By Rachel Glitz
MY husband handed me the receipt as we left the restaurant’s payment kiosk in downtown Denpasar. We squeezed past the drivers, labourers and other locals waiting patiently on plastic chairs for their bungkus (takeaway), which is cheaper than dining at a table. I scanned the flimsy page until I landed on the word. There it was in black and white, in clear, precise script: “Bule.” Weren’t those four letters proof positive—a vindication even—of the vague suspicion that hovers over every transaction? If you aren’t Indonesian, expect to pay more.
Perhaps because my belly was filled with a generous portion of spicy soto and babi guling, or maybe I have just adapted to my place in this culture, I was little more than bemused. I doubt I would have been as sanguine a few years ago, when I first arrived in Bali. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have understood then that “bule” referred to me: Foreigner. And I definitely would have failed to comprehend that it meant my lunch was costing me more than it did the Indonesian diners. How could this be? Charging me more for the exact same meal—wasn’t that blatant discrimination? How unjust! How unfair!
At first, my suspicion of this dual economy festered. Didn’t the billfold passed to the florist by the Ibu ahead of me seem awfully slim compared to the amount required for my bouquet? Similar misgivings arose while buying fruit at the local pasar (market). And was the man in the traffic vest wresting Rp 2000 from me really charging the locals to park on the street? What about that suspiciously expensive terra-cotta pot I picked up at the nursery…?
Eventually my suspicions about flexible pricing were confirmed. I couldn’t help but conclude that differential pricing was the norm. Even my children’s school was regularly stipulating one price for Indonesian families attending an event and another for expat families, regardless of actual income.
But it took a little longer for me to discern a sliding scale, more complex than merely Bule v. Local. Go to Waterbom, Bali Treetops and many hotels, flash your KITAS (long term visa) and get a price break. This special status seems to imply you have more money to spend than a local, but not as much as a tourist. Peculiarly unfair, perhaps, if your income is earned in the West and potentially inadequate if your income is earned here. A KITAS isn’t the only wrinkle in the bule-local dichotomy. Children apparently also qualify for a lower price. The neighbourhood ice cream vendor, for example charges me more than he charges my kids for the very same treat (provided I am not around when they buy it)—yet they are just as “bule” as me!
I may never fully understand or accept the rationale for all of these distinctions. But nor can I really complain. At the time of this writing, the minimum wage in Bali is about 1.5 Million Rupiah per month (less than $150 USD) and many earn far less. In San Francisco, my hometown, the minimum wage guarantees about the same amount of money in exchange for less than two days of work. Not that $150 USD will buy you very much there. I used to pay almost twice what I spend in Bali to fill my car with petrol. I spent more to park downtown for a day than the parking attendant on Jalan Raya Ubud likely earns in a week. Dining out routinely cost me more than he would earn in a month. I could afford it.
When I came to Bali, I chose to leave San Francisco’s high cost of living behind me (an option not available to the vast majority of Balinese). So perhaps it makes sense for the Balinese to take full advantage of the “tamu” (guest). If we get to enjoy the beauty and hospitality of this place, why shouldn’t the locals be able to benefit from our visit—however long we might stay? Or maybe they are just charging what the market will bear. After all, it is only rational to sell at the highest price that someone is willing and able to pay.
But “willing” becomes suspect when pricing is not transparent and “able” less clear when you no longer earn a Western salary. In a place where price tags are rare and the cost of so many services negotiable, it is hard to know the “right” price: Is it the lowest amount the seller is willing to accept? Does that answer change depending on the buyer? What is fair? Is it possible to “overpay” when the seller’s assumption is that you can afford it or, by making the purchase, are you just proving that the price is, in fact “right”?
Some of us seek the solace of a fixed price. There is relief in certainty, even if the number on the tag is arguably more arbitrary than one negotiated directly between two individuals. It is certainly simpler. And there is no nagging concern that you have been “taken,” or worse, the shame of admitting that such a concern could nag, when you consider the disparity between your income and the seller’s.
But that disparity is blurring. For me, it has certainly become less stark. When we left our hometown behind, unlike tourists, our family also left behind more than half of our robust Western salary. And although we reside in Bali, we remain American citizens and still pay a host of taxes to the city of San Francisco, state of California and U.S. government. At the same time, the prices for housing and petrol here in Bali continue to rise. Whether or not I should be paying more, these changes call into question the assumption that I can.
An expanding Indonesian economy also changes the dynamic. In the last week alone, I saw two brand new shiny BMWs and a Jaguar in Ubud—none of which were driven by a “bule” (or a bule’s driver). With the tourist trade booming in Bali and the middle class growing quickly, the future is starting to look a little more expensive for everyone.
Rachel never planned on a life in Bali. Born and raised in Santa Monica, she went to university in Boston, followed by Washington, D.C. working inU.S. government and politics before returning to California for law school. She had been practicing law in San Francisco for ten years when she moved to Indonesia with her family, where she remains; www.hereinbali.wordpress.com