Archive for the ‘RELATIVE WEALTH’ Category


The 800 Pound Gorilla Behind Bali’s Beach Warungs

September 5, 2011

Bali beach warungs are perfect places to unwind at the end of a long day of work. At least it is for those so afflicted. For me, they are perfect places to relax after a long day of, well, doing not much at all really. They don’t even have a permanent structure, just a few beach umbrellas, some plastic chairs, and if you’re lucky, a tiny rickety table on which to place your drink. Several large coolers packed with ice hold copious amounts of Bintang beer and a range of soft drinks for those whose beverage preferences run to the non-alcoholic.

Watching the passing parade of locals who flock to the water’s edge at sunset is always entertaining. Family groups are in abundance, energetic types play beach tennis, couples canoodle – ever so discreetly – and family dogs frolic joyously in the relative cool of the evening. There are plenty of tourists too, but for these denizens, the raucous excesses of night-time are yet to make their presence felt. All seem suffused with the afterglow of the day, the magic of Bali itself, and the humbling spectacle of this island’s  stunning sunset displays. On the beach, the last hour of the day is a time of reflection, both physical and metaphorical. I love it.

And so it was the other night, no doubt influenced by this tranquillity, I decided that a Bintang was too crass a beverage to spoil the mood. I asked for a Teh Botol –  a bottled sweet black tea invented and produced in Indonesia. It is hugely popular with the locals, partly because it is formulated for Indonesian tastes, and partly because many of the locals prefer a non-alcoholic drink.

But in response, the warung proprietor looked uncomfortable. The other family members who were there helping pointedly looked away. I thought that I had unwittingly broken some taboo, and in some ways, I was to realise later, I had.

“Sorry, no Teh Botol”, said my host apologetically. “But we have Coke, and Sprite and Fanta.” Now one of the things that some locals find uncomfortable about us bules is our disturbing tendency to be too direct, at least according to Indonesian mores. Not wishing to discourage this stereotype, I felt compelled to ask, “Why not? Surely all your local customers would buy it?”

“Yes, many people ask for it, but … we can not.” More shuffling ensued. Finally, after persistent questioning, the real reason emerged. “We are not allowed. Coca Cola won’t let us. If we sell Teh Botol, Coca Cola will not supply us with their products, so we will have no Coke, no Sprite, no Fanta. Tourists want these, so we have to obey.”

It turns out that the family-owned Indonesian company Sosro, which started bottling tea in the 1970s, has been giving powerful international brands, such as Coca Cola, a real run for their money in the battle for drinkers’ palates, winning 70% of the non-carbonated drinks market in Indonesia. Coca Cola’s own entry into this sector, the Frestea brand, has had less than stellar sales. Simply put, Sosro would seem to be an unwelcome competitor.

So my little warung, and thousands like it who want to sell a competitor’s product are seen as a threat to the mighty Coca Cola Amatil empire? Come on! Bully-boy tactics, whether they originate at a company’s head office, or are simply a misguided application of muscle by local distributors are still unconscionable. Beach-side warungs are subsistence operations which barely make enough to pay their expenses. The little extra money that they could make by selling Teh Botol to their local customers, many of whom don’t even want sugary sodas, could make the difference between survival and going out of business. Many locals survive on a monthly income of around one million rupiah. That’s $110 AUD, or $117 USD. Warungs fall into this category.

Last year, Coca Cola Amatil Ltd brought in revenues of just under four and a half billion dollars, and posted a net after tax profit before significant items of over $506 million. And yet they feel compelled to monster the little family warungs in Bali to prevent them from selling a few bottles of tea, on pain of having their supplies cut off? Unbelievable.

One would hope there is more to this story than what I have heard to date. One would hope that there are not just penalties, but also incentives provided to warung owners to selectively sell one company’s product exclusively. And I’m not talking about getting a cheap, Coke- branded cooler either. One would hope that a huge multi-national corporation would show a little social responsibility towards its impecunious vendors in Bali.

Is one hoping in vain? Or is this just normal practice in beverage marketing by the big boys?


Begging in Bali By Breastfeeding Borrowed Babies

June 22, 2011

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.


