Curiosity #83: Who Has the Wits?

Travel, Uncategorized

Her mascara dripped into the wrinkles on her cheeks. I smelled her dog from where it lay by her stool, and she clutched the leash with one upturned palm, waiting to be led. “I just don’t get it,” she said to a young couple who looked eager to pay their bill. “How can we have this fucking tard for a president?”

At that moment three people ran into the brewery, the size of a small store-room. The first through the door was a young man wearing a bar shirt that clung tightly to his muscled figure, no shoes. He took a deep breath in and grinned. “I won,” he announced. The remaining adrenaline coursed from his mouth, onto the floor, up the legs of the barstool on which I sat, and for a moment (despite my distaste for the frat boy persona) I shared his euphoria.

Two other young people in their twenties, a man and a woman, came in panting after their victor. The few bar patrons turned towards the new arrivals, and the young couple who’d just paid their bill used this as an excuse to escape. The victor, who turned out to be an off-duty bartender at Hop & Craft Tennessee, stepped behind the counter. Mascara-face, now without a pair of listeners, turned to me and introduced herself as Ann Clare. She scanned over the rest of us, surveying the new victims for her tirade.

“I don’t want to deal with this,” confided the bartender to Justin and I, leaning over the bar to whisper to us. “That guy,” she jutted her thumb at the man beside her, who spoke excitedly with his friends.  She furrowed her brow as if he were a rabid dog. “He’s a republican.”

I successfully contained my excitement. I was looking at a real live republican. I yearned to encounter this above all else in my first expedition to the South, perhaps even more than a moist southern biscuit. Among my cohort, a Trump-supporter was as rare as spotting a 3-legged wolf in the woods, as inviting as a prickly Persian cat. But I was taught that democrat folklore teaches us all we need to know about those republicans: they’re uneducated, they carry guns in their pick-ups, they get their hair cut at Walmart and they speak in tongues when they’re not dismantling every advancement towards social progress. I was sure that such folklore was true of only a fraction of the South, but I wanted to gather a few seeds of information on my own.

“Fuckin’ tard!” Silence. “President won’t let the minorities eat cake!”

The young man removed himself from the conversation with his friends, and now he raised an eyebrow at Anne Clare. “Everything alright ma’am?”

“Not with our president! We’re all going to shit!”

“Now m’aam,” the man said, cocking his head, lifting up his palms in surrender. “This is a bar. We don’t need to talk about politics. C’mon. How about sports? How about those—”

Never hush a woman launching herself in the Age of She. “We’re in the midst of the apocalypse because of our shit-hole president, and and all you want to talk about is sports?!”

I watched the man. I watched the republican.

What does republican do when a democrat loses her wits?

In this case he goes calm. He listens. He assigns himself as an arbiter of peace. He does not deny his alignment with conservative values, nor his identity as a Christian and a marine, but addresses the wrongs on both sides, astounding the believer of socio-political lore.

It was clear the woman wanted to be listened to. “I’m liberal. I’m a Californian. I’m liberal” She repeated this, as if committing herself to a refrain. Then she said. “I’ve lived here 16 years. I just want this to be a nice place.” I nodded my head, reserving comment. What she meant was I want to be in a place full of people like me.

The republican listened patiently behind the bar until she finished speaking. “The way I look at it,” he said, “is that there are wrongs on both sides. Extremism in politics is causing the wrong people to get elected, and the wrong kinds of judgment to float around. I don’t like it either.”

Anne Clare drew a deep breath to unleash another monologue.

But the republican wasn’t finished. “But I’m sick of people who claim to be liberal and open-minded talking about how all Christians are the same, and that people who have conservative values are all uneducated. I’m Christian, and I’m highly educated. I’m also not the same as every conservative person out there.”

Anne Clare looked at me, gave the republican a sidelong glance over the bar, and spat. “Protestants. They think they’re so righteous.” She paused, tipping back her glass to finish the dredges of her beer. “I grew up Catholic.” Then she turned to look at the young man again. “But I don’t get it. I don’t get how republicans think they can refuse cake to people they don’t like. You think that if a neighbor was baking a cake, they should be able to refuse that cake to people of color, or a same-sex couple? That’s wrong!”

The republican tried to emphasize that he didn’t approve of discrimination either, but laws couldn’t stop racism. Laws were limitations, not inspirations. The latter came with the ways communities raise their children.

Ann Clare looked deflated. “But the cake.”

The bartender announced that the brewery was closing. If we wanted to continue the conversation, we could do it at another bar. As we prepared to pass through the door, Ann Clare bent towards me. “You know my friends say I’m like an angry black woman.”

I looked at Anne Clare: a lite-pilsner-skinned woman in her late forties, blonde hair hanging to the middle of her back, dressed in pink as if she’d been drafted into a sorority 30 years late. “Don’t call yourself that,” I said.

