BEKASI, Indonesia — Lina, 22, is one of the most popular prostitutes at Balebut Cafe. She can make $200 a week during the dry season, when the road is still passable and the river stays within its banks. Unlike the other young women scattered around the dark room, she thinks this place suits her.
"I like to drink, dance, take drugs and flirt," she says. "And anyway, I don't have a degree, so I don't know what else to do."
On the outskirts of Jakarta, Balebut is one of a dozen identical, windowless shacks sinking into the ground a few miles down a muddy road. It sits a few feet from the Citarum, one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The cafes, as they call them, all offer the same thing: loud music, warm beer and girls.
At about 3 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, Lina sits on a raised platform outside the shack —awaiting customers.
It was right here, she recalls, that she fell in love.
"He is my special man," she says giggling, nervously flipping her pack of clove cigarettes. "None of the other customers are special." At first he was like all the rest, coming several times a week with friends after long, backbreaking days. Her man tours the local factories, searching for discarded waste that he can clean and resell — Indonesia's version of the recycling truck.
He quickly became one of Lina's many regulars and after only a few months, she says they decided to get married.
Now, when he visits Balebut, he comes not as a customer, but as Lina's husband. When they get enough money, she said, they plan to find a house and move away from the Citarum area.
"Most of the men that come here are not good. But everyone hopes they might get lucky like me," she said.
Most of the girls, however, don’t find luck, or love, in this hardscrabble corner of Indonesia. Some come from villages in West Java, trading in their headscarves for tight jeans, dyed hair, and a penchant for flirting. They often send money back to their poor family members.
The guests at these brothels are almost always working class. Most come from the hundreds of factories in the area. The girls charge anywhere from $5 to $20 for their services, which take place in the cafes' dark corners, or at nearby hotels.
The factory workers arrive mostly in the evenings after the whistle blows, and sometimes during lunch, making their way down the forbidding road, piled two or three or four on motorbikes. They'll get drunk and often rowdy, twisting around on the dance floor before finally choosing a girl.
Lina, a veteran here, sits cross-legged, protecting her feet from the mud, techo music thumping from the speakers. Her face is dripping with make-up. Her chest spills out of a tight pink shirt.
"We all have our targets," she says. "A certain amount of money a month, certain amount of freedom and to meet a man that can take care of us. But it's rare. I just got lucky."
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