Long before I bought my fly ticket to Indonesia, I came across while doing my research with a documentary that went viral, made in 2009 by Amit Birmani from Singapore, called “Cowboys in Paradise”. This documentary, only to be found in YouTube, became a big hit and mostly for the wrong reasons and from I have found out these days in Kuta, that’s went all changed for them. Even a well established newspaper such “Los Angeles Times” wrote an article about it and the web itself is full of a wide variety of articles with the most diverse opinions, mostly from 2010.
Bali, known as the Island of Gods, suddenly became a massive topic for the wrong reasons.
As many other destinations on the planet, Bali survives largely thank you to the masses of tourists that visit yearly in search of several different things; so far in my month here I have witnessed such different type of visitors that it would be hard to classify them simply. It seems though, that Bali offers just anything or everything you may be looking for in a destination.
Bali, to put it simply, has a lot of expectations to live up to but manages wonderfully to do so; it is a magical piece of land on earth and there is so much to experience but when “Cowboys in Paradise” went viral, it brought the wrong kind of attention to Bali, specifically to popular Kuta and its beach, given its perfect location close to the Denpasar Airport which serves as a main hub to fly to other regions of the country.
While there is nothing extraordinary about gigolos as it is a term commonly known and used often to define a group of men that conquer women in exchange of a monetary transaction, there is to me something really fascinating about these Cowboys and the fact that the location is Bali and not any other place, maybe my fascination comes from the fact that I look at this men and they appeal to me as hugely exotic, happy and carefree and while I can empathize with Westerner women feeling attraction towards them, I have seen for a month now the exists equally from them towards us.
About this and many other questions, I have widely spoken with some Kuta Beach Boys (theoretically not Cowboys) and found some interesting and surprising conclusions; I came here to find Cowboys, instead I found very sensitive smart men that offered me friendship, their lives history and a great overview of life in Kuta Beach.
Were they Cowboys? I will never know but I know there is something in Kuta that makes solo female westerner travelers happy to be here and wanting to return; it is these men fault. I know because I am one of these women.
I read so much about Kuta before deciding to finally come here to end my trip in Indonesia; one, for its perfect location close to the airport and two and most important, largely attracted with the idea of meeting/interviewing a real Cowboy.
I would say that ninety per cent of the Kuta reviews on the web are right. Arriving in Kuta is like a big slap on your face especially if like me, you have left the paradisiacal Gili islands behind to find a polluted noisy city with too many drunken backpackers per square meter.
I’ve experienced two very different Kuta’s; the one built specifically for and around the tourism and its beach and the real local Kuta, full of charming and wonderful friendly locals.
Both of them are strongly linked but it may not seem like this, especially if you don’t make an effort to build a friendship with them.
I was really unsure what to do when I arrived in Kuta, but after finding basic accommodation and talking to the guys at my Guest House whom couldn’t help me in any way, I decided that the best thing for me was to head straight to the beach, at the end of the day, that’s where the action took place once.
Kuta Beach is an attraction on its own. The first time, it feels hugely overwhelming. Right at the back of the beach, there are hundreds of vendors (food, massage, drinks…you name it) As you walk closer to the sea, you see them; surf tables, plastic chairs where you are invited to enjoy a drink facing the seaside and them…tanned, long hair, naked torsos, smiley, carefree and happy to see you; They are the Kuta Beach Boys.
There is an order of offerings; first of all are the surf lessons, then is the drink and if all of that fails, it is then the conversation, company, music and singing.
My excitement of being finally there made my first approach towards these men abrupt; I was too straight forward asking them about the Kuta Beach Cowboys. I was then pointed out to different guys but none of them really talked much. I felt there was something wrong, like this was a topic off limits and while none of them refused to talk and the smiles kept coming, I was really unsure if there was anything left at all from those golden years.
I was invited to sit down and wait for one guy that was surfing which I was happy to do so as sunset time was quickly approaching. This guy came out of the sea carrying his surf table like a male siren, all smiles, self-confidence, long hair and exoticism, just what I saw on the Internet. For all I knew, I had a cowboy right there and then. We introduced ourselves and sat down at the beach. I asked him all sort of questions and then I asked him THE question. He smiled and smiled, I smiled, too; too many smiles, few words.
Apparently not; He said that he only teaches surf to the tourists and when I insisted and asked him if “only”, he replied yes, only. OK, point taken. But I insisted again, surely there was something else he could tell me? While he struggled with his English a bit, he managed to say that the Indonesian Government placed security at the beach, meaning that no Cowboys were allowed, these characters had become illegal. Truth to be said, I did see some security around but did not related at all to that.
I realized that I didn’t do my homework right, there was obviously something that happened after the released of the documentary, otherwise, why the security?
We sat down in silence for a while, we spoke about him. He said that came from Sumatra and was happy working at the beach but currently they didn’t have much work (it was then rainy and therefore low season) He truly seemed happy and so did the rest of them. It didn’t matter that they were often ignored by the tourists; I was shocked to see that they were genuinely smiling and having fun, it seemed that first and most important, they were enjoying their own company, then everything else.
I was starting to warm up to these men that they were not pushy, not uncomfortable to be around. I left them to it and moved on.
I must say that for the length of time that I spent with this “Team” (Beach Boys work for someone else but they work in teams. For every bunch of chairs, there is a team of 3 or so) and they were extremely accommodating. They serve you drinks in a nicely chill out relaxed atmosphere, they can all teach you to surf and they can all sing and entertain you by being extremely charming.
At that point I felt slighted defeated, I was starting to think that there was nothing for me to do there, in a small scale, even regretting being in noisy Kuta instead of spiritual Uluwatu.
