Living here in New Zealand, Indonesia is one of our closest neighbours, but it requires a 9h flight to get there!
I have now visited Indonesia 3 times, always with camera in hand. The landscape is spectacular, this cannot be denied, but there is so much more…
Every time I’m in Indonesia, Bali is the heart of my visit. The reason instantly becomes obvious to anyone who goes there for the first time. The Balinese people are some of the most friendly and welcoming people in the world!
Jewel in the crown
Bali is just one of the 17,508 islands that make up Indonesia, but it is by far the most well-known and the most visited. I don’t know if it is the nicest or the most beautiful, but it is certainly the most developed for tourism.
Bali was first touted as a tourist destination by the Dutch, at the time Indonesia was their colony. They recognized the potential of the islands as a tourist destination, but the practicalities of this were changed by the Second World War. It was not until much later, after Indonesia gained independence, that tourists started to find their way to Bali again. Many of the first post-war tourists to visit were surfers in search of remote beaches and perfect waves. It did not take long for the word to spread, and today more than 11 million people visit Bali every year.
The first time I visited Indonesia was more than 15 years ago. I arrived by sea as crew on a yacht sailing from Darwin, Australia. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and it’s almost certainly due to that trip that I now live on my own yacht.
On our way to Bali, we stopped off at a few of the remote south eastern islands of the archipelago, such as Rote Island and most memorably The Komodo Islands. We then sailed for Bali where I disembarked the yacht and was instantly enchanted. The people are not only warm and welcoming but also incredibly creative. I often stayed with local families and was invited to eat their delicious traditional food.
In Denpasar, I decided to buy a bicycle to spend the next 3 months touring. I went up and over the mountains of Bali to the north coast, then along to Java and Sumatra where I got a ferry out to Singapore and rode on into Malaysia.
I have been back to Indonesia twice since that first trip, most recently in May 2018. It is a different experience these days with increasing numbers of tourists arriving all the time. But the rice fields are just the same and the faces working them still smile broadly.
It was during my first trip there that I developed the love I now have of photographing people. Before, I had always been strictly into wildlife and landscape, but there I discovered the joy of street photography.
One of the things I learned early was to spend time with people before pointing the camera at their faces. This approach has ended up taking me into many of my travel highlights since, often being invited into people’s homes, wedding ceremonies, and to locations seldom visited. Getting to know the locals has also led me to develop some great friendships.
One day during my very first trip to Indonesia, I was out walking on a track through some clove and coffee plantations. There this young man asked me to come and sit with him for a coffee. I was a little bit sceptical at first, but I decided there could be no harm in sharing a coffee… Well, we ended up chatting for hours and I spent a good part of the next week with him. He took me to the best spots for sunrise photos, to meet friends living in the plantation and to a match of the Traditional Balinese game called Megangsingan.
Megangsingan is the oldest known game in Bali. I cannot say I understood the rules entirely, but it consists of men throwing large spinning tops onto the ground, and the next player throwing his spinning top onto his opponent’s one, trying to stop its momentum. The thrower of the last top spinning wins the round.
Last year, on my most recent trip to Bali, once again during a walk through a village, I started up a conversation with a woman on the side of the road. She told us a little about her business making traditional cakes and sweets and asked us to come to her home the following morning to try some. Her name is Ketut and that was just the beginning of a very special friendship.
We spent a lot of time with Ketut and her family. She taught us some of her recipes and I taught her some of mine. She worked incredibly hard, often only sleeping a few hours each night, but was always laughing and making us all smile. Everyone would make us feel we were part of the family, inviting us to join them to some of their ceremonies and feasts, lending us some of their traditional Balinese clothing. I took so many wonderful lasting memories from the experience, as well as some fantastic images.
Never ending stories
Ketut was not the only local who has taken me under her wing during this last trip to Bali. I was there for about 2 months and got to travel slowly, spending considerable time in each village. Every time I moved on, I would feel blessed, having met all these wonderful people and lived these experiences. Sometimes I felt it was a shame to go away and leave them behind, but then would arrive in another awesome place and meet more amazing people. For me I think it is these connections and glimpses into local life that make traveling so special and I find these far more interesting than ticking off the big tourist attractions.
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