Posts Tagged ‘scam’

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Watering The Seeds Of Religious Intolerance

August 6, 2013

Here are two sad little tales that encapsulate the rot that is slowly eroding the previously harmonious social fabric of Indonesia. The stories are connected, but separate; their threads weaving dark changes in the characters and mindsets of their protagonists, and diminishing their faith in humanity.

A few months ago, a woman from a lovely family in Sumatra, despite being comfortably settled in Medan, accompanied her husband to Perawang, a village 50 kilometres from Pekanbaru in Central Sumatra. He had secured a better job there, and while it was hard to shift so far away from the family’s love and support, they made the move. They found a house and executed all the necessary agreements to rent it for twelve months. It seemed like a friendly neighbourhood, and the local residents appeared welcoming. But that was soon to change.

After having lived there for just over a month, and having settled in – with all the usual establishment expenses – there was a knock at the door. The house owner was standing there, and he did not look pleased.

“What religion are you?” he demanded without preamble.
“We’re Christian – why?” was the bemused reply.
“You have to get out of the house”, demanded the owner. “We are all Muslims here. You are not welcome.”

Stunned, the couple protested, saying that the owner had already agreed to a twelve-month rental, that he had sighted their KTP identity documents (which specify to which of the six ‘government-approved’ religions one belongs), and that they had done nothing to upset any of the neighbours. The owner was unmoved. “I don’t care. Get out now. We don’t want you here.”

So they were forced to move, and having lost their rental money – and their house – to a religious bigot, had no option but to seek charitable help from their local church. Fortunately, the church showed a compassionate face sadly lacking amongst the Muslims of Perawang, and allowed them to use one of their church properties, where they found temporary sanctuary.

Meanwhile, here in Bali, my good friend Septyni was furious. You see, the woman in question is her sister, and she is both fiercely protective of her sibling and enraged at the bigotry displayed towards her and her husband. For the five years I have known her, Septyni has always been one of the most tolerant and accepting human beings I have ever met. But her family’s crisis in Sumatra, together with the constant news of religious intolerance towards minorities in the press, have begun to change her. She is developing a profound distrust and dislike of the dominant religious group in Indonesia, and this, while sad, appears to be a view shared by more and more people as abuses continue.

And so to the second part of the story, the timing of which was both unfortunate and destructive. Through an acquaintance, Septyni recently met someone who had just arrived  from Aceh – a man who was looking for a job and a place to stay. Ever-helpful to all people, regardless of their origins or faith, Septyni gave him helpful advice about job-seeking strategies and about settling in to Bali life.

She helped him to find accommodation at her kost, where there was a room available for rent. She guided him in his search for ads for job vacancies, and helped him to find a motorbike to rent. And when his rented bike developed mechanical issues and became difficult to ride, she even lent him her own bike and rode his faulty bike herself. He was a neighbour now, and in her view, one should help thier neighbours.

She didn’t pay much attention to his pronouncements that he was “a good Muslim”, because in her mind, a person’s faith is a personal matter between them and their god, and irrelevant to most normal human interactions. So as a Christian, and as a good person, she helped him, not because she wanted anything from him, but because that’s the sort of person she is.

And then this bastard, who called himself “Adang”, repaid her kindness by waiting until she had inadvertently left her room unlocked while using the shower at the other end of the building, sneaking into her room, and stealing 400,000 Rupiah and some of her books, leaving her with insufficient money to pay her rent or buy food. By the time she had finished her shower, he had disappeared for good – no doubt to find someone else to rip off.

Her sister’s forced eviction and her experience with this opportunistic thief were two events that occurred within days of each other. As a result, this kind, tolerant woman now has a deep antipathy towards Muslims – perhaps unwarranted on the basis of only two incidents – but wholly understandable given the very personal nature of her experiences.

She is now on the brink of becoming intolerant – a state of mind previously completely foreign to her, but now precipitated by the appalling behaviour of some people, who just happen to be Muslim. Each new anti-social event she experiences in Indonesia, each new example of religious bigotry, will continue to water the seeds of her intolerance until they produce the same toxic flowers of hate and misunderstanding that we see growing every day elsewhere throughout the archipelago.

