Tourism and the everyday Balinese

by Travel Paulie on April 21, 2010

Word count: ~2100.  Approx. reading time: 15 minutes.

[I feel this is one of my most important posts to-date as it touches on a serious point and has turned my focus very sharply on the plight of everyday locals serving under a purely tourist economy, and how they’re getting shafted.  If you feel you’ve been informed by this article after reading, and should share it with others whom you know travel to tourist Mecca like Bali, please, send on a link, or share it on Facebook.  It’s easy with the “Share this post” link at the bottom- just hover your mouse over it and you’ll see for example a Facebook link you can click.]

Part 1: The Masseuse

I went for a Balinese massage yesterday and came away shocked.  It’s the second time I’ve been there, and the girl that I go to, “Harney”, offers a great massage that for me strikes a nice balance between firm and relaxing.  Her pleasant demeanour and easy smile makes the hour spent there quite a pleasant one.

While in Thailand, I heard that (though not first-hand so I don’t know how accurate it is) Thai massage girls take home about 50% of the price you pay for the service.  So for 1 hour work, at 250-baht, they will take home 125-baht, which is just shy of ~US$4.  Not a whole lot per hour, but then, the cost of living there isn’t so high anyways you might think, so no big deal.  And then you can argue that the shop itself that hosts both you and the masseuse has its overheads too.

Fair enough.  Not ideal I feel, but not too bad at the same time.

Yesterday it cost me Rp60,000 for a 1hr ‘Balinese’ massage.  So the girl would take home perhaps 30,000 (roughly $3) going at the same rate of 50:50.  I learned after taking a moment to sit in the shop and chat to a couple of people working there that in-fact, for each service rendered, the girl takes home a mere 10% of the revenue.  I couldn’t contain my surprise when I heard that, but apparently this is quite normal and is the going-rate in Bali.  So get this math…

You pay: $6

Shop receives: $5.40

Girl that did the hard graft receives: 0.60c

She earns 0.60c for 1hr work.

Part 2: Hello boss! What’s your name? Sunglasses?

I mentioned in my last article, I was on a mission yesterday to apply for an extension to my tourist visa.  They told me what I needed and part of that was a photocopy of my passport and current visa.  Alright I thought, I’ll head back and find a place to get these, most likely an internet cafe.

On Jln. Legian I found an Internet cafe that would charge Rp5000 for a scan, and Rp3000 for a print.  80 cents.  It’s hardly nothing really, but I know that that’s expensive here.  Would the Balinese pay that for a photocopy (fotocopy)?  I didn’t think so. Not only that, but I was down to my last 12,000 so I didn’t have enough anyway.  I tried to persuade her to let me away with 12,000 but thankfully she said no.

So off I trotted to find somewhere to accommodate me and as is normal in Kuta, a guy popped out from his stall as I wandered past, saying:

“Hey boss!  How are you?  What’s your name?  Would you like sunglasses? Just looking, no problem! Transport? Motorbike?”

“No thank you.  Terima Kasih.  Oh… actually, do you know where I can find a place to do photocopying?”

“Place to for ‘coughing’?”

“No. foto-copy.  Very cheap?”

“Ah fotocopy.  Yes.  Yes.  Come with me on motor. We go quickly.  I know cheap.”

At this point, my finely honed Balinese instincts of both time- and self- preservation kick in and I assure him there’s no need to take the motorbike, surely we can walk there?

“Yes.  Yes.  Walking.  On motor.”

“No no.  Jalan jalan [walking]”

So off we walk together down the street in search of cheap photocopy.  Now, anyone with any common sense would know that “cheap” and “Jalan Legian” don’t mix really, ever.  He knows this, but he’s gracefully decided to follow this hard-headed foreigner.  We look around for about 10 minutes, asking here and there, but there’s nothing and he suggests once more that we take his motorbike.  Again, my suspicions are raised.  “In Bali,” as a hooker outside Paddy’s nightclub once assured me quite emphatically, “nothing is free.”.  So what was this guy’s take?  Why was he so insistent that we go on his bike?  I told him I just needed photocopy facilities and didn’t have the money for motorbike-taxi and with a reassuringly big smile, he said it was no problem.  He just wanted to help it seemed.

So I relented and got on the bike.  Still keeping my wits about me I figured if it all went pear shaped, the best I could hope for was that he’d take me to a furniture shop for some commission, or at worst bring me down an alley somewhere and mug me.  It could be worse.

The first signs of impending doom, as I saw it, came when he turned left, not right.  Originally he had pointed Northwest when he said he knew a place and instead of following the one-way system in that direction, he turned at a crucial junction and went Southeast.  Okay, I thought, another frigging rabbit hole!  Let the party begin.  We drove south for another kilometre and then took a right heading west, quickly pulling into an area of shops and stalls.  It was with great relief I spotted the gaping big sign hanging outside of one with the word ‘FOTOCOPY’ plastered on it.  I offered silent thanks to the travel gods and hopped off the motorbike to do what I came for.  It cost, per A4 page, a mere Rp300.  Yes, you read that right.  Instead of scan+print at 8000 per page, I was able to get 2 copies of my passport and visa for a mere 600.  Bargain.  In the post-success euphoria that comes from barrelling down random rabbit-holes such as this, I happily handed over my remaining cash to Uurin, my Balinese-photocopy-guardian-angel, in thanks for a job well done.  All-in-all I saved only a few cents with his help after my donation, and 11,000 was the least I could do to somehow give back after this guy’s generosity of spirit.

