Jeremiah Rogers

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Sun, Sep 7, 2014

Ubud, Indonesia.

Graffiti in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

Southeast Asia is cheap. Even a campground in the United States that costs $20 per night often comes with a nasty toilet, no shower, and a dirt patch where you’re welcome to sleep and make a fire to cook food. The same $20, actually only $16, gets an air conditioned room in Hanoi with real hand painted art on the walls, hand carved furniture, a queen bed, and a balcony. This makes it easy to travel in Asia for less than $50 per day and live in a nice hotel, over eat fantastic food, and engage in all varieties of hedonistic pleasure.

People in Asia don’t speak English very well. As I watch my subconscious thoughts over six months on the road the language barrier can make me think that people in Asia aren’t necessarily smart. It takes effort to fight these thoughts. People who don’t speak my language, or speak it with poor grammar, or constantly mistake requests and do something I didn’t ask for can appear to not be smart.

I tell you this bluntly, not so that you’ll feel bad for me, but so that you may see the same behavior in yourself someday and be careful with it. I’m saying these things not because I believe them to be true, but because I know that these thoughts can slowly infect us over time.

The thing is: Southeast Asia is not a playground to do whatever you please only because it’s inexpensive. People in Southeast Asia are not stupid, and being in poor countries is not an excuse to spend money like water or treat people like they’re stupid.

Through the benefits of luck, geography, access to natural resources and living in climates that don’t favor dozens of brutal diseases, Europeans and Americans have won the lottery ticket on earth. The rest of the world hasn’t necessarily caught up. It may never “catch up.” But that doesn’t mean you get to treat people in Asia like shit.

I bought this kid lunch in Cambodia. He was so pushy about selling bracelets and postcards that I decided to help him out. He also looked sick. Still, I felt weird afterward because he didn’t appear thankful at all for the food. Why? Because he probably need the money to give to his employer. Many of the kids begging in Cambodia never see the money that they raise. Poor parts of the world are full of moral mazes like this.

Your response might be “I’m not treating people in Southeast Asia like shit!” That’s totally valid. Here’s where the issue comes in: What we ask for, how we spend money, and what we appreciate when we travel are the parts of a culture that survive.

This is the converse to the point I made yesterday about tourism eating culture. We who do the tourism cause cultures to change. How we treat locals are how they think that we treat the rest of the world. In turn it may become how they treat each other, and it affects how they think of themselves and their country.

When I travel I am an ambassador for my country. I don’t want this job but it’s given to me and I have to accept it. I imagine rich aliens from Alpha Centauri coming to earth, spending money like water, paying for everything with diamonds, demanding Centaurian food and getting frustrated when my Centaurian language isn’t up to their standards. Then I imagine myself as that Centaurian when I visit Asia.

What do I do in this situation? I try to treat people as I’d like them to treat me unless doing so would offend them. I try to also treat them how they would like to be treated. I like to tread lightly in their towns, living efficiently, and favor stores with fixed prices over tough negotiation in the streets. I try to keep my hedonistic western pleasures (ice cream and coffee mostly) to a minimum.

Not giving money to a beggar at Angkor Wat. This is a nasty interaction driven by two clashing cultures. The western woman probably bought things from other kids, but got exhausted at repeated requests, so she kept walking. The child knows that westerners are good for money and that begging long and hard enough yields results. What should you do in this situation?

I believe that as a tourist I shouldn’t have to pay more for something only because of the color of my skin and my home country. I also believe in treating people like humans. It’s hard to turn down the tenth taxi request in a day gracefully. Sometimes I fail. But the way to atone for frustration on the street is to treat everyone else I come across as if they are a human and try to think opposite thoughts.

If someone doesn’t understand what I say, I imagine how well I’d do with their language if they were a tourist in my country. If I want to buy an experience or a hotel, I think about how I’d look buying the same thing in the United States. Before I take a picture I ask myself “Can this person get out of the photo if they want to?” and “Would I be upset if someone took this picture of me?” I can’t always take pictures that show people in flattering light, but I try not to make people look worse than reality.

True story: this woman’s face appeared to be burned off. I didn’t realize she was there, and she couldn’t talk. When I walked by she made a loud moaning noise and I looked down and was startled, saw her, gasped, and walked away in shock. I felt horrible, so I went back and gave her about $5. Even now I have no idea if the money I gave her went into her pocket or if someone maimed her so that she’d be more effective at begging for money. I have no idea if the $5 did more harm or good.

