Curiosity #88: Freedom in Lembata

Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

Escape. On the same day I published my last post, I took a car to the nearest city, Larantuka, paced across the sea port, and boarded the next boat to the island of Lembata.

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Scenes from Lembata

1

We sit in a little pagoda atop of “Love Mountain” as Kak Etik tells me that when she observes her own image in photographs, she sees a man.

Why? She poses questions about Bible history and marital restrictions of Catholic priests: what does it mean to be pure? Controversy draws her to teach, whereas her conformist culture tells its adherents, particularly women, to listen and listen only.

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2

Back at home, conformity holds sway. Custom requires her as the woman of the house to feed me breakfast, and me, as the guest, to eat it. She sits at the table, her own plate empty, and watches my spatula-ed hand hover over over the tray of fried noodles. My stomach torques so that my bottom lip begins to shake.

Later, I confide my uneasiness. I tell Kak Etik that my stomach crimps when I’m forced to act and eat as if I were a child. In East Indonesia, a respected guest receives food and protection (more like supervision) as a sign of care. But even after three years in this country, Indonesian customs prohibiting choice, especially for women, seem like insults. An American woman, even in someone else’s home, likes to manage a small part of her own diet and schedule in order to maintain her sanity and self-respect.

Fortunately Kak Etik’s respect for my forwardness, and especially my obstinance, breaks the chain of formalities and provides a sound foundation for friendship.

“I don’t want to be protected,” I tell her.

“We’re the same,” she says.

2

Kak Etik’s husband, a headmaster 14 years her senior, drives me on the back of his motorcycle to his school. We traverse Lembata’s small city, Lowoleba. Children and their teachers sweep the roads with stick-brooms to celebrate the island’s independence from neighboring Flores.

Our bike passes a gated hospital. The building stands beside a factory, which spews oil clouds that swirl around the walls of the hospital as if it were the locus of a grand disappearing act. I wonder how the patients bring themselves to inhale. The palm trees in the hospital yard lean away from the smoke as if to puke.

3

Residential dust yard gives way to untended fields. Children dance, one young woman in platform sandals and heavy lipstick leading choreography for children between the ages of five and fourteen. I know that many of them come from broken homes, some “left behind” by the public school system.

4

I cut local spinach with a dull knife as Kak Etik tells me of her kinship with Mary Magdalene. One day she hopes to travel to the Basilica Sainte-Marie-Magdalene, France, to visit the site of Mary’s remains. It doesn’t matter that Mary Magdalene’s romantic bond with Jesus was skirted by Biblical history; in fact, this makes her all the more alluring. That, and isn’t it fate that the two women share a birthday?

5

Gentle hills capture a highlighter green, their grass coats waving erect shafts.

6

Smoke rises from the tops of mountains.

7

Two shop attendants hover over me at the city’s only supermarket, which equates to a small-town general store. I walk down the soap isle, and the two girls shuffle alongside, looking over my shoulder. I know they’re just curious, but their attention is oppressive.

I try to get past saying, “I’m just walking, yeah?” But the girls follow me like mosquitoes. I say the same thing, only this time I gesture theatrically that I aim to pass, and they get the picture. The shop attendants approach my friend, Sarno, who sits at a chair at the front of the store.

“We try to invite Nona (the title for a young woman) to chat,” they say to Sarno, “but we find it so difficult! She won’t let us help her. Maybe it’s a language problem.”

“Of course it’s not,” I want to shout desperately across the aisles. “I just want a few minutes to make choices. I so rarely get the chance!!!”

At my remote volunteer site, I rarely have options as to where I go, or even what I buy for my daily needs.

Choices are what make us feel we take care of ourselves, are they not? Even the simple ones: what kind of soap do we choose to bathe with? What flavor of oreos do we savor during a long week? What drink do we choose from the fridge? In the US choices are overwhelming, but here in this store on the island of Lembata, faced for the first time in 3 weeks with multiple varieties of bath and beverage items, the indecision floods me with the relief and familiarity of home.

How do I explain this? How can I express to the attendants that my choices must be made on my own, without others hounding my judgment? But here, the need to think alone is an alien concept.

8

Kak Etik takes my hand as we walk through the market. All around us are fish of all variety of shapes and colors, as if I were a dull and dry thing.

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9

We sit in a van loaned by a friend of Sarno. On our way home from the market, Kak Etik looks up at the roof of the van. Casually, as if pointing out a leak, she says: “This is the van we rode to the hospital on the night my baby died.”

10

Kak Etik stuffs chocolate biscuits into her mouth as I eat the leftover spiced fish she made for lunch. She tells me me she’s too lazy to eat.

11

Thick forests bend down and up. The rain pelts us as we travel on broken road. The driver, Mas Tom, shakes his hand every five minutes, his hands spent after gripping the break for hours.

12

I flip through a photo album of Kak Etik’s dead child, who cracked her head open after slipping on a wet floor. The electricity had gone off, as it often does in these parts. Two hospitals in Lowoleba tried to tend to the toddler’s wounds, but neither was equipped to save her. Kak Etik’s child wasn’t two years old.

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13

A 70-year-old nun, Sister Alfonsa, delivers a playful slap on the cheek. She tells me of how she once orchestrated the coming-together of different religions to build a garden, laborers contributing their own bricks and iron. This was the nun who helped Etik emerge from grief following her child’s death, who taught her to take ownership of her emotions and her career.

Sister Alfonsa tells me I must drink a local medicine for my bloated stomach, and must reduce my coffee intake if I want to have children. She hands me a butter biscuit, and I bite into the cardboard-like treat to humor an old crone.

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Curiosity #87: First Glimpses of Flores

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

Snapshots:

– A lizard the size of my forearm hiding in the cupboard shadows, croaking. When he burps, the entire room shakes.

