The Age of Rocks Pt. 3: Pining for a Priest
This is based on a true story I “collected” in the town of Witihama on the island of Adonara (East Indonesia).
“I could break you,” Pak Heli said, rising from his chair and pointing a finger at the man at the foot of the far table, quiet as a fish. The room lacked motion, apart from the groom’s uncles who stroked the old man’s thighs (to calm the man down, although such a breach of personal space would incentivize any Western man I know to bite a hand off). The groom’s family watched Pak Heli’s body pulse in fury. Despite the fact that he, as the advocate for the bride’s family bloodline, was outnumbered 20 to 1, his authority thundered into the senses of the bulky men and their mothers who crowded the living room.
(Above: The start of the meeting, before tensions rose. Pak Heli sits in front of the red stripe on the wall.)
The bridal price was to be decided that day, or blood from both clans would be left to curdle, potentially splash, until an agreement was won.
In the Eastern Indonesian region of Nusa Tenggara Timur, bridal price or “belis” remains a focal point of identity. The bridal price secures the departure of the bride, spiritually and physically, from her birth family. Her husband’s ancestors become her ancestors; his family becomes her burden. For such a transition, the bride’s family demands a price.
Depending on the man’s ethnic lineage, “payment” varies. In Ende, central Flores, the demand can be a fleet of horses. In Sumba, a water buffalo. In East Flores and Lembata, brides’ families demand ivory tusks, multiple for women who are highly-educated.
What happens if there are no horses or elephants left in this region of Indonesia, and the region’s economy already rubs the mass-majority of faces in poverty? Do old requirements still stand?
Tough: there’s no disappointing the ancestors in a place where departed spirits package the prayers of the living; and ancestors, like most old folks, tend to like the same old thing.
Now younger generations work to negotiate bridal prices to align with existing resources (ex. families discuss ivory as a symbol, while the fruit of the exchange comes in the form of a pig or sheep, or even cash). This works in response to global demands to educate children rather than thrust them into debt. In most urban parts of NTT, locals trust that ancestors—sympathetic to their own blood—will warm up to the times. Hell, the youth still have to get married, and there’s enough trouble already with younger generations pumping out babies out of wedlock.
But some bridal reps refuse to budge from dated demands. The island of Adonara is famous for its exacting requests; women from Adonara commonly ask for 3 tusks of ivory, with negotiations only flexible regarding time-until-delivery. A woman’s bridal price might be fulfilled 30 years after vows are stated. So much for saving for post-retirement by the pool.
Pak Heli, back in the living room in Adonara, identified proudly among the intractable reps. “This isn’t the price of an item we’re negotiating in a market,” Pak Heli stated. “This is our mother’s milk.”
The “mother’s milk” in his family, of the Kedang region (Eastern region of the island of Lembata), demanded a gong. A gong, a simple metal ritual instrument, might require a year of the groom’s savings. But Pak Heli wasn’t satisfied with his own milk; he wanted the groom’s, passed down among the Atodai people of West Lembata.
Ivory. To acquire a meter of ivory (which must be imported from outside Indonesia), pocket-fishing could reach $10,000 deep, which—we’re talking Indonesian salaries, here—would shove the groom’s entire family of drivers and laborers into decades of I-owe-yous.
The first response had come from the groom’s youngest uncle, guardian of the “traditional house” who spearheaded the negotiations before the wedding. “Where were you before the wedding?” he had asked Pak Heli after initial demands were made. “If you intended to make demands outside your own tradition, we should have known about it before the vows.”
First mistake: Never directly challenge an elder, especially during deliberations perceived as sacred.
Second mistake: Never argue from an emotional state, especially if the family we aim to represent hasn’t had the chance to regroup.
The manifestation of these two mistakes by the groom’s youngest uncle sent Pak Heli flying, and not in a charming way.
Pak Heli’s skeletal face, his cheeks that caved in like eye-hollows, captured shadow as he pointed his chin at the uncle who false-spoke.
