The moment I stepped off the plane in Bali, Indonesia on June 2, 1973, I knew right away that I was going to be experiencing something very different from what I’d just seen in quiet Portuguese Timor. We were immediately surrounded by locals encouraging us to stay in their losmens (homestays) – usually spare rooms in their own homes. In Denpasar, Bali’s capital, streets were crowded, noisy and full of vendors selling souvenirs. Intriguing smells wafted up from the dozens of food vendor stalls.
Being white was certainly not out of the ordinary here, as it had been in Timor. The place was packed with Australians – tourists and backpackers. Bali was already establishing itself as a major tourist destination with its scenic beauty, famous dances, artistic treasures and easy-going atmosphere. All very exciting to me.
Having said that, I soon longed for something more peaceful, away from constantly being encouraged to bargain for tourist trinkets.
To Artsy Ubud
My trusty Golden Guide to South & East Asia told me that there was a quieter area about 25 km out of the city in the village of Ubud. Places to stay there were sparse but I did find Losmen Tjanderi – a family compound where the bedrooms opened to an inner courtyard. Who needs walls? Home-cooked meals were provided in their kitchen. Living intimately with this family was delightful.
My trip diary (which I hope you’re impressed I still have almost 50 years later) tells me that my host, Tjanderi, took me around town to visit artists’ homes. Ubud had a history of cultural activities attracting both European and Balinese artists who created unique works that drew celebrities to town, including, apparently, Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin, and she wanted to show it off to me.
The town now has, I read, over three million visitors a year, an impossible to imagine number, but apparently still retains its strong artistic and cultural bent.
Exploring Day and Night
For those of you who’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that I had come out as gay about two years earlier and had spent time in Sydney examining my new sexual and political self. So, while soaking in the sights during the day, I loved dedicating my evenings to meeting locals and other tourists for fun and adventures, hoping that some would be gay as well so we could share stories and more. On re-reading my diary, I’m assuming that’s what entries like these meant: “met Puspah on beach after dinner”; “met Danny who took me to his place after dinner & slept there”.
I added that Danny’s friends were very “c.c. heavies”. What did I mean? Countercultural? Probably. That reminds me that amongst backpackers, there was a pecking order of “holier than thou” in terms of who had been on the road the longest, who could pay the least possible for food and accommodation, etc. The less you paid for anything, the higher status you had in that world and this was in what was already a very low cost country for us Westerners. That philosophy also led to unseemly scenes of bargaining for the lowest price from locals for any service or item. We were warned not to be “ripped off” by the locals. I wonder who was doing the actual ripping off. Maybe I felt Danny’s friends fit that mould – and I wanted to differentiate myself from those attitudes.
For the last few months I lived in Sydney, I had a boyfriend, Bruce, and he flew up to join me in Bali. Now we could jointly and joyfully explore the sights and men of this special island and beyond.
Given that Indonesia in 90% Muslim, Bali stands out as the only Hindu-majority province in the country. Each and every village and town has several Hindu Temples – each more delicately intricate and resplendent than the last. The Besakih (Mother) Temple is the most important, the largest and holiest temple of Hindu religion in Bali. Bruce and I rented a motorbike and drove there, climbing it for its gorgeous views and unique architecture – and few tourists.
Bruce and I left Bali together and, through Java by train, we toured the cities of Surabaya, Yogyakarta and the vast, impressive and famous 8th century Borobudur Buddhist Temple, now a World Heritage Site and the most visited place in Indonesia.
At that point, Bruce took off back to Sydney and we said our goodbyes wondering if we would ever see each other again. In case you’re curious, we did happily meet again – several times – in London, but that’s another story.
On my own again and feeling a bit lonely, I explored the cities of Bandung and Bogor, where I met a “Javanese man who took me to see his insects”. No photo, unfortunately, to remind me what that was all about.
Teeming Jakarta was my next stop, Indonesia’s enormous and very modern capital city.
Jakarta’s Days and Nights
I had several memorable experiences in Jakarta, but I started by finding a cheap youth hostel to stay in. I then made a pilgrimage to the Canadian Embassy to read up on the Canadian and world news which, in those pre-internet days, I had had no access to for weeks. American and British newspapers would have been available in the big cities, but they were too expensive for my budget. I did occasionally buy a Time Magazine as I could read it for weeks.
Back onto the streets, I found myself in the massive, central Merdeka Square where tens of thousands of people were loudly celebrating something. I soon learned that I happened to arrive in this city on June 22, the 446th Anniversary of Jakarta’s founding – a huge event each year.
Not one usually disturbed by crowds, I was enjoying its energy but, as the crowds thickened and people became more boisterous with darkness descending, I wondered exactly how safe I was here – especially on my own and certainly standing out as a tourist. It was then when I felt a hand attempt to reach into my pocket which prompted me to pull away quickly, luckily without losing my wallet.
