A New Low

I’ve just got back from an exhilarating trip to Manado in North Sulawesi, diving at Bunaken 5 days in a row. After a number of plans that came apart in the past, this time I decided to not wait for anybody, and took off on my own, with an objective to complete the Advanced Open Water Certification.

…… Aaaaand…………..SUCCESS!

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Not that it is too difficult, like, for example, climbing a mountain. If you enjoy diving, and have the means and opportunity, it is simply a matter of applying yourself to the task, completing the required dives, and voilà! The certification is yours. As it is mine now. Qualification is one thing, but the diving itself is something else. An experience that transports you into another world; in Bunaken, it is one of those life events where your jaw drops and wants to stay that way, but no… you must not lose your regulator, so shut that mouth and open your eyes wide.

In this part of the world there is a wall… a beautiful wall… With the most amazing forms, shapes, colours and creatures, descending straight down into infinity. For once, I had no camera to document my journey – in retrospect that was a good thing – but I came away with no photos of that wall. If you are curious, you might want to check out the photos by a professional photographer here. Matt (http://matthew-oldfield-photography.com) was kind enough to share this beautiful picture that represents my experience perfectly:

It was my first time going down to 30m (part of the course requirement). I descended with equal parts trepidation and excitement. But the deeper I went, the calmer I got; deep steady breathing helping a lot. At this point, I wasn’t looking at the reef, just feeling my own presence at that depth. Bunaken is special. One plane is this wall, and the rest is deep blue nothingness above, below, behind and sideways. Stunning. My instructor had a slate with a few arithmetic problems to solve, just to make sure my brain wasn’t going over the edge, as it is liable to, at such depths. At one point I was giggling at the absurdity of that situation, which might also be a SIGN, but my amusement was only because those problems were getting a little complex (with brackets and all) and I could be doing better stuff down there like admiring the fish!

Actually, in the larger scheme of things, not having a camera was a blessing. Hands free, I could focus on developing and improving my diving skills, and really looking at everything, rather than chasing photos. The pranayam breathing practice came in handy; with my breathing technique well-regulated, almost all dives went up close to the limit of 1 hour with 50 bar left in the tank. Buoyancy control much better too, and marine life spotting and identification skills improved slightly. I am still terrible at remembering what I saw while logging the dive (which is where the camera helps, bad photos notwithstanding), but when I close my eyes, I can relive the feeling.

Yes! Qualified for Breathing, Diving and Arithmetic!!!

Nail-biting Tail-biting Pacu Jawi

While I’ve been lamenting that I haven’t done anything fun in a while, it’s more a case of being too lazy to sort and edit photos. These have been incubating for some months now.

One of the most popular photo hunting grounds in Indonesia has to be the Pacu Jawi bull race, held in West Sumatra, after the harvest season. I was fortunate enough to have my opportunity last year, tagging along with a friend and a largish group of enthusiasts for a day trip to Padang.

We arrived a few hours before the start of the races. That allowed us to walk around and look at the larger landscape. This event is held every year, but in a different field each time, so as to share the benefits of the economy with all members of the local community.

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People gather around the race arena: the field with water added for extra effect. It is not exactly a ‘race’, but more of a competition. The bulls are brought out in pairs, the jockey hangs onto them by their tails, and they are sent charging through the wet muddy field. The jockey’s challenge is to stay on till the end in the most commanding/graceful way possible. The winner is adjudged on the performance at the end.

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For a photographer, this is a great exercise to capture motion. And the good news is that there are plenty of opportunities to practise while you are there, as there are runs and reruns and more reruns. You can get thousands of photos in burst mode, and then is that problem of wading through plenty to pick the ones you like!

The races themselves are charged affairs. The bulls are lined up, the jockey takes charge, then the spectators yell and cheer wildly, egging them on to make a big splash and knock off the jockey. Sometimes the bulls run too close to the people, and that causes some more frenzy.

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Each run lasts less than a minute, and the jockey, even after a faceplant in the mud, will come back for another round. He might even bite the tail of the bull to get it going wilder!

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There’s a little sideshow with food, drink and simple souvenirs, but it is pretty difficult to drag your eyes away from the real action.

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The jockeys were also performers; with their identifying bandannas, their grimaces and muddy, they cut a fine figure themselves.

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I was a little sad to see that the bulls were being dragged into this game for the amusement of a few people, including me. While it looks fantastic in a picture, I can’t imagine how it feels to the bull to have its tail pulled and bitten, and being forced to run like that. Having said that, they do look majestic, whatever angle you look from!

