(Column 12 in a 45-column series about Joan's bicycle trip around the world).
Holding Millions in Bali
Despite Currency Crisis
By JOAN INDIANA RIGDON
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL INTERACTIVE EDITION
SINGARAJA, Indonesia -- By the time we landed in this island nation, the
Indonesian currency had plummeted to 11,000 rupiah to the U.S. dollar,
down from around 3,000 rupiah in October.
A few days later it hit 17,000 rupiah. Now it's at 9,300 rupiah.
When a currency craters like that, people usually get mad. They riot over price hikes, hoard food and
shout nasty things about the elderly president, especially when presidential elections are just a month away.
That's what people are talking about on Java. So Eric and I were a little
jumpy when we started bicycling here on Bali, the Maui-sized,
Maui-shaped tourist island of three million people just a few miles off
Java's east coast.
The Balinese seemed jumpy, too. At the airport, after we walked past a sign promising
the death penalty for anyone bringing drugs or guns into the country, we met an immigration
official who frowned at our plans to stay for 60 days. He kept asking if we
were really tourists. "I hope you're not planning to work," he said, twice.
I didn't say so, but at first look, I hoped not either, since the most I could
hope to make here would be about $100 a month.
It's one thing to read about a "currency crisis." But it didn't hit me how
serious the problem was until Eric and I became millionaires. The day after
we arrived we swapped $100 for 1.04 million rupiah.
The brick of bills we got back was bigger than a paperback book. Looking over our shoulders the
whole time, we had to stuff it into several pockets.
Then we went on a spending spree, helped by scores of Balinese who trailed us wherever we
went, yelling, "Halo [Hello], Transport?," "Halo Room, Room?," "Halo, Snorkeling?" We rented
hotel rooms for the equivalent of $1.50 a night, including banana crepe breakfasts, ate in fancy
restaurants for 75 cents each, and bought dresses, shirts and batik sarongs for 20 cents to a buck apiece. (All of
these prices are based on our exchange rate of 11,400 rupiah to the dollar.)
Even imports are cheap. Film works out to $3 a roll (and so does
developing). Four Energizer AA batteries cost 50 cents. "I feel like I'm
stealing," Eric said one day, after he bought a well made short-sleeve,
cotton, button-down shirt for a buck and change.
The Balinese people don't seem bitter. So far, no matter how the rupiah
gyrates, everyone yells, "Halo! Where you go?" as we ride by. One guy
was so friendly he trailed us in a van for 15 minutes, begging us loudly and
incessantly to take a 30-cent ride with him to the next town. Unfortunately
he snarled traffic, forcing other cars to nearly run us down to get by. I had
to scream to get him to scram.
I actually had a nightmare about this: A few days earlier, I woke up from a
dream where I was screaming "Pergi! Pergi!" which means "Go Away!"
The dream scared me, but I thought it was a good sign I was dreaming in
The smiles come easy here. We get them from women carrying
television-sized rocks on their heads, and from wide-mouthed school
children who look like they stepped out of a toothpaste ad. Even people
burdened with huge baskets of roosters on the sides of their motor
scooters manage to throw us a friendly look.
It's not just us. Most everything gets a friendly look here, since the Balinese,
who practice their own brand of Hinduism, believe God is everywhere.
Many Balinese women spend several minutes or even hours each morning
weaving intricate little baskets from coconut leaves. They fill the baskets
with flower petals, rice and incense and then lay the offerings everywhere
God might be. We've seen them on sacred statues, in the middle of the
road, and even on computers in Bali's handful of
tourist-oriented Internet access offices.
Based on personal experience, I must say that if God is in computers, God
must be that Big Guy with the Bad Temper from the Old Testament. And
judging by the glacial speed of the Internet connections here, the offerings
The vendors and inn keepers seem nice, too. They usually smile and joke
as they sell. Of course, many of them are smiling because they figure
they're ripping us off by charging us a nickel or a dime more than they
charge the locals.
'I Love Rupiah'
They even laugh abut the rupiah. At a shadow puppet show for tourists,
one puppet won snickers between acts when he performed one-handed
push-ups, counting like this: 1, 2, 3, 100, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 15,000,
one dollar ..." I asked several people if they "love" the rupiah in accordance
with the government's new "I Love Rupiah" campaign.