Money, money, money

February 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 …


The Gap – it’s bigger than I thought

November 23, 2009

So there I am, sitting in my villa, gazing at the things around me that I take for granted. Multiple luxurious bedrooms, ensuite bathrooms, a big, well-equipped kitchen, a garden and a nice pool. Then there are all the bule toys that many of us seem to hold sacred, like satellite TV, airconditioning, fridges, fans, wifi, comfy furniture … it’s a good life. But my local friends that come to visit don’t really see all that with the same perspective as I do. They look around and take in the surroundings, but they don’t really seem to view it as a home. “You live here by yourself?” they say in a tone of incredulity. To them, it’s some sort of aberration, something so far removed from what they consider to be a home that it may as well be a department store, or a monument.

They wear the same expression as they do when walking past a luxury hotel – it’s there, but somehow it doesn’t seem relevant to them. The first question they always ask is not “How many bedrooms?”, but “How much do you pay in rent per month?” I’m too embarrassed to tell them, because they would be shocked, knowing that they could buy a house in Denpasar for an amount equivalent to just four months of my rent. Their second question is never articulated, but hangs in the air just the same: “How well do you treat your staff?” After some rapid-fire colloquial Bahasa interchanges with my pembantu, they relax a bit. I get looks which approximate guarded approval, mixed in with subliminal messages which inform me that they still think I’m crazy, but at least I’m the happy sort and therefore probably harmless. I feel like I have correctly answered Question One of some bizarre unspoken exam. In their eyes, I have perhaps moved one step closer to being qualified to live here in this peculiar, oversized, unBali-like edifice.

I can understand this, because in Bali, family is everything. Even if I have my own family or guests staying here during visits, my live-in helper is considered to be my permanent ersatz ‘family’. Therefore the measure of my worth as a human being is how I treat her, not where I live or what I own. I have always thought that she has been happy staying here. On one level, she probably is. But I see the anticipation in her eyes and her joyful body language as she leaves for her one night and one day off each week – a parole of sorts – to stay with her family and spend some time with her fiancee. And that has nothing to do with the physical surroundings of the family home where she stays. I’ve been there. It’s tiny, consists of one room and absolutely minimal furnishings and facilities. It’s also spotless and tidy, and the hospitality of her family is absolutely heart-warming. It’s home – in a way that my villa, for all of its excesses, can never be for her.

And now, she is getting married in a few weeks. Off to Java for an intimate family and friends wedding, then back to work at the villa after an appropriate break from duties here. Her sense of responsibility (more likely her desire to keep her job) meant that she offered to stay on as live-in helper for me after the wedding, but her eyes begged me to refuse. Her look of utter relief was priceless when I told her that of course she could keep her job – as long as she went home to her freshly-minted husband after work each day. 

So now she is looking for accommodation – and not having much luck. “Everything is full” she says wistfully. Curious, I asked what she was looking for. “A kost”, she says, meaning a communal boarding house. “In Kerobokan, near my family, and under 350,000 per month”. At that price, everything goes fast.
“So, what sort of  place are you looking for?” I ask. “You want, what – a bedroom, bathroom and  kitchen?” She is shocked. “Oh no – too expensive! Only one room”. It’s my turn to be shocked. No bathroom? No kitchen? She reassures me that it is OK – the shared bathroom for all residents will be just 20 metres down the corridor, and there is usually a gas burner for cooking in the room. Besides, she says shyly, “my husband will be there”. What she doesn’t say is that it will be theirs. A home. And she seems so happy at the prospect.

After all this, I spent a fair bit of time gazing around my palatial digs and reflecting on economic gaps, relative wealth and happiness. I’ve heard it said that success is having what you want, while happiness is wanting what you have. I’m successful; she is happy. I’m happy too, and I realise now that she is also successful.

At least I now know what my wedding present to her and her husband will be. I’m going to stake them a year’s rent on her new kost, but I’ll make damn sure that it has at least a private bathroom. Am I spoiling them when they are already so happy? I mean, it’s not as if I’m buying them a villa or anything. All I need to do is sacrifice one meal a month at La Lucciola. That I can do. I prefer warung food anyway.