– Poles of bamboo the length of a driveway draped and bobbing over 1980s-manufactured pick-up trucks. The platforms are stuffed with squatting, smoking men.

– Cracked-open coconuts laying meat-side up in the sun. Mounds of of empty coconut shells pile high as a human waist against homes made of wood panes three fingers thick.

– Forests palms envisioned by Dr. Seuss. Beyond: an expanse of sea with hairy islands a gum-drop green.

– Roads swerving through a lush landscape, the concrete continuing as if designed by a two-year-old terror with a scalpel.

– Drafts of rain assaulting pedestrians on valley roads. Those who don’t carry umbrellas protect their faces with leaves the size of street dogs.

– The roar of insects each time the car passes a stretch of trees.

IF ANYONE HAS COME WITHOUT HIS BIBLE, STAND UP AND LEAVE THE CHURCH.

I have come without my Bible to Flores. The island is 95% Catholic, statistics say, with adherents on the rise since the villages cast in their baton. Here at Seminary San Dominggo, Hokeng, I have come to pay my dues. My sin isn’t missed confession or a discarded bible; it’s idleness after quitting my job at a non-profit (where, in teaching children from immigrant families, I at least served as an extra hand) to travel across South America then live rent-and-responsibility-free with my parents as I applied for grad schools.

A month ago, I packed my bags for Indonesia, thinking I would prove myself useful.

I was told that, during my stay in East Flores as a volunteer English teacher, I wasn’t required to reclaim any part of my long-discarded Catholic faith. But here I find myself in the back of the church every Sunday, performing the sign of the cross over my head and chest, watching the heads of 300 aspiring priests commit themselves to Christ.

My first few weeks involved me discussing endless potential duties and shuffling around at the tug of middle-aged clergy who, between words of gratitude and nosiness, stuffed their faces with bananas and bread buns (the only culinary legacy left behind by the Dutch). I’m thrown into classrooms in which high school boys beg me to sing. They tell me in elementary words about their girlfriends who will wait for them at Love Mountain until the day they are ordained, their village’s whale-hunting practices, how much they both love their island and ache to escape it. They dig Arnold Schwarzenegger, especially when he’s pregnant.

I eat three meals a day of circulating fish variety, at the same seat, at one of the two long dining room tables where food is brought each day by two girls my age: Rina, who wears a Mickey-Mouse sweatshirt, and Rinti, with hair down to her butt-cheeks. I want to tell them that I’d rather dine with them in the outdoor kitchen in the late hours of the evening than with the tamed and feathered old men who take notes on my habits and likes as if I were a zoo animal. The worst is Pater Geby, who asks how much each of my belongings costs and who hogs all the avocados for himself.

On outings, I’m brought into throngs of squealing strangers who scramble over one another to take selfies. They shove their forearms next to mine and compare skin colors. Romo Alfons, my coordinator and supervisor, grins from ear-to-ear. To be fair, he uses these occasions to question other locals about landmarks and concepts which might serve my interests. “Julie likes coffee. Julie likes chilis. Julie likes culture, and especially myths relating to customs. Do you know of any place where Ms. Julie can learn more about the traditions of East Flores?” The strangers (although here there is no such a concept) sit agape, asking my chaperone questions about my origins and lifestyle as if their speech was beyond me. As phone calls are made, children come to peer at my plucked expression.

There are about 8 priests in all who live on the seminary, with aspiring priests adding up to about 15 “pure men.” Many of them teach as well as preach, since the morning hours operate as a normal high school. Female teachers (there are five) also work at the seminary. They live at the corner house between the seminary garden and the road which leads to the world “outside.” On rare but happy occasions I’m invited by these women for an estrogen balance over fried cassava.

I live in a Utopia where the priests maintain heavy discipline and a gentle order deems older men automatic “protectors.” They widen their eyes in worry at all that is new and different. I can’t walk around the seminary grounds without one of these protectors following in quick step. Without a motorbike, there’s no pointed glance I can run from, and no hand I can escape.

Today I hop on a truck to the closest city, Larantuka, where I will decide if I want to explore independence in that minor bustle or cross the seawaters to the neighboring islands of Lembata, Solor, and Adonara. In less than a week I will return. Either way, I intend to escape from “The Holy Land,” since The Holy Land knows little of the drives of women, and moral dues are hard to pay when saints prepare me to boil.

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Curiosity #86: Better Said than Written

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Uncategorized

“Flores has no written record before the days of the Imperialists,” says Brother Angsel, stuffing his mouth with a spoonful of wet rice and sardines.

“So what do you teach?” I ask, incredulously. It’s a natural question, I think, since it’s Brother Angsel’s responsibility to teach Indonesian History to the 250+ boys at the high school Seminari San Dominggo. The Portugese didn’t arrive in Flores until the mid-late 1500s, and yet the island is home to some of the oldest humans (fossils of the homo floresiensis date back to 700,000 years ago).

“We go off the sources we have,” says Brother Angsel. “Other than that, history teachers in Flores take mostly from the history of Java and other islands where people have a longer history of written archiving.”

I stop eating my peach oatmeal, which has gone stale since I packaged it in Chicago. As I place down my spoon, my mind races toward possibilities for helping local communities revive and immortalize their nebulous history through written archiving; a false call to heroism that, despite coming from a drive to contribute, soils my motives.

I don’t know how to escape it. I’m about to start a PhD program in the Fall, and have no “calling” apart from a profound interest in cultural research that might very well benefit no one.

Within this is a hope that cultural research might be made more accessible through the arts, both for the locals informing my research and for people in the US. My faith stems from a personal history of reading books that have taken me beyond my home in the suburban Midwest to where people thrive on a variety of alternate values, struggle under power dynamics—some factors of myth and religion—that have caused me to loosen up on my definitions of reality.

