot and a walk through Senen Market was to see faces that varied from gold to ivory to brown to burnished-bronze, reddish brown to glossy chocolate brown; fierce-looking Bataks from northern Sumatra, Christian, aggressive and intelligent; the dark Ambonese, the best soldiers and gangsters; the Polynesian West Irians, with Negroid features; clever, slight Padangs from Sumatra, clannish in their membership in what must be one of Islam’s few matriarchal societies; Dayaks from Borneo, not long out of their headhunting days; impassive, almond-eyed Chinese, calmly controlling most of the economy; tolerant, easy-going Sundanese; rugged Makassars from Sulawesi and the beautifully god-like islanders from Bali. But most of all, the faces were Javanese, pug noses, high cheekbones, round eyes and straight and brilliant black hair.

The origins of the Indonesian people are one of the mysteries of history. Man may have had his origin on Java as in Husen’s fables. It has been established he was there at least half a million years ago. A fossil creature, the upper part of whose skull, two molars and a thigh bone were excavated in 1891 and 1892 on the bank of the Solo River in central Java, is known today as Pithecanthropus erectus. This almost-human being, like another exhumed near Peking, still strongly resembles an ape and is presumably the missing link between the monkey and ourselves.

Djakarta’s present population was the result of countless migrations grafted onto the children of Pithecanthropus erectus. Negritos from New Guinea, dark skinned Dravidians from India, pale Chinese, hook nosed Arabs, Filipinos, Dutch, and above all, Malay and Polynesian; one could see traces of them all on the streets of the city.

Now as the immigrants continued to arrive day by day by sailing schooners, bus, plane, train and track, the competition for the steadily thinning slices of Djakarta’s economic pie, grew more fierce. And the ethnic rivalries heightened, disputes arose, passions flared and the riots began.

The first were the betjak drivers. Three years after Husen first arrived in Djakarta, its lord mayor had declared there were too many betjaks in the city and no more licenses would be issued. There were thirty thousand then. Now Governor Ali Sadikin again declared, there were too many betjaks in the city and no more licenses would be issued. At the end of 1970, there were 126,000 licensed betjaks in Djakarta. It seemed safe to predict that by 1980, there would be 200,000.

For the betjak drivers were like the ants in the cracks; you could strike out at them with declarations and use of force, but, turn your back and there were hundreds more coming down the side streets. Since most betjaks were driven by two men, one by day and one by night, as many as a quarter-of-a-million peasants probably earned their livelihood this way in Djakarta [Note: Some city officials estimated there were as many as 400,000]. Add their wives and children and you may have had as many as a million people or a fifth of the city’s population dependent on the betjaks.

They were a force to be reckoned with.

An early manifestation of this force came when one betjak man felt he had been unjustly treated by a policeman. Thousands came to his assistance and they tore down a small police station, piece by piece. A car from a visiting Indian circus struck a betjak and, within an hour, five thousand drivers were pelting the circus tent at Djakarta Fair with rocks. A Batak student quarreled with a driver over a fare and struck him. The next night hundreds of betjak drivers stormed the student’s hotel, shots were fired and two students were killed. An Ambonese tough tried to pull a girl from a betjak in Senen Market, the driver, attempting to defend his passenger, was knifed. Some Ambonese street toughs and more betjak drivers joined in. Word swept the nearby betjak stands and hundreds of betjaks started converging on the marketplace. Before the army could arrive and quell the riot by firing over everyone’s heads, dozens of men were wounded and two betjak drivers stabbed to death. Husen, unaware of what was happening, was pedaling toward Senen Market on Kramat Raya when he heard shooting and turned back to the hotel. In Djakarta, you never knew what might be happening from one street to the next.

Alarmed by the rising incidence of violence, Husen considered taking some precaution. Robberies of betjak drivers late at night were also on the increase. Then one night a man tried to steal the betjak of a driver from the hotel. The unarmed driver was quick-witted and pushed the betjak off the road into a canal. But the man then stabbed the driver in the stomach and threw him into the water after the betjak where his body was discovered the next day. Husen made up his mind. He went to a dukun and asked for susuk, the Javanese practice of having twelve small slivers of gold or diamond inserted just under the skin at various places on the body; it is believed to give a man magical protective powers from all sorts of dangers, or as Husen put it to the dukun, “I want to be safe from a knife.” Husen had him use diamond slivers; it cost him two thousand rupiah and he told no one.

Two months later, Husen visited Pilangsari and his father noticed two of the slivers, inserted at the outer corner of each eye.

“I am afraid in Djakarta,” Husen told the father. “So many cross boys (an English expression, used in Djakarta for gangsters or delinquents) now and they might kill me.”

Husen’s father was angry. “If you are a Moslem, son, you have fallen down on your religion. Susuk is forbidden.”

“I wanted to try. See if sure or not.”

“You must have them removed, Husen. If you are a Moslem and have susuk, you will die a slow agonizing death.” So Husen had the slivers removed again by the dukun, regretting he had visited his village before he had put the powers of susuk to the test.

He regretted the waste of money but he now had twenty thousand rupiah hidden away, the first of his savings to build Karniti a little house and shop in the village. Karniti now seemed very happy; she often tried to find good things to say about Djakarta, that she preferred cooking with kerosene than the smoky wood they used in the village, that she enjoyed the company of so many friends in Simprug. She talked and laughed a great deal now and seemed in no hurry to go back to Pilangsari. But Husen saw through her deception and he worked harder than ever to hasten the day when they could return home for good.

One evening Husen was taking a passenger down Djalan Thamrin. The man was an Australian engineer who had introduced himself as a Mr. Wyatt. He was only visiting Djakarta for a few days on his way home from a business conference in Tokyo and had asked Husen to show him the city.

This was Husen’s specialty. He pedaled first to Merdeka or Freedom Square, a vast seven-hundred acre park in the center of the city which surrounds the huge phallic marble obelisk with its golden flames which is Djakarta’s chief landmark and is known as Merdeka monument. He told Mr. Wyatt the gold flame alone had cost a third-of-a-million dollars—forty kilos of pure gold. They passed glittering, floodlit Merdeka Palace; a mass of scaffolding and skeletal building Husen identified as the National Mosque; then on to Banteng Square and the West Irian Monument, topped by its bronze man breaking his chains; then back down Djalan Thamrin again, starting with its water fountain and extending for a kilometer to the Hotel Indonesia and the Welcome monument, past the fourteen-story department store Sarinah and the Japanese, German, British and Australian embassies. Many of the monuments and buildings Sukarno left behind are still hollow and half-constructed and have been criticized by Indonesian and foreigners alike as grandiose ruins. But whatever Sukarno left behind in Djakarta, he provided a perfect setting for a betjak driver who loved to show tourists around.

But Mr. Wyatt seemed more concerned about the state of the road. “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” he asked, several times. “You might fall down into a big manhole, some are open and uncovered.”

“Never mind,” Husen smiled serenely. “Must go slowly.”

After Husen took him to a batik shop, Wyatt asked jokingly, “Can you fix me up with a girl friend?”

“No, no, I cannot. Because I think not better.”


“Because I am people. People sell people, I not like. Because I am ashamed. If you like girl you, must take taxi to Club 69.”

“No. I was just joking.”

“Never mind. If speak not tired. If speak and so on, not tired. This is Japanese airlines. This is your embassy Australia. This is First National City Bank. This is Press House. This is the sign of welcome. But stone only.”

Around the town with Husen

“Hello! Where are you going?”


“Always tired, Madam. It take betjak, not.”

People going down street
People in front of buildings
“No, thank you. We want to walk it.”

Husen suggested they stop for tea. Wyatt took a glass but asked, “Where does the water come from?” “A lead pipe,” Husen reassured him. “Not a canal? Okay.”

“So tomorrow you fly away. I hope you fly good. Find your wife and family and find me next time. Ah, here is Djamu* (an herb brew taken to stay young and strong). You put in water and drink. It is very strong. This one is for kidney and this one is for strong for man. You like to drink now? Twenty-five roops.”

When Wyatt finished his tea and the Djamu, Husen asked, “Maybe you like going Djakarta fair? Maybe you want going to Planetarium? Over there is many wajang. You know wajang? Javanese puppets? You must know wajang. It is puppets. It is story of old kings before. History before.”

“I’m just a businessman, here for two days. I want to see how real people live. Not just a special tour for tourists.”

“Real people?” All right.”

“I’m so interested to see the inside of a house. I’ll pay fifty rupiah to see the inside of a house.”

“Other people’s house? I think maybe difficult.”

“Do you sleep on the floor? On a mat?”

“No, not now. Sometimes before. Now I am sleep on bed.”

“One room, whole family sleep?”

“Yah, sometimes. Not always same. Sometimes with children. Sometimes not with children.”

Husen pedaled him through Menteng, a wealthy residential district near the hotel, then down Gresik Street, up Tjikini Raya and then to Kramat Raya. Wyatt wanted to see Senen Market.

“Who founded Djakarta?” he asked as they rode along; it was pleasant riding in a betjak, Wyatt thought, Once you got used to Husen’s labored breathing and overcame the feeling that you were the sitting target for every approaching car, it was agreeable. One was carried along just fast enough for the air to seem cool and could lean back comfortably without being bitten by insects.

“I don’t know. Before its name was Batavia. In one thousand six hundred and two the Dutch came here.”

“It would be interesting to see what it looked like in 1602.”

“Oh, was only village.”

“How many miles from one side to the other now?”

“Maybe seventy – seventy-five kilometers. This name is Kramat Raya Street.”

“Not many signs in English here. All Indonesian.”

“Oh, see. That is Miss Tjitji. Is Sundanese theatre. Here is market.”

They turned into Pasar Senen. The big marketplace was packed with evening crowds; vendors were shouting, betjaks clanged their gongs and there was a steady beep-beep of impatient car horns. Wyatt saw no other Europeans. A group of prostitutes passed the betjak as Husen drew up before a row of vendors of cigarettes, beer, cooked rice and fried bananas. Wyatt felt groping hands on his sleeve. As the women moved on, their laughter scattered in the air. Somewhere a hoarse voice swore obscenely, then burst into a roar of laughter. The street was jammed with betjaks. The thousands of electric bulbs in the market seemed blinding. Wyatt felt uneasy for the first time that evening.

“They’re open until very late at night.”

“Only in nighttime only. In daytime not.”

“Hmmmm. Let’s go a bit farther and then we can cross over and go back.” Husen maneuvered the betjak to the edge of the road and Wyatt glimpsed a large black hole just beyond the betjak wheels.

“Ah, that was a hole in the street. A big manhole! I thought we were going down the hole. It was a manhole and the manhole cover was missing. That hole we nearly went through. How many weeks has that hole been there?”

Husen was intent on trying to see why the traffic ahead had stopped, “Oh, a long time already.”

“Why doesn’t somebody fix it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe if I know I could close that hole.”

Wyatt wanted to get the betjak back on the pavement. “Ride down alongside those stalls. If I see something I like I’ll hop out.”

“Do you want to buy stone for the ring? Here is stone. Maybe not much. Maybe one hundred roops only.”

“The next one you see, I’ll get out and take a look.”

They stopped at the next curb vendor who sat cross-legged on the sidewalk with a box displaying semiprecious stones.

“How much for this one?”

“He says five hundred roops. But before my friend from Japan, he buy only a hundred roops. How much you pay?”

“Let me see one I like first. I better take one.”

“That is not gold.”

“Well, none of them are. Are any of them? How much is this one?”

The vendor, an old man from Madura, spoke to Husen quickly in the vernacular, “Biar lima ratus sajakasih kamu presen.”

Husen said nothing, but after Wyatt bought a stone for two hundred rupiah and they drove on, he laughed and told his passenger, “That old man say with me, ‘Okay, five hundred, never mind, I give you commission.'”

They headed back toward Kramat Raya Street. Wyatt noticed some people were running down the wide boulevard. Some other people were scrambling to get on a bus. He noticed two or three men seemed to be running in front of the crowd as if they were being chased.

“What’s that?” he asked Husen.

“Oh, maybe that is pickpocket. From the market. Thieves. Thieves. The people must be chasing them.”

“They look so excited. If they catch the pickpockets it will be terrible for them.”

Wyatt mused idly that it seemed a great many people were now running after the pickpocket. At that moment, inexplicably, all the lights in the market went out and the firing began.

It happened so suddenly that for a moment Wyatt sat there stunned. Someone was shooting at them with rifles, in fact, a great many people must have been shooting at them. Wyatt knew from his wartime experience the firing was in their direction and that it was over their heads. And then he heard the crack a bullet makes when it comes close.

“What? This is dangerous!” he called to Husen.

“Better we go back.” Husen started to turn the betjak around. Then the firing increased in volume. Both Husen and Wyatt leaped from the betjak and, heads down, ran for cover. The marketplace was almost dark now but Wyatt sensed a great many people darting past him, diving behind cars or betjaks, running at a crouch, falling to the pavement. “Let’s go!” Husen was calling him. “This is dangerous. Look at those men running. They’ve got knives and spears. Run!”

The crowd now seemed possessed; there were shouted oaths, screams and howls. Wyatt could not hear Husen. He tried to push forward toward his voice, but others were crowding to get past him and the way was impassable. The heat of the pushing tightly packed bodies, trying to flee the rifle fire, was suffocating, distorting sight and sound. Wyatt turned and ran another direction, into a dark street, thinking only to get away from the marketplace as fast as possible now that he had lost Husen.

He heard cries from houses on both sides as he ran up the street and then, looking ahead, he stopped quickly. Surging toward him were perhaps twenty or thirty men carrying spears and perangs, they were all stripped to the waist and their bodies gleamed in the dimness; most of them had long hair and they were shouting in some unidentifiable language. Momentarily the fury of the savage-looking creatures he faced overpowered him, their eyes seemed to shimmer, their distorted faces to dissolve in a haze. Only a few feet away, the crowd of men seemed to hesitate when they saw him, not knowing what he was doing there…Then they were running again.

Husen and Wyatt did not know there had been a riot between Ambonese and Padang in Senen marketplace the night before and that nine people had been stabbed to death.

It had begun this way. An Ambon teenager, a member of Djakarta’s toughest street gang known as the “Alamo boys,” a name presumably inspired by Hollywood westerns, had bought a kretek cigarette in the market, but paid only five rupiah instead of the required seven and a half. When the vendor, a Padang from western Sumatra, had demanded the remaining two and a half rupiah, the Ambonese, who had been smoking marihuana, hit him squarely across the face. Other Padangs rushed to the defense of the vendor but policemen intervened and broke up the fight.

But the incident triggered off long-standing resentments between the Ambonese youths and a group of Padangs, who unlike the respectable vendors in the marketplace, controlled Planet, the main center of vice and prostitution in Djakarta which was just behind Senen Market. The leader of the Padangs, who had been warned some of the Ambonese youths were threatening to set Planet on fire, appealed to the leaders of the Alamo gang to reach some agreement. The Ambonese, who mostly lived in a stockaded community off Kwini Street, which led into Senen Market, sent a deputation of four men, all heavily-built construction coolies. An agreement was reached and on the way back from Planet one of the men, Ali, a half-Ambon, half-Makassar laborer, wanted to stop off for a drink. After several beers, Ali told the others. “You walk first and I’ll come behind to see the Padangs don’t jump us. Those Padang bastards can’t be trusted.” He was overheard and in the darkness of Kwini Street, he was attacked and fatally knifed by three men.

As soon as Ali’s body was discovered, passions rose among the members of the Alamo gang. They took a solemn vow to burn down Planet – its abandoned freight cars and bamboo shanties were probably very inflammable – and started moving through the market. There they were stopped by Indonesian soldiers who warned them not to burn Planet or the Padangs would burn down Kwini Street. Turning back, with their oilcans and kerosene, the gang members suddenly ran amok, attacking merchants and market idlers – anyone who looked Padang. There was hand-to-hand fighting on the steps of the new Senen Market building, a Djakarta showplace. Men were running through the market stabbing whoever was in front of them, and in the riot that followed, eight more men were killed and thirty carried to the hospital in serious condition.

