We feature some of the brightest Instagram storytellers in the Passion Passport community through our Instagram Spotlight series. This week, German photographer Denise Bartels (@whereistheflow) tells us about the people she’s met and the pictures she’s taken during her time on the road.

Bali

Thanks to its friendly locals and unmatched natural beauty, Bali has a special atmosphere. During my time there, I met many interesting people, rented motorbikes with friends, and explored as much of the island as I possibly could in 12 days. I spent my days doing yoga and relaxing, eating street food or splurging at fancy restaurants, and watching the sunset on the beach with a chilled beer in my hand. I can’t remember ever seeing anything as beautiful as that sight, when the sky’s colors were reflected in the sea. Bali gave me everything I needed to reset, and by the time I left, I felt like I was fully charged on nothing but good energy.

Water and trees in Bali, as captured by Denise Bartels.
A temple in Bali, as captured by Denise Bartels.

One morning, I woke up early to explore the temples and waterfalls around nearby Ubud on my motorbike. It was raining, but I decided to press on to wander further. As it turned out, it was a good decision because the rain stopped just as I arrived at the waterfall in the gorge you see here. Although I expected that the waterfall itself would be the highlight of the outing, I paid just as much attention to the other natural features, like the rocks and the flora and fauna, surrounding it. The incredible setting made me feel like an explorer or a character in “The Jungle Book.”

On another occasion, after I had already hiked up Mount Batur with my friends from home, we heard about a temple (Lempuyang) that offers a view of the same volcano. We rode our motorbikes up the steep mountain route before finally arriving. At the top, monks wrapped sarongs around us and blessed us, and we took time to explore the impressively detailed temple complex. Then, we stood and took in the view, admiring the volcano and the rest of the sweeping landscape. It was a humbling experience.

A beach in Bali, as captured by Denise Bartels.In the resort village of Canggu, you’ll still find lot of beaches that aren’t too touristy. I came across one where the locals meet in the evening with their families and friends to watch surfers ride the waves. Fascinated by the crash of colors, I could see why they returned night after night. When the sun goes down and kisses the sea goodnight, the water and sky become a mystic blue and then darken until they match the black sand perfectly. I often came to sit on the beach and meditate for hours.

Varanasi, India

Over the past year, I spent eight months living in India, and Varanasi is one of my favorite places in the country. The city pulsates as if it’s alive, and its multifaceted, highly spiritual disposition makes it a good teacher of life lessons. In fact, I’ve learned so much about myself and other people while getting to know this spiritual capital of India.

Two girls at the Ganges River, as captured by Denise Bartels.
A man reads a newspaper at a stall in Varanasi, as captured by Denise Bartels.

The Ganges River has always impacted me in a particularly powerful way. At one stretch, locals take their ritual baths, and just a few meters downstream, they wash their laundry. Just a little farther away, they dispose of the dead by burning their bodies. Throughout all of these activities, children fly kites or play cricket, and animals run around freely. It’s chaotic but beautiful, and to me, it’s a striking contrast. Life really does begin and end at the Ganges, which also happens to provide an endless stream of subject matter for photographers. For example, look at this photo of these two girls who came to the river to take pictures of themselves in saris — yet another small moment that demonstrates the river’s importance in the city.

Two brothers in Varanasi, as captured by Denise Bartels.Elsewhere in Varanasi, I have spent quite a lot of time trying to get away from the tourist crowds, with my camera as a constant companion. During one of my attempts, I took a photo of this old man who is clearly engrossed in the newspaper and waiting for someone to buy something from his stall. I love this photo because he seems so focused, even though the street is jarringly loud. I also like the fact that he doesn’t have a cell phone in his hand — it reminds me of my childhood when I read newspapers in the mornings at school.

One day, my friends and I were taking a tuk-tuk from one end of the city to another when I saw an opportunity to snap a photo in the middle of a busy street. I tapped the driver’s shoulder, asked him to stop, and ran to get my shot. Before I got very far, though, a young boy came up to me and asked if I’d walk to his house down the street and photograph him and his little brother. The boy was so sweet, so I followed him as he ran ahead. By the time I reached them, the older brother had already picked up his sibling and started to pose. Looking at the photo now, I feel moved by their looks of happiness and their obvious love for each other.

Pushkar, India

I was lucky enough to be in Pushkar during Shivaratri, a special celebration for the Hindu god Shiva. The streets were even more animated than usual — everywhere I went, I saw flowers, heard drums, and met people dressed in their finest attire. After walking around with my camera for a few hours, I took a break at my favorite falafel stand and ordered some food and a chai.