I was now on the southern fringes of Kuta, I knew where I was but I had no money to get back to where I’d parked my bike and met Uurin in the first place so my life was in his hands.  Up I got onto the bike and we set off.  Now Kuta, if you’ve ever driven around it you’ll know, has a one-way road system that generally makes sense, but in places can be completely baffling.  I have driven in and around it so I understand it more or less, and I knew immediately we were going the wrong way.  We were still heading south.  I let this continue for a minute before my nerves got the better of me and I confirmed with my guide we were heading back to Jln. Legian.  Oh yes, of course I was assured.  “Take time. Take time.  Sloooow, my friend.”.  Which was the very polite way of him saying, “Wind your neck in.” – a delightful Northern Irish saying.

The only way he could restore my sapping confidence then was if he took the upcoming turn-off on the right-hand side that I had taken myself several times before.  But nope, he zipped on past it and a few moments later he turned and said, “We go to my room.  Very quickly.”  Off went the alarm bells in my head and it was all I could do to not leap off the bike.  A few scratches and perhaps a broken bone or two in a controlled leap might be preferable to being mugged and stranded in a deserted alley-way.  It’ll be fine, I tried to convince myself.  I told him emphatically that I had to get back to the immigration office before it closed.  “No time. No time!”.  But he was having none of it.  On we went.

I haven’t mentioned yet that it was still raining at this point, but not as heavy as earlier in the day or I’d have never gotten on the bike in the first place.  This guy had been escorting me around for the past half hour, expecting nothing in return, in the rain.  Granted, I was in the rain too, but I was a benefactor in all this.  He indicated on the bike that he wanted to change his top because it was wet, so this I understood, but as he turned off the main road, delving deeper and deeper with each turn, I grew increasingly alert and ready for an altercation at any moment.  I couldn’t have walked/run/crawled my way out of the streets we were in so I just hoped all was legit and above board.

Where I was when we stopped the bike, very few, in any, foreigners had ever been is my guess.  This was basically a Kuta housing estate and the Indonesians here were living a balancing act it seemed between comfort and necessity.  I use the word comfort, but it’s very much a relative term here and I don’t expect their ideas of comfort even comes close to meeting a typical western tourist’s idea of basic necessity. I reluctantly followed him down the side alley while and stopped short of entering his home… his single room (which he likely shared).  I played peek-a-boo outside with a child of maybe 12months whose mother was giving him his pre-supper bath in the rain water while I waited on Uurin.  I couldn’t help but feel massively humbled at the typical living conditions of the people I meet daily on the streets trying persistently to sell goods and services to me.

Uurin changed his top, we got on the bike, and he brought me faithfully back to the place I had met him in the first place.  How could I ever have doubted him?  He never once asked me for anything in return, he simply wanted to help.  No more.  Granted he showed me where to get super-value photocopying done, but showed me so much more as he let me see his life in context.

What the tourists don’t see or don’t care to see

If only tourists could see this… could witness first hand the disparities that exist between the wealthy landowners of this country and the average working-class Indonesian eking out a living here.  The paltry wages their bosses give them or the tiny margins they make on things like sunglasses and other merchandise they flog to the streaming tourism-mass barely affords them basic sanitary living conditions.  They work, as the masseuse earlier, 12hour days and at least 6 days a week.  They don’t get statutory holidays, sick-leave, maternity leave and public holidays (excepting a few).

When we haggle for silly, cheap prices for goods and services from these people, we remove any opportunity for them to rise above their current conditions and have a bit more.  The prices over which I have see people haggle is incredible.  At home, it’s pittance, yet here for some reason tourists feel the need to completely squeeze every last penny from everything that they buy.  Haggling is a part of life in these places, but we take it too far sometimes.

After the massage yesterday, it cost Rp60,000 – Rp6000 going to the girl.  I gave her Rp40,000 as a tip totalling the whole thing to Rp100,000.  US$10 – the same price I had to pay to bribe a police officer today for not having an International Driving License.

Lessons we can all learn

  • Give more and haggle less.  I don’t mean give to the restaurants, or the hotels, but to the guy/girl on the street, the waiter, the porter, the masseuse, etc.  Directly.  The owners of the massage parlour I visited yesterday are not Balinese – they’re Australian!  They don’t need any more.
  • Appreciate that the people on the street straining to sell and flog you their wares are just trying to make life better for themselves under a very tight economy.  They put prices initially higher because they know you will bargain them down.  Cut them some slack, and be polite.
  • As with the last post, if you want value prices/services, ask the locals where they go to do what you want to do.  When they help you out, help them out.

Any comments? Please feel free to add them below.  Of course, if you found this amusing, interesting, or informative, and you’d like to share it, please do so also from below.  Thank you for reading!

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