Monday, November 30, 2009

Giving thanks in Yogyakarta (Part 1)

Yogyakarta is perhaps the most confusing word in the Indonesian language, and it’s a city with over 3 million people. Ignore the Ys. It’s pronounced “Joeg-jah-kart-uh,” and it’s affectionately nicknamed “Yogya.” The variant spellings are enough to make my head hurt, ranging from “Jogja” to “Djokdja.”

Main street in Yogya/Jogja/Djokja/etc

According to my trusted Lonely Planet, “If Jakarta is [the island of] Java’s financial and industrial powerhouse, Yogyakarta is its soul.” I think if I could have picked where my Fulbright placement was, I might have picked Yogya. It’s teeming with creativity, from young students who paint bright political graffiti to vendor after vendor selling inexpensive, one-of-a kind batik clothing.

Batik. Indonesians LOVE it. It’s very similar to Vera Bradley patterns in America. Batik is very detailed, very colorful patterned cloths. “Good” batik is painstakingly hand-painted with wax, and it will cost you between $30 - $100. The more common variety is stamped. It’s surprisingly expensive, too, except in Yogyakarta, where a cheap shirt will cost you anywhere from $5 - $15.

This is the "good" batik.
But I cheated and this picture is from Bali.

There’s quite a lot of nasty talk here directed at Malaysians who are trying to claim batik as their own. (In fact, there’s a lot of nastiness in general towards Malaysia, who Indonesians feel are trying to steal their culture.) The United Nations, however, sides with Indonesia and just decided that batik is exclusively a part of Indonesia’s cultural heritage. The country literally celebrated in style. Schools shun their uniform on Friday in favor of bright batik patterns.

Read the New York Times article (or just look at the pictures).

So we decided to celebrate our long holiday—we Americans got Thursday off for Thanksgiving and everyone was off on Friday for Idul Adha—in Yogyakarta. (More on Idul Ahda coming soon in a different entry.) Maybe Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday necessarily associated with creativity, but it is a time for feeling grateful. And it’s just plain easy to be grateful when you’re surrounded by bright colors.

Get ready for a whole lot of blog coming at you at once.

The plan was that Chris and I would fly straight to Yogya on Wednesday evening. Cassie and Tyler, two other Fulbrights, would celebrate Thanksgiving at the American Consulate in Surabaya and would head to Yogya on Friday afternoon.

One thing that Chris and I are very good at is reading our guidebook and researching online, finding something that sounds a little curious, and saying, “All right, let’s go there.” (I think doing that is one of my favorite things about being here. Just hearing about something and immediately setting off to actually experience it.)

Pasar Ngasam [Bird Market]

Hence our first Yogyakartan adventure: Pasar Ngasam, or the Bird Market. Like so many things in Indonesia, we get dropped off somewhere that looks completely unremarkable. We say, “This can’t possibly be where we intended to go.” At that moment, some little Indonesian man will amble over and point us in some seemingly random direction or lead us down a sketchy narrow street. And suddenly, we’re in the middle of something.

I have enough germs to deal with
without having to handle a domesticated pigeon...

The bird market was exactly what is sounds like it is. Hundred of colors and types of birds, most locked in a rainbow of cages. A few young owls just sat on top of tables, blinking slowly and watching us walk past. A baby owl, we discovered, is only $10. If I thought I had even the slightest idea of how to care for it properly, I would have bought one on the spot, along with a pretty pink princess cage, and named her "Professor."

There weren’t just birds, though. Cages were full of lizards, bats (“flying dogs” to Indonesians), rabbits—for eating!, cats, dogs, and piles and piles of crawling, disgusting, buggy bird food. Pigeons—mostly for training, though some for eating—are overwhelmingly the most common bird. They live in little houses with their names on top and vendors sell an astonishing variety of decorated pigeon whistles.

Taman Sari [Water Castle]

Our personal self-appointed guide, who we met among the chicken heads and boxes of cockroaches, then led us to an old building right next to the Bird Market. The Water Castle was used hundreds of years ago by the sultan. (There’s still a ruling sultan in Yogya, by the way.) He used to keep his many wives in the tunnels and pools below ground so he could admire and enjoy them at his leisure. (This is eerily familiar to the myriad of birds in cages we just saw.)

If this is a water castle...
that makes me a water princess, right?

The sultan wanted his underground water castle to be a secret, so he killed the architect after he finished designing and building the royal waterpark. It’s empty today, but the people of Yogyakarta are slowly restoring it to its original splendor.

Prambanan Temples

I am not, by nature, a person who is into cool structures. I can see a building or temple or monument and understand that it is cool, and still, I really have to prod myself into being interested.

The ancient Hindu Prambanan Temples are about an hour outside of Yogyakarta. The most remarkable thing about them, to me, is that they were almost completely destroyed during a 2006 earthquake, and now Indonesia is painstakingly taking the millions of pieces of broken rock and trying to rebuild it.

Extreme Temple Makeover

Most of the holy symbols inside the temples were stolen by the ornery Dutch people. Poor Indonesia. Dutch people are to blame for the ruin of many ancient structures here. (They did, however, give Indonesia the gift of delicious pastries and an abundance of fresh, sweet bakeries.)

Chris and I had signed up for an afternoon/evening car tour that included the temples and the Ramayana Ballet. This was Thursday: Thanksgiving. We wound up sharing a travel van with one other couple. I don’t know who they are, but I do know that they were not very friendly.

