I have often been described as having no fear and in all honesty there are many times when that could be said as true. But there are equally as many times when my courage has escaped me and left me ashamed and unable to look someone in the face. This is one of those moments when bravery ran rapidly out the back door like a skulking cat!
I arrived in the capital of Java known as Yogyakarta at the end of Ramadan – a weekend of partying was ahead for the locals. But for me,well I was trying to survive the humidity that the city blanketed me in as soon as I arrived. I had booked into a Losman run by a local family and the owner immediately suggested that I get across to one of the islands in the chain known as Pulau Serebu also called the thousand islands. The winds from the sea would be cooling and it would be great place to snorkel and relax he assured me.
His daughter and a friend were going across and I could share the air conditioned car to take me down to the ferry. The two girls were then going to be taken across the Java seas in luxury, in a yacht called the Java Jewel.
I watched the two beautiful young girls clamber aboard the luxury yacht giggling with happiness and excitement. I in turn clambered onto my less then salubrious public ferry, but was already breathing a sigh of relief as I caught the first of the cooling breezes. The ferry followed in the wake of the yacht, it soon disappeared in to the horizon.
My journey across to the island I had booked to stay on was long and slow, the ferry stopped off like one of our London buses at every place somebody stuck their hand out for it, but eventually I arrived and booked into my beach hut. Dumped my luggage, stripped down to my bikini and hit the beach!
It was not long before the two girls found me and demanded swimming lessons. The Losman’s daughter was she told me 15 and her friend 16, both had a very good command of the English language. We spent the afternoon swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Java Sea, the seabed littered with sea cucumbers.
As the afternoon wore on I started to realise something was terribly wrong. The older girl told me she had been paid to come across with the group of men sat on the beach. Koreans, rich, fat and by the looks on their faces arrogant.
“It’s Ok, no problem. At first I hated it, but the money is good and now mother always demands jewelry when I return back to my village. I get taken to expensive hotels and eat in fancy restaurants. It’s easy money.”
The story however for the Losman’s daughter was clearly different. This was her first time.
“I don’t want to sleep with him. I like his son. See, the one sitting under the trees? There.” she pointed across to the solitary figure.
I returned my gaze back to this young girl and my heart sank. She was stunning, not just pretty but beautiful. Pale skin and jet black hair falling in tresses around her shoulders. Beautiful almond shaped eyes. And an innocence that I suddenly realised would by the end of this weekend be gone.
Did her father know what was about to happen? I decided that he couldn’t possibly know, he had been so attentive to her that morning, so fatherly. He really did think she was going on a weekend jaunt in a big yacht across the Java seas.
As the sun slowly set and evening descended I made my way back to my hut, showered and changed for my evening meal. I grabbed my book A Suitable Boy, assuming I would be eating alone and headed to the Al Fresco restaurant.
I was immediately ushered to the group from the Java Jewel. They had caught a monster of a fish earlier that morning on their jaunt across and wanted to share with me. By the looks of the number of empty bottles of beer and wine their end of Ramadan was going very well.
A large glass of wine was placed in my hand I gulped rapidly and then my eyes caught the face of the Losman’s daughter. She had a pained smile on her face and was holding a larger tumbler of what I could smell was whiskey. She was too young for that kind of drink, I thought. She came and sat next to me. We tried to have a normal conversation. About her education, (she was attending a local Catholic school) her hopes, her dreams but it was futile, her fate seemed set now.
One of the men explained that the best part of the fish was the part just at the back of the gills and this was offered to me.
The fish was I am sure exquisite but my taste buds seemed to have disappeared down into my stomach where they were brewing up a storm of sickness.
The Korean whom I assumed owned the Java Jewel continued to stare at me smiling with a way too polite expression on his face. I stayed for as long as it was considered acceptable, drinking too many glasses of wine and then I excused myself, retreating back to my hut on the beach.
As soon as I got into the hut I grabbed my own bottle of whiskey and gulped a large portion down.
