Some months back, seeking to make some extra cash, even if only in Rupiah, I began to do some work writing and editing for a magazine called Bali Style. This is a slick, Western style production prepared in Bali and printed in Jakarta, generally covering all things unaffordable, otherwise unattainable for the local population--fine linens and ceramic ware, five star hotels, sprawling new white walled villas, walk in closets with sliding ladders and shelves for the shoes, jewels for Dutch necks and English fingers.
All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold
We call these things precious, sumptuous, lavish, exotic, succulent, luscious, divine. These are the words we use. And when we run out of such words, we use the thesaurus to find more. We paint our Western picture. We build our castles on the sand and atop the crumbled wall. There are people, I will tell you honestly, who come here to Indonesia, and yet never actually arrive.
So one day during an editorial meeting--a foreign thing in itself--I found myself daydreaming, exhausted, disheartened by luxury, and I began to construct in my mind a different sort of issue of Bali Style. I called it, in my mind, Bali Style--The Real World Issue; and the article I wrote, in my mind, in my daydream, went like this:
Those who are familiar with Bali Style magazine will find our current issue a bit of a departure from the norm. No Villas here, no Ming Dynasty “vawses,“ none of the usual glitz and glimmer. Rather, we shall visit the real world, and hope to impart a new, more down to earth taste for the palate of our typical reader.
Here, dear reader, is the classic Balinese homestead. This simple one room dwelling is made completely of stone on the outside. It is also made of stone on the inside. In fact the stone on the inside is the backside of the stone on the outside. It is, in short, the same stone, inside and out.
Within these understated walls we find furniture in the well-loved antique style, genuinely aged, cleverly constructed from mossy planks of pre-used lumbar found in the pristine field out back (which is where the pre-used nails were found as well). On the armoire, brightly nostalgic in the classic red and yellow hues of 1950’s plastic ware, sits grandma’s unfinished bowl of mie goring, although grandma herself has not been seen for several months’ time and may, it is thought, have succumbed to Dengue Fever.
From the square eco-friendly front window (for it has no glass or other impediment to the cooling breeze), we turn and take three steps to the far side of the dwelling, careful not to stir the dust along the way. There in the corner sits a tiny cane, propped just so, waiting for its tiny owner to return. And a chicken. Beside the cane and the chicken are a few pellets of chicken shit, as well as one dog turd.
Lighting throughout the house is unobtrusive, as indirect as a tongue in cheek comment--none of these glaring overhead globes, which do, after all, require electricity, not to mention money for payment of the electric bill. Therefore, we are inclined to call the interior lighting here a suggestion rather than a shout, a rumor rather than an actual fact.
Mother’s bed is on the eastern wall, nestled beneath several rather artistically imperfect stones that jut from the wall and serve as convenient natural nightstands. Or handholds if need be. Father’s bed is there too. As are the beds of junior and his two brothers.
A short distance further into the interior of the home (and I do mean short), we find we are actually in the backyard. In fact, we find ourselves standing in the bathroom. It is a sharing of space, a dialogue with nature. Again, the accent is on simplicity, on intimate relationship with the land. And the evidence of this relationship is all about--so watch your step folks!
What is beauty? Yes, the young woman also, the maiden from Sumatra, the kampung princess from Jawa Selatan. She is the girl who works the side street in Kuta, the one who goes by taxi two and three times a night to the hotel in Legian, the one who sits at the long bar in the dark club on Jalan Danau Tamblingan in Sanur and waits, facing the street, legs crossed elegantly at the knee, for someone to notice, and pause, and check his wallet.
On Jalan Danau Poso my wife has a salon. We do hair and nails and massage. Next door is a short lane which leads to a brothel, and next door to that another. Other services are offered there, but the girls regularly come to our place to spend, in a way that seems incredible to me, their hard earned wages on manicures, pedicures, cream rinses, and gossip. But of course the gossip part is free, and there are a million good stories to go around, believe you me.
At first I did not understand who these girls were. I noted only (ever callow I) that there seemed to be a lucky surplus of beautiful women on our street. They would sit and talk, inside or out, waiting one turn in the chair for another, and eat their lunch outside--nasi kuning, mie goring, bubur ayam--at the table where I also sit and write.
