Dish of the week – Ayam Mie Goreng. Simply translated – Chicken fried noodles. An excellent pickup at any roadside stop off. Enjoy this handy snack along side an ice tea or fresh mango shake with prawn crackers for around one pound. Given that the best way to meet people on the road is to stop off and order food; I have eaten lots of this over the past 2 weeks…
Please sir, can I have some more?
The sun is beating down on my bare arms; reminding me even through the cooling breeze at 40mph that it’s a blisteringly hot day. The vibrations passing up through the seat of the bike slowly add weight to the unpleasant sensation of numb-butt as I continue on in what must be the sixth riding hour of the day – the day that marks the 17th I have spent on the road since leaving Sanur in South Bali; the last day of my long road trip.
From the sun’s position, it is roughly 2pm on a sunny Saturday; although the clouds ahead betray an intention of rain. Better get the sexy red poncho ready.
I’ve been effectively living on this motorbike for 2 weeks now; and you can’t really not love a machine that you spend so much time with. It has taken me everywhere: beaches, volcanic deserts, mountain roads, bypasses, ferries, forests, rice paddies, country roads… Over the 14 days I spent in Java (the industrial centre of Indonesia; directly West of Bali) I’ve spent 8 nights in hotels, 4 nights staying with friendly local people, and 2 nights camping. It is difficult with numbers like that not to awe at the generosity of people willing to invite you into their home with no previous knowledge of your existence or nature.
Undiluted generosity. The kind you observe only in the most rural; seemingly the most deprived areas. The people that have less want to give more out of nothing but good nature.
I’ve missed it.
I can’t help but notice the difference in reception I’ve been getting since returning to Bali. The casual dismissive gaze given without asking as you chug-chug on by – pack on the back seat – as if to effortlessly say “oh, another one…”
Rain dropping now. The first few drops are just the messenger. The runner who scouts ahead to warm you of the force of nature; waiting just over the next ridge to unload itself – prepared or unprepared – on your journey. Sexy poncho time.
There’s more to it though than a black and white: ‘people are kind where there isn’t money and not where there is money’. To say so would be completely unfair and to not understand the situation. And what is the situation? It’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few weeks. I – the thought-intensive traveler – white skinned and middle classed – come from the West having saved enough money from a wealthy area to buy a trip to the orient and discover himself on another gap yah…
The rain has passed now but I’m keeping my poncho on. I’ve tied a scarf around my face too. It’s hot. Really hot. I’m subjecting myself to this because I’m driving through Sanur; an area in Denpasar where corrupt cops scout the street and relieve tourists of their licences unless that pay the ‘small, good for you’ fine of whatever amount occurs to them at the time. Can’t see my shiny white skin this way. Pretty sure I’m safe.
5pm. I didn’t get stopped.
It’s now evening. I’m munching on fresh grilled chilli-and-butter-slathered corn-on-the-cob. And it’s time to shed some more light on what I’ve been getting at.
Throughout South East Asia there’s been a recurring itch on my mind: Why are people in rural areas so welcoming, so generous, so genuine and interested to give their time; while the places you’ll tend to find greed, corruption and this unfriendly, dismissive, fuck-you attitude is in the urban areas; the tourist areas?
I’ve spoken to enough people from different backgrounds and cultures to form an opinion on how to answer that; and enough of one to express it online, and see what people think…
First; the ‘tourist price’.
When you go to a tourist area and ask how much anything costs, you’ll be offered a price about 10 times that of what the tanned local standing 5 feet from you, muttering the correct price in the local tongue is paying. At stalls, this means bargaining. But at ticket offices when ‘local price’ and ‘tourist price’ are advertised on an official board behind the counter; with no means of telling whether a person is either other than a quick glance from the blank-faced attendant, frustration can boil over.
I’ve seen people exploding at this, and managed to avoid doing so yet based on a paradoxical awareness – half of me reeling at the shameless discrimination process involved in charging an inflated price based on skin colour; with the other half humbly accepting karma’s answer to the unfair circumstances that awarded me the ability to save money and travel to this person’s home country in the first place.
