Hearts and Minds

29 Oct

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We meet Cam and The Big O on a WWII amphibious landing craft in a coconut grove outside the island’s capital. They are surrounded by a curious semi-circle of locals, a nice complement to our own substantial entourage, who trail back through the tall palms and young bananas for several hundred yards of scrubby grass.

The Big O is a lovely kid. His compact frame decked out in stripy surf shorts, boxfresh T-shirt, mirrored aviators and oodles of sunscreen, he can work a look as well as his English idiom.

An idiom inherited, like his dreams of Miami Beach, from the time the US Navy came to town. A formative experience for The Big O, the highlight of his 23 years on the planet.

Formative, also, it appears, for much of the population of what is, fundamentally, a small, conservative and largely Muslim island.

Damn, my friend,” he says, time and again. “Those Americans were crazy! No bullshit, motherfucker. They were great guys, my friend. Great guys!”

There were thirty of them, as The Big O tells it. US Navy. They came to the island to rebuild the clinic.

It was, I would guess, the kinds of “hearts and minds” PR initiative that the US army, in its wisdom, sends to Islamic countries to persuade them that, despite Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza, the Great Satan means so very, very well.

“Every night,” The Big O reminisces fondly. “Every night, my friend. They are like, ‘Get me beer. Get me women. Get me beer and a woman, my friend.’”

A well-brought-up young man from an observant family, the Big O is, nonetheless, not short on initiative. He is asked to procure. Therefore he procures…

Beer is easy to find, in Christian Tobelo on the mainland. Women, too. So his first attempt at pimping brings him to one of three “nightclubs” in Tobelo.

A depressing place it is, too, Golden. Decked out in the local “nightclub” standards of bad neon spraycan art and faux-leather settees. The roll of clingfilm sitting besides the two bottles of Guinness Export Strength in the cabinet behind the bar speaks its purpose all too clearly.

More so, in many ways, than the girls freighted in from Sulawesi, in their oddly demure 60s minidresses and platform mules, to service the “nightclub”‘s all-male clientele.

“They took the whole place, my friend,” says The Big O. “The boss, he says, ‘I don’t want no goddam Indonesians in that place. Get the Indonesians out, my friend.’ They put the women in a line. They pick one, they ask me to find the price, they pay the money down. They’re asking me, ‘My friend, you want a girl, my friend?’ One of them? He fucks her in the toilet. Asks me if I want to watch.”

Even by the standards of East Indonesian pissoirs, Golden’s is especially unappealing. One does the deed on the tiled floor, then sluices it down the shower-style drainage grill using the heart-shaped scoop floating in the slimy water in the tiled mandi.

With a good aim and the right equipment, you could take out four or five cockroaches in one, erm, arc….

Anywise. The US Navy, in its wisdom, preferring its chaps not to rely on clingfilm, has equipped the boys with rubbers.

Before they depart, the Sarge lines them up, military style, to give them instructions. In my mental picture, he is chomping the nub of a fat cigar.

You will be back by 05:00 hours. Got me?

05:00 hours, sah!

05:00 hours, sah!

05:00 hours, sah!

It’s a good night for the girls, one would imagine.

At north of fifty dollars per hour for the full monty, in a town where a single greenback buys a simple meal with change, the girls pass most of their time offering company over sugared tea or fizzy pop to gents in their best shirt-sleeves for the rather more affordable rate of seven or so bucks.

Even with the nightclub’s hefty cut, a night with the US Navy is going to buy a lot of school for the babies these women have, most likely, left back home with mum.

However, it is the second phase of The Big O’s procurement career that really opens both my eyes and his.

Because the girls the Americans brought to the uninhabited island? They were nurses. Local girls. Working in the clinic the Americans were rebuilding.

The Big O was shocked. “They were prostituting themselves,” he explains to me, eyes wide. “Dancing close with the Americans. Drinking beer. And fucking them… Some of them, they did it in the hotel.”

Now, the hotelier in question, the Haji, is an amiable chap of, round about, 60ish. He’s kind and worldly enough to wholeheartedly accept a ladyboy son and a daughter with two kids and a bad marriage. Realist enough not to evict such lucrative clients. Nonetheless, he is devout enough to have made his pilgrimage to Mecca and sport the traditional cap.

