Karaoke, to fantasize, to laugh

It was my friend J’ birthday, and after Mexican meal and esoteric goodbye rituals at their old home – also, my old home, the one that left a striking mark on my first experience in America, as this was were I landed with my suitcase at the very first place – we ended up in a local Karaoke bar, here at the border of Oakland and Berkeley. No shit I have never seen a bar like that. J immediately hanged me a big book of thousands of possible songs we all have a chance to present now. No joke it had all the punk and rock’n’roll in it as well as good oldies so classic to the Karaoke culture.

I have seen a bunch of Karaoke around the world, it is a phenomena of the global, but nothing simply homogenous in it – it’s as specific to its localities as it could get! Estonian-Finnish ferries used to be infamous for their Karaoke sessions – good way to get drunk and nostalgic at the borderlands of sea. It was specially heart-warming to see the elder ladies with berets singing soulfully their favorites in small bars scattered around Russia. It was weird to hear that in Indonesia you can book a karaoke room which already consists some cute chicks for a sing-along (and possibly a lap dance).

Karaoke seems to have it’s definite space within our transnational leisure-scape, drawing on the cultural capital of the latter part of the 20th century, and growing wider, getting viral, making it into business, because… we, people like it and maybe, maybe realy somewhere deep inside we all just wanna be a star (sounds such a clishée, and no way it’s deep inside! But it definitely feels like it.). Put in better ways, we would perhaps all enjoy occasional disidentification (see José Muñoz, this piece is also in memory of him) with a star, an artist or a memory deeply engrained in our personal history. It’s a strategic identification by the marginal with the dominant – here, we simple people around the globe  who like singing, and the glorious stardom, unreachable memories of nostalgic aura, or it’s a drag, liberating laughter in a mask. And the last is surely not the least. It can be so much fun to go through old time favorites, dress them in drag, laugh at them and make the best out of them.

photoHe painted his lips dark and we all laid down on our knees to sing about love, in tight vibration with H. and N. in the lead.

I personally made Never Let Me Down happening…


Party in the hills, Papuan special

This night ended with a Papuan waria crying on my shoulder. In the distance there was a big car stuck in the soft grassy ground trying to speed off – to be exact, all the cars that had climbed up to the hill between Abepura and Jayapura were big and they expressed the wealth of the driver or the company in the car. Above us was a fabulous starlit sky, which here, away from the city hustle, seems as powerful as ever. N isn’t coming with us, “N is flying,” as P says, whose chubby boyfriend is sitting on the back of the motorbike, kicking his heels. P is a driver, the dude is sitting comfortably behind her. And on my shoulder there’s a frizzy haired drunken waria from Serui tribe crying. She was crying over the most important thing. It felt as if all the inevitability of the destiny of the warias culminated in her tears. Love. Love that seems so impossible, love that’s so unreachable. Because between the frequencies of their bodies and souls there’s suddenly some phallic extra.

