It's hard to imagine that any woman would take Melvin Wong seriously, let alone sleep with him.
Yet the paunchy, scruffy, middle-aged Asian man staring down at me from "Wanted" posters scattered throughout backpacker guest houses in Southeast Asia apparently held an uncanny sexual power over Western women. Many female tourists fell for Melvin hard enough to become hypnotically entranced, have unprotected sex with him and give him their credit cards. The handwritten billboards described all of this in imperfect but earnest English, and listed the name of a police department in some Nordic country to contact with more information.
Frankly, I'm not so sure Melvin exists. My theory is that this would-be Asian Don Juan is a phantom dogging all us female travelers. He's both punishment and predator, a warning that the realm of one-night stands is an exclusively male domain. Why? Because acting on the libido is about power (as well as fun). And that is still a club with the sign "No Girls" on the door.
The best stories we hear from men about their on-the-road adventures often involve sex or its pursuit. In fact, it seems to be part of the male proving ground, where the "real men" are separated from the boys. "The women loved us there," proclaimed a not-at-all bashful American male friend after a recent trip to a Philippine beach. Likewise, there was no guilt or shame in another Western man's description of the casual sex he'd had with a local woman whom he'd met -- and who had propositioned him -- just 20 minutes beforehand. When another male friend once told the story of a prostitute who offered herself to him for free, it inspired only spirited chuckles.
But the sexual exploits we hear involving women and travel usually are delivered in a somber style -- we're much more likely to fall in love, have our hearts broken or (horrors!) become sexually enslaved if we mess about with sex, according to popular lore. I was once told the story of a hapless British woman traveling alone in Indonesia who fell in love with a Balinese man. He got her hooked on heroin and beat her until, after a long time, she finally managed to escape. Oh, come on. Maybe the story is true. But this girl might well have been stupid enough to get involved with the same kind of guy in the U.K. Why is it that the actions and experiences of a few women color the image of all female kind? The unconscious message, it seems, is that women who get involved in sexual play of any kind while on vacation will pay for it later. Behave, little girl, or Melvin Wong will get you.
The news flash? Girls wanna have fun, too. "It just seemed like the right thing to do," said a female relative of mine of her one-night stand with a fellow traveler in Europe. Some of my best travel stories are about sexual adventures (and misadventures), and so far, there has been no heartbreak or sexual enslavement.
Take what started out as an innocent request for an interview one cold March evening in a bar in Ulan Bator, the capital city of the Mongolian People's Republic. I was working on a story about the Mongolian economy, which is currently in transition from serving as a Soviet satellite state to becoming a free market, giving rise not only to a stock exchange and private businesses, but also to a booming trade for ladies of the evening. An interview with a prostitute, I thought, would add some needed color to the piece. Unfortunately, the prostitute I picked was a nice enough girl, but not particularly cooperative. It became clear after a few drinks on my tab that she would not admit to being a prostitute (she professed to a career as a film student). She also began, to my complete surprise, to flirt with me. She asked me to dance, cuddled up next to me at the bar, fluttered her eyelashes and made stimulating comments like, "I got paid $20 to pose naked."
"Do you think she likes me?" I asked my friend who'd joined us that evening, an expatriate who had lived in Mongolia for more than a year. "Nahhh," he said, "I don't think they go for that sort of thing. The Mongolians are just very friendly, and women are often very close." He gestured to other bored prostitutes, who were dancing with each other in giggly clenches.
It wasn't until a male Mongolian wrestler, well-soused and built like a brick wall, tried to cajole me into dancing with him that she staked her claim. As I sat with the wrestler on one side of me, his hand on my knee, I felt the prostitute's hand slip up my other knee.
"Did you notice she's got her hand on my knee?" I asked my host. "Really?" he said. And then I felt something wet on my ear that made me jump.
"She's got her tongue in my ear," I said in a calm, but urgent tone. At which point we quickly extricated ourselves from both of their clutches and dashed out of the bar, giggling.
No, I didn't have sex with her and/or the wrestler and become victimized or get hooked on Mongolian vodka (the stuff tastes like gasoline anyway). The prostitute's advances were kind of sweet, actually, in a quirky way. And it became a funny story to tell later on.
It would be too simplistic to say women and men have the exact same kind of sexual experiences while traveling. I would say women with the right attitude bring depth and complexity to such flings that allow them to have a better time than men do. What's more boring than hearing about a guy who pays a beautiful hooker to sleep with him? Very predictable. Much more interesting is the affair a Canadian friend of mine had with a younger man (he was 17, she was 25) on a trip to Mexico.
