The Expat Life and Curing What Ails You

by Miss Footloose

Living the expat life offers many rewards, hospitalization not one of them. In most parts of the world, the locals have their own traditional ways of healing and the brave ones among us globetrotters might even try these at times and benefit from them. In Indonesia, the ancient art of herbal healing is known as jamu. Tonics, pills and powders are widely available in small stalls and from roaming street vendors. This photo shows a jamu gendong carrying bottles of her homemade potions in a basket on her back. There’s a jamu remedy for everything, from simple fatigue to “bloated heart” and marital strife. Of course, in many far and foreign places, western medicine in some form or other is available as well, if not always practiced in ways that gives us expats comfort. Here’s a little tale of my experience in a small hospital in Java, Indonesia. Photo by Kaja Dutka. Used by permission.

Sometimes you just get better

Once I suffered from a mysterious and painful abdominal ailment, which landed me in a Catholic mission hospital in a provincial town in Java, Indonesia, where we had taken up residence at the time. It was a small, white hospital built around a central garden compound, in the middle of which stood a pretty, serene statue of the Virgin Mary.

The doctor attending to me was Indonesian, short, dark and seventy-two years old, I was told, and he spoke Dutch, which was a good thing because it’s my mother tongue. In the olden days Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands and the official language, therefore, was Dutch. It no longer is. It is Bahasa Indonesia, which means “Indonesian language,” the local variety of Malay. But I digress.

The doctor was a university professor, a surgeon still operating regularly. He looked old and frail. Surreptitiously, I examined his hands. Were they shaking? He thought I might have appendicitis, but not acute. X-rays were taken, and I was administered penicillin, after I was first given a test to see if I might be allergic. I could have told the nurses I was not, but my bahasa was not up to the challenge and they spoke no English and most certainly no Dutch (they were post-colonial), so I let them go ahead.

They were tiny, flat-chested girls and they looked to be about sixteen. They giggled a lot. This is an annoying (nervous) habit of Indonesian girls and not one that instills in you a lot of confidence when you’re dealing with medical personnel.

I lay alone in my private white room, feeling very sick and, frankly, very frightened. An older nun, in habit, came to cheer me up. In Dutch. It was reassuring, somehow. She had a wonderful sense of humor and made me laugh, which wasn’t so easy considering where I was, having the threat of surgery by a shaky old doctor hanging over my head. Having been brought up in the Calvinist tradition, I had never had a close encounter with a Catholic nun, but this one surely was a comfort to me and didn’t at all resemble the ones I’d heard about from American friends who’d been educated in private Catholic schools.

Being a foreigner, I served as entertainment for the nurses, whose contact with aliens of my ilk clearly had been limited. Two at a time they gave me sponge baths, discussing my painted nails while they were at it. I knew why. The polish covered the entire nail. How much more elegant and dainty the nails would look if I didn’t polish the moon-shaped cuticle! We all have our ideas of glamour.

They were mystified and amused by my wish to have my tea without sugar, but the greatest kick they got out of me was seeing my consternation at finding a cat roaming the halls. Assuming the scraggly feline had slipped in by mistake, I dragged myself out of bed and immediately reported the discovery, speaking my fractured and limited bahasa. I had expected a certain amount of uproar from the nurses. There was none.

They smiled prettily and giggled.

Assuming they did not understand me, I persisted. “Kuching!” I kept repeating, gesturing wildly into the hall. “Kuching!” Finally, they came out of the nurses’ station with me and I pointed triumphantly at the feline, who, right on cue, came arrogantly strolling out of one of the little supply rooms where a cart with sterile stuff stood at the ready, possibly to be used for my surgery. I wondered if going the jamu route might not have been a better choice.

“Kuching!” I said again, just to prove I knew of which I spoke. The nurses giggled some more, and nodded. Indeed, a cat. They looked at me as if I were a mad woman. I was beginning to feel like one.

Defeated, I went back to my room and contemplated the situation. Perhaps the cat was there to keep the rats away.

The next day I was cured and released. Don’t tell me it was the penicillin. It was mind over matter.
NOTE: This was many years ago. Hopefully no more cats in Indonesian hospitals. And if you are interested in concocting your own Indonesian herbal remedies, here’s a site with jamu recipes. Beware, the site suffers from creative translationitis, and there’s no jamu for that.

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Made a Belize Buzz link to you today.

Fascinating – and frightening! I remember having my ears cleaned out by a man who advertised his services by displaying a pile of dried-out perforated ear drums… I decided I could live with blocked-up ears after that!

Cat clearly channelled all the bad stuff right out of you. Fantastic reading.

Ah, Wendela, absolutely lovely writing and so great to hear your voice. I’ve been a fan of your books for years and now I’m a fan of your blog. Beautiful!!Much love,Jane

Thanks all of you for your comments. LadyF, your ear-cleaning adventure sounds worthy of a scene in a movie! Gutsy Writer, your move to Belize was inspiring, and it was fun to read about your experiences living in a poor country. Hope your book has a great future!And Jane and Jenny, my Harlequin writer buddies — great to see you here!Saturday I’ve got another story for you … put a sweater on.Happy writing, all,Miss Footloose

My first visit to your site. Very much enjoyed your jamu story. I don’t know where all the epats go when they stop being expats. My hunch is that they don’t, but that they eventually blend in with their local surroundings so well that you don’t notice them any more. At least I’m hoping that’s what’s going to happen to me one day!

Hi Louise,

Blending in where? I’m looking for a place … Italy maybe? We cruised around the south several times, loved Campania, but it might be a bit lonely when you don’t know a soul to start with and still have to learn the language.

Your photos are beautiful!



I can assure you the standard of medical care in Indonesia has not changed one iota. Have lived in Jakarta since 1996. My apartment overlooks a private hospital where all the “surgical greens” are washed by hand in cold water in a large tin bath outside and then spread over the flat roof of the building to dry! Cats, rats and the occasional bird come to visit throughout the drying process!

Nicholas, sad to hear the hospital situation has not improved in Indonesia. I actually have a photo of “my” hospital yard with the sheets spread out on the ground to dry. In most hospitals in Armenia you have to bring your own sheets.

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