The anger, rolled and powdered, was almost impressive with the poetry it unleashed.
“I have been trusted for decades because I have CHARISMA! It has been passed down for generations from fathers to fathers. You, listen! I am not a young dud, like you! I am not drunk, like you! I am smart and you are stupid! I am an old man, wise! I’m generous and give with class, unlike you who only think of yourself!”
The groom’s other uncles, who sat on either side of Pak Heli, continued to pet the old man’s limbs. “I have the charisma, I say!” he barked. “I could ruin you!”
The groom’s grandmother, a sharp woman with a lazy eye, sat with her sons and leaned also towards Pak Heli. She mumbled apologies under Pak Heli’s tirade, saying “my youngest son was drunk when he spoke. He should have talked with the family first, our apologies.” She repeated this like a mantra.
The bride, too, sat there, facing the representative of her bloodline while surrounded by her husband’s family, voiceless.
(Above: The bride (in white) rising from her chair after sitting silently for hours to the discussion of her “worth”)
“Don’t you dare think you’re greater than other people!” Pak Heli barked, still glaring at the groom’s youngest uncle. “I have been trusted by the people of Kedang to officiate bridal negotiations all over Nusa Tenggara Timur! Kupang, Manggarai, East Flores, Timor, you name it! I’ve seen it all, and never have I been so humiliated as I am today!”
He slapped a hand on the table. The whole house reverberated.
“Words are sharper than a blade,” he said.
Those of us listening were silent. The women in the room slipped out and reappeared with coffee and siri pinang (areca nut functioning as a sedative).
At last the groom’s youngest uncle placed his head in his hands and wept. Pak Heli’s jaw cracked down on an areca nut. “The wound has been made,” Pak Heli said. “Jesus could place a hand on a wound and recovery would happen in an instant. I’m not Jesus; I’m hurt, and I’m embarrassed. I leave tonight.”
At this point, the afternoon had carried us into the evening, and the number of people listening grew less and less as family members catered to reception guests who danced and fed on pork beneath the front-yard tent.
If we left the discussion at this point of tension, the future might look downright unsafe for the newly-minted couple, who had already borne a child. Everyone waited for a miracle, and for Pak Heli to suffer a change of heart.
(One of the uncles steps outside the living room to breathe)
The groom’s distant relative, Pak Bol, a public education monitor in Lembata and a man closer to Pak Heli’s age, seized the opportunity for diversion. “This lady here is interested in our culture,” he said, nodding his head in my direction and smiling. She must think this is all pretty interesting, eh?”
I swallowed. For the first time, Pak Heli looked directly at me. It was like watching a T-Rex turn its head.
“Do you have this kind of talk where you’re from?” Pak Bol egged on. Without an explicit cue I knew it was my turn to play along.
“It’s different,” I put in, trying to find the right words. “Traditionally in many parts of Europe and the United States it’s the woman’s family who pays a dowry, but times have changed.” I hesitated, but no one interrupted. “Both women and men have freedom to work and demand equal wages, so dowry is less important than investment in the future: towards educating children and self-sustainability in retirement.”
Pak Heli spat. “Women pay the men, ha!” He looked to the men around him as if, for the first time, they were all in on something. “Future!” His teeth clacked again on a nut, and I saw that the sedative had turned his dentures red. “Well we’re the opposite,” said Pak Heli, narrowing in. “While the West thinks about the future, we survive on our past.”
The groom’s father came to the rescue. Dinnertime had come and I was invited to bathe and enjoy the rest of the wedding reception, which already neared its end.
When I came back from a late meal and line dancing, I found Pak Heli on the living room floor, fast asleep next to one of the uncles. The younger man’s bear snores shook the room. Ivory or no ivory, they slept like empty pots. The groom’s grandmother came up behind me and ushered me to sleep.
“I’m glad he stayed,” I told the grandmother, looking over my shoulder and nodding towards Pak Heli.
