Since touching down and going through the airport in Denpasar, Bali, I was reminded of the
challenges dilemmas of being a tourist-American in a developing country. The last time I faced the feelings I’m now having was when I went to the Dominican Republic during a college spring break with some girlfriends. I remember how weird and guilt-trippy I felt being in a resort where everyone was brown-skinned, in service to people, mostly white (except for me and my friends, but the American passport basically made us white), tourists. I couldn’t fully enjoy myself, especially when we went out to the town, outside of the resort, and saw how poor people were. And I mean Third World poor, not U.S. inner city poor.
According to wikipedia, tourism accounts for 80% of Bali’s economy. But interestingly, agriculture (which used to be the biggest moneymaker) employs the most people. Does that mean that tourism only really financially benefits a minority of the population? I wonder.
It’s a strange feeling driving and walking around Bali because one can’t be sure if things are there as a tourist attraction or because it’s naturally/ culturally there. For example, there are all these really interesting statues at various street roundabouts and randomly in the middle of an intersection. They have to do with the Hindu gods and religion. I’m not sure if those were built recently or have been around for 100s of years. Another example is all the batik shops and coffee plantations and woodcarving shops that exist, right next to each other for miles down a street. I can’t tell if those are traditional farms and crafts workshops or if they’ve been built just for tourists.
At any touristy site or area, there are women peddling their wares, begging you to buy a wooden pipe or plastic pinwheel. And all along the street in Ubud (which is a touristy area), men sit on the streetside with their buddies, waiting for tourists to walk by and asking, “Do you need a taxi?” or “Do you need a motorbike ride?” I mean, it’s relentless, the solicitation by the Balinese of the tourists. And of course, we’re all easy to identify– even me, of Asian descent– I have my backpack and walking shoes.
Everywhere I have been (granted, I AM a tourist, and I’ve only been to places accessible to tourists), there are signs that everything is for the tourists’ eyes and wallets. Signs in English EVERYWHERE; menus with Western food; souvenir shops EVERYWHERE (next to temples, rice paddies, farms).
I know that tourism is a big part of the economy here, and it hurts me to see the lengths people will go to make even a few thousand rupiah.
And as an American and a millionaire in this country (I’ve taken out 1 million rupiah from the ATM at a time– that’s only $100USD), I can’t help but want to buy things or tip extra, but I’m on a budget, too.
It’s amazing how you feel the relativity of things, like money, when you’re in a country where there’s a huge disparity with your own.
It makes me squirm when I see well-dressed older white women bargaining down a few thousand rupiah with a store clerk for a scarf or other little trinket. Come on, lady, it’s only a few dollars you’re bargaining down, and that few dollars is nothing off you, but it’s a lot for the Balinese.
I’m just like the next tourist who gets all excited that I got a meal today for about five US dollars or that I got a haircut for the same amount. I mean, who wouldn’t be excited at that kind of “bargain”? But I get the immediate pangs after that moment of excitement thinking, “Wow, what a different life.” My plane ticket from New Zealand to Bali was about $700USD. When I told my driver yesterday that (Balinese like to ask tourists how much we pay for things– I’m not sure if it’s just curiosity or their way of getting a sense of how “rich” you are or what… It makes me a little uncomfortable.), he said, “Wow, you could buy a used motorbike with that money.”
The few Balinese people I’ve talked to– taxi drivers, my guesthouse owners– have never traveled out of Bali before. What a contrast to the many travelers I met in New Zealand, most who were European, who had traveled to multiple countries, not just in Europe but around the world. I think Balinese folks can’t even conceive of how much money it would cost them to travel just outside of Indonesia. And these are hardworking people, too.
I guess what I’m getting at is this privilege that comes with being American, with having a blue U.S.A. passport. Something that one takes for granted until faced with the stark inequities in the world.
Do other travelers here in Bali notice that this culture is built up to serve First World tourists? Does it bother anyone else? Would it be better if I just traveled in countries where the currency is more on par with the U.S. dollar?
I think this is a big part of the reason (in addition to the weather) that I can’t fully enjoy this part of my travels. I’d much rather be helping in the guesthouse, working in a temple, doing something useful to help the people here…
I could go on about this topic, but I’ll leave it at that. Food for thought for you and me.