When we first got to Lovina, Bali I was overwhelmed by how many people approached us with things to sell. They do not approach with the casual “are you finding everything ok?” that I was taught to approach customers with back when I worked retail jobs. Everyone here speaks English fairly well, and the first words they learn are the ones that will get you to buy something. “I have the price for you. You like my sarong? Sarong? Yes?” We are met with a new offer every five steps, so I have learned to reply with a simple but polite “No thank you.” It would be fine if that was the entire exchange, but there is usually a flood of responses that follow.
“Where are you staying? How long have you been here? You don’t need a sarong? Maybe you need a taxi. My brother has a taxi he will take you anywhere you want to go. Where do you want to go? You won’t buy today; maybe tomorrow? I hope you change your mind and if you do, you remember me ok? I see you tomorrow? You buy tomorrow?”
Everyone has a job, and then a second job receiving a commission for every sale they make for someone else’s business.
I quickly realized that this is the industry standard. The beach is full of people with things to sell and everyone has a compelling story that will break your heart. “I’m sorry I come to you but this is my job. I have not made any sales yet today and this is very bad for me.” Then, when the men and women leave you saying “ya, but you buy tomorrow?” the children approach. This is the most heart-breaking of all. They barely know any English but they know how to say “Hello, what is your name?” We respond and ask them their name, but they do not understand that much so they move on to the next sentence they’ve memorized. “A bracelet for your daughter sir?” Drew replies that he doesn’t have a daughter, but they don’t understand. They only understand “Yes” and “No thank you.” On one occasion, Drew tried to offer to buy something for the children instead of buying something from them, but they only understand the sentences they have practiced. “Can I buy you a pineapple juice? Y’know? Do you like pineapple?”
Often times we try to say “No thank you” and then jump into conversation. We try to get beyond “customer” and “salesman” but people want to make a sale. I can never blame them of course. As the woman said, it’s just her job. It makes me walk away feeling unsettled: so many people are asking me for help I cannot give.
I began to wonder if the people here were poor. I wondered how much they needed tourists like me.
Lately however, as we’ve been here long enough to become familiar to the people around us, we have successfully gotten past the “customer/salesman” dynamic. We’ve successfully found the place where the locals eat lunch, so we’ve adopted it as our place to eat lunch too. It doesn’t necessarily have a name, or none that I can see on a sign and it doesn’t have four walls either, really. It is just a hole-in-the-wall kind of place with plastic benches, but a wonderful one at that where a woman named Lu cooks a few dishes in the morning, then serves them with rice all day. Lu is a friendly woman. She has nothing to try to sell us while we are sitting in her restaurant already eating her food, so we can skip the usual exchange and talk about her beautiful home of Bali or her favorite Balinese dishes to cook. She likes my curly hair and she thinks it’s funny that we don’t drink anything when we eat. Her favorite local food to eat is a dish made with tiny fish and peanuts. It feels wonderful to know these little things: to be more than a customer and to see her as more than a sales-woman. Though my knowledge of Lu is still minimal, I smile when I see her in town and think of her as a friend.
This restaurant has served us well not only by providing wonderful rice dishes, but also by giving us a better context within which to interact with locals. A few days ago we made a friend named Yoman at our lovely hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It was our first lunch at the restaurant and we must have looked confused as we surveyed the new foods. Yoman immediately began explaining what our options were, pointing out the tempe tofu and the fried peanuts. As we ate in the small space together, we began to talk with Yoman. He told us about his village just outside of town, in the mountains where he helped his family with cattle. He explained how Balinese people are given names based on their birth-order. For instance, the name Yoman means that he is the third born. We asked if he enjoyed Lovina; if he had ever left.
“Yes, he likes Lovina because he can afford to live there. Yes, he had been to villages just outside of Lovina, but not further.” He taught us a few words in balinese; words which I have shamefully already forgotten. The conversation went on for quite awhile and it made me feel a little bit less like a stranger.
When Yoman got up to leave, he reached behind him for a wooden display case full of trinkets. As soon as I saw it, I was grateful for the way in which we met our new friend Yoman. We talk to Yoman every day now, and each time we have brief, but honest conversation, void of the back-and-forth sales pitches and the apologies that we give in reply. I know that if we had met Yoman on the beach where he sells his trinkets, we most likely wouldn’t have gotten any further than “no thank you. I’m sorry we can’t buy anything.” It is simply the nature of the trade.
The longer we stay here though, the more real conversations we have, even with those who started as determined sales men and women. One particularly determined women as softened her sales-pitch a bit since we paid her to take care of a broken backpack for us. She still tells us that she hopes we change our minds about buying a sarong from her, but only as an after-thought to other conversation.