The government should do something to stop this rot, instead of promoting it as they are doing, despite their weasel words to the international community. And maybe the vast mass of tolerant Muslims should reclaim their once-vaunted reputation for friendliness and hospitality by opposing those in power who continue to promote Muslim supremacy over all others.

Because if they don’t, the situation will only get worse – and Indonesia will implode.

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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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A Nasty ‘Win A Car’ Scam That Breaks Hearts

June 22, 2012

Her eyes are alight and she is suffused with a joy that I have rarely seen before. Her usually stoic nature is transformed by the radiance that today illuminates her spirit, spilling on to those around her. She has worked very hard for years, rarely complaining, and constantly dreams of being able to support her parents on a distant island in the archipelago. Today, that dream has come true.

“I’ve won a car!” she cries, pulling out a plastic token carefully wrapped in flimsy paper printed with complicated winner’s directions. I had heard of those ubiquitous promotional prize deals which seem to abound here in Bali. I had actually seen ads from the Tango people breathlessly pushing the usual line –  you know the ones: “Buy our product, win a car!” But with one car as first prize, its coveted token hidden in one of perhaps five million packets of product, the chances of winning are vanishingly small.

Even so, someone has to win, and it seems that my friend has struck it rich against all the odds. I congratulate her; no-one deserves a win more than her. “But I haven’t told you yet”, she goes on, “It’s not just one, but two cars! I can’t believe it!”

I can’t believe it either, but for me it’s a species of disbelief that comes from cynicism, not overwhelming excitement. As she tells me about finding the Tango car token last night, and another winning one in a separate purchase of a different product this morning, my internal radar begins beeping. She’s on a roll, telling me of her plans to sell one of the little Nissan March cars she has won and giving the proceeds to her parents, and keeping the other here in Bali to generate rental income. My ‘something’s wrong’ detector won’t shut off as I calculate the odds of winning not one, but two major prizes. “Ring them”, I advise, “find out what you have to do now to collect your prize.”

An hour later, I get an excited message. “It’s all real”, she says. “They will deliver the car as soon as I do the registration transfer!” She then diffidently asks if I could lend her 3.7 million “for the STNK transfer”, but assures me that everything is completely safe, because the mysterious ‘they’ will return the money as soon as the car is delivered. “Then I can use that money for the second car’s transfer, and give it back to you when that one is delivered.”

Uh oh. Nigerian scam with a twist. I don’t want to rain all over her parade, but the weather is not looking good right now. I try logic. “Why can’t they pay the ‘transfer’ themselves if they’re only going to give it back to you?” She tells me that they explained that doing it that way would not be legal. Oh, right. But I press on. “If the car is new, why do they want you to ‘transfer’ the registration?”

She tells me they say it is a police requirement. “Have you called the police to ask?” I enquire. “Of course! They encouraged me to do that!” I am momentarily stumped, but then ask her what number she called. “Oh, it’s right here on their instruction page, where it says ‘Call Police to confirm correct registration transfer fees.” Ah, right, very clever.

So because she’s excited and happy, and wants to hear nothing from the King of Negativity that might spoil that, I make a deal with her. I’ll advance the money, but only if my solicitor talks to her first, examines the deal and approves it. I know her – she is very intelligent, honest, caring and a workaholic – but she is also extremely stubborn and independent. If I refuse her request, she will simply go elsewhere to get the forward payment, then run aground on the deadly Nigerian reefs as so many have done before her.

Luckily, she agrees to meet my solicitor, and I sit sadly watching while that worthy explains the nature of the scam to her, shattering the dream of financial independence for both her and her parents in the process. It is a necessary and brutal surgery, and one that requires a finesse better administered by my solicitor than by me. I listen as she describes how scam artists buy biscuits or confectionery in bulk, then professionally re-pack them using counterfeit bags. The bogus tokens – most of them “winners” – are slipped into the bags before they are sealed, ready for ecstatic purchasers to find and get suckered into pre-paying ‘delivery’, ‘registration’ or ‘transfer’ fees to facilitate a major prize which, of course, never arrives.

