I shrugged. The driver of the bemo – the local Balinese form of public transport, a minibus with the interior stripped bare like a suburban rapist’s van – had pulled over to the side of the road on a busy street in Ubud and parked to increase his bargaining leverage.
“Ok, ok: FIFTEEN!”
“But the price, in fact, is eight.” He spat and then crawled from the driver’s seat.
I was on my way to the beach town of Padangbai via Gianyar, two 8000 rupiah bemo rides totaling perhaps 60 minutes, but had been waylaid just 100 meters into the journey. “Listen,” I said, “you’re GOING to Gianyar – you told me that 30 seconds ago. I give you 8000 rupiah, ya? Real price.”
No, I stop here for sleeping, really!” He mimed someone luxuriantly napping. “Not going Gianyar. No. You get out here.”
“Whatever,” I said, “I’m staying.”
He stood in the sun by the roadside, shuffling his feet and picking at the leaves of an overhanging tree, scowling and clearly agitated. From time to time he made elaborate futile gesticulations at potential passengers, like a 3rd-base coach flashing steal signs.
It is a curious bit of psychology that a person living on perhaps $10 a day will refuse one of those dollars because he would rather have two in its place, but here in Bali, that was not just a possibility, but a governing principle. In a solid calendar month in Indonesia, I had never once been quoted the proper price for a journey by a public bus operator, and I mean this sincerely: not even a single time. The going rate was usually double, but sometimes triple or more, and operated under a dual aegis – that of perceived ignorance on the one hand (“Well, I guess it could be 30,000…”) and of tired resignation on the other (“Jesus, just pay him the extra dollar!”). Today, however, having eaten well and having double-checked the correct fare (and having been consistently scammed by nearly everyone for fully 30 days) I was in no hurry.
The driver sweltered in the sun for perhaps 25 more minutes, his face beaded with sweat, before climbing back into the driver’s seat and starting off along the road to Gianyar, where, arriving, he grudgingly accepted the 8000 rupiah and pointed me towards the street on which the second bemo to Padangbai would stop. I clambered aboard that bemo not 10 minutes later, quickly winding thru the town of Klungkung and onto the coast highway, which was the point at which things turned suddenly ugly.
Please understand, I’ve never been one of those travellers obsessed with getting the ‘local price’. In towns with an established two-tier pricing system (I’m thinking the boats on Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala), or at attractions with a special ‘foreigner entrance ticket’, I’ve happily paid the extra charge, knowing that the community as a whole has agreed on this system; and for quantities like lodging or taxi rides I’m more than content to do a bit of haggling, knowing that it’s just a part of that business.
In Bali, though, it was simply greed. The price of necessities like bottled drinking water were quoted at outrageous levels and then tediously bargained down, and public bus operators (a field sacrosanct even in rapacious India) considered what they thought the market would bear, and then optimistically added 100%.
This is why, when the bemo’s moneyman shoved my 8000 rupiah back towards me and demanded double, I simply said, ‘no.’
“Fifteen!” he hissed, “Fifteen!”
“But it isn’t. That’s the point.”
“Friend,” a man next to the driver started in, “This is just small money for you, ya? Not so much for you…”
“But that isn’t the point: the price is 8000.”
The moneyman barked at the driver, who pulled the bus to the side of the road.
“We take you to police, ya?”
“Sure. Police. Great.”
The man next to the driver was cooing, “Friend, 8000 is not so much, just a dollar, you have small money…”
“You did not hear me. The point is that you are dishonest. Anda tidak jujur, yes? You. Are. Dishonest.”
At the side of the road, a sign read, PADANGBAI 7KM.
“We go police!” the moneyman howled.
The bus did not move. I grabbed my bag and headed out the door, into the blinding sunlight of the coast highway.
I walked two of those seven kilometers, then, my sandals scuffing through the grass at roadside as other buses or bemos or taxis would stop from time to time, quoting a ludicrous price in the hundreds of thousands for the seven minute journey down the coast road. It made me more determined to walk.
Finally, a man in a dirty lemon-yellow van drove up. He rolled alongside me for a hundred yards or more, talking out the window, prices falling further and further from the heights.
“Four, he said, finally, “Four.”
I blinked at him through the sunlight and then climbed in.
“That sounds like an honest answer.”
It’s difficult to know what to make of such an incident; in what scale do we judge it, and not see its dimensions totally deranged? Am I some itinerant Walter Sobchek (“It’s about drawing a line in the sand, Dude!”), abusing an impoverished local people with his inflated sense of righteousness, or are the mendacious public bus-men of greater Bali just an evil, reverse-exploiting horde? Should I have done what most do and just give in to the demands, or am I some kind of shining knight standing up for travelers everywhere? Could it be that bemo drivers are really Robin-Hoods, taking the wealth of the unworthy and giving it to those in greater need? Are members of a developing-world society entitled to overcharge the comparatively rich who visit them? And are those visitors likewise entitled to refuse, even at the cost of significant inconvenience?
Today was one of those days in travel where difficulty comes without any easy answer.