The Chair and the Stool

I stood by the table, wallet in hand, waiting for the owner of the roadside restaurant to tally up our bill. Instead, he simply wrote the number 40 on the back of a scrap of paper. “Forty lira,” I asked “for kohvalti?” I was shocked. We shared a single plate of olives, vegetables, and cheeses along with a small fry pan of eggs and had two cups of tea each. It was a standard Turkish breakfast, the likes of which we’ve had a dozen times before, always included with the cost of our hotel. Hotel stays that often cost just 100 lira in total ($33 USD). I sighed, reached into my wallet and handed over the notes, $13 USD, along with a knowing, nodding smirk that let the gentleman know that, though I may not speak the language and couldn’t argue without resorting to histrionics, I knew damn well he was taking me for a ride.

That night, in the town of Kaman, Kristin and I sat down to a dinner of soup, salad, spicy adana kebab skewers with fries, Coca-Cola, and tea. Two of everything for the two hungry cyclists. The whole meal came to the equivalent of $11 USD. For every instance in which we felt we might have been getting overcharged, there were at least two or three times when we left a restaurant completely shocked about how much food we had been served for so little money. It all balances out in the end.

Matters of money and long-term independent travel go hand in hand. No matter what your budget, you can’t enjoy much of the latter without diligent tracking of the former. Kristin and I set out to stick to an average daily budget that we soon realized would be impossible for our preferred comfort level without spending a lot of time in less expensive countries. Front-loading our trip with North America and Europe, not to mention an unexpected five-week detour to pricey Japan, has yielded an average daily expenditure more than 50% over the unrealistic amount we budgeted for. Of course, that goal budget was essentially plucked out of thin air and “proved doable” on several short trips around Washington State. It’s easy to do without when you’re heading back to the comforts of home in a few days, less so when your trip is measured in months and years instead of days or weeks; harder still when wanting to indulge in the culinary delights of western Europe.

Wealth isn't a good indicator of how hard a person works.
Typical scene at the Ubud city market in Bali where hundreds of vendors supply all manners of food to the city’s residents.

But there we were, two Americans in Turkey and soon headed to Southeast Asia. Our financial tracking sheet showed our average daily spend dropping a little bit each day. And as it did, much to our delight, our out-of-money date pushed deeper into 2016.

Some travelers we’ve met make a show of demanding the lowest price possible at all times, regardless of where they are, where they’re from, or how it makes them look. They hunt for unconscionably low prices using their superior buying power (and often the desperation of the person they’re dealing with) as a weapon and tell tales of their conquests around the hostel table for all to marvel at. The less they paid, the more they gloat. Forget paying tourist prices, these people don’t stop until they’ve stripped every penny of profit out of the equation. These people may stretch their budget further than we will, but at what cost?

A woman selling fish at a market on the island of Flores.
A woman selling fish at a market on the Indonesian island of Flores.

It’s fun to get a good deal when you’re travelling. The less you pay, the more days you can enjoy yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve certainly marveled at some of the prices we’ve paid over the past eighteen months. But the one thing I don’t do, unless it’s part of the souvenir game, is haggle. Though I didn’t enjoy overpaying for breakfast that one morning in Turkey, I do think it’s important to sometimes take the loss gracefully and move on. Acknowledge the good fortune those of us from countries with a dominant currency are in and the inherent opportunity that exists simply from our birthplace. After all, long term travel is not something the great majority of the world’s population can ever even dream of doing. So we got charged a few bucks more than we maybe should have. So what? How many bottles of water did we buy this month for thirty cents each? Bottles that would have cost five times that in Europe or back home in the USA.

People have strong feelings about money and the economy. When we’re doing well personally, we think “the economy” is just fine. When we find ourselves out of work or fighting to get ahead, we project our own misfortune onto “the economy”.  This leaves nothing to be said of our political biases and preconceptions and the inherent geographic, skill, and educational variations in a large country. Not being an economist, I don’t really know (nor really care) how to accurately assess the condition of a nation’s economy. But I do know that, despite all of the political cheering and finger-pointing that goes on back home, the US Dollar is at or near an all-time high against a slew of the world’s currencies. If the US economy is as bad as I sometimes hear people say, then the rest of the world is doing even worse and we should still consider ourselves fortunate on the grand scale that is Earth.