The next night the Alamo gang, which had suffered the worst casualties of the night before, decided to wage a second attack on the Padangs in Planet. An attempt was made to scale Planet’s walls when the entryways were heavily defended. Military police had just seized ten youths from the Alamo camp and a few construction coolies and nine Padangs, and both sides were rushing reinforcements to Senen Market as Husen and Wyatt drove up in their betjak. The police and soldiers were ordered to disperse the marketplace by firing over the heads of both the rioters and thousands of other strollers and shoppers who happened to be there, most of them, like Husen and Wyatt, unaware of the trouble. What Wyatt had done unwittingly when he lost Husen, was to turn and run into Kwini Street and toward the barricades of the Alamo gang…

For a moment it seemed to Wyatt that the men with their spears and perangs were closing in on him. Then, to his surprise, he was pushed aside and they seethed past him, running with blood-curdling howls, toward the marketplace. Someone shouted at him, and he started running ahead. A betjak was parked by the roadside and Wyatt jumped in, pointing away from the marketplace and shouting, “Go, go!” The, betjak driver who knew the way ahead was blocked by an Ambonese barricade and was afraid to retreat to the marketplace himself, just sat there wondering where this foreigner had come from.

Wyatt was cursing the betjak driver and wondering if he should get out and run again when an Ambon on a motorcycle roared up to the betjak and shouted at him, “Tjepat, tjepat!” (“Quick, quick!”) Wyatt thought he said “Jump on, jump on,” and he climbed on back of the motorcycle.

As they turned and roared back to the marketplace and then headed into a black alleyway, Wyatt thought it must be some sort of political revolution.

Wyatt had no idea where they were headed and the driver of the motorcycle turned and twisted his machine into one narrow lane after another until finally they emerged on a broad, well-lit street. People were strolling or sitting in restaurants completely oblivious to the fighting a few streets away.

“Where do you want to go?” his rescuer asked.

“Hotel Indonesia.”

“Two hundred roops. Okay?”

“Yes, yes. What is this? A revolution? Hurry, hurry to the Hotel Indonesia.”

“No, no. It is cross boy. Gangster. Yesterday sama sama and nine men killed. Very dangerous. The police were firing to disperse the crowd.” The Ambon introduced himself as a Marine lieutenant. He stopped in front of the American Embassy. “No, no, to the Hotel Indonesia,” Wyatt urged him.

When they pulled up in front of the hotel entrance, Wyatt told the Ambon, “Wait here a minute and I’ll bring money.”

“No, no, I no want,” the Ambon grinned. “But can you give me your address I am very like pen friend in other countries.”

“Wah! Where is mister?” Husen thought as he crouched behind a cigarette stand. Another betjak driver told him they better grab their betjaks and see if they could reach Gunung Agung bookstore down the street. “Okay, better I wait here a short time. Because my tuan I not find. Better you go quick to Hero’s Monument. If he ran that way you can stop him. But I want looking for him here. Maybe dangerous because he don’t know this place. I better look in all the open manholes. Maybe he fall in.”

Ignoring the rifle fire, which he now saw was aimed high, Husen ran at a crouch to peer in several open manholes, calling, “Mr. Wyatt!” “Tuan!”

His anxiety not to find his passenger’s body in a crumpled heap at the bottom of one of these dark shafts and his half expectation he would overcame Husen’s earlier fright. When an Ambon with a spear shouted at him, “Okay! This boy!” he turned on him indignantly, “No, no, I am trying to find my friend from Australia. He is maybe fall in a manhole.” “You don’t be here!” the Ambon snarled but he went away. A policeman too collared Husen but when he heard his story he joined him in looking in the manholes and drainage ditches until a betjak driver from the hotel arrived to say Wyatt was safe and waiting for Husen.

“Wah!” Husen could hear his heart beat, tom tom te tom.


Just after Manila and just ahead of quite a number of American cities, Djakarta, statistically, had the second highest crime rate in the world.

In recent years, a great many thoughtful Indonesians had asked themselves why. The sympathetic approach held that poor immigrants coming to the city, unable to find work and perhaps with sick or hungry wives and children, could be so desperate, so overcome with despair, that they would sever the last ethical link with the established values of their village culture and take to robbery.

The hostile approach was to see a common denominator among Djakarta’s criminal element in childhood experience, psychic debility or even derangement.

Certainly, one fact about Djakarta’s crime rate stood out conspicuously. Although the vast majority of the city’s poor came from the villages of Java itself, only a small proportion of the city’s crimes were committed by Javanese. Instead Djakarta’s jails and prisons were peopled by the more fierce and aggressive outer islanders: the Bataks of north Sumatra and the Padangs of west Sumatra, Makassars from Sulawesi, Ambons and Minadaonese. From the island of Java itself, most of those arrested came from the western edges, Sundanese native to Djakarta or Bantens from the coast who provided the main coolie force at Tandjung Priok, Djakarta’s waterfront and harbor.

This fact called for an explanation. If, as the London Economist has earlier been quoted as warning, the present flow of peasant immigrants into cities like Djakarta became an uncontrollable flood and did, indeed, threaten “real, red, raw, urban revolution,” it seemed vastly important to consider who these future revolutionaries would be. If the urban guerrilla represents a form of reaction to urbanization, if he, although part of the city, feels alienated from it, much the same thing can be said of the conventional urban criminal.

Some observers attributed the comparatively low crime rate among the Javanese to their culture, especially those values drawn from the old prijaji or court traditions. The air must have no tension. To rush is undignified. To preserve one’s calm and poise and remain soft-spoken, smiling and polite under all circumstances is desired. Truth is less valued than avoiding pain and giving joy.

One might have thought industrial progress and the hectic, modern tempo of Djakarta would have ripped such values into shreds. This does not seem to have happened among most Javanese.

Certainly, emigration to Djakarta takes Javanese villagers out of traditional, accustomed environments and dumps them in strange ground, among strangers, where strange manners prevail. And it is true the customary modes of behavior are no longer adequate and the problems of life in the city are new and different, as we have seen with Husen. Yet somehow the old ties do not snap. Java is a small island, only 75 miles wide and 650 miles long. It seems as if the Javanese villagers, if they go home often enough and stay long enough, are not faced with the compulsion of other urban migrants to work out new relationships, new meanings to their lives, under harsh and hostile circumstances.

In contrast to the other islanders, who cannot afford to go home often or at all, the Javanese do not suffer alienation from the culture which they had left and so it matters less if they do suffer alienation – as they do – from the culture to which they come. A poor Ambonese coolie watching a middle-class Westernized Indonesian family speed by in their new car on the way to an air-conditioned cinema or restaurant, may live under the shadow of a consciousness that they will never belong. But not a Javanese. Although there were many modern cinema theatres in Djakarta, Husen had never seen a movie, nor had he a desire to.

Unlike most poor slum dwellers in the great cities of the world, Husen had never suffered the shock of cultural alienation. “I am a villager,” he used to say, explaining why he deferred to his father’s wishes even when he disagreed with them. “Wherever I go, I must respect the values and traditions of the village.”

This was what made Tjasta’s case interesting. He came from a village just a few miles from Husen’s own, he also had seasonally migrated to Djakarta fifteen years before. He was Husen’s age, thirty-one, and at the time of our story, he was also a betjak driver at the Hotel Indonesia. He was a friend of Husen’s and for years had been in no trouble. Yet a decade before he had twice been in prison for stealing, once for two-and-a-half years.

Husen would sometimes say that if one didn’t know him, he might appear to be a tough or gangster and he feared this worked to his disadvantage as a betjak driver whose passengers were mostly foreigners from the Hotel Indonesia.

But if appearance were a disadvantage for a betjak man, it is surprising that any but the most intrepid tourist would choose to go with Tjasta. He was invariably barefoot and dressed all in black, usually even with a black undershirt. His shoulders and arms and hands were covered with tattoos, a death’s head on one shoulder and a naked girl on the other, and he had three tattoo marks on his right cheek. Moreover, Tjasta was a man of few words; he seldom spoke and he had such an intent stare, Husen had once heard a European lady say to her companion in English as they hurried past his betjak, “That man looks like a killer.”

Appearances deceive.

Tjasta’s family had no land. But in their village of Karang Ampel they were relatively prosperous, owning three sizeable bamboo houses, a grove of coconut trees and a small general store. His father, the same age as Husen’s, had been the custodian of a small Moslem mosque, what is called a langgar in that part of Java, until he retired the year before. Tjasta had one older brother who had worked as a timber coolie in Kalimantan (Borneo) and as a betjak man in Djakarta before returning to the village to run the family store a few years before. He had four sisters. Unlike most Javanese the family raised no chickens or ducks; as Tjasta used to say, neither his father nor his mother “had a hand to do it.” The fowls always died, fell ill or were victims of some other misfortune when they tried.

Tjasta attended school in Karang Ampel for four years before getting a job locally as a farm laborer. He was only a boy of thirteen or fourteen at the time but his father at home was a very stern disciplinarian and Tjasta liked the freedom and money he earned living away from home.

When he first went to Djakarta he joined his brother in betjak driving in Karet, an area of the city not from the Hotel Indonesia where immigrants from Tjirebon were concentrated.

One night, about two years after he came to Djakarta, Tjasta was with a friend at Banteng Square, the central bus terminal of the city, when the friend dared him to steal a watch.

What went on in Tjasta’s mind is not known but he remembers vividly what happened afterward. The victim he chose was a Minadonese, an outer islander, who unknown to Tjasta, was a military man wearing mufti. His friend was to stand by to receive the watch, and had told him, “You do it, Tjasta, I’m not brave enough. Let’s see if you are.”

He was caught red-handed and dragged by some soldiers into a military office across from Banteng Square along with several other men who were standing nearby the Minadonese and were thought to be accomplices. They told Tjasta to point out the man who was with him. When Tjasta said nothing – his friend had escaped – the soldiers closed in on him. They beat him and trampled on him; perhaps there were ten of them, beating him with fists, pistol butts, kicking, stamping, trampling on him. Blood streamed from his head, his nose and mouth. Terrified, Tjasta pointed to a stranger he had never seen before and identified him as the accomplice and a truck arrived to take both of them to jail.

In the two months before trial, the stranger, also a Javanese villager, told Tjasta over and over again, “Unless you tell the judge you lied and I am innocent, I’ll kill you in jail.” At the trial Tjasta cleared the man who was released; he himself was given a two-and-a-half year sentence for attempted robbery with the use of bodily force. He never saw the other man again.

As Tjasta remembered the two big prisons where he served his term – Salemba and Tjipinang – conditions were not too bad there ten to twelve years before. The prisoners were given boiled corn in the morning; rice, vegetable soup and tempe, a kind of peanut cake for protein, at noon, and another meal of sticky rice, corn or tapioca root at four o’clock. There were shower facilities. The prisoners worked at hard physical labor each day until one o’clock in the jail yard. Almost all of them were non-Javanese: Ambonese, Bataks, Bantens, Bugis and Makassars from Sulawesi, Dyaks from Borneo and a few Sundanese.

He was forced into being tattooed by his fellow prisoners. As Tjasta said, “Formerly I was never ashamed of these tattoos but now I am, to have been involved in something like that.” They held him down for most of two painful days, threatening he would be “squeezed to death” or given genjot (very back-breaking labor or work in a dirty place) if he did not comply. [Note: Other former convicts contended Tjasta must have been sexually assaulted during this ordeal, especially, as one said, because he was “young and fair” at the time. When sentenced, Tjasta was 19]. Afterward, written across his forearms in large letters were: “Pertjobaan Dunia,” “Petualangan Asmara,” “Djiwa Neutral; Darah Panas” and “Korban Karena Asmara,” or “Testing of the World,” “Adventure of Love,” “The Spirit is Neutral; The Blood is Hot,” and “Sacrifice to Love.” Aside from the naked girl, the skull and crossbones and the marks on his face, there were a swastika, daggers and several other signs. What these were was not known, but anyone with some familiarity with Djakarta’s underworld who saw the tattoos usually guessed he had been in Tjipinang prison.

After his release from prison, Tjasta again returned to driving a betjak in Karet for two years until he married a girl whose father was a cook in a sailors’ canteen at Tandjung Priok. His wife was from a village not far from his own and the market town of Djatibarang in Tjirebon whom he had met through her brother-in-law, a fellow betjak driver. After his marriage, Tjasta worked as a harbor coolie, serving in an import-export firm which handled fertilizer imports.

He remained in Tandjung Priok three years. His first child, a son, contracted smallpox when he was only three months old. Tjasta took the baby to a doctor for an injection but shortly afterward he died of suffocation, possibly, Tjasta believed, due to a faulty administration of the injection.

A second child, a daughter, arrived. At the harbor, Tjasta worked as a stevedore in a fifteen-man gang on a piecework basis. It was hard labor but the money was good and he could sometimes earn five to six hundred rupiah a day. But one day two fellow stevedores, both Makassars from Sulawesi, asked him to help them steal a dynamo from a big load of spare parts they were unloading at the dock. Theft in Tandjung Priok was not uncommon at this time. But as the three of them were carrying off the dynamo, they were again caught red-handed, or as Tjasta told it, “It could not be eaten.” He got thirty days. This was his second and last jail sentence.

Then the company Tjasta worked for P. T. Split, went broke and unable to earn more than fifty rupiah a day in other coolie work, he took his family back to his wife’s village where her sister had an empty hut. There he again became a hired farm laborer.

After nearly two years in the village, Tjasta discovered that his wife was being “disturbed by someone else,” and was having a love affair with a local forestry agent. He divorced her and returned to his own family in Karang Ampel, where he fell ill for almost a month. Where he recovered he learned his former wife had lived with the forestry agent only a short time before marrying a local farmer and that she had left their daughter with another sister in Tandjung Priok.

Tjasta returned to Djakarta, becoming a betjak driver at the Hotel Indonesia for the first time. For a time he lived in Pedjompongan, sleeping in a betjak shed and then, when the betjak owner sold out, moving to another in Bongkaren.

Now thirty-one, Tjasta wanted to marry another girl in his wife’s village and was trying to save enough for the cost of the marriage fee, two thousand rupiah and another five thousand for a wedding party. His friends like Husen urged him to remarry – his intended wife was only nineteen – and get some stability in his life. Tjasta himself said he would like to get a permanent job selling something in his village or perhaps return to farming coming to Djakarta to drive a betjak only in the dry off-season.

There was one marked cultural difference between Tjasta and Husen: their attitude toward wajang kulit or the shadow play.

Tjasta – Photo study of a betjak driver

Man with cart
Carts on dirt road

Although he was familiar with most of the wajang stories from seeing them performed as a child, Tjasta rarely went to see a shadow play, preferring instead genjring, a form of combined magic show and acrobatic display peculiar to the Tjirebon region in which very young girls leapt from great heights into the arms of two young men or balanced flaming tables on their legs, sometimes with as many as twenty people sitting on them. These and other seemingly impossible feats were attributed by the villagers to the supernatural powers of the genjring acrobats. Tjasta, unlike Husen, also was fond of tarling, where a singer accompanied by a small orchestra sang popular songs by request and prostitutes danced.

What both had in common was a fondness for the sandiwara. Tjasta had wanted to be a sandiwara actor as a youth and had actually began training when his father found out and refused to let him continue, saying it did not befit a boy learning the Koran at the local Moslem school.

As betjak men Tjasta and Husen had totally different styles. When Wyatt asked Husen, however jokingly, for a girl, he was told to take a taxi to a nightclub which offered them. Tjasta would not only readily agree to take a passenger to one; he was likely to whisper an invitation to the nearest brothel in their ear.

If Husen’s father’s cottage in Pilangsari was almost bare, with its earthen floor, one cupboard and a crude table and chairs and a few bamboo benches, the living room of Tjasta’s house in Karang Ampel seemed luxurious by comparison: draperies, framed photographs of all the family on the walls – except there was no picture of Tjasta himself – a glass-topped coffee table with a bouquet of artificial flowers, polished, glassed-in cabinets, porcelain figurines, upholstered chairs with pink slipcovers it came very close to middle-class standards in Djakarta.

If in their poverty, Husen’s parents were highly dependent on what money he could send them, Tjasta’s sometimes complained of how much money their son cost them. Once he had lost his betjak and they had had to pay the owner fifteen thousand rupiahs. In recent years, they said, he sometimes would borrow a hundred rupiah from each member of the family during a stay and on one, when they all refused, he had to sell rubber sandals in the marketplace for two days to earn his fare back to Djakarta.