Sometimes, and I’m not perfect at this, I imagine myself from the outside as the traveller from Alpha Centauri. Blue helmet, pocket full of diamonds, getting frustrated that the Earthlings can’t figure out Centaurian language or cook a decent Centaurian dish.

Then I put myself back in the Earthing’s shoes and try to figure out how I’d like the Alpha Centaurian traveller to behave. I don’t necessarily think the alien should go home, but I do think that the alien should be respectful and aware of how he looks, how he acts, and how his actions affect life on Earth.

A final note: When the apes take over we’ll be paying this shit back. With interest.

Fri, Sep 5, 2014

Jakarta and Bali, Indonesia.

Indonesia is a giant. The country has over 240 million people, making it the fourth most populous country in the world. It has 13,466 islands. Almost every one of those islands has a distinct culture, and almost every one of those islands has a local language. The official Bahasa Indonesia language is a standardized language that a lot of residents don’t even speak.

Indonesia has volcanos, it has jungles, it has gorgeous beaches, tiny uninhabited islands and major cities. Indonesia has a variety of religions: Java is mostly muslim, Bali is mostly hindu with a mix of buddhists.

In the less traveled parts it is one of the most wonderful countries I’ve ever visited.

What to see

If you can get off the beaten path a bit, or if you aren’t afraid of getting ripped off a few times, there’s something in Indonesia for everyone. It’s a shame that the standard visa for Americans is only 30 days. The Lonely Planet book for Indonesia, which is free on Kindle Unlimited, also had trouble planning itineraries under 30 days. Worry not: a questionably legitimate visa extension can be had in almost any major tourist town for $100.

There’s so much in Indonesia that with better knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia I could spend a year here exploring. I also think that Indonesia deserves to be considered on the same itineraries as China, India, and the United States. That said, without knowledge of a local language I often found myself stuck in tourist destinations.

Various sights from Mount Bromo, Gili, Ubud, and the Ijen volcano.

Being seen

One of the most pleasant things about Indonesia is the reaction to the arrival of a white guy. In the less travelled cities like Bandung, Jakarta, and Surabaya people approach me giggling and asking to take a picture. Children chased me down the street laughing. It’s incredibly pleasant to be such an unusual sight that people would want to pose with me. It’s even awkward when young women want to pose with me and make their boyfriends take the pictures.

Arriving in Bali

My travels took a much different turn in the travelled towns like Bali and the Gili islands where locals approached not for a picture, but to to offer prostitutes, magic mushrooms, cocaine, marijuana, and taxi cabs. What’s most disheartening to me isn’t that tourism makes cultures capitalist — it’s the things that people are moved to sell and the way they do it1.

In Bali getting incorrect change and incorrect information was common. In Ubud one guy told me that buses weren’t running for the rest of the day and I should take a taxi for $20. One hundred meters down the road I found a bus for $5. Another guy told me I could never find a room for under $10 and I was welcome to sleep in the street for that price. I found a perfectly fine room for $8 a few minutes later.

I tried to remain level headed and remember that these are all individual people I’m dealing with, and that they aren’t ambassadors of a whole country. The tourist industry in the United States can be equally nasty. But it’s hard. By the tenth time someone shoves a joint in my face or says “Yes please, taxi!” or asks “Where are you going?” my guard goes up for the rest of the day. It becomes hard to enjoy the country. It becomes difficult to trust a local to just talk with me and not try to sell me something. A few times we made good progress and before a sales pitch arrived 20 minutes into the conversation2.

Tourism cuts both ways. The Indonesians I talked with seemed to almost universally dislike Australians. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

At the same time I saw little in Indonesia other than spectacular volcanos that would make it to the top of my tourist list3. Much of South East Asia has temples, monkeys, beaches, and relatively similar food. If you visit Cambodia, Thailand or Malaysia there’s not a strong reason to extend your trip to the Bali area as well. Mainland Java was an adventure, but the well worn parts of of Bali come across as mostly places for tourists to do yoga and party4.

As far as price, Indonesia is often a bit cheaper than Thailand. Mass tourism can push prices down, especially in out of style hotels. I wish I’d spent more time on the island of Java which is the most foreign culture to me — Bali is well travelled, even trampled, by tourists. When I was in Ubud, Kuta, and the Gili Islands I had a hard time remembering that I wasn’t in Thailand.

