Battling zeros in Bali


Indians, or an Indian, might have invented the zero, but Indonesia is making full use of this numerical symbol. When you go shopping, you'll know how zero rules the roost in Bali, part of the island nation. The five days I spent there exposed me to the value of zero. The smallest currency one finds here is 500 Indonesian rupiah! Not that the place is expensive, but the rupiah is cheap.

Welcome to Indonesia, where you can flaunt your Indian rupee as a vibrant currency, demonetisation or otherwise. While planning the Bali trip, I glanced at the exchange rates over the net and wondered how to carry wads of currency after the exchange. Because our single rupee fetched over 200 rupiah! Will my purse overflow?

My niece Sanjana intervened, and asked: "Kaka, imagine the plight of an American or a European who carries dollars or euros." She had a point. Just calculate how much each dollar or euro will fetch in rupiah. Would they carry a sack instead of the purse? After all, a dollar is worth 66 rupees and a euro, 88 rupees. Multiply that by 200. You'll realise the plight of the white tourist.

The Indonesian government has realised this and has printed the 500 IDR note as the smallest currency, which, of course, will not fetch you anything in Bali. A water bottle costs a minimum of 2,000 rupiah. A cheap white T-shirt with Bali logo will cost 20,000 rupiah. Good-quality T-shirts cost up to 75,000 rupiahs. Sunglasses 20,000-25,000; DVD 10,000; leather belt 15,000; cushion covers 15,000, cigarettes 70,000-80,000 a carton… zeros keep haunting you.

And more zeros will haunt you if you go for luxuries like ornaments, statues, silver bowls etc. A necklace is priced at 2,50,000 rupiah. But don't lose heart, because, after conversion, the prices appear to be within our reach.

Salesgirls are aware of this, so are armed with calculators to tell you the price in dollars, euros or pounds, and sometimes in Indian rupees.

But my brother came out with a simple formula to calculate the price in rupees: knock off the last two zeros and divide the remainder by two. So now, 20,000 rupiah means 200 divided by 2, which equals 100 rupees. The cost of a  water bottle is now just 10 rupees.

Bargaining has its moments of fun and exasperation. Language is the barrier, so you have to use the sign language, or mark your offer price on the palm and strike a bargain with the hawkers. If you are good at haggling, you will be the winner.

But the catch is... you pay in any foreign currency, the change you get back is always in rupiahs, even in supermarkets. I have brought home a 1,000-rupiah coin. You can buy it from me for just five rupees. It's worth just that. Don't belittle zero. Not in Bali at least.

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