“He never brings money home like the other children,” his elderly mother would sigh. She was a tiny, frail, bone-weary old lady who suffered a chronic and painful stomach complaint and just seemed to her family to be slowly wasting away. Recently, when she had taken a sudden turn for the worse and it was feared she might die, the family had summoned Tjasta from Djakarta. When he heard the bad news and related it to a sympathetic foreign passenger, the man gave him three thousand rupiah to speed him on his way. Tjasta’s mother recovered, fortunately, since he did not arrive for four days and when he did, he came without a penny. The story he told his father was that, passing through a market town, he bought a package of cigarettes through the bus window from a vendor. When the vendor ran off with his change Tjasta said he jumped off the bus and knocked the man down. He was arrested by the local police and jailed for four days. In actuality, Tjasta had stopped off to visit his intended bride, had lingered in her village and had ended up giving her the money.

But the story seemed plausible enough and enough in character so that Tjasta’s father told his wife, “Yah, maybe he had to give money to the policemen. You know those foxes.” Tjasta stayed home less than a day before returning to Djakarta. His visits home to Karang Ampel had become rarer and shorter as the years went by. His mother would only sigh and lament, “Tjasta just doesn’t like it in the village.”

Note: One of the professional gangsters I interviewed in Djakarta, whom I shall call Djok here, was contemptuous toward Tjasta and other villagers like him who might have committed a crime or two in their lives and served in prison but did not, in his view, qualify as authentic criminals. Djok, after reading my notes on Tjasta, pointed out that the betjak driver did not even know the jargon of the Djakarta underworld, where, for instance, to forcibly grab a watch and run, as Tjasta had attempted, was known as “playing football” and breaking and entering a house at night to rob was called “to bomb.”

Djok, also a Javanese, was twenty-seven and had been in and out of most of Djakarta’s jails. He said each time he was imprisoned, he was beaten up by the guards. “Then they tell you to go take a shower and finish. Oh, they might call you back at night to ask questions and then they have a special man to beat you.”

Djok claimed prison conditions were far worse than Tjasta described. “All we had was a little morning tea, no sugar, maybe not even boiled and a handful of rice at noon and another at four. I saw two prisoners die because of not enough food. But if you’re inside, two or three times, you learn to be strong and fight for your living. We’d take the clothes of new prisoners, give them some old rags to wear, and sell theirs to the guards to buy food. Also, I never saw anybody working in the yard as in Tjasta’s story. There was nothing to do inside.”

Djok, oddly enough, was a high school graduate who had originally come to Djakarta to work in the Department of Religion. “I only had a salary of five hundred roops and a wife and three children. The money was only enough to buy cigarettes. Sometimes I had to sell my rice ration a month or two in advance. After a couple of years I got desperate. When I looked into the future, everything seemed dark and when I looked back at the past, everything was wrong. I tried being a garbage coolie, sold newspapers and finally carried fish from Pasar Ikan to the fish market. My friends said, ‘All right, let’s go,’ and I began to steal, just a little fish each day. I got caught and beaten up badly by the Banten fishermen.” He then turned to crime in earnest, entering the house of a senior military officer to steal two million rupiah in payroll money. Djok felt he was caught because he became too greedy and tried to carry away a radio and tape recorder too. He was jailed for four months and when he came out his wife asked him for a divorce. From then on Djok drifted into the Djakarta underworld, pimping in Planet, running a gambling table, peddling narcotics. For a time he served as the chauffeur for a gang of house breakers who dressed in suits and ties, spoke good English, were educated and specialized in robbing the wealthy homes in Kebajoran Baru between the hours of nine and eleven in the morning, when husbands and children of the mostly foreign victims would be away from home. When I interviewed him, Djok was earning a living procuring young girls for rich Chinese. His body bore the scars of police torture and he felt himself completely alienated from both respectable society in Djakarta and the village culture from which he came. Djok spent all his considerable earnings on expensive prostitutes, ganja and gambling. At times, he remained high on ganja and marihuana for days on end and he had experimented with smoking morphine powder and opium. As long as he had money he had a pleasant, sleepy manner; but if he was without some days, he became very nervous and depressed and was probably dangerous.

Aminah and the Java Bar in Tandjung Priok


Late afternoon. A drizzling rain had been falling incessantly most of the day but now the wind had shifted and was blowing in hard from the sea. The wind whirled up the wet, sodden leaves along the Sampur and Aminah pulled her raincoat more tightly around her throat as she stared out at the sea, watching the rolling black waves breaking into whiteness against the seawall. The strong wind felt fresh on her cheek and the sky above was still heavy and grey with rain clouds. She had walked her usual route along Djalan Dajak and Kartika Ba Hari and past the Tandjung Priok Yacht Club without meeting a single sailor.

At the end of the road by the Yacht Club, the evening’s cars were beginning to park. As she strolled by, Aminah glanced with disinterest at the couples inside them, who were embracing and kissing and paying no attention to the other cars or people walking by. Along the Sampur, the sate (fried pieces of mutton on little wooden skewers) vendors were setting up their stalls. Some already had their charcoal fires going and the evening wind was heavy with the scent of sate spices.

Aminah greeted one of the vendors, an old man who was blowing on his fire, thus lighting up his own face with an orange glow. She sat down on a bench near his stand, facing the sea. Perhaps, she told herself, she would have done better to have stayed at home that night. But there had been no freighters in the harbor for a week and the President Jefferson had docked that afternoon. For a long time Aminah sat huddled, clasping her shoulders with chilled hands, waiting.

The long concrete seawalk of the Sampur was almost deserted save the sate vendors and herself. The gaily-painted red and yellow little boats which carried couples out into the bay on dark, calm nights now bobbed unattended along the quay. As she looked at them, Aminah shuddered. Delia, her friend had taken such a boat with a stranger one night just a month before. Delia, so vain of her jewelry, her sapphire medallion and her gold rings. Aminah had been asked by the police to identify the body when it broke loose from the rocks that had weighted it down until it floated to the surface after five days. Two of the fingers had been severed and by then, the salt water and fish had done their work. The police had warned Aminah she must be careful.

Now she no longer walked alone on the Sampur after dark, but came earlier in the evening, even though the chances of meeting sailors was less. Aminah sighed and shook her head. The old sate vendor threw something on the fire, it flared up and he laughed. Her visions of Delia disappeared and as a little while before there had been only the black sea and grey sky and emptiness, cars and people began arriving the length of the Sampur and she heard distant voices, shouts and laughter.

She wished there were a dance that night; she would have gone. But there was none and so she supposed she would have to go down to the Kodja (the waterfront and bar area of Tandjung Priok, notorious for crime) and the Radio Bar or the Java Bar. Aminah looked around. A lone betjak man pedaled by, his bell ringing like a telephone in an empty house. He was still soaked from the rain; his thin shirt plastered against emaciated ribs. Aminah hailed him. Darkness was already descending and it was too far to walk on such a night.

Aminah was short, plump and fortyish. At home, in her pleasant bamboo cottage and leafy garden on Tjilintjing Road, which faced across an open flatland of marsh grass, Djakarta Bay and the Java Sea, she washed her face clean, brushed back her hair and tied it into an austere bun and, in her faded, shapeless but always freshly washed cotton dresses, appeared the very image of a cheerful, demure, respectable Sundanese mother.

Indeed, this was the image most of her sailors carried away with them, for she mothered the young ones and was a real wife-away-from-home “mama” to the old. A superb cook, she and her servant girl, carefully chosen for her skinny, chinless homeliness as her loyalty and devotion, would prepare lavish repasts: large tender steaks, french-fried potatoes, roasted chicken, fried fish, chicken soup and steaming rice, hot rolls with plenty of butter, cucumber and tomato salad, thick hot Javanese coffee and great platters of sliced mangoes and papayas.

And there was always plenty of beer, with great chunks of ice in the tall glasses and Aminah there always at hand to replenish the glass each time a few sips were taken. If cigars or cigarettes were produced, her hand was out with a lighter; if shoulders were tired, they got expertly massaged; if clothes needed washing or shoes polishing, the servant girl whisked them away and they were back, clean, pressed, folded and polished in an incredibly short time.

A grown son, whose studies Aminah financed at a technical school, added to the air of domesticity. A quiet youth and devout Moslem who went to the mosque five times a day, the son was usually about the cottage in the day, pouring over his books in the kitchen or the garden, but discreetly withdrawing to his room in a neighbor’s house in the evening. A sea breeze usually cooled the small garden, where Aminah had some papaya trees and two carefully-tended flower beds and a few shrubs to screen off the high picket fence along the road.

The sun-flooded house with its open veranda and comfortable slip-covered chairs was always immaculate, from the bath and kitchen to the bedroom where Aminah’s oversized bed, with its clean white mosquito net and embroidered sheets and fluffy down pillows, was within easy reach of the radio and a good reading lamp.

Aminah was popular with the neighbors; once a week she loaded up all their children, jammed them into a couple of betjaks, and took them to the swimming pool in Tandjung Priok. It was known she entertained her “boy friends,” but this was a status high above the common young whores in the two brothels next door.

For Aminah’s specialty was to pick up drunken, bitter sailors who had had one of any number of the bad experiences Tandjung Priok has to offer seamen on shore, take them home, give them a shower, cold beer with ice, a good meal and lots of sympathy and mothering. She was not greedy and never asked outright for money. But usually, after a day or two at Aminah’s, the sailors were more than generous feeling a vague sense that not to be, would be like denying their mothers, sisters or wives.

As Aminah never tired of saying, her “friends” came from many countries, and she would call the roll: “American, Norwegian, German, Danish, Greek…Not Japanese. They shot my mother and father in the rice field. I know it’s not the sailors but others, but still I cannot. And not Indonesians. I am finished with the broken heart.”

For Aminah’s husband, the father of her son, a Sundanese who had worked as a petty clerk on the docks, had one day arrived at the house with a pretty young girl whom he introduced as his second wife. Since Aminah owned the house, that ended it. She told him to get out, adding, “I can get enough to eat from the sailors.”

And so she had. There was, however, a dark side to Aminah’s life. Ships sailed, crews changed, sailors came and went and while some always came back when they were in port, these were not enough. Aminah had to go out and find her customers; unlike in the brothels down the street, they did not come to her.

Thus three or four nights a week and every Saturday if there was a dance, Aminah would frizz her hair, paint on a garish face of pink, lips ticked, rouged youth, struggle into a corset and a “sexy” red silk slack suit and walk the streets of Tandjung Priok. It was the only part of her life she hated and she never got over being afraid. There were many pimps and gangsters around the Sampur and the bars and the docks and they forced women like Aminah to pay them bribes on the threat of beating up or knifing their customers. And it seemed to Aminah, as the years went by, and especially during the lean times when few ships came into port, that they kept asking for more and more. And every so often a foreign sailor would be badly beaten and found bloody, robbed and stripped of his clothing, to set an example.

Many of these toughs belonged to what was known in Tandjung Priok as the “Djanggo” gang. Most, but not all, were Ambonese, like their counterparts in the “Alamo” gang of Kwini Street. But unlike the Alamo members, who even if they were high on ganja all day long and may have killed a person or two were mostly teenagers, the Djanggos were older, many had been sailors and were as familiar with Brooklyn and Times Square, Houston and Baltimore as any port in the islands and virtually all were pimps. Some had one prostitute who supported them, some had several. The Djanggos also had their own enterprise, picking up a sailor at the dock and showing him around the town, to the bars, to the ganja and opium vendors, to boys or bantjis or blue movies or exhibitions or whatever the sailor desired. Usually he was safe, provided he had enough money and paid them well.

This evening, it was dark when Aminah’s betjak reached Kodja and she could barely see the stark dim outlines of the derricks and fork lifts along the pier. But turning into the small lane between the Java Bar and the Radio Bar, the whole place seemed to be coming to life. There were people everywhere. The fronts of the bars were festooned with lights, kerosene lamps glowed from the rows of vendors and little groups of eaters squatted in the dust around the food sellers. A boy of about ten sat on his haunches playing a bamboo xylophone, while another beat a drum. The lane was jammed with people including, thank God, many American sailors, and the betjak drivers rang their bells incessantly as they maneuvered the brightly-colored vehicles through the gaps.

From inside the Radio Bar came the lush, international sound of a pianist playing American music and Aminah started to go inside when someone called to her from across the way.

“Aminah! Aminah! It’s me! Piet!”

She recognized with relief one of her old regulars standing in the doorway of the Java Bar, the Dutch captain of a small cargo ship that plied the outer islands. Piet was the only non-Indonesian on the crew; although still in his thirties, with a lean, pleasant, almost boyish face under a shock of blond hair, he was an old hand in the Indies.

Her spirits reviving, Aminah darted through an opening between the betjaks and pedestrians and gave him a big hug, then frowned in mock petulance and told him in Dutch “Long time. I think you forget me.”

“Forget Aminah! Never!” The Dutchman laughed and with an arm around her waist, swept Aminah back to his table where two men were sitting. Her eyes nervously flickered over them to see if they were Djanggos but she didn’t recognize them. One was a muscular, handsome little man with the flat features and high cheekbones of the western Javanese; he had a good-humored smile and Aminah smiled back. The other was dressed all in black and his forearms were heavily tattooed. With a quick, practiced glance at the tattoos, Aminah could tell he had been in prison, probably Tjipinang. She didn’t like the looks of the man’s intent stare but she gave him a nod.

“Aminah, Husen and Tjasta, a couple of betjak men from the hotel. I brought them along so I could find the place again.” Aminah knew what he meant; that he could find the place well enough but he didn’t want to go there alone; these two were brought along for protection. She must tell him they wouldn’t be much help. They were not Djanggos.

The Java Bar was one large, bare rectangular room. There was a steel screen across the entire front and the entrance was kept padlocked and chained after seven o’clock. A tall, hatchet-faced Batak woman, who was in charge, let people in and out, using a ring of keys chained to her belt. There was a latrine in one corner and a small bar with stools in the other. On the bar was a moth-eaten stuffed orangutan. There were five round steel tables surrounded by cheap rattan chairs. Otherwise there was no decoration. Behind the bar, almost hidden in shadow and inconspicuous sat an Indonesian chief petty officer. Although the Batak woman ran the bar, the Indonesian Navy owned it and if the chief petty officer was not there, the bar didn’t open. He seldom moved but if he did it was swiftly, usually to blackjack a troublemaker who was then unceremoniously dumped in the street.

Most of the prostitutes who hang out at the Java bar were middle-aged like Aminah. But while she was plump and cheerful the others were thin and gaunt, with corpse-like faces covered with chalky white powder. Four of them sat woodenly at one table, looking at nothing. At the table nearest the bar sat a very large big-boned American sailor with a crew cut. He sat up very straight and seemed, rigid, almost as if rigor mortis had set in. But when Aminah entered he turned, called out one word, “Baltimore,” and then went back to his frozen posture. Aminah guessed that he was high on narcotics. Next to him, drumming her fingers with boredom on the table’s surface, was a young, rather pretty Javanese girl in a tight, low-cut pink dress. On his other side were two young Ambonese men in white shirts and very tight denim pants. Both had long, oily-looking, brilliant black hair and they sat watching Aminah and her Dutchman.

One table was still empty. At the fifth, two Ambonese, one very tall and Satanic with a long, droopy black moustache and Negroid features, who wore a white shirt and black string tie and the other, who wore a bright yellow shirt, with a sickly, cruel face, sat bent over. Each was working intently, removing the tobacco from a cigarette and inserting in the gap some kind of white powder, which they took out of little blue pieces of paper. At a chair all by himself against one wall sat a very thin, elderly Chinese. He appeared well-dressed in polished shoes, black trousers and a white shirt, but sat with his head toppled forward and his arms dangling loosely from his sides. An opium addict, Aminah knew.

Piet, the Dutch sailor, ordered another round of beer for himself and the betjak men, getting a glass of orange pop for Aminah, who neither drank nor smoked.

“First thing I look for in a port is a good girl,” Piet said, rubbing his long sideburns. “Not a beautiful girl but clever. Everything is corrupt over here in the Indies. Very corrupt. You’ve got to have a good girl to see you through.”

