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Indonesian Journal: Bulls, Beer and Mystery Sex Pt. 3

Third of a three-part series.


Part One: The blood of the Madurese tastes like cow.
Part Two: If we like beer, maybe we'd like some women?


This is Indonesia writ small: Externally conservative but also wide open and available, especially behind closed doors. It's corrupt and yet the corruption offers enough freedom of movement and wiggle room - rules meant to be broken, bribes that grease skids and line public servants' pockets - that it works, for now, for enough of the country's growing middle class and even the upper levels of the poor.

The rich already have their perks guarded and guaranteed by the government and police; it's down here in the middle register, where the strictures of Muslim conservatism meet the licentiousness of street life and somehow meld, that the social and financial pressures of an expanding export and unmistakably import-consumerist economy are quietly, privately bled off.

I'm not saying that middle class Indonesians are all visiting massage parlors for rubdowns and quickies, or that they're smuggling beer to dry towns and selling it for profit.

What I mean is that there's enough slippage here built into the system - and it's definitely a highly regimented, hierarchical, formalized system of government control of jobs and information and access to both, with millions of people either plugged into the system or trying desperately to get plugged in - that Indonesians are able to get what they want or need, more or less, regardless of what the rules say.

This isn't uncommon in repressive or restrictive societies, but here the rule-breaking is part of the national culture. It's sanctioned, in some ways built-in, and universally expected.

From middle school classrooms to the halls and cubicles of tens of dozens of government offices in every city and region, there's always a fudge, an exception, a shortcut if you want it. Like anywhere else, vice is just another shortcut here, but in Indonesia there's very little effort to control the vice, or the shortcuts. In China, bribe-taking officials are occasionally executed as real-life examples of the potential consequences for professional avarice and perfidy. Some politically minded Indonesian judges think capital punishment for corruption is a good idea, and it's not uncommon to see readers in the comments sections of the online English-language newspapers from Jakarta calling for similarly harsh sentences. This is mostly opportunistic drum-beating by the judges and outraged Western-moral-sensibility among the English-language readers, social anger that's weirdly and I think troublingly mixed with admiration for Chinese martial law. Does Indonesia need to execute law-breakers? I hope not, but the country could certainly use some good-faith law enforcement.

Every couple of days the papers run a story about some high-ranking official who's managed to avoid serious jail time for steering contracts to relatives, for shaking down office-seekers, for embezzling billions of rupiah from public works projects.

The national government operates an embattled Corruption Eradication Commission that is the target of fierce and possibly criminal attacks from within the country's justice system.

It's a complicated story but two high-ranking officials from the Corruption Eradication Commission have been targeted by federal prosecutors who allege the officials shook down a businessman they were investigating.

The defendants claim they are innocent and that police officials and prosecutors have manufactured the case against them in order to protect the well-connected businessman and to undercut the Corruption Eradication Commission's authority. The case was at one point thrown out but later reinstated by the Jakarta High Court, against the explicit wishes of the attorney general's office. A snapshot of Indo-Justice, such as it is.

Are the corruption fighters actually corrupt, adding another level of bathos to a glumly familiar national storyline? Or are they victims of a carefully engineered political defenestration? The case is pending.

Indonesians decry the rigged decks and gamed systems under which they live but rather than substantively reform them, they seem content on the whole to find a place for themselves within the machine.

A friend and local business owner expresses deep frustration with stifling regulation and taxes yet has tried several times to get hired on with the tax collection agency: Better and guaranteed pay, for life. The cushest of gigs.

But for many reasons, including the fact that she's ethnic Chinese, a group long and proudly discriminated against in Java as former colonial toadies of the Dutch and later stereotyped as money-grubbers and financial cabalists in a way that would be very familiar to Jews the world over, my friend will almost certainly never land that job.

She will instead cobble together an income from several little businesses - a motorcycle shop, a food cart, a small grove of softwood trees for use in making shipping pallets - and she will remain a bystander to the jostling among ethnic Javanese who run this country for sweet spots along the feed trough.

And as long as those sweet spots aren't threatened, what's to bother with controlling others? Sure, Internet porn is blocked here. But is it? Writing this essay, I can toggle over to my browser and easily access from my computer, using a public high school's wi-fi network,, the arty and tastefully outre San Francisco S&M house.

I think this is perfectly fine but there's a national Information Technology Minister whose job it is to block every single porn site on the Web from befouling Indonesian eyeballs and bedrooms. Does anyone outside the media, who regularly use this guy as a well-deserving punching bag, believe he cares about the details of his job? Come on.

So he takes the press conference stage in a blue nylon track suit and fields some questions, takes his lumps, and drives off in his Mercedes. And this is the point: If it's not political or radical or overtly terrorist, no one cares. (One notable exception is the prosecutorial hounding of the former editor of Indonesian Playboy. A one-time fugitive who finally turned himself in, the man is currently serving a two-year sentence for indecency. He was convicted in a secret trial - a secret trial - despite having never published any nude photos in his magazine.)

The Indonesian government fears and forcefully resists unrest - thousands of troops were recently summoned to guard the presidential palace on the anniversary of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's re-election; police were authorized to use live ammunition on protestors, and one cop did - but it does not fear and does not especially resist libertinism. Private lusts and wants aren't dangerous. Politics are dangerous. You don't necessarily have the right to public protest but you can probably get your cock sucked if you know where to ask.

* * *

I couldn't tell you if the devout Muslim men of Madura are paying for sex. Maybe I was twice propositioned in Pamekasan because I'm white - the Indonesians say bule, a word that means paleface or albino - and because being white means I probably have money.

