Money, money, moneyFebruary 21, 2010
After living here for a while, it’s inevitable that you develop relationships with the locals. Casual friendships are formed, conversational interludes become more frequent, and before you know it, the local people are talking about the vicissitudes of their day-to day lives. And in Bali, this often seems to end up as a lament about money, or more accurately, its scarcity. The covert ones begin talking about the difficulty of finding next month’s rent, or their need to pay hospital bills, or the imminent crisis about paying the next motorbike installment, or school fees, or … anything really. Then they look at you hopefully. The overt ones, after a period of diffident chat to gauge your level of sympathy, come straight out with it and say: “Can you help me?”
Now the expression “Can you help me?” translates roughly into “Can you give me 250,000 rupiah?” Not lend, give. It always seems to be around that amount – a sum that will apparently solve all problems that the supplicant is suffering at that particular time. My reaction, which I try to keep hidden, is generally irritation. Not because of the sum, which to me is fairly insignificant, but because I was asked for it, as if I was some sort of animated ATM with bad Bahasa. On those occasions that I do help out, it’s because it’s my choice, not as a response to a request.
So I start thinking about the social drivers that impel people to ask for money. Yes, I know that the average salary here is low. I know that our Western norms often involve splashing around what, to the locals, might seem to be obscene amounts of cash, and flaunting expensive toys, from iPhones to imported appliances.
But it wasn’t until I asked around and did a few sums that I discovered how big the wealth gap really is. I estimate the monthly income for Westerners is about 42 times that of the locals. Rental accommodation might be 48 times as much. Savings and investments we hold might be worth as much as 840 times that of local accounts. An expat villa owner here has probably paid 37 times the price paid by a local for their dwelling – and the expat probably owns another house in their own country. Even the spending money Westerners keep in their wallets is typically 40 times that of their Bali counterparts. But even after working all this out, the ratios still didn’t quite register.
So to understand the situation better, I created an imaginary new breed of Bali foreigner that I call the Kaya Luar Biasa (the Extraordinarily Rich), whose wealth was as far above mine as mine is above that of the locals. They come from some unpronouceable place somewhere, they look different and their grasp of local language is rudimentary – but they are friendly, funny and good-natured. They happily talk to us ordinary bules, but despite their immense wealth, they still bargain hard for services provided by us much poorer Westerners.
I’ve become friendly with one of them over the last few months, and I find it hard to grasp that his income is about 2.5 million dollars a year. That works out about 1,764,000,000 rupiah, or $210,000 per month. Man, he is rich. He lives in a stunning villa, for which he pays nearly 807,000,000 rupiah each month in rent. That’s $96,000 a month! I found out that he has $84 million in various investments … ye gods, the man is making over $52,000 per month in interest alone! He’s now decided to buy a villa here, and is inspecting one for $13 million next week. And he let slip that his house back in his country is worth $28 million. He keeps his spending money in a big manbag, beacause a wallet would be way too small. Last time he opened it, I swear there was 80,000,000 rupiah in there, but he doesn’t seem to care who sees it while he’s shopping. He spends his money as if it means nothing to him.
Before the Kaya Luar Biasa arrived on the scene in Bali, I was fairly happy with my lot. Mind you, I’m struggling a bit with the kid’s fees at the international school, and I’d like to find a high-quality aged care facility for my parents back home, and there’s this little operation I need … oh, and I’d really like a new car. I was thinking, maybe I should talk to this man – I mean, I only need 15 million rupiah or so to tide me over. For this month anyway. So I hinted around a bit during our normal, everyday chats – sort of, you know, hoping that he might offer me something, but he just kept making small talk. And then I asked him straight out: “Can you help me?” He looked a little irritated, but hid it fairly well. He told me that he sympathised, but I had to realise that times were tough, and that he wasn’t a bank …
I just don’t get it. The guy is rich beyond my wildest fantasies, yet he just blew me off without a single rupiah. And if that wasn’t bad enough, on my way home, some local sitting on the footpath had the gall to ask me for 5,000 rupiah ‘to buy rice’ or something. Unbelievable. I’m not an ATM, you know …