Aminah giggled girlishly and gently elbowed him in the ribs.

“Like today. I must go to the market . Buy six thousand eggs. Fifty cauliflowers. The whole market is sold out. I had a million rupiahs in my pocket this afternoon.” Piet took out a pouch of tobacco and began rolling a cigarette. He offered the tobacco to the betjak men and Husen took one and started rolling his own.

“Two cows. One hundred and fifty chickens. We must eat, of course. Better and cheaper to buy it at the market. I had two taxis and four coolies. One coolie, the whole morning, was two hundred fifty rupiah. When you do it that way, you learn plenty. ‘Okay,’ I say, ‘give me five hundred kilo. Oh, you have only two kilo. Can you fix things. Okay, for a little money.’ Ah, but you must have an Indonesian man behind you. Forty kilo oranges, fifty papayas, fifteen kilo bananas. I take the cook. I say, ‘Okay, we go. What we must have on the ship, we must buy.’ Big fish. Small fish. Coconuts, two hundred coconuts. Spices. You must buy. Two thousand kilos of rice. Of course, you must eat. Forty five hungry men. Every day eat fifty kilo rice. I buy four pigs, two cows, one horse, one thousand five hundred chickens, one thousand kilos of potatoes, seven thousand eggs. Now we have cool room on ship and the meat goes into the deep freeze.”

“What are you doing in Djakarta?”

“Oh, I must meet the director of the company at Hotel Indonesia.” Aminah guessed they had quite a few drinks before he started back to Tandjung Priok.

Husen lit his cigarette and inhaled. He seemed to feel a strange warmth. He drew again to be sure. Yah, it was some kind of drug. He slipped it under the table to Tjasta to finish. Tjasta had smoked gangja before and might be more used to it. Better he not try.

“It not dangerous here?” Husen asked. The beer had relaxed him but he still felt uneasy and apprehensive as he had ever since they had arrived a half-hour before.

The Dutchman grinned. He had a pleasant, open countenance that seemed strangely out of tune with the Java Bar.

“When you have a nice face, you smile always and be kind to the people, you’ll always be welcome,” he said. “You must learn the languages of the world. There are many languages but the best is the smile on your face.”

Husen twisted his face into a smile and glanced around the room, getting nothing but dead, bold stares. A man entered selling a large, beautifully carved wooden model of a sailing vessel.

The Dutchman said it was the same kind used by the Sulawesi sailors to carry copra from Sumatra to Djakarta. “No compass. No nothing. Sailing by the stars and moon. That’s all.”

Aminah sat back and rested, happy to have found Piet and seeing he was enjoying himself. He always like to talk. But she kept an alert eye on his beer glass and when the level dropped a third or so, she reached over to refill it from the bottle again, leaving Husen and Tjasta to fend for themselves.

Husen asked what the two Ambonese with the cigarettes were doing. Piet glanced at them. “They break the filter open just a little and put Chinese hemp in. You can go and see. Accch, that marihuana stuff is no good. My crew take marihuana and fall down the stairway.”

“Why do you become sailor? Why not stay at home in Holland?” Husen asked him.

“I want to see the world. I want to learn the people, that’s all.”

“Yah, is good. Going to everywhere. Where you going now?”

“Djambi, you know it?”


“It’s a place filled with malaria. In Sumatra. Two days up the river. You pass many kampongs. All the kids are calling, ‘Jambo, Jambo!’ No pilot. And when it gets dark you drop anchor. No lights. You bring rice from Djakarta. You take rubber and bring it to Singapore. Then to Manila. In Manila you get arak with coconut milk. She open the coconut and the milk and put arak in.”

It had started to rain again outside, a soft drizzle, and the traffic outside in the lane became more muted.

“Raining time,” the Dutchman went on. “In Djambi it can rain two or three days without stopping. Not small rain. Big drops. Is falling plenty of rain. It’s like the sky coming down. Three days rain. It’s monsoon time. Raining like hell. And then you get all the mosquitoes. The bloody mosquitoes. In Djakarta, when the rain comes over the mountains, it’s cool. At the moment, it’s not hot.” The radio began playing a haunting Indonesian ballad. “A kronjong,” the Dutchman said. “Music for love.” It must have been magrib time for they could hear the start of an Islamic prayer outside. “If you want to you can pray,” he went on. “Not me; if I dies nobody can help me.” He turned to chat intimately in Dutch with Aminah.

Husen said to Tjasta in an undertone, “I think better we going back to Djakarta now, Tjas.” But just then a musical troupe came in the bar and their attention was distracted. There were three men with guitars and a long-haired youth with a beaming brown face and white teeth. First he sang “Island in the Sun” in English and, warming up, “On Top of Old Smoky,” “It’s a Long, Long Road to Tipperary” and, at the request of the girl with the sailor from Baltimore, Djakarta’s most popular hit tune, “Bina Riya.” She and one of the older prostitutes rose and began to dance. Piet asked Aminah if she wanted to dance. She said no.

Someone pushed the bar door open and a big and very fat European, his glasses hanging down on the tip of his nose and his shirttails hanging loose, staggered inside. Weaving and almost unable to stand the man turned to their table and said in a loud accusing voice, “What are you doing here?” Then, before they had time to say anything, he turned and staggered back out into the street.

A moment or two later an Indonesian sailor in a blue fatigue uniform, who was almost as big and fat, came staggering in. “Where is that old American?” he shouted to the bar at large.

“He left,” called the girl with the Baltimore sailor.

The Indonesian sailor turned to Husen and Tjasta saying, “Oh, shit! I drove him around all day and he didn’t pay for the gasoline. He has no money. I asked if he has dollars; I can change.” The sailor drew a large wad of rupiah notes from his pocket and waved them around. All the Ambonese youths looked up with interest, but the sailor shoved them back into his pocket and went outside.

“What about Holland?” Husen asked the Dutchman. “You have windmills and wooden shoes like I hear about?”

“Yah, sure. When it’s raining on the farm. We have about seventy-five cows. Only three horses. Just for show. My father runs the farm.”

“He can milk seventy-five cows?”

“No. It’s electric. Yah, of course. Nobody does by hand in Holland. Yah, I’m the only seaman in my family.”

“How many brothers?”

“Two and three sisters.”

“Are you the youngest?”

“Yah, I’m the last droplet of my father’s prick. The bad one who didn’t turn out no good. I’ve got a chicken farm in Guatemala. Six thousand chickens. When I get old I’m going to retire there.” When the Dutchmen and Aminah started talking once more, one of the old prostitutes came over and sat down with Husen and Tjasta. Husen asked her if she had been at the Java Bar a long time. She told him her story:

“I work for this bar a long, long time. Before I was married. My first husband was a man from Padang. I was only thirteen. From Bogor. We had to wait four years to sleep together. Got two children. One survived; now he’s a car machinist in Priok. My second child was miscarriage. I was depressed, upset, because my husband fall in love with an orchestra singer from Sundan. He leaves me, I can’t stay alone. And then – I’m very hurt. I wanted to join with him forever. I was hurt, I was distressed, but I got a job in a Chinese restaurant because I could speak a little Dutch. In Pasar Senen. Then I was taken on by a Dutch sergeant. But he has a wife too. He looked after me until the colonial times were over in ’50. When he left for Holland with his wife and children.”

“Now I help this Batak woman who runs the bar. Some think work like this is easy and pleasant. But sometimes I must take drunks home. I must go late at night to send drunks back home. Sometimes have to notify the consulate.”

“You have much experience,” Husen said politely.

“Oh, nobody can cheat me about Djakarta. Because I was here since a young girl. I know each corner in Djakarta. One time the police arrested me in the night. They said, ‘How you get money, so much?’ But I’m not afraid. Once a taxi driver took me to the wrong place in Kodja. And I told him, ‘Look, mister, I was born in Djakarta. Don’t try to cheat me. If you can’t find Antjol, leave me here. I can go home alone.'”

The Dutchman wanted another round of beer and the woman hastened off to the bar. Aminah, who had gone over to speak to the other women came back agitated.

“A little boy, a shoeshine boy, has been taken away on a ship by Negro sailors,” she told them. “That was his older brother beating the drum outside a while ago. They say he’s indifferent. The father wept but he didn’t go to the police.”

“Who was the boy?” Piet asked.

“A little seven year old. Jusof. He didn’t speak English. Only a little like ‘Yes…Jusof, you want to eat? You have money? Yah?’ His brother saw it. Is big man, Negro, he wrapped his arms around the little boy and carried him away. Many little boys go out to the ships to shine shoes and beg. Jusof went with his brother and these Negro men took him away.”

“What they do with him?” Husen asked.

Aminah frowned, “Maybe the man has no son, maybe send to school is good. Maybe sell in Arabia, I don’t know. I used to say, ‘Jusof, you must go to my house. I no have baby. I no have son. Only big son.’ And he’d say, ‘All right. Tomorrow.’ And I’d say, ‘No, tonight.’ ‘Okay, let’s go.’ ‘No, only joking, Jusof. You have father and mother.’ His face is sama sama as Spanish boy. Maybe, who knows, he will be sold.”

Piet said, “I don’t think they’d sell a little boy.”

“We don’t know. If he want to sell, where he want to sell, we don’t know.”

Over in the corner the Baltimore sailor’s head fell back against the wall with a thud. He blinked and sat up rigidly straight again. “If a man has smoked so much gangja,” Aminah told them in an undertone, “he forget, he forget girls. He has been smoking since noon, the girls say. Then he went back to his ship to get money and came back to the bar again.”

Tjasta spoke for the first time. “I am worried to see tonight. I have seen about ten peoples come in and out of the bar. I see some boys with blurred eyes. One just a small boy.”

“That’s Unang. He’s naughty. He’s only thirteen.”

“Oh, no, he’s too small,” Tjasta said. “He knows about girls?”

“He used to make accident with visitors, Chinese, and then get men to come and help him beat them up.”

“Who is that one?” Husen asked, nodding in the direction of the two Ambonese sitting alone at their table.

“The big one with the long moustache is Poli. He’s jobless. He has only one pair of clothes. He washes and wears again. His job is to stop some people and make pressure. Once if you don’t give money, he will beat you. The other, with the Afro haircut yah, his girl gets money for him. All is nothing working. Just joking, joking and smoking marihuana. The character of that woman there – if you have a lot of money, she will take it all. I tell you the woman from Kodja, she will take all your money. Recently, the girl of Poli went with an American and she didn’t get much money. Poli was angry and told her to get a lot of money from the American but she cannot get it. If someone doesn’t give money, he might be beaten by Poli. The sailors don’t know Poli is the pimp of that girl, if they know they’d be afraid. The girl loves Poli very much and he is always threatening to leave her.”

Aminah sighed. “Most of the gang around this bar knows the way to get money. If you have money to give, you’re all right. But I don’t want to be accompanied by a man, even if I lose my visitors. These boys just want money, to smoke ganja.”

Tjasta was watching their table. “Look, he’s unrolling…he’s making something with the cigarette.”

Piet who was drunk now, stood up. “I go look and see how he does it.” Aminah tried to stop him but he staggered across the room.

The two looked up at him. “Hi,” said the one in the yellow shirt. “My name’s Charlie. I’m putting heroine and morphine inside, you want to try?” Piet said no thanks, but he sat down at their table. The one called Charlie lit the cigarette and inhaled it deeply to no noticeable affect. Piet saw his eyes were already bloodshot and glazed over. “Where are you from?” he asked the other.


“Oh, many of my crew are Ambon. Good sailors. Not like the Javanese. And if an Ambon wants to stab you, he’ll do it from the front, not like the Javanese, in the back. Always in the left lung. So, what do you do? Your work?”

“I’m a sailor. But right now I’m out of work. I’m waiting for a ship. Maybe next month.”

They were diverted by shouting in the street. A crowd of betjaks had gathered. Aminah went to see what it was and reported a Chinese had quarreled with the betjak driver over the price and then had lost his temper and tried to hit him before running into a house. “Let’s go home,” they heard one betjak driver say. “If you make a quarrel now, it’s wrong. But when the incident happened even if you kill the Chinese, it’s all right.”

The Ambon with the long moustache, Poli, now told Piet, “I’ve been all around the world.”

“Oh, in the United States, Europe?”

“New York, Houston, New Orleans, Amsterdam, Rotterdam.”

When Piet returned to their table and related his conversation, Aminah scoffed, “He can say that, it’s his story but its nonsense. Who would want to use him on a ship? (See footnote on Poli at end of sketch). He cannot work. He has no skill. Only pick pocketing. There’s many men who went to the sea. But two days, one month, come back here again. They’re just bantjis from Makassar.”


“It’s a saying. If a bantji is Makassar man there’s no market for him in Makassar. Nobody wants to buy. So he must come to Djakarta. Poli has no home. He’s in the bar the whole day and night.”

“He can rest if he’s got the money,” Tjasta said drunkenly. “I am very hate to talk with a man like that if his aim is biguto (bad). If a person’s aim is right, I can speak. But that man who is biguto, I not like to speak with him.”

Husen got up to go to the latrine. On the way he was stopped by the Ambon in the yellow shirt, “Who are you?” he asked. “Who’s the white man?”

“He’s Dutch. A sea captain.”

“Don’t worry about anything here. Everything will be all right.”

“No. I am his friend.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry. We are sailors. We speak the same language. Don’t worry about this place. We have been here many years.”

“Be careful to talk to him,” Aminah told Husen when he returned. “He’s high.”

“Better we go from here,” said Tjasta. “The aim of all the people here is not true.”

“But Aminah comes here every day,” said Piet.

“Because all the people here are her friends. Yah, we have friends here but their way of living is like that, bad way. I think better we go, tuan. Better we leave this place.”

“Yah,” said the old waitress Husen had spoken with. “Finish those beers. Let’s go. Ask him to go home, Aminah.”

“Better we go now, Piet.”

“Why? I am enjoying myself. These are sailors.”

The Dutchman was very drunk now and Tjasta reached across and undid his watch. “I give you, when we are out of here,” he said, putting it in his own pocket. “Give it back now.” “No, tuan,” Tjasta said with surprising firmness. “Don’t talk with them again. Besides talking something dangerous will happen.” Husen, too, had wanted to leave long ago but now he saw the Dutchman was too drunk and they could not go without him.

As they were speaking, six more Ambonese entered and took the empty table. “All Djanggos!” Aminah hissed in a whisper. She got up telling Husen and Tjasta,” Wait here. I’ll try to get him outside.”

As she moved toward the door, she was intercepted by Poli. “What’s wrong?” he said.

“Look, Poli. He’s my best friend. If he’s in trouble I’m responsible.”

“Hey, your friend wants ganja?” Charlie asked her.

“No, he’s with me. Leave him alone.”

They were in the doorway now. Aminah saw the newcomers were all gathering around Piet. She started to turn back. Charlie said in a low voice, “Don’t take him away from us, Aminah.” She looked down and saw he was holding a knife.

Aminah stumbled out into the street, distressed. She walked down the lane to a cigarette vendor she knew, Ali.

“What’s wrong, Aminah?”


“I’m worried. There’s a lot of Djanggos went into the Java bar.”

Inside the Djanggos seemed to be closing in on Piet. They ignored Tjasta and Husen, shoving them to the side.

“Hey, we’ve got a good girl for you,” Charlie, the one in the yellow shirt, said.

“No. I’m waiting for my girlfriend. Aminah.”

“She’s old and fat. We can offer you a young one.”

Outside Aminah said, “Look, Ali, write a letter for me.”

“Are you stupid, Aminah? You cannot write a letter? Here, let me do it.” Aminah dictated and the cigarette vendor wrote:

“My dear Piet,

I want you to follow the bar road to the little cigarette stand under the green light. Ali, the man there, will bring you to meet me in a quiet place.” Aminah

She sent the note in with a betjak man. A moment later the Dutchman, followed by Tjasta and Husen, came out and went to the cigarette stand. Ali quickly shoved them into a dark passageway between some houses where Aminah was waiting and she led them to a betjak stand. Seconds after them several Djanggos came running toward Ali.

“Where is the Dutchman gone?” Ali shrugged. “Back to ship.” “And the girl?” “I dunno. Maybe go home.”