“It will all be well” she said, letting her good eye settle on her temperamental guest. We have 100 days to deliver the ivory, and if we don’t…If we don’t, the negotiations will continue next year, when we can hope for more input and better favor. Although the hurt might always be there.”
I wondered how much wounded pride could be slept off, and—if it managed to contaminate “mother’s milk”—that milk could be spoiled for good.
(Above: the newlyweds after the church ceremony. Their four-year-old daughter is in pink.)
He would wait for the right moment to tell his mother he was gay. It wouldn’t be easy, not in a country where homosexuality was considered a contagion and anti-LGBTQ violence went unpunished.
“I plan to get settled with someone first, then tell her,” said G, spooning soy-sauce-battered egg and rice into his mouth. “I think she’ll accept it, but it might take awhile.”
G and I sat at a street-side tent restaurant, where we looked out at the night scene of Bandung, West Java. G had been living here for two years after graduating from college and stabilizing himself as a fashion designer. After over two months East Flores, my first glimpse of tall buildings and metropolitan streets had the effect of swallowing me like a casino.
G arranged for my transportation from the city of Bandung to his mother’s house in the neighboring city of Purwakarta, where we would meet again on the day of our mutual friend’s wedding.
When I arrived at G’s childhood home, G’s mother greeted me by leaning on the door-frame. I could tell she wasn’t your typical Indonesian “ibu”. She wore a sexy black tank top that hugged her tiny frame, with lace at the bust showing off a boney chest pumped up by a semi-visible bra. Her shorts rode well up her thigh and a trail of smoke followed her sweeping hand like a ribbon. An arm looped around me, then another, and all at once I was overwhelmed by the press of bone and menthol.
“Welcome home, Mommy wants you to stay for weeks, months! Come inside. G said you like vegetables, so Mommy made some tofu and chili sauce!”
We entered her living room, which also functioned as a guest and TV room. Glass glimmered in cabinets, dormant as a painting, while dull furniture sat like domestic animals. These looked lived-in, but had that musk of hand-me-down wood. She told me that this house was part of an inherited family complex, and that her siblings and in-laws occupied the neighboring apartments. “But we’re different, so I rarely socialize with them.”
She seemed afraid of “catching” a case of conservatism, and in a sense I understood what it meant to distance oneself from unwanted influences. Wasn’t I in Indonesia to temporarily distance myself from individualism (a leap that seems comical, now). In the days I stayed in Purwakarta, traveling between G’s mom’s house and the site of my friend’s wedding, I caught glimpses of the female in-laws. They never traveled beyond the meatball stand at the main road, and often sat together in their door frames looking out from periwinkle veils that masked their figures down to their waist.
“The saddest is my cousin’s wife, who is forbidden from doing many things by her husband,” said G’s mom, shaking her head. “She comes here sometimes to help make cakes. When you’re cooped up, you know nothing about the outside world. Look at her sad face, her pillowing body. Such a pity. She doesn’t even know that foreigners eat rice!”
G’s mom held a vision for transcending social pressures, and also for staying young. A consultant for alternative medicine who worked for $2 an hour, she had questionable theories about health, especially as they were usually delivered through clouds of smoke, but they were entertaining to listen to and worked for her just fine.
Mama Tells Me
A) Wear what you like
“Daddy wouldn’t like it if I wore a long veil like my siblings,” G’s mom said. She ran the back of her hand down her body, which, at 50, had born two children but was as petite as a barren yogi’s. “When I started dating Daddy, I asked him, does it bother you that I don’t dress like other women? He said he likes the way I dress, because it looks ‘right’ on me.”
I knew G’s biological father had left the family when his sister was still an infant, and I wondered the steps G’s mother took to recover her self-esteem. Her fashion outside the house consisted of jeans and vests, snatched out of a teen pop magazine. It suited her—her stride was light and airy, so when we moved around the kitchen or traditional market I often forgot who was the younger.
