TOWARDS THE PERFECT PHOTOGRAPH
It was while I was wondering around some of my favourite spots in Southeast Asia that I met and made friends with a Dutch couple, Miek and Jos. Our journeys had a lot in common, except their trip was much longer than mine, they were away for about a year and I was away for only six weeks. We agreed to meet on our return to Europe when Miek showed me her photographs. They were stunning (I have included a couple of them in my Lake Toba article). Mine, by comparison, were very poor indeed and I felt rather embarrassed to even show them. I vowed on my return to Southeast Asia, instead of my one second a picture method, I would spend a lot more time in an attempt to improve my photographs and to try and reach her standard.
The road to the international airport at Jakarta had been horrendous on my last visit, but this time, as I attempted to cycle around the ring road away from the airport, the infernal combustion engines reached new levels of horror. The ring road traffic had ground to a halt. Every property alongside the road seemed to have a car attempting to push into the jam. Boys were even employed to stand in the road and try to stop the traffic so that car owners could squeeze out of their drives and lever themselves into this endless jam. Around the solid mass of traffic motorbikes buzzed around like hornets; the two stroke engines of trishaws and the diesel fumes from old buses polluted the air to such a degree I had to continually stop to wipe the painful filth from my eyes. It was a slow, horrible, choking journey that seemed to take up most of my morning. My idyllic view of an island paradise was soon lost in the traffic. Not a place to take great photographs.
As soon as possible I headed south towards Bogor. My map indicated smaller roads, smaller towns, and I hoped, less pollution. There was one slight problem: the names on the sign posts were not the same as those on the map, but this was a minor consideration compared to getting into more open countryside, and, after a short distance, being able to sit in the garden of a small café and watch the goldfish being fed as I sipped a cold drink. Well worth a picture as it reminded me of one of the first places I had visited some years before on my way between Medan and Lake Toba in Sumatra. On that occasion, I had booked into a hotel, and as it was getting dark, dashed out to order a meal in their restaurant. The menu was in Indonesian, and I couldn’t read a word of it, so I pointed to a number and waited at my table by the goldfish pond for the mystery meal. As it got darker, it seemed an act of kindness that they were taking the goldfish indoors for the night to avoid predators, and it was a full half hour before I realised when I had ordered ikan mas asam manis – it was sweat and sour goldfish!
Even when well clear of the city, the traffic problems were not over. Although in Indonesia everyone is supposed to drive on the left, bicycles, motorbikes and even trucks, would come towards you on the wrong side of the road. The traffic did improve once the roads became more mountainous, and perhaps more importantly, the temperature dropped to a more pleasant 25° making hill climbing less of a problem.
My hotel had its own two living eagles next to the restaurant area, and there were fish in the stream just outside the door to my room. At night there was one hell of a row from the frogs, perhaps they felt they would be on the breakfast menu. Not uncommon in Indonesia.
On a long picturesque climb I stopped to take some photographs, but the camera battery ran out of juice. It took another long climb of about 10 km before I found a camera shop, and a new battery. While I had the chance I also bought extra slide film – there were going to be lots of photographs taken on this trip. The great advantage of all the climbing was a long winding descent, but this was spoilt by an horrific multi-vehicle accident leaving blood splattered all over the road. Yet people were still driving on the wrong side with an apparent death wish. The reason for this odd behaviour, is it seems, to prepare in advance for a right turn. Now, anyone who has travelled in South East Asia will know that it is not uncommon to meet a bicycle or a motorcycle heading towards you on the wrong side of the road especially if there is a hard shoulder, but this was a much deadlier form of lunacy.
Another night in a good hotel, with splendid staff and excellent food, was rather spoilt by a rude awakening just before the crack of dawn. The king pin at the local mosque would have been plenty loud enough just shouting from the rooftops, but with a bloody great oversized amplifier, he was deafening and a real pain in the butt. The call to prayer is suppose to go from mosque to mosque, not to villages 50km away.
Day by day the countryside became more beautiful, and I spent more and more time taking photographs. There were an increasing number of cyclists, some of them obviously in local cycling clubs. They sped towards me like a road race, and all these pelotons making splendid subjects for my newfound desire to take good pictures.
As the days passed traffic dropped in intensity and my eyes became less painful, however, the traffic remained as dangerous as ever. On one eventful day I was almost hit by a huge truck billowing out filthy smoke and driving on the wrong side of the road; a cat was hit by a motorbike and received a broken leg; and then things got worse, a woman in a car hit man on a motorbike. There seems to be a great trust in the will of God without any desire to help him out with reasonable behaviour! Arriving at a Hotel in Tasik Malaya I was told that here in 1976 the riots started that led to the downfall of President Sukarno. Not long after my trip there would be the political rise of his daughter to power!
The mountains in the south of Java are crisscrossed with the rivers. It was therefore inevitable that sooner or later I would have to take a ferry. On board, during this quite long ferry trip, I met a team of rubbish collectors. It consisted of a man and his wife and daughter. The man was clearly well read, including many books in English, but he had never had the opportunity to speak the language to anyone. This was his big chance to practice on me, and he took it full on. It proved a rather odd experience as he attempted to pronounce words the way they are spelt making it very challenging to understand most of what he said. While talking to me, the man was being nagged by both wife and daughter. He clearly led a very henpecked existence. I felt rather sorry for this intelligent man with a low status job and an unforgiving family.
