Begging in Bali is a booming business. Every street and beach has a contingent of young women with listless babies perched on their arms, staring vacantly at nothing. The free hand of each woman is permanently outstretched, palm-up, fingers slightly curled in the universal gesture of the supplicant. Their faces are a study in finely-honed pathos – an expression designed to first elicit your sympathy, and then extract your money. A smile and shake of your head does nothing to discourage them – they will persist in standing next to you for ten minutes, projecting the look, the one that feels as if it is drilling into your subconscious, making you feel guilty, urging you to reach for your over-stuffed bule wallet like a hypnotized automaton.
I am immune to these blandishments and unmoved by the almost comical bathos of these people. My heart is a stone, my compassion non-existent, my spirit of do-gooderness shrivelled like a week-old Bali offering. Why? Because the whole begging for alms performance is a sham. Spend more than a few days in Bali, watch the women doing the rounds of the streets, and you will notice that they have a different baby each time. Unless there has been an epidemic of multiple births, it is highly unlikely that these babies share any DNA with their putative ‘mothers’. The reality is that these rent-a-babies are used as mere props for teams of women employed to collect money for well-organised collection managers.
The indigent mother industry is nothing if not flexible. As doubt about the infants’ provenance has spread, resulting in lower alms income from suspicious foreigners, collection techniques have become more sophisticated. At first, there was the move from a ‘begging’ business model to a ‘sales’ approach. If you didn’t believe in encouraging beggars, you could now buy an overpriced plaited leather thong instead. But, disheartened with the failure of the new model to increase revenue, those who run teams of these unfortunate women turned to a different, and somewhat more duplicitous approach.
To allay suspicions that these might be contraband babies, what better method than to have the begging ‘mother’ breastfeed her supposed progeny? A woman surely would only breastfeed her own child, right? That might have been the ploy, but it falls down badly in its execution.
These women always seem to wait until they get to a crowded spot before exposing a breast – for a long, long moment – before plugging in the enfant du jour. It certainly gets attention, and seems to result in greater takings too, both from those who believe the scam and from those who might feel guiltily obliged to pay for having a quick perve. But anyone who has raised children can see at a glance that the exposed mammaries are not of a currently lactating variety. The hapless baby also quickly realises that the milk bar is not open for business, but with typical Balinese fatalism, accepts the offering as a warm pacifier instead. And the money rolls in, despite a practice which borders on being a shoddy degradation of women who may well have no other recourse for employment.
The parallel industry of sending teams of little children out to relentlessly harass foreigners into buying useless leather straps is evolving too. Not content with exploiting toddlers, those who manage the supplicant trade are now employing adolescent girls. The ‘training’ these girls presumably receive apparently now includes the use of provocative flirting as a sales technique. While this might be a time-honoured tradition for young women, it does not sit easily with me when employed by a thirteen-year-old.
So there I am, sitting in a restaurant, quietly contemplating life, when such a girl appears in front of me. She is holding out the ubiquitous leather junk like all the others, but it is her age, dress and demeanour that makes her different to the others of her ilk. Skimpy top, short shorts. When I politely decline to buy her goods, she moves on to the real reason she is there – to relieve me of all my ‘unwanted’ overseas coins. Sorry, no coins. OK, time for Technique #3. She looks into my eyes, smiles and leans forward, allowing her low-cut top to gape open, obviously expecting my mouth to do the same. I groan and face-palm instead, which disconcerts her.
“You can look. Why won’t you give me money?”, she says. By this stage, I am so irritated by the fact that she has mistaken me for a paedophile that I snap back, “Because I am stingy.” ”Well,” she retorts, looking pointedly at the restaurant surroundings, “why are you eating here then?”, and flounces off in high dudgeon. Part of me reflects that it’s good to see a bit of piss and vinegar in the impecunious classes. Part of me is disturbed at what I have witnessed.
I know things are economically tough for some Balinese. I know that begging is a fact of life everywhere, and that organised begging rings are commonplace. But I still find it sad that a manipulative sexualisation of this industry is creeping in here, and that children are involved. Or maybe it has always been here and I’ve been too blind to see it. Either way, it doesn’t look good for the future.