as i was listlessly poking at the tasteless nasi goreng which was technically my breakfast in the afternoon heat of jakarta, a man sat down at my table. all the other tables were free, so in spite of my slow hangover mood i was able to draw the conclusion that he probably wanted to talk to me. he was a whitey, in his late 50s judging by his looks, but he might well have been younger. he had a gaunt, drawn face, and the etched lines of his face and burst capillaries led me to jump to the perhaps unfair conclusion that the large bintang beer in his hand was not the first one in his life. he was the kind of person that this street, jalan jaksa, seemed to attract like a magnet. the human flotsam and jetsam of the industrialised countries that falls overboard at home and finds itself, 20, 30, 40 years down the line, washed up in sleazy, second-rate bars such as this one. lost, lonely, hanging on to the last scraps of their dignity.
without any further ado, apart from a swig of his bintang, he told me that he had thyroid cancer. he had been diagnosed just the other day, he couldn't quite say when, though, as he had been on a drinking binge ever since. and in the end, did it really matter now what day he found out? he didn't have any money for therapy, no health plan, he had burned his bridges in britain decades ago but had not been able to build any new ones on indonesia either. nor did he see his chances of finding a loving partner for the last few years of his remaining life as being too great: a dying, old, impoverished, alcoholic man does not really score very high in the highly competitive jakarta social scene.
i had in the meantime stopped eating my fried rice and wondered if i should say something, but there was no need for that, he was the one doing the talking.
and then he stopped. his eyes were fixed on something far away, metaphorically speaking, for in the grubby street that is jalan jaksa there isn't anything one could look at thats more then 25 metres away. after a moment's silence, he turned to me: "where are you from, anyway?"
"finland," i said, adding my first and last word to what had now become a conversation. "oh, finland...," he started, with a new-found dreaminess in his voice... "i remember finland well," he continued, almost as if transfixed, "the olympics in helsinki in 1952." he paused to sip his beer and his gaze was now fixated not only on a place far away, but also on a different era. "i remember it well," he said, looking through and past me with his glazed eyes, his back suddenly ramrod straight, as if in a past memory of better times, of more self-dignity, perhaps even of pride in himself.
lost in his own world, he continued slowly. "it was the marathon. i remember it well. it was the helsinki stadium, and emil zatopek came running in. it was the cold war, you know, and he was czech, but the crowd stood up and chanted his name... ZA-TO-PEK, ZA-TO-PEK, ZA-TO-PEK! cheering on the one who was supposed to be the enemy... oh, the humanity of it! the humanity!!!" tears started rolling down his worn face as he mumbled "the humanity, the humanity..." to himself a few more times, bleary eyes focusing on a better, other life. he then quickly finished his beer, stood up and continued walking down jalan jaksa as if in a trance, leaving me speechless and dumbfounded with my now-cold nasi goreng.