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 #77: Buried Alive


200 mystics, equipped with fabric for shielding skin against dirt and nothing else, reclined in pits they dug themselves. They waited for men to cover their bodies, Allah to lend access to His portal between worlds. If they were worthy, they would be granted miracles where they lay.

Needless to say miracles don’t happen to everyone. Of the sages who volunteered for this 40-day burial, this must have been understood.

Spiritual trials captivated Java since before recorded history. Occult rituals still happen, varied in extremity and magnitude, though broadcasts of these happenings seldom leak because they raise a fuss among the “real Muslims” who bow and hum to the wagging of the Middle East.

Ancestry runs steeper than law. God knows the ancients still hold sway where the higher power takes root, and it would do us well to pay attention. We should inherit Javanese tradition, adhere to the path of the Mystics, rise in the ranks among the ascetics, or, if we’re willing to trade the clinical for the sensual, live on the island long enough to earn confidence of locals who encourage us to believe—at least not disbelieve—tales that step quite casually beyond reality.

Little did I know that at an acupuncture visit, I would learn that meditation challenged Death, literally on its own turf.

The lesson came from Tommy, a health couneslor and self-proclaimed Sufi spiritualist whose family held clout among the Central Javanese of standing. From his home near the “Flower Market” where the prostitutes lived, behind a banner advertising his trade like a mini-leaguer’s banner, He fused this spiritual expertise with methods of Chinese acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, chiropraxy, psychiatry. What were his credentials? Who cared? All that mattered was that he was a stand-up guy. He channeled qi under the name of Islam, placed gentle pressure on people who were lonely.

Dani was a most loyal patient. On the night he drove me to Tommy’s home, I ascended the steps to the second floor and entered a living room painted with assorted shades of spoiled milk. Four men lounged in the space around a low table with a tray of coffee and cakes, an open food storage container of stone rings, among the guests: cigarettes poised between their fingers as if they were dames in a renaissance painting, curves stripped to reveal featherlight bones puncturing the smoke they blew. The only man with heft sat at the end of the table with his stomach spilling over gym short elastic, held up by a durable net of skin that poked out from beneath faded cotton.

Tommy asked me why I had come. I confessed my anxiety about returning to the United States. “Kacau Pikiran,” marked by chronic stampede of thoughts.

He said “You want some acupuncture, yeah?” He stood up, walked over to a glass display case, and took out a container of needles all aligned in a row. It looked like a sewing needle kit. Bulbs gleamed at the ends of tiny shafts of metal. He picked up one needle, the smallest, and put it in the center of my head.

He left that needle balancing between my eyebrows like a radio antennae, sat back in his chair and patted his tummy, as if this finished the job. “I’m not a spiritual expert,” he said, “not compared to my ancestors. Back in my grandfather’s day, people had much more power than they do today. My grandfather was a legend, and people hardly have powers like his anymore.”

“Like what?”

“Like healing earthly ailments, traveling between worlds. There was one experience pivotal in building my grandfather’s spiritual strength, and that was the burial.”

“The burial!” I exclaimed, looking around. The other men still sat motionless, each wrapped in his own scarf of smoke.


His grandfather was six feet underground when he realised he could either meditate or die. Those participating in the ritual were wrapped in cloth, arms held tight against the torso like the dead. They would receive no provisions, no air or light.

Hours went by. Days. He hungered and he ached. But he knew that like with any meditation, after a period of discomfort the pain would pass and he would reach another state, be it death or some other reality. The ants bit with less frequency and the muscle pain subsided, or maybe it was that he was just drifting out of consciousness.

After a week, he blacked out.

Perhaps in some compartment of his mind, some might say on an alternate plane of existence, he woke up. In that waking state he was able to travel like any other man. He could eat, converse with other people, make new acquaintances. He could travel to any part of the world he wished. He was, in every sense, free.

After the 40 days Tommy’s grandfather was rescued from the ground. He was one of 20 (of the original 200), who lasted that 40 day trial.

Assuming that all these people were hungry, the rescuers gave the remaining 20 their first meal. Once the food was placed in front of them, most of the people grabbed the food and stuffed their faces, eager to fill themselves after such a long period of starving.