They told us they were Italian and that they didn’t speak any English or Indonesian. (I imagine that would make traveling around Indonesia impossibly difficult.) Anyway, Chris FRASCARELLI tried to tell them her family was from Italy, but they remained indignantly uninterested.

Our tour gave us three and a half hours to spend at Prambanan. We read every sign, walked inside every temple, and took every forced goofy photo we could think of. We took as long as at the temple and surrounding vendor stands as was humanly possible. Then we circled the souvenir booths again, in case we didn’t catch all the cheap ashtrays and temple keychains the first time around. I bought a $2 pair of “Gurci” (not quite Gucci) sunglasses and Chris bought some ripe rambutan. Then we had two hours left. It was pouring.

The Italians sat inside the visitors' center until our van was scheduled to leave again, despite everyone’s best attempts to communicate to them that we could leave earlier if everyone was ready. This is when I decided that the couple was an affront to the country of Italy. The Italian language is beautiful; it sounds beautiful even if you don’t understand a word of it. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a whole book about how beautiful it is! Dom Caristi speaks in Italian and his words don't mean anything to me but they still sound awfully pretty! But these people were speaking some sort of miserable-person pseudo-Italian in which they groaned their words to one another and occasionally glanced around all shifty-eyed. That’s why I didn’t feel bad when we abandoned them at a plain, boring restaurant in search of something more fitting for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Dinner

We told our driver we really, really, really wanted to eat turkey for dinner that night. He was definitely familiar with what turkey was, but he said there was nowhere in the entire city of Yogyakarta to find it. (We didn’t even find a turkey at the bird market, not that we would have, like, killed it and cooked it ourselves.)

He first took us to a traditional Indonesian warung, which means it was pretty grimy and crawling with things. We asked if maybe we could go somewhere nicer for the special occasion. He then took us to a restaurant within walking distance of our next destination, but the menu only had about 5 choices, and I killed 12 ants on the table with my spoon before I even sat down.

We tried again, finding our driver and asking if we couldn’t have turkey, could we at least go somewhere where we could eat indoors and get a cold drink?

It was at that moment that a big black van pulled up behind ours in the otherwise-empty parking lot. It was fate. A man stepped out, and our driver asked him if he knew anywhere that served turkey in the city. He said, “Well, I’m a restaurant owner, and we have turkey on the menu!” Coolest. Thing. Ever. It went something like this:

Us: “Really?! You have turkey?!”
Him: “Yes, yes. Turkey.”
(Dials his phone. Asks if they still have turkey left. Shuts his phone and grins.)
Him: “Yes, still turkey.”
Us: “That’s wonderful! Can we go there?”
Him: “Sure. Did you know that today is a holiday in America where many people eat turkey?”
Us: “Um, yes. We’re Americans. “
Him: “Oh, that’s why you want turkey!”

We paid our driver some extra rupiah to drive us forty minutes back into the city. (Even with the 3 ½ hours at the temple, we were 2 ½ hours early for the ballet.) The “turkey dinner” ended up being plain turkey sandwiches, but the restaurant’s atmosphere was calming and elegant, just exactly what we needed.

gobble gobble gobble

We took turns saying what we were thankful for.

I’m thankful that water heaters exist in the world.

I’m thankful for cell phones that work internationally.

I’m thankful for turkey sandwiches in the middle of Indonesia.

I’m thankful this country has so many different, crazy places to travel.

Ramayana Ballet

After dinner, we rushed back to the Ramayana Ballet. The performance was similar to the Kris show we watched in Bali, but the stories are different and the costumes for the ballet aren’t as elaborate. Throughout the show, the dancers were struggling not to laugh. I thought this was supremely weird; they usually take the cultural shows so seriously.

The story is a sort of Indonesian Romeo and Juliet… but not really. The bride sees a beautiful deer and she begs her husband to go capture it for her. Unfortunately, the deer is the bad guy in disguise and he uses the absence of the groom to capture her. He wants to marry her because he thinks she’s his former love reincarnated.

"Burn, baby, burn" says Rama

Battles ensue, complete with monkey armies and plenty of violence. Finally, good triumphs and the groom wins back his bride. THEN, though, he doesn’t believe she’s pure enough anymore, and he says he doesn’t want her. Doesn’t that figure? She sets herself on fire to prove her innocence. The god of fire spares her, her loves takes her back, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for the monkeys, that is, who I saw for sale in the bird market earlier.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

More Indonesian "I do's"

I went to my second Indonesian wedding this weekend. I feel like I earned this invitation a little more, since the bride is the vice principal at our school. (She’s the same woman I accidentally kicked in the head when I fainted.)

Yana promised that after the ceremony she would take me to the largest mosque in Palembang. That meant this was my first chance to use my very own jilbab, the pink one Yana had given me as a birthday present. I was just going to carry it along in my purse and put it on before we went into the mosque, but Yana encouraged me to wear it to the wedding. She said everyone would be very excited.

Yana had to help me put it on, of course. It’s definitely not as easy as it looks. I started with my hair in a low ponytail. The actual scarf itself is a three-foot square piece of thin material. She folded it in half into a large triangle and set it on top of my head with the sides even. Then she safety-pinned it pretty snugly under my chin. She took the right side, pulled it around, and fastened it with a pretty pin to the middle of the back of my head. She pulled the left side across my chest and pinned it to my right shoulder.

“Oh, Katie!” she exclaimed as she covered her mouth. “I have never seen you look so beautiful!”

