He sat right in front of me, parked so close that there could be no misunderstanding. N* was fabulous at the guitar, and a phenomenal singer to boot. He belted out love songs, strategically replacing certain words with “Kristin,” just in case there was any shadow of a doubt that he was singing just for me. If not for the myriad of Bintang beers the group had downed, this might have been quite awkward. But everyone was laughing and singing along, just as we had all night.
What’s going on here? The men in the rest of Southeast Asia have avoided me like the plague, yet this guy is serenading me as if I’m the only girl in the room.
Seeing that his territory was in danger of encroachment, J* asked me to step closer to the river and have a talk with him. We had spent that day escaping the Sunday karaoke by visiting a secluded river elsewhere in the jungle and napping in a tiny open-air tree house above the water. To me, it had been friendly. How silly that assumption had been.
“I really like you,” he said. Perplexed, as I had honestly napped most of the day while he was off swimming, I asked how he could possibly like someone he barely knew.
“I like Western girls,” was his response. I told him it was time to go back to the song circle and shortly thereafter called it a night, heading back, solo, to my room.
Then there was the guy who gave me a lift on his motorbike. He followed me back to the other side of the river saying he wanted to go ‘swimming.’ What was lost in translation is he really meant, ‘shower.’ In my room. What?
It took a few days in Sumatra to dawn on me that I was seeing the local boys constantly flirting with the Western girls – a phenomenon that was the exact opposite of what I had been seeing in Thailand. The longer I stayed in Bukit Lawang, the more I observed. Many girls came to visit who, it turned out, were girlfriends of the local guys. At first I didn’t understand the fascination. There are so many things working against these couples; distance, cultural differences, not to mention a huge language barrier. Sitting down and having a conversation is often rather difficult.
The next night I decided to observe with new eyes, watching the guys work their magic on girls they had taken trekking that day. They gave more undivided attention to these girls than they probably ever get back home. They were attentive, they’re attractive, and frankly irresistible.
The flirtation didn’t end in Sumatra. There was the time on a public bus to Bima (a town on the island next to Lombok) where a teenage kid seated next to me, after exchanging maybe two words, put his hand on my thigh. Once I got over the initial shock, I squirmed uncomfortably and he quickly removed it. In hindsight I really wish I’d told him off.
Then there were the guys on Gili Trawangan who kept inviting me to hang out ‘upstairs’ with them, even offering me free drugs. I politely declined.
Trying to wrap my head around it, I told a Western girlfriend who had been living in Indonesia for a while about all the odd things that had been happening. She laughed knowingly and recommended a documentary to me that would help explain things: Cowboys in Paradise. The documentary followed what can only be described as gigolos in Kuta, Bali, who seek out Western women who they believe may have money. They woo them, sometimes get into relationships with them, and develop a bond. Though money isn’t directly exchanged for sex, they become kept men.
It seemed no different to me than some relationships between Thai women and Western men. The Westerners often support their lovers financially, buying all of the food and paying for lodging while in Indonesia, then sending money over every now and then after returning home. It’s so cheap for these women to buy a meal, a T-shirt, or pay for a room for the week, so why not foot the bill in exchange for a good lover? What they don’t know is they are often one of many girlfriends, and fidelity is not a given.
Some of my favorite quotes from the documentary were, “I score within three days. If not, don’t stand by me. Many girls on the beach.”
Or, “What’s important is the money’s good. Not the face.“
Even better was the guy who was willing to explain the process: First he showers the girl with attention, then goes out and shows her a good time. It’s key to be non-agressive, always be smiling, and appear to care.
The most shocking part of all to me was that some of these men are married. I’d read the same about Thai prostitutes in a fairly riveting memior. It’s insane to think about, but the wives are usually fully aware. They need the money so badly, they put up with it. To make the pressure even stronger, these guys have an important role in giving back to their communities as well.
Of course, like any trade where sex is on the table, the older they get, the harder it is to make money like they used to.
I can’t help but think back to an American guy I was chatting with in Thailand, asking him, “Don’t you mind being used to pay for everything?” to which he replied, “No, it’s mutual using, so who cares?” I suppose it’s the same in Indonesia.
Weigh in: What’s your opinion of the game of love in Indonesia, or Southeast Asia in general?
*Names changed to protect the not-so-innocent