As their two betjaks passed the Kodja police station and it was clear they were not being followed, Tjasta called to Aminah to stop her betjak so he could give Piet back his watch. Then Tjasta and Husen said goodnight; they were returning to downtown Djakarta.

“Wah!” said Husen, “I not like to back to Java Bar again. Miss Aminah, I think dangerous for you.”

Aminah smiled and said with a gallant air, “Yah, if you are not clever or brave, maybe difficult to stay there. Djanggo. Cowboy. Is cowboy for money,” and with a wave she and her Dutch sailor moved off into the blackness of the Tandjung Priok night and Aminah could be heard asking him, wouldn’t he like a nice cool shower and perhaps change into a sarong and she would fix him a nice tender steak and did he like fresh papayas?

Note: Aminah underestimated one of the Djanggos, Poli, who shipped out as a seaman on a freighter to Taiwan two weeks after this incident. Later, in a moving interview, the prostitute who had supported him told me she believed Poli was a good man inside but had fallen down with bad luck and worse company. It should be noted also that one evening, when Tjasta and myself were coming from the Java Bar, Poli insisted on escorting us back into the city proper. On the road, Charlie and several other Djanggos were waiting, apparently to waylay us, and Poli bought them off with a hundred rupiah note. There is, it appears, in Indonesia as elsewhere, a kind of honor among thieves. Also, I found a surprising readiness to be interviewed in the underworld; perhaps if one has lost his sense of cultural identity, one is eager for anything that underlines one’s existence.

Aminah’s operation, of course, was not typical of Djakarta’s prostitutes. More representative was a brothel next door where the girls were very young, between fifteen and twenty. In interviews, during which they caressed, held hands with and bit the shoulders of myself and my interpreter, they related histories of having been abandoned by a husband, losing their parents in the village and needing money or having been carried to the brothel by who they presumed was a marriage suitor and then being raped and left there. The brothel was a very transient place; most of the girls stayed only a few months before drifting onto another; most of the customers, sailors, petty dock officials, policemen and betjak drivers, paid two hundred to three hundred rupiah, although the occasional foreigner was asked for a thousand, and stayed less than half an hour. The girls were not allowed to leave the brothel and go about Tandjung Priok although they were not prisoners and could go home when they chose. The brothel itself consisted of front rooms for drinking and sitting, large, good bedrooms for business and a large shed with a mat floor where the girls actually slept and kept their clothes. The food was very poor.

To Sea At Kali Baru


Many boats in waterJust at sunset in the little port of Kali Baru the Bugis sailors, resting after a hard day’s labor, begin beating drums. The drums, a dull, pulsating throb, start in one boat and then another until the whole port echoes with them and little, muscular brown-skinned men scramble barefoot up the masts to watch and faintly, in the distance, one can also hear magrib prayers from the village mosque and mixed with the sea breeze and the salt brine and the smell of spicy clove scented kreteks, there is the quality of magic and one thinks, this is what Marco Polo saw when he wrote of Java, “The island is of unsurpassing wealth, producing black pepper, nutmeg, spikenard, galingale, cubebs, cloves and all other kinds of spices.” [Note: He was, however inaccurate; Java trans-ships these spices from other islands. It does not grow them].

The sailors, cooking their rice in pots on deck, gambling with cards, conversing or just watching the sunset, see more of the lush, well-watered and verdant East Indian isles than anyone else and they have the fine, hard, weathered faces of seamen from real sailing vessels, the kind Columbus and Magellan used, and which are still sailed by the Bugis and Makassars of Sulawesi and the Madura islanders to bring coconuts and copra from Sumatra and timber from Kalimantan.

Kali Baru lies on the westernmost extreme of Tangjung Priok, just off Tjilintjing Road and in sight of our friend Aminah’s cottage; aside from the dark-skinned Madurans, Bugis and Makassars, who keep to themselves and their sailing ships, Kali Baru also has a large colony of transplanted villagers from the Tjirebon region who earn their living, not as betjak drivers like Husen, but buying fish and salting them to sell or belonging to a little fleet of shrimp boats, which perhaps numbering a hundred in all, sets forth together every night and returns together every noon.

The monsoon is now not far off; this evening great white cumulus clouds, rising perhaps fifty thousand feet, have transformed the sky into a magic landscape of fluffy white mountains, soaring castles and snowy peaks.

Husen listened to the drums as he and his friend, Tjasidi, a fellow betjak man from the Hotel Indonesia, sat in a small rowboat moving through the ship-lined channel and searching for a friend from the village who had made a success of it as a fisherman in Kali Baru.

Husen spotted his friend and stood up to call, “Timbul! Timbul!”

“Yah, here, this is my boat,” called a voice across the water. “Here Husen!” Husen paid the oarsman and he and Tjasidi climbed across the decks of several little shrimp boats nesting side by side to where Timbul, a husky sunburnt youth, and a small boy were mending fishing nets. They shook hands and Husen offered everyone a kretek.

“Yah, where you working now, Husen?” the fisherman asked.

“Sama sama as before. I am betjak man and if I find money I am go home to my village for farmer.”

“I am look where my net is torn and I am make good.”

“Who is this boy?”

“Tomat. Tomat, these are betjak man drivers from the Hotel Indonesia. They are from my village. Tomat, you please go buy four boxes of matches and buy sugar, coffee and tea and also buy wood. Our friends will come fishing with us tonight. So also bring djamu. [Note: Djamu is an herb taken to retain youth and strength; the Javanese also believe they can preserve their youth by taking a young wife or husband]. I am like drink djamu with our friends here because tomorrow must go.”

Kali Baru – Photo Study

Boats in water
Men in boats
3 men in boat

The fishermen and the two betjak men sat and talked for several hours as darkness fell, little oil lamps twinkled on in all the boats of the harbor and somewhere in the village a gamelan orchestra began to play for a wajang performance. There was a murmur of drowsy conversation, now and then a burst of laughter, a splash of water. Tomat wanted to go to the wajang play but had no money and Timbul finally gave him a few pennies (in Djakarta, but not in the villages, a small admission fee is charged).

“If fishing by net, what time go and what time come home?” Husen asked.

“Sometimes go three o’clock, sometimes go four o’clock.” Timbul told Husen he had been in Kali Baru only two years but had already bought the boat they were sitting in, made of djati or teak wood. He had seven nylon nets which cost two thousand rupiah each; the whole rig had cost maybe a hundred thousand roops, he said, and he had made his investment back in a year. He was only twenty years old.

Husen and Tjasidi enjoyed hearing the success story; they were so rare for villagers who came to Djakarta.

“If in Kali Baru it is like the village,” Tjasidi said, listening to the gamelan.

“Because?” asked Husen.

“Yah, you can see many wajang and sandiwara here and also many people from Java. Lojo’s son, Mamun, has a sandiwara troupe here but right now he has no theatre and must give tarling shows in the evening.”

“Timbul, if with Tomat fishing, how much everyday find money?” Husen asked.

“Not sure. If good luck, sometimes can make enough to buy radio in one day. If not good luck, yah, not find.”

“Oh, yah, like me. If I am driving betjak, sama sama. But for me cannot get money one day for buy radio.”

The fisherman yawned, lay down on his back on the teak deck and pulled his sarong about his shoulders. “If sleep in this place, good, happy.”

“No mosquitoes? If in this boat and if sleep not robbers come? Before I hear about Bugis man and Tjirebon man. Trouble. Do you know?”

“Yah, I know. Very trouble. But for the fishing men not.”

“Who then?”

“With Tjirebon betjak man.”

“Why like that?” Tjasidi asked.

“First time a Bugis man go by betjak he is promise already he want to pay sixty roops. Go everywhere . But after that he pay not enough and the betjak driver asked, ‘This is not enough, friend.’ And the Bugis man cut with knife and betjak man finish his fingers, four. And other betjak man all over Kali Baru and all Tandjung Priok is come here looking for Bugis man. And Bugis man can fight with betjak man. And all the Bugis man one also not help, not afraid. One day after, then Banten man, he come for help with betjak man and until now Bugis man quiet, not like before. Also betjak man and fisherman very compact, stand together and all come if someone puts us in danger.”

“I am don’t know before, so I am ask with you because you stay here. But I am also hear in the village,” Husen said.

“Please, you sleep for tomorrow you want look fish by net,” Timbul said and Tjasidi and Husen pulled their sarongs over their heads, wrapped them around and lay down on the deck to sleep.

It seemed to Husen he had only shut his eyes and slept for a few minutes before he awoke to find the boat already moving through the water. Timbul said it was three o’clock. On both sides of them other boats were silently moving out too. It was very dark. Cocks were crowing in the village, there was the hum of generators from the dockyards and the gamelan orchestra was still playing at the wajang.

“Be careful,” Timbul called to the little boy, Tomat. “There’s a motor boat ahead. It’s been looking for Gambor fish.”

They moved silently through the rows of boats in the harbor, past the big Madura and Bugis sailing vessels and into the open bay. Timbul unfurled the two sails which caught the breeze and the boat sped through the water.

Husen chuckled. “Oh, very quick. This one very quick.”

“Yah,” said Timbul. “This small boat but sails are very big.” He sat back and Husen offered him a cigarette, “Please, you like cigarette kretek.”

“Ah, you smoke Bentoel and I smoke Djinggo. But if you please,” and he took one.

“What’s the light?” Tjasidi asked.

“A big ship.”

“Today is very quiet, the sea.”

“Yah, today is nice.”

“This boat is bigger than that boat.”

“Most of the Tjirebon boats are big.”

“If many wind, we go quickly. This is a fast running boat, like a Mercedes bus. Very quick.”

“Be careful,” Tomat called. “There is a bagang just ahead of us,” referring to one of the large bamboo structures built in the shallow bay as fishing platforms.

Tjasidi in Timbale's boat

Tjasidi in Timbale’s boat

They were ahead of most of the fleet of shrimp boats but a few, after an hour or two’s sail, began dropping their anchors. Timbul hauled in the sails and threw a big rock tied with rope, which served as an anchor, into the water.

He took one of the oars and hunched over it, clipping one end in the water and putting his ear to the wood on the handle.

“To know where the fish are,” Tomat explained. “You put one end of the oar in the sea and listen at the other. If fish they make whisper like kr-r-r-r-r, kr-r-r-r, krch-chch-ch. If it’s a sange fish he whispers like this, dis, dis, dis.”

“Are we moving?”

“No. We’ve dropped anchor.”

A fisherman called to them from another boat, “Where are you going?”

Husen, who loved to call at people, shouted back cheerily, “C’mon, let’s go.” A haze of black diesel smoke hung over Tandjung Priok harbor. The sunrise, a pink sun peeking through lavender clouds, seemed streaked with grime and misted over by the city’s polluted air. Timbul said that if one of the shrimp boats got a strike, all the fleet would join it. They waited for what seemed a long time but none of the other boats seemed to be having any luck either.

Then Timbul sat up straight. “They’ve found fish over there. If we go quickly.” He shifted the sails, completely lifting the heavy teak rudder out of the water and moving it to the other side of the stern. “Oh, look, they’re busy.” “Throw the anchor,” Tomat called.

All the boats were now converging and the morning was full of the voices of shouting men and the splash of oars.

“Let the net sink down. It’s ten meters deep. They found a school of shrimp over there.”

Husen asked, “Where’s the end of the net?”

“Way over there.” It got hooked with another boat’s net and Timbul had to pull his in to untangle it. Fishing boats, sails up, sails down and men rowing, were criss crossing one another in a crazy patchwork, seemingly haphazard, throwing out their nets in all directions.

“Let’s go. Let’s go.”

“You don’t hold, Tomat. Trus, trus. Tjul, tjul, tjul. Drop the net. All right, all right. Awas! Be careful.”

“You don’t quickly! Not yet right in.”


“Let’s go!”

“Where is, where is the rope?”

“I’m tying it; finish!”

“Look north.”

“Quickly, quickly. Pull it in and I’ll throw another net in.”

“Behind, behind. Back up. Quickly, quickly.”

A nearby boat was drawing in its net which was thickly covered with shrimp, caught in the threads by their own armor.

“Ah, so many fish.”

“Look how many.”

“Tida apa apa. Never mind.”

“Waduh. Very many.”

Within the hour Timbul too was pulling in great amounts of the little pink fish. “Hoi! Hoi!” the other fishermen called. “Untung, good luck.” Once a huge Swedish freighter, the Lexa Maersk, sailed right through the fleet of little boats and the fishermen looked up and waved at its European crew standing on the bridge. At ten o’clock, Tomat built a little fire in a heavy wooden box and they roasted fish to eat with their cold rice. Another big freighter, the Laertes of Amberstam, came by with a blast of its foghorns. “Hoa, hoa, hoa, hoa, be careful!” Timbul shouted. Tjasidi, hungry and wolfing down the roasted fish, said he saw how Tandjung Priok got its name, which meant, “Cape Cooking Pot.” Some of the fishermen had painted pictures on their sails. Tjasidi saw Dewi Samba, Gatotkatja’s mother from the wajang kulit and a cowboy from the films.

Timbul pulled a crab out of the net and dropped it under the seat. “Be careful,” he warned. If a crab bites you, it hurts like a virgin being raped.” A boat named “Kemis Manis,” or “Sweet Thursday,” crossed their tip. “Hoi! Awas!”

At noontime, when Tjasidi and Husen wrapped their heads in the blistering heat, Timbul decided to set sail for home. He had six kilos of shrimp and was happy. “C’mon, we’ll go home now because it’s noon already and not many fish will bite now. We’ll clean the nets, Tomat, and sew them this afternoon.”

On the bus back to Djakarta, Tjasidi and Husen decided that even if the money was good they had no desire to be fishermen; it was something that had to be in your blood. But Tjasidi was impressed. He was only twenty-three, eight years younger than his friends, Husen and Tjasta, and had only been in Djakarta driving a betjak for a year.

Tjasidi’s father had died the year before. He was the youngest child and his mother was almost penniless, and had sold all the furniture in their large bamboo house, in its coconut palm grove, back in Karang Ampel, the same village as Tjasta’s. After his father’s death, Tjasidi had married the plump, homely daughter of a prosperous dealer of ice and atap roofing. His father-in-law had made him the gift of one betjak, costing thirty thousand rupiah. By saving all his money, Tjasidi had been able to buy a second betjak on his own within a year. If he had four or five, he would have a good enough income to return to Karang Ampel and find another occupation or perhaps buy back his father’s rice lands, sold to pay for debts after the funeral.

Tjasidi was tall for a Javanese and at the same time tougher and more sensitive and more practical and provident than Tjasta or Husen. These qualities he covered up with a grinning, joking manner. But he looked at his two friends and saw what little they had ended up with after fifteen years in Djakarta. And Tjasidi was determined not to follow their example and go the same way to the same end.

Of the three he lived the most poorly in the city, in a little bamboo shantytown along Djakarta’s main railroad tracks. It was hidden behind a relatively prosperous community of Chinese, Indian and Pakistani traders, who lived in large bungalows surrounded by gardens, paved courtyards and high concrete walls. Tjasidi paid no rent. His shack was divided into three small cubicles with bamboo partitions. In the first his brother-in-law, his wife and three children slept on a crude bamboo bed. There was no other furniture in the shack and the ten to twelve betjak men who shared the other two cubicles, slept on bamboo mats, hanging their few clothes on nails along the wall. Although his wife’s home in Karang Ampel was a large, solid bungalow with heavy teak furniture and portraits and antlers on the walls and was far more prosperous than the homes of either Husen or Tjasta, Tjasidi lived much more simply in Djakarta. He had only two shirts, a long-sleeved blue-checked one and a yellow short-sleeved jersey, given him by a foreign passenger. Aside from a pair of pants and three pairs of betjak shorts, Tjasidi’s only other possession were a toothbrush and three large, fluffy, terry-cloth towels, given him one day by an Australian lady at the hotel who could not get them into her suitcase at the last minute and presented them to him as she drove away in her taxi.

There was the stench of an open canal at Tjasidi’s house, since one passed just behind the shack. And when the trains went by the entire shack trembled for a moment; Tjasidi slept less than twenty feet from the nearest track. And yet because all the people in all the nearest shanties were fellow villagers from Karang Ampel, the place had a sense of community and despite their extreme poverty the people of Gunung Sari seemed happy, cheerful and optimistic about the future.