I’m pretty sure I look exactly the same as I always look, but with a scarf over my head. Still, I perked up. I felt beautiful. All of the other teachers were so excited to see me with a jilbab. They all rushed over when we got there and said all sorts of wonderfully nice things. When I finally got to congratulate the bride after the ceremony, even she said, “You look so beautiful! You did this for me and my wedding?” Sure. I nodded.

They had reserved a seat for me (the Westerner, a good luck charm) right in the very front and center of the 2,000-member audience.

I felt quite special from my seat in the front row. Indonesian weddings go much longer than American weddings—usually three hours or more, but there’s no reception. Everyone pushes and shoves their way through the food line, greets the newlyweds, and leaves.

It’s also not really important to anyone that the audience keeps quiet. The guests quietly or not-so-quietly talk to the people around them, take pictures, fit in a quick nap, or play with their children. Yana sat on one side of me, and Sry sat on the other. She’s another IGM English teacher and would measure 4’6” tall on a really good day. She kept looking at me and saying “I’m so boooored.” At this wedding, unlike the first one I attended, the men and women had to sit on separate sides of the room. Sry didn’t like that, because she’d forced her boyfriend to come with her even though he didn’t know anyone, and now he was sitting all by himself on the other side of the room for hours.

While the ceremony was taking place, there was a photo slideshow of the couple playing off to the side of the stage. The pictures were really beautiful. (I like that idea. I hate waiting hours for the wedding party to take pictures at American weddings. They had just taken all of theirs two days before. Not only could we see all of them, they were all available for purchase after the ceremony.)

There were a couple of different shots with the bride and groom posed very properly on their marriage bed. In one, the bride would be right in front of the camera smiling at the base of the bed while the groom watched her from near the headboard. Then the next photo would be the same pose reversed.

In one photograph, they were sitting on their bed holding up what I thought were peace signs and grinning proudly. The script at the bottom of the picture, though, said “Dua anak cukup” which I knew meant “two children” something. I asked Yana, and she explained that it’s part of a new government program that encourages couples to limit their families to two children. That’s really interesting—not only that the couple was featuring the picture so proudly at their wedding, but because I haven’t met a single Indonesian family with only two children yet. Maybe that’s why the government feels the program is necessary.

Sure enough, the bride and groom both had their fingernails and toenails painted bright red in all of the pictures to symbolize their impending nuptials, just like the guy in the park had explained to me when my toenails were red.

Ok, here’s the part that blew my mind—Sry eventually got so bored that she turned to me and said, “This is the third time they’ve seen each other, you know.” What? I asked if it was an arranged marriage, and she explained that it was, but not in the way we think of arranged marriages usually.

Betty had known throughout her whole childhood that this was how she would get married. She’s 33 now. She gave her photograph to her religious mentor, who began looking for a husband for her. Eventually the mentor met up with the groom’s mentor, and they compared the pictures of the two and discussed whether the two had compatible spiritual personalities. Apparently, they did. Without ever meeting Betty, the groom went to her house and asked her father’s permission to marry her in one month. Betty’s father agreed, and there we were, watching them get married.

That counted as meeting #1, even though Betty only greeted her future husband. Meeting #2 was the wedding pictures on Friday. And I was watching meeting #3 take place in front of me.

The man giving the sermon—translated through Sry and Yana—explained to the audience that because they hadn’t ever kissed, their wedding night would be even more romantic. Sry laughed.

I turned to her and asked if she kissed her boyfriend. (Indonesians ask such personal questions of me that I’ve started asking them personal questions back. They don’t even bat an eye.) “No!” she said. “A good Muslim will never kiss someone before she is married!” She said she’d only laughed because it was funny to think about Miss Betty kissing someone.

Hmm… well that explains why people were so put off by the teenagers “kissing too much” in the park. They’re not supposed to be kissing at all.

Although, dating is against their religion, too. Sry said she knows she’s breaking religious law, but she wants to find a husband she knows she can spend her whole life with, and her parents are letting her choose. I was shocked that Yana was disobeying her religion by having a boyfriend, too, and she blushed and hid her face from me. She said she just loves him and can’t help it.

I asked if they’re willing to break religious law by having a boyfriend, why don’t they just kiss their boyfriends? I think Yana was uncomfortable by this point, but Sry just kept chatting along, and she said she wants her first kiss to be on her wedding night, period.

The whole time, I was concentrating really hard on not viewing the whole wedding through my “western lenses.” Ok, this is the way they do things, and it’s just cool that I get to watch. But then at one point during the ceremony, the groom slid his hand over and tried to hold Betty’s. They were sitting on a really beautiful golden sort of loveseat together with pillows on their laps. As soon as she felt his hand, she jumped and pulled her hand away. Then she realized what she’d done and she quickly held his hand again. The audience watched the whole thing happen, and they laughed.

But my "lenses" got a little foggy. It didn't take much to see exactly what she was feeling reflected in her eyes. I couldn’t help but immediately look at Yana and say, “She’s afraid!” Betty had recovered quickly, but from my sweet front-row seat, her fear was obvious. Yana said, “Yes, she’s afraid. She’s only met him three times!” She said it so matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t something to be concerned about; it was just a product of the circumstances.

We took a picture of all of the IGM teachers surrounding the bride and groom. The whole time, all the other teachers kept yanking the fresh flowers off of the bride’s headdress. Betty would notice them occasionally and swat their hands away, but they kept taking more and more flowers! I leaned over to ask Yana why they kept doing that… but then she started pulling off one of her own flowers! She said if you steal a flower off of a bride’s headdress on her wedding day, it means that you’ll get married soon, too. I guess it’s sort of like tossing the bouquet, only lots of women get flowers… and they have to steal them.