Is there a possibility that I, like my personal heroes, might channel print or performance media to share a portal between realities on alternate hemispheres, with storytelling both as a muse and a canvas?

Over afternoon tea I speak to Romo Alfons about my interests in, down the road, perhaps enabling oral history projects dictated and run by locals. Wouldn’t it be grand if the rich history of Flores might be written down, fragmented as it might be, for everyone to appreciate?

Romo Alfons smiles at me. I: a child fussing over an empty wallet. Not so simple, he tells me. History is not always meant to be written. “According to our tradition, we value togetherness over reality. Truth isn’t in the facts, but in the solidarity of believing what is and isn’t true.”

History is transmitted orally. Collective decisions define truth, which informs identity. Never static, history moves like a beast with a rubber spine, whipping its head from side to side, sometimes morphing its features entirely depending on what each community finds essential for conservation.

Is it possible that some histories can’t be captured, transcribed, or recorded?

I recall my stint as an after-school teacher for immigrant children in Chicago. I remember the struggle of finding history books touching in equal part on the lives of minorities as well as white Christians. How are historically underserved communities meant to receive the proper attention if they aren’t given adequate representation in what we read, see, and hear? If we fill the canon with media of the minorities, won’t this solve the social imbalance leading to prejudice and its afterbirth?

Eastern Indonesians, overlooked by the Javanese as being primitive in its economic and cultural assets, certainly deserve voice. I was a fool, and am still, in believing that by documenting the Flores landscape for an audience I might stabilize a small platform from which local voices can project themselves.

Maybe this is all because I have no roots of my own.

No one is asking me to transcribe the oral histories of Eastern Flores. No one is asking me to write a children’s history book on ethnic groups pre-Catholic era, or to run around with a tape recorder. History lies with the beast, and it seems that beast would rather die than be contained.

What can I do? I can surrender the hope that my research might be useful to the Indonesians I work with, and resign to the fact that my path of interest might be a solitary one. To the working laborers of Flores, documenting local lifestyle in writing looks like idle play in a rain puddle.

And as I continue to write about culture, I can alert myself to how the act of transcribing cultural narratives can both conserve and kill the spirit of a tale, which acts as another one’s reality, and—in any case—isn’t necessarily mine to touch.

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  • Sidenote: I’m working as a volunteer English Teacher at Seminari San Dominggo, Hokeng, East Flores, under the coordination of Schoolmaster Father Alfons. This marks the beginning of my 4-month stay.

Romo (Father) Alfons and Suster (Sister) Emma in front of a cave shrine in Hokeng’s convent. Despite being wed to Jesus and His Mother Mary, the Catholic clergy foster the strongest culture of intellectualism I’ve witnessed in Indonesia outside university settings, and actively work alongside local traditions: evidence for why the Catholic religion is alive and well in a landscape still presided over by ancestors and folk spirits.

Curiosity #84: The Non-religious Pilgrim

Anthropology, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

The oldest man, Methusaleh, according to the Bible, lived until age 969. Now he comes to life every few minutes within a life-size fiberglass dummy at The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. You’ve traveled hundreds of miles to witness “the truth” behind pseudoscience, and here it is prefaced by an animatronic figure dressed like Merlin. “Whatever God Says is True,” says Methusaleh, extending a robotic arm to you. Whether you believe the old man’s statement or not, his theory will carry you throughout your pilgrimage.

Enter the Creation Museum, and you feel you have walked into any large-scale exhibit house. Then you’ll stroll along the Dragon Hall leading to the ticket desk, and you’ll realize this is the only museum you might visit in which centuries-old myths stand as evidence for ancient life.  After being handed your $30 ticket, you’ll walk past three armed guards wearing guns, tasers, badges that read “Answers in Genesis,” then a fudge stand that looks like a truck-sized version of your childhood play-dough kit. Little do you know that you’ll be embarking on a journey of Christian politics at the height of its craft.

The entrance aisle stands between a raised display of a raptor standing beside a kneeling cavewoman and an aquarium full of live amphibians. An archaeology scene welcomes you with your first splash of rhetoric.  You walk up to a true-to-size sculpture of two paleontologists standing over a half-exposed dinosaur skeleton. One identifies himself as a Christian and the other an atheist. They each explain their processes for dating the bones beneath them.

“Every person must start with their own arbitrary philosophy as a starting point for evaluating everything around them,” states the Christian archaeologist.

It dawns on you that biblical literalists have systematized a semi-scientific method for construction of a timeline beginning 6,000 years ago. You wonder if it works like condensing an image file: downsizing the scale, but conserving proportion.

You walk through the Garden of Eden, which smells like wet wipes and sunscreen acid. Words form Genesis vibrate from a ceiling speaker spouting Bible passages recited by the deep and lyrical voice of a Polish Rabbi. Fake trees populate this womb-like oasis. Here is Eve, whose skin, facial structure, and waist-length auburn hair remind you of the paddle-tennis-playing suburban housewife who used to employ you as a dog-sitter. Her long hair covers her breasts, and she reaches one hand out to touch Adam’s hand. Adam leans back from Eve as if she’s transmitted an electric shock. A dinosaur poised on a crag cocks his head at the budding romance.

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This was the time when nothing was eaten.

There was a time when nothing was wrong.

You enter another wing of The Garden which, literally, walks you through the extent to which perfection reigned before The Fall.

“No poison!” barks one sign.

“No carnivors!”

“No scavengers!”

“No weeds!”

“No burdensome work!”

This pre-knowledge world instills such serenity that you’re tempted to pet the raptor poised beyond the rope separating you from the display, but a sign explicitly prohibits raptor-petting. You remember that even in the most idealized Abrahamic times, certain privileges were forbidden.