To show your affection, residents are supposed to swap any U.S. dollars
they've been hoarding for rupiah, and conduct business only in rupiah. That
may sound standard, but it isn't in Indonesia. Several fancy hotels and
some Jakarta office buildings price rent in U.S. currency.
Most people were a little wishy-washy about their currency love. The man
who ran an Internet computer-rental service in the town of Ubud was
downright fickle. He said he did love the rupiah, "but for awhile, I loved the
A waiter named Dewi was more devoted. "I must love my rupiah," he
intoned, sincere and big-eyed as Jimmy Stewart ever was on the big
screen. But the feeling melted in the next instant. "Because I have no
dollar!!!" he screamed. Then he doubled over into a shrill fit of hysteria.
Of course, we met a few traitors, whose names shall remain secret. We
agreed to pay one painter for some of his work partly in dollars. "I will
keep a secret from my government," he said, shoving Andrew Jackson into
All joking aside, I kept waiting for someone to shoot us, if only for the
$100 emergency cash we keep stashed in our gear. One day, I thought it
might happen. As Eric and I rode on the southeastern coast, I spotted a
little boy holding a huge rifle, its barrel pointed vaguely into the road. Heart
thumping, I raced past. I was still shuddering when Eric told me it was a
toy air gun.
Another time, as we lazed in a two-story bamboo beach cottage we
had rented for $3 a night in the fishing village of Padangbai, I heard several
serious sounding announcements over loudspeakers. "How do we
know they're not saying, 'Please evacuate the village. We are about to
shoot the tourists,' ?" I asked Eric. He pointed out that we were right next
to a ferry terminal, and the voice was announcing the comings and goings
Now I've calmed down. Two weeks into our cycling tour here, I've
concluded that most Balinese don't hate us. They're just a little irked. One
day, after we paid 100,000 rupiah to develop three rolls of film in Ubud,
the cashier told us she makes only 90,000 rupiah a month. She called us
"lucky tourists," with an edge to her voice. She told us the price of rice has
recently doubled to 2,000 rupiah a kilo.
But as we practiced our phrasebook Indonesian on her, she warmed up
and invited us to sit down. Personally, I think I won her over with my most
popular sentence, "Nene saya dari Philippines." That literally means my
grandmother is from the Philippines, which is true. But more importantly it
means, "I got my black hair from a gene pool near you." People like that
We ended up showing her our photos and telling her about our travels in
Australia. We got a crash course in Balinese home economics from the
photo lady, several waiters, the seditious painter, and a few government
workers we met on the road. It helped that all of them had to study English
for several years in school. The bottom line is, based on what they told us,
I'd rather be a working Indonesian in Bali during a currency crisis than a
Silicon Valley computer grunt with a fistful of gold Visa credit cards any
day of the week.
Beauty for a Steal
Forget about Bali's beaches, coral reefs and the fact that it costs only 20
cents a day to support a fierce coffee habit. Forget that the place is so
relaxed they have just one word, lusa, for "the day after tomorrow." And
never mind that the Balinese like to wave hello with five fingers at a time,
compared to the one-fingered waves so common on the highways back
Bali's appeal, even now, seems to be a matter of math. First of all, Bali sure doesn't look broke.
Although several airlines have canceled flights to Indonesia, plenty of tourists are still here,
dropping all sorts of dollars. The day after we arrived, a U.S. Navy ship docked at Kuta Beach,
driving up the price of drinks and baubles, thus guaranteeing the education of generations of Kuta
children to come.
The same day, when Eric and I were in Denpasar trying to change money, Bank Bali clerks turned
us away near closing time because they were too busy counting bricks of
Ben Franklins. More than 20 bricks lay akimbo across the counting desk,
which lay unprotected by any counter. That's more than $200,000 in
American greenbacks, the most money I have ever seen in one place.
The Balinese people don't look broke either -- not the ones we saw in
cities, villages, roadsides, or cheap local buses. At least not yet. In fact,
unlike most of the people in my old neighborhood, the average Balinese
family apparently makes more than they spend.
The salaries don't sound like much. We met a government family-planning
worker who is happy with his 200,000 rupiah a month. An Ubud waiter
said he makes 300,000 rupiah a month. And a government auditor, who
earned his master's degree on an Indonesian government scholarship to
Australia, said he makes 800,000 rupiah a month.
But expenses are low. Here's where I get jealous. In Bali's high-rent
district, the provincial capital of Denpasar, our government-auditor friend
told us he rents a 1,400-square foot house for two million rupiah a year, or
167,000 a month -- around $20.
