The Shirt off Our Backs

By William J. Furney
The Bali Times

At the petrol station in Canggu, three employees gathered round me. One wanted my sunglasses, the other my baseball cap. I asked the third, who thus far had not issued a request, if he would like the shirt off my back. He nodded.

My driver/houseman asked for a 100-percent salary increase, without elucidating on a 100-percent work increase. “You’re being paid what you asked for,” I told him. “But it’s not enough,” he said. “If it’s not enough, why did you ask for it?” I replied, to dazed silence, agreeing anyway to his hike appeal.

His wife and onetime cleaner for me (until she realised she can’t even dust: “not strong enough”) makes a tidy sum overcharging for canang (offerings) and ceremonial materials. In true Indonesian tradition, she alights on a figure, then trebles it and doubles that amount – it’s a peculiar equation. After all, mark-ups are a way of life, when you don’t have a life.

And so last week when an approximate and sizeable funding request was made for the house temple’s birthday on Saturday, I issued a directive to the scamming ibu: in these fiscally challenging times, I told her, we need to be financially conservative, and therefore I’ll only pay for bare-bones materials (which was all that was required) – stock-in-trade of canang, fruit and a grilled chicken.

The ibu duly informed me of the exact amount she needed but I refused to hand over the cash until she produced an itemised note. Reluctantly it was presented and included what I perceived to be a hefty fee for two people to assist in canang-making. But the temple is small and surely the ibu – who’s a priest, a vocation a fortune teller told her she must undertake after she had been ill with “falling down” – could make the handful that were required.

“No, ibu can’t make canang,” the husband said, directly contrasting against the central role Balinese women perform up and down the island.

And so, after I informed both of the amount I was willing to fork out – minus the extra-workers’ fee – there developed much pouting and silence from the pair. Until towards the end of the week my man told me they’d decided to cancel the lofty affair and just place simple canang at the temple on its birthday.

Not so. That night he texted to say his wife wanted cash the next day for the on-again big ceremony – and that I could cut it from his salary. The figure was just shy of her original request. Weary, I capitulated and handed over the money and they had their ceremony and went home happy – doubtless after profiting well from the event. We even presented ibu with a chocolate rabbit for her trouble.

Some days earlier I had said to the two of them: don’t assume foreigners are easy rides (their teenage son once asked me to pay his university fees); that they have dollar signs floating above their heads; or that you can take them for fools. But these are principles that don’t fit with the Balinese perception of those from overseas. There’s a sense of entitlement, perhaps drawn from the roiling years of countrywide colonialism, or, at least, from this thesis: Let me enjoy the fruits of your labour.

As I wrote in this column last week, this seemingly pervasive sentiment is exceedingly evident in the retail sector here. Fair-skinned foreigners want suncream? Let’s fleece them (by adding hundreds of percent)! Medical attention? Ditto! A tipple in the evening? Triple the price! The prevailing attitude is: Let’s screw ’em. Those outlanders who have experienced the darker sides of property deals in Bali know this only too well.

And oh yes, partition, racism and segregation are economically alive and well here. Depending on the colour of your skin, you get to pay more. What fun – from the most ramshackle tourist attraction to the supermarket checkout to very house you live in.

Every (foreign)body is up for grabs.

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3 Responses to “The Shirt off Our Backs”

  1. James Says:

    At Hardy’s and The Guardian Pharmacy in Sanur, as we’ve found out the hard way, cheating and short changing tourists and expats is pretty standard. At Hardy’s the manager seemed unconcerned about it, when it was raised.

    It’s a sad fact that for many Balinese dishonesty and cheating the bule is an acceptable part of daily life and many leave here with a dark feeling of being repeatedly scammed. It’s far more widespread than anywhere else in Asia.

    I guess it starts at the top and filters down and when you have so few honest role models it’s hard to stop it.

    In Malaysia now it is illegal to sell an item without a price displayed. It doesn’t always work but it’s a start

  2. dave Says:

    Some places charge bule prices, dont go there-i found that the apotek in Carrefor, Sunset road, to be quite cheap, the one in Galleria almost double….
    Many businesses are not owned or operated by Balinese, youll find most of the shops in and around Kuta are owned by Javanese,ive found these are the best at trying to rip you off,my wife is Balinese, and refuses to pay more because her husband is a bule, if the price is too high, we deal with someone else.

    None of my inlaws or my employees are well off, yet ive never been asked for money in any form or fashion.
    I find most Balinese to be extremely honest, and most from Java to be extremely dishonest…
    i married with a good income, but absolutely no savings,and my wife says, marriage isnt about money.
    Sack your staff,and find better elsewhere,if you let this go on,it will go on for a long time mate

  3. James Says:

    Dave, to be honest my experience is quite the opposite. I’ve spent a lot of time in rural and urban Java and never once have I felt scammed or overcharged. That’s not the case here. Many Balinese are extremely honest but it’s also true that one needs to check your change more carefully in Bali than in Java. And it’s the Balinese who often do it although they love to blame the Javanese for everything (the Javanese in turn love to very unfairly stereotype the Balinese who they regard as crafty, uneducated and parochial).

    I’ve had staff try to scam me several times and ask for money and I was repeatedly warned when I first came here years back that it would be the case.

    Within a week both our driver and our Pembantu had hit up the new arrivals for several million each for “ceremonies” and ‘doctors’. We had household items and electronics disappear. We were seen as an easy touch but we learned rather quickly.

    My current staff on the other hand, some Balinese and some Javanese are all thoroughly decent and honest people.

    Now I have a second sense as to who is going to try and scam me or rip me off..I’ve been here long enough to know instinctively and I react accordingly.

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