Sunday, December 19, 2010

Chicken (in proper order)

In ecologically sensitive times such as ours, litter is not pretty anywhere. Of course, it never has been pretty, but there is just more of it now, and so we are more aware of it than ever. The island of Bali, in this regard, is no different than anywhere else. We have our share of floating, blowing, huddling, homeless garbage, in the street, in the sea, in the gutter and on the highway--and in fact, to be honest, more than our share.

Depending upon the strength of the tide, the direction of the submerged ocean stream, I may sometimes find myself swimming alongside empty Lays Potato Chip bags, double cheeseburger wrappers, the daily ceremonial offerings to the gods, and the occasional plastic diaper.

There is no readily discernible garbage, I mean sanitation, service in Bali. There seems to be no regular scheduling of men or trucks--and God knows where the occasional men and trucks that do happen by take this stuff once they collect it. Pressed for an answer to this riddle, I might guess that a good deal of it is deposited in the field just a block down from my house, for I cannot begin to imagine how else it got there except by plan.

One will see these haphazard trucks, circa 1950, roaring up the highway, streaming miniature clouds of gravel and non-biodegradable refuse in their wake, but where they are going, no one knows. I do note that the river just up the Bypass, and just before you reach the Matahari Mall, is very often choked with a sludge of manmade refuse, and so maybe that is where some of these trucks relieve themselves of their loads. I think it must be so--for, again, how else could the situation have arisen?

In any case, what I want to talk about here is more than your common, run of the mill sort of litter. No, what I want to address is Bali’s very particular version of litter--or garbage, if you will--those local men on the beach who hang about in the shade and seek to sell chicken. I’m not talking about the sort of chicken that is commonly fried, baked, or barbecued. No, this chicken is of the human variety, of the female gender--those girls, those daughters of men, who find themselves without money, a home, a job, a guardian, quite without pity or charity, continually up for bargain like cheaply made baubles and trinkets in the market. They receive but a pittance of their own wage, along with the opportunity to be housed, in a communal sort of way, to eat, to be clothed--all according to the magnanimity of the pimp. The going price is 500,000 rupiah, about 50 US dollars. This includes the room, one hour of time, a beer, a massage, a bath, a condom, and pretty much anything else within the limits of human depravity that can also be fit into the space of one hour.

Now litter is not wholly without appeal, at least in some limited sense. It may be, for instance, that the Big Mac carton, yet seaworthy as it tops a nearby wave, inspires a vague notion of hunger, or the orange Fanta can, snuggled in a nest of sea anemone, gives rise to thirst, but God help the man who is offered a 17 year old girl and straightaway seeks to consume another human being, as if she were nothing more than a bit of meat for his appetite.

Five hundred thousand rupiah, as I have said, is asked; but of course it is only the rare man who will end up paying this price, and the rarer pimp who will not ask a good deal more at the outset. It is a game of negotiation, of lie and bluff. Everything here is got by bargain--shirts, hats, sunglasses, paintings, watches, bracelets, and human beings. The beach boy starts high, forever hoping for the jackpot--a callow Westerner, a white man with money--and the wise, yet hungry customer starts out very low indeed.

In broken English the pimp paints his fresco of paradise--a cliché, a joke, a lie, a dream--while the customer, already containing at least two or three drinks and probably more--continually checks his wallet, hems and haws, careful to show that he is a man to be reckoned with, and no fool.

One hundred thousand rupiah sounds like a lot of money, but of course it is all relative. It is nothing to the common Westerner on vacation, much to the pimp, and without pertinence to the prostitute herself, for again she will receive but her pittance and her pittance alone.

It is, at the present rate of exchange, about 11 US dollars.

I am told that one is taken by taxi or motor bike up the road a piece and onto the winding back lanes. Where light is dim, where wild dogs wander, where children cry and squalor thrives, the man is let out to a Kos-Kosan, a central dwelling coupled to four or five small rooms. Each room is equipped with a toilet and a bed. The driver winks, money is exchanged, and the nervous yet anticipant purchaser finds himself facing perhaps fifteen, perhaps twenty, perhaps thirty women--young, older, thin, fat, pretty, homely--the well endowed and the unendowed--the experienced, the jaded, the fearful, the hopeless--all the little girls now trapped within the value of their flesh.

What bargain has been worked this night, what price, what deal, what swindle made for this father’s daughter, for this mother’s treasure, for this young woman’s heart and soul?

The next day another man will visit the beach. There he will find the same trash--unbothered, irremovable, as permanent as the sea itself--and despite the whiteness of the sand, the long sighing of the breakers, the majestic rise of the inland hills, the play of a child’s laughter on the breeze, he will do his business, make his killing, and reap the life of another human being--never seeing, never hearing, never imagining that paradise, rightly judged, had been available all along and quite without cost--free for the asking, albeit with this one caveat attached: He must seek in truth, ask with honor, and embrace with the sort of thankful compassion that should be the common currency of all men.


