Indonesia: Shoestring Struggles
2 March 2018
After two months of traveling around SE Asia, Nate and I touched down in Jakarta, Indonesia; my home away from home. I’d lived and worked in the city from 2010-2013, and we were both eager to visit some of my old stomping grounds.
Nate fit right in. Sebasa gave him the royal treatment with a Police bus ride to lunch one day and a formal Circumcision party for the son of a former police student (Muslims celebrate this when a boy reaches pre-teen ages, so he gets a party to ease the pain). The latter was great both because it was laden with new Indonesian foods for Nate to try and because my friends kept mistakenly referring to it as a “Circumstance” party. The Sebasa ladies even gifted us matching Batiks to wear to the party! Aren’t we cute?
After many hugs, farewells, and eyebrows and elbows in Nate’s direction fishing for a wedding invitation, it was time for us to take our leave and for me to take Nate on a tour of my life in this messy metropolis of over 10 million people. There was a hitch, though: we needed to do so on a shoestring in a land where I’d only worn pumps.
In my former life in Jakarta on a salary of 25K, I was rich by most standards. In this context, that meant taxis and restaurants were a part of everyday life. Now, sitting in one of Jakarta’s infamous traffic jams as we attempted to cross the city on a Friday evening, I finally saw through Nate’s meter-locked eyes: We were hemorrhaging money. Cream baths (delicious scalp and back massages) and root beer floats from A&W at the mall. Cha-ching! A taxi ride to meet a friend for coffee and a molten chocolate lava cake. Cha-ching! Cha-ching! Another mall to see @America, a hi-tech cultural center, and to eat a not-to-be-missed coffee-rubbed burger that was in the café just down the way. Cha-ching! Cha-ching! Cha-ching!
Compared to our mostly foot-powered transportation and $1 street food meals in SE Asia, we were living extravagantly. Nate was patient knowing that I wanted to relive the best parts of that life, but that life clearly wasn’t sustainable. Suddenly, in the country that I knew the best, I felt the least prepared to live as a traveler. We regrouped, even ditching our cemented taxi for a cheaper Grab (Asian Uber) mid ride. Later, we discovered a street about 15 minutes walking from our house for $1.50 meals to sustain us for the rest of the stay. We even celebrated with martabak, a diabetes inducing street pancake lathered with butter, chocolate sprinkles, and sweetened condensed milk. Mmmmmm!
After rebounding slightly, we boarded a 7-hour train headed east for Jogjakarta. There we met up with a former student of mine who works in the bomb squad section of their special police. He and his adorable family carried on where my Sebasa family left off, taking us out to eat and to his Muay Thai gym. Thanks, Bhayu!
We also met with friend Tabitha and explored Jogja’s water palace, famous shopping street, and Ramayana Ballet.
In the arena of transportation, we also found our walking feet again, much to Tabby’s astonishment. You’re walking? Nobody walks in Indonesia! Of course, she’s right. In humid, 80+ degrees weather plus pollution, plus missing sidewalks, plus crazy, unpredictable traffic, walking is akin to taking your life into your own hands. Maybe even more amazing, though, Nate and I took a 3-hour long, air condition-less bus ride seated next to a grinning toothless man to see Borobudur, a ride that would take half the time but double the money to get there in a Grab car. We arrived at the UNESCO site sweaty but happy. I hoped this made up for some of my back sliding when it came to the souvenir street – c’mon, everything is sooooo cheap!
Bali, our next stop, presented new challenges. First, we needed to get from the airport to Ubud, a city in the center about 2 hours away. We priced the airport taxis at 300,000 Rp and were delighted to find that the Grab price was about half that at 180,000 Rp. This was before we knew that Grab was run by the mafia. At least, this is what it appeared to us as we approached our Grab car. There were about four large men surrounding the car; two approached us. They explained to us that because it was unlikely they’d get a return fare from Ubud to the airport, they would have to charge us more than the quoted price: 250,000 Rp. This didn’t sit well with us, so we declined. We knew we couldn’t order another Grab because it was clear these men represented Grab at least in the airport as they passed no fewer than eight cell phones between them. So, we moved away and tried to order an Uber. While we were waiting for our Uber, though, the same men showed up and asked us what we were doing all the while craning their necks to see Nate's phone screen. We vaguely told them we had a ride. Mysteriously, after that visit, our Uber canceled. We gave up and got the airport taxi. Safely in Ubud, we stayed to the outskirts for cheaper Indonesia food and spent most of our time there going on (free!) nature walks through rice field and watching monkeys steal items from tourists in the Monkey Forest.
When we moved to our beach-side villa, we’d nearly mastered our new existence. We lounged on the beach and skipped over the western restaurants for a buffet-style Indonesian restaurant every day. When we did let loose a little and had a taco dinner for Valentine's Day, those tacos were all the sweeter. All that money we saved made us feel better about splurging on a day of private surfing lessons off the east coast of the island for Nate's birthday. I won’t go into the details of that here, let’s just say that I’m as good at surfing as I am at not spending money on cheap souvenirs. Nate performed beautifully enough for us both, though.
It took us three cities, but we finally whittled our way down to a manageable existence. We had a lot of help from our friends. A huge thanks to Jonthon for the free accommodations in Jakarta, Tabby for paying for several grab rides, and to Bryan for those beers on Nate’s birthday. With a little bit of grit and goodwill, we made it! And I have to say, the experience wasn't at all diminished. Beaches are no less sunny and beautiful without buying a chair to lounge upon. The views seems even more vast and awesome when walking hand-in-hand. And the food, when we did decide to splurge, was a whole experience, and we savored each bite. Now we’re leaving SE Asia and our safety net of cheap living, where keeping those cha-chings to a minimum will be way harder. Luckily, we still have our walking feet, and they must carry instant noodles, right?