Curiosity #53: Festival Kalimantan


I wandered in alone. It was 10pm at night and, under campus lamplight, my pasty skin made me look especially lonely. Naturally, I paid no heed, and to the best of my ability stood relaxed among the crowds.

Kalimantan is an island previously known as Borneo, located directly to the North of Java. It was this island’s culture that was being celebrated on the night I attended. The entirety of the festival had been erected in a campus parking lot. Most of the attendees were students: punk youths – many of them with tattoos and Korean-pop-styled hair. They smirked sidelong as I entered the festival grounds, amused that a white woman might want to enter the scene unaccompanied.

Near where I stood, tented stands opened their curtains for visitors who wished to explore various elements of Kalimantan culture: clothing, food, weaves, fabric. Kalimantan, while now known among the Javanese for its mining industry and decadent obsession with wealth and sin, is also a place of lush rainforest reserves, and a place where traditional culture remains preserved among forest-dwellers known as “The Dayak.”

I looked over the crowds at the main stage. No one danced or sang; in fact I noticed no authority at all. And yet the festival lot was crammed with seated bodies facing toward the spot-lit podium, as if something spectacular might emerge at any moment. What were they waiting for? I waited for several minutes and gave up. Convinced that the dance and music performances had already finished, content enough that I had seen the art and idol displays, I decided to leave.

As I turned around, a young man beside me struck up conversation. And so I stayed. The young man’s name was Ade. He was a graduating senior at my host university and a native of Kalimantan. Since he worked at one of the festival stands, he offered to show me around. Grateful to have a well-meaning guide, I agreed to his offer and followed. As I worked my way into the crowd, bumping between chests and backpacks, I kept a desperate eye on my new acquaintance, astonished at my own swiftness in befriending this stranger out of mere loneliness and curiosity.

Ade and I entered a tent of cultural artifacts. They were propped against the sides of the tent like decorations in a domestic space, replicating the walled interior of a Kalimantan Home. Among the artifacts were traditional musical instruments, and beside them: masks, authentic skulls of various animals. These hung from pegs like paintings. The skull of a cobra. A mysterious, large rodent. An orangutan. Was that a human?

Outside the tent, a group of young men in the corner giggled at the sight of my white skin. “Hello, Miss,” they said when they noticed my eyes upon them. One of the young men hoisted a plastic cup into the air and grinned. “Have you tried this?” he asked, giving the cup to a standing member of the crowd. A chain delivery passed the cup in my direction, and at last the cup of yellow liquid arrived in my hand. A greasy-haired drunk nudged my side. “Try,” he said.

So I did. It seemed a quarter of the audience watched as I, the White Alien, tipped back the beverage. The alcohol was strong, and reminded me of the fermented palm wine I had tasted in West Africa. “What is this?” I asked Ade. He said the drink was made from rice, and was generated through an underground process that turned natural sugars into alcohol. “Delicious” I announced in Indonesian to the group of young men who gave me the drink. The young men cheered in pleasure. “Traditional beverage from Kalimantan,” they said, shooting me a thumbs up.

The closing ceremony came at last. University students from Kalimantan who had volunteered to partake in the festival events now emerged in traditional Kalimantan attire. The men were bare-chested, their skin sweating through tattoos painted on in black. Below the waist they wore loincloths that hung in long strips beneath their legs, with their bottoms half-exposed in a way that would make Tarzan blush. The women were more modest although just as striking, with chest-plates adorned by colored tassels.

The costumed students sat in a ring around a clearing in front of the stage. An old woman sat at the head, announcing thanks to supporters and to God. It was almost midnight. Most of the students in the audience now were men, and the only women present were unveiled: clearly more liberated than their conservative female peers who had gone home hours ago to satisfy curfew.

The closing ceremony ended and something else began. I had no sense of what was coming, but I could feel a new energy take hold of the youths as the elders filed out. The students who had been sitting rose to their feet. They mingled, disbanded, regrouped. I was pulled into a series of photos in which I was asked to pose again and again between students tipsy on fermented rice. Then the music began. Drums. Gongs. The rhythms were simple, and people started moving.