There is also still considerable white privilege to be had here for no other reason than showing up. (Is that why none of the white foreigners and tourists I see during my travels ever say hello? Are we, seen in proximity to one another, not so special?)

Maybe Madura is a stop, like Surabaya, on the Southeast Asia sex tourism circuit but that seems unlikely. It's just too remote. Why drive hours outside Surabaya when the whorehouses and massage parlors of that city's Dolly red-light district are filled with Maduran women ready to practice their vaginal arts?

No, I doubt anyone's making a special trek to Pamekasan for sex. Instead, the Maduran flesh trade is like that across Java, maybe across all of Indonesia's thousands of islands. It's a social and physical perk for men who want it or need it - the original alleviating vice - and who expect its availability.

When I first arrived at my teaching post in Central Java, several hundred miles from Madura and its enticements, I was casually informed by some male colleagues that I could have a girl for the entire night for about $15. If you get lonely, they said. Maybe you like 17 years, or 16? Kids about my students' age.

I wasn't sure if they were being serious since they finished their offer with laughs. The Javanese laugh a lot, especially when they're nervous, and I figured maybe they were embarrassed for having asked. I smiled, they smiled, and with deniability plausibly established we talked about something else.

Then a couple weeks later, a different guy approached me in the teachers' lounge. How are you, Mr. Brett? I'm good. Do you have comfort? Yes, I'm comfortable. You like girl? Cheap. Just like that. He sensed my puzzlement - here, Pak? - and laughed off the question. Then he said, Maybe? I don't know if he's running girls himself or just freelance brokering. We didn't get that far.

* * *

I work in a vocational school where most of my best students are girls. They represent a small minority at an institution that mostly trains auto mechanics, carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, and computer network technicians - the girls are almost all enrolled in computer classes - but they are invariably the hardest working kids in English classes and their grades, like girls' grades everywhere, are better than those of their boy classmates.

They wear uniforms with skirts, some with headscarves, they walk behind the boys, they are quiet and deferential to adults, and they often hold their hands to their mouths when they laugh, which is pretty often. They seem at least three or four years younger, socially and even pop-culturally, than the high school students I've taught in Chicago. Just nice kids. And yet this is where nice ends for most of them.

They are vaguely co-equal at the school, although often shouted down and hectored by the boys, but for most of my blue-collar girl students that social standing ends at graduation. They will become Indonesia women, unapologetically second-class citizens.

Those from the more conservative Muslim families will feel it first, married into traditional roles of wife and mother while still in their teens. The others will be expected to assume those roles sooner or later. Their husbands will be free, at some point (beginning when, exactly?), to buy sex or peddle it to others. Maybe the women will hear or know of the jokes and boasts and offers, and maybe they won't. Maybe they'll smile through it. Whatever else they do, they'll bear it.

Madura. Java. Indonesia. All hardest on the vulnerable or the fair. This is a man's island, country, and world. I've gotten to know the director of my town's women's crisis center and she told me once that she cannot keep up with her voicemail some days, with the messages from women in distress, women beaten by their husbands and sons, women raped by their partners. She just does what she can while the phone keeps ringing.

Most of the women she helps come from Muslim families, but then most of our town is Muslim. I asked if Muslim men were harder on their wives and girlfriends than local Christian men. The crisis center director is a Christian, and her husband is a former high-ranking local official. She is a well-established figure in our little city, and the question made her uncomfortable. I don't want to say, she finally answered.

* * *

We went to the bull races in Madura because the guide books and some friends suggested we'd find an especially authentic Indonesian experience out there, way off the tourist trail. And sure enough it was.

But what's authentically Indonesian? Is it the ceremonial beauty and harsh running conditions of the races, the outwardly visible and highly photogenic spectacle - the smiling kids hawking souvenir bull whips, the gamelan bull bands, the red-and-white banners lazing in the windless air; the wizened old women stirring pots of bakso and mie inside the festival grounds?

Sure, but what about the unspoken, underground authentisms like Pak Budi and the young cop-pimp, the undercurrents of privilege and exclusion, of unabashed, systemic corruption?

None are discussed in the tourist literature. They're less picture-perfect, of course, and they're significantly harder to celebrate as a visitor with a suitcase to fill with curios.

Yet all are fundamental parts of the Indonesian experience - the rule-breakers, libertines, powerbrokers, flesh-peddlers, and good-times salesmen - and through them we can glimpse the other Indonesia, the unadvertised Indonesia: An Insider's Guide to Comforts and Available Opportunities.

We finished our day at the bull races in the shade of a large tent where we'd been invited to meet the mayor. He shook our hands, ordered several pictures taken, passed me an orange.

Where are you from?


Are you having a good time?

Yes, I admit. I'm having a good time.

Will you come back?

I smile and say mungkin, which means maybe.

Behind the smile I am thinking, Thanks, but I've seen enough already.


Brett McNeil is a former Chicago Tribune reporter, Chicago Journal editor, and Fulbright English teacher who chronicled his adventure in Indonesia at The Year of Living Volcanically and served as the Beachwood's Southeast Asia correspondent.


* Indonesian Journal: Buying Flowers, Burning the Koran
* Indonesian Journal: The Control State
* Indonesian Journal: The Swarm And The Sick House
* Indonesian Journal: It's Funny Until 13 People Die
* Indonesian Journal: The Chicago Way Out Of Vietnam
* Indonesian Journal: My Chicago Hedge Fund Manager Was A Fraud
* Indonesian Journal: The Possibly Mob-Related Mystery Of My Fake Chicago Hedge Fund Manager's Voluntary Imprisonment
* Indonesian Journal: Obama's Beacon Of Hope Sorely Tested
* Playing Doctor


Comments welcome.


Posted on February 24, 2011

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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