Their stomachs couldn’t withstand such an inrush of food, and so those who stuffed themselves died from bursting insides. After that first meal, 4 people out of the initial 20 survivors remained.

After that day, Tommy’s grandfather earned a great deal of clout in his community. People came to his house seeking his power. He could heal anything. He could communicate with the dead. He could travel across time and space to any any time and place he wished. He was unbound by any constriction, because whatever was out there, he could communicate with it, whittle it to his will.

I wanted to ask Tommy why his grandfather wasn’t around anymore. If a great man could avert death once, what stopped him from living for eternity? But if Tommy’s grandfather was wise enough to understand the elements of life and of other dimensions, he probably knew that each human needn’t be extended nor confined by one’s physical form.

Still I wondered where he was. Maybe he was in the heirloom swords of the Javanese people. Maybe he was in the stone rings at the center of the table. Maybe he was in the incense rising from the table-side figurine. Maybe he was under the fold of Tommy’s belly fat. Who who knew?

But was clear from the story was that his power arose from the ability to let go of what most people clung to. I’ll never forget that. I realised that even if I didn’t have the power to lay underground, maybe I could manage to let go of where I was.

Cognitively or spiritually, or even physically—some day I would be able to come back to Indonesia. Or not. And that was OK too.

Curiosity #75: Fossils


Fabric bunched around her waist, obscuring whatever curve might have been hidden there. She had age marks that looked like chicken tracks across cement, austere cheekbones, a gaze that dove out every time she turned her head — landing, revealing something between judgment and waiting. Her lips stood alone, as if they had been rolled up and pinned, preserving a sensual vitality that betrayed itself only at the corners of her mouth where her creases dipped in exhaustion.

She was the keeper of the home and a mother of two. From the way visitors overlooked her labors, the way her elephant-bodied husband bypassed her on the way to the kitchen, it was obvious that no one recognized how beautiful she was.

I had come here, to this small village in the center of Bali, to celebrate the festival of Galungan. Galungan was a Hindu festival in which young men and women took the places of departed souls; they lay open-mouthed under the hands of Hindu priests who tamed their inner demons by filing away at the bottoms of their teeth; and so children became adults, establishing holy unions through marriage, bridging families and shifting loyalties. Over the course of several days and on numerous occasions I rode side-saddled on Bu Ayu’s motorbike, propping baskets of food and flowers on my head, bowing into family compounds and offering congratulations to newlyweds who supplied pork in exchange for our blessings.

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My original intention was to inquire about Bali’s resident spirits, but in the end what I learned, quite accidentally, was that reality is what we leave behind.

There used to be a beloved matriarch in the house. Bu Ketut, who had grown up in the family compound (but now lived with her children in Denpasar), told me of her mother, whose spirit sometimes slept beside her in her husband’s place, and whose voice followed her like a recording, singing. The “mother” she mourned was in fact her aunt, never married, an ordinary midwife. Word was that this woman’s selfless love was so effulgent that she made everyone feel they were borne of her own womb.

There were stories of Her guiding lonely children through hospitals, tending new mothers, taking visitors on walks through rice fields and taking dips in the river, pushing mattresses together in the living room and laughing late into the night. Bu Ayu said that when this woman died the condolences came like a sea.

Yet it seemed all she had to do was make time for people. And care.

Now that I’m back in the United States and I’m bound to my computer, I feel a new reality creeping in, one I hope won’t permeate. It’s a reality that says I don’t have time for anything apart from finding a path, reaching a ladder and climbing it.

At my first stage of reverse-culture shock, this has me scrambling in a void.

So for sanity’s sake I retreat to the rice fields in the Balinese village where I stayed, where stairs of grass are laid out like a bowl, and beside it runs a stream where Shiva is known to bathe. Grandma — Bu Ayu’s mother-in-law, the only elder living in the compound — waits for me there. She looks as bird-like as ever, perched by the steps with a stern, pretty set of features and slightly bulging belly. Like a sculpted Madonna, her face allows no expression and lets out little speech.

The scene unfolds as it did then. I look down at the stream and observe it flowing cleanly along its gutter of concrete. Step in. The water comes up almost to my waist. I lift up my nightgown so only my hem gets wet. Against the current of the stream my legs wobble like loose pegs and my torso stands exposed to the late-morning air. I’m cold. Down the river are children splashing in their underwear, older men soaping bare bodies. Sometimes they turn to look at me.

