We were the same age, she and I, but for a year. I’m 52. She told me she was 51. I had passed her warung, a hundred meters or so from the family compound just outside of Ubud where I was staying, looking for somewhere to eat. She had waved to me, calling out a cheery hello as I strolled past, and I was struck by how like a restaurant her warung looked. It was small, but stylish. Decorated with love. And how friendly she was, but that’s Bali. Everyone is friendly for a reason. I had learned that the hard way. Friendliness was a gig waiting to be hustled.
The menu was small. Five, maybe six dishes, including breakfast. I asked for a Bintang beer—small—and ordered the nasi goreng. ‘You want spicy?’ she asked.
‘Yes, please,’ I said. ‘Terima kesih. Thank you.’
‘Okay,’ she said.
She busied herself cooking my meal, moving around her tiny kitchen, grabbing ingredients as she needed them. Delicious, garlicky smells wafted over to me from her small wok, and five minutes later, I had a plate of perfect nasi goreng in front of me, with fried egg, golden and crispy on the edges, and garnished with delicate slices of tomato and cucumber. She sat with me while I ate, and to be honest, I was grateful for her company.
I had come to Bali to write. I had not spoken to a soul all day, apart from the woman who cleaned my room in the afternoon and didn’t speak much English. I had tried and failed to have a conversation with her. She had nodded and smiled politely at me, saying, ‘I no understand.’ I’d nodded and smiled back and let her off the hook. My self-imposed solitude wasn’t her problem.
In truth, I hadn’t come to Bali to be on my own. The last time I’d been here—six weeks previous—I had met a Balinese man, Made, and with promises of a holiday romance blossoming into something more—maybe even an escape from my stagnating Western existence—I’d returned. In November, I had spent two weeks as a tourist—he stayed with me at my guest house. I told him I would come back and live like a local. And I did.
Through AirBnB I had rented an apartment in a family compound in Nyuh Kuning, a sleepy village about five minutes by motorcycle from central Ubud. The apartment had a kitchen, and I had visions of shopping at the local market and cooking up delectable Balinese dishes for us. It was the rainy season, and I imagined we would spend our mornings in bed (it was low season for him, and he had little work as a driver), with the thunder and lightning and rain a fitting soundtrack to our lovemaking.
It didn’t work out that way.
He broke up with me—or should I say disappeared on me—on day three, scared off by the consequences of having to show his KTP (Indonesian identity card) to my landlord. Under Indonesian law, everyone must register when they stay in hotels or bed and breakfasts or home stays or guest houses. Even Indonesians. The KTP shows important information like age, religion and marital status.
‘But I no have,‘ he protested on the phone when I called him about it. He had gone back to his village for a ceremony and was going to be away for a couple of days. Six weeks ago he had said I would go with him, but it didn’t come to pass. Not this time. I had only been in Bali for 24 hours, and already he was making himself unavailable. I had the impression he was lying to me about his KTP. I hopped onto Google and did some research. KTPs are issued to everyone over 17 years of age and are required for a driver’s license. He was a driver. He had to have a KTP. I called him back. ‘You need KTP for driver’s license,’ I said.
‘I not have driver’s license,’ he said.
‘What?’ I shrieked, horrified. If he was unlicensed and we had a car accident, I wouldn’t be covered by travel insurance.
‘Dead,’ he replied. ‘Not renewed. Too expensive.’
His story had more holes than swiss cheese.
‘I no stay with you, now,’ he said. ‘You want taxi, you call or SMS.’
I don’t think so, dude.
When we first met, he told me he was divorced. ‘The babies did not come, so we broke,’ he said. ‘Divorced.’
I had little to go on, but I had a sneaking suspicion he was still married. A quick conversation with a drunk Dutchman in a reggae bar in Ubud that November heightened it. I had known the Dutchman for less than five minutes when he yelled out at me over the top of a pitchy Bob Marley cover: ‘You know he’s married. He’s just told me. He has a wife and two children.’ My stomach flipped and I felt ill.
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘I know enough Indonesian to have a pretty good conversation,’ he assured me. ‘I asked if he was with you—were you his lady?—and he said no. He…,’ and he waved in the direction of my guy, who was talking to the owner of the bar, ‘…Said he was just your security.’ My stomach sank to the floor. I had had sex with Made earlier that night—for the first time—and he had taken me to the reggae bar for a drink afterwards. I shoved the thought aside.
And yet, the thought that Made was married—and had lied to me—was not an easy one to dispel, and followed me around the entire time we were together that November.
In retrospect, Made exhibited some odd behaviour that should have been a red flag, but I chose to ignore it, dismissing it as cultural. In many respects, I found that I could overlook this odd behaviour because he was kind and considerate, and so different from Western men I encountered in my daily life, at least on that first visit. I was jaded about men, but only had myself to blame. I fell into bed with them too easily expecting—hoping—that this time, with this man, would be different. Made proved to be reliable, showing up the day after the deed was done. And the day after that.