A large group of people in a rickshaw, as captured by Denise Bartels.
A woman and animals next to a lake, as captured by Denise Bartels.

I was sitting idly and watching the moving crowd when I spotted these people in the luggage rickshaw. I grabbed my camera and ran behind the vehicle, stopping three times for separate shots. The first time, only one passenger noticed what I was doing; during my second shot, the entire front row noticed; finally, in the third shot, everyone posed for me. For both me, as the photographer, and this group of people, as the subjects, it was a moment of pure happiness.

An old man outside of Pushkar, as captured by Denise Bartels.One of the many things that I like about this country is the way that animals coexist with humans — so much so that I’ve often had the impression that no one is ever alone in India. Even in the rare, hidden places where there are no people around, you still find dogs, cows, birds, and other animals to keep you company. In fact, I’ve seen more bird species in one tree in India than I have ever witnessed in my entire hometown in Germany. In this photo, you see that Pushkar’s Holy Lake provides a sanctuary for many of these animals, including pigeons.

Finally, in the outback of Pushkar, I met this old man as I explored the area by scooter. He calls himself Bidi Baba, after the two or three packs of Bidis (very strong cigarettes) that he smokes every day. He said that he is happy whenever tourists talk to him or give him cigarettes, and I’m glad I got to meet him and hear just a little about his personal story. I was also impressed that, although he was a bit older and has worked hard for his entire life, he looked very young and fit. He laughed a lot and moved quickly and nimbly. It made me wonder if I would be as fit as he was later on.

Nepal

What I miss most about Nepal is the mountains. The first time I saw this amazing landscape, I was absolutely speechless, and I still don’t think I’ve seen anything else that rivals it.

Mountain peaks in Nepal, as captured by Denise Bartels.
A Nepalese village at sunrise, as captured by Denise Bartels.

I felt incredibly small each time I looked up at the mountains, and each time, my problems seemed to disappear. In fact, during my trek through the country, I often stopped for a break — not only to catch my breath and regain some strength, but also because I was utterly fascinated by the view.

A temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, as captured by Denise Bartels.One of my favorite moments from Nepal occurred after I had been trekking around Poon Hill for two days. I woke up early so that I could see the first sunbeams of the day appearing behind this village, and it looked like a fairytale. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt quite so alive as I did in that moment.

While visiting Kathmandu, I often had the feeling that time had stopped or that I was walking through a movie set. Although much of it was destroyed by the major 2015 earthquake, I could still see and feel the city’s vibrant history and the energy. In this picture, I was impressed by the brown of the stones and the red curtain, which seemed perfectly coordinated and represented the ancient culture.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is an ancient city that somehow manages to feel young and lively. While I was there, I spent a lot of time sitting in cafés, drinking tea, and watching the people on the streets go by. The city has its own charm, which is somehow both modern and traditional, and it features a myriad of history, notable buildings, and very old, beautiful mosques.
To travelers planning a trip to Istanbul, I’d recommend exploring the Sultanahmet district, where you can learn about the city’s vibrant history by visiting a few of the area’s museums. If you explore the district around the Galata Tower during the day, you’ll find many small streets and cafés that are perfect for enjoying views of the city. That said, the city truly comes to life in the evening and fills with people who meet in the park for a picnic or cap off the day by sitting in restaurants and bars. Since it’s what the locals do, I would recommend that visitors feast on traditional Turkish cuisine, such as pide, in one of the many restaurants overlooking the city. If you have more time, try exploring Dolmabahçe or taking a ferry across the Bosphorus to the city’s Asian side.

A street in Istanbul, as captured by Denise Bartels.

In Istanbul, you’ll also find many small antique stores and (of course) carpets, as shown in the first photo. Going to markets, bazaars, and small stores is a classic Istanbul experience that every visitor should try.

An artist's studio in Istanbul, as captured by Denise Bartels.

Away from the hustle and bustle, I found a small, quiet street, where many painted pictures were hung up or placed on the ground. My curiosity got the best of me, and I walked down a narrow alley and into the studio of the artist Avni Akmehmetoğlu. He welcomed me and offered me tea, as is customary in Turkey, and then showed me around his gallery. We became friends, and during my remaining time in Istanbul, I often visited him to talk to him about his life and art. All in all, my experiences connecting with him and exploring the city taught me that just about anything can be considered art, if it’s seen in the right light — and that Istanbul is extremely photogenic.

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Denise Bartels
Denise Bartels is a photographer from Germany who caught the travel bug after visiting Asia and a few cities in Europe. She is currently taking a break from her job and has been traveling full time for more than a year. She loves photography, writing, history, and art, and when traveling, she tries to live with locals to understand their country and culture.