Posts Tagged ‘opportunism’

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The Changing Of Lovina

April 18, 2013

Every so often one needs what my avian friend Hector refers to as a Short Essential Break.  These SEBs serve to reset perceptions, decompress from the daily chaos of South Bali, and just do some inspired blobbing.

My most recent sojourn was to Kalibukbuk, known to most as the central hub of Lovina – the generic name for a ten kilometre stretch of closely-spaced villages west of Singaraja. It’s a low-key place – which for me is its attraction – and it’s different enough from South Bali to make it either a pleasant stop-over or a destination in its own right.

Since my last trip there, things have changed a little. The sleepy little strip, with its super-low meal prices, its laid-back sellers of knick-knacks,  and its providers of friendly service at approachable prices seems to be starting to develop a ‘down-south’ mentality. Of course, I would expect prices to be higher than last time. After all, Lovina is not immune to the cost increases experienced by the rest of Bali. But the cancer of opportunistic greed seems to be creeping in here slowly and surely.

Local friends here blame the new North Bali airport – a pipe dream that will take a long time to be realised. Even the concept itself  is still in the dreaming phase, much less the realities of infrastructure development or transportation logistics. Yet the mere possibility of its future existence seems to have driven land prices through the roof, and created unreal expectations of a tourist bonanza (and its attendant opportunities for charging high prices) decades before the first tourist plane touches wheels to tarmac.

This attitude seems to have permeated the low-level hawker industry too. As I stroll around, an optimistic purveyor of coral gewgaws tries to sell me some trinkets, worth maybe fifteen thousand rupiah each, insisting that he never bargains, but sells only for fixed price. He tells me, “I will only sell for thirty, no less.” After bargaining for some time with ‘he-who-never-bargains’, the price drops to twenty each for five items. Still too high, so I start leaving. “Twenty each”, he insists, “but you can have one more for free.” I weaken, agree, he bags the merchandise and I pull out the negotiated 100,000 rupiah.

He looks at me with a mixture of disbelief and horror. “Where is the rest?”  I tell him that’s it. “What?” he says with just a hint of fake anger. “You agreed! $20 each for five!”  After I stop laughing, during which his stern facade slips only a little, I thank him for the entertainment and start leaving. He only lets me get a few metres before he acquiesces, grumbling, to the negotiated price – in rupiah. “Pelit”, he mutters as I leave. Yes, stingy I might be, but not yet that completely stupid as to fall for a bait-and-switch scam.

Kuta-style hawkers aside, the place has a relaxing ambience not found in the Deep South. That evening, I savour the quiet at my hotel’s beach-side bar, sipping a wee scotch and gazing over a sea, smooth as trowelled ant’s piss in the lambent evening light. No surf, no surfers – just a few fishermen knee-deep in the shallow waters two hundred metres from shore, bamboo rods held with casual patience. Glorious.

Next day, needing to rent a scooter to visit friends three or four kilometres away (and way too far to walk in my current state of sloth) I find a bike rental place, and discover that the previous day’s hopeful vendor is not an anomaly. After negotiating a ridiculously high price for a day’s rental down to something merely over-priced, I pay and get the keys. It’s 11 o’clock in the morning. “We close at 8pm. Please bring the bike back before then”, says the proprietor.

I explain that, no, I will bring it back at 11am the following day, because I rented it for a day. “Ahh”, says the nice lady, “You are from Legian.” I am nonplussed by the non-sequiteur. Seeing my confusion, she explains, “In Legian, a one day rental is for 24 hours. In Lovina, one day is 12 hours. So I leave, she calls me back, and grudgingly allows that, just for me, she will arrange for the earth’s rotation to be shifted back to a 24-hour cycle, but just this once.

Before she can change her mind about re-writing celestial mechanics, I take off, and immediately marvel at the handling of this little bike compared to my own. It feels as if the road consists of  a bed of lubricated ball-bearings. The steering responds like a startled cat on shabu-shabu, and the brakes are … well, hesitant. I stop and check the tyre pressures, which are unfortunately OK, which means the problem is more deep-seated. Never mind,  it adds a frisson of excitement to an otherwise quiet day, even though I feel like a rhinoceros strapped to an office chair that has been suddenly catapulted out into traffic. At least I have a helmet …

That night, I talk to some locals and expats, and discover that ‘Joger-style’ village greed has surfaced here too. (In the South, the Joger company chose to close down one of its outlets rather than bow to the endless and increasingly rapacious demands for money from nearby villages.)

