“I did not choose the budget life; the budget life chose me.”
I often murmur this overused idiom as I pack my bags for a trip to any place. Be it in the country or abroad. The budget woes take hold of me from the conception to execution and to the absolute end of any trip. There have been times, of course, when my soirees out into the wild have been fully paid affairs and I can say without a trace of doubt that if you somehow negate the money worries, travel takes on a whole new dimension. Time spent splitting money among friends can be dedicated to watching the sunset or penning that novel that you have been thinking of for quite a while now. More on that sometime later.
However, never have I felt so acutely all the worries that come with travelling on a budget as I have felt in my 'Bae-cation' to the Indonesian archipelago Bali. As I packed my small suitcase, I kept thinking of the days ahead. On one side was the excitement of seeing my friend who was flying halfway to Bali from Australia (We are very Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, I am afraid) and on the other was the thought “What if I lose my only 100-dollar bill (I had another 100-dollar stacked away as emergency cash! Oh, the luxuries!) that I intend to complete the six-days trip with?”
With airlines food, unlimited coffee and drinks rife on my mind, I made way to the Dhaka airport en route Singapore and then off to Bali. As is usual whenever I travel, I make a huge list, often unachievable, of places I want to see and of foods I want to try. This time was no different.
The Island of Gods, with a rich history boasting of arts and culture, has rapidly turned into a major tourist hub. And the tourist trail is evident from start to end. As I get down at the Denpasar International Airport, the moment is taut with excitement. Two of us, Bulti and I, flew from Bangladesh and our friend Meem was waiting for us at the gates. I could not imagine of a more Bollywood-esque moment for a reunion that has been months in the planning.
A white minivan stands ready to take us to our hotel room, a small lodging near Kuta, the beach and resort area of the island. It is late afternoon by the time we make it to the hotel and we are famished.
After exchanging our dollars to Indonesian Rupiah, subsequently feeling like a million bucks, and rightfully so, we head out into the main city. Each dollar gives you an equivalent of around 13,500 Indonesian Rupees. To my Bangladeshi mind, it was mind boggling. I was handling lakhs of Rupees at a time and the money got to my head. I head out and to my friends' chagrin, immediately hail a taxi, bargain and fix it for a 25,000 Rupees for a distance that takes us seven minutes to cover. First rookie mistake!
For our first meal, we choose a beach-side establishment and end up ordering more food than we can ever consume. From sweet Indonesian Beef Rendang, to steamed greens and spicy calamari, the meal has it all. We manage to estimate the cost and it does not end up being too hard on our pockets. Feeling very smug with ourselves we head out into the Kuta Beach area, thoughts of money, far away from our mind. We end up taking surfing lessons, a beach manicure and knock down a few bottles of Indonesian beer. Everyone is treated very well at the beach and we feel like proper royalty/athletes after our beach shenanigans. But reality has a way of imposing itself on everyone, even on pretend royalty, and as we head home after our night out in the beach town of Kuta, we realise we have managed to work halfway through our wad of cash! And this was supposed to see us through our two days in Kuta.
We have to recalibrate our plans and as we huddle in our beds, we plan out our entire Day 2, complete with bargain tactics et al.
Day 2 proves to be slightly better. We make our way to the beautiful beaches of Kuta in Bali, where the cliffs meet the sea, to coffee plantations and to the Uluwatu Temple, which is a Balinese Hindu sea temple. This is regarded as one of the sad kahyangan and is dedicated to Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa in his manifestation as Rudra. Almost all the places are designed to give a boost to the tourist hub that is modern day Bali. At the beach, we have to pay a hefty sum to use the washroom to wash off the sand. You want to relax? No problem, a few hundred thousand rupees, and you have a lounging chair all for yourself complete with an umbrella. You want to enter the temple and soak in some history? Well fear not, the only hurdle between you and the beauty that is Uluwatu Temple is the dreaded 'Entrance Fee'.
From Kuta, we head off to Ubud. This place is home to scenic rice terraces, active volcanoes and huge expanses of agriculture land. All the way to Ubud, we are given promises of a magical 'Ubud Village' and “technologically challenged” trio that we are, we do not bother to Google, instead we daydream of beautiful countryside and empty fields. Well, 'Ubud Village' is not a village, it is in fact a small tourist town and the entirety of the town is designed to make you feel dejected and tempted if you are on a tight budget. The tiny boutiques, one leading on to the other showcased things we could not possibly buy. By the time, we are in Ubud, all of us were on our 'Emergency Cash'. Except for yours truly, who managed to stick to the plan, by eating of off everyone's meals, living vicariously through their purchases and just being super stingy.
For our lunches and dinners, we ended up choosing small establishments or warungs as they call it locally that seemed to be a little far away from the tourist hub. Our driver, who hails, from Sumatra in Indonesia, ended up taking us to places he frequents. Some proved fruitful. Like the one pop-up restaurant in an alley, where a home cook showcases her dishes. Fried rice crisps, chicken simmered in coconut milk and spices, glass noodles, duck meat and a few different kinds of sambals.
We did everything in our might, to somehow make it through Bali without having to call home and wire cash! Like crossing roads and changing lanes to get free samples of chicken nuggets and coffee. Or pretending to not like the ice-cream after our free taste. Or buying bread in bulk just to satiate our ravishing hunger. We did splurge though once or petty twice--a dinner by the Jimbaran beach one day or the foot massage promising to put us into deep slumber another day.
Given my rant on how tight budgeted we were, the trip was nothing short of a drama filled affair, from ghost scares in the old Airbnb we were renting to picturesque Bali as a whole, we came back home with empty pockets, regrets of lost shopping bags (Yes! We managed to lose the few things we ended up buying!) and a series of stories we will never forget.
The Bali island has retained influences from Hindu Java rule and was also a Dutch colony until Indonesia's independence after the World War II. The island now has a booming tourism industry which has had adverse impacts on the environment and possibly local traditions but it seems Bali's unique culture has proven to be remarkably resilient. However, that is what appears to the naked eye and outside the tourist enclaves, exists a Bali that we were not privy to. Here I am reminded of chef, author and traveler extraordinaire Anthony Bourdain, who died of suicide just this week, who always managed to remind his audience through his travels that no simple image of eternal squalor or romance, chaos or tranquillity is sufficient to describe any place.