Jalan Nusantara, or Archipelago Road, how aptly named! At Makassar, this road divides the two worlds of stories, the land and the sea. On one side is Makassar port, one of the busiest in Indonesia. On the other is a row of cafes, karaoke bars, hotels and restaurants; shutters down during the day, and at night, barely lit, revealing themselves as brothels. These two worlds meet every night after a long day of anxious waiting when sailors and young ladies, both groups who have arrived from all over the Indonesian archipelago, disappear in the arms of each other.
It is nine in the evening and Jalan Nusantara feels ominous with the constant barrage of monstrous trucks carrying the impenetrable realms of containers. The ladies, with fresh make-up, have just begun to come out from the dark, sitting themselves on a long row of plastic chairs that have now lined Jalan Nusantara. In Indonesia, commercial sex workers are known as Pekerja Seks Komersial or PSKs, a name that seems straight out of Carl Linnaeus’ book. They are now sitting themselves in rehearsed postures of crossing their legs, baring one to catch the light from the streetlamps. Makassar is one of the few cities in the world where, as was common in much of the world before, ports still attract brothels.
I see sailors attempting to make the dangerous crossing of Jalan Nusantara through the plying trucks. From across the road, the women begin whistling and clapping at him. The sailors, in small groups of two or three, are halting, sprinting, halting, dodging and jumping as the women cheer them on. Once on the other side, they have a smile that soon turns shy. The girls call out to them. The sailors walk on for a while, avoiding making eye contact, till a bold female hand holds their hands and pull them in. One woman gets up and grabs the hand of a sailor and pulls him in. Isn’t she a teenager? Her co-workers push the other men in too who don’t resist.
I wonder if the sailors and the PSKs tell each other stories; stories from the sea, of mysterious creatures, countless stars, near-miss accidents, and weeks and months spent away from the comforts of home; and stories from the land, of youth and families left behind, of the range of body odours they have encountered, of the never-sleeping fear of the unknown, or of hopes still alive.
The PSKs and their agents are calling after me too. But I am not a sailor and my heavily insured life is too sterile, my stories bleached of much of the pains of life. One man, probably the manager, screams and points at the girl sitting next to him, “Stock Baru,” new stock. Where would she be from? PSKs usually work in cities far away from home to hide their identities. Red light areas all over Indonesia are known to run exchange programs for PSKs so that local customers get acquainted with new people.I keep walking. Suddenly one man opens a door to reveal a dazzling world of lights and women scantily clad, seated in stacks. They look like lifeless mannequins; staring vacantly towards me or are they longing for the door that just opened out! Like a man possessed by a messianic duty, I run from Jalan Nusantara, gasping, my heart as heavy as a container truck.