“What happened? Are you sure you don’t want to go home with your boyfriend?” I asked.
“No, we’re over”, she shakes her head and wipes the tears off. “I don’t need you anymore! We’re through!” she yells once again to the guy who has vanished into the crowd. A few moments ago they’d clung around each other’s necks like love birds. I’d admired the sugar face that cool waria had found for herself.
I’d met L the same night around nine when she’d finished her work and was going home. On her way she’d stepped into U’s salon, where I with N, P, her boyfriend and a few other guys were killing time. We were talking in the hot N salon, where the air seemed to have stopped moving. There was sweat dripping from her neck to her wide cleavage, and a glinting circle appeared on her forehead that was surrounded by her frizzy hair. I remember that when we were talking about sex work she told that she didn’t do that much anymore, because she has a job. Every time she goes out with friends, she goes home at 1 am, langsung tidur, directly to bed. A few hors later we were hanging at Kali Acay and I noticed a beautiful guy trough my camera, a guy who wasn’t shy at all to be in the picture with a group of warias. A second later I saw him sharing a bike with L, they were both so happy. L gave a gentle kiss on the guy’s shoulder, and then she was impishly playing with her fingers near his groin. For me they looked like a hot couple and I was puzzled when the same sugar face came to me to beg my phone number, L still hanging around his neck. N set the things straight: “Her number is exclusively for warias only, khusus untuk waria.” Of course the guy tried his luck a few more times. Unfortunately I had no time to meet with them again, although from a researcher’s aspect it could have been interesting.
Our party started at U’s salon, where we had ordered a few bottles of a weird transparent drink, called Jenefer. Jenefer is bottled into a huge round one-liter bottle, it’s like gasoline and it’s often mixed with green Sprite. We closed the salon’s windows and doors and tried to gasp some air with a help of a fan or a piece of card board. It’s still unbearably hot, although it’s long after 9 pm. But of course no one of the neighbours or people passing by should see we’re sitting with a group in a salon that was opened a few moths ago and drinking alcoholic beverages. Not that it would be something that’s done very rarely on Papua, but social harmony is highly valued here. P’s boyfriend poured a shot of the green bubbly drink and passed it on, the beat coming from the big speakers set under the ceiling was ticking in everyone’s head.
P was seemingly worried when the shot reached me – because I was with a motor bike and I had told him that I didn’t have too much experience driving a motor bike in a Papuan night. But N said it was nothing, because the people in our country are used to drinking alcohol, there’s nothing to worry about. N seemed to have a lot of respect for our distant country. For example, once she introduced me repeatedly as „Cece, dari Estonia, ibu-kota Amerika.” Meaning, I’m from Estonia, the capital of America.
People nodded agreeably. Who wouldn’t know America?! It sounded so wicked that for a while I didn’t dare to correct her. I was giggling on my own. Estonia – the capital of America.
Despite of me having long term health problems on Papua, and of the weather being sweatting hot, and of being in a some stress arising from my research, I still thought I’d know my limits between social drinking and drinking that scatters the state of mind. It took about 3 shots. Actually it wasn’t the alcohol, it was life itself.

In a cabin with four enormous security guys across the Pacific

After a few-days vacation in Raja Ampat I was finally in a condition I felt strong enough to move on. But then it appeared that all flights to Jayapura had been sold out and only the unacceptably expensive where left.  So I had to decide in the favour of a boat trip. So, here I am, on Nggapulu ship, sailing from Sorong, the gate of Papua, to Jaypura, the capital of Papua, for three days and three nights. An economy ticket costs a bit more than 300 000 rp, but after boarding you can easily bargain for a room in another class, or pay a crew member, who wants to earn some extra money, to sleep in his or her bed. On boarding passengers are surrounded by the hum of the members of the crew, “kamar-kamar-kamar...”, which means that they’re ready to give their room for a passenger for a certain amount of money. The usual fee is  100 000 rp a port, which for me would have meant 500 000 rp, which again I couldn’t agree with. A reserved crew member with a really sweet face took me to his room and asked 2,5 millions for it. I burst out laughing – I’d take a plane for that money!

After several maneuvers, from the front room of the captain’s quarters to the doctor’s office, I finally ended up in the security room – SATPAM, as it’s called. Now I share a room with four heavy men, one of whom, Iwan, gave his bed to me. The game is tough because I have made no monetary agreements with them, on the other hand, there aren’t too many free lunches in the world. So, I have to keep myself sharp and alert to keep away from all possible unpleasantnesses. Which is of course the result of the fact that I’m a woman and they’re men – endless game between a stick and a slit.
So I woken in the middle of the night by Iwan’s head that had appeared from behind the curtain covering the bed, and which was talking weird words to me. I snapped that I was sleeping and told him not to disturb me, which made the head with it’s puppy eyes disappear behind the curtain. But it soon appeared again:
„Cece! Cece! Maybe we could sleep here together?”
„What do you mean?”
„Well, we’d sleep side by side, sama-sama.”
„Come on… Let me sleep!”
Maybe if I hadn’t been really tired and not so miserable because of my health I couldn’t have slept on knowing that there’s one strong security guard, and three more, who’d like to play some kind of sex games with me. Oh, no, never! I’d never let even their little finger touch me.
A few hours before I’d been broken of the thought that I was once again dealing with unpleasantnesses and that I didn’t have enough money to bail myself out. And that I have to do it all for a mere research, which only fills an abstract field in  sparse academic knowledge. Utterly exhausted, with a tonsil pain (my tonsils were covered with white dots), carrying my heavy back pack up and down the narrow stairs on the boat, and holding a heavy fruit basket, which had to cover my vitamin needs for the following days, I once again found myself in agony asking, why am I here!?! But adventures, challenges and a constant fight for right on your way are probably inevitable parts of the life of an anthropologist. Because if you’d use money to move from every situation into a comfort zone, then you would miss the real life.
You can get away from unpleasantnesses using either money or power. Although I don’t have a lot of money, I do have a little power in here. Currently my power is in my rather fluent Indonesian, and the fact that I’m a visitor from afar (the only foreigner on that boat),  and they see me as beautiful, that helps too. Although it’s not a lot, it’s enough to bargain for a place in the security guards’ cozy room.  Now I simply need to come to terms with the fact that besides me there is a number of men in uniform and one of them is extremely attracted to my tongue peircing. At least I have a certain freedom to breath cooled air, drink much coffee and write, write and write.