The answer then: ‘People in tourist areas are more used to tourists and have seen their bad sides. They’re by now less interested in the novelty of conversation, and more interested in money; which they know they want’.
But the fact that tourists are always charged more than locals – concluding that answer – doesn’t give a complete picture of the problem in my opinion. It is not true either.
A sidetrack now.
Bali is an enchanting place with some of the most generous population I have the pleasure of acquainting myself with. The land itself is a modest mass formed from volcanic activity; producing seven conical peaks – most of them scattered with rice paddies and small villages – and a multitude of hot springs and lakes. The people are descended from a strongly Hindu origin that migrated to Bali from the Western island of Java as Islam began to take hold as the dominant belief.
Since tourism began to consistently grow in the 1970s, its increased income has allowed for the improvement of infrastructure such as roads and buildings, the provision of widespread education and health care, and has yet failed to impose hugely on the surface of a proud culture.
In its conundrumatic existence; Bali is the only place I have come across in the world where there exists a working knowledge of both Eastern and Western culture, and yet where family value and religious tradition; not commercial gain and media influence lie at the heart of people lives. Here is a place where, thanks to tourism, a tribal dance – same way as you’ve always done it – produces your family income rather than filling a small time slot in the break of your office job.
I respect the place a lot and use it as the perfect example to make my point:
There is a point up to which the injection of money into a society can cause unprecedented social benefits. Past this point, without the infrastructure to resist it; corruption and greed take over.
I will use the example of the ridiculous undercover drive through Sanur I mentioned earlier in this post. The fact that I covered up my skin made virtually no difference to my chances of being stopped. It just made my look like a giant red tomato on a motorbike.
In fact, everyone is stopped. Local or tourist. No reason accompanies the stop, but everyone knows the game. This brilliantly produced film pretty much sums up the experience.
It may have made a difference in Vietnam, Hoi An for example; not in Bali. Ride into Hoi An and people will pick you up, ride alongside you and entice you to go and buy their clothing – you’re clearly a tourist and you’re thus a target. You have money and they want it. They may fleece you and go back to their business-owning family and receive a pat on the back. They’ve provided. But their loyalty is with their family – they just don’t care about the poor tourist they fleece along the way.
Bali cops stop everyone. Local or tourist. There are no loyalties – only a slavery to money, and I imagine a greatly dreary and low valued existence. Stopping people day-in, day-out; not helping one person and spending the spoils of your day on cigarettes and beer – and they’re the envy of the people!
Everyone on Bali wants to be a copper – they’re the Hollywood actors of the isle. The only way to actually become one is to pass a series of strenuous tests (after you’ve made an under-the-table payment of 20,000,000Rp – $1,600; that is*). They’re hated by all and they’re the envy of all.
Vietnamese tailors are motivated by family values. Bali coppers are motivated just by money, with no loyalty to anyone.
This is the line that can be crossed. The sacred border between money providing infrastructure and just being a fuel for greed. Fuel the greed too much beyond that point, and everyone wants a piece of it. People hear that there’s money in tourism and they want it. This slowly manifests into centers of corruption and horrendous greed. In Bali; this is the area of Kuta. Ask anyone in Java where their Bali business is located and they’ll politely say: ‘Kuta’ – where the streets are lined with thievs and the taxis never cost the right price. Kuta is pretty much my idea of hell. It has a cencerous concentration of money relative to its surroundings and therefore greed; and greed, in my opinion is the source of all evil.
So, tourists may be targeted; but they’re certainly not the only people who lose out on money in tourist hotspots.
That would make the answer: “A select few decidedly evil people in the tourist areas that have power, and are so corrupted by money that it is their primary motivator. They therefore charge anyone they can; including tourists, who might pay more”.
Perhaps. Still not the full picture. Bali received lots of money in a short space of time – similar in many ways to aid donation, and it has had good and bad repercussions – similar in many ways to an aid donation…
But such injections of money aren’t always a bad thing.