Those who are cautious are encouraged to check with the ‘authorities’, whose number is conveniently printed on the accompanying instructions. The number is, of course that of the fraudsters themselves, who explain in official tones that declining to make the requested payment will mean instant forfeiture of the ‘prize’. Very few use their own resources to find and call the customer service number of Tango, or any other company being unwittingly used as a front for these crooks. Very few think to question the “Police’ number printed, because this is Indonesia, where the social norm is never to challenge those in authority.

Most are in borderline economic circumstances, which makes them easy prey for the heartless bastards who care nothing for their victims, thinking only to enrich themselves at the expense of others. They operate with impunity, apparently safe from police interference, and make billions while doing so. Personally, I would cut off their balls and sell their scrotums as tobacco pouches before boiling them in oil. Perhaps it is fortunate that I don’t have any say about the implementation of justice in this country.

At the end of the meeting, after living through 12 hours of sleepless joy and the sudden shock of betrayal, I am worried that my friend will be faced with months of regretful contemplation, the annoying mosquito of  ‘what might have been’ buzzing constantly around her mind. But no. She is calm and stoical and simply smiles and says, “Thank you so much. I have learned a big lesson today.”

And after watching how she handled this little episode, so have I.

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Cruise Customers Climb, But Venal VOA Vexes Visitors

March 12, 2012

Bali’s cruise tourism market is showing signs of significant growth in the last decade. In 2002, the number of cruise ships arriving in Bali was 20. This year, it has hit 90 and rising. As usual, the hype surrounding this sector of the tourism market is relentlessly upbeat, focusing as it does on the expected flood of money into Bali, based on projections assuming untold thousands of free-spending passengers deliriously spending vast amounts of cash.

It would be wonderful if this was to actually happen, but the combination of appallingly bad planning, sub-standard construction, lack of proper cruise industry infrastructure, and the venality of the central government could well turn the hoped-for cruise bonanza into a pipe-dream. Another triumph of greed over practicality.

The much-vaunted Tanah Ampo International Cruise Terminal in Karangasem, East Bali has proved to be a massive embarrassment. Apart from being situated so far from the main tourist and shopping precinct in South Bali that a shopping trip is impossible during a 12-hour layover, it was not even designed or constructed properly. No-one seems to know why the pier, originally planned to be 308 metres long, mysteriously shrank to only 154 metres during the final construction phases – way too short to accommodate most cruise ships. And the attached passenger pontoon was of such shoddy construction that it disintegrated a few weeks after being built. One consequence was that in 2011, the Sun Princess, carrying 1,950 passengers, had to divert to Benoa because of the potentially dangerous disembarkation situation.

In February of this year, the  MV Aurora, carrying 2,800 passengers and crew, could not pick up its passengers after their day visit because the new, improved, ‘re-built’ pontoon collapsed again. Passengers were stranded on the pier for over 6 hours. The ‘International’ cruise terminal was not equipped to provide any food, water or shelter while an inevitable rainy-season storm drenched the unhappy passengers. This is not good PR, and needless to say, many visitors left with a very negative image of Bali.

But let’s assume that all these problems are miraculously fixed, and that cruise ship passengers are somehow presented with a truly professional experience at both of Bali’s main cruise ports of Tanah Ampo and Benoa. Would the expected economic benefits then manifest themselves? Will 2,000-odd passengers disembark in the morning and go on a massive spending spree for 8 hours before returning to ship-board life?

It doesn’t look like it. The data from the Benoa Port Office show that only 20% of passengers disembark for a typical one-day stop, and that they spend an average of $45 USD each. That’s not what you call big money. By comparison, Wellington, New Zealand, reports an average daily spend of $141 per day per passenger when in port, and a lot more people. Even Jamaica claims $90 USD. Of course, with cruise lines promoting a self-contained experience on-board, nobody expects all passengers to take the opportunity to make landfall, yet the number actually getting off the ship here, and their daily spend, seems very low.

