Going off with Strangers – The Real Jakarta

Didn’t your mother tell you never to go with strangers? Well, sorry mum. I did just that. But on the plus side, I got to see a side of Jakarta that the average tourist will never set eyes on!

It was my second day in Jakarta, Indonesia’s massive, smoggy capital. My taxi had spent over an hour to grind through just a few kilometers of the gridlock of honking cars, tuk tuks, belching fumes and weaving motorbikes in the city centre, out to the old harbour of Sunda Kelpa. This area still has some old Portuguese colonial buildings, now rather dilapidated, and is also home of the Jakarta Maritime Museum, which I’d heard was worth checking out.


Welcome to gridlock city.

I took in the view of the museum, with its gleaming cream colonial buildings and red tile roof from the old watchtower. The complex rose like an island above a sea of rickety buildings with corrugated roofs jutting out like waves at every possible angle. This architectural chaos is typical Jakarta.

Back on true terra firma, I was approached by a local man who I will call Mr. Sukarno. He offered his services as a guide around the museum, and I politely declined. But I was travelling alone and happy to chat with him about the area, and the history of the old port. He seemed to know his stuff. There were no tourists here today, it was low season, so he offered to take me around the museum and I could pay him what I liked. If it was rubbish – then no charge. Normally I’d never go for a deal like this, but as he was local I thought it would be good to pick his brains on life in Jakarta anyway, and if I learned anything else, it would be a bonus.

Mr. Sukarno

It turned out Mr. Sukarno was actually a great guide. His English was good and he knew the museum well, as we wandered through the history of seafaring Indonesia and Jakarta, passing old ship hulls under the sloping wooden rafters of the building. Mr. Sukarno elaborated on a lot of the information of the rather sparse info boards and knew the answers  to all my questions. After an hour I was all boated out and ready to head off. Mr. Sukarno asked if I would visit his neighbourhood and see around the port area, knowing already that I was interested in local culture and photography.

Inside the Maritime Museum

At this point I had to make a tricky judgement call. Mr. Sukarno seemed legit, he was clearly well educated, and he was on good terms with the museum staff who obviously knew him, and he’d also chatted with my taxi driver earlier. But I’d heard of and encountered first hand con artists who lure tourists into “home invites” or “local tours” in various countries I’d visited, in the hopes of involving them into a scam, or worse. But my time with Mr. Sukarno had been good, and I’d quizzed him about his life and seen how the others treated him. After all, I’d also learned in my travels that some people just want to be hospitable and are proud to show foreigners their culture.

Mr. Sukarno led me out of the museum into the port streets. Stalls selling everything from fruit to Tupperware lined the roads, roofed by tarpaulins. We passed clanging workshops, fishing industry outfitters strewn with nets, and people carrying heavy loads and pushing trolleys of goods. The masts of ships of all shapes and sizes poked above the low rooftops.

Outside the museum.

“Don’t come here alone, this is not a good area.” I recalled the warning from my taxi driver. We were clearly entering a poor part of the harbour (large chunks of the city are slums or impoverished). Entering a warren of quieter alleys where people and bicycles barely squeezed past each other, we ducked into the tight maze of a dark concrete indoor food market, lit only by the occasional hanging lightbulb.

Mr Sukarno obviously knew a few of the stall owners here and although none of them spoke English, they were happy to see me and listen to my murdering of simple Bahasa greetings. After Mr. Sukarno’s comment about safety, during this part of the tour I kept my camera mostly in my bag, even with a guide I didn’t want to advertise I was carrying an expensive bit of kit. My flip flops slid on blood on the floor – but it was just the classic Asian market where butchery happens right in front of you. Fresh food indeed! I often pity the people who work in these dark and smelly indoor markets, where the sun never shines.

We exited the market and continued through a confusing maze of narrow alleys and wooden houses, we were at the waterside now and tromping over planks rather than concrete. Doors opening directly onto the walkway revealed compact households inside. Kids and adults alike stared in surprise or smiled and waved at the foreigner touring around their neighbourhood.

