Monday, April 20, 2009

Adventure, discovery, love, waifs and strays


Of course I began to worry about amoebas, hookworm, enteric parasites, giant leaping tree snakes, the sixteen hour flight and all the air turbulence that could be packed into such a journey. However, I was off to Java for adventure and discovery, for a chance to find a soul mate, and for an opportunity to help some waifs and strays.

Adventure and discovery? I wanted to lose myself in a distant Third World country and discover the answer to some of life’s big questions. I wanted to wander through shanty towns and rain forests and learn about animism and Islam.

Love? I was sometimes a bit of a fidgety loner and needed a soul mate, a fellow alien, someone I could be deeply attached to. And sometimes in my dreams there was a misty vision of a lost and lonely figure in a city that was a port. Could that be someone I was going to meet in Jakarta?

Waifs and strays? It was time I tried to do something useful. I had had a Sunday-school upbringing which had emphasised the gentler, kinder side of religion; the heroes had been people like The Good Samaritan and David Livingstone.

I belonged to no church but felt that life was not simply an accident. I believed that there was a bit of Mother Teresa, a bit of Casanova and a bit of Hitler in each and all of us; we had to choose who to be; we reaped what we sowed. Could a discontented devil like me do any genuine good?

Waifs and strays, and romance and adventure, I had come across during brief holiday trips to such places as Bombay, Bangkok, and Margate.

At Bombay’s Victoria terminus railway station, I had seen a boy with pencil limbs and half blind pearly eyes. He had been too weak to stand up. I had stuffed some money and some vitamin tablets into his mother’s hands and then guiltily rushed off to catch the train to Delhi. The boy had smiled. I should have taken him to hospital, but I didn’t.

I remembered a garden party in Rio de Janeiro when I had asked a vicar how I might help some of the poor people of the favelas. "It’s difficult when you’re only here for three days holiday," he had said. "A child with TB needs help over many months. Why not get a teaching job in a Third World country and then help these people in your spare time?" I had liked the sound of that, but, for many years I had put off making the move. I could be a highly nervous, windy character.

I had needed to be pushed by circumstances. My ennui with London meant that now I was off to the "Big Mango", the "City of Drains" and the "Queen of the East." Perhaps some valium?"I’m going to live in Jakarta," I told Richard, one of my neighbours who used to travel a lot on business. "Have you been there?"

"Yes. It’s filthy. Rubbish everywhere. Dirtiest place I’ve ever seen. A horrible police state. You’ll hate it."

But I knew I was not going to hate it! I was going to be living on Java, Indonesia’s main island, a Garden of Eden, described by one writer as the most beautiful tropical island on Earth. And I had a teaching contract that promised me free medical insurance, a rent-free house, free electricity, a maid, a car, and even a driver. I couldn’t wait to get my packing done, say my goodbyes, and head to Heathrow.

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1. JAKARTA: SIX DEGREES SOUTH
Why Indonesia?
Adventure, discovery, love, waifs and strays
One of the world's great hot steamy cities
Three bedroom house

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