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A Bali Urchin’s Early Start To Unreal Expectations

May 6, 2012

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.

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12 comments

  1. Yep!


  2. It’s sad the guy didn’t use his brain. Seems as if he didn’t travel much yet, as this isn’t only happening in Bali.


    • I think it’s not a matter of using his brain. He seems to be a peaceful man, sympathizes with poor people. As a tourist he plainly wanted to explore the beauty & fascination Bali possesses. He doesn’t want to put his energies confronting the social inequities & irresponsibleness perpetuated by the Bali gov’t. So unfair for him.


      • It was clear that he wanted to help. Unfortunately, as a first-time (or at least a relatively inexperienced) visitor to Indonesia, it is equally clear that he was not at all ready for the culture clash here. Like many Westerners here, I doubt that he was expecting fawning gratitude for a charitable act.
        But I doubt he was expecting to confront the common and irrational belief by some here that Westerners have unlimited wealth, that they are expected to share it with anyone who asks, and that they are responsible for fixing any misfortune which befalls a local – self-inflicted or not.
        I doubt he was anticipating the enormous sense of entitlement which had been inculcated in this child by supposedly responsible adults either, or his all-too-common response of surliness, hostility and rage when his demands weren’t immediately met.


  3. What an interesting story. The hapless Australian tourist caused a feeding frenzy which I can understand.

    I doubt for a second that the kids understood that the Australian $1 coin has absolutely no gold in it whatsoever. Meant to replace the one dollar paper bill, the OZ $1 coin is solely composed of copper, aluminum and nickel. The coin is not even gold plated. It being called the Australian $1 gold coin is of course a complete misnomer, but as it’s rarely seen here in Bali, the kids likely felt that they had finally been blessed with the grand Duke of all dumb foreigners, the one who passes out gold coins like it’s candy.

    The poor Aussie tourist’s generosity, and he surely was being generous giving out the equivalent of 10k rupiah, turned ugly because he was perceived as the goose laying golden eggs.

    Not intending to steal your thunder Borboigmus, I’d like to share a similar story, a true story which also took place here on Bali. The only difference is that this story is of an event that happened here in 1912, one hundred years ago, and long before there was any tourism on Bali. It comes from the memories of the first American expatriate on Bali, the famed artist, Maurice Sterne who moved to Bali in 1912. As one reads this excerpt it is immediately apparent that the event could easily be a current event:

    I would go there (the daily market in Denpasar) every morning to sketch the wonderful colors and patterns of the place. One morning my attention was caught by a small boy who was absorbed in a ghastly game. He had caught a bright blue bird and tied its leg to a twig. Every few minutes he would jerk the twig sharply and the startled bird would leave it perch and take flight, only to find itself caught by the string a few inches away. It would end each flight hanging helplessly from the twig, fluttering its lovely wings. The boy was apparently having a fine time. He was not really cruel; he simply had not thought of his game’s consequences. I called him over and asked to buy the bird. He was quite reluctant to part with it, and agreed only when my price rose from coppers to a silver coin. I took the bird and noticed that the boy and a few men from the market stood watching curiously to see what I would do with my purchase. A shocked gasp went up as I took my penknife out of my pocket; but when I used it to cut the string and release the bird, they were even more surprised.

    The following morning, my little friend was back, with another bird. I grinned at his cleverness and he grinned back, but our understanding did not prevent him from playing his awful game. I tried to ignore him, but the bird’s bright color and the boy’s clever maneuvering to stay in my line of vision were too much. I paid him off again and released the latest victim. The next day I sat waiting nervously for my new “business associate” to appear. The hours passed but he did not come. I was convinced that I had escaped, when from every side of the bazaar came small boys, each armed with twig, string, and a bright blue bird. I buried my head in my sketch pad, gritted my teeth, and determined to ignore them. They came closer and closer, jerking their twigs with greater and greater violence. I had started a new industry in Den-Passar, and I cursed myself for my stupidity!


    • Great story Roy. It is true – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
      In a broader sense, the tourists (and to a lesser extent, the expats) create their own reality in Bali. Then we complain about it 😉


      • Agree, except that I’m not as certain as you that it’s to a lesser extent that expats create their own reality in Bali. From my experience, it is precisely that ill advised thinking that gets so many expats into problems here.

        “This ain’t Kansas Dorothy!”


  4. Great post Roy. I read it word for word. I’d like a little more information about his conclusion of Bali (if you’ve got it). As you wrote, this tourist said “…The government calls us stingy…”. Do you know what he is referring to here? Is he referring to a particular issue that he has had or many of foreigners?


    • I’ve just read your other post – Stingy Tourists? – I understand the reference now.


  5. Actually the coins, either $1.00 or $2.00 are sold to airport employees who bundle them into rolls and sell to tourists returning to Australia, 25 coins for $25.00 or $50.00….the bracelets are just a means of getting rupiahs and coins.


  6. Thread needs more Fagin.


  7. “Reality” comes in many flavours, starting with the one we’re born into.

    After birth, much of our living becomes a non-ending quest for the reality that either suits us personally, or fits in with those around us. And later, we all die.

    In my experience, the Australian coin which was most highly prized in Bali was the $2 one. Never really understood why, since its composition was identical to the earlier $1 coin. As roy said above, it was made from copper (92%), aluminium (6%) and nickel (2%). NO gold at all! First introduced in Australia in 1988.

    No country in those days would mint gold coins for every day usage. I’ve forgotten how many $2 coins I gave away to “urchins” like the one in the above story during the 1990s. But I do remember that they were much more polite about it and never demanded me for one.

    Of course, it is possible to buy Australian coins directly from the Perth Mint that are 99.9% gold. These are not the ones that used to be melted down in Bali to make basically copper rings.



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