We emerged from the covered residential pier into bright daylight on a rickety bridge crossing the dark and oily harbour waters. Fishing boats ranging from big metal trawlers to low wooden longtails chugged around the port and rows of them were moored on every inch of free harbour wall. Wrinkled yellow strips lay on nets and the corrugated roofs around us – Mr. Sukarno told me they were dried fish. He explained that most of the families in this part of the harbour were poor fishing folk, many living right next to their boats on this cobbled together, ever expanding pier of houses.

Jakarta harbour longboats

Across the bridge, passing running, playing children, we entered a more regular neighbourhood, where Mr. Sukarno lives. Here the streets became wider again, and houses were taller and made of stone. It was clearly a bit wealthier, with some parked cars, brightly painted walls and various shops and stalls – although hardly commercial or modern. We stopped frequently to chat with shop owners and families, Mr. Sukarno certainly seemed to be a popular guy!

At Mr. Sukarno’s small but pleasant house he offered me tea and we talked a bit about his life. He used to be an English teacher, hence his good language skills, and after various business endeavours had started offering his services as a guide down at the museum, convenient because it’s so close to his home. Although it’s quiet for punters at this time of year, in high season it can bring him a nice bit of extra income. He claimed I was the first person to actually visit his neighbourhood and house, and he was very happy to meet someone who was so interested in seeing the “real” Jakarta, and learning about their culture. I was flattered.

With late afternoon creeping in I decided it was time to head back to my hostel before the dreaded rush hour, when the drive (or crawl, more specifically) could take literally hours. I was going to call a taxi but Mr. Sukarno insisted he would take me on his motorbike instead. I had seen how the Jakartan’s drove motorbikes and so was a bit wary, but a free ride is a free ride, and I knew it would be fun. We raced along as I clung on for dear life to Mr. Sukaro, weaving through multi-lane traffic (both sides of the road), driving on and off pavements and dodging bollards, just as I suspected!

We drove through a small Chinatown and stopped off at one of Jakarta’s few Buddhist temples there. Incense filled the air and red candles and Buddhist decorations filled the interior. I watched as people threw patterned paper sheets into a fire – a custom which I hadn’t seen before, even in Nepal and Thailand. Essentially it’s a burnt offering, the paper is called “joss paper” or “ghost money”, and it’s usually burned to honour ancestors or the deceased. After getting my fill of photographs, I hopped back on the bike.

We navigated the traffic gridlock in style, motorbike is definitely the fastest and most fun way to get around in Jakarta, if not really the safest! We passed through the true slums, visible over a dirty, rubbish filled canal. The people may be poor here but they’re still friendly enough – men waved to me at a traffic light from a weird floating wooden platform that I was informed was the canal’s informal ferry! Half an hour later back at the hostel and with a saddle-sore bum, I thanked and paid Mr. Sukarno a generous tip and promised to promote his guide services in the hostel. He’d shown me a side of Jakarta I never would have experienced, as well as allowing me to meet the locals, and I wished him well.

It just goes to show that sometimes you need to get outside your comfort zone when travelling to really experience what a place has to offer. I took a chance on this occasion, and it paid off handsomely. I was a little nervous until we reached Mr Sukarno’s house that I might have made a mistake, given the areas we were going through, but it turned out alright. Of course I don’t suggest that you head off with random strangers in cities, especially ones you meet at tourist attractions, but in this case I had carefully observed and questioned my host, and seen how the staff and locals knew him, before agreeing to accompany him into the unknown in a dodgy area of town.

Jakarta street photography

Often on the road you are put into situations where you have to make a gut call about trusting someone, and this gets easier with experience. It’s nice to know that not every person that approaches you is out to con you; some are just trying to make a living and are actually good at what they do. At the end of the day, an adventure with Mr. Sukarno taught me a lot more about Jakartan life than any museum!