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From here you learn about Noah’s Ark. You read how God doesn’t love Evolution, but He does love Unity, and how appreciation for the perfection of God’s design demands us to embrace people of all races and abilities. Near the conclusion of the exhibit, you’re spit into a book store in which you can buy more fudge, and you finally exit through a world-class insect collection which teaches us to appreciate the dirt-crawlers designed to eat our refuse. God does think of everything, after all.


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Thanks, Methusaleh, for sticking around.


Two strains of rhetoric stuck out the most:

  1. Adherence to creationism over science hinges on the fact that Christian faith cannot exist without trust in Genesis.

The Creation Museums goes as far as to say that the foundation of Christian faith rests on the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

What is it that makes biblical philosophy stand at odds with pure science?

According to the creation narrative, there was no death before the fall. Deny this, and the foundations of Christianity crumble. Pure science tells us that dinosaurs died before humans, but Christians know there was no death before Eve brought sin to The Garden.

Some Christian theorists have tried to reconcile science with Genesis by saying the days (“Yom” in Hebrew) in which the earth was created could have each represented hundreds of thousands of years.

This doesn’t fly with the literalists. The expanded interpretation of “yom” would mean that death would have existed before humans arrived on the 6th day. If we are to combine the truisms from Methusaleh and the Christian paleontologist–whatever God says is true and all must stem from this philosophy–there’s little wiggle room for literalists and scientists to shake hands.

Humans and dinosaurs found death from the same fruit, and there is no getting around it.

2. Christianity’s emphasis on “rule” sustains empowerment for faith-based communities.

You may or may not find fulfillment in the small town landscape, where Christian fundamentalism finds its common home. Some might call this “Forgotten America,” though within recent political developments this demographic is rising to the fore. We wonder what empowerment looks like for those of us who rely on faith. While I’m no expert on Christianity in the US, it makes sense that Christian literalists might find purpose, and even power, in the spiritual climb.

Walking through the wings of the Creation Museum, I took particular note of the rhetoric delivered by ambient biblical interpretations and wall plaques. One part of the message was clear: God invented man so he could “rule over His creations.”

As an aspiring anthropologist intrigued by people’s relationships to their surroundings, I wonder if devout Christians who are ambivalent towards academic or social elitism aspire to elitism in other ways. Don’t we all want to feel important, after all?

We are meant to benevolent rulers, insists The Creation Museum’s strain of literalism. The earth is humankind’s turf to govern, take from, and also protect. But even when guided by God, haven’t we learned from history (Biblical and other) that all rulers grow drunk with power?

 

 

Curiosity #81: Attached at the Navel

Anthropology, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

Machu Picchu averages about 2000 visitors a day. It’s considered one of the seven wonders of the world, but a Peruvian will never tell you Machu Picchu is the greatest city ever built, nor will they tell you it’s the greatest triumph their ancestors ever accomplished.

The greatest masterpiece of the Incas was Cusco. Cusco was once considered the center or “navel” of the world. Incan chroniclers documented that the city was once 100% veneered in gold. The boundaries of the city were constructed in the shape of a puma, with the head serving as the fortress. The heart of the city held the temple, Koricanche, the most sacred of Inca sites, where the gods were worshipped and the bodies of Incan kings were preserved. Courtyard buildings, shrines, and plazas filled the metropolis, reflecting supremacy of artisanship that only took 100 years to perfect.

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These spaces have long been either emptied or laid flat, pillaged by Pizarro, afterwards emptied and burned by Franciscans, bricked over and stuffed with colonial rococo-style figurines imposing white supremacy. But not all is lost. Much is still preserved in the culture and language of the local people.

Living Remains

A four-day, three night tour to Machu Picchu lent the first hint at what remained of Quechua identity. My Machu Picchu tour was registered with a company called Lorenzo Expeditions. Our guide, Wilbur, was a middle-aged local from the Sacred Valley who claimed he had been hired by every tour company in the city. I could see why: he in many ways embodied the intelligence and identity standing since the days of Incan reign. He was as much a relic as the ancient walls.

The tour brought us to local villages, some tucked into the highland jungle. There was a varied pace of hiking and stopping, and in the latter stretches we would receive explanations of the significance of the spaces we passed. Wilbur brought us to coffee farms. He fanned out coca leaves in wild forest groves. He explained the critical connection between his people and their land and did not leave out details of injustice brought on by foreign misconceptions.

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You want to understand our culture, he said? First learn our language. Then you will know the ways of our people.

Naturally none of our 10 trekking members knew the local speech, but Wilbur did his best to explain the trials and collective identity of the Sacred Valley descendants.

Economy

The Incan empire was not soft on its people, but it paid mind to general needs. While the imperial and ceremonial center was foiled in gold, the currency lay in exchange of services. Civilians of the empire were required to perform tasks and labor (primarily in agriculture, mining, construction, and artisanship) and in return were delivered provisions by the State. The remainder of goods were exchanged through a bartering system.

The real measure of wealth was not measured in money or gold, but in textiles. Only the Incan kings and nobles could wear them, their elaborate designs woven through the toil of mit’a (the strenuous work quota appointed to commoners).

After the Europeans came, currency took precedence over craft. Pizarro pillaged for gold, and Atahualpa, the Incan king in today’s Ecuador, filled two rooms with the mineral to buy his freedom. He satisfied the ransom but was executed anyway after betraying his brother.

Peruvians know Pizarro as the man who claimed all the gold in Peru, including Cusco. He also brought a lesson: wealth in currency allowed one to wield horrifying power worldwide.

Five hundred years later, this lesson still holds true.

Today the people of the Sacred Valley hold similar occupations as they once did, primarily in agriculture, with others in construction, weaving, and mining. While the work restrictions are nowhere near as imposing as they were during the days of Incan rule, the payoff is nowhere near fair.

