The four of them looked like they were two married couples. Like me, they had just come out of a screening of Amit Virmani’s documentary Cowboys in Paradise, whose subject matter was the beach boys of Kuta, Bali, and their relationships with female tourists.
“There were no Indian girls there,” remarked one of the two women in her recogniseably Indian accent to the rest of the group. “I guess Indian girls are too smart for all that.”
One of the men following behind — perhaps her husband — replied: “There are no Indian girls because the boys only go after Westerners.”
Which was not true; the film clearly showed a number of Japanese women involved.
Singapore-based Virmani’s film is an interesting, and I’d say, well-made one, especially considering that it was mostly executed with one man and a camera. Consisting of multiple interviews with a range of subjects — older residents and observers of the Bali scene, a number of female tourists from Europe and Japan, and several beach boys themselves — it explores this phenomenon of the “Kuta cowboy”.
Mostly, they have small-scale jobs on the beach, as tour guides, surfing instructors or drinks sellers. However, what marks them out is their focus on getting close to women tourists from the richer countries. As the beach boys themselves explained in the film, it begins with chatting up the women, complimenting them on their looks, offering to accompany them shopping or to entertainment spots, and generally showering attention on them for virtually the entire time the women are in Bali. Somehow — and this is one area where the film didn’t quite explain how — there is the understanding that the women will be the one covering the expenses for the time they are together, and if they’re shopping, she would buy him some nice things.
And of course, there is sex, for which the Japanese women are reported to be hungrier than other nationalities. Did you know that?
Generally, the relationships do not end when the women fly home. The women look forward to returning and to seeing the same guys they had again. This can create difficulties when a beach boy finds two of his “sponsors” returning during the same weeks. On the women’s part, there is the expectation of exclusivity.
In some cases, the women sponsor the boys over to their home countries, but almost always it does not work. The culture shock is too great. Adjusting to a regular working life in a foreign country is too stressful for boys without much education from a place where the pace of life is much more relaxed and unstructured.
Adding richness to the film, Virmani interviewed family members of two of the boys — a father of one and the wife of another. How do they view this whole business? He also asked the wife what she might think if her infant son grew up and wanted to be a beach boy too? She said she would be fine with it.
If that seems a trifle troubling, there’s more: An interviewee tells the camera that every day in Bali, two persons die of Aids. On a per capita basis, that rate is three times that of the United States and 84 times that of Australia — that’s if I remember correctly what was said.
The Kuta cowboys generally reject the notion that they are gigolos. I suppose that’s based on the tenuous argument that they do not actually flash a rate card for their services, depending instead on freely-given gifts (including monetary gifts) from grateful women. It may also be that the whole arrangement is based on getting the women to believe there is affection involved, and that it is not transactional.
However, at other points in the film, there are references to specific requests, e.g. when one of the beach boys spoke about asking his female friend to send money so he could buy a motorbike. Meanwhile another proudly showed off two small houses he built on the proceeds of his vocation.
Cowboys in Paradise is a richly layered look at an aspect of escapist tourism. No two boys are the same; no two women are the same. Some mean well, others can be calculating. A few even fall in love. The whole point of documentaries is to enlighten, and the best ones leave their audiences with an understanding and appreciation of the situational complexities and human frailties involved. Virmani’s film achieves this very well.
Or so I thought. Till I overheard that snippet of a conversation on the way out.
Indian girls are too smart for all that? Did she mean the Western and Japanese girls in the film were dumb? That they did not know what was going on? Wasn’t she being judgemental when I would imagine the director intended the opposite for his film? Did she not grasp that:
1. Single Indian girls are not a significant percentage of tourists to Bali;
2. Coming from a less-developed country, they may not present as sufficient economic opportunity for the Kuta cowboys;
3. Indian girls may be conditioned by their culture to avoid being bikini-clad for days on end, suntanning on the beach.
* * * * *
I found this Director’s Statement on the movie’s website and it’s so well-written, I have to reproduce it here:
It all began with the little boy.
Holidaying in Bali some years ago, I met a twelve-year-old Indonesian boy who insisted on speaking to me in Japanese. My grasp of the language is limited to what you’d find on a sushi menu, but he couldn’t have cared less. It didn’t even matter that I spoke Indonesian fairly well. He had made his decision and until a Japanese person showed up, I’d have to do.
When amusement finally gave way to annoyance, I asked him what the deal was. “I’m practicing,” he said. “When I grow up I want to sex-service Japanese girls.”
His reply was gleeful, and all the embarrassment was mine. Here was someone with a career goal most wouldn’t admit to, at an age when most don’t even have career goals!
Now, the fact that women pay for sex hardly fascinates me as a subject. Prostitution – in any variation – is not new ground for a filmmaker. Also, female sex tourism is common in poor countries and popular beach destinations, and Southeast Asia, where I’ve lived most of my life, has plenty of both.
But this was something else. Why was this boy so eager to get started in the flesh trade? Why was he taking pride in his perceived, future sexual prowess? And what does it say about Paradise, a term I’ve always eyed with suspicion anyway, when it can only offer its children such limited dreams of the future?
I had to find out. And when I did, I had to make this film.
And then the film got the people involved into trouble with the Indonesian authorities. You’ll get a gist of it via this story in the Sydney Morning Herald.
* * * * *
As Virmani said, this phenomenon of beach boys adding value to female vacationing is not confined to Bali. It is probably a much bigger scene in the Caribbean, where I first saw it with my own eyes, particularly on the northern shore of Jamaica, lined with holiday resorts. Here, the Kuta cowboy’s equivalent is called a “renti”, but as the second of the following Youtube videos indicates, almost everything of the dynamics is the same. There is the same mutuality of stereotyping and yearning between tourist and local.
* * * * *
In this region, the gay equivalent can probably be found in Thailand — or at least something resembling a gay equivalent. While there are similarities, there are significant differences as well — at least as far as I can tell, not that I have done any systematic research on the subject.
The gay equivalent is much less visible at the popular Thai beach resorts, most likely because the boys’ numbers are fewer. They operate the drinks and beach chair concessions, offer massages under the shade of a tree or peddle some trinkets, but are not adverse to developing a conversation with the vacationer (in this case, gay male) that may lead to more — like the Kuta cowboys.
The chief difference seems to be that neither side expects it to be a “courtship” that lasts for days. And neither side even makes any pretence at affection. The objective for most (both tourist and local) appears to be a session of sex that evening, and that’s that. If the foreigner comes to the beach again the next day and the beach boy sees him, they may say “Hi”, they may start a conversation all over again, but it’s almost as if they know the reset button has been pressed. One makes no claim on the other — exclusivity is so limiting — and the process of subtle negotiation for another evening of sex has to start all over again.
Money may or may not be mentioned, but is certainly expected at the end of the bedroom session. If the boy senses that the tourist is a newbie and may not know the custom, he would find some way to state in advance his expected compensation. At the very least he might say something like, “Then afterwards, you give me tip, OK?”
Generally, men do not mind this clarification. Indeed, I would think it puts their minds at ease: They know where the other party is coming from and they probably appreciate knowing in advance their contractual obligation. For women, such crude and crass discussion of money may be much less welcome since it punctures the illusion of affection.
As Cowboys in Paradise puts it, “Men go on sex tours, women go on romantic holidays.”
Men are more prepared to see sex as transactional, which once again may explain why the beach scene is so small. More efficient at catering to demand, and therefore bigger in market size is the organised gogo bar scene, where there is no pretence at all that tonight’s “60-minute love affair” is anything but transactional. The bar scene, however, is a different story altogether.