At a bar on my first night in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, two Chinese exotic dancers from Jakarta sitting at my table offered me an ecstasy pill.
"No, thanks," I said. "I've got a busy day tomorrow."
It was true. I'd flown in on a last-minute assignment. I had just one
contact in Banjarmasin and it was a shaky one. J. ran a guest house, and he
owed a friend of mine a favor. It wasn't much to go on, but he was all I
had, so earlier that day I had checked into a hotel and gone off to find him.
I found his guest house at the bottom of an alley beside the river. It
was a small, clean place, cheap and functional, the sort of
establishment that heads the Places to Stay list in a Lonely Planet
guidebook. J. was out so I sat and waited, thumbed through some old
guidebooks and read of J.'s jungle treks in the
guest book. They were ecstatic. Perhaps I should have taken that as a
J. arrived an hour or so later. He was a stocky man with a winning
smile. What I wanted to achieve was an impossible task in an impossibly
short space of time. He listened and frowned.
"Is it possible?" I asked.
"Of course, it's possible. It will be hard, but you can do it," he said
slowly. "We'll ring some people at the tourist office. You should meet
the head of the department. We should also ring ahead to Pontianak and
tell them you're coming. Are you a member of the Lion's Club?"
"The what club?"
"The Lion's Club. Everybody's who's who in Banjarmasin is a member. I
became a member three years ago."
"No. Would it help if I was?"
"Maybe," said J. "But you should come along to the monthly meeting
anyway. You're lucky. It's tonight. You might make some useful
And so that night, my first in Banjarmasin, my first in Kalimantan,
dressed in the best attire I could cobble together from the crumpled
contents of my backpack, I found myself in a banquet hall surrounded by
Now, I've never attended a meeting of the Lion's Club in my own country,
or anywhere else for that matter, and I have no idea what its members
discuss or hold forth on. I still don't.
The proceedings in
Banjarmasin were carried out in Bahasa, a language I can use to order a
plate of fried rice, find the nearest toilet and buy a beer. The
Banjarmasin Lion's Club meeting discussed none of these. It lasted a
long time. Being a Muslim chapter of the Lion's Club, it also eschewed
alcohol. And so I sipped on an orange juice and fidgeted. Studied the
hairs on my arms. Examined the people who sat around me. Crossed my
legs. Uncrossed them. Smiled at J. from time to time. Nodded at the
portly, beaming gentleman sitting across from me.
Then the exotic dancers appeared on stage. The two of them cavorted
through a couple of Indonesian love songs, and then one of them took up
a microphone and broke into an enthusiastic rendition of "Be-Bop-A-Lu-La."
She clambered offstage and into the audience and danced around us all,
before stopping in front of me and handing me the microphone.
I did the best I could, which is to say I tried to stay in tune. But before she could whisk the microphone away from me, I managed to whisper in Chinese: "You're Chinese, aren't you?"
She threw me an incredulous look and danced off.
Shortly after that, it all wound down. The ritual exchange of name
cards took place, promises were made, vague appointments were floated,
and then J. and I found ourselves out in a steamy equatorial night
among the hawkers and becak drivers.
"I need a beer," I said.
"There's a place around the corner," said J.
The place around the corner looked like an ex-pat tavern -- without the
ex-pats. No sooner had we stepped in than a shout went up. It was the
dancers surrounded by a group of Indonesian businessmen.
"Come and join us," they cried out.
"These guys have tons of money," said the "Be-Bop-A-Lu-La" girl in
Chinese. "They're paying."
Her name was Eva. Her colleague was A-mei, a name that is to Chinese
as Jane is to English. More introductions. Our patron, it turned out,
was the portly, beaming gentleman who had sat at my table. He was a
wealthy logging baron and a haji -- a Muslim who has made the
ultimate journey, a pilgrimage to Mecca.
It was probably about the time of my third beer that I started to have
doubts about the ecstasy. It was something to do with the novelty of
being in Borneo, being bought beer by a devout Muslim and being offered
a drug I'd never tried by Chinese dancers from Jakarta. Somehow, these
unlikely elements had coalesced in one unique opportunity.
"Where are you going after this?" I asked Eva and A-mei.
"Dancing. There's a club next door."
"Are those pills still an offer?"
A-mei handed me a small, white pill and I washed it down with a
mouthful of beer. J. gave me an odd look. He was going to have to be
getting back, he said. I gave him a "you only live once" shrug of
Inside the club it was dark and loud. I sat with the haji, Eva and A-mei
and some Indonesian businessmen.
"You've got to shake your head around like this," A-mei cried, her head
bobbing so furiously that it seemed the sunglasses perched on
her nose would come flying off any minute. "It makes the effect
But I wasn't about to start shaking my head around like A-mei, so I sat
quietly nursing a beer and wondering what all the fuss about ecstasy
"Is anything happening?" asked A-mei, a little later.
"No, I don't think so," I said. "I just feel a bit drunk."
"Have another one."
I took another one.
Ten minutes later, as I stood in the toilets wondering why I had been
standing there so long to no effect, a sinister Chinese mobster, dressed
in black and with a silver, dragon-headed belt, peered over my shoulder.