It's easy to get frustrated by the people always trying to sell you something on the beaches in the Mediterranean and in Bali, but they're just trying to earn a living. We decided quickly that it was far more enjoyable to chat them up and maybe buy something instead of being rude or getting flustered.
It’s easy to get frustrated by the people always trying to sell you something on the beaches in the Mediterranean and in Bali, but they’re just trying to earn a living. We decided quickly that it was far more enjoyable to chat them up and maybe buy something instead of being rude or getting flustered.

Early this past summer a series of articles was published to The New York Times about the working conditions of nail salons throughout New York City. The gist of it was that the workers were being heavily exploited through a laundry list of illegal/unethical practices. I was very interested in some of the discussion that followed: women, customers of these various salons, were wondering what they should do. Should they boycott the businesses? Should they over-tip? Should they just go about things as normal and pretend they didn’t know any better? Many of the readers acknowledged that, by using these Asian (mostly Thai and Vietnamese) nail salons, they knew they were getting a really good service at a cost that was a fraction of that which a Caucasian owned and operated boutique salon would charge. They felt bad about that, but still wanted those low prices.

Ignoring the legal ramifications of the story in New York, the issue reminded me of a series of internal struggles I dealt with while in Indonesia earlier this year. Kristin and I had taken to getting frequent hour-long massages while in Bali. One day, we were asked if we also wanted a 30-minute foot rub after our massage. The massage was 70,000 IDR, the foot rub was going to be an extra 30,000 IDR for a total of $7.69 USD plus tip at the exchange rate at the time (it’d be even cheaper now). We said yes.

We took our seats in cushioned armchairs alongside three Chinese people and two Australians and sat back and enjoyed the relaxing comfort of a professional foot and calf massage. If you’ve never had someone spend thirty minutes professionally massaging your lower legs and feet with lotions and oils, it is even better than it sounds. But despite the wonderful sensation, I couldn’t help but feel bad about sitting in this nice elevated armchair as the young Javanese lady squatted down on a tiny stool and worked so hard to provide such an unnecessary, gratuitous service for such, through first-world eyes, a ridiculously low sum of money.

It didn’t feel right. I felt uncomfortable. It smacked of Imperialism, what with the visual of us, the moneyed tourists, sitting in the nice comfortable chairs on high, and the meager worker squatting over our bare feet. I looked around to those sitting alongside me: Kristin was dozing off, the Chinese people were playing with their phones and the Australians were doing likewise. A phalanx of young dark-haired, dark-skinned Indonesians squatted before us, working nonstop through the day and until late at night to give as many massages a day as possible.

Massage shops line many of the streets in the touristy areas of Bali and the women (and some men) call out to everyone who passes by. Some get desperate if business is slow. One grabbed me by the arm and pleaded with ever-lowering prices when I declined (I was late meeting Kristin for dinner). The prices are essentially standard, all of them offering an hour of pampering to the average tourist for the price of a McDonald’s combo meal; American prices, not European (Mickey D’s is far more expensive in Europe, no doubt part of the reason for the slimmer waistlines in continental Europe).

I know there are those who, upon reaching success, like to think it was all their own hard work that got them where they are. Hard work. People like to say that if you work hard you can be anything and have all your dreams come true. You just have to work hard for it. I’ve not seen many people work harder than these massage girls in Bali. Yet, there they were on the stool. And there we were on the chairs. I worked hard, was very good at what I did, but I didn’t work as hard as these girls do. I didn’t spend twelve hours a day, hunched over, working my hands and fingers and forearms into numbness for such little gain. The reason we’re in the chair and they’re on the stool is one of dumb luck. We won the birthplace lottery, being born in a first-world country (or to one of the right families in a modern China), whereas they didn’t. That’s it. We were born on third, as the saying goes. And we shouldn’t exploit those who were lucky to get hit by pitch.

“So, Doug, what are you going to do about it?” I asked myself.

I went surfing the next day and spent the better part of three hours thinking about that question. The answer that I came up with, which I’d like to now repeat as a reminder to myself as we prepare to spend our winter in Southeast Asia, is as follows: nothing, sort of.

Making daily offerings isn't a glamorous or high-paying job, but the result is a incense-filled, flower-laden country that makes everyone's day that much brighter.
Making daily offerings isn’t a glamorous or high-paying job, but the result is an incense-filled, flower-laden country that makes everyone’s day that much brighter.

