Unseasoned visitors to Bali, relieved they’ve safely negotiated Ngurah Rai’s fickle Customs and Immigration, suddenly get hit by the cacophony that’s Indonesia.
Still inside the terminal they have to pass a wall of money changers screaming rates.
These are almost the same and always lower than the offerings outside, particularly around Jalan Legian, Kuta’s boutique, bar and massage strip.
Here the rates swing so wildly smart travellers should go on red alert: How can the Australian dollar be worth 9,700 rupiah at the airport, anything from 9,999 to 10,499 in Kuta, while bank websites quote less?
In a mainstream bank the sale of 20 flawless Australian polymer $50 notes might yield Rp 9,900,000.
Not enough for the greedy. Two doors down chalkboards spruik rates 599 rupiah higher. Half a million extra in Bali goes a long way. Close to 20 beers – or an equal number of plates of nasi goreng.
Indonesian banks have security guards with truncheons, tellers who should be catwalk models and comfy seats to soften the corporation’s skills at gouging customers. (Disbelievers should check how much they’ll pay to buy back their dollars.)
So let’s do the Right Thing and give business to the little guys struggling in the backstreets.
A fine intention – but flashing above every smile and charming Om swastiastu greeting should be the ancient wisdom chiselled in granite – caveat emptor – buyer beware.
The scams work like this: The rates are disturbingly good and often end with an odd numbers, like 99 or 87. Let’s say you settle for 10,397.
The friendly agent puts your one thousand dollars on his desk which is wet with coffee stains and dusted with fag ash. So your notes have to be moved around a few times.
Figures are stabbed on a calculator. All agree – Rp 10,397,000. For first timers in the Republic this is an astonishingly big sum. Jokes about being a multi millionaire are made. Everyone laughs - some too enthusiastically.
A friendly lad saunters up. ‘Where you from?’ Even if you reply ‘North Siberia’, the response will be the same: ‘Then you know my friend, Mr John?’ A mother with a breastfeeding baby wants to touch your white skin. Others come to peer.
Meanwhile the teller is apologising for having so many old and grubby notes of such small denominations. ‘You know how it is Pak, lots of little businesses.’ A sympathetic nod and a few words.
So the 20, ten, five, two and one thousand rupiah notes get mixed while the foreigner tries to keep track.
Notes with a face value of Rp 2,000 look confusingly like Rp 20,000. How to spot a counterfeit? ‘No, no, all good.’ The tropical sun thrashes all beneath.
‘Aduh! There’s been a mistake, so sorry, we’ll have to count that pile again’. The baby starts to cry.
The patter continues. ‘What your job? You like Bali?’ ‘Nice batik – how much you pay?’
The chat is polite and earnest; it would be churlish not to engage the questioner. Which requires a fleeting disengagement from the transaction.
Suspicious foreigners looking for sleight of hand, a quick conjuring of notes into capacious sleeves, will be disappointed. Rio-style knifepoint robberies are not the way of doing things here..
The Kuta hucksters don’t need such coarse systems; they rely on you, the confused novice, allowing yourself to be scammed.
‘Please check. OK la?’ So many zeros, is this a ten or hundred thousand note? Other people are coming in the shop. A nearby mosque has turned up its speakers. Everyone is talking in a language you don’t understand; did someone say ‘sucker’?
Standing alone, straightening crinkled notes, fingering the grime, fearing germs. Trying to remember which pile seemed to have a 17,000 rupiah shortfall, saying how much you like Indonesians – suddenly it’s all too much and time to trust. It really is a lovely family.
‘Would Madam like an envelope? Be careful, there are many thieves in Kuta. Thank you for coming to our shop. Have a nice day.’ Everyone shakes hands.
Only back in the hotel with more than 400 notes spread across the bedspread do you realise you’ve been fleeced.
Where’s the receipt? Where was the money changer? Gang (lane) Six – or was it Nine? The left hand side of the alley? No, the right.
Even if steps are retraced the dealers will be absent and no-one will remember you. ‘Another shop, lady. Not here.’
Don’t expect sympathy – smug hotel staff will say you should have used their safe service – even though it offers only Rp 9,000 to the dollar. The police will imply you are stupid for not going to a bank or an authorized money changer who gives receipts along with a low rate. Consumer protection? Another joke, ya?
Not a Happy Hour, but you’ve learned the penalty for avarice. Chances are you’ve only lost a few hundred thousand, and what you’re left with was probably much like the hotel rate.
After all – you came to Bali to experience something different.
Duncan Graham is an Australasian journalist who lives in East Java. Once bitten in Bali he’s now doubly shy.
(First published in Indonesian Expat 24 August 2016)