I then decided to keep walking and found a nice spot at the beach to watch the sunset. I sat down facing the sea and waiting for the sun to work its magic. There and then everything changed for me and I would not look at Kuta with the same eyes again.
After a short while of being there, this really young guy approached me, an Indonesian Beach Boy. I looked at him and I saw a friendly wide smile, his tanned dark skin, attractive, respectful approach and curious eyes. We started talking; no I don’t’ surf, I’m ok here, can I sit down with you? Yes, sure. I instantly liked him. He was sweet, looked innocent, was full of curiosity and questions and was not pushy. It felt like I was sitting with a good friend sharing a beautiful sunset.
We asked many questions to each other and naturally, I wanted to know about him and what it was like to live and work at the beach, no Cowboy questions allowed, this was different, I sensed it.
Almost a week has gone by and he and his friend and brother have become my best friends in Kuta and it is thanks to them that I have learnt to love this place. They have brought something so genuine and beautiful to my time here that I will come back.
Those Kuta Beach Boys became my family there; they took care of me and entertained me with music, songs and laughs. In summary, they lift it my spirits in a way that I thought not possible.
In Kuta and thank you to these incredible boys I felt at my happiest. Maybe I will never know what they really are or if the truth is all out there but I find myself thinking that it doesn’t matter any more. In these guys company I have been happier than putting together my happiest moments of my last two years in London.
The first thing I can confirm is that they are happy. I mean, not bitter-sweet happy as we are at home but really genuine happy in a carefree way that I have never seen before. By saying that they are ultra-happy living a simple life at the beach and struggling to make a living out of it, I don’t mean they have perfect lives. After several conversations with them, I know their lives are or have been everything but easy and this makes them even more special, truly a lesson for many of us to learn from.
Many Beach Boys come from Sumatra (they are a bunch of very happy people) and prior arriving to Bali in search of a better life and more freedom, they all left behind humbles lives and poor families.
I learnt from sweet Denzo the struggles that his family went through to send him and his brothers to school, how he had to take public transportation that would ran every few hours or at unexpected hours to get to a school far away, when his friends had motorbikes to get them there, how he would sometimes walk in the rain for hours because he had no one to take him to and from school, how his father could not provide them with basic things, how he had to leave his village at a young age and travel to an unknown city alone in search of a job or how he was bullied in Java when he couldn’t speak Bahasa properly until he self-taught himself and how life in Bali wasn’t always great.
Here I was talking to sweet D and learning from this twenty-two year old Indonesian boy realities that no one could teach me back home about life.
The earnings that him and others make at the beach is not good, life can be a struggle in that sense but Denzo didn’t care; he said that he prefers to be happier than rich. He’s aware however that he can’t always work at the beach however at this moment in time; he’s made a choice to be happy.
He spoke about being able to see sunsets every day that paint the sky orange, to talk and interact with people from all over the world, to swim and surf, to laugh, to play guitar and sing, to make the customers smile and feel happy. He chooses all that for now and I can genuinely understand why. These days spent at the beach with sweet D and the others were wonderful, these guys managed to make me smile big, to get me singing and to be reminding me not to take life too seriously.
They took me to their room where three people live and share a bed; they bought me drinks, allowed me into their private lives and making me feel part of them. We sang Sumatra songs until the early hours of the morning without a care in the world. These men have an incredible capacity to bring joy to your soul.
As I sat down at their terrace enjoying their music, humour and singing, I couldn’t even remember how my life looked like a month ago in London. This is how happy I was feeling in their company.
Just when I was starting to forget about Cowboys, I ended up having a conversation with one of these guys that owned one of the businesses at the beach and I had to take my last chance to ask. Strangely enough, he kindly of guessed I wanted to talk about it and so we did. Sure the video went viral not only in the westerner world but also Indonesia. The Government didn’t like it and took very seriously the fact that Bali’s popularity was under some serious damage with these Cowboys gaining world fame for the wrong reasons and they acted upon it. The police went to Kuta beach searching for them; they arrested and imprisoned twenty-eight.
When I asked him why a Cowboy would publicly tell the world what he did for a living, he said that the documentary director paid to each of them good money to do so, which it explains that even the wife of one of them talks openly in the video.
I’m not quick to judge and it would be great if you weren’t either because I was in Bali for some weeks and while it may look like paradise for us let’s not forget that there is also a lot of poverty which it does not make of Bali much of a paradise anymore, does it?
Who are we to judge them because someone wants to make a living giving to women something that they came here to look for? I don’t. There is a market because there are clients.
But who are these men? The Kuta Beach Cowboys then had prestige, children wanted to become them. How is this normal in a world of subtle prostitution? No one envies prostitutes but many envied Cowboys. They created their own micro world in Kuta Beach; a place where they could be admired, be themselves, be carefree, happy men making women happy; men that would hide behind surf tables, or plastic chairs or old guitars and smiles.
They say they are gone from the beach. Where are they now? I’m not sure, he told me. Can I find them? Would they talk to me? No, they wouldn’t, they made that mistake once and paid for it. Shall I forget? Yes, you should. Will I find them in a nightclub? No answer.
I decided to forget and instead enjoy the silly carefree conversations with sweet D and the others. They never stopped laughing and fooling around. I love them for that.
As I still had some hours left in Bali, I look behind to the last few days and I realized that my week in Kuta has been a journey and a lesson. I came across the most wonderful Indonesian men that have treated with so much more respect than any westerner man has.
Yes, they have been jokes about holidaying in Bali and what it entitles and we’ve had a laugh about it but here I am, feeling sad to leave this great bunch of lads, so full of vitality and maturity, natural fighters but genuine and appreciative of life’s little moments of happiness