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March 25, 2009

Prostitutes and Algebra

Tom McLaughlin

Batam Island, Indonesia. – The Queens, a bar, restaurant and prostitute hangout along the waterfront of Water City, Batam Island, services the western male community. All have seen better days.


Serving drinks, a loud, laughing, thin lady speaking broken English welcomes the white customers. An orthodontists dream come true, she teased the men, many regulars. They had obviously lived too long in the area and were passed the stage of functional alcoholics. All had a young, local girl by their side.


The bar maid responded quickly to the request for drinks, mostly vodka, and an occasional Bintang beer. The drinks were poured like a scientist mixes a particularly strong acid. Each jigger was slowly and carefully filled to the brim before being poured into the glass. Great precision was exercised to ensure the customer received a full measure, but not a drop more.


The aged prostitutes greeted the customers. Dressed in a black outfit more suitable for a formal occasion in the west, they sidled up to the customer and rubbed their hand along the inner thigh. Cleavage poured from the top while the bottom hiked up passed mid thigh, if that is possible.


As the night wore on, more and more customers who worked in the shipyards, on the boats or other related maritime industries, showed up – receiving the same treatment. They drank heavily, smoked like a coal burning train and were entertained by the ladies of the evening. I don’t know how much they charged, but I think it was proportional to the amount the customer had to drink. The drunker they got, the higher the price.


The rest of the businesses along this one kilometer strip had very few customers. The exception was the Chinese seafood concern which sported many tables. Christmas lights dangled in the air above the diners. The sea lapped onto a rubble strewn breakwater. Islands in the background were dotted with cranes, oil wells, huge antennas and other symbols of raw industrialization. Not exactly a place for a honeymoon.


Walking further, I sat down at a Malay kedai that served my favorite food, rendang. At the family style serving table three students were doing their math homework. I spoke to them in Indonesian and they, like everyone else, were surprised I could speak the local language. After introductions and the traditional Islamic greetings, we had the usual chat about who I was and how I had learned the language.


When they found out I was a teacher, I was employed in assisting with the homework. Mom, Dad and grandpa all watched as I tried to unravel the mysteries of beginning algebra in the Malay language. “Let’s see, you start with the equations inside the first parenthesis and move outward,” I hopefully remembered.


Grandpa, probably a rice farmer most of his life, gave me the universal look of “why does anyone need to know this?” My students, wide-eyed, black haired with chocolate colored skin caught on immediately. They remembered what their classroom teacher had taught them and then raced through the rest of the problems.


I finished my dinner, paid for my meal (about a dollar for huge plate of rice, a few pieces of curried beef rendang style and green veggies) and walked back to the Holiday Inn.


The prostitutes, drunks and industrial landscape will remain in my mind as a memory of Batam; but those three kids and algebra will always remain in my heart.


Life is good.


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