I scooted into the nearby large Hotel Indonesia, a new-ish modern hotel where, also because I looked like a tourist, I could get away with taking refuge. Sitting in the hotel bar, I could safely watch all the action outside. I hated having to “escape” when my experience with Indonesia so far had been very positive with feelings of safety, politeness and many kindnesses.
Being in the big city meant there might be some kind of organized gay life but, unfortunately, I didn’t have what later became the gay traveller’s must-have Spartacus Guide. But I probably heard something from someone because my diary tells me that I went to “Sanny’s where I met other Jakarta gays” and, in fact, “one treated me to a satay dinner and we made arrangements to meet tomorrow”.
Teddy takes me under his wing
That someone was Teddy who swept me off my feet and we spent the next few days together. He was probably just a few years older than me in his late twenties, very handsome, full of confidence, almost swagger, and very knowledgeable about his city and proud of his country. I was happy to be swept away.
The next day, after touring the Jakarta Museum and a large, modern shopping plaza (Teddy loved shopping!), he drove me to the city of Bogor where I’d just been a few days earlier. This time, I saw a very different side of that city, learning that it was where wealthy Indonesians retreated to its high elevations to escape the heat of the big city.
Teddy had a home there and, once we’d settled, he got on the phone and invited his friends over. Soon I found myself in the middle of a gaggle of gays who were all exceedingly friendly to me. Here are two photos of us outside his home. In the top photo, I’m crouching on the left in my white hippie top while the others are dressed in very modern Western clothes.
We all went out to dinner and then back to Teddy’s home for a late night session of fun and cavorting. My diary reminded me that “we stayed up late – I didn’t know who to sleep with!”. I loved the attention I got as the new boy in town.
The next morning, I was treated to what I called a “beaut breakfast” and we all headed to a nearby social club to spend the day by the pool.
What struck me as both strange and wonderful was how these men could, at least in this setting, be relatively open about their homosexuality in a country that was certainly was not accepting of their lifestyle. My guess is that, because of their wealth and social class, they were relatively isolated from prohibitions and discrimination. They could also probably afford their own accommodation giving them some privacy and security.
As well, this was decades before the gay rights movements became more visible and accepted in Western countries, leading some of the more traditional countries to up their opposition to LGBTQ rights. In the 70s, perhaps it could be ignored – a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.
A Suitcase of Cash
The following day, Teddy and I returned to Jakarta. I tell him, somewhat reluctantly because I was having a good time, that I have to move on to the next stage of my journey – Singapore. Much to my surprise, he offers to come with me and even buy my ticket and pay for all the expenses. Am I now a toy boy? I’m not sure what to think about that, but I take the gesture as a kind one and look forward to spending more time with him in a new city.
Then something weird happens. He says he first has to attend to some business. I accompany him to different banks where, at each one, with few words, he is escorted into a back office where he is given large bundles of cash that he puts into a big suitcase.
“I’m just a bit curious, Teddy. What is going on?”, I ask when we’re back in the car. “And, by the way, what is it you said you did for a living?”
“I didn’t say. But I do work for the military. And part of my job is to collect this money.”
“Oh. And it needs to be in cash?”
No answer. I stop asking questions. After a few more banks, we then drive to the Garuda Airlines office where he pulls out a few bills from the suitcase and buys my air ticket to Singapore.
“Where’s your ticket?”, I ask.
“Something has come up, Gregg, and I won’t be able to go with you. But I’ll take you to the airport now.”
Had I said too much or had he just grown tired of me? Probably both.
A Bit of History
I didn’t know much at that time, but I did know that Indonesia was run by President Suharto who was widely regarded as a brutal and corrupt dictator who had masterminded an anti-communist purge in the mid-60s. That coup led to the slaughter of more than 500,000 communists, the jailing of thousands and the ousting of the previous leader, Sukarno, also a communist.
Sukarno had led the Indonesian struggle for independence from the Dutch Empire. This defeat of communist Sukarno had made Suharto popular with the West who flooded the country with economic support that did help to reduce poverty. The country, though, paid a high cost and certainly Suharto lined his pockets with billions of dollars by the time he resigned in 1998.
Both Sukarno and Suharto had worked, in different ways, to forge national unity and bring some economic prosperity to what was a fractious country of over 250 million people comprising hundreds of different ethnic groups speaking dozens of languages and inhabiting about 6,000 islands spread over a 3,500-mile archipelago.
But was I also benefitting from this corruption? I’ve always had a lingering suspicion (and guilt!) that my few days of fun with Teddy and his friends and my bought flight to Singapore were funded by money he had as a result of his connection to the ruling elites and their corrupt ways. But could it also be possible that, ironically, his connection to power had allowed Teddy to live peacefully in his country as a gay man?
These unanswerable questions filled my mind as I flew over the lights of Jakarta away from Indonesia and Teddy and onto the next adventure.