From our boat we watched several canoes filled paddling girls, dressed in smart uniforms, heading across the river to school. They made great pictures.
On the one unusually quiet day, a barrier was erected across the road by men dressed in white. They were holding a bucket and asking for money. I tried to establish what the money was for and failed, and because of this didn’t give any. Something I was very glad about later after returning home and hearing about the Bali bombings that took place just a few months later. There is, of course, no suggestion that’s what they were collecting for, but there would always have been that doubt at the back of my mind.
This was a period of bridge building. Brand-new bridges were built alongside the old. Looking down from these I was often able to take good photographs of the sailing boats below. On another occasion I was witness to a rather bizarre event as a man led a string of ducks to the edge of the road, he planted his stick in front of them and they queued in a long line along the road’s edge. Once there was a break in the traffic he waved them across and they marched like well-drilled soldiers to the other side. All of this was recorded on film. Later that day I took a picture of a man cycling along with some huge bamboo poles. It was almost like a circus act as he juggled the bamboo while still trying to control his bicycle. The loads on bicycles were getting seemingly more unmanageable by the day. A bicycle truly acts as a beast of burden in these parts.
Borobudur was a revelation. At that time I had not been around the temples of Angkor Wat. However, looking back now, it is true there is no comparison in scale, but in detail this place was wonderful and can compare with anywhere in the world. Arriving there early in the morning I was able to get a local guide to take me around the temple complex starting at 6am. Photographing my journey in a clockwise direction, starting from my present lowly life of passion and desire and progressing along a life-long pictorial journey to a gradually ‘better life’ before eventual Nirvana. My guide showed me the position that professional photographers who produced the postcards, books and magazine pictures would stand, and I copied, and what’s more took my time in the near perfect light conditions. The outstanding quality of this place perhaps owes more to it being preserved in volcanic ash for the best part in 1000 years as to the considerable restoration that has taken place in the last hundred and fifty. And I was convinced I had the best of it on film.
A postcard image
Day by day my journey continued, sometimes over mountainous forest roads, occasionally it was pan flat, most often I was crossing terraced rice fields. One day while looking at a squirrel, I ran over a snake. It was rather small, and looked a lot like a leaf. In some areas there were lots of monkeys dashing across the road in front of traffic. But it was still just as dangerous for me as it was for the monkeys to look at anything other than how to avoid nutcase drivers. Larger towns in Java tend to have one-way systems, making finding hotels more difficult. However, I was almost always lucky, and would usually find a decent place to stay as a reasonable cost every night and rarely had to resort the staying in a basic Losman. Most of the time I was also lucky with restaurants. On one odd occasion I found myself the only person waiting for a meal in a cavernous upstairs building. A bat was gracefully soaring between the rafters mopping up the insect life, while on the rafters there was a battle for dominance between two geckoes that would occasionally stop fighting and have a mosquito-scoffing break. After this great cabaret the food too was excellent.
Just outside Banyuwangi I caught the ferry from Bali. It took about 15 min to load up, and 20 min to cross the Bali straight. Staying on the north side of the island as far as Singaraja to avoid traffic, I had a, for once, quiet, pleasant ride. The island is mountainous with volcanic lakes and stunning scenery. I crossed over the mountains to the south side and avoided the coastal road. In a beautiful touristy island I was avoiding both the traffic and the people but it was a very tough climb to the high points, but well worth the effort. This part of the journey was broken by staying overnight right at the top the mountains, with a stunning view down to the south side over the rice terraces.
Kuta beach is an area almost solid with Australian holidaymakers who spend most of their time on the surfing beaches. It was much too busy for me, and I headed East along the coastal road to catch a ferry to Lombok. It was in Kuta a few months later that the bombing took place that cost so many lives.
Crossing the Lombok Strait is quite a long journey of about 5 hours. I took my main bag off the bike to the top deck leaving the other bag behind. After all, all I had in there was a broken tape recorder that had to be jammed with a bit of plastic to play my language tapes. Leaving the boat I noticed the plastic bag with my recorder was missing but wasn’t too concerned as I was planning to throw it away anyway. I wasn’t until, after taking some pictures of boys fishing and finding I had run out of film, that I put my hand in the bag for a new film and a horrible fact hit me hard – I’d forgotten I’d transferred all my slide film, used and new, to the same bag as the tape recorder. All those weeks of keen photography had gone in one careless moment.
I did take a few more photographs as I wandered across Lombok, but my heart was no longer in it. It was time to head for the airport and catch a plane to Jakarta. The holiday was over, and I just had time to catch my flight to Paris, then on to Budapest to start another school term.
From Jakarta to Paris wasn’t without incident. Just after take off there were horrible grinding sounds from both engines. The pilot dumped some fuel over the sea before landing back in Jakarta. We were told we would be put up in a posh hotel until a serviceable aircraft could be found. I gave a, perhaps over the top, explanation of why it was urgent for me to get back, and I was flown first class to Paris with a different airline.
Looking back now and wondering what this whole episode taught me: well, I’m not quite sure. The change to using digital was still a few years away for me, and in that period of time I did get some decent pictures with slide film but just failed to reach the standard I had hoped for. Once I owned a really good digital camera everything changed. Cycle trips are now recorded in pictures. The big question is: are they any good? Well, after wading through all the rubbish, once in a while I do find a picture I quite like, but not often enough. Was this Java exercise worthwhile? Well, although I havn’t yet reached a high enough standard of photography, I do better look after the pictures I’v taken now!