Here in Lovina, the story goes that a developer in the final stages of construction of a high-class 8-villa complex has just been hit with an economic body blow. Just before its official launch, the local village has apparently demanded ‘village fees’ of 30 million per villa, per month, regardless of occupancy.  Interesting to see how that pans out – if true, 2.88 billion rupiah per annum would be a nice little windfall for the village – if the owner can avoid bankruptcy, that is.

I really hope that this bit of news is not true. Let’s hope it’s one of those legendary ‘misunderstandings’ which are so common here. It would be a shame for Lovina, and its future, if what appears to be an emerging hardness of spirit and Kuta-style opportunism kills the friendly and laid-back character of the place.

One wonders though, if it is the impending, though distant prospect of a North Bali airport that is causing this sea-change, or whether it is something deeper and more pervasive that is happening in Bali. I guess only time will tell.

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Australia Is So Like Bali Now

July 30, 2011

There was a time, not so long ago, where one looked forward to a short break away from Bali. Re-visiting Australia was once an opportunity to get away from the endemic chaos here, to experience first-world efficiencies, punctuality, reliability and good service. After a harrowing ten day trip to Melbourne, I’m here to tell you that those days are rapidly disappearing.

Apart from the freezing Winter weather, unbelievable prices and astonishing displays of road rage, Australia is becoming more like Bali every day. Well, not quite – in Australia, there is a surfeit of do-gooder-inspired over-regulation that assumes everyone is a complete imbecile in need of protection. That’s not a feature of Bali life. Yet.

The street signage is well up to the usual in absentia Bali standards. However, the authorities make up for it by providing thousands of speed limit signs, including those for ‘school zones’, which display a confusing mess of times and vague dates when the limit actually applies. Nobody but an airline pilot has the multi-tasking ability to decipher the damn things while driving, or the reflexes to avoid running over some errant kid while doing so.

Bureaucracies, both corporate and government, have become bloated and unresponsive, rarely getting things right the first time. Businesses, formerly bastions of efficiency, are happily following suit. Maybe that’s because everyone is too busy complying with Occupational Health and Safety directives to actually do any core business. Answering the phone too often might cause work-induced hearing loss. Or maybe no-one cares about pursuit of excellence any more. Either way, just like in Bali, it’s unusual now for things to run smoothly.

So, after failing to get a direct flight to Melbourne, I start my trip by boarding a midnight plane in Bali, which naturally leaves late. It’s not a cheap flight, costing nearly twice as much as the usual discount deals – yet there is not so much as a bottle of water on offer from the cabin crew. No breakfast either. It’s OK, I’ve heard that dehydration and hunger are good for the soul. I transit through Brisbane, where I have to lug my bags through customs, then make my bone-weary way to the domestic terminal. They do give me a train ticket to get there though. I’d hate to travel by low-cost carrier … oh wait, I did.

Once in Melbourne, the fun of helping my 89 year old mum through the rigours of a major house relocation begins. A mere 20 minutes on hold to the phone company gets me a nice chap who arranges the old phone to be cut off in six days time and reconnected at the new place. He assures me that everything is set. Two hours later, the phone gets disconnected, making it impossible to arrange all the other pressing details. It takes until mid-morning the next day before we get an active line again. I am reminded of Bali business practices.

The mail redirection goes just as smoothly. “Ooh, sorry, you need to give at least three business days notice …” We fix that problem through a convoluted ‘stop mail’ arrangement that apparently doesn’t need three business days notice.

We order a skip for the inevitable rubbish that has accumulated over fifty-five years of continuous home occupancy. “Ooh, sorry, you can’t put mattresses in there – they’re a health risk.” A health risk? No-one will be sleeping on them at the tip, for crying out loud! I call the local tip. “Yes, we take mattresses.” Great! “But there will be a $67 surcharge for each mattress. They’re a health risk”. I ask: “So how does paying this charge reduce the health risk?” Silence on the phone. I guess it must be like a carbon tax or something. That does nothing useful either. I think of Bali with nostalgia. Here, we just throw old mattresses in the river, and nobody gives a hoot.