B) Stay Active
“Every day, after we go to the market to sell soft cakes, Mommy and Daddy go to the park to exercise.” We entered a park surrounded by a quarter-mile promenade on which some people paced and jogged. At the center of the promenade was a pond featuring at its center the statue of Prabu Kian Santang, praised sultan of Purwakarta’s ancient kingdom.
Daddy took one lap around the promenade before plopping down, panting. Mommy and I walked side by side, passing up teenage girls whose veils mis-matched their exercise pants, and whose clothes bunched up around consistently heavy frames. “Don’t be like that,” Mommy said. “Once you start being ashamed of your body, you let it go.”
C) Everything revolves around happiness
“If you’re not happy, you’ll never find it,” she said, when she saw me scrambling around for my credit card. I wiped a collection of sweat from my forehead, hand deep in my backpack. On the brink of resign, I was not in the mood for a pep talk, but G’s mom peered over me to advise in earnest:
“Mommy tells her patients, if we are not happy, our head is not at peace, and we will never find what we’re looking for.” I tried to smile. Needless to say, even after a short rest and a coconut-sugar crepe, I did not find my credit card.
There were parts of her “happy talk” that I was willing to buy. Didn’t studies confirm that our immune system responded to stress? How far did that theory go? Mommy says, among things that happiness cured were high cholesterol, cancer, malaria. Addiction, of course, was easier to cure than missing credit cards. “When we are happy, all the bad things stay away,” she said.
Take it Home
During G’s mom’s impromptu lessons on happiness, she would pop in questions about G. She asked me what his dreams were, where he wanted to travel, and I could only relay his updates from the first evening I spent with him. He rarely opened up to her, she said, for reasons she didn’t understand. But he showed he cared by sending an allowance to his younger sister so she could continue her college education without concern for money.
“He’s a good boy. Comes home just for the food, and getting fatter, but a good boy. And he gets looks for those clothes he wears. I just want him to be happy,” she said.
I knew there was much she wanted to say to him in person; that she knew her son’s gender-transcending was a bit “different”, and she was ready to hear whatever secret kept him at a distance. I knew G was happy living as an out gay man, but would he be happier if his mom accepted it, along with his taste for Hillary-esque pantsuits?
Before I left, G’s mom threw her house gowns at me, saying “You like them? Wear them. Mommy likes sex dresses, I have no use for mumus.” Indeed she seemed to have an endless selection of sexy lingerie. It wouldn’t deprive her of anything to drape myself in vibrant cotton like the traditional housewives, not when she pranced around the living room like a Victoria’s Secret mini-model. “You wear the mumus, ya,” she said, hugging me in her see-through mesh top, “when you want to remember me.”
Mommy still sends pictures of her posing with her hubby, and I wonder if I’ll ever be conserved in beauty and energy like a rare insect in a capsule. I do know that when I wear the mumus I am happier, a bit frumpier, and full of memories. In the cheap cotton I can feel a mother’s love for her child, reserved most of all for G—a blessing that both her “children” might remember when we go to sleep at night, and in the morning when we wake up to find ourselves.
This is based on a true account from a Catholic Sister in Larantuka. The nun ran the local orphanage, and invited me and my host, the priest Romo Alfons, in for coffee. She told me that the following story is none too unusual in these parts, since both ethnic rites and Catholic law make divorce near impossible. So when extramarital affairs happen—as they inevitably do—adulterers run for their lives from their in-laws.
Gossip at the Orphanage about an Anonymous Local Woman
East Flores was a land of no secrets, but she managed to keep just one. This saved her from being murdered, and from becoming a murderer herself.
She never told her four legitimate children, or her legitimate husband, what it meant to be a breadwinner whose vitality drove her to seek satisfaction beyond a distant partner. She only confided this to her illegitimate husband (if we can call him that), whose own wife ceased to satisfy, and whose praises in the prayer park inspired visions for a new future.