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Prayer time

Ramadan and Idul Fitri is always an interesting time to be in a country with a predominantly Muslim population. For one thing, the focus on food goes up tenfold, with the high point of the day being buka puasa, the breaking of the fast. People take the opportunity to connect with all their friends and family and almost each evening ends up in a big party. Closer to the end of the month is the golden week in Jakarta – the mudik – exodus of people from Jakarta to their hometowns – causing all kinds of angst for those traveling, and sheer bliss for the ones staying behind, in terms of traffic. The two weeks in the year when you have to do your own housework brings its own brand of anxiety, and checking in to local hotels is a perfectly acceptable practice for many.

Devout I am not, but a visit to the Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan seems to have become a regular feature for me. The Masjid Istiqlal is the largest in Southeast Asia; for the second year running, I have joined the hordes to the big mosque early, early morning, just to soak in the atmosphere and try to make a few good photos.

What always impresses me about the mosque, and Indonesia in general, is how chilled out the people are. Everyone is relaxed, happy, friendly, and ever-willing to pose for a photo. I feel bad thinking about the terror strikes across the world, a number of them in quick succession in the last week, but hanging out with Indonesians brings a feeling of calm and good cheer.

The prayer itself is short, and if you’re like me, photo-hunting, it’s best to strategise where you want to spend your time in that 15-minute window of opportunity. The grand hall and the 4-5 tiers are impressive, but the outdoors are interesting too. Some of the fashions are extraordinary, as people always make an effort to dress up for the occasion. Very important for families to be completely colour-coordinated too! Another photographer tip: there’s a lot of photos to be had of people bowing their heads respectfully. Just try to compose the shot minus the smartphone that they’re poring over :-D.

There’s also the effort it takes to wake up super-early, and try to arrive at the mosque well before daybreak, to get in before the large crowds. It’s quite an adventure.

I’ve combined my photos from this year and last:

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri! Mohon maaf lahir dan batin!!

P.S. Cleaning the house is overrated. I’ve instructed Mia, the cat, not to shed, and we’re managing to co-exist with minimal physical exertion, while Rofa gets her well-deserved break.

 

Of Butterflies, Dragonflies, Flies, and How Time Flies

It’s been FOREVER since I logged in and blogged, mostly thanks to a slight change of pace in my real life. Photography had taken a backseat, until this morning, when I joined a bunch of friends for a macro photography shoot.

I am a macro novice, and never been tempted to buy the expensive lens. We’ve found a great guy to rent camera equipment from in Jakarta – these people are priced reasonably and they give great advice too. I shan’t share the name, coz then my secret will be out! Hahaha, just kidding, good service deserves good publicity, and I shall do my bit for www.sewakamera.com.

We went to the butterfly park? museum? thingy at Taman Mini – the Indonesian showpiece ‘amusement’ park – which had to be the saddest butterfly display ever. Pity to see the live ones in captivity (Yes!). Singapore has a better park at the airport! In any case, I was there to learn macro photography, with all its technicalities, and was pretty determined to look beyond the obvious.

And then my eyes opened. WIDE. Who knew that these creepy crawlies were so cute! I’ve seen other people’s macro pictures, of course, but looking through your own (or rented) lens is a completely different feeling.

I have a long way to go, and a lens of my own to buy some day, this is just the beginning. Click on a pic and see the enlarged view, I absolutely insist. That humble little fly, I just want to enlarge and give a great big hug!

I’m not winning awards any time soon, but thanks are due to my friends who taught and inspired me today. The knees hurt from all the crouching, but who cares.

It may be the Chinese New Year of the Monkey, but it’s gonna be a weekend full of the lil bugs for me!

Photo Walks in Kemang

The upmarket neighbourhood of Kemang is great for walking, not just for photography, but to explore shops, cafes and restaurants. And to think there’s not a single functional sidewalk anywhere in the neighbourhood! Still, armed with cameras, the scenery changes drastically.

Half a dozen photo walks later, I found that the heart of Kemang also lies, just like elsewhere in Jakarta, in its kampungs, with energetic kids, loads of colour and plenty of quirky sights.

I climbed up a volcano!

We rounded off April with a quick trip to the Ijen volcano at the easternmost end of Java.

I must admit, I thought of Ijen with a little trepidation; by all accounts the climb was arduous, and I’m no climber even in my wildest dreams. Tried to build up my stamina over the week, but it was never gonna be enough.