"What are you looking at?" I asked.
He grinned. "You've had some of the haul," he said in a thick Hokkien
accent. "I'm A-Kuan. I brought it in from Amsterdam. Is it good?"
"I'm not sure. I've been standing here for a long time and nothing's
happening, so I suppose maybe it is."
A-Kuan gave me a stern look. "If you have any problems, if anything
happens, just tell them you're a friend of A-Kuan's."
As I left the toilet, there was a tingling in the backs of my legs and
my spine. It was like the sudden anticipation of an unexpected
excitement. I was hearing the music more acutely now, as if some
fine-tuning had been done to my ears. The alcohol in my system was
beating a retreat and something new was rushing in to take its place.
It hit during one of those lulls where the techno-beat ebbs to little
more than a throb. I'd heard it a hundred times before, but it had never
meant anything to me. Now the throb was visceral. And as it returned
like a gathering wave, my back stiffened and what felt like a primeval
rush of pleasure coursed its way from the base of my spine. It was
crystalline and clear. It was shiny, it was brittle. Suddenly I could
reach out and touch the music. It was a cascading waterfall of diamonds.
And then I was dancing with Eva. She shimmied around me and then she
leaned in close and whispered in my ear: "Tonight I will be with you.
Not love. Sex."
"Yes," I said.
And we danced. We danced until I seemed to wake. We danced until my
schedule began to haunt me, until guilt began to fray my abandon, until
the drug that had exploded in my spine and struck my brain like a bolt
of lightning had become a familiar friend, until I turned on my heels
and fled out into the night.
Some time, an eternity ago it seemed, I had flown into a strange place
and checked into a hotel. And now, as I stood among the becak drivers,
pimps, street peddlers and beggars pawing at my sleeves, I tried to
recall the hotel's name. I turned on my heels and walked back into the club.
I threw myself at the mercy of Eva and A-mei.
"You gave me the ecstasy. You're going to have to look after me now. I
don't even know where I'm staying."
"Don't worry-la," they cooed.
An hour later I was bumping through the streets of Banjarmasin with Eva
and A-mei in a four-wheel-drive, with A-Kuan at the wheel. We pulled up outside a hotel. It was mine. I climbed out. Eva and A-mei climbed out too. In the lobby the man at the front desk gave me a key. He gave Eva and A-mei a key. I went to the lift and pressed the fifth floor button.
"You're on the fifth floor too?" said Eva.
I walked down a long corridor, Eva and A-mei behind me, and stopped at
my room. They stopped at the room next door. I looked at them with
bewilderment. They giggled.
"We're neighbors?" I asked.
"Yes," said Eva. "Why don't you come in?"
I stopped opening my door, put my key into my pocket and followed Eva
and A-mei into their room.
It looked as if it had been ransacked. Suitcases with clothes spilling out of them littered the floor. The massive double bed was piled up with jeans, blouses, underwear and cosmetics. The dressing table groaned under the weight of yet more feminine detritus.
"Sit down," commanded Eva.
I sat down. A-mei disappeared into the bathroom. Eva turned on a Walkman and put headphones on my ears. I sat there and listened to more shiny music. I wasn't sure what I was doing, but I couldn't think of a reason to leave. A-mei appeared from the bathroom in a skimpy transparent negligee. Eva stripped and changed into a bathrobe. They slipped into bed.
"No," I thought. I stumbled to my feet and, mumbling apologies, fled to
my room. I felt out of my depth, confused.
Moments later there was a rapping on my door. It was Eva. She put her
hands around my waist. She guided me to my bed. She flung open her gown.
We fell onto the bed kissing.
I wanted her. The whole night had been leading to this moment, from the
moment I joined her in singing "Be-Bop-A-Lu-La." But I had a small
"Kissing no fun," she complained.
"It's the ecstasy," I said.
"Do you prefer A-mei," whispered Eva.
"No, it's the drug."
"I can call her in, if you want."
"Why would she want to?"
"She's my friend. If I tell her to do A, she'll do A; If I tell her to
do B, she'll do B."
"It's useless. It's the drug. I can't do anything."
We writhed on the bed for another 20 minutes while Eva employed an
impressive catalog of tricks designed to arouse me to action. And then
she went. It was a relief. I switched off the lights and fell into a
brief and deep sleep.
I saw her the next morning at 11. I was sitting in the lobby coffee
shop, blurry-eyed, exhausted, in conference with a local tourist
official. Eva and A-mei emerged from the lift with bearers, a caravan of
suitcases and shopping bags. Eva strolled over. The tourism official
noted her arrival with a puzzled look.
"Don't feel bad-la," she said to me in English, before switching to
Chinese. "Sometimes I like to be naughty. I wanted to know what it would
be like to be with you."
She reached into her bag and produced a notebook. She scrawled a phone
number on a sheet of paper, tore it out and handed it to me.
"If you ever come to Jakarta, you can ring me," she said.
And then she was gone, pausing to wave as she sashayed out of the hotel
with her friend A-Mei.
"I went to the Lion's Club meeting last night," I explained to the
tourism official. "She was one of the dancers."