Tourism is Cusco’s leading industry. It’s hard to find a good tour to Machu Picchu without paying at least $300. A backpacker’s hostel can earn $10 from each laundry service, and a restaurant in the city center charges over $50 for a family meal of fried rice.

Meanwhile, farmers in the fields earn hardly enough to sustain themselves. They return to wooden shacks with no electricity and no plumbing. Delicious mangoes and avocados bring in $3-4 for every package of 100.

The coca leaf industry is a whole other ordeal.

US and European governments point at Peru, the world’s largest producer of coca leaves, for the impact the cocaine industry has had on their societies.

Holding out a handful of inconspicuous leaves he picked from the forest trail, Wilbur said, “The greatest problem in our country is not drug addiction, but diabetes. Here we drink too much soda. Do we blame the United States for the production of Coca Cola?”

Coca leaves have been used since the days of the Incas. They were not—are not—used by Andean locals for the production of the cocaine (most of cocaine industry is concentrated in the jungle regions). Coca leaves have long been perceived as medicinal and sacred. The ancients knew that chewing the leaves led not only to health benefits, but facilitated a connection between humanity and the gods.

Countries demand that Peru limit its coca production. These governments promise they will reward those who farm coffee beans in place of coca plants. This, the governments insist, will lend new opportunities for farmers’ profit through increased demand for a globally-cherished export. But coffee beans can be picked only 2 times a year (coca plants every 3 months). And since Peru can not compete with countries like Costa Rica for production of coffee beans, the farmers see little payoff.

Still, though, the Quechuans are a hard-working people. They farm to survive, take what they need, and give the rest to the neighbors.

Religion

In the ancient days Wirocacha created the sun, moon, stars, time, and civilization. The apus, or lesser gods (the storms, the mountains and the rivers) served as the hands of the creator. Pachamama, the goddess Mother Earth, ensured fluid relations between all things. 

At the height of the Incan Empire, the Incan Kings and the gods were worshipped in the temple of Koricanche in Cusco. It was said the 12 Incan Kings whose bodies rested in Koricanche were so well-preserved that they didn’t look dead. On notable occasions the royal mummies would rest on the shoulders of Cusco civilians and be paraded around the city so the strength of their spirits could bring stability to the empire.

When the Franciscans came, the bodies were burned. The vases used in place of the bodies were taken for an archaeological display by a Yale professor.

Today, the main spectacles in Cusco’s Plaza del Armas are its grand churches. Nearly everyone identifies as Catholic. Religious education is a required discipline in public schools, and the Catholic authorities hold great influence over the government.

When Wilbur, who never outwardly identified his spiritual orientation, tried to enroll his first child in public school, the very first question from the registrar was “Are you Catholic?” The second question was “Are you married?”

In spite of this, the locals still believe in the apus and in the great one, Wirocacha. And the Andes themselves: for the Quechua people it has always been, and still is, nature first.

Apart from the gods, the Quechua people maintain faith in their ancestors. Quechua funerals entail a large cross atop the coffin. Since this tradition’s inception, it appeased local Catholic officials who thought this a demonstration of obedience towards the Church. But truly it was a subversion towards syncretism. The cross atop the coffins do not commemorate Christ, but the living spirits of their loved ones.

Spiritual practice carried from the Incan empire is most prevalent in the fields. When planting new crops (beans, potatoes, carrots), farmers first pray to Pachamama with coca leaves. They thank her for providing nourishment and, once they eat their first meal, offer the first plate to Her.

Language

Quechua once united the Incan Empire. In the 18th century the language of Quechua was banned from use by religious authorities, who once used the language to infiltrate local spirit beliefs with their own.

The use of Quechua was only allowed use again after Peru gained its independence in the 19th century. But by then the language had been lost to feelings of local inferiority. Younger generations perceived Quechua speech as belonging to the static, rural class. The way of the future was Spanish.

Now Quechua is seeing a minor resurgence. It is spoken proudly in the rural highlands and sometimes in the cities. This is an improvement from when Wilbur was a child, when native Quechua speakers like himself struggled to integrate into public schools.

Now more families teach children the ancient tongue, and, amidst the inundation of foreign influence from the tourism industry, traditional forms of expression remain the primary way of preserving local identity.

The Nature of “Discovery” and Conquest

Wilbur and I walked along the railroad that led to Aguas Calientes, the tourist city that led to Machu Picchu. We both had taken off our jackets despite the altitude. The flaps of his open collared shirt tossed with the wind which passed over the neighboring river. We paced up the metal and rock.

Wilbur and I spoke of conquest. While I condemned the nature of conquest in the Americas, I brought up the reality that conquest has existed everywhere, including among the Incas, since the dawn of human existence.

Conquest is different from destruction, he explained. Surely the Incas conquered many people, leading them to be the greatest empire in South America. But conquest does not require obliteration or oppression. Wilbur said that in both Quechua and Spanish, the word “conquest” could be used to describe the trapping of a lover.

During Incan conquests, the armies brought gifts to weaker communities, lent respect to local rulers, and, despite insisting on adoption of the Quechua tongue and the Incan ways, allowed freedom of local beliefs and languages within micro-circles.

European Colonists did not engage in conquest; they dealt in destruction. They did not aim to adopt peoples, as the Incas did, but obliterate “inferior” identities from existence.

They did not completely succeed.

Looping the Cord

Machu Picchu is a masterpiece, but it’s only a hint of what stood at the Incan center. In Quechua, the name “Machu Picchu” means “this whole mountain,” signifying treasure in the greater picture.

Back in Cusco, the center of the world might be defaced and buried by Franciscan churches and foreign feet, but the most precious remains aren’t at the top of the mountain; they are at the core of the human being: how Quechua people today embrace left chest to left chest, heart to heart.