For they remained villagers in transit, scrimping, saving, struggling, but not so much for survival, as to put enough money away so they could return home for good.

My Son, My son

Late at night, Husen was taking two Indonesian soldiers in his betjak to Bongkaren. They wanted girls and he stopped the betjak in front of a house glowing with red lamps from within. The soldiers started to pay him when a small boy appeared and pulled at Husen’s shirt. The child seemed very forlorn; his thin shoulders were wrapped in a dirty white cloth, his face was pinked and peaked.

Husen glanced at the soldiers with embarrassment and then whispered to the boy, “Rus, what are you doing here? Don’t go out at night. Run home. If I have money I’ll come back.”

“No. I need money now.” The child’s voice was thin but harsh.

One of the soldiers grumbled impatiently. Husen managed to grin. “Say hello to the uncles.”

The child ignored them, “No, no, give me money,” he said, using a rough form of address heard in street gangs. One of the soldiers handed the boy a twenty-five rupiah note.

“You must say thank you to the gentleman,” Husen said. But the little boy snatched the money and darted away into the night without another word.

“Who’s the kid?” one of the soldiers asked.

Husen barely heard him. He was staring off in the direction the child had run. “My son,” he murmured. “My son.”

The worst slum in Djakarta is Bongkaren. Not because it is the poorest, but because it’s people seem to have given up hope. There is an air of tension, of grim defeat about the place, of all hope gone.

Some days later Husen, who asked Tjasidi, who was big and strong, to accompany him, went back to Bongkaren to visit his son. Husen brought fifteen hundred rupiah with him and on the way they stopped in the market at Tanahabang to buy the child a new shirt for five hundred. Bongkaren lay between a fetid canal and an abandoned railway yard and its rows of bamboo and tin-can shacks were built among empty freight cars where vagrants now lived. It was festeringly hot and a whirling hot wind chased and scattered the flying bits of dry rubbish along the railroad tracks. It lifted the flies, too lazy to move from the tops of the rubbish heaps along the houses. In the rains of an old half-torn-down train-stop shelter, some vagrants had their shanties. Old charcoal baskets had been piled up to serve as walls, worn out shredded mats were laid on the earth for floors. The roofs of these shanties were made of blacked and rusty pieces of old cans, patched together with bits of old cardboard. Larger cans which once held butter were set on cooking stoves made of a few piled up stones and these served as kitchens. As they passed one house, a woman was lying on the ground in a doorway, sobbing and tearing at her dirty, matted hair. “You made me a whore!” she was shrieking at a ragged, barefoot man who stood dumbly in the doorway. They heard him mutter something about looking for work and then Tjasdi and Husen were out of hearing distance. Once the woman gave a sudden loud scream. Perhaps he hit her. No one seemed to be paying any attention. Old women with dazed expressions, like survivors of a disaster, wandered back and forth, carrying water and cooking pots, their bare feet moving in the dust and filth and garbage. Girls were lying in the dirt underneath the freight cars, picking fleas out of each other’s hair. They crossed a track and entered a narrow lane between two rows of bigger, solider-looking houses. Husen pointed to a large, but grimy and flimsily-constructed building which served as a general store. He told Tjasidi it was owned by his brother-in-law, the husband of his sister, Karlina. But he did not see his relatives and he did not stop.

They turned several times through the twisting alleyway and then stopped before another small grocery store passing through it and into a larger room behind, filled with chairs and tables. Through an open door one could see a large bed with a mosquito net; inside this house was the hint of relative prosperity. An old man, several younger men and some children were seated and standing in the room, as Husen and Tjasidi entered. The old man rose as Husen greeted him, “Asallam muallaikum.”

“Ah, my son-in-law. It has been a long time.”

“Oh, my uncle.”

“How are you now, Husen?”

“Well and good. And how are you?”

“We are also.”

“Where is my son, Rustani?”

A woman appeared in the doorway of the bedroom. She was tall, thin and gaunt and though not old had already lost the freshness of her youth. Her uncombed hair hung straggly from the sides of her pinched face, the hollows of her eyes were dark and she carried a baby in her arms. The baby was visibly ill, with thin, stick-like arms and legs and a distended belly.

The woman did not greet Husen but said, “I don’t know. I want to look for him.” She went to the door and called, “Rus, come here. Your father has come and brought a shirt for you.” Then the woman turned back and looked at Husen, with dead, empty eyes. It was Taminah, his first wife.

The boy, Rustani, appeared at the door. “Oh, he has come.” He snatched the shirt from Husen. “I am inside school now and most use white of shirt.” His face was even more pale and pinched in the daylight.

“Rus,” Husen said, taking the boy by the hand and drawing him toward himself, “I was wrong before not to come sooner. But now I am buy this for you. How much money for inside the school?”

“Rupiah five hundred,” Taminah said in her dead, toneless voice. “But not yet pay. I give his teacher only two hundred fifty so far.”

“Where is your husband?” Husen asked. Rustani had edged closer to him now.

“I don’t know. Maybe he is driving a betjak.”

“What time does he come home?”

“I don’t know, Husen,” she said dully. “Long time now he not come home. Ten days now.”

“Why?” She didn’t answer. Instead she turned to the boy, “Rus, please, buy biscuit and buy coffee and sugar. Here is money.”

“Never mind. I am come from drinking coffee,” Husen said.

She turned back to him. “Rustani is inside the Moslem school.”

“Good, good. I heard he was not in school and if inside the Moslem school it is better for him.”

“Please hold my baby girl. I want to heat water for you.”

Husen took the sick child. “Your girl is nice. How about Rustani, is he good.”

“No, no. You have not been near to him. If I am near and say something to him, it is very difficult. Every day after school he goes to swim in that filthy canal with some other boys. If I am call, he gets angry and not like to come home.”

“Never mind, Taminah. He is still a boy. If a boy is a little wild it means he will be clever for the lesson.”

While Taminah prepared tea, Husen talked with her younger sister, Lum, whom he knew well from the old days. She told him Rustani wanted to have his circumcision ceremony and also that his son missed him when he did not visit often. She said Taminah’s present husband left home for weeks at a time and brought back little money when he did come. She said Rustani had been getting money from Sumarjo, Husen’s younger brother who lived with Karlina and also drove a betjak.

“Yah, I long time not come to see him because I am very far now, in Kebajoran,” Husen told her. Lum said that if any of the family criticized Taminah’s husband he would only stay away from home longer.

“Like me before, when I was still here?” Husen said.

“No, not like you, Husen,” the sister said. “If you, no, if the family criticize you, you not get angry. Rustani!” she called to the child. “Rustani! Come here. I tell Rustani before that if his father came here he must tell him he wants to cut his pipe.”

“Yah.” Husen agreed this time lifting the boy and holding him in his lap. “I am also want to tell like that. But Rustani is in school now, so if I am bring to village for the circumcision I think he will miss school. So better wait some time maybe, for slametan. Four thousand rupiah even is not enough.

Taminah, who had been listening, brought coffee. “Husen, please drink.” She paused for a time. “How about me and my mother. You not bring us to your village to see Rustani cut?”

Husen looked at her grey, ruined face. “Your mother and you better if you want to come.” She held out the baby. “Look how he is still very sick and I have no money to buy medicine, Husen.”

He gave her five hundred rupiah. Taminah took it and said, “Thank you if you want to help me and my family.”

“Yah, good,” said her old father. “If you help the baby, Husen. But I think cannot help again because the baby is very weak, and as you see, it is very thin.”

Husen turned to the boy, “Rus, you don’t be cross with your mother. If you go with me and stay with me in the village, I think better.”

“Not,” said the boy quickly. “Better you help me buy book, give money for food and so on, I want to learn in the Moslem school. If I am sama sama with you, I am ‘fraid with your wife now. Maybe if I stay in your house, your wife is angry with me.”

“No,” smiled Husen. “No, Rus, she will not be angry with you. She is very kind.”

“No, better I stay here and you must many time visit me.”

“Rus, you want to cut your pipe?”

“Yah, I am like. And when?”

“Wait, wait. I want to look for money.”

Tjasidi was getting restless. “Husen, it’s eleven o’clock. We’d better get back to the hotel.”

Husen rose at once, but still clutched Rustani’s hand. The child stood close to his father, almost clinging to him now.

“All right. Until next time. I’ll see you again.”

Taminah followed them down the lane a little ways and then called after them, “All right. See you next time.”

As they went back to the hotel in Tjasidi’s betjak, Husen told his friend, “That baby is very, very sick. I am afraid it may be dying.”

“Yah, I agree. I feel very sorry for that baby. And for the mother. She look very old now, Husen.”

That night when Husen reached Simprug he could not sleep. And after Karniti had fallen asleep he rose and went for a walk in the night, sighing and shaking his head and thinking of Taminah, what she was and what she had now become. And for the first time since she had deserted him all those years ago, his heart filled with pity.

A Closed City


On August 6, 1970, Lieutenant General Ali Sadikin, the governor of Djakarta, declared the capitol would henceforward be “a closed city to new jobless settlers.”

At a press conference, the governor told newsmen that the flood of incoming outer islanders and country people from Java itself had reached such proportions it was “endangering the safety and order of life in the capitol.”

“What about all the betjak drivers and coolies that are already here?” a reporter asked.

“No, not them,” the governor replied. “But this does apply to their little brothers.”

The governor also said that all street vendors must cease operations immediately. He said, “Vending in public places not only violates the existing laws, but also demonstrates indifference toward the interests of others which should not be done by civilized people. Without serious enforcement against these street vendors, we can predict that the streets in Djakarta, within two or three years, will be filled with rubbish and jammed by vendors.” A few weeks later, unaware of these proclamations, unaware of Ali Sadikin’s existence, or even unaware that Djakarta had a government and a governor, Husen’s little brother, Warjono, managed to catch a free ride on a freight train, and came to Djakarta for the first time to try his luck as a street vendor, selling ices. He was given a way letter from the village chief to visit the capitol city for a month, a letter he was to renew regularly each month in the year to come. The migration of peasants to the cities of the world is literally like a great flood of water; only a great high dam of concrete might keep them out and even that might have its breaks and cracks.

The buffalo boys of Pilangsari; Husen's youngest brother, Warjono, is standing, bent forward, on the far left.

The buffalo boys of Pilangsari; Husen’s youngest brother, Warjono, is standing, bent forward, on the far left.

Betjak drivers, serenely ignoring traffic regulations, dash with their passengers across a busy downtown intersection.

Betjak drivers, serenely ignoring traffic regulations, dash with their passengers across a busy downtown intersection.

Was there any way to stem the flood?

Moscow seemed to have succeeded with a system of work and residential permits. But then Moscow was Moscow and had the KGB. Bombay had talked it over and talked it over and inevitably someone got legalistic and brought up the constitutional question of denying freedom of movement – and anyway, what would Gandhi and Nehru have said? The notion was shelved and more than a thousand peasants a day poured into Bombay. “A tidal wave, a Hurricane Camille of country people, threatens to overwhelm the already crowded, bursting cities,” warned the Barbara Wards. “The marginal men, the wretched strugglers for survival on the fringes of farm and city, may already number more than half a billion echoed the Robert McNamaras.

Was Sadikin serious? Did he think a ban on immigration could be enforced?

“Quite frankly no,” the governor told friends in private. “We cannot, after all, stop anybody from entering his capitol city. We are trying to reduce the flow; we know we can’t stop it.” In the general’s view, this called for psychological warfare: rumors were circulated that detention centers were being built, that streets would be cordoned off by police for identification checks, and Sadikin declared publicly that anyone found without proper credentials would be sent back home, to their village or island, “on the cheapest possible transport.”

But in Java alone over the past fifty years mortality had fallen from 28 to 30 deaths per thousand to under 15. In 1959, four years after Husen first went to Djakarta, there were 57 million Javanese; now eleven years later, there were 74 or 75 million. They were leaving the land by an accelerating rate of at least 5 per cent a year, mostly to Djakarta.

The prospect of seven, eight or even ten million people in the city by 1980 or 1985 faced Ali Sadikin with the seemingly insurmountable task of providing water, sanitation, housing, education, transportation, law and order, and above all, jobs.

And he had to do it all on a $25 million a year budget. [Note: In comparison, a smaller Asian city like South Korea’s Seoul has an annual budget of $300 million. An interview with Sadikin appears in a previous report, RC-10].

This required some imagination, which fortunately Sadikin had.

A Marine general, now only forty-three, he had been appointed as governor by Sukarno after the anticommunist upheaval four years before. After sixteen years of misrule, demagoguery and chauvinism, Djakarta was in a state of chaos and collapse, a half-finished city of skyscraper scaffolding and cratered cart tracks, of spectacular monuments and luxurious hotels amidst a sea of tawdry bamboo shacks.

For weeks Sadikin did nothing. People wondered if he ever would, not knowing he was traveling about the city, day and night, dressed in civilian clothes, with an aide or two.

And then the orders and the action started. Money for mending roads, expanding medical services and getting the bases running again was made from casinos, nightclubs, lotteries and greyhound races. Money to lick a perennial flood problem and bring pure water from the mountains could be had from bowling alleys, recreation parks, a glittery Coney Island-style beach. Sadikin sponsored a Djakarta Fair and amusement park, he built the most modern cinema theatre in Asia and charged the rich scalper price. He built cultural centers, financed the arts, encouraged sports.

Djakarta began to swing, the bright lights contrasting unhappily with the street sleepers, the scavengers, the rugged betjak men.

But the revenue was climbing nicely. And Sadikin built 150 primary schools and 57 high schools in three years, a record for any city. By letting monopoly contracts on a competitive basis, he built up the fastest, most efficient bus system in the world. And slowly he began tackling the city’s toughest problems of finding decent housing, pure water and minimum sanitation for the great mass of the city’s people who were poor.

So if there were circuses, there was also bread. Or perhaps Sadikin’s circuses, which cost little money, helped the people forget there was so little bread. Almost daily he issued a new declaration and Djakarta’s people, diverted and entertained, loved him, for he who gives joy is highly esteemed in Java.

He opened massage parlors, using blind masseurs he said were “trained in understanding anatomy.” He announced prostitute rehabilitation centers would be opened in Senen Market and Tandjung Priok. He introduced motorized betjaks, forty of them, a vehicle that simply added a motor to the old tricycle and seemed to combine the scariest features of both. Few wanted to ride in one but it was amusing to see one in the street.

He announced a cleanliness campaign, saying, “The first target shall be the residents of the elite quarters such as Menteng and Kebajoran, the homes of well-to-do people and intellectuals. Those who show negligence on matters of cleanliness shall be brought before the court and fined, while those not prepared to pay the fine shall be jailed and served rice and salt only.” The same, he said, went also for “neglectful members of the diplomatic corps, because Indonesians abroad too have to live up to existing regulations.”

He blasted film censorship and was attacked by Moslem leaders. “Look, no foreigners go to our movie houses,” retorted the governor. “They know that the films have been mutilated.” When the Imams persisted, he declared, “Djakarta is not a small village. It’s full of risks, of challenges. As a governor I must reduce these challenges, give the people something to do, entertainment. I don’t trust pseudo-religionists and I don’t want to force all the people to be pious either. Five million people can’t possibly all be devout.”

In a fit of temper, he slapped a truck driver who was promptly discharged from the navy, hired him in his own office and said he was “a fine worker.” He railed against the city’s vagrants, saying there were 90,000 of them who “have no skill and what shall we do with them?”

He announced free health examinations and medical services would be supplied to betjak drivers, then announced no new betjak licenses would be issued because “their number is too many and unfavorable for the smooth flow of traffic.” Privately, he hoped to get rid of all the betjaks by 1980 but knew he would first have to provide alternative jobs.

He rehabilitated beggars, chased sidewalk vendors off the main streets and raised bus fares 50 per cent without the hint of an explanation. He declared anyone who complained of low water pressure would have his cut off for six months. He ordered his driver to fire a warning shot to stop traffic offenders. He taxed the rich and he scolded the poor.

And gradually Djakarta began to pull itself together. But he could not stop new peasants from arriving.