It’s also interesting to me that weddings never take place in a mosque; I don’t know why, but I just assumed they would. The bride and groom just rent out a warehouse or put a tent up in a large open space.

After the wedding we hopped on Yana’s motorcycle and headed to the mosque. I live for motorcycle rides. Not only are they the only time I’m really at a comfortable temperature, it’s just fun to watch everything going on while we whiz by. Yes, sometimes it’s scary—there are so many accidents everyday. (My fears aren’t unfounded, either; a few years ago a Fulbright actually was killed on motorcycle. Calm down, Mom.)

Anyway, this time I was ready for the mosque—I was completely covered except for my hands and face. They’d refused to let me in before because I wasn’t properly dressed. They let us in and I basically followed Yana around. Muslims pray five times a days, and they wash themselves each time beforehand, so I just tottered along behind her.

We stopped to take some pictures, and a man offered to take one of the two of us. He asked me if I was Muslim, which I suppose made sense since I was wearing a jilbab and standing in a mosque. Yana told him I was studying Islam for school, which seemed a lot more appropriate than the “I wanted to see what the inside looked like” that I was ready to offer. He said, “You’re short like an Asian woman.” (This is all translated through Yana.) I said, “Yes, here I’m average, but I’m short at home in America.” He said, “Good. I don’t like tall women. A tall woman is a bad woman.” I said I was glad to make him happy, and we walked away.

I was instantly surprised that so many people were sleeping in the mosque. The inside of the place was recently remodeled, and it looks like a marble palace. There were tons of men just sprawled out on the ground fast asleep. Yana said some people like to “take a rest” there. The more I think about it, it makes sense. Where could you possibly feel more safe and protected than in the place where you worship?

Men have to go to the mosque every Friday, and they’re always allowed out of work or school to go. In some places, they have to pay a fine if they don’t show up. Women, however, must only report to a mosque on certain holidays, just a few times a year. Both men and women, though, are allowed to pray there whenever they like, but it’s usually just easier to pray at home. (Exception: women aren’t allowed in on Fridays, unless it’s a holiday.)

The prayer room was huge and mostly empty. Men are allowed to pray in whatever they’re wearing, but women have to cover themselves with an all-white gown. Gown sounds too formal, I think. It’s more of a white sheet with lace all around the edges. About 1/20th of the total area was sectioned off for women to pray in, though there were as many women there as men. Men and women must pray separately so they don’t distract each other.

So Yana prayed and I snuck around, feeling the whole time like I was somewhere I shouldn’t be, even though I am definitely allowed to be there and people were pretty welcoming.

Today was a good day; I learned an awful lot. Now I’m going to attempt to make rice in my brand-new pink rice cooker. When in Rome…

Sry and me with the newlyweds

Sry is on the left, Yana is on the right
(I'm in the middle.)

Let sleeping Muslims lie?

This is the prayer room.
You can see the portion sectioned off for women in the back.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Let's talk about [free] sex, baby.

My cultural mission this week was to try to learn more about dating in Indonesia. So after an intense seven days of trying (and failing) to eavesdrop on Indonesian dialogues and asking polite, pointed questions… I’m really no further ahead than I was before. I’ve just subjected myself to a lot of embarrassing conversations.

As best I can tell, teenage relationships here most closely resemble “going out” like middle schoolers do in the US. Almost all of my students have boyfriends or girlfriends. They agree, usually through facebook chatting, to be in a relationship. They text each other a lot. And they giggle to an alarming degree.

Once I happened to pit a boyfriend against his girlfriend in a heated sentence-writing whiteboard competition. The results were nearly catastrophic. Upon seeing the two at the front of the classroom together, the whole class erupted in cheers and cat calls. I had to get a bit of an attitude before they calmed down enough for the race to continue. I think the boyfriend lost on purpose, by the way.

Premarital sex is completely outlawed by Islam. I’m sure there are many Indonesians who have sex before they’re married, but I haven’t met anyone who admitted to it yet. I was surprised that contraceptives are so popular and encouraged—there are an embarrassing number of varieties in drugstores and pharmacies. But I think for the most part, they really do abstain until marriage.

One of my *friends pointed out a parking lot where she said teenage couples like to go and “be alone in the dark.” I asked what it was they did in the dark, and she gave me a look that made me feel like a pervert.

*I use the term friend for anyone who is nice to me.

“So, they kiss and stuff?” I asked. Yes, she explained. They kiss a lot. Too much, she said. Then I started to feel like pervert for asking.

Indonesians get married at pretty much the same age as Americans—usually somewhere between 25 and 28. I’ve only heard of a few divorces, but I don’t think that’s necessarily an indication of marital bliss.

Back during Ramadhan, we learned that most children born during the holy month are given the name Ramadhan. I chuckled. (Then I learned that you should never chuckle at Ramadhan.) We asked if many people chose to get married then. Our teachers explained that there was certainly nothing wrong with getting married during the holy month, but most people don’t do it.

Why? Well, I figured, it would certainly be inconvenient to wait until sunset to have a reception so your guests can eat. True, but that’s not why. Apparently, newlyweds have a very hard time waiting until sunset to consummate their marriage. “So,” I asked, “they go their entire lives without ever having sex, and then they have trouble waiting until the sun goes down?” Yes. Well, all right then.