Bored with her life and recovering from the recent end of a long-term relationship that almost resulted in marriage, she pounced on the chance to take a three-week photography course in the small colonial town of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. On her second night, she met Pepe, the owner of a local restaurant. "I noticed him right away," she writes. "I know it sounds corny but it was like a scene in a movie where the lover walks in and the crowd fades out and time has slowed down and there is a scratchy soundtrack playing."
Though Pepe wasn't her type -- very macho, and part of the local mafia -- there was an instant attraction between them. They became lovers within days, and the sex, she confesses, to her "feminist chagrin," was great. After their first time together, he walked her home at 6 a.m. "I'll never, ever forget that short walk. We passed people setting up the market who all called out, 'Buenos dias.' The sun was rising and the incredible colors of the desert highlands were changing colors by the minute. He held my hand."
Naturally, paradise didn't last forever. She soon found out that Pepe had a girlfriend -- a pristine, Catholic virgin named Raphaela, who didn't take kindly to this foreign woman moving in on her man. My friend began to notice a small, beautiful woman shadowing her every move. Since the whole town knew of the affair, everyone began to take sides. "I was in the middle of a fucking Spanish soap opera," she recalls, "and I couldn't even speak the language." So she left (her course was over, anyway). Pepe slipped her a packet of silver earrings, but their goodbye was subdued -- no big words, no promises to meet in the future. She arrived back in Toronto feeling revitalized.
Their relationship contains only this postscript, as she relates: "The third day I got back to Toronto, the phone woke me up. 'Hello?' I murmured, still asleep. 'Te quiero,' he whispered. (And part of me still believes that in another dimension, I am living on a rancho in that impossibly beautiful desert, surrounded by babies and horses, and loving the most unlikely of men)."
What more can you ask for? Drama, intrigue and love -- the kind of affair that's meant to be frozen in time, but brings out an extra element of passion in a traveler's love for a foreign place.
I'm not advising a woman to put her guard down when considering whether to pull her skirt up. The world is definitely a more dangerous place for women, full of scary men who think we are shameless hussies whom they have a right to shag -- and sometimes cause bodily harm to -- whenever they want. But remember these creeps are just as likely to be at a college party in a small American town, or a crowded pub in London, as they are on the streets of Pakistan or the cafes in Rome. The common sense that gets you out of situations at home is the same that you should take on the road.
My little escapade with the Mongolian prostitute was harmless and fun, but I wouldn't have even been in the bar if I'd been alone. (I make it a point not to go out alone after dark unless I know a place well. Single female travelers are obvious late-night targets.) My friend in Mexico also took a simple precaution -- she was introduced to her lover via mutual friends.)
As I've found, it's best to judge each situation individually and with a cool head. In Thailand recently, my boyfriend at the time and I signed up for massages at our (we presumed) respectable hotel. We were the last clients of the evening, and when the two women saw us they giggled in surprise. One grabbed my arm, led me into a private room and proceeded to give me a very suggestive massage. Nothing explicitly off-limits, she just rubbed a little closer than normal to certain parts of my anatomy, and she sighed happily at the sight of my breasts. She made it clear, without saying it directly, that if I wanted to pay her to have sex, she was game.
The whole thing made me very uncomfortable. When I walked out, I related what happened to my boyfriend. "Oh yeah, my masseuse asked me if I wanted just a massage, and if you were my girlfriend, and I told her yes, and that was the end of it," he said. "If you are a man in Asia, you get used to the idea of being propositioned during a massage." Just tell them no firmly and repeatedly, he continued. Looking at it that way, my own masseuse's advances suddenly didn't bother me anymore. She was, after all, just a businesswoman testing the limits of the market.
Common sense, by the way, also dictates that becoming a sex kitten for a manipulative loser like Melvin isn't high on the list of possibilities in my life, nor, hopefully, that of any other savvy female. Sexual empowerment means women, just like men, don't have to say they are sorry for a little light fling. Approaching trips with a cautious, open mind about sex can make it just that little bit more interesting.
I always wondered what happened to Melvin Wong. In a tourist information office in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, during that trip two years ago, I saw the ubiquitous poster and asked about it. The clerk patted my hand and in a condescending voice thick and syrupy as honey said, "Don't worry, he's been caught." Thank goodness. I was wondering if we Western women were ever going to live down the embarrassment that some of us might have been seduced by Melvin.