The man, the republican, opened the door for Ann Clare and gave me a hug. “I’m just trying to stop extremism when I can help it.”

I thought about the cake, how “the republican” gave the cake of service and attention—and the most essential ingredient in the slice, the act of listening—to a person who attacked all his values, along with the people who aligned with them. And Ann Clare?

“We women are smart and intelligent,” she said to me as we met the Nashville air. Her gait was lazy, and it was clear she’d consumed more than a healthy fill of alcohol that evening. “It would be better if all the republicans were just wiped free from the earth. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

I’m on board with Ann Clare in some ways. I believe that the historically silenced should be offered the first rounds of cake. But I do believe that everyone, even Trump, deserves some cake (though he should eat it following his impeachment). And as for “us liberals” observing the American South, if we truly believe in sharing whatever this perplexed country can bake up, then maybe we should stop shouting that we deserve the biggest slice.

IMG_5596After we walked Ann Clare to her home, Justin, who had been silent throughout the whole conversation, said “I got a free beer for not partaking in that argument.”

 

Curiosity #82: Hushed Cities and Sustainable Shadows

Anthropology, Travel, Uncategorized

“Take a look around,” he said. We stood in an ancient Inca enclosure. Some of the surrounding partitions amounted to homes without roofs, with door-frames bolstered by ancient wood and rectangular window-like nooks set three meters above ground. No one but myself and my new friend, who happened to be the hostel receptionist, stood in view of what I perceived to be a masterpiece.

Sensing my interest in local identity earlier that day, Francisco had promised to take me after work “to a spot where no one goes.”

He delivered. We parked his motorbike by the side of the road near the top of a mountain. After climbing to the crest, we passed through sticks on hinges into a clearing. All around me stood abandoned settlement. I felt a deluded sense of privilege as if I had stumbled upon a dead animal.

The city before me wasn’t my discovery, of course. It was a hushed treasure, kept well and at peace.

Francisco urged me to wander at my own pace. Inside the first home I entered, the nothingness felt nothing like nothing. The wind and light and wrapped around the outside of the stone walls. I could hear it, see it. Inside the Inca home I was removed from the outdoors. The walls lent a shadowy sense of solitude that, even without the roof, enfolded me in shelter.

IMG_4396Five hundred years after the conquest of the Incas at Ollantaytambo, the structures stood with as much functioning potential as they once did. Grass grew within square perimeters. With such limited space, it was hard to imagine residences filled with eccentricities. Inca society, according to the the Quechuan concept, “ayni”, unified its micro-communities under the idea that people kept only what they needed. There was no pomp and no stretch over one’s neighbors.

Through the windows I could see the knees of mountains. Their heights didn’t impose upon me from where they stood. They stood level with my breast. Looking over the edge I could see terraces from where the motorbike began its mount, some of the farmland still framed by ancient rock foundations.

IMG_4398Circling back, I found Francisco lying on his back near the gate. He lay under the sky, legs extended, hands cushioning his head. When I walked towards him, he stood.

“You like the city?” he asked.

“It’s an image from a fairy tale,” I said, stupidly. There was another impression I kept hidden. The space felt haunted. More a hive than a fairy land, it was too perfect and genius to stand empty.

“Do you ever resent what happened here?” I asked. Earlier at the hostel, he had told me that his sister was an anthropologist on local history. He held a similar interest (albeit a non-academic one) in Ollantaytambo’s history, and identified strongly with the successes and losses of his ancestors.

Francisco shook his head. “The conquest happened because it had to happen. Society is changing, even now. When people choose to value things over people, the outcome is war and destruction. It’s an evolution. It started happening long ago and continues now.”

We strolled into a a section of houses I hadn’t yet explored. Airy green pathways fed from house to house. The clusters of residences were organized in a circle at the crest of the mountain, all surrounded by a stone membrane.

For a moment we both forgot about history. “Look at the windows and doors of this one!” said Francisco. “From outside the house it looks like a face!”

IMG_4406IMG_4403IMG_4397IMG_4405We reached one of the highest structures and looked through a square window. He pointed out the famous fortress near the city center.

Ollantaytambo’s fortress remained the main source of tourism for the city, attracting hundreds of visitors and thousands of dollars a day. Now it poised hundreds of meters below. We saw little shapes with limbs collecting in clumps along different tiers of hill.

“How is it that we’re the only ones here?” I asked Francisco, turning back towards our settlement on high. The sun was setting. The shadow of a mountain let its skirt flare over the valley.

“Every resident from Ollantaytambo knows about this place,” he said. “The locals have just chosen not to make it an attraction.”

We walked back to the clearing into which we originally entered and sat on the grass.

“So do you want to keep working in tourism?” I asked him.