Even as The Big O tells it, the Navy’s illegal beer, imported sound systems, shouting, drunkenness and vigorous, public sexual activity went down as well as the proverbial cup of cold sick.

Particularly, perhaps, since these girls were local girls. And nurses, too!

Ye olde double standard is very much alive here. And female virginity is a cherished asset, sold as a package (in theory at least) with the bride price.

“Why would the girls do that?” Cam and I ask The Big O repeatedly. “They have to live on the island, right? Why did they do that?”

The Big O shrugs. It beats him too…

Until an illuminating exchange.

My status, as a solo woman with child in tow, has caused The Big O (among others) some confusion. After Z and I have been hanging with him and Cam four days (no doubt causing our own confusion over Western morals, despite the separate bedrooms), he plucks up the courage to raise the issue.

“May I ask you something, mother?” he says, using a translation of the respectful form of address to an older woman, ibu, that rings oddly in my 30-something ears.

“Sure,” I say. We’ve been in Maluku for pushing four weeks and, when asked about the whereabouts of my swami I have replied (broadly truthfully) that Z and I will be meeting him in Australia in November. However, this clearly hasn’t washed with The Big O.

“Mother. Are you alone with Z?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“I’m sorry to hear that, mother,” he says, his face and tone expressing exactly the amount of flummoxed sorrow I expressed when Cam told me that his mother had died when he was fifteen.

“Oh, it’s OK,” I say, slightly flustered.

Cam jumps in. “It’s not unusual in the West,” he says. “Many people don’t marry. We also have divorce.”

“So, you, mother,” The Big O continues. “You had sex before you were married?”

“Err, yes,” I say, before recovering sufficiently to deliver a Paddington Bear hard stare: “Haven’t you?”

“Well, yes,” says The Big O. “But it’s difficult. We have to choose very carefully. And we keep it secret.”

Cam, Z and I have talked before with The Big O about the general absence of religious belief in the West – here everyone has a religion, with the debatable exception of the animists – and the decline of marriage in an increasingly secular society. But it’s really too alien to sink in.

“And you get pregnant?” The Big O follows up. “But you do not go to prison?”

“Erm, no,” I say, scraping my jaw off the floor. “No prison, no.”

Now, I knew that single parenthood was rare. And I’ve accepted, here as in other more traditional places we’ve traveled in, the role I’m cast in of married woman with a husband elsewhere. But… prison?

I cast a wary eye across to Z, who’s drawing.

“No,” I say. “Like we said, many people have children before they marry. Many don’t marry. In Z’s class in school, maybe 5 out of 25 or 30 children had only a mother at home… So you can go to prison in North Maluku for getting pregnant?”

“Yes,” he says. “If a woman gets pregnant, she has to tell the police who did it to her. The man has to marry her and take responsibility. If he won’t, he goes to prison. And if she won’t tell the police, she goes to prison. You don’t have that in England?”

“Err, no,” I say. “Our birth rate… ”

Cam interjects. “The prisons would be full…”

Then a penny drops with me.

“So these nurses,” I say. “The nurses who were fucking the American sailors. You think they thought that if they got pregnant, American law would be the same?”

The Big O thinks a bit. “Mother, I guess that must be why. My friend, I guess that must be why.”

Cam and I take a pause for breath. “Those poor girls,” I say. “Reckoning a night with a soldier equals the big ticket to the West…”

“Jesus,” he says. “There’s only one type of clinic they’ll be needing on this island…”

Later, we are on the idyllic, uninhabited island where the soldiers went to celebrate American Independance[sic] with sixteen cases of beer, big speakers, hip-hop, rap and the nurses from the clinic.

Idyllic place. White sand. Dazzling. Cam is cooking. I am sous-cheffing. Z is building a secondary campfire in which to blow stuff up.

“Those Americans,” The Big O exclaims. “Damn, my friend! They were fucking those nurses right here on the sand!”

“Blimey,” I say. “All of them, right here?”

“Yeah!” he says, and launches into another funny story. “One of them, she didn’t want to do it. She jumped off a boat into the sea, right here, because she didn’t want to do it…”

In the firelight, Cam’s and my faces mirror each other in utter horror.

“Of course,” Cam says. “Of course that’s how it was.”