Music rang at a pulse from every end of the festival. The musicians joined to form four or five nuclei of traditional Kalimantan instruments, around which students gathered with drinks in hand. Some of them began to grow drunk. Young men crouched near the ground, beating gongs the size of SUV tires. There were taller drums that lent an ominous thrum, tambourines that hissed. One person riffed on his electric guitar. Some of the men and women formed a dance train, and I watched as they held on to each other’s shoulders and marched around the music as if engrossed in some mystical churning.

One young woman grabbed hold of my hand and tried to pull me into the train. At first I tried to resist, but then I looked at Ade, who nodded encouragingly. And suddenly I was in, dancing freely for perhaps the first time since I had arrived in Yogya. In daylight, Muslim culture strictly scolds against immodest movements of the hips. At night, particularly this night — in light of the celebration — the students allowed themselves to move freely, get drunk and kick at the night air. Touch the sweating neck of the opposite sex.

As the dance train gathered energy, the participants began to chant. “Hey! Ha!” they sang. “Hey! Ha!” Surely, I thought, there were other exclamations that could accompany this music. These students were members of the most prestigious university in Indonesia; no doubt they could invent some lyrics that were less — primitive. But the “Hey”s and the “Ha”s did not vary. In fact they never missed a beat, and I realized that despite humanity’s obsession with words and my purpose here of teaching expression through complex language – there were no words that could capture such besieging, simple, pulse-ridden revelry as those two otherwise meaningless sounds: “Hey. Ha.” Repeat. Refrain. I chanted them and became more human.

A campus television crew stopped me mid-dance and asked me what I felt about the festival. I told them I was grateful to be a part of a culture so deeply embedded in history. Ade and I moved from dance circle to dance circle as the movements became more riotous and the expressions more drunk and joyous. People jumped up and down, swayed from side to side. The animalistic nature of it all increased with each cycle of song.

At the center of the parking lot was the largest music circle of all. It surrounded a tall traditional idol propped atop an office desk dragged from the nearest academic building. Three young men stood atop the desk and waved the Kalimantan flag, crying into the night like territorial birds. Again I was pulled in to the circle, and for some time the color of my skin was forgotten.

The music stopped as the musicians gathered rest. Then it started again, and the students came together to dance and sweat. This went on for an inestimable amount of time, never getting tiresome despite the monotony of the ebb and flow, spurring on a feeling of release I had not felt in months. Primitive it might have been, although what shame was there in it? In the face of primitivity was honesty that — I realized — was deeply necessary, and in it too was the confirmation that I (like the rest) was just another member of the wild.

Standing with a student from Kalimantan after the closing ceremony

Standing with a student from Kalimantan after the closing ceremony

Curiosity #52: Heri Burger Pt. 2


Below are a series of text messages sent by Heri Burger to my handphone, some sent at very random hours of the day and night. Despite having not seen him since our first meeting, Mr. Heri Burger has become my most loyal texting companion.

“Miss Julie, How are you?”

“Miss Julie… Good night … Thanks. Heri Mr Burger.”

“Mrs. Hana works at Mr. Burger with Heri … Mrs. Hana wants to know Mrs. Julie. Can she?”

“Mrs. Hana love America, culture and tradition.”

“Mrs. Hana introduce/know Miss Julie via SMS. Can she?”

“Good evening. Miss Julie, when go to Hongkong? Especially for your Christmas?”

“Please! Join to my facebook!”

“Good evening Miss Julie. How are you? A lot of work today? Heri Mr. Burger.”

“How with planning Anniversary or your Christmas?”

“Do you have free time on Saturday? Eat Hamburger or drink the kind of juice at Magelang Street… 20 minutes from your campus… Thanks for your answer.”

“No problem… I hope we can meet for next time or next week… I beg your pardon. See you later. Thanks.”

“Good morning… Miss Julie… Do you have class today? Maybe it’s better you eat Hamburger and drink the kind of juice for the New Year. Can you?”

“Miss Julie… Heri Mr. Burger wants surprised for your Christmas New Year. Heri wants to give a gift like Sinterclas. Maybe better January.”