Self-consciously I bring each leg to the surface to rub each thigh clean, trying to maintain a grip on my nightgown, which I clutch to my chest using a free arm. Grandma stands nearby, watching me.

“Take off your clothes” she says firmly.

At the moment I’m still fumbling with my wet cotton, and pause to look up. I want to tell her I’m plucked enough. “Take off your clothes,” she says again. The children nearby are still playing, and the villagers who just entered the clearing pause beside Grandma, letting their eyes linger on me. My body bleats like a sheet. A woman as old as Grandma moves off by herself and squats at a place by the riverside, removes her blouse in one motion, undoes her bra, and splashes water over a tumor that protrudes from her neck out to her chin. She motions at me to Grandma and says something in Balinese. The two old women laugh.

I exit the water and walk to where Grandma stands. I remove my dress. Grandma takes it and drapes it over her crossed arms. Not a word, not a blink. “Thank you” I say and look down at my clothes, but I’m really referring to something else. Grandma observes me in my minimal underwear, waiting for me to hide myself, but I don’t. I feel my skin move beneath her eyes like parcels of a used temple offering. But then I see her blink and nod, and this is how she accepts me. Perhaps she recognizes her own youth in my shapes, or perhaps my act of self-exposure has suspended my origins so that, without grace but with humility, they could come to rest within her traditions.

Now, I am neither here nor there.

I am in the United States, sitting beside my mother at our kitchen table. I am half-way around the world, passing a dormant temple on the back of a little boy’s motorbike.

I can teleport myself to where I’m haunted by the love of an immortal midwife, where I watch Bu Ayu inspect my grandmother’s locket, wrap her arms around her children and look out at nothing. I can try to establish a nest in a country that raised me, simultaneously cling to Indonesia, where I can reveal the most volatile part of myself to a strange old woman and no one looks away.

These memories and sensations have their own agency and are tethered to me, more real than whatever it might mean to reintegrate into my own country —

or to be a citizen of anywhere.

"Potong Gigi" or Teeth Filing Ceremony, mandatory in the adult initiation process among Balinese Hindus

“Potong Gigi” or Teeth Filing Ceremony, mandatory when becoming initiated as an adult in Balinese Hindu society

Six children of the same family before the "potong gigi" ceremony

Six children of the same family before the “potong gigi” ceremony

Gates of the local temple, Pura Dalem. The two figures on the door represent the polar forces of Hindu cosmology.

Gates of the local temple, Pura Dalem. The two figures on the door represent the polar forces of Hindu cosmology.

Bu Ayu (sitting far right) in front of the family compound during the Galungan parade

Bu Ayu (sitting far right) in front of the family compound during the Galungan parade

Steps down to the river, unused by locals because of its status as the reserved path for the spirit of Shiva.

Shady route to the river, unused by locals because of its status as the path for the spirit of Shiva.

Curiosity #74: The Stuff of Demons: A Metamorphosis


There was a rumor that Mas Wisnu’s wife would leave him after his recital, and this quelled my resentment at being ordered around like a circus monkey. Of course most rumors in Java are talk, based more in pride and truth, and the news of my choreographer’s impending divorce reached me through a friend who, as the coordinator of all dance events filtering through UGM’s campus, once spurned by Mas Wisnu a year before by being called “unprofessional”, had a lot of gossip to spit.

Gossip or not, as I shifted around on stage I envisioned Mas Wisnu’s wife standing in the aisle of the auditorium, holding the wrist of their eight-year-old daughter as she twitched in anger. Mas Wisnu would pace back and forth in a tantrum. Her gaze would narrow as his outbursts spewed. I imagined her offset teeth grinding as he continued to torque up further within himself, like a toddler without recognition of why he cries, like a wind-up doll whose owners have grown tired of his company. His loved ones would approach him, stand unnoticed as he writhed blindly behind an occupied brow, and leave him with a resolute calm. Of course these were fabrications of my own; Mas Wisnu’s wife would not enter the auditorium until later that night, and now the only people present were the punk who coordinated the lighting, Mas Wisnu, and the demons of his dance troupe, Chakil Squad, of which I was one.

