Sob Stories and Scams Wear So Very Thin

By Vyt Karazija

So I’ve just finished bargaining hard for something inconsequential and the price has been accepted. All that remains is for me to hand over the money and receive my goods from the nice lady. Then, with studied diffidence, comes the sob story: “You give me extra Rp10,000 (US$1.10) so I can buy rice for my children?”

If I don’t respond, the bathos continues. It explains in heart-breaking detail how her children are hungry, how her husband needs a crucial operation on both arms and how business has been terrible lately.

I look pointedly at the stallholder’s shiny Honda Tiger motorbike parked next to the shop. Her husband arrives in a near-new top-end vehicle professionally emblazoned with the shop’s logo and expensive graphics. He bounds out, effortlessly carrying a huge load of stock. He hides his disability well; no doubt he will be a regular Superman after his operation. Their net worth is probably greater than mine, yet the ingrained imperative to trot out clichéd hard-luck stories remains undiminished.

The low-end massage therapists are the same. A mediocre massage is followed by (or sometimes concurrent with) the inevitable mantra: “You give me tip?” Any lukewarm response from me elicits a multiplicity of choices as to why I should, such as: “My phone pulsa (credit) is finished” or “I have motorbike payment” or “My son needs a dentist, and he is in much pain” or “I must pay school fees for my daughter.”

None of the reasons relate to quality of service. I think I am expected to select one or more of these choices, but it doesn’t really matter as long as I can be conned out of extra money.

My favourite sob stories come from inventive but not entirely logical traders. “You must buy from me because I am not getting any business.” This is from the proprietor of a stall selling mainly junk. “Why aren’t you getting any business?” I ask, hoping to provide a micro-lesson in stock selection, marketing and promotion. “Because you not buy from me,” is the circular answer. I am filled with admiration. This is not just a sob story but one which makes me the cause of the trader’s difficulties.

Then there’s the “sympathy vote” sob story: “You must pay me more because I drive four hours to work each day and four hours back.” I am impressed with the man’s dedication, and ask him what time he gets up. He tells me 6am, so I ask: “What time do you open the shop?” “7.30am,” he says proudly “… and I work until 10pm.” I commiserate with him about the long hours, and say that it must be very late when he gets home. “Oh, yes,” he says sadly, “Sometimes 9pm.” I notice he has no books on arithmetic in his shop, and I resolve to buy him one.

The “support my banjar” gambit is another one on my shortlist for a prize. “You pay extra Rp100,000? My village is very poor.” I ask how this will help the village, and get a recitation of “improvements” needed by his village. “Maybe I should give the money to the head of your village?” I inquire innocently. “No, no, no!” he says with increasing alarm. “Better you give to me!” Of course it is; what was I thinking?

But the crème de la crème of sob stories surfaced a few days ago. A temporary house staff member, a Balinese who had been with me for less than two weeks, became increasingly morose, stressed and teary. Eventually an almost incomprehensible story emerged about her mother being in some sort of unspecified trouble with the authorities. The said authorities, in the guise of five local police officers (whose names she had conveniently forgotten), had allegedly confronted her family and demanded Rp15 million ($1,670) or else their mother would be carted off to prison. Hmm, I thought, here it comes. Sure enough, the conversation quickly veered towards my potential participation in the family’s “rescue.” “Can you help us? Can you lend us Rp15 million for one year?” I said that I wouldn’t. Not couldn’t; wouldn’t.

So there it was: the three-day set-up, the anticipated sting. Except this sting just won’t happen – firstly because the legal and financial woes of other people are not my responsibility; and secondly because this particular sob story smells to high heaven. I’ve never heard of police in Bali shaking down a poor Balinese family with an extortion attempt of this magnitude, but I have heard plenty of stories about “wealthy” expats being similarly targeted, both by police and the locals themselves.

If this is a scam, it is breathtaking both in its audacity and the amount being demanded. It is also insulting to be thought of as someone gullible enough to hand over money on the basis of an anecdote which is flimsy, incomplete and inconsistent. But at least I’ve been promoted from ATM to bank manager. That’s something, I suppose.

But if it is not a scam, but real extortion of a local family by local police, that is even worse. What about due process? Even in Bali, doesn’t an alleged miscreant normally get taken to court? Doesn’t a judge decide the merits of a case before prison even becomes an issue?

Prior to this little drama, I had already become heartily sick of sob stories, but at least had managed to retain my sense of humour. Now, I’ve just about had enough.

In Bali, expats are perceived to be ridiculously rich and over-privileged, whatever their actual circumstances. And that seems to make us all sitting ducks for those who want what we have. That’s sad.

Vyt Karazija writes a blog at http://borborigmus.wordpress.com and can be emailed at vyt@elearning911.com

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