But the odd behaviour had registered in my subconscious. My friends back home were worried about what was going on, thinking I was about to be scammed. They were right, but also wrong.
By Balinese standards, I was considered wealthy. It was a wealth I had not noticed before now. Getting to know Made and his friends as I had made me acutely aware of how reliant on tourism they were, and what a hand-to-mouth existence that meant for them. In low season, when torrential rain kept tourists away, the drivers and guides and bartenders returned to their villages and family homes. Wives and children were already there, relying on the extended community for their quality of life.
So when Made quietly asked me to pay for the room he had booked for us to make love in for the first time, I said okay, even though I was surprised.
Didn’t I already have a perfectly good hotel room for that?
I met Made when he came to pick me up from the airport. He was the driver sent by the hotel. He was not a tall man and young—younger than me—but I liked him immediately.
As soon as I was settled in the passenger seat, he started his sell. I learned later that driving was about access to guests, and persuading them to book the driver for tours of the island. The pickup fee paid by the hotel was not much, around 10% of what passengers handed over, but access to guests was priceless.
‘You been Bali before?’ he asked.
‘No. First time,’ I replied.
‘I take you Tanah Lot,’ he said, pulling down a laminated A4 sheet from his visor. It was a map of all the Bali tourist spots. He pointed. ‘Tanah Lot. Sunset. Beautiful.’
I worked out he was trying to hustle a gig, so I asked how much.
‘Three hundred and fifty thousand rupees.’
I did some quick maths in my head and worked out that the trip would cost me around $40. ‘Ok,’ I said. ‘What time?’
‘I pick you up at three. We go luwak kopi too.’ I had no idea what luwak kopi was, but I agreed. I figured that, on balance, a hotel driver was trustworthy—he wouldn’t have a job if he wasn’t.
Once the hustle was out of the way, the small talk began, even though his English was not the best. He had the vocabulary, but his pronunciation made him difficult to understand. It took me a couple of weeks to work out that “chicken stick” was, in fact, “chicken steak” and his near-enough pronunciations made conversation challenging at times. His tongue had all sorts of trouble twisting itself around English vowels and consonants.
It was at this time that I found out that he was 39 and divorced. His village was in the north of the island—near Kintamani, the volcano—and he had come to Ubud for work. He had been driving guests for more than ten years, he said. His goal, he told me, was to have his own car so he didn’t have to hand over most of his earnings to the boss.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was part of that plan.
The room we made love in was tucked away behind a market. He took me for a stroll around the market beforehand, arm around my waist, past food and drink and souvenir vendors, nodding at those he knew. ‘You want eat?’ he asked me. ’Drink?’
‘Vegetarian,’ I said. ‘No meat.’ In a new culture, I rarely ate meat. However, I changed my mind when we walked past a vendor, char-grilling thin strips of chicken over hot coals. ‘On second thought,’ I said. ‘Maybe some chicken.’
Made nodded to the vendor and guided me to a small, grubby chair at a small, grubby table. He gestured for me to sit. ‘He bring.’ He lit a cigarette, then gestured once again to the vendor, and a bottle of water was placed in front of me. Within minutes, so was the chicken: ten small skewers presented in a paper bag, piping hot and dripping in a delicate peanut sauce.
I offered a skewer to Made, but he declined. ‘Are you going to eat?’
‘Ate already,’ he said, shaking his head.
It was after I had finished my chicken that he told me he had organised a room. ‘Three hundred thousand rupees,‘ he said quietly, as if embarrassed. ‘You pay?’ It was couched as a polite request, but I wasn’t about to argue or question him. I did think it was strange that he didn’t take me to his place, or we didn’t go back to my hotel, but I was in his world, so deferred to his judgement. When in Bali and all that. We hopped on his motorbike, with Made stopping for a ginseng shot and condoms on the way. I asked him why the ginseng, and he replied, ‘Make stronger for you.’
The room was awful, but I didn’t say anything about that, either. It smelled of stale cigarette smoke. A fluoro strip in the middle of the ceiling lit the bedroom with an unkind white light, and a cheap green and yellow brocade cover circa 1950 was spread over the bed. A large wardrobe flanked one wall, doors not quite lining up. The bathroom looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for 20 years—grime lined the bath and the toilet bowl was a rusty yellow. Still, Made seemed happy enough with the room. My pesky Western standards did not have a place here, so I checked them at the door.
Thirty minutes later, we were on our way to the bar—where I had the conversation with the Dutchman—because the 300,000 rupees only covered the room for an hour.
I stayed with Made for two weeks in Sanur, or rather he stayed with me. ‘Like tourist,’ he said. He did end up staying with me in my hotel, but only after he asked permission of his boss.
‘I check with boss okay,’ he said when I asked him, and he made a call. I thought it was odd that a grown man would need permission to stay anywhere. He returned, excited, eyes bright. ‘Ok! I never stay hotel before.’ And when I showed him my room, he was impressed. ‘Oh, good, good,’ he said, checking out the bathroom, opening doors and cupboards, turning on the TV. ‘This very nice room.’