The thirteen-year-old Warjono, blissfully unaware of the governor’s problems and cheerfully selling his ices at the sports stadium, went back to Pilangsari after his first month. When he told his friends about earning one or two hundred rupiahs a day, one came back with him to Djakarta. The next month two more came. In the months ahead, it seemed safe to guess, it would be another, and another, and another, and another.

Return to Pilangsari

“Makin lama, makin tunduk.”
An old Javanese saying, meaning, “The older the man, the more bowed down with humbleness and wisdom.” It is an allusion to rice, which, as the grain matures and ripens for harvest, the heavier hangs the head

“When I was a young man,
I felt life was going up, up.
Now it has began to go down.”
Husen, in conversation with his wife, November, 1970]

Like the Barbara Wards and the McNamaras, Governor Ali Sadikin saw the greatest hope for Djakarta’s future in agricultural change and the chance that the new strains of rice, together with the rehabilitation of Java’s irrigation system, especially in the Tjirebon region where most Djakarta immigrants originated, would make the villages prosperous enough to keep most of the peasants back down on the land.

This was Husen’s greatest hope for the future too and one which he felt with considerably more personal passion.

And, as the months went by, and he worked long hours pedaling foreign guests from the Hotel Indonesia, Husen was lucky. His English became very fluent and as a tourist guide, he had few equals.

Hoeing field

Gradually he was able to save up the forty thousand rupiahs he calculated would be enough to build the warung, the small tea house he hoped would provide enough income, along with what rice he got for working in his father’s fields and gardens, to allow he and Karniti to stay in the village for good.

Husen was tired now. Veins were beginning to stand out on his legs and he sometimes experienced a shortness of breath and even a slight dizziness trying to push a full load of passengers up a hill or over a bridge. Very few got out and walked.

He did not tell his friends of his plans. But he worked so hard, had so many passengers, earned such good payment and made so many generous tips, Tjasta told the men at the hotel betjak stand, “Husen has a djimat. That’s why he has so many friends.” [Note: Tjasta meant that Husen had some magic talisman that enables him to cast a spell over his passengers so they would pay him extra well; it is typically Javanese to look for a supernatural rather than a rational explanation].

Husen laughed when he heard this. “My eyes, my ears, my tongue, that’s my djimat,” he said.

He decided to go home almost on the spur of the moment one night. He announced to Karniti that he had saved enough money to build her warung and now they could go home. He said it would mean postponing Rustani’s circumcision ceremony but that could wait as the boy was only seven and was now in school anyway. He left the betjak key with his uncle, they leased their room to a betjak man and his family for three months for another two thousand rupiah, packed up their meager possessions and were gone within two days. Except for Bibi and a few neighbors, they said goodbye to no one, fearing they would be forced back to Djakarta all too soon.

Husen’s father gave him a small plot of land, ten meters by ten, along the road, part of the good rice field that stretched west just in front of his own house. A small Gajam tree grew on one side for shade, until Husen could plant more. Husen, Djuned and Tarja worked alone for some days, jogging back and forth to the banks of the Tjimanuk River, to carry earth in buckets to raise the level of the site, digging drainage ditches on the sides, hiring a boat and bringing sand from a sandbar on the Karanggetas side, going to the orchard and felling six of his father’s best djati trees, having them made into lumber, buying red bricks from Kliwed and carrying them back by betjak and finally hiring a full crew of men and carpenters . As they raised the roof beam, Husen felt for the first time he was really fulfilling the dream he had described to Karniti that night in Simprug. The house was built just as he had then envisioned it, brick waist, high, topped with bamboo walls, an atap roof, small kitchen behind with a brick platform for washing, and two large rooms in front, one for the warung and their living room and one for he and Karniti to sleep and keep their personal possessions in.

One day, when the warung was almost finished, a truck with a loudspeaker came by, announcing that work would now begin on the road; it was to be made into a paved highway for a new bypass around the seaport of Tjirebon for traffic from Djakarta to Surabaja, the second largest city and seaport at the eastern end of Java. The warung was coming in just the nick of time. “Old people and children must be careful,” the voice on the loudspeaker said. “They cannot play in the street because many trucks will bring stone for the new highway. And if you do not listen to this warning and children die by accident, we cannot assume responsibility.” After that fifty trucks a day roared back and forth, day and night, through the village and gradually the sides of the road were coated in dust.

Not long afterward, news came that water in the canal which flowed through Pilangsari would be cut off. For three to six months, the government would be dredging the canal and building a new system of stone and cement locks which meant that next year Pilangsari would have enough irrigation water for the first time in forty years.

Finally, the warung was almost finished and Husen and Karniti started sleeping there at night. Some of the villagers warned them this might be dangerous. One should hold a slametan first. But Husen could not afford to pay for a wajang kulit performance yet, which is what he wanted for the warung slametan, so they ignored this advice. As Karniti’s pregnancy advanced, she grew listless and drowsy and slept a great deal daring the day. Often she had morning sickness. One day, when Husen was absent from the house and a carpenter was working on the doors and windows, Karniti felt unable to cook over a hot fire, and offered him some cold cakes and some sliced mangoes for lunch.

The Warung

The Warung

Husen’s mother, who happened to pass by, was sharply critical of Karniti for not serving the carpenter a hot meal of soup and boiled rice and the young wife already faint and nauseated fled across the river to her parents’ house. It took Husen two days to talk her into moving back to the warung, partly because Karniti also feared to sleep there until a slametan was held. In the meantime, Husen asked his brother, Tarja, to sleep in the warung and guard it at night.


Village woman and child

Woman holding child

In the morning Tarja told Husen, “Brother, brother! Last night I am sleep but I wake when I think people joking with me. Somebody pulls my hair and slaps my face. I get up and look. Not people. Now my head is sick. Maybe setan.”

“Oh, Tarja, not. You don’t be ‘fraid ghosts like that.”

“I am also not ‘fraid with ghosts but many people run from this place. They say they see something like a giant, big and black.”

“Tida apa apa; never mind.” And he laughed about Tarja’s ghost with Karniti. But a few days later Djuned awoke after falling asleep on their porch following a night of guitar-playing and story-telling and said much the same thing. “Husen, your house must have a ghost. Because when I got up this morning I am sick and also very hungry. I eat two cucumbers. Big ones.” This time Husen did not tell Karniti.

For her health seemed to have revived and her old radiant disposition was back. She enjoyed the warung and put bright yellow paper around the glass counter jars of cakes, cigarettes, candies and shrimp wafers. And she always kept pots of hot coffee and tea, with plenty of ice, a kettle of soup, freshly boiled rice and a big basket of mangoes and papayas. Karniti was really the life of the warung, going into the market in Djatibarang each morning to buy supplies, gossiping and joking with all the customers, singing to herself as she bent over the hearth, happier now that the baby was coming than Husen had ever seen her.

Slowly the warung began to thrive. Husen looked forward to the day when the canal and highway were both completed. Every evening he entertained the customers at the warung with his stories of Djakarta, his folktales and slapstick fun as he acted out wajang dramas. It was nearing Lebaran now, the end of the thirty-day Ramadan fast, the Moslem month of abstention which although little observed in the village except by strict Moslems such as Husen’s father, still causes an outburst of joy at the end. Every evening drums of wandering bands of village youths came from across the fields from the far tree lines, from the villages up the road.

“Tomtom te tomtom, tom te tom te tom, tomtom, tomtom, tomtom.”

The throb of drums echoed along the river banks and reached in the treetops. Husen felt filled with well-being; he was impatient for Abu to return from his Ramadan holiday so they could talk about farming. If this had been fiction, our story could end here, “and Husen and Karniti lived happily ever after.” But it goes on.

For some reason, the rains withheld themselves this year. Day after day the sky shone with fresh and careless brilliance. Those coming from Djakarta reported that the monsoon had never been heavier there, pouring down day after day, so that many places in the city stood under water, the smaller streets and alleys were a morass of mud, and that the hardships of the poor had increased with the rains.

But in Pilangsari, the earth remained parched and starving. From dawn to dawn there was not a cloud, and at night when the stars appeared in the sky they seemed almost cruel in their beauty.

The fields although Husen and Tarja cultivated them desperately, dried and cracked, and the young rice stalks, which had sprung up courageously in the August showers, now ceased their growing and stood motionless at first under the hot sun and at last dwindled and yellowed into a barren harvest. Husen’s father, who had reaped only ten quintals the previous harvest, now got nothing. Only a dull green patch of cucumbers was the only spot of color on the brown earth of his fields.

Tjasidi stopped by one day on the way home to Karang Amnal and Husen joked with him, “Are you bringing a lot of money from Djakarta?”

“Seventeen thousand,” Tjasidi laughed, joining the joke.

“You will need it with a young wife and no rain now,” and he took his friend over to see the dry, empty canal.

Men standin in road

Men carrying water on shoulders

Now Husen and his fellow villagers carried water to their last remaining green crops day by day from the Tjimanuk, their heavy steel buckets slung upon bamboo poles across their shoulders. But though a furrow grew upon Husen’s flesh and a callus formed there as large as a walnut, no rain came and the cucumbers died too.

At last the water in the ponds and ditches around Husen’s father’s house dried into cakes of clay and the water even in the well sank low. And there were reports of a cholera epidemic near Karang Ampel, nearly forty persons had died in the nearby villages and the toll was rising. One day a government nurse came to Pilangsari to give inoculations against cholera but it was said that the injections made one ill for three days and many of the villagers hid until she went away. But a week later a husky young farmer named Jusof, who appeared able and well when swimming in the Tjimanuk the evening before, was dead by sunrise. After that the whole village was inoculated.

Week after week passed and still no rain fell. The mangoes ripened, withered and stunted, and Husen’s father got only three thousand for his entire yield, half of the usual amount.

Some days clouds would gather in the sky, small light clouds, and Husen and Tarja and their father would turn their faces to the sky judging closely this cloud and that and discussing whether any rain might come of it. And Husen would shake his head and say, “Wind take away,” and sure enough, a bitter wind would come from the southeast and blow the clouds from the sky as one sweeps away dust with a broom. So the sky remained empty and barren and the sun rose each morning and made its march across the sky and set each night, and not a drop of rain.

Only across the river in Bojong village, where the canal had not needed repair and the Tjimanuk water flowed freely, were there great squares of jade in the dull brown landscape. And Husen saw the man who had given the wajang there, how many months ago, the former Communist, would again reap another rich harvest with the new rice. In his own village, only his neighbor, Rustam, who had also tried the new seeds, had a full rice bin and was prospering on others misfortune, buying up the mangoes in the village cheaply and selling them in the city for a good profit. And Husen knew that somewhere he would have to find the money to buy the new seeds and fertilizer and pesticide, even if it meant going back to driving the betjak at the Hotel Indonesia.

Then the bitter day came when Husen’s father called his son and showed him the family rice bin. When Husen saw how empty it was, only a few stacks of stalk paddy near the bottom, he was silent and waited for his father to speak, thinking, “This is serious. Where will our food come from?” The old man said there was only enough rice for himself and Husen’s mother for three more months and the next rice harvest was seven months away. He told his son he would have to buy rice for himself and Karniti. So Karniti went across to her village in Karanggetas the next day and started buying rice for twenty-five rupiah a day, almost wiping out the little profit they now made at the warung. “Husen,” she told him one day, “Maybe you will have to work in the city again. Otherwise how can we find money to eat!” All of the family started eating only one plate of rice a day and Husen, seeing his wife grow heavy with the child, gave her his own and tried to fill his stomach with corn mash and tapioca root. One day he saw Tarja sneaking into his kitchen and staffing some rice from Karniti’s kettle into his mouth but Husen said nothing and turned the other way.

Not long afterward, Husen’s father called him again and said, “Husen, because I am already old and I am already tired, whoever is of my children and wants to plant my land, please, it is yours. Because I am so old now. I am only now fit to eat. I will give you half of what rice you grow.”

Husen saw his mother’s eyes fill up with tears and she told his father, “Better like that if you are tired my husband; better you try your children now.” But they both knew he was admitting defeat.

As the days passed, the sky darkened and from time to time there would be outbursts of deafening thunder, with flashes of lightning cutting through the heavy, billowing clouds, but no rain.

And then one morning, at last it fell, a few drops at first, then a drizzle and finally a great cloudburst pouring, pouring down, as if the very heavens were falling. Husen heard cries of joy from the other houses and looked out to see naked children cavorting in the road, turning their faces upward with open mouths as if to catch a drink.

Karniti, who was at the market in Djatibarang, came home wet and dripping but with a smile of happiness on her face. Now everything would be all right again. They could grow other crops until it came time to plant the rice.

She must have caught a chill. Within an hour she had a fever, but she concealed it from Husen by busying herself preparing coffee and some sugar cakes. Then she began to feel nauseated and a pain in her stomach and could not join Husen at lunch, smiling weakly, “I am not happy for eat.”

By mid-afternoon Husen was shaken. He had long since forced her to go to bed. Now as she lay there, tossing and unable to rest, her eyes were inflamed and watering and when he touched her forehead, Husen felt it was burning hot. There was no doctor for miles around but Husen said he would fetch the dukun, an old crone with toothless gums and claw-like hands who had served as the village midwife for as long as he could remember. But when he turned to go, Karniti cried to him, “No, no, Husen. Stay. Don’t leave me!” He saw the terror in her eyes then and she finally told him about the stabbing pains in her stomach and asked him to wrap a towel around her waist. When he did he saw for the first time the pool of blackish-colored blood that was slowly spreading over the bed.

And that afternoon, before he could go for help, as she lay consumed by fever and pain and Husen held her hands and whispered over and over, “La illa haillah—la illa haillah…” Karniti suffered a miscarriage. As she sank back into unconsciousness, Husen cleaned the mess away, carefully washing her with hot water. He wrapped the remains in old newspaper. Then he carried his blood-soaked package through the rain and across the fields to the house of the dukun.


He opened the package before her and asked what it was.

“It is a baby,” the dukun said.

“No, it’s blood,” Husen said.

“It is a baby,” the dukun said.

“No, it’s blood,” Husen said.

“It’s a baby,” the dukun said.

Husen borrowed a patjul and took the newspaper package and buried it deep in the garden by the river. Then he hurried home, not feeling the rain on his face, not perceiving the swollen river, not caring about the dead thing behind him but only about the living girl.

He took Karniti in his arms and waited until she opened her eyes. And when her eyes asked him the question he answered, “That was no baby. It was only blood.”

All of the dialogue in this study is drawn verbatim from some 150,000 words recorded either as they were said or were reconstructed by Husen. My complete notes on Java, as well as those on the Punjab, Mauritius and Egypt, will be made available within a year to anyone prepared to wade through them, in the Richard Critchfield collection, Mass Communications History Center, The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 816 State Street, Madison, Wisconsin.

Or ever the silver cord be loosed,
Or the golden bowl be broken,
Or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
Or the wheel broken at the cistern…

The End

Man and kids playing in water

Appendix I


Husen’s Javanese Travel Chart


For the benefit of readers who are superstitious – and who is not? – I am including a copy of Husen’s Javanese travel chart which he prepared for me one time when I went from Pilangsari to Djakarta. The Javanese believe there is a dragon of time, who, if the travel time is merely inauspicious or “bad” will merely take a bite out of one; but if the time is a “dead” one, will eat you. Thus each day of the week is assigned three descriptions raga dina, or dragon days, for the “Good,” the “Bad” and the “Dead” days:

Sundaygood, south and east
bad, north
dead, west
Mondaygood, south
bad, east and west
dead, north
Tuesdaygood, north
bad, south or east
dead, west
Wednesdaygood, north and east
bad, west
dead, south
Thursdaygood, north and east
bad, west
dead, north
Fridaygood, north
bad, east and west
dead, south
Saturdaygood, west
bad, south and east
dead, north

This does not mean you absolutely cannot travel in a bad or dead direction on a certain day if there is something pressing to do. But it does mean you must take certain precautions to deceive the dragon. One night we wanted to see a shadow play in Kliwed village but it was Saturday and Kliwed was due east. So we left Husen’s father’s house by the “good” western door. I walked for a little ways, then circled back and went to Kliwed. To be doubly precautious, we each dropped a little chunk of dirt from the living room floor down the front of our shirts, next to the skin as a magic talisman to give as ilmu, or protective powers against the dragon. I naturally scoffed at the dragon, but every time we went to the village on a bad day the bus stalled, ran out of gas, had a flat tire or some other difficulty. On the “good” days, we breezed right through the 285 kilometers from Pilangsari to Djakarta in four hours.

