Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Allure of the 'Local Price'

One thing that most travelers seem hell bent on getting is this: the ‘local price.’ People are obsessed about it. Fellow travelers always want to discuss it. It’s hard to have a conversation with other tourists without this figuring into the conversation. They just can’t help themselves. It’s like talking to a fellow American about where you’re from. When I say Tucson or Arizona I can bet money that sooner or later there’s going ask if it actually is that hot down there amongst the cactus and rattlesnakes. Or even better: “is it really a dry heat?”
Taking the daily 'local' boat from Bandaneira to Pulau Ai in the Banda  Islands. So much stuff in the boat, including Alli's out of place bag. Gunung Api, the volcano, looms in the background. I think they charged us $0.10 cent more than the local price, so what? Side note: it's also nap time. *** All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.
In discussing the ‘local price,’ I’m not talking about getting ripped off or scammed here. I’m talking about fellow tourists always wanting to make sure 100% that they’re paying the same fare as the Sumatran sitting next to them on a bus; forked over the identical amount to enter a regional park; even got the standard rate for a ride on a Malukan becak, an Indonesian three-wheeled bicycle-rickshaw. It’s the allure of the local price and if you make it your goal to always try and get it, you’ll probably drive yourself bonkers. Or at least turn into some bitter, paranoid tourist who’s always worried about getting swindled. And the worst part is, you pulled all your hair out and had a hissy fit over a couple of bucks.

Now, Alli and I are no expert travelers, we’ve been to a few places in Malaysia and a few more in Indonesia. We’ve also been to Singapore, but the local price there doesn’t matter cause everything’s expensive compared to their two neighbors I mentioned above. For this post I’m discussing Indonesia where to keep things simple, mostly everything can be negotiated and is not fixed, while in Malaysia it’s much different. Talk to travelers in Indonesia and they always want to know how much you paid for the bus to get here, for your room, to get into the national park, for a kilo or two of mangoes or rambutans, or god knows what else. A few times on Pulau Flores, the main gateway to Komodo, I was asked if we had gone to see the dragons. “Why yes we have” I’d enthusiastically reply. “How much was it” was usually their next question? I’d immediately think: are you serious? I was just on an island containing the largest lizard on earth, which can kill prey 10 times its size and easily ambush and digest myself, and you’re inquiring about the cost? I should have answered: “Priceless.”

A becak driver in Kota Ambon. It's a bicycle with a seat for two in front. Quite a jolly ride! He's surrounded by motorbikes. There's always an ojek who can take you somewhere on one of these. Hold on to your hat though!
The mystical, alluring local price mostly revolves around transportation and accommodation, especially the former. Fares for all kinds of transpo: long distance and regional buses, bemos (minivans that zip around cities, you can hop on or off wherever, usually at set prices), taxis, ojeks (motorbikes that one or two people can hop on), the aforementioned becaks, and any kind of boat under the sun when you need to get from point A to point B. The problem with getting the local price is in the description, we ain’t locals. We aren’t Indonesian, we aren’t Malaysian, or Asian. We’re foreigners and considering Alli and I are white Americans we also stick out pretty easily. This present hairdo of mine isn’t helping.

The other problem with it is that since we are tourists we are equated with having boatloads of money. It doesn’t matter if I was a brain surgeon at the University of Arizona living in the Catalina Foothills, or a field grunt tracking down Gila monsters and renting an apartment. To the casual observer I’m rich, no matter what my profession and tax bracket say back in the U.S. Whether Americans are better off besides monetarily is another socio-cultural question for another time, remember Biggie's mantra: mo' money, mo' problems. Parts of Indonesia are very economically poor: no reliable electricity or any at all, no clean drinking water, no adequate sanitation, and no waste disposal. A lot of people live on $2-3 USD per day. A friendly stranger that strikes up a conversation with me and learns that I quit my job and don’t have one to go back to so I could come out to their country to gawk at lizards, scuba dive, sweat up a volcano and stare at colorful birds might think I’m weird, on my honeymoon, or maybe even a missionary. But regardless of all that, I’ve got dough.

Indonesia bemo in Kota Ambon. These are mini-buses and are everywhere in Indonesia, always going someplace. Some are much more elaborately decorated than this one, especially in Sumatra.
The real part about the local price that pisses me off is how cheap everything is out here already.  At our hotel last month in Kota Ambon a fellow tourist was grumbling about how he paid $7,000 Indonesian Rupiah for a bus ride when he knew the local going rate was 5,000. This might sound like a lot until you realize $7,000 Rp is $0.70 US. Yup, 70 cents. He lost a total of 20 cents. I wish Justin Timberlake could have told him to cry a river. You hear it everywhere: this bus cost $5 more than it should have, or the ojek ride should have been a dollar or two less. People try to haggle costs down a lot, same goes for hotel rooms, too. I find all this exhausting and utterly boring.

We’re in a country that’s comprised of 18,000+ islands, every religion under the sun, some truly exquisite flora and fauna, the tastiest satay I’ve ever had, and you wanna jibba-jabba about price differences. Come on. Enjoy yourself. Part of the reason we’re here is to boost local economies, not strong arm people. I also have a bone to pick with folks that get a high off haggling down the ojek or bus drivers, or guilt tripping the hotel into giving them a discount because they’re staying multiple days. Ease up. Its one thing to haggle for those bootleg headphones in the market, but beating down an ojek driver to accept a dollar less is unnecessary. Every traveler needs to be aware of what certain prices are so they don’t get scammed or totally taken, but thinking every Indonesian is out to wring you of Rupiah is just sad. These people need to make a living and copping a condescending attitude cause you are some ‘important’ tourist doesn’t give you a cool story to tell or make me envious of your penny-pinching skills. I’d say it makes you an ass clown.

Taking the boat back to Bandaneira from Pulau Ai. It was a banana cargo morning.
I’ve came to this conclusion about the local price, and now I’ve gone on this rant (isn’t that what blogs are for though?), because I used to be knee-deep in the allure. I had to get the local price. I was on a mission to not get ripped off. At least that’s what I told myself. Then when Alli and I visited Sumatra last September I had a little episode. We found out after arriving in Harau Valley that our ride out should have been $20-30,000 Rp less than what it was. I was furious. I was embarrassed in front of the jolly homestay worker. I got mad at Alli because we let the driver dupe us. We got in a silly argument. I huffed and puffed sitting on our front porch, with rice paddies in the foreground and a misty, long waterfall coming off a vertical rock face behind me.

Getting worked up in this place? Now that was just silly.
Alli ignored me for awhile. I thought about it. We lost $2 or 3 USD. Two or three bucks! I’ve wasted thirty times that in Bookmans in less than an hour (one doesn’t need Stephen Still’s entire catalogue on vinyl). I was in Sumatra’s version of Yosemite Valley, surrounded by waterfalls, rice paddies and lily ponds with calling frogs. I was mad over an amount that couldn’t even get Alli and me a Sonoran hot dog each in Tucson. I calmed down. I relaxed. I let go. Later on the local fried chicken and rice with peanut sauce went splendidly well with the scenery. The late lunch for the both of us ran $4 USD. Was that the local price? I don’t know. I never asked.


  1. I love this post! Miss you guys a crap-ton!

    1. Tara! We miss you too. Glad you dug the post, cause I had fun ranting on and writing it. Hope all is well with your stateside.