A story about Bali and the Bali Cowboys – selling Sex and more to Foreign Women
By Denise Dowling
The combination of heat and anonymity is a powerful aphrodisiac in this resort town in Bali. Sex whispers in the tree leaves at night, it vibrates in the bass of techno that drugs the discos. But it’s not really sex, more of a humid hedonism, the electricity of heat lightning. Sensual, but not sexual, two different states too often confused.
There’s the fumbling drunk guarantee of a good time in clubs where Australian surfers and surfie chicks go, because Kuta is their Fort Lauderdale. But that’s fast-food sex from a drive-thru, it’s Kuta but not Bali. Bali is the brown navel of a Brazilian girl swaying, hips straddling midnight and sunrise. A solipsist who knows figments of her imagination are watching in the mirror.
I traveled to Indonesia to write about sex, specifically, the sex between older Australian women and Kuta Cowboys, young Indonesian gigolos. Shhh…the guys don’t like it when you use that word. They are boyfriends, they insist, they’re not just paid for sex. The story might have a happier ending if sex was the only thing the women wanted.
But, you know women…some of us think sex should be wrapped in love. That’s the package these women buy, and the cowboys have learned to sell it that way. It may be a shoddy parcel in the cold light of reality, but Indonesia is a Third World country with poor electricity, so it’s hard to see what you’re getting. Bali is seductively dim; even when the power’s on, it’s the flattering flicker of candlelight.
The cowboys “hunt” at Kuta Beach sprawled on the sand near dusk, when it’s early enough to “make a promise” to meet a woman later that night. The women have just started to apply sunscreen when a cowboy trots over. April is a low season for tourists and competition is fierce. Many of the boys are with minnows, but they hope to fry fatter fish.
“I like the older women because they have more money”, says a 21-year-old gigolo who calls himself Montana.
“We say,’No money, no honey.’”
The young ones just want to party. The old ones are nice, they take care of me and give me massages. I not care if her body’s old. We say, ‘A face like Italy, a body like Toyota.’ I tell the woman she’s the only one, because otherwise it sounds cheap.” Montana pulls out a wallet thick with snapshots of the only one from Sweden, the only one from Australia and the only one from France.
The cowboys say falling in love is a hazard of the profession, but through on-the-job training, they’ve learned to avoid that trap. “I don’t give love anymore because I was hurt by one girl who said she was coming back and never did,” explains 24-year-old Made. ” If the woman says ‘I love you,’ I say ‘Me, too.’ I lie because I care.”
Made is courting four women scattered around Europe in hopes that he’ll win a trip there. After they return home, many women wire money that the cowboys use for rent and clothes, and some pay for a flight so he can visit. If a boy is really good, Santa gives him a marriage license, a one-way ticket off the island. That’s what the boys really want – our paradise is their purgatory. Newspapers in Bali are cluttered with ads placed by university graduates seeking jobs, and former economics majors can be found hawking necklaces on the street.
Most of the Indonesians won’t consider a local girlfriend. The cowboys claim they aren’t attracted to Balinese women because “they’re too naive and just want a rich boyfriend.”
“Besides, I like the blonde hair, the blue eyes,” Made adds, before chasing after a Japanese woman in a tiger-print bikini. The cowboys are blind to every color but green and any tourist resembles an ATM machine.
Not every woman goes to Bali to shop for a souvenir boyfriend, but one usually winds up in her suitcase. Sally is a married 36-year-old nurse from Queensland who brought her teenage daughter to Bali as a graduation present. She and the daughter were at a local disco one night when the singer came over and sat with them after a set. She thought the 26-year-old musician was after her daughter until he invited her to his room that night.
“When I met Matt, it was the best sex I’d ever had,” Sally says. “That part of my marriage had just died and I thought, maybe this is all I need – an overdose of sex! My husband and I had had problems and I guess at the time I didn’t feel very good about myself. I wanted to feel better by doing something for someone else. And I guess there was the thrill of being with a younger guy, she continues. “If someone offers you a new car or a secondhand one, which would you choose? Especially if the secondhand one is falling apart?”
She really wants to know what I think, so I ask what kind of mileage the used one gets. I don’t tell her this, but I’d probably take the secondhand car because I’m not into that shiny, prancing kind of new vehicle. Which is exactly what her boyfriend is, and it only takes one flick of his mane to see.