“But she did it anyway, in the end, right?” I say, through gritted teeth.

“Yeah,” says The Big O. “Some of them didn’t want to. But they did it in the end.”

Now it’s my turn to drop the sociocultural bombshell. I am extremely cross. Not with The Big O.

Not even, entirely, with the soldiers. I can’t imagine that basic training in any military covers consent, though IMHO if you’re dishing out condoms to young, under-educated men selected for muscle and aggression you ought to throw in a bit of basic sex ed too.

I’m simply very, very angry for that poor girl, leaping into these sparkling waters in the darkness off an island from which there was absolutely no escape. And for whatever, and with whoever, happened to her next…

“In the West,” I choke out, turning the tables on The Big O. “A man can go to prison for that. It’s very serious. If a man has sex with a woman who doesn’t want to, he can go to prison for six years or more.”

“In theory,” begins Cam. “In practice…”

“Well, yeah,” I say, cutting him off.

“It’s called rape,” says my spawn, who’s been absorbing more than I thought. “It’s very serious.”

The Big O’s face collapses. He’s a good guy. And he knew, I think, in his heart that some of what was happening was wrong.

But he had a great time with these guys. He dreams of Miami Beach, of the good life in the West. They are friends of his. Real friends. And for them, well, it’s a laugh, innit?

“In America, too?” The Big O asks, hoping for a get out.

“In America, too,” I say. “Remember when we were talking about sexual freedom? What comes with having the right to say ‘yes’ is having the right to say ‘no’. They go together.”

“But those guys, they are my friends,” he says, helplessly.

“Well,” I say, thinking that, what with the beer and all, probably neither the girls nor their, erm, seducers, had any kind of label for what was going down. “I’m not entirely sure that they knew what they were doing was wrong, either. They would have thought, you see, that the girls were coming out there for what they were coming for: to drink beer and have sex. But some of the girls, I guess, weren’t thinking of that at all. They had no idea.”

“Some of them would have been,” says Cam. “The ones who’d already done it, back at the hotel. But they weren’t all back at the hotel, right?”

The Big O nods. He’s shaken. And he understands the concept, alright, which is, of course, enshrined in Indonesian law. (I’d like to know how many women have the strength and courage to get a case to court. And how many of them win… )

More oddly, The Big O felt what was wrong in his soul, as well. Because it was in the pre-dawn dark after whatever happened happened, high as a kite on the unfamiliar beer, that he saw the island’s ancestral Moro spirit, a woman, rise dripping from the luminescent water, and felt her hostile presence, too.

“I don’t want to talk about this any more,” he says. “Those guys, they are my friends.”

For Z’s sake, as well as The Big O’s, we don’t.

Anywise. After The Big O’s friends had finished rebuilding the clinic, the Sarge had the brothel on the mainland cleared of “Indonesians” (meaning the male variety, naturally) once again, for a celebration evening.

There was drinking. Speeches. Celebrations.

Of the fine things they had achieved, here on the island.

Of, all in all, a successful exercise in hearts and minds.

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5 Responses to “Hearts and Minds”

  1. mukuba2002 October 29, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

    Indonesia is a tough place for a woman especially the ones who want to get married to foreigners. am surprised big O was comfortable talking about that stuff in front of Z

    • MummyT October 30, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

      I don’t think any of us were aware that Z was listening in. Nor, to be honest, were we aware of where it was leading. And, yes, it really brought home to me how tough it is to be a woman in Indonesia.

      Interestingly, after I got groped by a man on a motorbike in Kota Ternate, which I didn’t report largely because I didn’t get the number plate, but also because it’s more trouble than it’s worth for a one-off piece of unpleasantness, I mentioned it in passing to a male Indonesian friend. He advised reporting it to the tourist office (!) so they could “work with the police to educate drivers”…

  2. Snap October 29, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    Thanks T…that was like watching some terrible porn movie, now I feel like I need a detol bath. Sharia law…don’t get me started on that!

    • MummyT October 30, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

      Yes, I’m sorry about that. I sort of sat on it for a while before writing it up. They don’t have Sharia law: only Banda Aceh does. If they did, of course, the girls would be facing execution.

  3. fauji muslim December 11, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    mom,, you should not talk about this, i told you….

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