I’m a bit taken aback by the financial information disclosed by locals here in Bali. Perhaps it is a natural cultural openness, but I suspect not. Beyond the smiles, I sense an underlying frustration about seeing the wealth that so easily flows from the pockets of tourists (FYI, bulai is the bahasa word for ‘white person’). I’m tempted to be cynical about these disclosures… perhaps such statements have proven to loosen the flow of tourist purchases and tips and such. But I resist such cynicism, as I desire an open heart toward all the folks with whom we interact. Below are a few short anecdotes… for context, note that the minimum wage in bali is around IDR 2.0 jt ($150 USD) per month. (jt is short for juta, which means million)
A random driver named Putu told us about how he used to pay IDR 2.5 jt (~$200 USD) per month for an apartment in Sanur, but he moved to Denpasar and now pays IDR 1.5 jt per month for 3 rooms. His daughter is studying tourism at a public university so she can get a better job than driving/cleaning. University is very expensive, on the order of $4000/year. It is very difficult to afford on a driver’s income.
Andy, our new shopkeeper friend, told us it is very hard in Indonesia because most people are very poor and there are no social services. If you are sick and don’t have money, you die. If you do not work, you do not have money, and you do not eat. He said that IDR 30k ($2.5 USD) is very cheap for tourists for a meal, but very expensive for him. He said, on that particular day, he had only sold IDR 150k worth of goods at his little shop.
Anga, another driver, prefers people to pay through the app that he drives for, because that prevents him from spending cash on cigarettes and such throughout the day. If he completes 12 trips in a day, he gets a bonus of IDR 75k ($5.50 USD). This is a huge incentive for him, and he and his friends compete to see who can complete 12 trips the quickest.
Rian owns a tiny Mexican warung, which has become a favorite of ours. She is an insightful 25 year old young woman. Interestingly, she absolutely has the talent to become very successful as a restaurateur, but she does not want to grow her restaurant because she does not want to become rich. She says when people become rich, they become cold. She just wants to save enough to get a good financial foundation under her so she can move back to Sumatra. She chuckled and said we would be surprised at how “simple” her rented house is.
There have been others, but that’s enough to give you an idea. Most of their stories are wrenching, as they struggle to feed a family on less than $200/month. Some are more hope filled, which is lovely to hear. But even successful folks here live simple lives on maybe $400/month. Life is easy here, if you have western style money… if you are a rich bulai. We use our AC all day (electricity is expensive here), swim in the pool, stroll the beach, hire a housekeeper, pay a taxi, eat wherever we like. We plan excursions. We play. Our lives here are abundant. But everyday we interact with dozens of people who struggle to just meet their basic needs. Most of them stay barely afloat as long as they are healthy. If not healthy, they may simply not be here tomorrow.
I’m really not sure what to do with this knowledge. Of course we can be kind to all, but that seems inadequate. Sometimes we pay too much for something, just to bless someone. Once, we took some food to Andy, just to be nice. I always tip something, even though it’s not super customary here. But again, these fleeting gestures seem hollow.
I rarely feel small. I have three college degrees. I have a big job, relatively speaking. I have an awesome wife, and three healthy boys. And don’t forget about the Porsche! When I am focused on myself, and my easy life, I feel very big. But I feel small here sometimes — overwhelmed, really. If there was only one Andy, I could feel big. I could befriend Andy and invest in him, help him grow his business, etc. But I can’t do that for the thousands of Andies we meet. These are huge issues, rooted in cultural and governmental obstacles, and even my American wallet is not big enough to solve them.
What can one tiny bulai do? It’s a riddle I am very intent on solving. I am anxious to put my MBA to some useful purpose here. We are getting connected with some NGO’s, and I am hopeful of finding a fruitful role. Stay tuned!