Jesus what could I do? The man had paid for her. What could I do? Nothing. I was useless. I could go back and hurl obscenities at him but what would that do. Anger him? Make him feel he had to prove his manliness with this young girl? Make the whole thing worse than it already was?
I took another swig of the whiskey, flopped back on my clean white sheeted bed and stared up at the ceiling fan rotating round.
I slowly dozed, falling into an angry and impotent sleep. Vaguely I heard someone knocking on my bamboo hut door. As I awoke I realised it was the Losman’s daughter. I opened the door to a distraught girl. She stumbled in reeking of whiskey and something worse.
I closed the door. Tried to comfort her. I had almost calmed her from the hysteria when my hut door was kicked open and three Koreans stood in what was once the door way.
Drunk and angry they mumbled something in slurred and badly formed English.
I met the eyes of the biggest of the three. “Get out. You have no right to come barging in here, this is my hut. I have paid for this. I didn’t invite you.” I screeched.
With one powerful slap across my face that sent me sprawling across the floor ,the fat Korean grabbed the Losmans daughter and said, hrough whiskey breath, “ Yes and I have paid for this, and I will have my money’s worth.”
He dragged the girl wailing like an injured animal back in to the darkness, her howls hanging in the night like torture.
The remaining two men stared down at me, their fists clenched almost willing me to get up off the floor so they could hit me. I attempted to climb to my knees and I felt the first thwack, dizzy with pain I shook my head, a childhood trait, whenever I had a headache I would shake my head. I felt another smack and then the fear set in and then for once in my life I stayed down. But the anger remained. I waited for what felt like was minutes, but was in all probability a few seconds, one spat at me before turning round and walking out of the hut. Followed by his friend.
I stayed on the ground. I cried. I hit my fists on the matted floor and raged at my complete and utter uselessness. Finally my anger spent I got up and grabbed the bottle of whiskey, finished off the bottle and fell back on the bed in drunken stupor.
The following morning I prayed that I wouldn’t see any of the Java Jewel group at breakfast. I ate as much Nasi Goreng as my hangover could accommodate and packed my luggage to get the ferry back across to Yogyakarta.
My head was pounding, a mixture of a hangover and a bloody battering from the Koreans.
When I tramped down to the ferry stop I could see the large shape of the Java Jewel rocking gently in the sea.
The ferry was ready for boarding I climbed in. I was suddenly aware of someone waving and calling me. I looked up, it was the Losman’s daughter waving from the yacht.
I smiled and waved, glad that she was still alive. From where I sat I was just close enough to see her face, but couldn’t see if her lovely smile reached her eyes.
My last image of the Java Jewel was her hair waving in the breeze, black like the wings of a dark angel.
When I arrived back to the Java side there was no air conditioned car to drive me back to my accommodation. I got a taxi and whilst in the back of the car I started to wonder what the girl’s father would say. Would he blame me? Would he feel I had somehow let his lovely daughter down?
Fortunately it was his wife who greeted me, but my relief was short lived. I looked at her, round her neck a stunning display of black pearls. I barely managed to meet her smile. But I saw her gaze rest on the bruises that had now appeared on my face. Her demeanor was gracious, but it was wasted, the black pearls answered everything.
The Koreans words echoed back, “Yes and I have paid for this, and I will have my money’s worth.”
“I can’t stay, “I explained, “I need to get back into the city center. Can I just settle up? My taxi is waiting?”
“Of course.” In silence she wrote out my bill, I paid and I ran quickly back to the taxi and left.
I booked into a hotel called The Rainbow, air conditioned, well stocked mini bar, TV, shower, room service. I chose not to take up the offer of a personal masseuse.
So you see, no traveler’s tale of bravery, no rescuing of the maiden in distress. Just a bloody bruised face and a crashing hangover. And a sense that I had failed.
I hate black pearls. Fortunately I have never been given them as a gift. I hope to God I never will. For the price we pay for certain things is not worth the real cost.