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Curiosity #78: Nymph of Ende

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

People in East Flores say that water comes from a sacred place. It streams through the hills into the soil of cacao plants and cabbage, to a little house at the crest of a ravine, where a village surrounds a small school. At the source lives a guardian spirit who ensures the purity and sustainability of the water. This spirit takes the form of an eel, but most who have seen it say the spirit is deceptive to the eye, and that sometimes it appears as a beautiful woman, ass gleaming in the still water.

Several generations ago an elderly man visited the sacred pool, curious about the spirit who swam inside. There is little knowledge of who was there to witness it, but legend says the man leaned over the crag beside the pool looking for the beauty. At last an energy pulled him toward the depths, swallowing him like a child.

There was no sign of the old man, although for months his fellow visitors waited for him by the shallows. It was assumed he had drowned in the water, allured and then overwhelmed by the guardian spirit whose body glistened like the scales of a fish, whose hair undulated like a woven cloth.

At last there was a set of villagers who went to the water source to see if they could retrieve something—anything—that would allude to the fate of the old man. They brought with them a fishing rod, and with a wide cast sent a hook plunging into the center of the pool. The villagers waited, taking care not to lean too far over lest they, too, fall into the grip of the guardian spirit.

Line deep, team stooped in a crouch. From inside the water, they felt a tug. A weight pulled at the tip of the fishing rod so that it bobbed beneath the surface of the pool. With a heave they lifted the rod above the surface of the pond, feeling the burden of the catch compound as the buoyancy slipped off. The water’s membrane parted to reveal the crown of a head, then came a face, a frame positioned erect, as if the body stood upon an elevator rising from a flight below. The hook of the fishing rod had caught on to the hole that strained in the earlobe of the old man, where, according to the fashion of East Flores, an earring once was gaged.

So it was by the ear that the old man returned to the reality he knew: fully alive, fully aware, and not a drop of dampness dripping from his skin. He told those who listened the story of his stay in the kingdom of the guardian spirit, whose castle stood over a dominion steeped in tradition, not so unlike his own.

Curiosity #72: Guilt Never Goes Dry

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel

Rongkop3

Thank God the religious archipelago still prizes stories over science. Despite the fact that there are several geological factors that lead to water shortages in Gunung Kidul, nobody in Java gives a damn. Instead the locals cling to two old tales that pin the local people at fault, and God (with his handy saints) on high.

Back when trespassing wasn’t a concept, an old beggar stopped by a widow’s home to ask for water. He wished to rinse his soles, because even Muslims even who are uneducated and homeless know that God hates dirty feet. He knelt before the widow, who sat weaving on her porch, and asked for some water to cleanse himself. When Mbok Rondo (“Mrs. Widow”) ignored him, the beggar drew his breath, spurned. Was it too much to ask for a little acknowledgement?

Stooped to a reverent kneel, the beggar renewed his efforts to earn Mbok Rondo’s attention. He waved his hand (in the only abracadabra known to ancient South-East Asia), at last blurting aloud that a pond had magically appeared in the widow’s back yard. On the house. But the widow didn’t want to hear absurdities from a rag-of-a-man who made a living by whining his way from home to home, a lifestyle she imagined charred away whatever sense or use he might have otherwise tucked away inside those old bones. The widow mumbled a rebuff into the stitches of her weaving, something that might translate to “Stupid old kook. Full of crap!”

Too bad kooks can sometimes be saints. The old beggar, who was among the revered Javanese spiritual figures known as the “Wali Songo,” frothed at the woman’s appalling hospitality. Before disappearing like a Las Vegas magician, he cursed the region of Rongkop and sucked the already thirsty land dry.

In another tale, upon otherwise parched land there was an old pond of rainwater, in which people farmed fish and took their drinking rations from the same sordid hole (but hey, it was better than the chalk-loaded eau-de-fatale that came up from the wells). It’s said there was a spirit, or danyang, who guarded the lake to make sure it never evaporated.

Maybe it was because the resident spirit was an illusive, pretty thing. Or maybe it was because Indonesian Muslims were weathering nudges from the Middle East telling them to trash their local spirituality. But for whatever reason, some men in the region of Rongkop conspired to lure the danyang from the water. With the help of a shaman, they coaxed the spirit from the pond.

The shaman’s spells were overpowering. The danyang waded from the reservoir’s center like a Bond girl on an abandoned beach, swinging her hips over the waters as she neared the bank, sprinkles of contaminated water flinging off etherial thighs, and upon reaching the shore disappointed drooling onlookers by evaporating into thin air. She brought the pond with her, transforming the land into a bed of brown. The men at last realised their misdeed and fell to their knees, begging the danyang to return. Even had she heard them, her self-respect left them weeping, her knack for justice leaving their children susceptible to skin disease.

Thanks to modern pipelines, the people of Rongkop no longer rely solely on rainwater. The dry land reminds locals, in a way hard science might never manage, that lack of gratitude leads to lack of sustenance, and that blessings may come in filthy disguises.

Curiosity #70: Fixed in Palembang

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel

Henna decorated my hand like icing. A six-year-old child held up a design on a smartphone so the henna artist could use it as a reference, but for whatever reason my face drew more attention. Foreigners didn’t come often to Lubuk Linggau. The henna artist was a delicate-featured girl of 16, not yet a woman: more like a solitary limb with a sumptuousness of its own. She knew nothing of her own beauty, only of curiosity betrayed by long glances at older members of her own sex, blue eyeshadow.

Reclining next to her on the bed was a woman I earlier saw floating around the house. She was an aunt of the bride-to-be, unveiled for the time being, hand propping up an unblemished face framed by luscious hair that—I knew—she had let down for me. I never asked her age. Fifty. Skin-tight jeans strained around thigh propped on thigh, and her sweater rippled along her torso so that she lay before me like a breast of meat upon a platter. Family woman. Stroking my right arm, on which the paint had begun to dry, she told me that adorning oneself with henna was an Arabian tradition. As a Muslim, to be of Arabian descent was considered a signifier of pure blood.

