Published on September 15, 2007
It's become cheaper to travel to Indonesia. This may seem incredible in a country where one dollar (Bt32) can already buy more than two litres of petrol (mineral water is way more expensive) or get you the sort of attention you have only dreamed of, confronting you with dilemmas where you can take the high ground and make your parents proud.
"You buy. Good price. Okay, okay, you take my mother also."
"I say old boy, I couldn't possibly do that."
"Why you say no? Good price."
"Well, Good Lord! I mean… she doesn't have any teeth."
In Medan, the premier city of North Sumatra, the local government has moved to outlaw beggars. Beggars make a nuisance of themselves - diverting valuable tourist dollars - accosting strangers with any hint of jingle in the pockets, prostrating themselves, hands outstretched, in a shameless display of indulgent self-pity, not unlike any trained, professional salesman. As a magazine publisher, I've made the acquaintance of Persian carpets, musty Indian rugs and cool linoleum, nose to the ground, in a brilliant demonstration of how best to get your message across in a multilingual world. Sales presentations are a journey of profound self-discovery. "Arise Mr Verghese, did you know you have a bald patch?"
Beggars in Medan now face a fine and the prospect of six weeks in jail, welcome news for the homeless and a hands-free experience for travellers. State altruism extends to tourists too. Visitors spotted forking out wads of rupiah to the out-at-elbow may now end up redirecting their largesse to the city coffers, paying a whopping fine of around US$650, or Bt21,000. (Compare this with a parking fine in Hong Kong of $45.) It's one way to get well-meaning foreigners involved in genuine reconstruction and Third World development. Why hand out measly rupiah when you could be making high-volume donations in crisp greenbacks? The next time you bump into a rotund city official, his girth groaning against the chaffing constraints of the latest Gucci belt, you'll know your generosity has made a difference.
Why Medan? Officials have calculated that beggars there earn more than the minimum wage, bringing home more than $5 every day. That translates into $150 a month, or $1,800 per year, triple the per capita income of India. My first job as a journalist trainee with the Times of India gave me job security and the magnificent sum of Rs500 (about Bt400) each month. This included a handsome Rs50 tea allowance. I should have moved to Medan.
Italy is following suit. Florence, the city that gave us Michelangelo, Dante and Brunelleschi (responsible for the Duomo), now gives us dirt-caked car windscreens, albeit with an impressionist flourish. Florentines have cracked down on the latest scourge - roadside window washers who waylay cars at traffic intersections and pour suds over the windows and then wait for a small "gift" before mopping up, a scene reminiscent of any traffic intersection in Bangkok, Jakarta or Bombay.
In a supreme act of raw courage, the Florence police chief personally led the first patrol to catch and lock up urchins and other dangerous riff-raff armed with pails and mops. Rent your Avis sedan safe in the knowledge that at 100 kilometres per hour, on the autostrada, with Fiats screaming past and the Leaning Tower of Pisa about to topple over, you won't see a thing.
The suds had barely dried in Florence and Padua decided to act. Since intersections are where window washers lurk to trap their victims, Padua has started doing away with traffic lights altogether and converting crossings to roundabouts. It's a clever ploy. Jakarta's main drag Jalan Thamrin features imposing roundabouts, but two-hour gridlocks on a regular basis have scuppered the traffic-flow idea. Here gangs of urchins will sell you anything you could find in a decent supermarket.
New York suffers from something quaintly described as "aggressive begging". This involves pushes, glares, manhandling and the occasional suggestion of a sharp implement. Nothing violent, of course, like pails and wet mops. Beggars in the Big Apple often turn down coins and demand at least a dollar bill. Times have changed and change is no longer enough.
Meanwhile back in Italy, Verona has moved to end uncool "imported" foreign habits, demanding that tourists stop munching sandwiches or, worse, hamburgers, in public places and historic piazzas.
Only India steams on unruffled. Roads feature potholes the size of giant meteorite craters into which everyone and everything falls, from window washers and magazine vendors to cars, tractors, cows, and women from Rajasthan who develop instant - and dramatically visible - pregnancies every time a BMW approaches. My mother always stops to offer these unfortunate women a ride to the hospital at which point they run away with alacrity.
It's definitely time to visit Indonesia. No beggars, no tourists. And it's cheaper.
Vijay Verghese is an editor of Smart Travel Asia - an online travel magazine. Visit http://www.smarttravelasia.com