A cloud over Bali's beautiful beaches

Amit Virmani was vacationing at Bali's famous Kuta Beach when he met a 12-year-old boy who told him of his unlikely goal: to grow up fast, so he could be a gigolo.

The boy said his heroes were the young bronzed Indonesian surfers who provided erotic services to Japanese women and other female tourists who flock to the island for discreet sex vacations. The young men's apparent sexual prowess and serial romances have earned them the nickname "Kuta cowboys."

"It begged the question: 'Who are these young cowboys?' " said Virmani, a Singapore-based writer and director. "What about their life is so exciting? Is it really paradise?"

For many, the cowboy lifestyle brings up another, moral, question: Are the young men merely a twist on the world's oldest profession, purveyors of sex and an island escape who don't charge upfront for their services, yet who in the end expect ample compensation?

Or are they just good-time Charlies, poor islanders who take what they can get from the often-wealthy women who flock to their home, prompted in recent years by such books as "Eat Pray Love" to be less inhibited about traveling for sexual adventure?

And how are these women different from the male sex tourists willing to shell out cash for liaisons with young women around the globe?

For two years, working alone, Virmani wandered Kuta Beach shooting video for his documentary "Cowboys in Paradise." Surfers detailed their techniques, pick-up lines and strategies to meet and seduce mostly older foreign women.

The film, released in 2009, has angered Bali's predominantly Hindu residents, who say Virmani's lurid focus on sex has desecrated what they consider a sacred beach.

Pressured by local news media, police in April detained 28 men who lacked proper identification for what one official called "disturbing the peace or security of our beaches."

Nowadays, just the mention of the phrase "Kuta cowboy" can make the easygoing men in their 20s and 30s who rent surf and boogie boards along the tree-lined beach bristle with anger.

"It's a big lie; these guys don't exist," said I. Made Subali, a deeply tanned man with skull tattoos who rents surfboards near a sign that encourages clients to "Make New Friends with the Local Boys."

He alleged that Virmani misrepresented himself to the surfing community. He said the men didn't know Virmani was making a film and told him tall tales. Now those featured in the documentary are seen as troublemakers in local bars, he said, and several have left the island.

The 83-minute film, with a trailer that has drawn hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube, has put officials on the defensive.

"It portrays Kuta Beach as a sex playground," said Gusti Tresna, who heads the beach security force. "We can't deny it happens. But if women come for a holiday and they hook up with a local guy, fall in love and decide to buy him a motorcycle or even a house — and I've seen it happen — what can the government do?"

Virmani said he was surprised by Bali's harsh response. "They shouldn't go arresting people because they're tanned and muscular," he said.

The film, he said, captures the subtle dance between the smiling, mostly longhaired working-class men and often-wealthy female tourists without placing blame.

"These cowboys are not prostitutes," but a vital part of the local economy, he said. "They're men with day jobs who meet foreign women and find inventive ways to collect."

Virmani said the film was not intended as an expose, because the Kuta cowboys had long been tolerated at the beach, a female tourist sex destination for decades.

"The cowboys have blurred the lines of seduction, offering the illusion they're in love and not carrying on some cheap sexual affair," he said. "And some women will pay a lot to keep that illusion going."

Some cowboys are single and carefree, and admit having unprotected sex. Others are married and have a hard time providing for their families.

In the film, nearly a dozen men speak candidly about their charm offensive, offering a variety of pickup lines as the camera shows surfers flirting with women, getting backrubs on the beach, couples running in the sand holding hands.

One cowboy removes the sunglasses of a woman, singing, "When you take off your sunglasses, I can look into yours eyes," making her laugh. Another man says: "First and foremost, I sell love," adding that he looks for older women with higher salaries.

Virmani also interviewed some of the tourists, one of whom defends the men. "I don't think they're gigolos. They just like women. There's nothing wrong with that," she said.

Approaching the women on the beach, the cowboys arrange dates at dance clubs. They refer to their romantic pursuit as "fishing" and text-messaging lovers as "work."

One surfer says women must shower him with gifts for him to stick around, but insists that cowboys never ask for compensation. Some cowboys become emotionally attached to the women and will even marry them, he says.

"I am not a gigolo," says one in the documentary. "The gigolos don't speak from the heart. They speak from the mind. But I speak from the heart."


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