To my dismay, I discover that Bali has exported the much-loved philosophy of jam karet (rubber time) to Australia. Companies promise to do something “between 8am and 2pm – barring unforeseen circumstances of course.” The rubbish skip, which would otherwise block access to the removalists’ truck, is meant to be taken away two full days before the move. It is finally collected, after numerous phone calls, 20 minutes before our enormous truck arrives. That’s cutting it fine.

Then there is customer ‘service’. The man from Bigpond is supposed to come “between 12 and 5” to hook up the new broadband service, which of course means he arrives at 5pm. He seems a bit surly when he finds out that under-floor cable installation will not work out. He finds the task of going via the ceiling and down a cavity wall too onerous. He decides to drill through a wall in an adjacent room and curtly says: “Here’s enough cable to reach the computer. Will he at least tack it to the skirting board? “No, I don’t do that. But here are some nails.” Can he check the computer to ensure we are on-line? “It’ll work”, he says as he hurriedly leaves. It doesn’t. Even Bali provides better service.

Bali-style opportunism is not unknown in the Antipodes either. We buy a new digital TV. The nice salesman tells my mum that his friend can deliver it for $50 and “do all that complex set-up required” for a mere $150 extra. I tell him that’s too expensive, and maybe we’ll buy the TV from another store. He hurriedly offers to do the ‘complex set-up’ for only $50. I decline. After delivery, we unpack the set and switch it on. It automatically sets itself up and is ready to go. I begin to suspect that Aussie companies do their in-service training in Indonesia.

And it’s not over even when I’m ready to go back home to Bali. A service station sells me a blister pack of Duracell batteries for my calibrated, accurate luggage scales. When I open the pack later, they are corroded beyond recognition. Caveat emptor. I get new batteries elsewhere and weigh my suitcase. It is exactly 22.1 kilograms, and under my limit. The airport check-in counter scales insist my bag weighs 24 kilos and I am told I have to pay $15 excess baggage. I ask when the airline’s scales were last calibrated, and receive the non-sequitur answer that it will cost $15. After some affable banter, I am permitted to remove items from the bag. I extract my obviously faulty scales, which weigh 225 grams. The check-in scales now show 23 kilos. How much money do airlines make from these capricious instruments? They always seem to read high – does anyone ever check them?

Finally on the flight itself, I ask for a bottle of fruit juice and offer a $5 note. “Ooh, sorry, credit card payments only.” My card is in my checked luggage. I opt to dehydrate. The flight attendant shows unexpected compassion and gives me a bottle of water for free. Everyone else has to pay. It’s obviously my lucky day.

So now I’m back in Bali, and the arriving culture shock is nowhere near as great as it used to be. The laissez-faire attitudes to time are identical in Australia now, as is the lax approach to service and the rampant opportunism. And the two container-loads of furniture I helped shift can be seen on a single motorbike in Legian any day of the week.

But the weather sure is better.

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Bribery, opportunism, corruption – or just economics, Bali style?

October 4, 2009

I don’t get it.  Just about everyone you meet here with something to sell possesses a brain with an in-built calculator optimised for money. Every item and every service is flawlessly quoted in any major currency. Three-way forex calculations are as natural as breathing – most of these people seem to have memorised all the day’s exchange rates before breakfast. Their ability to instantaneously calculate the potential profit margin for any given item based on its wholesale price,  the proposed selling price and the inexperience of the buyer is awe-inspiring.

Why then is there such a gulf between the economics practised locally and that used in the rest of the world? Obviously I don’t  understand the correlation between supply, demand and price as well as I should. Some esoteric component, which I call the “because I need the money” factor, seems to dominate pricing decisions here.

So there I was in a market stall earlier this year. OK, I wasn’t your typical dream customer – all I wanted was one T-shirt. I was quite happy to pay the 30,000-35,000 going rate for the thin, somewhat poorly-stitched, plain black garment being dangled tantalisingly before my eyes. I only wanted to sleep in the thing after all …
“This one is 390,000” says the happy-looking lady. I thought to myself that if I was managing to sell T-shirts for that price, I would be very happy too. A quick check in the mirror confirmed that I did not look even slightly Japanese, so I knew that I must have misheard. But no, even after intensive haggling, the best price I could get was 90,000. Why? Because  “… not many tourists. We not sell many. Must get more money, so price is more.” Ahh, Bali economics. But all my efforts to explain that if the price was less, she would sell more and still make her profit were met with a look that said clearly that I must be truly stupid if I believed that … What does one do? I went away without a T-shirt, leaving her with no money. 

