Good Guys Gone Bad
Friday 25th April 1992 at about midday;
A 23 year old Australian backpacker waved goodbye to his family and girlfriend and walked through the stainless steel doors at Sydney airport, back pack as checked in luggage and AUD$10,000 in his pocket. London! Here I come. So look out world, this 23 year old Australian backpacker is coming stare you down!!
8 Hours later…
I landed in Kuala Lumpur (Mud River) to meet up with Steve, a friend and former next door neighbour of some 20 years, who had taken a job working for a Singapore-based Australian company. The second thing that hit me was the humidity. Coming from Australia the temperature was not the issue although the humidity was something new. But the first thing that hit me was THAT SMELL. That tropical odour of decay. I will never forget that stench and these days I even miss it. The third part of my culture shock was an electronically generated wailing sound that seemed to echo all over the city. My mate assured me that it was not some kind of air raid warning and that I would soon get used to it as it occurred 5 times every day; the Muslim call to prayer.
Welcome to Asia, Malaysia, Islam and the big bad world in general that I had never given a previous thought.
I have always found Asian girls attractive, so I found it extremely frustrating that I could not get within 1 metre of these beautiful Malay “Bumi Putra” girls dressed in the Islamic attire. My mate had a contingency plan for this. We were going to go to church on Sunday to try and get laid. WTF?? Church?? Yes folks! And it worked. We met a bunch of Philippina girls that were working in KL as domestic servants who got Sundays off work so they could go to church. After mass these girls were most definitely up for a party especially if the white man was paying. Welcome to Asia. I was dragged into the nearest bedroom by a Philippina girl 9 years my senior and she had her wicked way with me. It was great! Welcome to Asia.
It was my intention to stay in KL for up to 4 weeks before travelling on to Europe. My mate Steve whom I was staying with decided to try some early morning flying lessons following the consumption of my duty free Jack Daniels. Well, my grand tour of KL hospitals began. Each hospital I drove Steve to advised that he would require surgery on his fractured arm. We were not buying this surgery business, so we were off to Singapore where Steve’s company would take care of medical arrangements and I went along to carry his bags (literally).
While hanging around waiting to find out what medical treatment Steve would undergo and when we would be returning to KL, I did a bit of the tourist thing around Singapore. The usual tourist attractions, although interesting, just didn’t do much for me. One of Steve’s colleagues, Brett, had just returned from what I would later come to know as a visa run to Batam Island in Indonesia. Brett informed me that on Batam the beer was cheap and the girls were plentiful and a guy could have a good day out for SGD$100. I had already discovered that SGD$100 did not buy much beer in Singapore. The company that Steve and Brett worked for also had a project underway across the water on Batam and they advised me to seek out Jim, the local company representative. Well in my first 10 days in Asia I had driven, taxied and bussed all over Kuala Lumpur and Singapore largely on my own so I did not see the need to bother Jim in Batam. I was sure I would manage.
So with nothing but my day pack, passport, camera and the name of the ferry terminal I hopped in a cab and asked to be taken to Finger Pier.
It was all smooth sailing on the 40 or so minute Ferry trip. I cleared immigration and customs in Indonesia and changed some money; I thought I was an old hand at this sort of thing by now. I exited the ferry terminal and there before me was…well…Nothing much.
Hello…Does anybody speak English??
There were a few battered looking cars lined up that I figured must be taxis so after a few moments of standing around feeling and probably looking stupid I jumped into one. I don’t know what I said to the driver, he did not speak English anyway, but after a while he just started to drive. Off we went, terrible roads, jungle, collapsing buildings, new buildings, plywood huts that looked like they had people living in them and more jungle. After about 30 minutes we came to a town. I must have said something to the driver about hotel because he pulled up outside of one. The taxi had no meter so the driver just helped himself to my wallet until he was satisfied (I paid him IDR 15,000 and later learned that it should have been 10,000). I checked into the hotel, thankful to find people who spoke some English, and went in search of the cheep beer.
I found a couple of Bule (farang) guys at the hotel bar and they gave me a few directions as to where I could find these girls that I had been told about.
Well I wandered around town on foot and in taxi and at some stage in the evening I found the girls, lots of them. Ended up in a girly bar talking to a couple of bule who explained to me how things worked. I followed their instructions and paid “booking” for a beautiful Indonesian girl. I left the bar with my little number and jumped in a cab. AH-OH. I did not know the name of the hotel or how to get there. We just drove around town until somebody at one of the hotels recognised me.
Back in the room the confusion just continued as the girl could not understand why I wanted to use this condom thing. She started to get upset about something and I started to get nervous. It turned out she was just hungry and wanted food.
In the morning the girl left and I picked up my few belongings and legged it back to the comparative civilisation of Singapore as fast as I could.