I spent a day recently with a cruise ship passenger who arrived at Benoa at 6.30am. Because the Benoa pier is another one that is too short for major liners, passengers are brought to shore by ship’s tender, a process requiring advance booking and a lot of waiting. They are dropped off in an area which is confusing for first-time visitors, who are immediately surrounded by hordes of insistent taxi touts demanding outrageous fares for the relatively short trip to the shopping hot-spots. I had sent a driver to pick her up, but even so, pre-booked drivers were restricted to waving their signs from behind a high fence. From her description, the chaos in the port arrivals area made Denpasar airport look like Changi by comparison.

She said that few of her fellow passengers opted to come ashore, many baulking at paying the $25 USD Visa On Arrival fee. For 6 or 7 hours in Bali, it’s simply not worth it. The standard VOA is valid for 30 days. You can enter Bali for half-an-hour if you like, but you will pay the inflexible, one-size-fits-all visa fee of $25 USD. Why? Well, just look at the revenues. In the first nine months of last year, VOA fees for entry to Bali (mainly through the airport) amounted to more than $42 million USD. How much of that stays in Bali, to provide for tourism infrastructure? None of it. It all goes straight to Jakarta. Don’t expect cheap one-day cruise ship visas any time soon – I don’t believe Jakarta officials would sacrifice a single dollar of their VOA revenue to grow this sector of Bali’s tourism industry,  because there would be nothing in it for them.

Another passenger reports that on arriving back at the port for departure , a helpful chap offered to help him find his way back to the correct tender – for free! Naturally, he was delighted, until he was led to a small shack where yet another helpful chap (no doubt a cousin) relieved him of 150,000 rupiah ‘Departure Tax’ and took him to his boat. Only later did he realise that there is no ‘departure tax’ payable at ports …

Of course, back at the airport, the VOA scams are still alive and well. The officials who embezzled over $300,000 USD by misreporting $25, 30-day visa fees as $10, 10-day visas (and pocketing the difference) were rapped on the knuckles and sent back to work. The government’s solution to their corrupt behaviour was to charge us all $25 now, regardless of length of stay. Now reports are coming in of a new wrinkle, where tired passengers arriving after long-haul flight are told, “You are from Europe. You must pay 25 Euro.” Those who protest that it should be $25 USD are told, “That is only for Americans.”

Oh yes, there is the transit mess as well. If you think you are ‘transiting’ through Bali, say from Darwin to Kuala Lumpur, make sure that you have a ‘fly-through’ ticket. If you travel on a cheap point-to-point carrier, you actually have two journeys. On arrival at Bali, you will have to purchase a $25 VOA for your proposed one-hour stay in Bali, clear immigration, collect your bags, clear customs, exit the airport and walk 200 metres to the departures area, where you will have to check in, pay 150,000 departure tax, clear immigration and board your connecting flight. That’s if it hasn’t left during this lengthy process. That’s because you are not ‘transiting’, you are ‘transferring’, which involves a world of pain.

If you are genuinely ‘transiting’ – that is, your bags are checked through and you have a boarding pass for the second leg, you should be right. Just get off the plane and go to the transit lounge to wait for the connecting flight. However, rumour has it (unsubstantiated, I hasten to add) that the Bali transit lounge has been closed during airport renovations. If this is true, you will need to purchase a $25 VOA … get the picture? Just skip back one paragraph for the full saga if you need to be reminded.

Anyway, that’s the airport. We all know what a disaster area that is. But back to my main thread about the way cruise visitors are being treated – which is with an incredible lack of vision for the future. It is without a doubt, a potentially lucrative sector of the tourist industry for Bali. So why are the local authorities being so completely amateurish about growing it? Why didn’t they build a proper, professional-standard cruise terminal in East Bali? Why are they not lobbying Jakarta for the immediate introduction of a cheap one-day entry permit for cruise passengers?

Why do I even hope that things will ever change in the torturous labyrinth of Indonesian officialdom?

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Crooked Money-Changers In The Island Of Temples

February 22, 2012

I have just read a fascinating report from the State News Agency Antara, which warns that up to 40% of Bali’s 146 money-changers are operating illegally. This is shocking news – not because of the number of dishonest foreign exchange places, but because Antara seems to believe that there are only 146 money-changers in Bali.

