Shutterspeed: Indonesia in details

The weather is turning ever more drab and gray here in the Netherlands, and I am looking through the photos I took during my trip to Indonesia two years ago with a heavy heart. When I started photography, I kept thinking about the advice my mother once gave me: focus on the details. And it’s true: sweeping panoramas of landscapes can be gorgeous, but they lose their depth on the screen. It’s in the little things that you can capture the spirit of a country. This is what I’ve done in Indonesia and on subsequent travels.

We landed in the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, where we spent one night. Java has a long history of Dutch occupation, Jakarta being the former nerve centre of the Dutch East Indies (then called Batavia). Some argue that Java represents the  “true” Indonesia, but each island is so different, it’s impossible to pin this down. I loved Java, though as on my previous holiday in Asia I felt conspicuously European: we were frequently approached by locals at big tourist attractions, like Mount Bromo and the Borobudur, asked to pose for pictures and shouted at by street vendors and drivers. We met lots of older people who spoke a little bit of Dutch. I have happy memories especially of Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java, from where we trekked out by bike to see Prambanan, the Hindu temple complex (ending up getting caught in a massive downpour), as well as the Borobudur (by minivan, at sunrise). We ate at the many restaurants on the streets (I still dream of gudeg Jogja, jackfruit curry) whilst being serenaded by groups of young Indonesians with guitars and bongos and watching becak and horse cart drivers loitering along the sidewalks; we saw a massive parade with an orchestra that played One Direction songs; we got swindled buying a lovely piece of batik and ; and in between all that, we witnessed some fantastic performances of age-old art forms such as wayang kulit shadow puppet plays and gamelan orchestras. Next, we visited the Dutch-founded city of Malang, which is characterised by broad boulevards, lots of plants and flowers, and gorgeous colonial architecture. From there we went on to stay at Kawah Ijen, a volcanic plateau and one of the very few places in the world where blue flames and blue lava, caused by sulphur, come out of the ground. To see the blue flames we left the hotel at 1 a.m. and hiked up the volcano for about two hours. When we got there, sulphur miners were busy hacking away at the blocks of sulphur, which they started carrying upwards as soon as the dawn came. We finished off at Meru Betiri National Park in the southeast. To get there, we drove for about four hours on the bumpiest road ever, zipping past coffee and cocoa plantations and black monkeys swinging through the forest just outside the window. At one point we had to cross a river in the car! Having arrived, we were immediately in for a treat: together with several park rangers and other people staying in the park, we went to the beach at night to watch the sea turtles lay eggs. The darkening sky was continuously lit up by lightning, like a broken TL-light, but no rain fell. After waiting for about an hour, a ranger beckoned us over with a flashlight to where an enormous sea turtle had crawled onto the beach. For a while we watched the white, ping pong ball-like eggs fall on the sand, after which the ranger gathered them to incubate them. It is necessary that humans control this process, otherwise the eggs and the babies would get picked off by predators all the time. The next morning, we helped release some recently hatched baby sea turtles back into the sea.

I liked Bali, though it felt a little polished to me; all seemed to be ready-made for tourists. Though that meant it was easier to obtain transport, talk to locals, order food and so on, I liked Java better for having a bit more of a rough edge. Nevertheless, Bali was beautiful; as the only Hindu island in Indonesia, there were lots of temples to visit, which I loved. Religion was a very big part of everyday life, and there were daily offerings strewn about everywhere. We witnessed a few religious ceremonies and stuck around long enough for Bali’s Day of Silence. Every year evil spirits come to visit Bali, and to make it seem as if the island is uninhabited, everything closes down for the day. I mean everything. There are no flights, no cars; nobody goes out of doors. We spent the day reading in our hotel in Ubud. We steered clear of the touristy south coast altogether, but went up north instead, snorkeling and hiking through rice paddies and the jungle.

Lombok and the Gili Islands

The two photographs I have included here perhaps say all you need to know about the difference between Lombok and the three little islands on its northwest coast. Lombok was gorgeous. Driving through the countryside we saw lots of mosques being constructed: a sure sign of the spreading influence of Islam in Indonesia. We meant to hike up Gunung Rinjani, the island’s biggest mountain, but we were told the weather conditions were unfavourable. Such a pity! We hiked around other areas of the island instead. The Gili islands presented a very different picture: these three dots on the map are prime backpacker destinations because of their paradisaical beaches. Each island is different; we meant to visit all three of them, but food poisoning forced us to lay low on Gili Trawangan for three days. Along the beach ran a big tourist strip with dive schools, all-you-can-eat restaurants and noisy clubs where shirtless tourists walked around as if they owned the place, while a few alleys away the Muslim locals went about their daily business. It did not really appeal to me. Still, we did some snorkeling and saw sea turtles, which was amazing.

See also: Indonesia in feet
All photos in better quality on my Flickr

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