The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, April 08, 2012


Going to hell in a handcart

Moral challenges don’t play fair. They ambush the unwary, confronting us before we have time to prepare the right response.

There should be early warning systems in place, like tsunami alerts, so we can race to the moral high ground and pass judgment.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that, as I discovered in Malang early one Sunday.

The day started uneventfully. Such days always do. The Bromo-Tengger massif stood clear against the dawn, the peaks yet to disappear in the fog of fumes.

The five kilometer walk from home to Oro-Oro Dowo market goes through central Malang, past the Dr Syaiful Anwar Public Hospital. Opposite is the Catholic Cor Jesu (Sacred Heart) high school. Both flank Jl Jaksa Agung Suprapto which rises uphill, heading north.

And on this road, between the two caring institutions (one with a statue of Jesus), shuffled a ragged, tragic figure, a man so old or so damaged, that any guess about his age would be wrong.

Like a human buffalo he was hauling a cart, an enormous flat-bottom trailer so overloaded with rubbish that some bags were dragging on the road, adding to the friction.

Like Atlas the man’s neck was at right angles to his body, set in a permanent hunch. He seemed burdened not just by his impossible load, but the anguish of the world.

He sought to maintain momentum on the 30 degree slope, but the effort was too great. He paused between steps, straining against gravity.

He could not be missed. I stood at the crossroads. What should I do? The man clearly needed a hand. I’m fit enough to give him one. It would be the natural, decent thing to do. No one else was paying attention

Then the devil spoke.

To get to the carter I’d have to cross a dangerous road and scramble over a concrete barrier. This wasn’t just a short rise – I’d have to pull for 500 meters or more. I’d get dirty and hot, maybe miss my lift home from the market.

The filthy load was probably full of disease. Dengue fever was abroad. He hadn’t asked for help, so what business was it of mine? I’m a foreigner. My embassy warns against getting involved in local issues; I should follow its wise advice.

Indonesians could see his plight; they weren’t helping, so why me? The last time I protested about a social injustice the police came a crowd gathered and I had to retreat.

In any case he was probably a scavenger, maybe crazy. He’d only understand Javanese and might react badly if confronted by a babbling white man. He’d think I’m a ghost. He might drop the handle. Terrible accidents could follow as the cart rushed backwards, crashing into cars, crushing little children.

These things have to be considered rationally.

An angel blew awkward thoughts in my ear: Suppose the ancient was really a mystic testing the compassion of those who claim to care? If it was a woman pushing a disabled car, would I hesitate?

Then the angel suggested a compromise: If I wouldn’t help why not pay a strong boy to assist?

The devil was not to be outdone. Was I carrying small change? And where were the willing lads? Should I find one he’d pocket the rupiah and run.

Why do such issues always arise in Indonesia? In my homeland I’d know what to do – call emergency services, contact social welfare. Not that I’d ever encounter such a distressing sight in orderly Australia.

While I dithered the pitiful porter dragged himself away from my dilemma. I hope he rested his body when he reached his destination. I wasn’t able to rest my soul when I reached mine.

I’ve glimpsed the old fellow once since. This time I was a passenger in a car speeding in the opposite direction, thank God. This time his clumsy contraption was going slowly downhill. Like my conscience.

He seemed to know where he was going. Not me, I’d lost my moral compass. I fear it’s slipping and sliding among the garbage of excuses in citizen carter’s tumbrel, waiting to be recovered with a gesture of humanity.

(First published in The Sunday Post 8 April 2012)

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