Bali Volcano Sunrise – Mount Batur


It’s dark and I’m standing in the streets of central Ubud. What should be a peaceful night is shattered by the incessant barking of the neighbour’s dog, who’s decided I’m a terrible threat to his territory. It makes the wait for my pickup for a sunrise trek slightly fraught, at 4 a.m. I’m not exactly corpus mentus just yet – and I’ve been attacked by dogs before in Asia. I stand my ground, knowing not to show fear – but hoping the ruckus doesn’t attract the more aggressive street dogs, and my tactic works. The little mutt eventually retreats into his garden and soon a mini bus jam-packed with tired tourists pulls up with a screech of brakes.

Sunrise Mount Batur

Mount Agung rises out of a sea of clouds.

I’m up this early to climb Mount Batur, an active volcano near the centre of Bali, for its famous sunrise. The activity is popular with tourists from around the island, with transport coming all the way from the beaches of Kuta and beyond, so despite the early hour, there’s a stream of speeding mini buses racing along inner Bali’s narrow, twisting roads towards the base of the volcano. In classic Bali style, we drive at breakneck speeds through villages and countryside, swerving piles of building material deposited in the road, slow trucks and other tour buses – and I’m thankful for the bonus of a working seatbelt. As we ascend to the crater lake rim, we overtake an open-topped truck full of school kids, standing packed together like sardines – they must be freezing in the chilly night air. Even our veteran Balinese driver, no stranger to Bali’s mad roads, tells me it’s crazy, explaining there was an serious accident recently in similar circumstances where a truck full of kids rolled with fatal consequences. He tells me they’re also heading for the up for the trek, its a popular destination for school expeditions.

Mount Batur night walk

My friends ready to start their night hike!

We pull into a large car park full of buses and taxis in the dark and I meet up with some friends. Torches are are handed out and we’re split into groups, each led by guides. There’s not much chance of getting lost though, as we set off on the sandy path out of the village there’s literally hundreds of other people going the same way – a sea of torch-lights illuminating the way ahead. The path is easy going for the first hour as we slowly ascend. I barely have time to set up my tripod on a quick rest stop before we’re off again but I do capture a rather grainy image of the rather mesmerizing stream of lights climbing to the summit.

Mount Batur Night Walk

Hundreds of walkers ascend Mount Batur under the starlight.

From now on it’s steep going and the soft volcanic soil is loose and slippery. Conversation stalls as everyone is breathless, an half an hour of climbing later we arrive at a large rest stop with food stalls overlooking the crater and Lake Batur. It’s a great view – twilight is upon us, the horizon changing colour and town lights shimmer on the lake as the moon shines overhead. There’s just time for another few tripod shots – but unfortunately its windy making for blurry images with the long exposures, and before there’s time to correct it, we’re ushered onwards, we don’t want to miss the sunrise!

Mount Batur night walk

Lake Batur at Night

The final half hour stretch is very steep and slippery, and I lose my footing in the dark a number of times, hampered by my tripod. To add insult to injury, my bag zip decides to break leaving my camera kit precariously exposed to falling out, so I wear it on my front to minimize the risk. We finally reach the bare summit, and sit out along little shelves cut out of the soil, with some mats to sit on, as the guide collects tea for us from a nearby stall. The view is already amazing – the sky is quite clear aside from a few clouds, and the awesome cloud bank below rolls over the landscape, islands of hills popping up from this woolly sea as the volcano of Mount Agung to the right towers over everything else.

Sunrise Mount Batur

The moon bids farewell as dawn crests the horizon.

Sunrise Mount Batur

Mount Agur

The summit gets increasingly busy as more groups arrive, mainly westerners of all types from backpackers to smartly dressed elderly groups. People take their seats and sip on coffee, dig into their breakfast or wander around taking photos as we wait for the sun to arrive. I’m mesmerised by the cloud sea, I’ve seen this phenomenon before at Mt Bromo in Java, and in the Himalayas, but it never gets old. There’s plenty of space to use the tripod, so I take advantage, unfortunately the barren summit doesn’t provide many interesting foregrounds aside from plants, and I have to be wary not to obstruct in the view for other visitors.