Got back to Steve’s company’s office and the news was that Steve would be going back to Australia for surgery on his arm. I bought a ticket for the overnight train to KL on my own with the intention of collecting my backpack and continuing on my travels.
Back in KL I met a few interesting characters at the company house, one of whom was Steve’s boss from Singapore. I still had two weeks before my flight left for London. Another guy staying in the company house suggested that I could get the train most of the way to some place called Phuket, up in Thailand. I was contemplating another adventure even though I was still a bit shell shocked from Batam. It was about now that Steve’s boss approached me with a proposition. He was unexpectedly a man down due to Steve’s medical condition. How would I like to go and work for him for a month in of all places Batam! Well I can’t explain why but I leapt at the offer.
So now it was back to Batam with a vengeance. And this time I would have a house to stay in, access to a vehicle and most importantly, a local interpreter on the payroll.
I won’t go into the details of the job / business except to say that it was construction related.
I was from a construction background and actually brought some skills to the company in a few areas where they were lacking and it did not take long before my 1 month became indefinite.
I found myself living and working with Jim whom I had not bothered to contact on my first misadventure to Batam. Now Jim did not like the place. He hardly drank and did not visit girly bars; Jim had not bothered to get acquainted with any resident expats. He was only there for the money as there was still a nasty recession back home.
At every opportunity I would take the vehicle and Freddy the interpreter and go out drinking and chasing skirt. This proved to be a great way to get to meet other expats.
I was making a pile of money and loving the place. I soon discovered something known as the “expat community”. Now I got on really well with my new friends; they all drank (heavily), most of them smoked and we were all up for mongering – my newly discovered favourite sport. From time to time there would be a trip somewhere interesting but most of the expat leisure activities involve binge drinking and whore mongering. We were all doing it and could see nothing wrong with our behaviour. I was still the newbie and either I did not notice or I did not care that I was being led astray from the path of western morality. We just told ourselves that it was western morality that was all screwed up and not us. We were the smart guys.
It was easy not to notice the constant binge drinking because we were all doing it. My co-workers were no exception apart from Jim who hated the place. We treated the locals quite badly as well, referring to the girls as LBFMs. We even developed our own little Australian motto “If it moves; root it. If it doesn’t move; kick it until it does move and then root it” (Root being Aussie slang meaning to “have sex”). I started to have lunch most days with my new “mates” and my Coke changed to beer as that is what the other guys were drinking. I also discovered that many expats would meet at the same venue after work for a beer or 6.
Well I ploughed my way through more pussy and booze than I can remember. The bargirls would usually be taken to a hotel so it was a change for a girl to find herself at a house. Quite regularly a previous bargirl would show up at the house, not just my previous conquests but those of my co-workers who would often come across from Singapore for a visa run and some cheap beer and pussy. A day or two later the girl would show up at the house looking for Mister “So and So”. Many times I would come home from work and find girls that I did not know or remember sitting around the house watching TV, playing cards, cooking and eating. The record was 7 girls if I remember correctly. Sometimes a girl would provide a quickie (ST) for free, but for a girl to stay overnight it would involve the payment to the mamasan. On several occasions a girl or two would be physically thrown out of the house. It all seemed quite normal at the time, just part of doing business in-country.
I had better include a bit about the girls as I’m sure many readers will be interested. Unfortunately this information may be out of date and no longer relevant.
For starters; Batam is very close to Singapore and was the second most expensive place for prostitution in Indonesia. The locals would always prefer $SGD to Rupiah (the Indo currency), some establishments would not accept Rupiah. Many of the punters (mongers) were expats working in the oil or manufacturing industries as well as the weekend travellers from Singapore looking for cheaper beer and sex. The result was that nearly all of the girls were imports from other parts of Indonesia. The most expensive place for pussy in Indo was some remote island that catered exclusively for oil workers.
The Batam brothel owners had agents in other parts of Indo who would recruit girls by offering them a loan up front to be paid back by their work in Batam. Many girls claimed that they did not understand the nature of the job until they arrived in Batam to commence work and by this time they were heavily in dept to the bar and their families would have already spent all the money they borrowed. Often the girls would be sold / leased to this agent by their family. It is my belief that most of the girls knew what work they would be doing in Batam but a few would have gotten a rude shock upon arrival. Sound familiar?
Now these girls were kept under lock and key in a form of debt bondage to the bar. They would get two hours off work per day and that was when they would show up at my house and be let in by the maid. At night they would be quite literally locked in above the bar unless they had been “booked out” by a customer. Many girls tried to run away but few got very far. The agent that recruited her would know where the family lived. I don’t know all the detail but the mamasans were quite efficient when it came to tracking down runaways. Some girls that got pregnant to customers were forced to have abortions and had to return to work as soon as they stopped bleeding. BTW all of the runaway girls were of the veteran category who thought they could out smart mamasan and not the innocent small minority of girls that did not know what they were in for.