Happy room-mate


Ayu is a waria in Sorong, full of character, and especially renowned for her hairdresser skills. When I once again stepped into her salon, she offered me cake and asked a neighbouring girl to bring me some more cool ice tea.

Ayu cuts Staria’s hair in the popular Ayu salon in Sorong.

As I had expected, a few minutes later a customer came in. The young guy took off his cap, illustrated with a cannabis leaf – very much a style of Papua- , and sat himself on a chair in front of a mirror. The cannabis theme on Papua creates interesting connections, it kind of refers to the Jamaican rasta and reggae culture, but then again it here marks the arising pride of the darker skin colour. So far I have met no real rasta-man. If I’m lucky, I can tell that I’ve met a few people who can say that they’ve tried cannabis and it makes them dizzy. But this guy here isn’t Papuan, he’s from Makassar, like many other in Sorong. He gives Ayu 20 000 rp and in his yellow angkot-bus  he drives away.

Satria has worked on Papua for seven years already, mainly as a driver. He drives a yellow angot-bus, for which he has to pay a rent of 150 000 rp (15 EUR) a day, plus 100 000 (10 EUR) gas money. If he drives a full day he can make about 500-600 000 rp (50-60 EUR) – one passenger 3000 rp, two passengers 5000 rp. Which means he has about 200 passengers a day. To make the ends meet he has to have at least 70 passengers a day. If he skips a day or two he has to work harder later on.

„But nevertheless it’s better here than in Makassar. Makassar is troublesome (Makassar susah),”  he told me. When Satria came off a boat in Sorong seven years ago he had 30 000 rp in his pocket. He started from nothing. (And in a way he still has nothing. Because you can’t put a lot aside here.)

When he joined me on a drive to the red light district in Sorong a day later, he stopped at women standing on the pavement and asked them come on his bus. He commented: “I’m trying my luck, money for cigarettes.” But these women there, had different things in their minds.

It was already in the 1970s when the Indonesian government allowed legal prostitution in certain areas (lokalisasi), after what hundreds and hundreds prostitutes arrived from Java and elsewhere, too. Among them also the first warias arrived in Papua. A colourful urban legend states that later HIV-positive prostitutes from Java were sent here – it might have been the government’s conspiracy of how to infect local Papuans, who are the top clientele of the prostitutes in the so called “West” (Papua is geographically in the east, so they see the rest of Indonesia as West) – the poor Papuans have come to the city to make some money in mines and elsewhere. Not that I believed that there’s something true about this story but the legend tells a lot about the relations between Indonesia and Papua, and it also comments on the local sexual behaviour.

The red light district in Sorong is huge and its streets are well-ordered, the architecture of the houses points clearly at their purpose. Women were sitting in front of the brothels, in pavilions, and men were walking between them. Judged by the eye, there were about 300 women working.

There, in the red light, Satria, in his cannabis illustrated cap, sighed, if he had the money he’d definitely go in.