Another friend promised me that the best way to learn a foreign language is to date someone who speaks that language. I’ll carry around a dictionary, and I’ll listen to my Learning Indonesian podcasts, but I think I’ll have to sit out the foreign boyfriend round of my cultural experience. It’s hard enough for me to communicate I am hungry, let alone try to nab a boyfriend. Plus, I’m well aware of my tendency to pick fights in a relationship. I can just imagine our conversation collapsing into something like “But, Ramadhan, if you really cared about me… you would just try using toilet paper. Just tryyyy it for me, please?”

When you ask Indonesians which words they associate with America (and I have in my classes), they’ll say things like money, liberty, Hollywood, football, and Barack Obama. And free sex.

I think my fellow ETA John said it best when he admitted to his counterpart, “I’m not exactly sure what free sex is.”

Since then, I’ve learned that “free sex” is basically premarital sex, but it also implies a more casual attitude toward sexuality in general. At best, pretty much all Indonesians think Americans are having sex before they’re married. At worst, they think Americans are engaging in all sorts of sexual cavorting without much concern for safety, their reputations, or people’s feelings.

It has the potential to become a really complicated discussion. When I taught a lesson on culture, one of my (male... who's surprised?) students pumped his fist in the air and shouted "Yeahhh... All Americans having free sex!" Unfortunately, I’m still not mature enough not to blush and stutter when someone manages to say the word sex while making eye contact with me.

The simple response is no, not all Americans have sex before they’re married. But there’s a bigger issue there, obviously. I explain that most of their perceptions about Western sexuality come from tv shows and movies, which are far more exciting and dramatic than real life. “Are you the same as characters in Indonesian soap operas?” I ask. They shake their heads no. That’s where the discussion usually ends, though sometimes I wish we could get into a more in-depth conversation. The school frowns on that, though, and I understand.

A friend who is 29 confided in me that her boyfriend of four years had cheated on her. She had been hoping they would eventually get married, but since they broke up, she had to go on living with her parents until she met, dated, and married someone else. This boyfriend, she had also recently discovered, had cheated on her with her best friend. My, that IS almost as exciting as a soap opera.

Knowing how religious she was, I was nearly positive she wasn’t engaging in any of that “free sex” funny business. So I wondered…

“What exactly did your boyfriend do?” I asked.

“He cheated on me with my best friend!” she said again.

“Yes, but… what exactly did they do that counted as cheating?” I asked, at the risk of sounding like a pervert again.

“Well,” she answered. I leaned forward in my seat. “I found out that while I was at work, she would come and visit him. And together…” she paused. “Together… they would ride their bikes.”

Oh. Well, you don’t have to explain that to me. Infidelity is infidelity, whether it’s sex or bike riding. She knew he was cheating, the best friend knew he was cheating, and the boyfriend knew he was cheating. It’s just funny that something that might seem innocent in the US was definitely crossing a line here, a line that sent my poor friend into a near-depression.

Speaking of weddings, did you know that brides and grooms in Palembang paint their fingernails and toenails bright red the week before their weddings? I certainly didn’t, and I was very confused when a nice man in the park congratulated me on my upcoming nuptials and pointed at my toes.

In Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert explains the significance of marriage in Indonesia. She says Indonesians will most certainly ask you if you’re married upon meeting you:

“It’s a positioning and orienting inquiry. It’s necessary for them to know this, to make sure that you are completely in order in your life. They really want you to say yes. It’s such a relief to them when you say yes. If you’re single, it’s better not to say so directly… The only thing your solitude proves to them is your perilous dislocation from the grid… Even if you are eighty years old, or a lesbian, or a strident feminist, or a nun, or an eighty-year-old strident feminist lesbian nun who has never been married and never intends to get married, the politest possible answer is still: ‘Not yet.’”

Last week at a birthday party, the host plopped herself down next to me with a huge grin on her face. She pointed out her boyfriend and told me she couldn’t wait until he proposed.

“Aww, how neat,” I said.
[I only use the word neat when I am slightly uncomfortable.]

“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked.

“Nope,” I answered.

“When do you want to get married?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Yes, but when do you want to get married?”

“Umm, maybe when I’m 28.”

She smiled. “Great!” she said.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Being Bule Radley

There’s group of kids who like to dare each other to run by my house and yell “bule!” at the top of their lungs. They poke each other and laugh bravely until I happen to walk by the window, at which point they run screaming down the street.

I don’t think they’re scared of me so much as they’re amazed that the only white person they’ve ever known lives down the street from them. And it’s not that I never leave my house. I’m frequently outside taking out the trash, getting my water cooler refilled, and picking up or dropping off my laundry; I guess they’re just not around then. Most people in my neighborhood have their front doors open all day. Admittedly, mine is usually closed—I’m either at school during the day or holed up in my bedroom (the only room with air conditioning). The screen door has a big hole in it, so anybody could just stick their hand through it and let themselves into my house. Since I don’t have anything in my house that I don’t desperately need or selfishly want, I try to keep my stuff safe. But apparently I scare children.

When I first moved in, I tried to talk to them, but they’d just scream “BULEEEEE!!!!” and run away. So now I just ignore them and they wait outside until they catch a glimpse of me, and then they run away screaming.

It probably doesn’t help that my Bali sunburn is now causing my skin to peel off slowly.

So the word “bule.” (Pronounced BOO-lay.) Forgive my rudeness here. In effect, it’s the same as using the word “spic” for someone Hispanic or calling an Asian person a “chink” in the United States. Most Indonesians really don’t mean it to be offensive, but the more educated people know not to use it. It literally means “faded,” implying that my ancestors’ skin used to be dark like theirs.

