The life of an Ubud local

One surprising truth about travel is that the cliche isn’t true: you don’t always get what you pay for. A cafe on a busy street may charge the same as a cafe in the middle of a mango grove… A home-stay infested with bedbugs may charge the same as a home-stay with a porch and complementary breakfast. My case was a little different: for twenty dollars, I paid for one fruit carving lesson… and ended up with a lifetime local friend + priceless culture info.


In Ubud, Indonesia, it’s impossible not to become influenced by the haze of art and culture around you. Tourists here emanate the vibes of naturalists, yogi and bodhisattva, while the locals are people who aim to create rather than destroy, to please themselves by pleasing others- through art, hospitality, honesty. On our second day there, I rented a bike (everything in Ubud is a max 10 minute bike ride away), and set out to the Pondok Pecak Library & Learning Centre in search of courses I could take. They offer 6: fruit & vegetable carving, wood carving, Balinese Bedong musical class, Balinese dance class, art/painting classes, and finally Bahasa Indonesian language classes.

On a whim (and a budget), I opted for fruit & vegetable carving and promptly invested in the most satisfying $20 purchase of my life. An older man greeted me at the door as I came in, offered me a seat on the cushioned tatami, and explained that my teacher would be his son, who was late. Call traffic in Indonesia anything you want, as long as it’s not “organized”; a quick glance at the main road behind us told me I would be waiting a while. Surprisingly, not 5 minutes later, a young Balinese man shows up and shakes my hand. He explains how he spotted a friend on the street while waiting in traffic, shouted at him through the car window, and got him to trade places for his motorcycle so that he could make it to our class on time!

The array of tools Ketut puts on the table is simplistic. He prefers the small knifes over the more ornate ones, because they’re easier to handle. The multicoloured white bic pen he uses is the same one I used at school. As we begin etching a lotus pattern on a watermelon, he tells me that running one errand takes all day in Bali, because the traffic is so bad. Why is it bad? Well, from first hand experience trying to ride a bicycle down their main road Dewisita, I can tell you 5 things:

  1. A single lane road in North America = A double lane road in Indonesia
  2. Cars, motorcycles, and bicycles share one road going both directions
  3. Intersections are a free for all
  4. What’s a stop light?
  5. Tourists seem to think Bali is a great place to learn to ride a motorbike for the first time

On top of all this, Ketut tells me that although you do have to pass a test in order to be able to drive, it’s a rarity for someone to be refused their “license” (there isn’t a vocabulary word for that in Indonesian, which says a lot) since the police officers would lose commission and the money paid to take the test. Over the next few days, I’d learn a lot more about the sacrifices authorities in Indonesia make for their locals…

The next topic began as we carved out the green outer-skin: how he made his living. Although he’s been passionate about carving for 2 years, he doesn’t have the time to realize his dreams, seeing as he works 2 other jobs. People here must do that, he says, since on average they’ll earn $80,000 IDP a day – this translates to roughly $8 Can. An average meal at a local restaurant is $15,000. For a family of four or five, they’re really working to live.

Everything about the above set up seems so wrong, considering how much North Americans make per day generally producing absolutely nothing and consuming twice as much. The average high school or first year student will make $12 an hour at a retail or food job, resulting in ~$480 p/week with 8 hour shifts. For what? Standing at a cash desk punching in numbers while hundreds of customers consume products produced in countries where locals actually make the products, using skills and craftsmanship that we can only dream of, for 7.5x less than we make in a day for simply purchasing their talent?

By the time we finished our lotus flower watermelon creations and tried a few carrots (I botched mine and they looked more like “Frankenstein”, says Ketut), another young French girl and her mother had joined the class. They requested to see his work, to which he replied that he had no wifi to show them pictures (too much trouble to figure out the wires he says), so instead he gave them a business card with his facebook on it. The mother wondered aloud why he didn’t simply make his own website, to which the reply was “too much money” – although in North America we all know about tumblr, wordpress, and other free hosts, I wish you luck explaining any of those concepts to a Balinese.

“People here make things harder than they have to be,” says Ketut as he guides my hand, nicking a petal shape into the fruit flesh. “The wires for wifi are confusing enough for people, never-mind our own websites, which would just be more money.”


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