Appendix 2




People connected with this study sometimes asked how I found Husen. In actuality, probably the reverse was true. In November, 1967, just three years ago, I ended a three year, eight month tour covering the Vietnam war, desiring to leave Saigon without all the exit formalities required by the Thieu-Ky regime. The reasons are apparent to anyone reading my book on Vietnam. Luckily, Vice-President Humphrey arrived for Thieu’s presidential inauguration ceremonies on Air Force One on the first leg of a trip through Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese police authorities hastily waived the exit formalities. I jumped on Air Force One and after a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, found myself in the press bus in a cavalcade riding from the airport to downtown Djakarta, where I had never been even though I have been covering Asia for almost a decade. After the uniform cheering and waving in Malaysia what struck me, aside from the apparent poverty of the Indonesians along the way and the half-finished, half-urban, half-rural look of Djakarta itself, was the individuality of the people. While it was mostly a spectacle of bright brown faces beaming, white teeth gleaming, arms waving, throats cheering and shouting, everyone seemed very much on his own; no two people waved alike. And I sensed, even on that first ride in from the airport behind Humphrey and Suharto and with motorcycle sirens, a bevy of security guards, military escort and the works, that this was a country I was going to like.

Author with HusenHumphrey’s itinerary took us to the island of Bali the next day for an overnight rest stop. I took one look at the jungle, sun, sea, mountains and Balinese and asked Norman Sherman, Humphrey’s press secretary, if it would be all right if I just dropped off the trip right there. And I did, staying in Bali for a month and reaching a decision there to write a book on Vietnam – a political history bound to be controversial. Before returning to Washington, I decided to stop over two or three weeks in Djakarta again and “see Indonesia.”

Thus it was that one evening at twilight I came out of the Hotel Indonesia and, having reached a decision on the book, feeling very free, when here was this character with a big grin, cheerfully calling:

“Hello, Mister! Where are you going?”

Like thousands of tourists must have said to him by now, I told Husen I just wanted to see Djakarta. And we started out in his betjak. But instead of touring the monuments, the museums and the landmarks as I expected, we visited a house which made suitcases out of crocodiles and had a whole pond full in the back, took in the last half of a football game at the huge Sukarno-built sports stadium, saw the shed where Husen and about fifty other betjak men lived in Karet, and, when it rained, sought shelter in a little teahouse by the side of the road. The only other customer, I remember, was an Indonesian soldier, and I got into conversation with him, or rather an interview, since I asked the price of rice, what his salary was and that sort of thing. The soldier became quite agitated and said something rapidly to Husen in Indonesian. Husen in turn became agitated and insisted we leave right then although the rain was still pouring down. Protesting, “What the hell?” I got in the dripping betjak – the little plastic sheet Husen tied down over the front was no real protection from the rain – and we drove off. We had only gone fifty feet before Husen started to laugh and laugh. When I asked him why, he said – his English was less fluent and more colorful in these days, “He say you must be kommunis or 007, because you many speak, speak. But I know you are not kommunis or 007, you are people from another people’s country, so must ask many questions.” At that time, of course, just over a year had passed since the Indonesian upheaval in which at least a third of a million lives were lost. A day or so later as we were starting out in his betjak for another round of the city – later described in a full-page story in the Washington Star, I asked Husen if he could take me to a village, thinking there might be one a few miles from the hotel. He said “How would you like to see my village?” and I agreed, not knowing it was 285 kilometers from Djakarta. He did say it would be better to go by car and we arranged to meet at the hotel at seven the next evening. In the meantime, however, I was robbed near the hotel by seven bandits with perangs, who, though they held their long bolo knifes up to the throats of the betjak driver and myself were, in retrospect, more Robin Hoodish than scary. The leader apologized, “I am sorry, father, we have no money,” and carefully handed back my papers and press credentials. But Husen, hearing of the robbery, and feeling I would have soured on the idea of visiting his village did not show up at the appointed time. It was raining again and I can remember searching him out at his betjak stand in Karet, a poor slum not far from the hotel, his surprise at seeing me and how he arranged within a few minutes for us to go in a general’s Toyota whose driver lived in Pilangsari too. Whether the general ever knew or not, I never found out, but we drove to the village in grand style, streaming through all the military roadblocks that then existed and getting plenty of snappy salutes.

[Note: Divorce is frequent and connubial constancy rare in Java and the love story of Husen and Karniti, rather unusual. Often the Javanese approach to love is unmistakably carnal; Husen’s proposal of marriage – “Do you want?” – was more of a direct solicitation than a declaration of romantic love. Even Raffles in the l9th century, who found the Javanese ever “graceful, amiable and ingenuous” criticized the high divorce rate apparently already a long-standing tradition. In Pilangsari, it was not uncommon to meet people who had been married eight or ten times; one villager had had forty-one wives. Karniti recovered from her miscarriage and there is every likelihood she and Husen will have more children. But his concern for her and not her lost baby, a concern which was to last, seemed evidence of the emergence of a transcendent human bond between them, something that should endure all their lives, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better and for worse. Love in the fullest sense of the word].

Thus began what became rather a long journey with Husen.

When I decided to write a book about the population and food issue as seen from the villages it seemed natural to include Java and Husen. When I arrived back in Djakarta last June 15, I at once went to the Hotel Indonesia, it was twilight; everything always seemed to happen at night there and when I found Husen he didn’t speak at once, just clasped my hand and laughed and laughed for at least a full minute.

The first setback came three days after I arrived in the village. It was noon, a particularly hot, oppressive day and I insisted in a stubborn, American way, on going to the garden to hoe, against the protests of both Husen and his father. But I wanted to start out on the right foot, sharing the farm work as I had done in the Punjab. Bang! I brought the patjul, which is a very sharp-bladed, short-handled hoe, right down on my left foot, practically severing the big toe. Husen spattered in incoherent anger; his brother Tarja, chewed up some banana leaves and staffed them into the wound to stop the blood; his mother got a towel and started wiping the streams of sweat off my back – I may have been in shock; there was a lot of blood – and, although I felt the family’s initial reserve had been broken through, I had to go back to Djakarta and stay flat in bed for three weeks. This was the low point of the stay. I experienced cultural shock – it was a dismal, second-rate, expensive hotel which I could not afford and spent the time reading G. K. Chesterton and wishing I was writing about an English village. Husen eagerly showed up every afternoon for an interview but I quickly discovered that when it came down to serious work there was a great, yawning cultural gap between Husen, all the Javanese, and myself, which was to make this study the most frustrating, and ultimately most rewarding thing I had ever written. The Javanese combine a radiant disposition and a penchant for the easy life with a strong refusal to say or do anything which might cause the listener pain. Hence, there is a great deal of circumlocution and an almost complete avoidance of direct responses to questions. For a while there was almost a cultural duel, whether I would accept Husen’s values or he would accept mine.

In the end, as must be apparent, I accepted his.

But it was not easy. There were times, as Richard Nolte, the executive secretary of the Alicia Patterson Fund, and a wise and patient counselor if there ever was one, received despairing letters saying I was thinking of dropping Java entirely and doing a village in the Philippines instead. Perhaps the worst moment followed the episode in the story where Husen and the two soldiers encounter Husen’s son, Rustani, in Bongkaren late at night. After witnessing this I stormed back into my hotel dining room, where Noel Wyatt, an Australian engineer who also appears in the story, was having dinner, and told him what a grim scene it had been and how I felt I could not go through with it. Wyatt, a pleasant, congenial man, grinned and said, “You’ll stay. But write and let me know how it comes out.” When the turning point came, I can’t remember, but come it did.

I have never seen a culture so strong and all pervasive. While Javanese like Husen do not consciously oppose modernization, indeed, even rest their future hopes on technological development such as the new strains of rice and methods of fertilization, they insist on retaining that element in their mental equipment – which I call culture – which makes them content with backwardness. Husen will work hard for sustenance but no more. Mutual aid in Pilangsari had a leveling effect; so did Husen’s family’s closeness. There was consequently no drive to keep up with the Joneses and Smiths of Pilangsari. Value was attached to hand-painted batiks, all-night wajang performances and tom-toming, to lavish wedding and circumcision feasts which impoverish. But these things, not material possessions, give joy.

Perhaps the key to it all is the importance of community living rather than individual material advancement. Where community living existed in Djakarta – as in Tjasidi’s Gunung Sari shantytown but not Bongkaren where Husen’s former wife, Taminah, lived – the more fortunate helped the deprived, there was the custom of mutual aid, and the security that goes with it.

One cannot live in Java long without looking homeward to America, without questioning whether the breathless rush to the pinnacle of material well-being leaves the energy, time and desire for what I call culture and, in retrospect, now see was happiness.

Had there been a bibliography with this sketch, The Religion of Java by American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, would have led it. The copy I borrowed from the USIS library in Djakarta and used as a constant reference in the village, was absolutely indispensable. Without it I would have missed seeing a great deal or would not have understood what I did see. It revealed for instance that Husen was almost a classical abangan, religiously tolerant, mystical, deeply superstitious and yet curiously detached from his own beliefs and customs and whose three central values were the mutual adjustment of interdependent wills, the self-restraint of emotional expression, what he called “iklas” and the careful regulation of outward behavior. Another superb book is the late Louis Fischer’s The Story of Indonesia. Among the fifty or so studies of Java and Indonesia I read while in Djakarta and Pilangsari, these two were the best.

“Hello, Mister! Where Are You Going?” is based on five months of research while living in Pilangsari village on the banks of the Tjimanuk River in the Indramaju district of the Tjirebon region of western Java, where the culture was predominately Javanese but with Sundanese elements. During the later part of my stay, I lived in several Djakarta slum areas: Simprug, Gunung Sari, Tanahabang and, for some days, in a brothel in Tandjung Priok. Aside from the characters themselves, who showed me a hospitality and kindness I can never repay, I wish to express my gratitude to the helpful officials of the Foreign and Information Ministries of the Government of Indonesia, especially for the patient assistance I received when extending my visa four times; to officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and the staff of the Indonesian Rice Research Institute at Bogor; to Rochim, an officer of CARE in Bogor; to Lieutenant General Ali Sadikin and his staff at the governor’s office in Djakarta, for their many, many hours of interviews and briefings and to the many helpful officials of the Agency for International Development mission in Djakarta, the World Banks the Ford Foundation, the Harvard Advisory Group at the National Planning Council.

I am also indebted to Bur Rasuanto, the distinguished Indonesian author and journalist from Indonesia Raya, an old friend since we covered the Vietnam war together, for his assistance in advice and interpreting in both Djakarta and Pilangsari during the initial phases of the study; to Miss Judy Bird Williams, the Djakarta representative of Newsweek and the Washington Star, for her advice, her friendship and the use of her villa on Djati Luhur street as an office, without which I might not have had the sense of security and confidence to plunge into the slums and Djakarta underworld as I did, and also for her assistance in arranging for Karniti to get expert medical attention in Djakarta; to Bujung, Miss Williams’ assistant, for his help as an interpreter and guide those many weekends in Kali Baru and Tandjung Priok; to Princen, a Dutch-born naturalized Indonesian political figure, for his help and encouragement and paying me the compliment I was the only foreigner he knew who had never met an Indonesian who owned a car (not strictly true); to my friend, Ventje, of Kwini Street, for introducing me to some of his neighbors who were members of the Alamo gang; to Poli, an Ambonese sailor in Tandjung Priok, for getting us out of a tight scrape; to Aminah, for all those remarkable Sunday dinners cooked at short notice, going and coming from Tandjung Priok and Kali Baru. And not to forget Lee Ching Yung of the Peter Robinson Studios here in Singapore for the special painstaking effort he took freezing my negatives for enlargement since I used a 35-millimeter Roleiflex the size of a cigarette package. And the staff of Chequers Hotel in Singapore for putting up with the frenzy in room 35 as I wrote this study in fifteen days.

So it was a long journey that began three years ago with a “Hello, mister! Where are you going?” outside the Hotel Indonesia and ended in a taxicab going down Djalan Thamrin for the last time on the way to Kemajoran Airport and when we crossed Merdeka square for the last time and it suddenly seemed to me all Java and Djakarta were slipping away from me like the hands of a Javanese slowly slide from your grasp when they say farewell, I heard Husen speaking, the last of his words I can remember. “Hey, Dick, you don’t do like that. You must be iklas.” But by then I could not be iklas. [Note: Husen saw me off by surprise, sitting up half the night on a bus and the rest in Tjasta’s betjak at the hotel. I had already said goodbye when visiting the village a few days earlier to take Karniti to the doctor, after Husen had urgently summoned me from Djakarta one night].

As I put these last words to the paper, night is gathering here in Singapore. My hotel was once a monastery and sitting alone on a hilltop, surrounded by superbly tended gardens, it still has the air of one. It is raining and as I look out of the window, the wet, green landscape is almost empty of life, save for an old Chinese gardener, patiently stacking up the lawn furniture. The rain lashes down on him; a windswept, solitary scene. And I think it would be twilight now in Djakarta. And I imagine myself there once more, coming out the entrance of the Hotel Indonesia perhaps sunburnt from the swimming pool and flushed from a martini or two at the bar, and Husen or Tjasta or Tjasidi are waiting. Let us imagine it is Tjasidi, and we move down Djalan Thamrin, just as the little orange oil lamps come on in the stalls all along the boulevard. And we stop at a restaurant across from the Djakarta Fair for soto Madura; the restaurant, really a crude shed, with its long wooden tables unshielded from the sun, rain or smoke from the open-air kitchen. And the woman who always wears a red blouse automatically brings us hot steaming bowls of beef soup, boiled rice, some shrimp cakes and an iced tea for Tjasidi and an iced beer for me. We do not have to order; we have been there so many times. And afterward we go “djalan-djalan,” or just drive around the city, aimlessly really since there is so much life and exuberance among Djakarta’s people, almost any street is an adventure. Later on, we turn down Gunung Sari Street and follow the canal in the direction of Tandjung Priok, but turning off well before at alleyway number eleven. There we drink sugary glasses of Javanese coffee at a small stall near Tjasidi’s betjak stand and joke with all the customers, who know us well by now. Then, leaving the betjak at the stand, we walk past the big, solid houses of the Indians and Pakistanis and Chinese to the little shantytown of bamboo huts along the railroad tracks where the villagers from Karang Ampel live. And here, perhaps on benches or on a bamboo mat on the railway track itself, we will sit until late in the night, talking or perhaps listening to someone play a guitar. Perhaps Husen will be there, singing sad Tjirebon songs or Tjasta, always more of a presence than a personality, silently smoking, or staring off into space. Perhaps the silver crescent of the moon moves across the star-filled sky, and with the voices near and the distant sounds of the great, restless city all around you, it is as if human loneliness had never existed, anywhere in the world…

man in cartBut the past is finished; one must look to the future. Let us imagine another twilight in Djakarta, perhaps one or two months hence. Husen, perhaps earning some capital for his warung for some weeks, is back in his old place in the betjak line at the Indonesia.

“Hello, Mister! Where are you going?”

A passenger, a foreigner, climbs into the betjak and when, as they drive around the town, he stops for tea and invites Husen to join him, Husen takes a package out from under the seat of his betjak and unwraps the newspaper around it.

“Oh, what is this big book?” the tourist asks and then with astonishment, “Is this your picture on the cover?”

And Husen feigns nonchalance, shrugging, “I don’t know. Maybe you like look inside. You can read if you like,” and then he chuckles and gives himself away.

R.C., Singapore, November 30, 1970

Tjasta, Husen, the author, Tjasidi and Bujung at Djakarta's Kemajoran Airport, November 14, 1970
Tjasta, Husen, the author, Tjasidi and Bujung at Djakarta's Kemajoran Airport, November 14, 1970


Received in New York on December 8, 1970.

©1970 Richard Critchfield

Mr. Richard Critchfield is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from the Washington Evening Star, Washington, D.C. This article may be published with credit to Mrs. Critchfield, the Washington Star and the Alicia Patterson Fund.