Her husband had left ten years ago for oil drilling on the far-off island of Kalimantan. There he killed a man and had himself condemned to prison, leaving his wife and children to scraps of inheritance and minimal communication. She never told her husband’s family, who bound her to her marriage vows, that she never intended to stay faithful. They would have killed her, of course, if they knew.
The right people never found out, thank Tanah Eka. She stayed cooped up in her remote garden in the hills as her belly grew with her mistake. Her stand-in-husband hated condoms. As the mistake grew a head and legs, she sold coconut oil and fried yams with the help of a hired boy who went to market. When she scooped out the insides of the sunned coconuts, she imagined running a spoon along the interior of her uterus, scraping out the babe which sought her ruin, then her ties with her husband who swatted away the days behind bars. The meat came off in clean shavings. The plan was to birth the baby in a squat in the garden, take a knife to the throat before the tick could scream, and bury it in a fury.
She had managed to send her children off to boarding school with no homecoming funds for the remainder of the year. Her kids missed mommy, but might not if they knew. Her belly grew to the size of a squash, then jackfruit, so that sometimes when she worked in the garden she squatted in an “M” so her her seeds would soak up her piss. Her illegitimate husband never came to visit her in the hills. His wife, he said, questioned the country women most of all.
She ran one day to a nun at an orphanage, who she heard was more sympathetic than most. It was a day when she woke up from one of many tormenting nightmares; this one in which she dug through the foam of her uterus and, in the watery parts, saw a fetus floating in pitch black. She swam to the body of the fetus and strained to see its face, which was hidden by an arm. As she swam closer she saw that the face was not that of an infant but of her lover. She brushed her palm across the familiar forehead. The eyes opened and the jaws cracked to a “V” to reveal the dentures of a whale. It swallowed her whole.
The orphanage was run by the sisterhood, which also functioned as a school for special needs. It was a Sunday when she sped to the place, and contented families in the surrounding area sat outside drinking tea. When she entered the orphanage, she was introduced to some of the live-ins. Several children couldn’t speak, some were short like forest fairies but with the jaws of fishermen, and there were some children you could tell whose brains melted like chocolate when they drew outside the lines.
She was welcomed by the convent sister, who served her coffee with milk and crushed corn. When she told the sister her story, the holy woman stroked her mole and placed her fingertips on the rim of her coffee glass, but did not drink. The sister said she had heard tales of the man who we call the illegitimate husband. He had a habit of slipping his tool between married women, but we don’t have to relay the numbers: only he didn’t have the balls or or financial security to commit to any one.
The likelihood of killing her child played over and over in her head as she sat before the nun. At last, when she felt she might fly out of herself, she confessed her plans for murder. The details were tugged out of her like weed after weed. When she finished speaking, the water machine in the cafeteria kept humming, the Jesus in the pegged paintings looked down and behind him and everywhere but at her. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary in the corner of the room, and she could feel Her throbbing, waiting to hold a man who was too ashamed of his humanness to hold eye contact. Maybe under different circumstances, when a dangerous thing landed in Mother Mary’s palms, she, too, would slaughter it and throw it away.
The nun convinced her to spare the child, and before the coffee was cold she was off again.
When the time came, she brought the baby to the nun. The last sounds she heard from the orphanage were her own child’s murmuring among the blubbering of the dumb children. The baby was adopted by the brother of a priest, and the woman’s secret was unleashed to the holy family, then to me.
No one, not the newborn, not the nun, ever the learned name of the sinful mother who perhaps went back to her normal life, or who perhaps was haunted by the throbbing of The Virgin, who — let’s admit it — was likely a sinner herself.
(Below: Nun and storyteller)
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.
Scenes from Lembata
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Gentle hills capture a highlighter green, their grass coats waving erect shafts.
Smoke rises from the tops of mountains.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 my mentor-of-the-moment.
– 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.
“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.
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.