A Night in Kuta
It’s nearly midnight and Bali Manik seems to be the cheapest and best option. No hot shower, no air con, no TV, no TP, just a bed and a fan and an attached toilet with no light bulb. I drop my bag on the floor, exchange my jeans for a thin pair of shorts and my shoes for thongs. I wander down to the nearest convenience store, buy a Bintang and a packet of kretek cigarettes and prepare to gulp and inhale. I want to gulp and inhale the streets, the people and the music but I am held up by two girls at the counter.
They are holding each other with drunken affection and performing a loud and sloppy rendition of ‘We’re Happy Little Vegemites’. The clerk gives them a friendly chuckle like he’s seen it all before and asks them if they are drunk. One of the girls spits, “She’s fuckin’ maggot!” with conviction. The clerk smiles knowingly, but both are oblivious to his reaction and to my presence as I wait to be served. I’m trying to snigger at them or smile knowingly like the clerk but instead I am forcing a smile that reeks of embarrassment. They are oblivious to all but their own proclamation: “We’re Australian and we’re drunk.” Here are my first impressions of Bali.
Soon I’m standing in a bar watching an attractive band of locals in matching blue suits play pop songs that are vaguely familiar to me but well-known to the majority of the crowd. They are incredibly tight and working the crowd like a true cover band: shamelessly tacky, far too rehearsed and predictable, but appealing perfectly to the mess of drunken tourists. They have a solid stage presence and I can see the appeal. It seems like I’m the only one in the place who isn’t on the vibe, standing around awkwardly and unable to shake my embarrassed smile.
A fat Australian man in board-shorts notices me, perhaps aware of the rigidness in my posture, that I am sipping my beer mechanically or that I am not quite comfortable here. He comes over and shows me that he is comfortable here and suggests that I should be too.
“If you got no mates come and drink with us mate, we’re old bastards, and a bit mad, but we know how to have a good time.”
I accept his offer, inwardly cursing myself for doing so. He introduces his friend, proudly qualifying his status with footy credentials that are meaningless to me, then introduces me to three or four local women who “do a bit of work here and there but are just mates really”. I sit down at the table.
The fat man takes a bottle of vodka from the table, fills a tumbler halfway to the top, lights it on fire and gulps it down in one. Minutes later, he finds a soggy cigarette that has been left on the table and eats it, filter and all. I sort of laugh as if to show that I’m impressed but it’s a weak attempt and he sees through it.
A waitress hands me a beer and the fat man gestures to pay for it. I attempt to resist, not keen to owe him anything, but he insists and, as if staking his claim, launches into a rant.
“I sold my drilling company for thirty-eight million last year. I own eight houses over here and my wife and kids are asleep in one of them right now. I don’t fuck around on her. I dress like I don’t have 10 cents in my pocket but I do it on purpose. I’m not buying all your beers but I’ll buy this one because I reckon it’s important for old blokes like me to give a little bit to young blokes like you and expect nothing in return.”
He draws my attention to a young local girl who has the skinniest limbs I’ve ever seen. Her body looks dangerously unhealthy. She is gaunt and skeletal but wearing a proud and genuine smile.
“See her,” he points, “I gave her two hundred because she’s completely deaf, can’t understand a fuckin’ word you’re saying mate, skinny as a rake. It’s sad man, you got a disability out here and you’re fucked, completely outcasted.”
I’m deeply inhaling my cigarette and nodding intermittently. I’m interested now, not in a way that makes me feel like we are friends, it’s more of a curiosity about this man’s convictions and what he knows about Indonesia. He tells me that he’s fluent in Bahasa Indonesia and three other dialects and I must admit that I’m impressed, if slightly skeptical. I’m listening intently, but also feeling uncomfortable. Every so often he looks around at the local women and asks me which one I want, assuring me that I can have any or all of them if I want. I brush it off and swig my beer.
“Come and have a dance ya’ boring cunt,” says the fat man. I follow him to the back of the club where the band has finished and the stage is now occupied by a an extremely attractive local woman in an orange bikini. She is gyrating towards the stripper pole.
“You like that?” he’s chiding, pointing at her.
Admittedly, I do.
“Well fuck her in the arse then!” he’s saying frustratedly. “Nobody knows ya’ here, nobody cares. You just gotta’ let go mate.”
I’m telling him I’m not interested, that I feel weird about paying for sex. But internally I’m thinking about the real reasons I’m saying no. Theoretically, I don’t have a problem with prostitution but only in the purest sense of the word. It is a transaction that, if corrupted in terms and degrees of choice–if undertaken forcibly by circumstance or necessity rather than an empowerment–then, to me, it becomes unethical. There is a possibility that the women surrounding me have made the choice to engage in prostitution for reasons that are conscious and rewarding but I can’t really be sure of that. My suspicion is that for some people it is a product of poverty and desperation. But I don’t really know, so I keep drinking my Bintang.
We’re all drunk now, standing around the table again. “Which one do ya’ want?” I shake my head. “Let’s just get three of ’em and all fuck ’em and swap ’em round.” I can’t think of anything worse than sharing a bunch of hookers with this fat oil barren and his footy mate. I look at his sweaty forehead and his gut and I imagine him naked. His hands are big and somehow devolved; like monkey hands except fatter. I wonder if he’s going to fuck the deaf girl, the uber skinny one. A horrible scene unfolds in my imagination.
I decide to head back to Bali Manik.