Kids are the worst. They just scream “bule bule bule bule bule!” until someone hushes them. I wish I knew enough Indonesian to kneel down beside them and explain that it hurts my feelings. Then I’d give them some piece of candy and tell them I’d really like to be friends. (Then, slowly, I would worm my way into their hearts and convince them to never eat a bunny rabbit.) Maybe give me another month or two.

When we were leaving Bali, we passed a Starbucks outside the airport that had a sign outside advertising their special holiday drinks menu. I laughed a little at first, thinking how out of touch this tropical coffee shop was. Then I realized that Christmas is next month. Who’s really the one out of touch? My whole life, I have subconsciously kept track of time by seasons. Here I am, sweating and swatting away bugs just exactly like I was two months ago, and the rest of the world is still moving forward. I can’t shake the feeling that school has just started and we’re all coming back from summer vacation; meanwhile, everyone else is preparing for their semester finals.

My students asked me what snow tastes like the other day. “I think it tastes like ice cream,” one girl said. Another boy suggested that it was probably more like vanilla. They all looked up at me. “Well,” I said, “it’s really just like… ice.” They were so disappointed. I wish I could have told them, “Yes, snow is delicious! Snow is just like soft, sweet sugar that falls right onto your tongue!”

I taught them that song I learned from Barney: “If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gum drops, oh what a rain that would be… If all the snowflakes were candy bars and milkshakes, oh what a snow that would be…”

One day, one of the English teachers asked me to prepare a lesson on “airports.” Airports. Ok. So I made these little pretend tickets with blanks for all the dates, airlines, locations, and times, and we spent the first quarter of the lesson filling out our make-believe tickets.

“You can go anywhere in the world you want to go, ok?” I explained. “Just write it on your ticket and tell me why you want to go there.” I showed them my example. “See? My ticket says I’m going to Italy because I love spaghetti and pizza and I want to eat the best spaghetti and pizza in the world!” They nodded and scribbled away.

Before I paired them off and they had to start interviewing each other, I went around the room and asked each student where he/she was planning to go. Every single one of them picked somewhere in Indonesia. Most of them chose Bali, a few picked Jakarta, and some wanted to see the orangutans and Komodo Dragons.

None of them want to go somewhere else in the world? I wanted to yell, “You’re 15 years old! Tell me you want to explore the pyramids in Egypt! Tell me you can’t wait to see the Eiffel Tower at night!” What’s the point, though? I don’t know what the right answer is.

The truth is, maybe one of those 30 students will ever leave the country. Odds are good that none of their parents have ever been outside of Indonesia. It’d take years for them to get a VISA to even vacation in the United States. More than half of them will never leave the island of Sumatra, and these are the rich kids. I feel like pitying them is elitist, but I don’t know how else to feel!

Do I force them to describe to me all these magical, incredible things they’ll probably never be able to do? Do I say, “No, really, you can go anywhere in the whole world!” when really, they probably can’t?

Sigh. At least I can teach them not to say “bule.”

Children are always the most rude to me, but isn’t that how it is everywhere? They don’t mean to be, they just aren’t able to censor their thoughts yet. I’ve heard that Palembang is one of the rudest cities in Indonesia, and I believe it. No one tries to take pictures or yell things at me as much as they do here.

I realized something when Raj and I were waiting for our luggage in Palembang last weekend. We were standing in a big group of Palembang natives, and no one was taking a picture of me. No one was whispering to their friend or trying to touch my skin when they didn’t think I’d notice. It happens sometimes in the airport, but it’s a dozen times worse at the mall.

Maybe I’m being too dramatic; I tend to do that. Maybe people at airports are in too much of a rush to worry about an American, while people at the mall are just using up their free time. But I like to think people at the mall are people who aren’t able to travel. Obviously, the people waiting for their bags at the airport have seen at least a little bit of the world. I think that’s all it takes: meeting new people and seeing even just a little bit of what’s outside the city you were born in, and suddenly you realize that there are people different than you everywhere, and it’s really not that big of a deal.

I wish I could scoop everyone up and plop them down somewhere new. But I can’t afford to do that, and the Indonesian government can’t afford to do that, and the American government can’t afford to do that.

Then I thought, maybe we could bring just one person or a few people here to teach them just a little bit about the rest of the world, just give them a taste (a taste of snow, if you will) that there’s life going on outside of their lives. And then those people would also be learning and could take that back to where they’re from.

Oooh, wait. I get it. So is that, like, why I’m here?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Very Bali Birthday

(Or as Christine says, “Celebrate, Bargain, Swim: One girl’s search for the greatest birthday ever.”)

I was sad when I came to the realization that my birthday in Indonesia wouldn’t be taking place at the same time as my birthday in America. In fact, only 12 of the hours would overlap.

But… then how would I possibly be able to bask in all the glory of my one special day? And that was the moment I decided I was going to take advantage of my birthday this year.

My plan was to begin “my birthday” at midnight in Bali, which makes sense. But instead of ending 24 hours later, I would still consider it my birthday until 12:00am on November 8 in America. Bali is one hour ahead of Palembang… so that meant… I was officially declaring this my 37-hour-long birthday.

But THEN we went to dinner at around 8:00pm on November 6… and saying, “Hello, Mr. Waiter! It’s my birthday!” just sounds soooo much better than saying “Tomorrow is my birthday.” So I did.