I told her I was neither Muslim nor Arabian. She told me I looked Turkish, which I was meant to take as a compliment. Combing her fingers through her hair, she reclined further on the bed. “You know there are some things we like about America, and there are some things we don’t like.” When I asked her to elaborate, she told me she had heard rumors about the West’s inclination toward moral chaos and free (premarital) sex. Without mention of my personal history I informed her that in fact most Americans were both moral and religious. She looked me over, and when I held her gaze she told me both her sons were single.

Later the same woman leashed out out sex jokes in the dressing room to the bride and groom, who blushed into the cushions of their marital bed. I had sat through a 36-hour bus to witness this. The bride was a friend of mine, my former-student of conservative upbringing whose passion flushed over everything she spoke. Now she was quiet. Three months ago this marriage had been arranged by her parents. One day as she napped on a dorm room floor she woke to an urgent call from her her father demanding that she get on a bus from Java to Southern Sumatra, where her soul mate had been selected from the hatch like a golden egg.

The egg was round enough, with chubby cheeks like parentheses framing a waxen smile. The morning had his fingertips dipped in henna so that now, on the evening before his wedding, his stains camouflaged with the fringe on the pillow he held in his lap. We asked him to tell us the story of his proposal.

Zie with her fiancé, Zacky

Zie with her fiancé, Zacky

“Our mothers met in town and started talking.” he said. “My mother told me about Zie’s accomplishments and showed me her picture, and it was then that I knew: ‘that’s my soul mate’”. Zie smiled. Her henna traveled up her arms like red and black lace. That morning I had witnessed the bride and groom joke and banter like old friends. When I asked Zie how she was feeling, she closed her eyes into bliss and said one word. “Happy.”

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I had heard of some wild phenomena in Indonesia, and had steeped long enough in this country’s superstitions to recognise I knew nothing of the inner-workings of nature, nor of God-sent revelation, but was it true a partner could be chosen out of obedience and a photograph?

“First, I resolved to marry,” said the groom. “Then I fell in love.”

The women in the room pursed their lips at the statement. Indonesia was, after all, a country in which “love” (in that ass-backwards sense, pretended or not) was the focal point of youth. But on my end, after thinking over the groom’s words, they began to make sense: when we resolve to move, we move; when we resolve to see the best in something, it shows itself. This no-nonsense approach to love seemed the same system Americans took to finding jobs, which might explain why 50% of Americans are more committed to their professions than their spouses. So what was backwards? One thing was clear: The groom spoke with his finger pointing up – to his parents, then to Allah, in who knows what order.

At dawn we had a breakfast of fried fish rolls. While the bride dressed for the initial ceremony, I and two other friends (also my former students) prepared in the guest room. It had taken a solid half hour of shuffling in someone else’s shoes beside a small parking-lot’s worth of caged sheep to get a cup of instant coffee, and I enjoyed it slowly as I watched my friends adjust and readjust their veils according to Muslim fashion.

Zie was the first friend my age to marry. My friends in the United States still hustled from partner to partner, experimenting with degrees of attraction and compatibility. In previous years Zie’s attempts at love were modest and partial, hinging on the oversight of her parents, so that now, 23 and in her prime, she would surrender all her curiosities into the hands of one man she was arranged to love.

Fixed into my memory will always be Zie in the opening procession, hiding in the dressing room as her fiancé’s family filed into her home. Outside the door, her father sat at a floor table across from her husband-to-be. Beyond her was a document devised by her Imam, the marriage papers illuminated by neon lights, soaking up the signatures of others. A sea of eyes waited for her. She sat beneath that weight like a knight or a saint, lips trembling but never sinking below parallel, body erect and draped like an Arabian chandelier. In a moment she would emerge, profess love to her parents, and sign herself over to a new life.

Ceremonial handshake between the father of the bride and the husband-to-be

Ceremonial handshake between the father of the bride and the husband-to-be

The Imam's prayer over the marital documents. The bride is still in the dressing room.

The Imam’s prayer over the marital documents. The bride is still in the dressing room.

Zie in the dressing room before emerging to sign her marriage contract

Zie in the dressing room before emerging to sign her marriage contract

My two former students, Ifa and Sisi (far left and middle) with Zie and her youngest sister (second farthest left)

My two former students, Ifa and Sisi (far left and middle) with Zie and her youngest sister (second farthest left)

Zie after emerging to sign the official documents.

Zie after emerging to sign the official documents.

The bride's poetic farewell; to her parents as a ceremonial transference into her husband's care

The bride’s poetic farewell to her parents as a ceremonial transference into her husband’s care

The husband's first gift to his wife

The husband’s first gift to his wife

Dawn to dusk would be filled with greetings between guests and forced servings of ice cream. Inside the marriage tent outside the bride’s home, my friend and her new spouse stood like dolls atop a floral cake, accepting serenades from veiled mommas in tight dresses, hips bigger than their husbands, evocative rhythms thumping to lyrics about adultery.

I could see why, in a culture where relationships meant everything, marriage was more dense than I had ever been asked to comprehend. In Indonesia, marriage was a demonstration of gratitude for fortunate upbringing, a commitment to one’s home, status, family, neighboring community, and the fusion of all under God; the spouse was the adhesive. And I could see why it was all too rich to jeopardise. During my short stay in the bride’s home, warmth permeated my Western-individualist shell, flooding from extended relatives tending the wedding stew out back with the sheep, neighbours stroking hair and linking arms, cousins confiding love and curiosities, Zie’s mother cooing us to sleep. Despite being foreigner and the only non-Muslim guest, I was welcomed into this nucleus as if I, too, belonged there.