Norway received US$400m between 1948 and 1952 after WWII, and thanks to intensive social planning and a large public sector. Now it has one of the most even distributions of wealth in the world, stable health care and one of the world’s lowest unemployment rates. It is one of the few countries able to achieve the difficult task of turning an aid donation into a positive long term development .
Back to the point.
When you’re travelling, you’ll see many places where there isn’t the existing social structure to call you to justice if you want to be a prick. The cavalry won’t come running to put points on a criminal record if you haggle the hostel owner down a further $1 even when he already offers by far the best deal in town. The security men won’t seize you if manage to sneak into the national park through the off-roading track and avoid the ticketing gate. There is no big, bad societal record in place to strike you down.
You are a justice unto yourself. A gunman in the Wild West.
You have the potential to pay more than the ‘worth’ of something at every turn; and have the ability to take back that loss of ‘value’ against the next, slightly less ruthless haggler. But be aware of it…
Travelers you meet day in, day out will boast stories of sneaking the occasional freebie and jaunt the prices they each paid for the same product as if it’s some points-scoring exercise. Maybe it’s in good nature, but there is often a “Yeh – I haggled them down more than you” element to it.
Money corrupts. And it is not selective. It is easy to scapegoat the local population of ‘money hungry capitalists’ for taking you for all you are worth; but it is easy to not understand their situation too – you can’t understand them just as they can’t understand you. They are bargaining hard and you are pulling hairs out for pocket change too.
I am the worst of all. I spent 3 hours yesterday looking for a room that would charge me less than 100,000Rp (5GBP). I feel all skilled and clever when I’ve haggled a stall owner to 5,000Dong (12p) for a donut; rather than the 10,000Dong that all the tourists pay. And it’s the pride I do it for. That’s why I’ve been thinking about it for so long – I don’t like it when I cross the line between fairness and plain unreasonable. I don’t like that I’ve done it.
Back to that question. I think the answer is: “Money is something that everyone wants; and a language barrier gives local retailers the potential for lots of it from tourists. They are not bad people. There are a select few with misplaced power who have no loyalty to tourists or locals, and deprive them of money without discrimination. They aren’t very popular with a local people who are well-meaning, people-valued and often want to know you for your personality, not your money. It isn’t tourism in particular that has led to a social inequality and corruption here; it’s injection of money where infrastructure can’t support it. Tourism is just the catalyst, and tourists the passive observers.”
I have expressed a lot of opinions in this blog post, and I hope to hear people’s feedback on them; but I haven’t actually answered nearly as many questions as I’ve asked. I think what I wanted to achieve here was more a comprehensible note of all the thoughts on this extensive topic than existed as wisdom in my head.
If there’s one thing I want people to take away from this post it is to be responsible and aware. Be a noble gunman of the West.
I don’t know what ‘value’ is; but I know that the most rural areas I have seen – the ‘undeveloped’ ones – the ones where people live out their entire lives with family values, religious traditions, wide, teeth-bearing smiles and almost no money – these are areas that have it. Nothing is fuck-you about them.
Money is the means to something else. That is all it is. Ever. If you have enough of it to travel to a part of the world where people have less of it; be aware of your actions. Your money in this new place is nothing but a means to your experiencing it in a different way, and not necessarily a better one. It is not worth ruining your day; or even your mood for the odd $0.50. Your money is also a means to something potentially greater for those you’re mixing with. ‘Value’, ‘worth’, whatever you call it, is something far more important than money, and if your money can provide more of it for someone else then let them have it.
Don’t be blasé with it – you’re not exactly producing a lot of learning value by just paying the $50 bribe without haggling or encouraging the thieving taxi driver by letting him charge you the over-extortionate price; but don’t take it too far. Get to know the situation you are in, and learn the value your money might have to someone else.
In the end, try to maximize the value that your money will bring. Get the local transport. Eat at local stop offs. Make local friends and get them to bargain for you. Save your money to provide you with an experience – a story of more value later. But maximize that value; be it to you, to the stall owner or even – god forbid – to the upkeep of roads and schools in the rural town you’re passively observing as you pass through.