And, thus, I managed to squeeze a solid 41 hours of birthday in for myself.

Heh heh heh.

Bali would be wonderful it weren’t your birthday. It would be wonderful if it weren’t the only time you’d felt warm bath water in a month. It would be wonderful if you weren’t there with your favorite fellow ETAs. But the stars aligned. And it was wonderful.

We met up with my aunt’s best friend’s sister’s best friend when we landed in Bali. (Did you follow that?) Isn’t that funny? Someone at least four steps removed from me became my closest friend in a place I’ve never been. That has to be one of the coolest parts about traveling. Marilyn was so kind and so welcoming, and her house was INCREDIBLE!

She’s lived nearly everywhere in the world, and has the neatest things hanging and sitting all over her house to prove it. That’s how I want to be when I’m older. “Oh, did you mention Italy [substitue any other cool place]? Yeah, I lived there for a few months when I was younger.”

Her house is just a few minutes away from Jimbaran Beach. You can walk, and so we did. The ocean water was literally warmer than my shower water in Palembang. There were people milling around, but it was mostly empty. The weather was perfect, and for the first time in 2 ½ months, the sun was hitting my legs and shoulders. It was the sort of scene that makes you want to take big, deep breaths so you can fill as much of your lungs with sunshine as possible.

Jimbaran Beach... ahhh.

We played around, got sunburnt in about three minutes, and then headed to the hotel. It was… nice. I think it’s safe to say that a $75 room in Bali doesn’t get you quite as much of a deal as a $75 room in Bukittingi. Our door had only a padlock on it, and the showerhead was the hand kind, it didn’t hang on the wall. But hey… there was hot water and wireless internet around the pool. It takes less to make me happy these days.

So we went out for a delicious dinner on Friday night, where I truly did bask in the glory of my special day. The restaurant gave free tiramisu and limoncello… mmm. Then we walked around and explored the nightlight in Seminyak.

An interesting note: I’m pretty sure Raj stepped off the plane in Jakarta on August 30 and began anticipating our trip to Bali. He read books, he scanned articles, he researched online. He decided we’d stay in Seminyak; apparently the Goldilocks area of Bali—not too touristy, not too elite, but juuust right. Somehow, though, in all his reading, Raj must have skipped an important part of the travel guide: Seminyak is the heart of gay Bali.

Which made my birthday AWESOME. Raj was slightly appalled; the rest of us were delighted.

If there’s one thing Balinese gay men love more than each other, it’s celebrating birthdays with a bunch of American girls. I was plopped onto barstools, showered with free drinks, flamboyantly serenaded, ushered onto stages, and overwhelmingly cherished.

"You are the dancinggg queeen,
young and sweeeeeet, only twenty-threeeee."

(As a side note, one of the free drinks I received had “arak” in it. This is something else Jared warned me about before I came to Indonesia, and I’ve heard a lot more about it since I’ve been here. It’s basically moonshine since affordable alcohol can be so hard to find. But when people make it in their backyards, the alcohol content is incredibly high and they put other illegal substances into the mix.) Seven people died drinking it in 2004, and more have died since then. Generally, it’s completely safe if it’s served in a bar… but it’s still a little eerie. And a tiny bit thrilling.)

Sleep is for wimps in Bali. We were up the next morning at 7:30am and quickly on our way to Ubud. Get ready for a busy day:

Christine gave me a beautiful pink, purple, and green batik scarf: my first birthday present! Her students helped her pick it out. I would have worn it all day if I hadn’t been so sweaty.

First, we stopped for a gamelan performance and barong show. The coolest thing about gamelan is that it’s music that’s just supposed to be beautiful music. It doesn’t tell a story, it’s not supposed to imply an emotion… it’s just nice to listen to. Of course, THIS show did put a story to the music: the ancient battle between the good, ornery Barong (half-dog, half-lion) and the evil witch Randga.

Next we stopped at a place where you can watch women make “batik.” (More on batik in my next posting.) Batik is a huge part of Indonesian culture. It’s cloth made with wax and many colors and complicated patterns. Vera Bradley bags, for example, would be batik. I didn’t buy anything, though, because it was all mega expensive. We also stopped at a huge jewelry studio and shop; most of the products were sterling silver and also disappointingly overpriced.

Next up? The Monkey Forest Sanctuary. It’s exactly what you think it is. There were just tons of monkeys everywhere—running around and begging for food and fighting with each other! Christine was scared to death. One monkey even jumped on top of a girl’s backpack, opened the zipper, and stole some wet wipes before running away.

Monkey kisses. Muah.

There were signs posted everywhere about “monkey safety,” including “Never grab a monkey. If a monkey gets on you, drop all of your food and walk away slowly. If a monkey jumps on you, stand still, and walk away slowly.” I’m not exactly sure how you walk away from a monkey that’s on top of you, but luckily it wasn’t something I had to worry about.

After that, we were starving. We’d all watched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations on Indonesia before coming here. (Thank you to my roommate Leslie for cleverly finding out when it would be on and setting a timer.)

Anthony Bourdain... you got nothin' on me.

Tony eats at a place that serves Babi Guling, pork soaked in delicious spices and covered in coconut water as it’s roasted over four hours over an open fire. You even eat the skin, and it tastes like pork and sugar and fruit. Keep in mind, Muslims don’t eat pork, so this is the first we’ve had pig in 2 ½ months. No bacon, no sausage, no ham, etc. So sad.

I'm just missing the sweet Hawaiian shirt.

