Friday, December 08, 2006

Travellin' in Style

All this started because of a friend’s sad tale of a Bangkok trip gone awry. As she recounted for us the story of a noisy Khaosan Road hotel, of traffic snarls and taxi hassles, of falling ill after only four days, and a flight home that was delayed by seven hours (till 2 a.m. in the morning!), we shook our heads in wonder. Mid-range hotel in backpacker district, away from the lifesaving Skytrain, budget airline, she was just asking for it, we opined, even as we commiserated with her. Women over 30 should not try to rough it out, we agreed sagely, and then broke out in a cacophony of laughter.

But, seriously, roughing it out is all well and good when one is young or when one has no choice, but beyond that, one has to concede gracefully.

When one is young, the experience is all that matters. As bright-eyed bushy-tailed 19-year olds on the obligatory European backpacking trip, my friends and I stayed in youth hostels, lived on bread, and walked everywhere we went. I remember, to make our limited funds stretch for seven whole weeks, we allowed ourselves just one hot meal in every city we went to. Even so, in Paris, City of Lights and gastronomic capital of the world, we could only afford to eat at a diner where the meal of the day was hamburger! At least in London, it was beef chow mein at one of Chinatown’s notorious noodle houses. The rest of the time, we were lucky if our hostel had one of those vending machines that dispensed hot soup in a cup. Otherwise, it was bread with cheese, bread with bak kwa (which we had had the foresight to pack along), bread with more cheese… you get the picture.

And we thought nothing of walking all the way down the Appian Way in Rome to get to the catacombs. That meant walking without benefit of footpath, breathing in exhaust and dust, as overladen trucks careened at breakneck speed just inches away from us, clattering across the cobbled stones. All this, with a baguette, our lunch, sticking out of one of our daytrip haversacks, the end of it covered most unglamourously by a plastic bag to keep it from getting dirty. What can I say? We were too enraptured by all that art, and history, and architecture, to really care about these piddling matters. Incidentally, lunch that day was in a cemetery.

When one has no choice, it is amazing what reserves of resilience we discover in ourselves. We set our jaws, grit our teeth, and gird our loins like there’s no tomorrow. Once when I was in between jobs, waiting to start teacher training, I badly needed a holiday. I hadn’t had a break from work for years and just needed to get away from it all. At that point in time, funds were running perilously low and it was unlikely there would be any income for a while. So, off we went, HM and I, to nearby Bintan, on a shoestring budget no less. That meant we were of course not heading for posh Bintan International Resorts, but Tanjung Pinang and the local haunt, Trikora Beach.

In those days, for SGD$6 a night, one could get accommodation in one of Tanjung Pinang’s homestays. What we got was a room on the 2nd floor, with a queen-sized bed shielded by a mosquito net, and an archaic electric fan. (We could have sworn that Uncle Bong and wife had just vacated the room so that we could rent it.) Bath-time meant scooping cold water from a giant Indonesian-style mandi (concrete storage unit full of water), complete with fish. The latter were the size of carp, meant to keep the water free of bugs and larvae. Still, it was initially disconcerting to have to take a bath while the fish gazed on. But, as we found out later, that was (comparatively speaking) the height of luxury.

On Trikora Beach, we were amazed to find beach huts for rent at SGD$12 per night, and that included dinner for two. Now, the phrase, “beach hut”, may conjure up images of romantic getaways with thatched roofs, patios with cane furniture, and swaying palm trees. These were nothing like that. Sure, there were coconut trees but the huts were really, no, I mean, really really primitive two-storey wooden structures built on concrete bases. On the small veranda out front, there were two dilapidated chairs. Inside there was absolutely no furniture.

Downstairs was the “ensuite” bathroom and toilet, such as they were, with the ubiquitous squat pan. The bathroom had no running water, just a hip-high plastic container that the owner of the huts filled daily from a water tank, and a plastic scoop. This water supply was used for everything from flushing the toilet to bathing.

Upstairs was the sleeping area, where ultra-thin foam mattresses had been laid out. There was even a mosquito net that we could hang up. From the many small but evident blood stains on the mattresses we knew the net was a necessity, but first we had to patch its many holes with the surgical tape we had in our first aid kit. For lighting, the hut was equipped with a grand total of three 25 W light bulbs, one on the veranda, one in the toilet, and one upstairs, all of which ran on black and red wire carrying electricity from a diesel generator that powered the 8 or so huts. There was no fan, no doubt because this would have placed undue stress on the generator.

Nevertheless, we made do with the simple facilities. We learnt to bathe with 5 scoops of water, and that included washing our hair. We enjoyed the simple but tasty meals that we shared with the owner’s family. We went out on day trips to the uninhabited islets nearby with the boys who helped the family out, on a small sampan they had built themselves, where we did absolutely nothing except laze around and paddle in the water occasionally.

The most trying part was at night. By day, the beach was blessed with a lovely sea breeze, but every night, at exactly 1 a.m., the wind would drop and all would become still. We tossed and turned in the heat and humidity, falling asleep only when we became too tired to care anymore.

All in all, it was an experience to be remembered, for sure. Would we do it again? Not in this lifetime, not when we now prefer not to be grilled for hours on end under the hot tropical sun, not when we can now afford to relax in more comfortable surroundings. But back then, it was all we could afford and at least it has given stories to regale our friends with.



Blogger k said...

wow, seeing my plight in words seems more pathetic than just talking about it :) the delayed flight is the ultimate hell lah, 10 hours not able to have a decent rest at the airport :(

11:52 am  
Blogger blobbes said...

well now you have a good story to tell and re-tell for years later lol

12:07 pm  

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