We flew from Jakarta, via Surabaya, to Banyuwangi – a town bigger than I had anticipated. They seem to have caught the tourist bug in Banyuwangi, with no less than 36 festivals planned for the year, starting with the Festival Toilet Bersih (clean toilet); as good start as any! The weekend after we were there was meant to be an international Tour de Banyuwangi cycling competition. One of the most exciting aspects of this town is that the island of Bali is in plain sight, and just a ferry ride across.

Seaside at Banyuwangi

Cutting to the chase, we had arranged with our driver to start from the hotel at 11 p.m., which meant a quick nap in the evening was in order. The drive to the ‘base camp’ took about an hour, and as they hadn’t opened access yet, we were able to catch another hour of much needed sleep. At 1.30 a.m. the gates were opened, and we started our uphill walk with scores of other enthusiasts. The weather was surprisingly chilly, good thing we had warm jackets and scarves among the other essentials – headlamps, sturdy masks, walking shoes and camera with tripod!

I quickly realised the futility of trying to match speed with the others. The road surface is good, but the gradient is steep and challenging. I begged my friends to go on ahead and let me carry on with my barely-there pace. One step at a time, a pause after every hundred steps, if not to catch my breath then to rest the burning calves. It was a physical struggle for me, but the mind was determined, and as long as I was able to pause, there was no question of giving up. There were hundreds climbing, and once I saw that other groups also needed to rest and I was able to catch up with some of them, I was encouraged.

My guide was a patient young fellow who let me set the pace without any complaint. Once we got to the top of the crater,  however, he drew the line at letting me climb down into the caldera to view the blue fire from up close. That terrain is very rocky and uneven, and I would’ve probably spent half a day getting back up.  I did spot bits of the blue flame from that distance, but the mind’s eye can see bigger than the camera can capture.

Hike to Kawah Ijen

After shivering up there for a while, we decided to chase the sunrise instead. More climbing, then some walking along the rim of the crater, and I was ultimately rewarded with some spectacular landscapes. (Must click on the images to see larger views!)

The unique feature of Ijen is the sulphur miners, who trek into the caldera twice a day, and carry back 50-60 kilos of sulphur to sell in town, for a paltry sum of around $5! They stop for a rest at the 2 km mark, to weigh their loads, have a smoke and sell some of their catch to us tourists.

Climbing down was much easier than going up. My monopod doubled up as a hiking stick, to take the load off my knees.

Afterwards, we had a bonus visit to a nearby waterfall. Note how green the water is, from the high sulphur content.Hike to Kawah Ijen

Hike to Kawah Ijen

Hike to Kawah Ijen

And fresh honey from a beekeeper.

Hike to Kawah Ijen

And a foot massage back at the hotel.

Just Another Gorgeous Sunrise at Borobudur

Going to Jogja and not to Borobudur? Next to impossible! I believe I’d covered most of the angles of the largest Buddhist temple in the world, except the one where you watch the sun rise from behind Gunung Merapi, and the temple emerge from the misty landscape. The day after Dieng, Sara and I thought it wise not to waste too much time catching up on sleep, but to rouse ourselves at another unearthly hour to make the short drive to Puntuk Setumbu behind Borobudur.

The ‘safe’ driver and my awesome climbing speed ensured that it was a race against time to the top before the sun appeared. The hill is as cute as its name. For a change, the local villagers have claimed the site, added some rudimentary ‘just right’ development, access to which is a paltry sum of Rp 15,000 (about a dollar). That’s a far cry from the sunrise tour at Borobudur from the hotel which costs about $35! This spot has got popular; we had a good sized crowd of sun worshippers.

Sunrise from Setumbu

After the mild disappointment from the day before, we were rewarded for our patience with a bright sunrise.

The landscape is magnificent! Merapi, furiously puffing up clouds of sulphur towers over Borobudur, and everything else in the vicinity. It’s a humbling sight.

After the sun was up, we enjoyed those famous mint-chocolate brownie treats as a mini-breakfast. At which point this guy rolled his tobacco and struck a pose that was too good to resist. I don’t ever endorse smoking, but it does look exciting in a photo!

The Hotel Plataran en route to Setumbu offers good views of Borobudur and an even better breakfast spread. We had a bit of both.

As profiles and silhouettes go, here’s some food for thought.

Sunrise from SetumbuSunrise at Borobudur