Never let the facts…. Part 1.

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I may not have coined this expression, but I have certainly adopted it as my own. Sharing my short stories with friends, they would often ask, “Did all that really happen?” I’d explain that in the main the story was based on

facts, but as a story teller and not a tape recorder, I’d taken the liberty to tweak, reorder events and embellish so that I produced something I hoped was better than the original. And inevitably during this explanation I would add, “I’m not about to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Life provides opportunities to people watch and I enjoy them all, collecting snippet after snippet – Hawkers with high priced stickers on newspapers, people haggling badly or aggressively, foreigners in restaurants complaining about prices, foreigners with local partners enjoying holiday romances and the difficulties that people experience dealing with a new currency. Eventually the snippets start to connect and a story formulates. I pace and think it out and finally start typing. Many edits follow and eventually I have a short story.


And the expat stated with so much authority, “They don’t respect you if you don’t bargain hard.”

How often have I heard this specious argument that is now enshrined in guide books and as urban myth  applying to all Asian countries? It’s shopping for goodness sake. We’re not talking about sex on the first date. Respect has nothing to do with it to my mind, but the longer I live, the less expert I become and the more philosophical.

Strolling down Monkey Forest Road in Ubud, I watched the paper boy smile and hold up The Jakarta Post to an Australian tourist. The sticker over the published price declared the cost to be 200,000rp which was about US$20. I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I watched the haggling begin and slowed my pace to a crawl, hoping to observe the full adventure unfold before passing.

“My friend, I’ll give you a good price, my friend,” opened the paper boy as he lightly rested his hand on the tourist’s shoulder.

“How much?” the Australian asked, entering into the bargaining experience.

“150,000rp. (US$15) for you, my friend. You don’t have to pay the 200,000rp,” replied the paperboy, pointing to the phony price tag. The smile still held firm on his face, and his hand was still resting on the Australian’s shoulder, ensuring that this fish did not spit the bait and escape.

I wondered what the tourist was thinking. Was he converting the rupiahs into dollars? Was he realizing that this price was probably four times what he would pay in his home country? Was he trying to work out why a newspaper could cost more than last night’s dinner for himself and his partner? Was he contemplating why he had forgotten to pack his brain when he came to Bali? He probably wasn’t thinking any of these thoughts.

“How much is a paper here normally” the man asked his Indonesian holiday girlfriend.

“Don’t know darrrling. I never buy newspapers in English,” she answered, caressing his back as she silently supported the paper boy in his negotiations. Life’s hard when you’re poor and don’t know where the next meal’s coming from, so needy people innately help each other in the liberation of a meal or two from those more fortunate and no one is any worse off.  It seems to me a bit like the ‘Robin Hood Principle’ at work in Asia; delightfully socialist in it’s redistribution of wealth.

My stroll by now had taken me past the encounter and I was perilously at risk of missing the finale. I could still hear, “My friend, my friend, my friend”, and “Bankrupt, bankrupt, bankrupt”, being used by the paper boy in an effort to maintain warmth and solicit sympathy, but the finer details of the exchange could not be heard, so I turned to retrace my steps and catch the climax. I was just in time to see the Australian hand over a crisp, new 100,000rp note, (US$11) and no change handed back.

“Thank you my good friend. Good for you; good for me,” glowed the paper boy as he handed over the Jakarta Post. The Australian smiled his thanks and delight at getting it for half the asking price, and the lad made a hasty escape up the street to find his next benefactor.

Controlling my mouth has been one of my life long problems, but I am proud to say that I actually kept my trap shut this time. Why spoil everyone’s fun by pointing out that he’d just bought yesterday’s paper and if he’d crossed the road to Periplus Bookstore he could have paid 6,500rp (65cents) for today’s news. It didn’t matter that he’d handed over twenty times the marked price underneath the sticker. In our western culture we know that if it’s written, it must be right, so he saw the sticker price as fact and got it for fifty percent of that. What a good bargain hunter he was in successfully haggling the price to half the opening figure.  He was happy and his girlfriend, just glowed with pride at her clever beau. She delighted at his shrewdness with the local currency and the potential it held for her throughout their time together. I could just hear her purring, “You are so clever darrrling.”

The urban myth continues; the tourist haggled hard and the paper boy and girlfriend certainly do respect him. But what’s it matter anyway if the tourist appeared a bit foolish; Robin Hood redistributed a little wealth to the poor and everyone walked away happy and smiling. In my view, this is exactly what life is meant to be about.

And when I’m asked, “Did this really happen?” I must reply, “Of course, but remember, I never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

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