Sunday, September 28, 2008

Large Numbers

I've been thinking a bit about large numbers recently, probably in part because I read Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker on the boat and here in Bali, and he talks a lot about both large and small numbers, and interestingly, how the human mind is really only adapted to think clearly about certain ranges of numbers. All quite fascinating, as Dawkins always is.

But what's really on my mind here is money. When we were in Mexico a few months back, the exchange rate for pesos and dollars was roughly 10:1 or 11:1, but for convenience, everyone sort of thinks in 10:1, and that's easy. If something costs 10 pesos, you can pay with one dollar, and it's all good.

Here in Indonesia, the exchange rate for rupiahs is about 9,200:1, so not only is it a less convenient quantity to figure in your head, you also have to deal in numbers on an everyday basis that sound more like annual salaries to me. For example, yesterday we had a buffet lunch, which costs Rp80,000 (just under US$9) for each person. We shared a large bottle of Bintang, the local beer, for Rp35,000. Suddenly the bill for lunch is Rp195,000, plus the ubiquitous tax and service charge, and now lunch costs Rp235,000. That's really only US$25 for lunch for two people, which isn't outrageous in a tourist context. But that number just seems large.

Going to the ATM to take out another million rupiah is...daunting, even though I know it's not unreasonable. I can only imagine the effect of the rampant inflation in places like Zimbabwe, where you suddenly need millions or even billions of the local currency to get anything.

And yet, many things here seem very inexpensive. Our hotel costs us only US$45 per night, which is great. We bought a shirt and a sarong from Dewa's wife's shop, and it totaled US$32. There are certainly bargains here. It's just sometimes hard to wrap your head around what they are.

1 comment:

Sarette said...

It used to be that a cup of coffee only cost a nickle, and a whole meal could be had for $1 - $2. In the 1930's, a teacher in Missouri made $45 a month. I'm sure she would say, "What d'ya mean that dinner costs $25? That's over a half month's pay!"

What's more, if the current economic fear mongering has any legs, we could see massive inflation in this country where a dinner out at your average restaurant suddenly runs $200 - $300 or higher. Can the thousand dollar cup of coffee be far behind?

Imagine what happens if the world moves off the dollar for oil and all those petrodollars come flooding back home.

Want a loaf of bread? Get a wheelbarrow, load it up with $100's, and head on down to the store. Don't forget to speak in polite german! :)