Sunrise Mount Batur

Mountains pop out of the cloud sea like islands.

Sunrise Mount Batur

The sun finally begins to poke out from behind the clouds and they turn out to be a blessing, forcing the light into amazing god rays shining out over the cloud sea. We’re blessed with a magnificent sunrise – and we’re quite lucky as of course it’s all weather dependent, a lot of others saw my photos and said I got a particularly good morning for it. I use the inbuilt panorama mode on my camera to try and capture the epic sense of scale, but you’d really need a GoPro or super big panorama to really do this justice. I use my wider angle lens for classic landscapes and my zoom to focus on details in the scene. After I’ve got plenty of shots, I sit back and enjoy the moment properly and just admire the view.

Sunrise Mount Batur Sunrise Mount Batur


Sunrise Mount Batur

The school groups we’d seen earlier finally arrive – sadly for them they’ve already missed the best bit. There’s a few scout groups and regular school kids, who seem knackered after racing up only to miss out! Once the sun’s fully up, we head back down the mountain. First we stop at some natural hot springs where a cheeky macaque monkey colony hangs out – getting fed by the tourists. As usual, they’re as crazy as ever, climbing on people, trying to steal food and there’s some cute babies clinging onto their mums. I keep my distance, having learned to respect these unpredictable imps during my travels – entertaining to watch though. Now the sun’s up, we admire the views down into the crater below as the cloud slowly rises with the heat.

Sunrise Mount Batur

One of the school expedition’s latecomers, holding aloft the Indonesian flag.

Sunrise Mount Batur

Food stall with a pretty decent view…

Sunrise Mount Batur

The crater below, with Lake Batur at the back.

Mount Batur monkeys

Mum protective of her baby, warily eyeing the tourists from a distance.

It’s a hot walk for the next few hours as we quickly descend the slippery soil path and return on a different road down the mountain, passing plantations and locals riding up in trucks – in ceremonial dress – the guide tells me that there are some shrines up Mt Batur where ceremonies are conducted. Back at the car park, we get a good view of the volcano and all fall asleep as we hurtle back to Ubud – it’s nearly midday and we’ve already been up for 8 hours. Before I part ways with my friends, they take me to a nearby pizza restaurant, Umah Pizza – what better breakfast than a tasty massive pepperoni pizza and a cocktail! I had a good nap that afternoon, I can tell you! I would love to return to focus entirely on photography, take my time, get those night shots with the tripod and scout out some better locations for the landscape – one day!

Mount Batur locals

Friendly locals pass by in trucks, heading for a ceremony up the mountain.

Mount Agung

Interesting hill with Mount Agung peeping out of the cloud in the background.

Bali plantation

A plantation, not sure of the crop as I haven’t seen these covers before. Feel free to enlighten me!

Mount Batur Bali

Back at the car park, we get a good view of Mount Batur’s distinctive cone.

Bali Ubud Pizza

Tasty and super cheap pizza at Umah Pizza, central Ubud.

If you’re interested in doing the Mount Batur climb yourself, there’s a few things to be aware of. It was a tiring morning – the final hour of the climb is demanding, it can be slippery with loose soil and rocks, and it’s steep. I would advise less fit or mobile travellers to give yourselves extra time to get up there, taking the time for plenty of rests. You can find tours for this everywhere on the island and the differences are negligible, they all use the same pool of guides from the mountain. As the guides have a stranglehold on the trip, doing it yourself is difficult as they supposedly deny take issue if you try to go it alone. But its a pretty cheap tour anyway. Be prepared for it to be very busy too and be stuck in queues ascending and descending – fortunately the summit is spacious enough to comfortably fit everyone. Take some warm clothes, it’s chilly until the sun comes up, and don’t worry too much about food and drink, if its not provided by your tour company there’s lots of sellers up the mountain to sort you out. And finally, your views will be weather dependent – I got lucky, but maybe spare yourself enough days for a few attempts if you get cloudy weather on your first try. But when it works out – its definitely worth it!