Outside Denpasar, rents are cheaper. Cheapest of all are the villages,
where many families live, albeit modestly, on land that's been in their family
for generations. True, most Balinese have a bucket of water and a hole in
the floor instead of a shower and toilet. And the homes aren't wired. Some
have satellite dishes, but few have phones.
Even our auditor friend says he just uses his computer off-line because it's
too much hassle to get a phone line. But there is an upside. Nobody calls
him during dinner to sell him magazines.
Transportation is cheap too. To get around, the Balinese walk, bicycle, or
pay government-subsidized bemos -- jitney buses -- anywhere from a few
pennies to a dollar to go a few hundred yards or across the island.
Richer Balinese squish families of three or four onto single mopeds, which
cost 4.5 million rupiah new. Government subsidized gas costs 700 rupiah a liter,
or about 25 cents a gallon.
Food is a worry. Shopkeepers told us they have stopped replenishing
stocks of more expensive items, like milk, which have risen by 36% in the
past few weeks. They're hoping if they wait, the prices will come back
down. According to the Jan. 5 Jakarta Post, overall food prices have
jumped by 10.1% in January alone.
People don't seem to be panicking here yet. The doubling of the price of
rice has hurt people like the Ubud photo developer. But other people say
it's not too bad. That's partly because around one in four Indonesians work
for the government, and receive a rice subsidy as part of their pay: 10 kilos
of rice per family member per month, up to 40 kilos per month.
One government worker said the rice, which comes from Thailand and
Taiwan, is sometimes inferior; he mixes in some Indonesian rice to make it
Konang, a spiky-haired, family planning worker we met in Amlapura, said
he has no fears the government will trim the rice subsidy anytime soon. And
he said the government is still providing free contraception to all
Indonesians, as well as small funds to start microbusinesses in little villages.
In fact, Konang said his biggest worry is about his own wheels. In light of
the rupiah crash, he no longer expects the government to quickly deliver on
its promise to provide every family planning worker with a motor scooter
they can use to visit villages. Konang said he and his compadres kept
asking after their wheels right up until December. "Now we are keeping
quiet," he said.
Of course, the worst may be yet-to-come. Food prices still haven't
stabilized. And last month, the government announced plans to start scaling
back its fuel subsidy starting in April. For the moment though, the Balinese
are still waving and smiling as Eric and I ride by and laze around their
In two weeks, we've ridden only 20 or 50 miles every third or fourth day,
for a total of 203 miles here.
We plan to spend just a few more days here to see if expected massive
layoffs lead to serious rioting on Java. If not, we plan to ferry to Java.
Otherwise, we may skip ahead to Sumatra.
In an experience that brought back flashbacks of Costa Rica, Eric and I
tried and failed to connect the Newton here. We couldn't use our mobile
phone, because we can only use it with a prepaid calling card, and those
cards aren't for sale on Bali yet. (They're supposed to arrive sometime this
month. Meanwhile, we hear we can buy them on Java).
So we tried a land line. We went to a "wartel," or telephone office, where
you can call anywhere in the world and pay after you're done. We hooked
up the Newton to the wartel's phone and called CompuServe's Jakarta
access number, which we had looked up on CompuServe's Web page. A
computer answered, but wouldn't let us log in.
After several more failures I called CompuServe technical assistance in the
U.S. (one five minute call to the U.S. costs the same as three nights of
luxury beach accommodation here). They gave me another access number.
That didn't work either.
I called back and got a nice guy named Christopher in Tulsa, Okla. I asked
him if I had to key-in any special passwords to access the network in
Jakarta (in Costa Rica, as you may recall, I couldn't connect because I
didn't know I was supposed to key in several long, secret passwords to
enter the network there).
Gamely, Christopher looked up the answer on his computer. He said not
to worry, it wouldn't take long because he had a T-1 line. But of course his
computer crashed during the search.
Then he tried again. To access from Indonesia, he said, reading from his screen,
I should "follow the -." I got all excited. But Christopher stopped talking. It turned out
those were the end of the instructions. His computer simply said "follow the"
followed by a blank. He apologizE. Now CompuServe is batting zero-for-two in developing countries.
To transmit this column, I had to take a bus across Bali to Ubud, where
I've retyped it on a rented Internet-access computer.
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