Mass market yoga and spiritualism in Ubud, Indonesia. That water has healing powers. Maybe hopping in would have cured my cynicism.

What I would do next time

If I could do this again I’d spend more time in Jakarta and the rest of Java to see uninhibited culture. I’d talk to the locals, eat the local food, and try to absorb the little details that make life different here.

Then I would come to the Bali area for a week to see the beaches, temples, and go snorkeling and scuba diving. Bali is comfortable but it’s not really traveling. It’s a westerner’s playground.

P.S. You might also like the other side of this article: How being a traveler on the road changes the cultures you visit.

  1. In a nutshell: where tourist money goes determines which parts of a culture you see and which you don’t. I like seeing all parts of a culture including the warts. It’s sad when the pleasant things are pushed so strongly and the quieter things are let to fade away because no one will pay to see them. It’s sad when the warts come out in angry sales pitches. [return]
  2. Some of this may be my own cultural expectations. In the United States we often treat friendship and business as separate things and are shy about bringing up sales to friends. We admit defeat quickly or at the least offer something while not really offering it. Doing this social dance in a foreign language must be hard, and with the amount of money at stake to come from a tourist I don’t blame the locals for trying. It still sucks on a day to day level. [return]
  3. The only tourist sights in the world that I unequivocally recommend are Angkor Wat and the Grand Canyon. Everything else can be missed and you’ll do just fine. [return]
  4. The WikiTravel page for Ubud specifically calls out Eat, Pray, Love for turning Ubud into town of heavily marketed spiritualism. [return]
Tue, Sep 2, 2014

Gili Trawangan, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite places I’ve visited.

It’s easy as a tourist to come here and spend too much money. It’s easy to completely isolate yourself from the locals. Hotels on the beach could cost 100 dollars per night or up to 450. If you value luxury that money might be worth it, but if you can handle a cold water only shower, no pool, and only a fan instead of air conditioning the price easily goes down to $8-$20 per night. Local meals can cost as little as $1, water as little as 40 cents, and even a full cooked chicken for two costs about $8.

In theory this could put my living costs around $20/day. I’m spending more like $30-40 because I’m not as obsessed with scrimping on my budget as it may sound. Instead I like to find the best value options and know that they’re available. If I want good coffee I’ll pay $2-3 for it, but if I’m fine with just caffiene I’ll pay 80 cents. Similarly if I need water right that moment I have no issues paying $1 for a bottle but I also like to know which stores offer it for 40 cents. My consumption tends to vary according to energy levels.

What makes me like Gili Trawangan so much is not the low minimum prices. It’s that local culture is easily accessible. Gili Trawangan has no cars or motorcycles: only bicycles, horse and walking. The whole island is an easy hour or so walk across. In the process of walking across the island I got to see things that I’d bet few tour magazines will show you. While this is not as “authentic” as a rarely travelled city like Bandung, Indonesia — it’s awfully authentic feeling for a tourist destination with nice beaches.

I took that walk yesterday, out past town, through the woods, and across to the other side of the island to see the ocean. A few of the roads are paved with bricks, the rest are packed dirt that the locals water in the morning to keep dust low.

In the center of Gili Trawangan is a dumping ground overrun with cattle. It was one of the most fascinating sights I’ve seen. The cattle are emaciated, often covered with flies, and don’t seem to have much grass to eat. They were digging through the town’s garbage eating discarded coconut husks and flowers. One of them looked like he was eating a trash bag.

I felt awkward and a bit afraid approaching this sight. It doesn’t show the town in a good light. On one hand it’s good that the cows are eating food that would otherwise rot. It’s also sad that they’re lowered to the point of eating garbage from a pile of refuse full of broken glass and ashes.

The island is a hair over a kilometer wide. If you come visit I’d recommend taking the walking path around the island, it’s a pleasant hour long walk, and also considering a cut through the center of the island to see how life is outside the main tourist areas.

Fri, Aug 29, 2014

This might be my favorite place in the world. As I got off the speedboat from Bali I was worried about finding a reasonably priced place to stay. I walked inland through narrow dirt streets, past goats and chickens and geese in the streets, past fields with cows, but only covered about a quarter mile when I found a homestay charging 200,000 Indonesian Rupiah (about $18) per night.

