The Tourist wheels into the coffee shop at a pace faster than is customary in Bali. His face, though kindly, is flushed with a tinge of annoyance and a hint of desperation as he takes his seat. Two steps behind him is a street urchin, stridently yelling, face contorted and streaked with tears of pure rage and frustration. He stands with his hand outstretched, not in the usual beggar’s posture of supplication, but jabbing it repeatedly in the bemused tourist’s face while demanding, “You give me coin! You give me COIN!”
I have seen countless little Artful Dodgers here, but none so enraged or persistent as this one. He stamps his little foot repeatedly and keeps screaming, ”You give me coin NOW!” Always ready to soak up the street drama in Bali, I turn in my chair to watch the theatrics. The Tourist, clearly in the wilds of Legian for the first time, is distressed, but reasonably calm. He keeps saying, “Sorry, I have no more coins”, but the agitated little fellow is convinced that he is being lied to.
The Urchin thumps the table and kicks the leg of the chair. Coffee shop staff start drifting over, ready to put a stop to the escalating crisis. Some of the local thugs that hang around the shop all day move in to see if there might be something in this dispute for them too. The Tourist doesn’t help by attempting to argue reasonably with the child, not understanding that he just needs to completely ignore stuff like this until the problem goes away of its own accord. To engage in any rational argument with anyone who unreasonably demands your time or money here is pointless. To try it with an eight-year-old is insanity.
By now The Tourist is looking decidedly uncomfortable, so I decide to help him out. Mustering all of my considerable gravitas, I interpose myself between The Urchin and The Tourist and with all the authority conferred on me by my age and size, firmly say to the kid, “Be quiet and WAIT!” The Urchin makes the barest flicker of eye-contact, during which he dismisses me as completely irrelevant, and instantly re-inserts himself in his previous position. It is a move more suited to a Fifth Dan black belt Aikido master than a snotty-nosed kid, and I am momentarily taken aback.
So to the accompaniment of the incessant shrill yells of The Urchin, I find out the cause of this uproar. It appears that two kilometres up the road, our hapless visitor was accosted by two bedraggled beggars of about the same age, both of them demanding “gold coins”. Australian $1 and $2 coins seem to hold a peculiar fascination for the under-classes here, probably because they can be melted down to make bracelets for sale at vastly inflated prices. The unfortunate visitor, only having a single $2 coin, gave it to one of the pair (perhaps unwisely), with the injunction they they both should share it.
Naturally, the recipient of his largesse immediately grabbed the coin and fled at high speed, leaving his erstwhile ‘partner’ with nothing. Here’s where the unfathomable local psyche kicked in – instead of chasing his companion to recover his rightful share of the loot, The Urchin blamed the bule for his misfortune, loudly berating him for the entire two kilometres as he made his getaway.
By now The Urchin is incensed enough to parrot the words of the Chairman of Bali’s Tourism Board, albeit with some colourful embellishments. “Give me COIN! You stingy! You fucking STINGY!”
It starts early, doesn’t it? Sadly, the ‘you have it, I want it’ mindset is already entrenched in the very young. A staff member finally comes over and gently takes the boy by the shoulders, but he violently shrugs off the contact and elbows him in the ribs. He continues to demand ‘his’ coin – a coin that The Tourist simply does not have.
One of the watching thugs, having witnessed the whole circus, comes up to the railing next to the table. “You give him coin!” he demands. This is getting out of hand. I tell him to mind his own business and get the hell out of there. This time, my self-assumed authority seems to work, and he backs off, grumbling. The Tourist makes another unwise choice, again attempting to reason with The Urchin. “Look, here’s 10,000. It’s worth the same as a $1 gold coin. Take it and go.”
No way. The Urchin is on a roll. He slaps the money from his benefactor’s hand so it falls to the floor and screams even louder.”Coin! I want COIN!” Finally, The Tourist’s patience snaps. “OK, you don’t want the money, fine. Go. You get nothing”, and he bends down to retrieve the note.
The Urchin experiences an epiphany. A spit-second decision ensues – shall I take the 10,000, or shall I get nothing? Quick as a striking cobra, he grabs the note from the floor and bolts. Not a word of thanks , not a hint of an apology. Just a brief pause in the street for a final over-the-shoulder furious snarl, “You FUCKING STINGY!”
I turn back to the target of this juvenile vitriol to … what? Apologise for Bali? To explain that it’s not always like this? Maybe to help educate him about Bali’s begging industry and how it marginalises women and children, and creates a cargo cult mentality that becomes enshrined in the local culture? Suggest that he be more hard-hearted when it comes to the endless requests for hand-outs?
But it’s too late. He’s paying the bill for his unfinished coffee. “I’m out of here”, he says. “Back to your hotel?”, I enquire. “No”, he says grimly. “Back home. I’ve had enough – it’s been like this for the last five days. The government calls us stingy, the kids call us stingy … bah. You can have your Bali.”
I guess he won’t be back. Sure, he could toughen up. All of us who live here have, because the constant pestering for money is part of the social landscape here in the deep South. His problem was not that he was stingy, he was too generous. And ill-equipped as he was for the realities of Bali’s street life, it still makes me sad to see a newbie depart for good.
Maybe the lesson for Bali’s authorities is that if you want quality tourists, you actually need to provide a quality destination.