My first idea was to boycott them, to not take advantage of our respective situations. But no, I decided, that only punishes them and deprives myself of something I enjoy. These are skilled massage technicians (they are every bit as good as any CMP I’ve experienced back home at a spa charging ten times that amount) who have come to Bali to do this. Why deprive them of the living they need to earn? Okay, so don’t boycott them, but maybe I should insist on tipping them a lot more? This gets tricky. Over-tipping can create problems of jealousy in the workplace, could lead to poor service to other customers, and could ultimately lead to a sense of entitlement and lesser quality of service. Am I even sure the girls get to keep their tips? No, I’m not. And if I’m the only one doing it, then what good does it do in the long run? Other than empty my wallet that much faster. Next question. So what about the base price? Never haggle. I didn’t anyway, but I’ve seen people routinely try to haggle down the prices. Don’t do that. The prices are already low enough for anyone who can afford to fly to Bali, even if coming from nearby Australia.  Let the shops set the price and pay what they ask. And so on and so on, I debated back and forth with myself a litany of actions and undesirable/inconclusive outcomes.

I decided that, as travelers visiting less developed, inexpensive countries, perhaps the best thing we can do is to just be aware. Acknowledge the situation, take comfort in our positions of good fortune, and refrain from taking advantage of those in a less advantageous position by trying to wrest even lower prices. Don’t demean, but don’t flaunt your relative wealth either. Don’t tell the clerk how cheap everything is — save your excitement or shock for when you are out of earshot. Not only is it insulting, but the more people going around remarking how cheap everything is, the more prices get raised, and the less buying power the locals end up having. Instead, employ their services, tip them an honest, fair amount, and most of all, look to the people you do business with as equals. For after all, that’s what they are. Equals. They’re human beings just like you and me.

Update: This post was written several weeks ago, back while we were in Turkey. We are currently on a freighter, bound for Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia and are out of contact until November 3rd. You can view our ship’s position here. I suspect this post will go live as we exit the Red Sea. We’ll be making a port call in Sri Lanka near the end of October.

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Doug Walsh

Writer, Traveler

Doug Walsh is a writer, traveler, cyclist, and gamer who spent two years traveling from Seattle to Singapore, the long way around, by bicycle and sea. He's the author of the upcoming novel "Tailwinds Past Florence."

  1. It’s a good post Doug. I agree with your conclusion. We often apply our Western (or American) point of view when we should be thinking about it the other way around.

    1. Thanks Brian! Great hearing from you. It’s always great to get the opinion of someone who has traveled to Asia so often, whose opinion I respect.

  2. Travel is fatal to prejudice bigotry and narrow-mindedness. I enjoy watching the awakening. Thank you for sharing, I’m enjoying the journey.

  3. “Instead, employ their services, tip them an honest, fair amount, and most of all, look to the people you do business with as equals. For after all, that’s what they are. Equals. They’re human beings just like you and me.”

    There are many positive comments I could make about your post, but you summed all of my thoughts up up in those three sentences.

    Another great write up along your trip around the world. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.

  4. You have expressed my sentiments very well. Having bicycled, lived and served in the Peace Corps in other poorer countries, I have struggled with this dilemma as well. Like you I don’t haggle, I respect all and see everyone as equal. It is only the luck of the draw that we have the great fortune to have been born into our station in life. I enjoyed your post. I hope you continue to have happy travels.

    1. Thank you very much for commenting Gary, and for your work in the Peace Corps. Though I’ve never been involved in the Peace Corps, I’ve many times appropriated their slogan to describe bicycle touring as “the toughest vacation you’ll ever love.” Curious to your thoughts on that?

      1. Doug,
        The Peace Corps, not at all unlike long distance cycling is more a psychological/emotional challenge. Doing without the luxuries or conveniences in our normal life, just like enduring physical challenges in cycling, pales in comparison to the mental struggles. Buddhist talk of developing equanimity and the PC and bicycle touring, especially in developing countries, is a good exercise in such. It is only in working through challenging situations and staying calm that we get better at it–an on-going work for most of us. I hope your trip continues to challenge and immensely reward you. I really enjoy your posts.

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About Us

We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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