There’s broken wifi, cold water, but a free towel and toilet paper and more than one electrical outlet and fan in the room. The mother and her daughter cook me breakfast for free, lunch and dinner for 15,000 rupiah more (about $1.20).

Today I went snorkeling, did some programming, and then wandered the streets taking in the sights and photographing what interested me. My [last article]() wrote about photographing with one hand behind your back. I tried that today — I thought about processing these into black and white shot at ISO 2500 and f/8, but it wouldn’t do justice to the scene. This isn’t anything worthy of Ansel Adams or HCB or Sebastio Salgado, but it is decent photography showing how a town feels. I shot half the day closed up to f/8 and half of it more open around f/4 and f/2 and I was happier with the more open shots. All of these were processed using a Fuji Velvia 100 RVP Simulation Lightroom preset that I found online. I’ll post the link once I can find it again.

Sun, Aug 24, 2014

Ubud, Indonesia.

We are obsessed with capturing and sharing our lives.

I’m guilty of this too. In fact I’m far more guilty of this than most people. I joined Instagram in it’s first week. I took a selfie every day for almost a year, compiled it into a video, and uploaded it to Facebook. I worked on the Facebook photos analytics team and figured out how to get you to upload more pictures. Then I quit that job to travel around the world and work on a photo book. I often laugh out loud when a friend suggests that I put my camera away and “savor the moment.”

Finish line of the 2013 America’s Cup. San Francisco, California.

Still, after five months on the tourist track in Asia it really feels like we, as a planet, are taking too many pictures. Almost everywhere I go there are selfie sticks being deployed, there are people posing in mock imitations of statues, and if the sight is good enough there will be crowds of people pushing to the front with their phones and SLRs, snapping photo after photo, trying to capture the perfect moment.

Not photographing the Forbidden City. Beijing, China.

The reality of tourist sights is that they are never as empty as we depict in our photos. If the light’s good and something interesting is happening there will be a throng of serious looking amateur photographers stepping in front of each other to get the perfect shot. There will be another crowd walking directly to the front, ruining everyone else’s shot, and standing next to the memorable object — either taking a selfie or posing for someone else.

It’s hard to tell these days if someone is taking a selfie or taking a normal photo. Is it more polite to walk in front of them or behind them?

Why do we take so many pictures? My strongest feeling is that photos are the new souvenirs. We don’t want to buy things — we own far too many things — so we take pictures of them instead. Taking a picture is a lightweight way of owning something. Taking a picture is also the easiest way to feel creative without necessarily creating anything — we just capture the beauty of things that already exist.

Remembering Hong Kong, China and Mt. Bromo, Indonesia.

How many photos do we take? Almost 1 trillion in 2014, that’s roughly 141 photos for each human on Earth. Many of the seven billion people on earth don’t even own a camera, so the real number of shots per camera owner is easily over 500. A modern computer can store hundreds of thousands photos. If you have an Apple Device, iCloud will store 1,000 of them for you. Most people I know blew past that iCloud limit ages ago.

We definitely don’t need this many photos. The world can be described with less. For comparison, The Ansel Adams Gallery sells a special collection of Ansel’s best photos of Yosemite: there are only 24 of them. Sebastião Salgado’s epic seven year photography project Genesis yielded only 520 pages of photos.

Again, I’m guilty of taking too many pictures myself. My collection of “keeper” photos from my trip to Asia is 3,587 pictures. It’s over 75 gigabytes. When famously prolific photographer Gary Winograd died he left around 130,000 exposures. My whole personal archive is already about 26,000 exposures, so I’m already 20% of the way to Winograd territory.

A man stops to take a picture of the Buddha before kneeling and praying. Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Often when I’m in the thick of things at a tourist sight the most obvious subject isn’t what everyone is taking pictures of — it’s the process of taking pictures itself. It’s the crowd of people, the selfie poses, the forest of cameras on up-stretched arms, the pushing and shoving to get to the front of the queue. I rarely see tourists behave more savagely then when fighting to remember a moment.

So it’s fascinating to me to take pictures of pictures being taken. Afterwards, like any good photographer, I push and cajole my way to the front to get the same picture that everyone else is taking.

Even when I’m fully aware of the absurdity of standing in a crowd with dozens of people taking the exact same picture — I just can’t overcome that urge we all feel. So I pull out the camera and snap away.

Entering Angkor Wat. Phnom Pehn, Cambodia.