Sunday, November 20, 2005


I was in Kem Chicks supermarket, shopping for Australian sirloin steak, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Tom, the amiable, slightly balding, forty-three-year-old expat who had once had a sixteen-year-old Indonesian girlfriend called Kuntil. Tom was looking less dishevelled than on the previous occasion when I had met him, but he still looked rather pale. We caught up on news while having a coffee in the upstairs restaurant.

"No more problems with young ladies demanding money?" I asked, while putting sugar into my cup of Old Java.

"No more problems," said Tom, in a relaxed tone of voice. "A couple of weeks ago I met a university student called Melati. We met at the Tavern. She was telling me that Indonesians are very relaxed about sex."

"Apart from those affected by Dutch Calvinism," I said. "And Islamic fundamentalism."

"That's right. Melati's father's a lecturer in Sociology. He's half Dutch. Melati knows all about Indonesia's culture. You'd be amazed what goes on."

"Such as?"

"You know about the banci? That's the Indonesian transvestites. There's evidently lots of them all over Jakarta."

"I don't think I've ever seen one."

"Melati was telling me that, in many parts of Indonesia, girls used to get married when they reached the age of puberty. There are these islands off Sumatra called the Mentawai Islands. Mentawai girls used to go in for free love from about the age of thirteen."

"Sounds like Manchester," I said, assuming that Tom, as a Manchunian, would not take offence.

"Manchester will never be as relaxed as this country," said Tom, with a slight grin. "Have you heard of the warok?"

"Something that goes on in the kitchen?"

"The warok come from East Java, from Ponorogo. They started as the followers of a poet in a fifteenth century kingdom. They're supposed to have magical powers, but only if they avoid sex with women. So they have sex with young boys. Melati was also telling me about the royal courts in Bali and in Aceh in Sumatra. Men there also had sex with boys. Have you heard of sedattis?"

"No, and I hope they're not too extreme," I said, almost in a whisper. "There's a couple sitting at a table behind you. Kind of big and porky. Might be Americans or Germans. Maybe unhappy Calvinists. Hope they're not parents of one of my students."

"Sedattis," said Tom in quiet voice, "were catamites, young dancing boys. You got them in both north and south Sumatra. Their job was to entertain men. There was something similar in other parts of Indonesia. On Bali, little boys, called gandrungs, would dress up as girls, and dance for the men."

"What about the women?" I asked, in my quietest voice.

"Women on Bali went in for the same sorts of things as the men. In the royal court in Yogyakarta, in Java, there was a women-only area. They had same-sex goings-on there."

"Where does Melati get all this information?"

"One of the people she mentioned was a German, back at the beginning of the century. Someone called Ferdinand Karsch-Haack."

"You've heard of Margaret Mead?" I asked.

"The anthropologist who went to Samoa."

"That's the one. Margaret Mead said the Samoans were much less stressed than the Americans, because they were more easygoing about sex. That was in the 1920's. More recently, some critics have said that Mead got her information from young people who exaggerated what they were getting up to. Maybe Melati's sources give an exaggerated picture?"

"Mead is still basically correct," insisted Tom. "Samoa was more relaxed in the 1920's. Now it's become Americanised and is full of born-again fundamentalists. They've got sweatshops, growing crime and incredibly high suicide rates."

"Melati's going to make you a world-expert on these things."

"I only met her twice. She's not been back to the Hyatt for at least a fortnight."

"Is she liberal in outlook?"

"I think she's in two minds."