Shortly afterwards, I was looking for a villa to rent for a year. After the usual inspections, I decided on one that was good, at a fair price, and called the agent back within 2 hours of seeing it.
Me: “I’ll take it”
Him: “Oh good” (Long pause) “There is just one small problem. The price is now 300 million”
Me: (After a temporary seizure which had affected my ability to speak) “But your ad said 150 million! We agreed on 150 million! The owner agreed on 150 million! What’s changed in the last two hours?”
Him: “Ahhh … the economic crisis …”
Me: “An economic crisis has hit Bali in the last two hours?”
Him: “Um, well it started a bit earlier, but the owner remembered that he had too much money in Euros, which have dropped you see, and er, he needs more money now …”
Me: “Well, that’s a real shame, because he won’t be getting it from me”

So, miffed but philosophical (a sporadic condition in Bali for me), I started searching all over again – but within an hour, I was interrupted by a call from the same agent.
Him: “Great news! I’ve managed to get the owner to reduce the price just for you! It’s now only 250 million!”
Me: (Quivering with indifference) “No thanks …”
Him: (Aghast) “What? After I worked so hard to get you a 50 million discount?!”

I believe that villa is still sitting vacant. Unbelievable as it may seem, I’m no longer interested. When one rents a villa, like it or not, one inherits a relationship with the owner as part of the deal. At least I now know of  one owner with whom I have no interest in forming any kind of relationship.

Realistically, living here, one expects a range of practices ranging from the opportunistic to the outright corrupt in many places. Most are easily handled by judicious application of caveat bule – but occasionally it still costs you – if not money, then at least some of your equanimity. We’re all familiar with the usual scams, right?
Immigration official: “Sir, to stamp your passport,  there will be … ahhh … a 50,000 “tip”.
Friend: “I don’t think there is a charge, but feel free to call my friend at the KPK – here’s his number, I’m sure he can sort this ou …
Immigration official: (Throwing passport down) ” Arghh, mutter, mumble … go!”

Patroli: “Ahh sir, you were going the wrong way up this one way street. Big problem. You must go to court in Denpasar at 8am tomorrow”
Me: “No, no problem. Motorbikes are permitted to do that”
Patroli: (Patiently, because of long experience with argumentative bules) “Maybe, maybe. But now I have to inspect your registration documents, ownership documents, Indonesian motorbike licence, helmet, KITAS, birth certif …”
Me: (Enlightenment dawning in my forebrain) “Oh, you mean that big problem!” (Slipping him the 50,000 note I keep with my licence) “Sorry – would you mind awfully paying my fine for me” I’m a bit busy tomorrow …”
Patroli: (Beaming) “No problem – have a nice evening!”
Then he asks me to hold out my hand, palm up. I have a sudden vision of being manacled and dragged screaming to Kerobokan prison, but instead, he stamps my wrist with a little purple symbol. A rite of passage? The mark of Cain? No. “If my friend round the next corner stops you, show him the stamp. You will be OK!” See, it was just a receipt for the administrative inducement …

Even in a major department store, one is not immune to the odd bit of opportunism. There I was, buying a guitar, partly because it was a reputable store and partly because it had been marked down from 875,000 to 785,000. The clincher was a free guitar bag and strap with every purchase. Lo and behold, despite a clearly printed discounted price tag, the young entrepreneur serving me strenuously asserted that the original price was valid for today (“Oh no, the discount was for yesterday“). Then he took me into the back room where the accessories were kept and furtively explained that the bags and straps (about 50 of them) actually belonged to him, but he would be pleased to sell me what I wanted. I left, sans guitar.

So the store missed out on a sale and the sales assistant missed out on his commission. But I didn’t get ripped off and the store avoided having its merchandise stolen and fenced to me. As I left, the young man was busy re-attaching the discount tag to the same guitar, ready for the next customer. And I got the impression that no-one really cares, because that’s just the way it is here. But I still have no guitar.

Anyway, who am I to judge Bali practices, Bali mores? I live in this country as a guest. Maybe I should have just gone more with the flow, and paid the (trivial) extra $10, and bought the damn guitar. Maybe I should stop tilting at windmills. I don’t know. I do know that I am learning as I go, and despite my dyspeptic mutterings, actually hugely enjoying the ride.