Now to be fair; if you can call it that, the mamasan would have a ledger book with the girls debts and earnings all recorded. She would have to pay back all debts including: agent’s fee, airfare, working clothes and any other fines for days off work etc. If a punter was interested in a GFE the girl could get the ledger from the mamasan and show her buy out price, in other words, how much it would cost a punter to get her released from the bar. If the debts were paid the mamasan would honour the agreement and the girl would be released. Unfortunately the girl may not honour the punter who did the paying. Sound familiar?
A girl would usually pay off her debt in three months and go home with very little money only to return a few weeks later with a new debt to mamasan. It was common to find very young girls working in these bars.
For a guy in his early 20’s all of this was just a dream come true. I did work hard and produced the results for the company, but at what cost? I did anything to “get the job done” with complete disregard to the locals in business and pleasure. Paying bribes to government officials such as immigration, customs and police was just another part of the job that had to be done. I was living a dream come true. Money, girls, travel and adventure.
I had glimpses of the ugly side of the expat community but I was too busy to take much notice. When I started to receive business proposals from other expat “mates” who were between contracts (unemployed) my eyes started to open. Why did these unemployed expats not return to their home countries? I began to hear tales of expats who had cheated their so presumed expat “mates” in various business deals or had disappeared owing money to many. I eventually became aware that some of my mates were skipping the “work” interval between “lunch” and “after work” on a daily basis and their days started and finished at the lunch venue.
One of my western values that had not been eroded was the Australian value of mateship…YOU DO NOT SHIT ON A MATE (even if he happens to be a Kiwi).
I made a vow to myself that I would never become one of these sad sacks of shit and when my gainful employment and expat salary came to an end I would be back home to Oz or continue my travels to Europe (I later spent 2 years based in the UK and had a great time).
For the expat, Batam Island is not a place where you would want to spend your retirement or even travel there for an extended holiday. Batam was all about business, industry and money. It is, however, a reasonable place to base one self if looking for further employment in the Far East due to the easy access to Singapore and the low cost of living. In those days it was considered that access to Changi Airport, Singapore from Batam was easier and more reliable than the comparative journey of Pattaya to Don Meuang BKK or so I was told. – “Pattaya”; that name kept cropping up.
Many in the expat community were/are successful and motivated people who were gainfully occupied or had good prospects of getting another contract. Many an expat lived with a bag permanently packed in anticipation of the phone call that would summon them to some other part of the world, myself included (I constantly had to request of the girlfriend not to unpack the ready to go bag).
The itinerant nature of life on Pulau Batam was a big factor in the degeneration of morality among expats and the resultant poor behaviour towards the locals and fellow expats. People would behave in disgraceful ways and then disappear on a job for weeks or months. When they returned with a bag full of money and buying drinks for every man and his dog all things were forgotten and the party would begin again. No one cared much, no one was planning to make Batam their home. The whole island was just the Singapore garbage dump so who cared what happened there.
Unfortunately for more than a few expats; Batam did become home for a lot longer than planned. Where the Batam western populace differs from the Thailand western populace is in the fact that almost to a man, all of the resident expats you would meet on Batam had originally arrived in the region for business and probably with a big fat expat salary. There were absolutely none of the “fell in love with the place” types that I so often meet in Thailand and no tourists apart from day trippers and weekend mongers from Singapore.
They may not have fallen in love with Batam Island but they became addicted to the expat salary and lifestyle, great for some, but if that “next big contract” they had been waiting for did not materialise, what then? Go back home? (I kept my vow and did just that) or sit around at the expat haunts, drinking beer and waiting for the expat mates to finish work, and hopefully, bring news of the upcoming projects and employment opportunities, and all the while, pissing away the money saved from the previous contract. The talk among the more balanced expats was that some of these guys were so screwed up that they would be incapable of living in their countries of origin and would do anything to avoid retuning.
I did not think too much of this at the time, but in the cold, hard, light of reality and hindsight, I can now see that I was looking at guys that were at the end of the line or on the railway to nowhere and I was close to buying a ticket for myself.
I have never ventured back to Batam in Indonesia, even though I have been in the region so many times since those crazy days when I was immortal and life was so much fun. An old hand told me at the time that I was too young to go to Thailand. I thought he was a dickhead but now I know that he was right.
My mate Steve? Well… He went down that one way track as have so many others. Spent the better part of a decade in Asia and a fair chunk of that time sitting on Batam waiting for that next contract to come up.
Steve has been back in Oz for the last couple of years on the bones of his ass, and found it quite difficult to re-adjust to living in a western country, but he still has that bag packed hoping and waiting for the phone call.
Great, honest story.
So many guys lose themselves in Asia. So many!