More images from the morning – click on them to enlarge:

Bali Portrait Photography Workshop with Sebastian Belaustegui


During my visit to Bali in June I did a private photography workshop with excellent photographer Sebastian Belaustegui (no, I can’t pronounce his sirname either), who specialises in low light portraiture and has work published for major institutions like National Geographic, Time and UNICEF. I met Suki (his nickname) when he was filling in as instructor on an earlier workshop that week. It’s not every day that you run into such a talented and experienced photographer so I asked if I could do a private workshop with him, and luckily for me he agreed. The first day of the workshop he reviewed my portfolio and gave me some enlightening lectures, and on the second he took us into the field for some photography. I should note straight away that although I took these photos, they’re the really the work of Suki, who made the connections, set the scenes, found the light and directed me throughout.

Sebastian Belaustegui, or Suki, to anyone that knows him!

Sebastian Belaustegui, or Suki, to anyone that knows him!

After reviewing my portfolio, Suki rightly identified that my weakest area was portraits, so on day two he took me out to the very traditional settlement of Tenganan which is full of friendly locals who are happy to get their photographs taken. Tenganan is a heritage site and is made up of two small villages. Its one of the only surviving places in Bali which preserves the old architecture and traditions making it a popular cultural tourist attraction. Suki had visited before and had printed off a bunch of photos to give to the people he photographed last time, also giving us an easy way to break the ice and open the door for us to take more photographs.


When we arrived at the smaller of the villages, which is much less touristy, we walked around the back streets and Suki found the first house he wanted to visit, inhabited by a friendly lady who owns a craft shop and her mother. Many of the mid-generation in Tenganan speak English but the elders don’t, so we had translation help from the daughter and our handy driver. The grandmother was happy for us to take photos of her and Suki showed me how to search for good natural light inside their house – which here generally don’t have glass windows, instead using shuttered openings, allowing the sunlight to stream in and creating a nice ambience in the darker corners.


Watching Suki work first of all, I watched how he carefully directed grandma’s pose and angle to the light. She’d changed to a more traditional outfit for us. The faces in Tenganan are so expressive and have a lot of character, it’s a joy to photograph these people. Then it was my turn, and I followed Suki’s lead by directing grandma and practicing different angles. I was using fully manual settings, which is something I’m still getting to grips with, and was careful to underexpose in order to create the required moody effect and darken the background to isolate her face. The tricky part is getting focus right on the eye, as you’re using a very low aperture its easy to get the focus slightly off.


Bidding farewell to the friendly ladies and wandering the village on a scorching day, we visited another house that Suki had been to before. The elders of the family were again happy to help and we went inside their dark kitchen to get some dramatic light. Suki is a master at finding perfect lighting and in a minute can position his models in just the right spot. The friendly grandmother was well humoured as I experimented with different angles and positions and her blue top made for a striking contrast to the dark lighting.


The youngest generation watched us with interest and I managed to snap this shot in the doorway when they were distracted.

The youngest generation watched us with interest and I managed to snap this shot in the doorway when they were distracted.

One thing I was conscious of is that because I was playing with settings and worrying about getting good shots, I would pay less attention to the composition and small things I could do to improve the shot. Suki is very good at iterating on what he starts off with, making minor changes to the model, whether its clothing, accessories, position, pose and quickly reviewing and changing again until he gets a perfect shot, something I can learn from.



The grandfather then came in and I had quite a bit of time to pose him as I saw fit – taking inspiration from Suki’s style I tried to get him in darkness with highlights which I think worked well.