Francisco tore at the grass between his legs. “No. I’m 27, and I’ve been working for other people long enough. You saw the home we passed on the way up? I built that. It’s a nice space, and I can rent it out to temporary residents. Besides that, I have a small bit of land so I can grow all the grains and vegetables I need. There’s even a stream, so maybe I can farm some fish. The goal is to be totally self-sustainable. ”

Francisco pointed to a far mountain. “You know some people still live really high up? Higher than this? I lived with them for a while. They have no watches or electricity, so they wake up when the sun hits, around four in the morning, and go to sleep very early. Everything they need is grown around them. All else is given away.”

We passed a woman in braids on the way down. She sat with her baby and llama. Crafts lay sprawled before her knees.

She must have seen me on the way up. I remembered what Francisco said about the history of self-sustainability and, as I walked past with a wave, hoped her livelihood didn’t depend on frugal travelers like me.

As Francisco revived his bike, I took one more look back at the fence of the abandoned city. I encoded the remnants of its tale.

For me it was a testament to the extent to which beauty could be gutted by greed. But for Francisco and the other the locals of Ollantaytambo, it was a place for reflection. It was whispered of and adored, and, from what my own guts could gather, a dignified reminder of identity.

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(Above: The entrance to Ollantaytambo’s fortress)

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(Above: Two dances from the independence festival at the city center, which carried throughout June)

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(Terraces at the skirt of the mountain where Francisco and I began our ascent)

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.

Chakana

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 #62: Demon vs. Buddha

Anthropology, Travel, Uncategorized

The Cambodians believe that demons live in caves: congesting hollows, materializing into whatever forms they please, luring victims into frenzied possession and then death (or, at least, fear-induced cardiac arrest). Visitors entering a cave should never presume that the space is unoccupied, and rather beware of malevolence shadowing where they can’t see, waiting to advance and create war inside the human consciousness.

Should you decide to brave these spaces, you need something brighter than a flashlight. You need a Buddha, gold and grinning, preferably blessed by a monk of respected status. Traditionalist veins of Buddhism in South-East Asia still uphold that a statue alone can hold the spirit of an ancestor, and, of course, the spirit of the Buddha is the most powerful of all.

Even while reclining with his eyes closed, a Buddha can conduct battle against his evil aggressors. The battle always ends the same way, with Buddha driving his fist through the face of suffering. Perhaps this is why, if you decide to journey through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, you might see little Buddhas snugged into dark spaces, smiling over negative energies that have haunted the land for centuries.

Below is one of the “Killing Caves” in Battambang, Cambodia.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Khmer Rouge, it was Cambodia’s ruling political party from 1975 to 1979: fueled by Communist and nationalist extremism, famous for its genocide. What began as an attempt to liquidate all class systems under universal farm labor became a mass-abduction and execution of all who didn’t fit in with the Khmer Rouge’s new agrarian vision. An estimated 2,000,000 people — many of them educators, artists, and spiritual leaders — were tortured and killed for the sake of national “cleansing”.

As a testament against formal education, the Khmer Rouge imprisoned "traitors" inside this high school in Phnom Penh, which now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. From here, the prisoners were taken out to the Killing Fields where they were slaughtered.

As a testament against formal education, the Khmer Rouge imprisoned “traitors” inside this high school in Phnom Penh, which now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. From here, the prisoners were taken out to the Killing Fields where they were slaughtered.

Khmer Rouge victims detained at Tuol Sleng prison

Khmer Rouge victims detained at Tuol Sleng prison

Locals living near the Killing Caves have painted colorful signs along the road to the tourist site, many of them depicting heaps of skulls, babies thrown against trees, or blindfolded men and women suspending their necks under scythes.

Who knows if the Khmer Rouge thought of demons as they heaved corpse after corpse into the Killing Caves? But whatever “demonic” energy might have existed in those caves before, it could only have been strengthened after the depths were piled high with innocents.

Upon descending stone steps into the Killing Caves, visitors find themselves in a cool rock hall inlaid with colorful tile, accented by paper cut-outs and children’s drawings strung up for good luck. Only at the far end is there evidence of the massacre — a memorial shelter with a pile of human skulls set on display.

Beside this memorial, an old man collects donations for site maintenance. His job is to sit from morning until evening, greeting tourists whether or not they contribute to the memorial fund.

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We might wonder why the Killing Caves’ most frequent occupant smiles so radiantly beside evidence of one of the worst atrocities in recent human history.

And what about the demons?

But then we look at the giant Buddha meditating soundly behind the old man, and we begin to understand. Whatever evil force once residing in that space has already been removed. Suddenly the cave is a womb, the Buddha like a chord, the sun streaming in through the hatches of the cave like new light after crowning.

At last we feel heavy with life. Empty of change, we leave our last pen at the base the skulls as a tribute to progress, and to lighten the load.

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Above is a shrine constructed by locals, erected next to the stairway into the Killing Caves in order to protect visitors against malevolent spirits