Honestly, it was a tad disappointing. The skin was really hard to chew. The meat itself was tender and delicious, but the restaurant coated it in these spices that detracted from the natural flavor. Oh well, it was still awesome.

Next we headed to a nearby traditional market. I bought a bunch of things for souvenirs for all of YOU, and I got a small original painting of a cute pink and red happy little pig to commemorate my visit to Indonesia’s only non-Muslim island and my subsequent gorging on its native food.

The Hindus in Bali take offerings to the gods very seriously. There are small offering plates—with crackers and candy, interestingly—at the door of every home and business, and in the four corners of every house.

If I were a god, I would absolutely accept candy as an offering.
Or Diet Mountain Dew.

And now, the Very Coolest Thing I’ve Done So Far In Indonesia.

Hopefully you’ve heard of Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a novel written by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia and spends four months living in each country. In Indonesia, she searches for balance and finds it on the island of Bali. She meets a lot of interesting people. One of those people is Wayan, a medicine woman, who is Gilbert’s friend and cures her of various illnesses.

Well, Mom found Wayan’s address, and we went there. It was just that easy! In the book, Wayan can’t afford to keep her house, so Gilbert’s family and friends raise the money to build her a new one. And there we were—standing in front of the house! We walked in and saw a few Indonesians. “Is Wayan here,” we asked. “Yes, I am Wayan,” she answered, entering cinematically as she walked down the stairs.

I think she was a bit apprehensive about us being in her home until we each agreed to do a full-body reading with her for $20. That includes a health screening, fortune-telling, a body and face scrub, a light massage, two health drinks, and a week’s worth of vitamins.

She was eerily accurate. She told Christine not to eat peppers, having no way of knowing she’s allergic. She knew that Christine had recently ended a 3 ½ year-long relationship and that she’d worked two jobs since graduating from college. She knew that Dani had worked many different jobs all throughout college and had four very good friends. I went last.

I wanted her to look at me and say, “Oooh, Katie, it is your birthday, I see, no?” But she didn’t. I guess November 7 isn’t written on my hand anywhere.

She said I need more calcium and water in my diet, and I shouldn’t eat so many sweets. Well, that part would apply to nearly everyone, wouldn’t it? She said, “You think too much. Your stomach gets sick so much because you worry.”

She told me to watch out for my left knee.

The palm-reading portion of my treatment

Then she started on the fortune-telling. According to Wayan, I will have two long-term jobs in my life: one full-time and one part-time. I’ll make a lot of money, especially at the part-time job.

“Ooh,” she said, turning my hand on its side. “You will spend a lot of money, too.”

“Uhh… like… too much?” I asked.

“No,” she said. I breathed a sigh of relief. “You make many investments. You love to make investments, buy property. Maybe you also will play poker a lot.”


“Oooh,” she said. “You have had many boys in your life.”

Hey, lady. Watch it. “Have I?” I say.

“Mmmhmm,” she answers. “Five men have loved you already. Five men have loved you deeply. But you have not loved even one of them back. Not deeply. You have not known true love.”

Umm, ok? “Do you think I WILL someday know true love?”

“Yes,” she said. You will be married two times. The first time, for 8 years and 3 months. Maybe 8 years and 6 months max. That is all. It is no good. And then after that, you meet your love. You are happy then for the rest of your life in your second marriage.”

I sigh. “What about babies?”

“You have… two eggs.” She looks at me intensely and her eyes flicker between my hand and my stomach. “No, you have three eggs in you. But one, it is not strong. It will not live.”

“Like a miscarriage?” I ask.

“Yes, a miscarriage.”

At this point, I wonder if someday I really WILL have a miscarriage, and if so, I wonder if I'll remember this moment, when everything in my "real" life seemed so far away and a miscarriage didn't seem like it would bother me too awful much. I bet I'll feel differently about it then.

She proceeded to tell me that I have three really good friends in my life right now and that I would have my two children in my first marriage and that I haven’t met either of my husbands yet. She said soon I’ll meet someone I’ll date for three years. She promised he’d be a good person and that we’d truly love each other. But I don’t marry him, nope. Then she slathered some smelly creams all over us, literally pushed about 30 vitamins into our mouths, slapped some sticky tape onto our knees, and put leaves on our bellies. She said not to take anything off for at least two hours. It was all so… surreal. It was exactly what I imagined it would always be like to actually talk to someone you met in a book.

Our trip was over soon after that. That night we went out to eat at a truly horrible seafood/Thai restaurant, but by that time, I was satisfied with my birthday already.

We briefly considered turning in early, but Christine said, “Katie. It is your birthday. We must go to Kuta.” So we got a cab (that took nearly an hour to go five miles), and we headed to the most touristy, most crowded part of Bali.

Here’s the thing about Kuta: everyone there is beautiful. It’s like the Land of the 6-ft-tall Gorgeous Women. Conversations were literally taking place in a layer of oxygen 8 inches above my head. I felt like I needed to start breathing through my nose and saying, “Sorry I’m not dressed real cute… I got mah nice clothes dirty in the monkey forest!”

Christine and I walked around exploring all the different bars and clubs we’d been reading about for months in Lonely Planet. People were breathing fire and dressed up like pirates and dancing with basketballs in unison! We saw the places that were bombed earlier this decade, the incident that single-handedly delivered a fatal wound to Bali tourism. (We didn’t stay very long in those places.) We ate chocolate gelato at 1am and ended our night with a swim in our warm, clean hotel pool.

23 is going to be a good year.