The unbearable kindness of strangers, part 2

Martabak cooking in a street stall

I was introduced to Matarbak and Terang Bulan when I went to the night market in Pekutatan. Matarbak is a savoury dish, it’s an egg and vegetable mixture wrapped in a thin dough and then fried. Terang Bulan is a big thick pancake; I like the ones that are flavoured with condensed milk and chocolate. So. Good.

I’m back in Canggu now, and I asked around to find out where I could buy some. I learned there’s a stall about 15 minutes drive away, so I went for a Matarbak run with the young man who gave me a scooter driving lesson, Danny. We picked up our Martabak and Danny asked if I wanted to go to Kuta to eat it. “Sure!” I replied, not realising Kuta was a good hour of hurtling along highways and back streets away. I don’t know if we ever got to Kuta, because somewhere along the way I spotted a night-market and asked if we could take a look. Danny and I wandered around together, he explained all the foods to me, while I marveled at fighting fish encased in tiny jars, and tiny children caged in mini ferris-wheel type rides.

Danny became entranced by a western tourist busking on a darbuka in the middle of the markets. We’d been watching the busker for 5 minutes or so, when Danny turned to me and said “I’ve never seen a busker here before”. We watched a little longer, and Danny gave the busker some money. The busker was a barefoot hippy type; dressed in ragged clothes, with a wild-eyed, ‘blissed out on mania’ look about him. At one point Danny asked me, “Do you think something wrong?” I shrugged and shook my head. To me, the guy looked like he’d fled the comfort of a middle-class suburban upbringing he could return to at any time. “Probably. I don’t know,” I replied, not knowing how to explain that the guy might be playing ‘slumming it with the plebs’.

Danny approached the busker and started talking to him whilst I stood back and watched. I was horrified and bemused to see Danny offer the busker the box of martabak we’d picked up earlier. At that point in time, all I knew of Danny was that he worked and lived at his boss’s scooter shop. I’m reluctant to pry into how much he earns, but I know it’s very, very little. The busker refused the martabak (thank god), and I heard Danny ask if he’s ok, and where he is staying. The busker pulled out a very nice DSLR and started showing Danny pictures. When Danny returned to me, I asked what they were talking about. Danny shook his head and hadn’t understood, “crazy foreigners” he laughed. I couldn’t stop laughing as we continued our tour of the market.

Eventually, we returned to the scooter and took off to a park to eat our Martabak. Whilst we were eating I queried Danny about his life. His father had died when he was very young, and he’d been kicked out of home by his step-father. He’d left home with $400,000 rupiah (about $40) and gone to Java. At one stage, when he ran out of money, he had to sell a mobile phone he owned and got $400,000 rupiah. He slept rough then got a job selling bread, and his boss didn’t pay him. I don’t know how he got the job he has now, but he lives with his boss, and it sounds like a difficult life. They rent out scooters, and sometimes the tourists don’t return them, and/or don’t pay, and they have to go looking for the scooter. Danny told me of an instance where a scooter had turned up in Ubud (a couple of hours away), and Danny had to go there twice to find it. Another time, a scooter was left submerged in water for hours after an accident, and another time a guy tried to take a bike to Lombok. Apparently though, Danny’s boss is a maniac who will get violent if you try to cross him. Danny’s looking for another job.

Danny spent quite a lot of time explaining how some Indonesians will try to rip off tourists. For example, once, someone crashed a bike which cost his boss $35,000 rupiah (about $35.00) to fix, but he charged the tourist $750,000 rupiah ($75.00). Danny was outraged, and felt it was dishonest. He talked about how he would never do that himself, that if he has enough to eat each day, it’s enough. I was completely gobsmacked. On the one hand I fell in love with his honesty, his integrity, and his ethics, and on the other, I was horrified by his naiveté. I wanted to say “$35.00 is one hour of work for me” but I didn’t want to make him feel stupid. I said, “You’re very ethical and I admire your honesty, but please don’t worry too much about the tourists, ok?”

I’ve written before about how, when I’m traveling, the kindness of strangers absolutely floors me. Danny paid for the Martabak, and the petrol, and absolutely refused my offer to pay. I’m always a little perplexed when this happens; I can never understand why people are so lovely to me. I initially assume they must want something from me, and then feel guilty about that assumption when all they are doing is being kind. I think that assumption stems from internalising capitalism’s ethos that people are always out to get something. I feel marred by the suspicion.

I find travel to developing countries somewhat morally dubious. I have a very close friend, who, when she travels, demands to pay ‘local prices’, I don’t know what the theory behind doing that is? Something about the locals not being corrupted by tourism… But for me, I know the only reason I can afford to visit these places is because the people are poor. I attempt to mitigate that by (trying) to eat in restaurants owned by locals, I stay in cheap hotels, and this time, I’m staying in home-stays to try to ensure my dollars are going to local people.

I think, once again, I’m stressed out by the inequality I see here. It’s so fundamentally unfair that these Balinese/Indonesian people provide all this luxury to people like me when they aren’t able to afford it themselves. I don’t know what to do for my young friend to repay him for our night out, any suggestions?

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