Tales From Indonesia – Part II
Sometimes, it feels like everyone is trying to scam you. All the time. They spot a backpack or a nice camera in your hand, and immediately see dollar signs on your forehead. Don’t get me wrong. I think there are definitely more honest, genuinely kind people out there in the world than not, but usually the ones that actively and aggressively try and go out of their way and help you are the ones you have to look out for as a traveler.
I’ve been caught in my fare share of scams over the years, especially in the beginning. On the road, there’s a large learning curve when it comes to figuring out who you can trust and when to go with your gut. A sort of travel street smarts, if you will. That kind of knowledge only comes with experience and going through the pains of being scammed a few times. It happens to the best of us. Luckily, I was never duped for any large sums of money. Usually just a taxi or bus driver demanding an extra dollar more than the original agreed upon amount. Or paying 3 times the price for a little leather bracelet than the local person behind me was about to pay – nothing too crazy.
However, I did have one close call in Beijing that gave me a bit of a scare. I was lured into a bar by some friendly locals. At least, they appeared to be friendly. Immediately getting a bad vibe from the situation, I asked my new “friends” if we could check out another bar. This one was fairly empty. They immediately ordered a bunch of drinks and a very, very expensive pot of tea. I was told to pay the equivalent of around $300, even though I hadn’t ordered a thing. This is called a tea scam. I’d heard of them, but never actually saw it coming because it happened so fast. The bouncer slyly blocked the door so I couldn’t leave, and then I realized I was alone in a back alley bar about to get taken for all the money on my person.
What to do? A combination of adrenaline and an overwhelming urge to rationalize the situation quickly kicked in. So, I tried to talk my way out of it by calmly and logically telling them that what they do to tourists is wrong. I poured the guilt on so thick, I was sure that after this encounter they would change their ways and make an honest living. It didn’t work. They still wanted the money. So I stood there, not moving, not saying anything. So did they. It was a standoff. Obviously, if the bouncers had made any sort of aggressive movements towards me I would have given them the money. Bodily harm is not worth a few hundred dollars. But they didn’t. They occasionally asked me to pay, to which I simply replied “No”. After 30 minutes, the bartender nodded to the bouncer and he stepped aside. I walked out the door. After that experience, I became extremely wary of excessively friendly locals that spoke perfect English.
The next stop on my two week journey across Java was a bustling town called Yogyakarta. A center for art, education and culture, it has a lot of neat little shops and cafes that cater to tourists. More importantly, an incredible temple is just a short bus ride outside of town. Borobudur is a Buddhist stuppa and temple complex dating back to the 8th century. It is the single largest Buddhist structure anywhere in the world, with its most distinguishing feature being the huge bell statues at the top of the temple overlooking a smoking volcano in the distance. After deciding not to pay extra for the organized tour my hostel offered and walking around the temple on my own, I realized this may have been one tour I should have paid for. I couldn’t understand any of the stories the carvings on the walls depicted nor appreciate the history of the place. I quickly made my way to the top of Borobudur just as the sun was coming up over the horizon, giving me perfect lighting for the shot seen above.
Then, these three school girls dressed in traditional shawls and sarongs approached me, asking if they could give a free tour of the temple. They spoke really good English and were overly friendly. The Beijing flashbacks came in waves and I tried to politely brush them aside. They were persistent and followed me for a few minutes, whispering and giggling behind me. Finally I turned and asked why they would give a free tour, when they could easily stand at the entrance to Borobudur and find a tourist to pay them. The reply? They were “tour guides in training” and wanted to practice giving tours in English so they could pass their exams. All I had to do was sign my name and date on a little piece of paper, vouching that they had indeed given me a full English guide of the temple. Seemed harmless enough and they even agreed to pose for a picture commemorating the moment.
I spent the next couple hours listening to the fantastical tales and history behind the carvings around Borobudur and even gained a couple pen pals out of the day. Every so often I get a short email from the girls, asking about my travels and updating me on the progress of their schooling. I can’t help but look at this photo and those cheeky smiles and think, “I’m glad I gave them a chance.” Not everyone is out to take your money. It’s important to remember that while on the road. You could miss out on amazing experiences. Sometimes, they’re just nice people that want to practice English with a foreigner. And also pass some exams.
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