the nothing whatever...

Maybe Later

I made a resolution with myself that I was not going to purchase anything from the kids selling bracelets and sarongs and T-shirts in Kuta Lombok. One reason is that I do not agree with it as a method of making money, using ones own children as fishing lures to try and catch unsuspecting sympathetic westerners and, in doing so, abusing the best traits of civility and humanity. And also, giving in to these children is like needing to piss; you either hold it all in, or you let it all go, because once it starts it will not stop. It might sound heartless, but all-in-all, the acquisition of money is a heartless enterprise.

But, there is something about saying “no” to hoards of desperate children that weighs heavy on the soul. Even the substitute of “maybe later” carries with it the same level of dismissal, and is usually met by the angry and disappointed words “I know what maybe later means”. Gradually, over the course of the week I could feel my harsh facade wearing thin, and I became a bit angry that it was failing. I wondered whether or not these kids actually understood the emotional implications of what they were doing. Were they just being taught to see great big dollar signs whenever they looked at us? To them, we are just sentient beings that cannot feel any real guilt or shame, but when prodded with particular lines may be prone to dispense some cash. I began to feel that any interaction with them was, at its root, staged and impersonal, and it really did make me feel like shit.

It was particularly evident to me when we were both approached in “The Coffee House” by a girl named Sofia, and her younger brother of about 2 or 3 named Warren, both names invented to appeal to a western sense of familiarity. The conversation never starts with something that you can directly dismiss, so you are always obliged to converse with them despite the transparency of their intentions, and when she came over and asked our names we politely divulged them. She introduced her brother, told him to say his name, and he yelled at the top of his lungs “Warren” and then gave me a high-five.

She asked us where we are from, said she had always dreamed of going to Sydney to see the Opera House, and laughed awkwardly when I said that I had always dreamed of coming to Kuta Lombok. I asked her if they lived in Kuta, and she said that they didn’t, and that they live in a neighboring village and had to catch the “bus” in (I think the bus is just a truck with a trailer). I asked her if she was in Kuta today for school, and she said yes, so I asked her what her favorite subject was, and she said English. I asked her if Warren was old enough for school, she said that he had started this year. I didn’t really know why I was asking all these questions, I guess I just wanted to control the conversation and lead it as far away from the point of sale as possible. I wanted to see if I could make a more human connection with “Sophia” and “Warren”, make an impression that was not monetary, maybe with humor or with knowledge or even by offering food or drink. But, when I had run out of misdirecting questions to ask, there was a long pause, before she said to us “don’t think of it as buying, think of it as helping”.

I tried to explain my reasoning as to why I can’t, “if I give to you, I have to give to everyone, and I can’t give to everyone.” And, even despite my best efforts to knock down the emotional wall Sophia had put up in order to effectively perform her job as a salesperson, as soon as she saw that I was not going to budge, she rolled her eyes, said something in Bahasa to Warren, and walked past our table and around to some other patrons that were sitting in another area. But, the thing that really got to me was that as Warren followed, I smiled and said to him “seeya buddy” and held out my hand to high-five. And he left me hanging.

Maybe I am reading too deeply into the thoughts of a 3 year old, and maybe, in that moment, he just didn’t feel like high-fiving me. But it really grated on me. Here was a kid that could not have been older than 3, could not read or write and could probably barely count, and already he was being taught that time is money, and that somebody is only worth your time if the time invested is matched with an equally attractive financial payout. Kids don’t understand the difference between “business relationships” and “personal relationships”. To them, the more money they get, the more praise they receive, and conversely, not giving them money meant they would not receive praise, or worse still, be beaten. This same concept regressed into the thoughts of Warren; these people did not buy a bracelet, they are no longer our friends. It might be illogical, but I couldn’t help but think it was teaching a materialistic brand of hatred.

Despite this, I began to realize I wasn’t going to hold out for the week, and Nic and I made a decision that we would see what was left in our budget at the end of the week, and, on the Thursday, go on a spending spree. So, now when we were saying “maybe later”, it wasn’t an empty half-promise, it was a full half-promise, which made us feel slightly better.

There were three boys that approached us after the decision had been made, all at the same time, all with their individual racks of bracelets. Their names were Tom, Roberto and (a particularly unimaginative name) Mr. Boy. Tom seemed to be the alpha-salesman of the bunch, dissing his competitors inferior products and trying to entice a counter bid from me, sending me into stitches in the process. While Tom was working himself into a frenzy, Mr. Boy was sitting on the wall looking disinterested, and Roberto (who was the first to approach the table) watched on quietly and patiently, every now and then calling out Tom on a blatant exaggeration or outright lie, much to Tom’s irritation. I told them numerous times that we were not buying today because of our budget, and explained to them the plan that Nic and I had devised. Surprisingly, they all seemed like they understood, but still hung around us for a little while longer and cracked us up with their banter. Then, without pressing us again, said goodbye, and left us to our own devices.

Thursday came around, and in the afternoon, we decided to go down to “The Coffee House” and use their Wifi, as the Wifi at Yuli’s Homestay was unusable. We must have been seated for about half-an-hour before Roberto approached our table and in a timid voice said “you buy a bracelet, cheap price.” Nic looked at me, smiled, and cheekily said “come on Ben, you said you would.” I waved my hand for Roberto to give me a look at what he had, and his face lit up like it was Christmas. We bartered, I got him down to a price I thought was reasonable and he was the recipient of our cash.

As soon as Roberto caught wind of our honesty it was like a game of Chinese whispers, and before we knew it we had kids with bracelet boards surrounding our table in an arc formation. I didn’t care about the price that much, but I did want to buy as many as possible off as many kids as possible (some sort of illusion of fairness), so I was bartering with every one of them. If the entire globe relied on bartering as a means of trade, then I would have been extinct a long time ago, so it was actually a good learning experience, both for me and the kids. Conversations would go something like this:

KID1: Eight thousand for one.
ME: No, I bought that same one for three before.
KID1: It take me an hour to make.
ME: How long did it take him then? You should get tips from him.
KID1: OK, eight thousand for two, but this one easy so you take this one.
ME: I don’t want that one, I only want this one. OK, four for this one, that’s as high as I am going.
KID1: Five.
ME: Four.
KID1: Five.
ME: Four.
KID2 (appearing from nowhere): Mister, I have same and I give for four.
ME: You give for four? Let me have a look…
KID1: OK, OK, OK, four.
ME: Three.
KID1: OK, three.
ME: Done!

We distributed the wealth very effectively that night, and to be honest, had a bit of fun doing it. Although we did end up going over budget, it still pained me when I genuinely did run out of money in my wallet and saw the face of a little girl who got there just too late. She looked at me with big glazed eyes, and she just looked so sad. Like I said, once you start, there is no stopping.

I still don’t know whether our actions were motivated by a more unwholesome source, whether the self-satisfaction we felt in giving the kids money was the main driver. Maybe our sudden spending spree is a common thing in Kuta Lombok, just the consequence of a week of desperate kids punching the right buttons and pulling the heart strings. But either way, I felt happy flying out of Kuta Lombok knowing that the reason we had broken our budget was because we bought a meter of colored woven string.