Here the daylight pays the night’s price, and the exchange is made in smiles, in words, in pampering and primping. Here is where they care for themselves, body and soul, redeeming their wages for the rewards of friendship and common conversation. In short, they become real people again. And these are the people I have come to know, the real women, the girls, some of them not much more than children, come to remove the masks of night in favor of those made of cooling cosmetic creams and lotions, wrinkle reducers, face rejuvenizers, skin pore cleansers, eye socket balms, mustache removers, exfoliating ointments, and whatever else of chemical mystery is served up in my wife’s salon. They are Ayuh, Ketut, Gina, Dewi; from Java, Sumatra, Surabaya, Jakarta. In Bali they make their money, and send a goodly portion back home. They say that they are working as beauticians or clerks, waitresses or cooks, so that the money they send will not be tainted.
Meme had grown chunky in the months that had passed since we first met. She had made a particular friend of my wife, and would appear daily at the salon from around the corner, just to talk. Every day, or so it seemed, she grew a little bit larger. It happened also, in suspicious coincidence, that her clientele began to fall off and wither. So it happened that my wife began to worry for the girl’s welfare.
“Meme can’t get any customers,” she told me. “There are too many girls next door.”
Too many girls next door? Was that the problem, really? But the competition is stiff, you see? The candy store is overstocked.
Nonetheless, I made no comment, other than to suggest that she might consider a change in career.
“Change to what? There are no jobs here--especially for a girl like Meme. She’s got no training, no education, no skills.”
Other than the skill she is already plying. This was the sentence so very clearly unsaid. And indeed it is so--for Meme’s experience, her training had started long ago--first at the hands of her father, then of her uncle, then back to her father, and so sadly on. Meme worked even then, and not for money, but only as a human barrier to keep guard over her much younger sister.
What is right, after all? What has honor? What exactly is exchanged in trade?
I feel so bad for her,” Louis said.
I could not help but think that a diet might be a place to start, but I did not offer this as an opinion.
“I’m going to call some people,” my wife said.
“To try to help her.”
“Yes! What else? It’s the only thing she knows how to do.”
“So now you’re a pimp?”
“If that’s what it takes!”
“Well for Christ’s sake,” I objected.
“Don’t say Christ,” she answered.
I don’t understand my wife. I don’t understand her thought processes. Moreover, since my wife is a woman, I guess I don’t understand women in general. I mean, what are we talking about here? Prostitution, right? Women degraded at the hands of men, purchased like so many loaves of bread.
But Louise is a realist, not an altruist. When the day is done it is not high morals that matter, but food in the mouth, rent on the table. It is a hard course to argue, for we argue starvation against survival, crucifixion against contentment.
In the end I merely mentioned Weight Watchers as a possible good.
But weight, I was told, did not matter. Rather, it was not the weight of one girl that had become problematic, but the weight of many.
One late night, already a long time in bed, we were awakened by a phone call. It was Meme. Something was wrong. The police were on patrol. Meme was hiding. Hiding . . . Where? In the bushes on the grounds of the Mercure hotel?
I picked these things up piece by piece, scattered as they were among a lot of other pieces and all strewn about in the chaotic manner of the Indonesian language spoken in rapid bursts of slang.
“Tell her to come here,” I said, allowing a groan to escape at the end. “Tell her to take a taxi.”
“Don’t be scared,” Louise was saying into the phone. “Don’t be scared, Meme. Just stay there, okay. Just stay in the bushes. My husband will come and get you.”
And then she turned to me and said:
We will say in conclusion that once a year the police in Sanur do an official sweep, rounding up the girl on the street, the underage worker, visiting the brothel and the chicken bar and such like. It is, as I say, a once a year event--and perhaps always the same day at that, a sort of holiday on an island already overrun by holidays--Galungan, Nyeppi, Ramadan, Christmas, and so on.
This was the day Meme hid in the bushes at the Mercure, and the night she stayed in our spare room at the house. It was the night the police arrested a 17 year old, a 15 year old, and a 14 year old girl. And exacted a fine on the owner of the brothel which had furnished the same.
And then back to business as usual.
Oh, the officers still visit the brothels--once and twice a week at that--but only for graft, to collect their fee, the cost of departmental blindness. And the Bali boys are back on the beach, and the taxi drivers hale from the dimly lit streets. And the girls--well, the girls are as prolific as ever in the long sigh of the many eons of time.