They Know What Is Beautiful
Money can be scary.
I’m not talking about managing money or dealing with a lack of cash. Literally, I found two people in this world who found the sight of money to be frightening. And I almost ruined their spectacular day by offering them $20.
The mighty greenback, according to Caleb Ng, CFA, MBA of Raymond James, is the world’s financial sextant. “Although Gold used to serve a similar purpose to the U.S. dollar, and despite consistent chatter for other alternatives, the dominant currency for financial exchange, trade, and storage of value remains, rather unassailably, the U.S. dollar.” All I know is that the hundred bucks I have in my wallet right now makes me sleep better at night. And, until one afternoon of trekking through the jungle kampungs (villages) of Borneo, I could not have imagined someone reacting to US dollar bills with anything but a smile. What a lesson I learned that day.
My friend Wencelas took me into some remote parts of the Borneo jungle one morning to flex the muscles on our fancy Nikon camera gear. I had only been in Borneo for a few months and the jungle excursion concept was still stoking images of Indiana Jones for me. We found some waterfalls that day; a fresh litter of wild canine puppies; some huge bugs; towering trees with tropical flowers; banana leafs the size of me and many a welcoming smile among those who called the kampung home.
As we entered one kampung, a few young girls were busy arranging tropical flowers on the porch of their wooden hut. I yelled to Wenc’ – “hey, these girls are setting up a little flower shop. Let’s go buy some of their flowers.” Wenc’ smiled and walked behind me as I approached the girls. Seeing a white guy or “Angmo’” was rare for most in the kampung and the two girls immediately giggled and pointed at me. “Salamat Pagi,” (good morning in Bahasa Malaysia) I said enthusiastically, which had them howling in laughter.
I was a smiling foreigner speaking their language and the little girls and I were bonding. I thought to myself, “I want them to think that American men are fun, kind, generous people.” So, I pulled out a $20 bill (USD) and pointed at the fresh tropical flowers they were arranging. Their broad smiles and playful demeanor immediately shifted to furrowed brows and frantic dialogue between each other and with Wencelas. I couldn’t keep up.
“Wenc’, what’s the deal? Tell them I just want to buy some flowers to take back to my condo’. Look around, they live in a shack. Clearly, a few extra dollars would help them,” I pleaded.
Wenc’ spoke gently to the girls, in Bahasa, using apologetic gestures. The girls’ questioning eyes darted back and forth from me to Wenc’. Whatever he was saying was not changing their defensive posture. Wenc’ then pulled me aside.
“Doc’ the girls are confused about the money. They said that the flowers are not theirs to sell because they came from the jungle. If you want some you can take them. They would like to give you some as a new kawan (friend).”
“You think they’ve been the victim of some kind of child prostitution ring or something?“ I asked Wenc’. “No, no, no, Doc’. They just don’t live in a world where money means what it means to you and me. They picked the flowers in the jungle this morning because they enjoy seeing and handling them. That’s it. There’s no place for a business transaction here.”
I stood speechless looking at the $20 in my hand. The girls’ body language relaxed, and I compared their beautiful friendship and the flowers before them to the money in my hand. The two princesses had given me a new lens. They didn’t see themselves as people living in lack. In fact, that morning they were just the opposite – until this silly Angmo’ came along waving money at them.
“Wenc’, can you tell them it is a special treat for me to be given a few flowers from their collection. I will never forget it. And I would like to be their kawan.” I rolled up a few flowers in some paper; put the package in my backpack, and said “terima kasih” (thank you) at least ten times before we parted.
As we walked away, Wenc’ put his hand on my shoulder and through a smile said, “you know in America I think you have the saying ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’, right doc’?”
“Yeah, right, Wenc’ – we do.”
“Well, money doesn’t grow on trees here either, but fruits and flowers do. Those girls know what is beautiful.”