When night fell and the newlyweds recovered from the day’s exhaustion, the groom drove us to the family-owned Pesantren (Muslim boarding school), where he and Zie would one day serve as teachers and headmasters. When we arrived it was already night, and a breeze swept through the grounds of the boarding school where in the daytime the children gathered to play. The groom’s brother held a prayer discussion inside a dwelling at the center of the lawn, where a small library partitioned off a lounge for communal study. Our bridal party stopped by to say hello. The students were of mixed gender, between the ages of 10 and 18 and not more than 30 in number. The groom’s brother sat cross-legged at the center, introducing the newly weds to the children. And I, the hastily-veiled woman with the alien face.

As I looked over the students, packed together like a nest of mice, I noticed they had the same receptive eyes as those of Zie, who, regardless of where she was or was required to be, possessed a spirited enthusiasm beyond what any human being could oppress. This spirit was grounded in her commitment to prayer five times a day, a sense of inner-identity and belonging that I would search for all my life. As we returned to shovel down the half-finished bridal cake, I released a sigh of happiness for Zie—without a doubt the most radiant bride I had ever seen—whose choices might by comparison always seem limited, but whose purpose would never be without.

Zie and her new husband seeking blessings

Zie and her new husband seeking blessings from the parents-in-law

Zie and her family beneath the Marriage Tent

Zie and her family beneath the Marriage Tent

Zie in her third wedding gown (she would change four times that day: one dress for each tradition)

Zie in her third wedding gown (she would change four times that day: one dress for each tradition)

Zie's parents on stage after being requested to sing at the reception

Zie’s parents on stage after being requested to sing before the guests at the reception

The happily-married couple with their legal documents

The happily-married couple with their legal documents

Curiosity #69: Vacation Themes

Anthropology, Religion, Travel

As an experiment I decided to document my month-long vacation with a marker instead of a camera. Each day brought new themes —  some witnessed, some felt, others inspired by advertisements or street postings, all of which I tried to capture with doodles and a little color. Of the 29 illustrations completed on my sweep from Malaysia to Japan, 18 are posted below.

Kuala Lumpur:

2. She Drinks

1. Cigarettes

3. Opportunities

4. Distance Taste

Ho Chi Minh:

5. Mop Up

6. Saigon Blues

7. Goodbye

Tokyo:

8. Convenience

11. Museum

10. Cat Cafe

18. Jimbocho

Hiroshima:

13. Hiroshima

12. Miyajima

14. Public Bath

Kyoto:

17. Octopus

15. Selfie

9. Feel


16. Artifacts

Curiosity #61: The Camel and the Veil

Indonesia, Religion, Uncategorized

Why wear the veil in Jogja? One reason is it’s the fashion, and that as a Muslim woman to go without one would be considered a “statement.” The other is that men cannot dominate their animal instincts around women with sex appeal (triggered by the hair and neck), and that the veil lessens distraction while heightening respect towards the “gentler” sex.

Nothing new. But what if our sexual instincts were as dull as a sleeping eunuch’s? Imagine if the desire for another’s flesh was a peckish interest rather than a voracious hunger, and lust could be swallowed like bad breath. Would the veil just slip off like a loose accessory, while the eyes tipped up from the waist to the heavens?

I might be exaggerating a bit here, but it seems this idea was implied when I prompted my graduate student to answer a question about religion in context. It was only the second day of English class at the university’s center for interreligious studies, and I had just learned that our most wide-eyed student was once a Muslim extremist. He looked much more goofy than extreme, with his eyes rolling around as if they were a mile apart and his chest occasionally heaving from an unprompted giggle.

He said, leaning over his desk, “In places where desire is not so strong, the standards for wearing the veil should not be so strict.” The students around him agreed and nodded their heads, urging him to go on.

“Men in Indonesia have lower levels of desire than Arab men. This is because in the Arab world men eat camels, and camels enhance one’s sexual appetite.” We all paused. I looked around to see if the other students were taking this in. One of the students self-defined as an “ascetic” turned his head to hide a smile.

The speaker waved his palm and shook it insistently. “Yes, Indonesian men do not eat camels. This is why women in Saudi Arabia wear the burqa and women in Indonesia are safe to dress freely in public.”

“Where did you get this information?” I asked.

“There are so many studies,” he said, sweeping an arm to demonstrate vastness, “that prove that what we eat is directly linked to our sexual appetite.” His eyes looked like they were about to pop out. They wobbled above above teeth that frayed from his upper lip.

I thought of the many relationships I knew in Jogja based only on instant message correspondences, the typical blouses hiding feminine curves and truncating the legs, store-front underwear that looked like parachutes, the young men heading out to the milk bar for pastel-colored shakes that put them to sleep. I had never lived in a city that seemed so asexual, and I wondered—in my own slip of logic—if what my student had suggested was true.

“Do you think it’s true that what we eat dictates our levels of desire and modesty?” I asked my other students. “Do you think it’s true that Arab men have more desire than Indonesian men, or that this should mean anything?”

The woman next to me smiled bashfully, as if admitting that her scarf was only the result of wishful thinking among limp men. More likely she had no experience from which to answer my question.

There was an awkward silence in the classroom. I could see the speaker’s bottom lip trembling between the spaces from tooth to tooth. Had he done anything wrong? Hadn’t he presented a proper argument by placing religion in context, and by moreover, by applying science?

There must be other ways to discuss the historical and cultural contexts of religious concepts like the veil than by painting one culture as more flaccid the other. And can we ever speculate on the inner-workings of a culture based on whether it munches on fried tempeh or sucks from the teat of a desert mammal?

Perhaps it will take us decades or even centuries to decide on the validity of religious arguments to the extent that we can move forward. In the mean time, what do you eat?