Legian alone probably has 146, and most likely a lot more. Seminyak has hundreds. Kuta, that bastion of ethical trade and commerce, may well have thousands. Every street, every lane, every seething market zone with more than twenty kiosks is festooned with those ubiquitous boards: “Authorised Money Changer. No Commission.” The rates look attractive, but only if you actually get them. And the “authorisation” has most likely been issued by the operator’s cousin, not by any known bank.

The reality is that there are not 146 money-changers in Bali; there are thousands. And the registered, legitimate ones – 88 of them, according to Antara, are far outnumbered by the thieving rat-bags who live off gullible tourists, robbing them senseless and giving Bali a bad name. This would make the real percentage of illegal places closer to 95%.

Just about every first-timer gets stung. You suddenly realise you’ve spent most of your rupiah on T-shirts, bling, cheap massage and cooling beverages, and start looking around for someone to change 50 or 100 dollars so you can continue the spending spree. You see the sign – it says “Authorised”, so it must be legal. In fact, they don’t even charge commission. What nice people! Even the tout drumming up business outside, sincerity oozing from every pore, solemnly declares, “No rip-off!” in earnest tones. And the rate – why, it’s much better than that fancy place your friends recommended!

So in you go, escorted at close quarters by the tout, only to end up jammed up against a tall counter, the top of which comes up to your neck. Behind it is an unctuous smile attached to a person of dubious integrity, who immediately begins the process of cunningly getting as much from you as he can, while giving you as little as possible in return.

He asks how much you want to exchange, you tell him, he pecks on a calculator and displays a figure. For those unfamiliar with the vast number of zeros in Indonesian currency, this can be terminally confusing. He keeps up a high-speed patter designed to distract you from the discrepancy between what you see on his calculator and the rate posted outside on his board. If there is also a rate chart inside, it will often show a different rate to confuse you. If you happen to have a modicum of mathematical ability, you soon realise that the amount shown on his calculator is just plain wrong.

That’s because his calculator commences the calculation with a pre-set bias – and believe me, it’s not in your favour. Should you do the unthinkable and produce your own calculator, he will look at your result with utter shock and horror, apologise profusely, and proceed to thump and shake his “faulty” calculator, blaming its ‘incorrect’ result on the manufacturer, bad batteries and its advanced age. But the calculator trick is only Phase One of the con in these places.

Phase Two is a complex ritual which commences after the actual amount is finally agreed upon. The man takes your money and starts an intricate game of banknote-shuffling  behind the high counter, during which he calls out a running total in hundreds, meaning hundreds of thousands. This is designed to both confuse you and lull you into a false sense of security. Meanwhile, his accomplice, the tout, stands uncomfortably close behind you, so you have to turn around to answer, and engages you in an endless stream of questions.

These continue unabated as the money-changer suddenly slaps down a huge heap of mixed denomination bills on the counter and starts counting them out into piles, calling out the amounts. It’s during this part that tens might miraculously transform into hundreds, at least verbally. If you show the slightest sign of actually following the transaction, the accomplice will distract you with a very personal question accompanied by a friendly dig in the ribs. If this action causes you to take your eyes off the money for a spilt second, some of it disappears behind the counter. No, actually, a lot of it disappears behind the counter, typically between 200,000 and 400,000 in an exchange totalling perhaps 960,000.

By this stage, if you are the average first-timer, you are so confused by the unfamiliar money, the endless chatter, the unwelcome jostling and the oppressive heat that you tend to take the money and run. After all, you saw the entire amount being counted out in front of you, right? Wrong.

If your face betrays any sign of suspicion, the purveyor of dodgy rupiah immediately tries to disarm you by asking, no, insisting that you count out the money yourself. Which of course, you try to do on the only space available – the counter-top. Another barrage of questions and assorted distractions follows, particularly when you discover a discrepancy. Standard operating procedure at this point is for the con-man to say, “This can’t be right. Let me count it again.”