I peeled off my clothes and jumped into bed. We made love, and then Made set his alarm for 6am. He had to pick up a guest from the airport. And then he got back into bed, put on most of his clothes, and moved as far away from me as he could. ‘I sleep now,’ he said. ‘Get up early.’
‘But you’re wearing all your clothes,’ I said.
I sighed in protest, and he relented, wrapping his legs around mine. I failed to see how anyone could be cold in Bali.
When I moved from Ubud down to Sanur, Made came with me. The guest house was small and comfortable, and the owners didn’t mind the extra guest. I had planned on spending the mornings writing, but Made took me all over the island, including on a visit to his village to meet his mother and father. He asked his boss for the car for Sanur. ‘Better than motor bike,’ he said. He’d negotiated a rate of $20 for the car plus petrol, which seemed fair. It meant that we could get around easily and see more of what this beautiful island had to offer. Of course I paid. That was part of the deal.
In Sanur I noticed more odd behavior. He would disappear for hours on end to “take ginseng”. I knew he had friends in Sanur, and one in particular—Wayan—was his ginseng supplier. When I tried to find out what he did during this time, I was met with a blank look and Bahasa. I supposed he and Wayan were hanging out, but I wasn’t sure. One night he went up to Ubud to “pay house contract,” then called me to say he wasn’t coming back that night. His story didn’t quite ring true and the uneasiness sat like nausea in my stomach. A voice with a Dutch accent murmured, ‘Married… wife… children…’ in my ear, and I had a restless night conjuring up the potential damage I was doing to a family. The stories we use to fill the cracks in our understanding are powerful, unsettling narratives.
I enjoyed Made’s company, although I felt like a tourist as he dropped me off at one “activity” after another. Any free activity, he would come with me, but anything paid, which was the majority of them, I was on my own. He would wait for me by the car, whether I was one, two or three hours. He filled these hours by talking to other drivers, if he knew them, and sleeping. One day he bought jackfruit, and when we returned from that day’s activity, he went out to buy chicken satays and Bintangs. He set up a picnic in our hotel room, and peeled each piece of my jackfruit before handing it me, and fussed over me to make sure I had enough to eat and drink. It was a romantic gesture, and I swooned, delighted to be associated with a man who was so kind. The same way I did when he bandaged up my foot to stop a nasty blister becoming infected.
His kindness, though, was at odds with other elements that defined our relationship: sleeping in his clothes and on the other side of the bed, the disappearances, and the request for payment—significantly over and above what was agreed for the car rental—at the end of my trip. I was horrified, and felt used. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep me from returning six weeks later.
So here I was in a warung in a little village outside of Ubud, dining alone. I told Ibu Wayan—that was her name—an edited version of the how I came to be here.
‘He younger than you?’ she asked.
‘Yes. Fifteen years.’ I was embarrassed about the age difference now. Was I so swept up in the idea of a romance with Made that I couldn’t see clearly? A man of 39 is rarely attracted to a woman in her fifties, even one who is in relatively good shape like me. ‘Not old,’ Made had assured me when I first brushed off his advances. ‘You not old in Bali.’ For a while I had believed him because I wanted to. It was not like I had men of any age falling at my feet. A younger man was a definite ego boost. I felt young and vital and attractive, something I had not felt for quite some time.
‘He married,’ said Wayan.
‘Yes. I think so too,’ I said.
‘Is not so uncommon. You Western. Wealthy. He make decision for family. Better life if with you.’
‘I understand that,’ I said. ‘But I don’t sleep with married men.’
Wyan laughed. ‘In Bali, happens all the time.’
I ate in silence for a while, contemplating the philosophy that was so different to my own ethical perspective. It was a philosophy based on survival and geared to establishing a better way of life. Fidelity is sacrificed at the altar of potential prosperity. I finished my nasi goreng and ordered another Bintang.
Wayan sat at the other table, wrapping paper napkins around cutlery, her fingers expertly tucking in the ends of the paper for a neat finish. ‘What about you?’ I said, sipping on my Bintang. ‘Are you married? Do you have children?’
‘My husband, he die. Drowned. My son was baby. Life very hard. Always working.’
‘So how long have you been here?’
‘Not long. My friend help decorate. She from England.’ I didn’t question how Wayan came to know someone from England. I was the last person in Bali to quiz another about their connections. ‘I learn cook,’ Wyan continued.
‘Your cooking is good,’ I said. And she grinned, her chest puffed with pride.
‘So what you do in Bali, now? No man!’
‘I’ll just write,’ I said. ‘I had no man before, so it’s not a big deal.’
‘You get older, man not so important,’ she agreed. ‘Children, yes. But man, no.’
A young family strolled into the warung, and seated themselves at a table near me. Wayan welcomed them, and fetched them menus. ‘The nasi goreng is very good,’ I said. They looked over at me—father, mother, two young children and Wayan—and smiled.