But the Bali beach boy is only the tip of iceberg--a small player, rightly reckoned.. I mention him first only because he was my own first experience of this peculiar institution after my initial arrival on the island. He is a scrapper, a scavenger, a jack of all illegal trades, and some legal ones as well. He prowls up and down, like a hungry lion, so to speak, seeking whom might be devoured, or whom he might offer for devouring, in the case of the chicken. It is commonly a community effort--no one gets the whole victim, but only each a piece--say a flank, or a thigh, a finger or a nose. He is the middle man, and less than the middle man. He is one head on the totem pole, a link in the chain. It’s all about networking, you see. This man has connections, whether they be to boat owners, diving instructors, drug dealers, or whore house proprietors.

Maybe the Bali boy starts with a boat. Everyone wants a boat ride, don’t they? Snorkeling?

Fishing? It is, in any case, a safe, a neutral starting point.

Mister, you want boat? One hour only? Swim? Snorkel? One hour, very cheap for you.


It is his first card only. No worries, there‘s more to come. His pockets are full of options, each more tempting than the last.

How about a driver? A motor bike?


How about magic mushrooms then? How about a girl, very young, young girl, 17 years only.

Mister, you want?

A wink of the eye then, a lowering of the voice, a confidence, a newly forged friendship.

My goodness, this Bali beach boy is friendly.

Perhaps a man had started out for a walk on the beach. Perhaps he had stopped to eat in one of the beach front warungs, or more probably one of the upscale restaurants with the bule prices. Perhaps the beach boy watched him along the way. And then the next thing he knows, this man is riding on the back of a scooter, bound for the dark end of a back street in Legian or Kuta, with maybe a stop at the ATM along the way--for there is more available, as he learns, than the one hour only, the quickie, the single bottle of beer. It is the party of his lifetime. He did not look for it, it looked for him. Maybe it has become two hours, or three, or the full long night. Maybe one girl, maybe two. You name it. The sky the limit as long as his pocketbook is fat. And it is fat, always, for the vacationing Westerner here on the island of Bali. This man, common enough in his own country, is rich now, a man of means, the whole pallet of the paint of life set before him.

The taxi driver is another link in the chain--not, again, the pimp, but the middle man, the man who knows, the man who facilitates. Take a walk after dark and see for yourself. A man alone, just walking like that? What else can he want but a woman? The driver slows down, creeps up to the curbing, beeps his horn once, rolls down his window. Where are you going, he asks? What do you want? Young woman, yes. Very young, maybe 17.

He does not take no for an answer. He creeps and insists, insists and creeps. He argues the value of his offer. He knows what you really want.

Money is got by all means here, and the competition is stiff, very stiff indeed. The man who is not quick, the man who is not saavy, plays at ruin and starvation.

And so the meter runs. And so the alley opens to the light at the end of the tunnel.


Bali is an island of stunning beauty. There is the beauty of the deep blue Indian Ocean, the beauty of the Bali Sea, the beauty of the sugar-white sands of Seminyak and the coal-black beaches at Klungkung. There are the stately palm and deciduous trees which shade the long sighing coastline, and the jungle canopy upcountry which brushes at the wall of the hard blue sky, while chattering monkeys tell the strokes and cicak and tokay lizards critique from below. Above all the mountaintops shoulder through the last of the high green thatching--Batukau, Batur, mighty Agung, counted to be the center of the world by the people--seven links on Bali all together in the ring of fire that stretches all the way from the Asian continent to the islands of Sumatra and Java, simmering to the depths like troubled giants, yet gracefully sleepy for the time being.

Lovina in the north winks at Sanur in the south, having much in common--Sengaraja nods toward Kuta--Candidasa, adorned in ceremonial gold, spills its pearls to the temple in the sea and whispers with the breaking surf about gods and rites and offerings tucked into baskets made of hand cut fronds.

It’s classic, almost a cliché, a picture book place straight out of the glossy pages of a coffee table album. But there is more, and what is more is more of a secret nature, and the height of what is more is higher, and the depth is deeper. Here is the unpaved alley with its one room dwellings hewn from stone almost as if they had been carved rather than erected--no glass in the windows, no door in the doorway, no bathroom aside from the field out back. Here are the children I meet every day on my way down the alley to the Circle K store, sitting on the entry step and wall, intent on a game or marbles among the puddles, who rush forth to meet me on sight, shrieking hello, Mister, hello, hello, hello, overjoyed at having mastered this much of the English language. Here, further down, is the man who eternally repairs an old VW, and his buddies who watch as they smoke Kreteks, and his wife holding his baby by the Marigolds which spill over the wall to the brim of a bucket filled with ancient black oil.

What is the beauty that breaths behind the glossy page. It is in the lettering on the last wall before the alley lets onto the street, in the words which hang from the crawling ivy, bright, insistent, unknown.

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.

“For what?”

“To try to help her.”

“You mean--”

“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. "Don't take the Lord's name in vain."

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.

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