He then quickly picks up the money and arranges it into one pile again, at which point he expertly  ‘fumbles’ and drops some of the stack behind the counter. Amidst profuse apologies, he retrieves both the dropped money and the previously stolen stash, counts it all out again – correctly this time – and gives it back to you to count again.

After you laboriously count out all the small bills and are finally convinced you have it right, he will grab the money  in a lightning-fast move “to stack it for you” as the tout behind you distracts you once more. Needless to say, a goodly portion of your money disappears behind the counter again in a sleight-of-hand manoeuvre that is very difficult to see. Result – you are badly out of pocket.

So why do visitors even use these dubious places? Convenience is one reason – why walk to a legitimate money changer in Bali’s heat, when hey – there’s one right here! The other reason is simply greed, together with an inability to perform the simplest arithmetical computation. A rate of 9,600 looks good compared to the 9,450 offered at a ‘real’ place. But if you’re changing $100, this translates to a ‘saving’ of 15,000 rupiah, worth about $1.60 AUD.

At legitimate places – such as those registered by the Association of the Foreign Exchange Dealers (APVA), you get low counters, money counted out in front of you in high denomination bills, plenty of time to count it again yourself without harassment, a receipt, and friendly, professional staff.

And the rip-off places? Well, as you can see, they’re very different. After a few years of living here, I went back to one of these dodgy places just to see whether I could outsmart the guy and make a whole extra 15,000 rupiah. I changed $100, watched him like a hawk, called him on every trick, and finally counted out the money into the hands of my own accomplice without letting the shonk anywhere near it.

The previously friendly money-changer stared at me aggressively, thrust back my $100, snatched the stack of grubby rupiah from my friend’s hand, and snarled, “You fuck off. Not come back.”

Don’t worry mate, I won’t.

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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.

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Up The Rear For Money

October 14, 2010

We all know the simple rules of driving or riding on Bali’s roads. Rule One: Don’t have an accident. If you do, and you survive, you will pay. Not your fault? Like hell it’s not. The other driver or rider might have rocketed into you (without looking) from a tiny side-street, or was overtaking you as you turned right, or crashed into you head-on on your side of the road. But if you are a bule and they are a local, the accident is ipso facto your fault. It’s all their side of the road.

Rule Two: If you are a bule, don’t stand within 20 metres of an accident between two locals, and never, ever spend more than three seconds looking at the carnage. Don’t even consider rushing in to help – you will immediately be blamed for the accident, then asked for money for vehicle damage, hospital fees, cremation costs, hurt pride – you name it, there will be an excuse as to why you, the innocent bule, should pay.

Rule Three: Watch out for scams such as the one I witnessed the other day. There I was, enjoying Bali street culture over the rim of  a pretentious little cappuccino, when a local rides past, looking intently in his mirrors. Behind him, a young surfer type, shirtless, no helmet, dreamy expression, closes up looking for an opportunity to overtake. With impeccable timing, the local slams on his brakes and stops right in front of me. The surfer has good reflexes, and only gives rear tyre of the bike in front a light thump as he skids to a halt. The impact is about a quarter as hard as you get from a typical Bali pothole. There is no panel contact and no-one falls off.

I catch a fleeting look of joy on the face of the local as he leaps off his bike, transforms his grin into a contrived mask of shock and rage and screams “You pay! You pay!” at the stunned lad behind him. “Umm, there’s no damage”, says the surfer. “My bike broken!” cries the Aggrieved One. “You pay me one million!”

I break my own rule about non-interference in Bali street theatre. I’m flexible like that. I get the surfer’s attention and tell him it’s a scam, then pull out my phone and pacify the scammer by saying that I will call the Tourist Police so they can sort it out. Strangely, he is not pacified by my actions, riding off in high dudgeon and yelling out ‘Fak Yu’ over his shoulder. It’s obviously a Chinese curse of some sort, but Google Translate doesn’t seem to recognise it.

I wonder how common this particular stunt is? Obviously this little crook was an amateur. A true professional would have at least have demonstrated a better developed sense of drama by falling off his bike and having a bruise that he had prepared earlier …