Curiosity #51: Haw Par Villa and Hell as you’ll know it


You have nothing to fear of Hell; that is, of course, if you are perfect. Although I might mention that if you consider yourself a perfect specimen, then there is almost undoubtedly a flaw in your moral reasoning that has at some point or another – really think, now – led you to slip into some minor wrong for which you must now atone.

So go on, lay on top of the Devil’s fork.
Now tell me on which prong you fit.

In Haw Par Villa, an old theme park, a small section of property is reserved for visitors and their sins. The theme park, located far from other tourist destinations, is among the less visited Singaporean landmarks. It was created by the inventor of Tiger Balm, Aw Boon Par, for his beloved younger brother, and contains colorful statues depicting scenes from Chinese mythology along with a smattering of life-sized dioramas displaying moral lessons from Confucian literature.

In the right wing of the park, a little plaster and paint go a long way: all the way, in fact, to the Underworld. The statue exhibit, entitled The Ten Courts of Hell, display a horrific journey through the afterlife under cover of a man-made cave. This serves as a warning for park-goers human enough to forget their daily vices.

Care to take a peek at what you deserve?

So long as you're sure...

So long as you’re sure…

Upon stepping in front of the entrance to the Ten Courts, you will be greeted by two faces: Ox-Head and Horse-Face. They will be the first ones to greet you when you die, and they’ll usher you to your fate.

Your entrance into Hell

Your entrance into Hell

The First Court:

Upon entering the underworld, your past deeds will be reviewed. At this point you’ll hold your breath, perhaps say a prayer, and hope that your judge, a dead Chinese king, will deem you virtuous and send you directly to Heaven on the Golden Bridge. You’ll look in the Mirror of Retribution and try to see a reflection that is pure and flawless.

Too bad; your soul is speckled and rotting, and it shows on your face. Move forward.



The Second Court:

Have you inflicted injury upon another person? Or have you stolen anything? Ever? This is where you’ll be thrown into a volcanic pit.
Have you ever gambled? Prepare to be frozen into a block of ice.
Involved yourself with prostitution? You’ll be thrown into a pool of blood and drowned.

Prostitutes drowning in a pool of blood

Prostitutes drowning in a pool of blood

The Third Court:

Those guilty of ungratefulness, disrespect toward their elders, and escape from prison will have their hearts cut out.
Drug traffickers and addicts (equated with tomb robbers), along with advocates of social unrest will be tied to red-hot copper pillars and grilled like hot dogs.

The Fourth Court:

Those who dare dodge their taxes, refuse to pay their rent, or those who involve themselves in business fraud will have their bones pounded to dust by a stone mallet.
Disobedience towards one’s siblings and lack of filial piety will result in the grinding of one’s flesh by a large stone.

The Fifth Court:

Money lenders with outrageous interest rates will be thrown onto a hill of knives.

Wall Street?

Wall Street?

The Sixth Court:

Those who cheat, curse, or abduct others will be thrown onto a tree of knives and left as pickings for carrion.
Have you ever “misused” a book or witnessed pornographic material? Have you ever broken a rule or regulation? Worst of all: have you ever wasted food? Busted.

Body sawn in two.

Body sawn in two.

The Seventh Court:

Rumor-mongers, beware! Your tongue will be pulled out with pliers far filthier than your lies.
Rapists and ignorant, ill-meaning fools who drive others to their death will be thrown into a wok of boiling oil.

The Eighth Court:

Those who cause the remotest amount of trouble for their respective parents and/or other family members, as well as those who cheat during examinations, will have their intestines and organs pulled out.
The harming of other human beings to benefit oneself will result in body dismemberment.

The Ninth Court:

Now that you have been mutilated (quite literally) to pieces, you will make your way to The Pavillion of Forgetfulness, where an old lady will invite you for some tea. She will introduce herself as Meng Po, and she will look like she has questionable intentions. After drinking tea in the pavilion, you will forget everything about your past life and move on to this fate’s final stage.

The Tenth Court:

The Samsara, or “The Wheel of Reincarnation” will guide you out of this Hell Hole via one of six paths. Depending on your conduct in your now-forgotten life, you will return to Earth as one of the following: nobility, common man, quadruped, fowl, fish, or insect. Good luck to you.

May you enjoy the sunlight, and may you live long before the Horse-Face.