Indonesia days: bargaining for rice

When I lived in Bandung, Indonesia, in the mid-1970s, it was the custom to bargain over the price of practically everything in the pasar [bazaar] and many other shops. This was something that most Europeans (which generically included all Americans; indeed, some Indonesians labeled all Europeans as orang Belanda — Dutchmen, based on 300-plus years of colonial rule in the Dutch East Indies) weren’t generally very good at.

Speaking more than enough Bahasa Indonesia to get by in the markets, I eventually did relatively well, at least to the the extent that Indonesian and the occasional East-Indian shop keepers would allow any European to drive a hard bargain. I’ll use bargaining for rice as an example:

But first, two lessons about Indonesian money and rice:

The main Indonesian unit of currency is the rupiah. The exchange rate, if I understand the current conversion table correctly, is now approximately US$1 = R11.33; but in our day the official rate was  US$1 = R415 (and I vaguely recall that only a few years before then it was several thousand rupiah per dollar). In other words, four rupiah were worth about 1¢ in the mid-70s. Keep this in mind.

In several of my other blog entries, I’ve talked about the cost of things relative to past times and conditions. Most Indonesians in those days were very poor; so, for example, it was possible to buy:

  • A very nice Chinese dinner for two for a couple of bucks U.S.
  • A bowl of hot saimin (or soupy Chinese mein) delivered to your door by traveling vendors for about a quarter: They would ladle a serving into your own bowl; a delightful old Indonesian couple who lived next to us used to buy their dinner this way.
  • Some of the world’s best lumpia (same word as in Filipino) and kripik (small wafer chips) or krupuk (large chips) in a wide variety of flavors — not just the shrimp chips usually found in Hawaii — for under a buck. Their kripik kentang [homemade potato chips], for example, was to die for.
  • Hire a live-in maid for $20 a month — at least, that’s what we paid ours, which some Indonesians considered very generous because we also gave her one day off a week.
  • Use two ball boys for a couple of hours of tennis for under a dollar.
  • Buy pisang Bogor — hands of perhaps the best ripe bananas in the world, grown in the city of Bogor which is on the road from Jakarta to Bandung — for a little over a dollar; and all kinds of tropical fruits for less.
  • Join the Chinese country club for about $20 a month.
  • Strangely, I recall even though Indonesia is an oil-producing country that gas cost approximately $1 a gallon, this at a time when it was less than that in Hawaii. Actually, it was R95 per liter, because, of course, Indonesia was on the metric system (and drove on the left-hand side of the road).
  • And conversely, after adding government tariffs, imported items cost a lot more. For example, I bought a brand-new Volkswagen van for about $3,500 in 1973. That same vehicle in Indonesia when we got there was going for $25,000. That seem about right for here and now, but remember, this was more than 30 years ago. Even a fair used car cost about $10,000 — which was way beyond our budget, so like many Indonesian families, sometimes all four of us ended up riding my motorcycle…and we’re still here to tell about it.
  • Some things were harganya pas, which means “fixed price,” or in other words, no bargaining.

As you might expect in a country where growing rice has been the way of life for thousands of years, Indonesians were very sophisticated about what types and varieties they preferred to buy. For example, even in the dumpiest little pasar kampong [village bazaar] there would be several grades of beras or raw rice (called nasi after it’s been cooked), which was sold by the liter (i.e. about a quart). I remember it was suggested that I needed to provide our maid with about a liter of rice a day, in addition to her salary, and our djaga malam [night watchman; the ‘dj’ spelling has since been changed to just ‘j’] with all the kopi [coffee, as in “java” — the main island of Indonesia] he could drink. Being devout Mormons, and not really wanting to shop for our maid, I just gave them extra rupiah to go get their own. Fortunately, Sally brought a rice cooker with us from Hawaii, which is how we cooked ours.

Grades of beras ranged from rough — with perhaps pieces of husk, dirt and pebbles still in it — to the best, which was often marked at a starting price of R100, or about 25¢ for a liter, which no self-respecting bargainer would pay; and if you didn’t bargain, no shopkeeper would respect you.

Okay, now for the rest of the story: I could usually bargain that price down to about R70/liter, but sometimes surreptiously listening to Indonesians buying it, I knew they could buy it for as little as about R50 at that time. But, as indicated above, I could rarely drive as good a bargain as a local could.

Another thing about bargaining, if you’ve never done it before on a regular basis, there’s a whole protocol, perhaps even a philosophy, tied in with the Asian concept of saving face. Even if a European only spoke a little pasar Malayu [enough Indonesian to buy stuff in the bazaar], it was important to both parties to try.

My wife, for example, learned enough while we were there to bargain a little, including: numbers, of course; ini, this (one), or itu, that (one); berapa? or berapa harganya? (although it’s more grammatically correct to say harganya berapa) — how much; tidak, no, or bukan — no, referring to objects; terlalu mahal — too much; aduh! or wah! — exclamations of surprise; and baik or bagus — good, or deal. Then, of course, you could start combining some of these into phrases, such as: Berapa itu? How much is that?; Aduh! Itu terlalu mahal. That’s too expensive; and so forth.

So, you had to have some sense of a reasonable discount to bargain for, because the vendor also has to maintain his respect; but part of the bargaining philosophy demanded that when you couldn’t agree on a price, you had to walk away.

There were a number of instances, for example, when I found myself R5-R10 apart in price . . . and I literally had to walk away, or lose face, over what amounted to a couple of pennies difference. Aduh!

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