Zone of freedoms: how a boy becomes a waria at Berlin Wall

When mentioning our fatherly careful uncle that some of these nights in Sorong I’m going out to Tembok Berlin (translates as Berlin Wall), his eyes filled with fear – this is dangerous, people are drunk there, orang mabuk!
A lovely waria Miranda also warned me that sometimes you can be attacked with a knife at Tembok. But Tembok is precisely the place where most of the waria in Sorong gather at night, so there is no question for me – I have to get there. Tembok Berlin is the heart of the city that runs, as the name says, as a wall along the coast current. This is the city’s most popular place for enjoyment and rendezvous (“tempat Santai”). Here we have great gorengans, coffee, tea, grilled bananas and luxurious durian. This is the meeting point for all young people in love and all secret lovers. Among others,  both female and male prostitutes hang out here, and latter being even more popular, because having a same sex partner can become a good smoke cover.
“People who pass by then just think that you’re meeting some old school friend. Nobody knows that this will be followed by sex, so your family relations will not be at risk, even if you’re having an extramarital partners,” my friend, who’s active in the local gay scene, told me. And it does not mean that the customer is necessarily gay himself.

But after all, this place is called Berlin Wall and there has to be a reason other than just being a wall. This here is the house of liberties of Sorong. On the one side of the wall we have the city, cars passing by and the numerous sweet aunties selling snacks and coffee, people chatting, having good time. But the other side is wilder – here we’ve got warm see breeze, green waves in constant move, along some trash and young people secretly making out. The zone of freedoms along the Berlin Wall.

It was there were I met a sweet young native papuan waria from Biak. Her story seem to be quite representative for the case of papuan waria – she had escaped from her family to another city, because the family couldn’t cope with the child’s non-conforming gender identity. So here she is now – hanging out with the waria of the city, trying to learn about her new life, and the salon work. Her dream is to open her private salon one day. To finance her life, she also comes here at nights to prostitute, just like her friends. When after an exhausting night she returns home, she prays. For her sins. When I asked her, what exactly she sees as her sin she has to pray for – is it her being a waria, is it sex work or is it something else? She replies: “This here…” While all other warias are joking and laughing just next to us, she tells me with glassy eyes that she only does it for money. She doesn’t get any satisfaction from it.

“Miss Angola!”cries another sparkling waria to sheer up my papuan friend, when she walks across the street in her sexy short pants. She rolls some hips as a reply to the girls laughing. Of course, our gender expression is constructed under various forces, just as feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir has stated that one is not born a women, but becomes a women.  What I experienced at Tempok Berlin could rather be seen as how a “boy” becomes a waria. It’s how a waria becomes to be here at the local Berlin Wall – zone of freedoms for some, zone of sins for others, zone of pain and hopelessness for some. Whatever it is – we have to break on through to the other side. Here that would be to the side of green waves and warm see breeze. Sounds like freedom, right? Yet so often the other side comes along with random sex for random money, wanted or unwanted, that takes place between the piles of hopeless trash on the beach.

Makassar: pleasantly mad

Jaka is a chill-out waria in her 40s. She has a quite popular salon in downtown Makassar, where she keeps  herself busy from morning til night. Once I caught him straightening girls’ hair until 2am.

Makassar, Sulawesi

But she always wakes up early in the morning, brings fish from the market, serves the first customers, cooks the fish, she is social with all her friends who constantly come over to hang out in her salon. And it’s always raining in Makassar, so it’s a good spot to wait until another shower is done and they can make a move.

As it was Saturday night, and this is the night when all people in Indonesia take it all with fun, some young even say they go hancur – they go crazy. So Jaka took out her high heels and we went for a rendez-vous in downtown. The city was full of young people, there were crowds of guys with all their crazy motorbikes. Built up and wild, retro machines, and the busy bikers with their blinking motorbikes. There was also a lot of crowd hanging around the waria hot-spot. Jaka knows the girls, but she’s already grown out from nightlife of the youth. She doesn’t bother anymore to go out that often. She has a salon to keep and a boyfriend with whom she feels happy with.

We stayed at her salon for couple of days, and truly enjoyed the company of Jaka.

Jaka and Minna