The villagers throughout the day were very patient and great to work with – it was hard to banter with the elders as they don’t speak English but I think through politeness and smiles you can still somewhat cross the communication barrier. Suki is a very friendly and likeable guy with a lot of energy and immediately connects with people. He’s completely unafraid to approach strangers and strike up a rapport and they’re usually happy for him to take photos, especially in such a friendly place as Bali. This is a guy who fearlessly went out in his early twenties alone into the middle of South America to live with tribespeople for months. He’s also respectful and not pushy which I think is an important quality with this type of photography. Placing an emphasis on education and cultural exchange rather than exploitation aligns with my own views. For me, his ease with people is an inspiration, I definitely struggle when approaching and interacting with strangers in this kind of scenario and whilst taking photographs it can be hard to engage with your models when you’re focused on the practicalities. However, I’m getting better and watching someone like Suki at work dealing with these issues with ease was a good experience for me.



After some lunch we then went to the main Tenganan village, which is usually very touristy. However we were quite lucky in that it was really quiet that day. This is a beautiful place centred around the main street full of red stone homes in the traditional Balinese style which also double as craft shops. Tenganan is famous for its double-weaving textiles with colourful patterns – but there’s plenty of other craftmanship here such as wood carvings, paintings and stonework. We began by visiting a friendly weaver who speaks good English and showed me how the weaving process works. Double weaving is very time-consuming with some pieces taking months to make, but they are popular among collectors as it’s unique to this place and fetches good prices. Suki picked the kitchen once again for some portraits and the weaver removed his top for us for some dramatic humanity shots.


By now I was grasping the low light techniques better and it was easier to have a model who could understand my directional pointers, whilst Suki as ever reviewed my shots and made suggestions for improvement.


As we continued onwards, Suki spotted another woman that he’d met, and she invited us to come to a birthday ceremony up the road. We followed her to a side street with a marquee and many locals dressed traditionally for a boy’s coming of age ceremony. The clothes were colourful and there were plenty of Balinese snacks on offer, including some sticky sugary concoction in a long bamboo wrapper which coiled off in a spiral, an ingenious idea (once the girl helpfully pointed out that I was doing it wrong!). We got chatting to a beautiful girl there, who was the birthday boy’s sister. She spoke good English too and had an amazing outfit so we asked if we could take a few photos. She works in a lab yet lives in this very traditional place, one of the many strange blends of ancient and modern you’ll find in this village. Inside her parent’s shaded compound next door, Suki found some good light and we got some good shots, and then I hunted for some other locations and found a spot where the strong sunlight was diffused a bit and the light was perfect (the last photo in the post). We thanked the girl and the hosts and headed off to our last stop.

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We dropped in on another weaver who Suki knew, a really nice fellow who’s considered one of the best weavers in the village and does pretty well for himself. Like many of the other craft shops, the walls were adorned with colourful material for sale, which made for a nice backdrop. I hunted down some good light and again Suki asked the man to remove his top for a more authentic look than the usual branded t-shirts that most villagers wear. I also took the opportunity to get a few shots of my teacher!

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It had been a long day and we headed back to Ubud to review the photos and Suki picked out the ones you see here today as his favourites. These haven’t been post-processed either which is testament to how good he is at getting the right light. Gentleman that he is, he even invited me to join him and his daughter for dinner out that evening which I happily accepted. It had been a great few days and looking at these photos, I now have a high benchmark to aim for with my portraits. I also learned a lot from seeing how Suki works, both with people and spotting good light – it really raised my awareness on what light creates dramatic portraits and how to use it well. I learned ways to improve my compositions and model posing too, if you look at my other portraits you’ll notice a tendency for front-on photographs of people – since the workshop I’m exploring more interesting angles to work from. Suki is a real inspiration for me with his passion, outlook and talent and it was a pleasure to study with him, maybe one day I will eventually be able to reach his level! I also felt a lot of gratitude to the wonderful people of Tenganan who are some of the most friendly and hospitable folk that you’ll ever meet, very welcoming to strangers and eager to please. Great experience, one I will grow from as a photographer and I won’t forget!


Suki runs photography workshops in exotic locations over the globe every few months, check out his Facebook page for details.  I can definitely say you will learn a lot both practically and from his great outlook with other cultures (and no, I’m not being paid or anything to plug him, he’s just a top bloke!). Also, be sure to check out the amazing photos on his website, what an inspiring photographer!