When Sally returned to Australia after meeting Matt, she assumed it was a resort romance with an expiration date attached. But when she called Matt from overseas, she was “charmed by his smooth talk.” She sent him money for airfare to visit, not sure if the funds would be used for a ticket. As he stepped off the plane, Matt didn’t recognize Sally because he was so strung out on heroin.
She had no idea Matt was a junkie. So Sally did what any nurse in love would; she straightened her Florence Nightingale cap and weaned him off the drug.
Sally estimates she’s spent nearly $7,000 on the relationship since meeting Matt six months ago. She paid for the ticket to Australia, an apartment, food, bought him an expensive guitar and clothes, and paid for them to fly back to Bali and go to Java to visit his family. Now she’s flat-broke and returning to Australia in a week. But Matt really, really needs a motorbike and does Sally think she can put it on her credit card before she goes? Pretty please?
“When Sally leaves, it will be hard not to see other women because I’m a man”, Matt says. “I want to marry Sally. I think this is forever, because I get everything I want now.”
“Right now I’m thinking, ‘What have I done?’ ” Sally says, lighting a Marlboro.
“I’ve lost my marriage, my kids and my house because of Matt. My oldest daughter says, ‘I don’t know what you see in him, he’s just a parasite.’ I try to talk to Matt about it, but he doesn’t want to listen, he doesn’t understand.” There’s definitely something there,” she’s quick to add. “I mean, I’m in love. It’s been exciting and adventurous. But my life in Australia is so different and spending all this money is totally out of character for me. It would have been more economical to have met an Australian guy!”
Sally sighs and drags on her cigarette when asked what she gets from the relationship. “Well, I hold the purse strings, and maybe I’m a person who likes control. Sometimes I feel like I’m his mother. Matt says to me, ‘You’re my guardian angel, you saved me.’ That makes me feel good. You know, in retrospect, I would have been quite happy to be by myself”, she adds. “But then I met Matt… and it just sort of happened…” She trails off, like she wishes it wasn’t too late to return Matt and get her money back.
Jean is a 49-year-old ex-farmer’s wife from Western Australia who’s been living with her 25-year-old boyfriend Heri for four months. She and Heri are like teenagers, giggling and arm-wrestling with each other. While we talk, she flips through photos of herself and Heri partying, and shots of Heri grinning impishly after Jean dressed him as a girl.
Heri proposed to Jean three weeks into the relationship, but Jean said no. “I want to marry Jean and live in Australia because I can work there”, Heri explains in stilted English. “If I stay here and marry an Indonesian girl, I think I have less of a future.”
Jean doesn’t want to rush into anything, nor does she want Heri to feel he has to make a commitment, because she can’t give him children.
“From Heri, I get a lot of happiness, love and affection”, Jean says. “I was married very young, at 17, and my ex-husband wasn’t a demonstrative person. He was very busy with work and I felt like something was missing. With Heri, I’m finding I can express myself more freely. For the first time in my life, I’m independent. Heri has taught me to like myself for who I am and not what I look like. Sometimes I feel a bit insecure, like, ‘Why should a young, handsome man be interested in me when there are so many nice-looking young girls around?’ Heri says it’s because he loves me. He knows I haven’t got a lot of money”, she adds. “I know about the Kuta Cowboys, but Heri has proven he’s not like that. But can you ever really know how they feel? They think that because they say they love you, that’s enough. Heri is so quiet and his English is limited. Heri said, ‘I’ve got nothing to give you.’ I told him that I may buy his cigarettes and food and put a roof over his head, but he doesn’t realize how much he’s given me. Before, I felt unattractive…I felt fat”, she says, pinching the skin melting from her arms. “With Heri, I feel young. He makes me feel alive.”
A lot of people in Bali and the States asked what I think of these relationships, and I’m still sorting through that rubble. Before I started interviewing, I thought it was about time for some role-reversal. Why shouldn’t older women have sexy young boy-toys?
But with these relationships, there was a dump of emotions involved. The women heard what they wanted to hear….and the gigolos can say “I love you” in seven languages. When a man goes to a prostitute, it’s a quick exchange of cash and bodily fluids. Why do women think they have to play Mother Earth? Why do they feel compelled to justify the relationship with that noble notion of love? Who cares if he loves you if the attention makes you feel attractive? Who cares if he loves you if the sex rocks? I still believe the women have nothing to be ashamed of, as long as they recognize the situation for the walking, quacking duck that it is!