Sweat caked my hair against fake silk. I had arrived from work in time for stage blocking, and was promptly hammered with instructions that flew out of Mas Wisnu’s mouth like wet tobacco, with messages just as indecipherable. The other dancers contained their expressions, unwilling to set Mas Wisnu further on edge. I saw that Mas Endra also wore his work clothes. He had come from teaching Javanese to a classroom full of grade school students and wore a frown of supreme exhaustion. Lita behind me heard me unleash a breath of bafflement and raised her eyebrows, as if to say, “Don’t ask. Just go along with it.” And so we shuffled silently from stage corner to corner, bowing our heads to Mas Wisnu’s clenched fists.

Later, Fendi would explain that the previous night, after our performance, Mas Wisnu was informed that if he did not alter elements in his choreography, and if his dancers were not rehearsed in the placement of their movements, he would not graduate with his undergraduate degree in composition. Months of effort and hundreds of dollars would go down the drain, and Mas Wisnu, with his suspended job contract and his undergraduate degree ten years overdue, would be resigned to status as B-class entertainer.

I now felt at fault. During the previous night’s show, when I had struck my inversion for the final pose (too far downstage it turned out), the stage curtains swept over me and I rolled towards the audience like a cat stumbling into the underbrush of Hell. Upon later watching the video of our performance offstage, we had all tossed on the floor in laughter at my blunder. In fact we had all danced poorly that night, and I was just the most obvious comic relief. But the following day, I was the most obvious contributor to the pressure that now weighed upon us. As usual, I felt unworthy of occupying space on a stage meant for artists of traditional training. I was using acrobatics as compensation for absent technique. No one was fooled.

It was only when we moved to the dressing room that we began to relax. Fendi, the comedian of the clan, instructed me to sit down so he could put make-up on my face. Fingertips dipped in paint, he put a glob of red on my cheek and started smearing the stuff around. I could feel the wetness cover my nose and upper lip and a slow cool sink into my skin. Fendi had grown up dancing various roles in the Hindu epic, Ramayana (specializing in the selfless white bird, Jatayu), and so the act of applying make-up was as much a ritual as a necessity. His knees against mine, I could feel his skinny legs start to loosen, and his voice unleash its usual good humor, crooning along to pop-rock singles blasting from the stereo of a mustachioed clown on the other side of the room. When Fendi had finished applying my make up, I turned around to look in the mirror. Fake teeth hooked over my lips, and my features disappeared behind a drawn-on-ferocity that had always been in me.


Luthfi, the youngest (at seventeen), drew on his own face. He had shown up at dress rehearsal two days before with a rash that covered the entire length of his neck—due to stress, he had said. Even before stretching I could see him break a sweat. Now that paint had covered his rash, his adam’s apple looked as if it were sprouting scales, spurring his metamorphosis into the hot-blooded “Chakil” he was meant to be. He stood looking in the mirror, stroking his blemish as if it were a new spine.

Mas Wisnu’s wife entered. All the dancers turned to look, having heard rumors of her marital woes. She was a real trophy, with a round face, big eyes, delicate bones, and heavy hair that swished across the middle of her back. With characteristic Javanese grace she greeted each one of the dancers before sitting down to relax against the mirror. Later she would tend to the needs of her husband and the dancers, sewing costumes at the armpits, replenishing refreshments, picking up discarded clothing. It seemed, at least for the time being, that she and Mas Wisnu would be alright. Her daughter, meanwhile, frolicked out of reach. A miniature martial arts prodigy with boyish tendencies, the girl ran around the dressing room in an inspiring display of hyperactivity. Mas Wisnu wrestled her to the ground, smothering her in kisses.

The Javanese clowns disappeared from the dressing room. We would soon follow, and in a daze we warmed our limbs. In the history of Javanese Wayang, the character of the Chakil is restless and quick- moving; hungry and impulsive. Seven red faces challenged their nerve in the dressing room mirror. There was a hasty peeling of oranges, a steadily emptying bag of meat-stuffed tofu and green chilis.

Lita, having changed into her costume and covering her arms with a sweatshirt, beckoned for me to braid her hair. She was the most pious of the demons, and sought to make herself modest whenever possible. In the Ramayana Ballet, as the golden deer, she represented a romping of freedom, but in everyday life she was stringent to the standards of Javanese Islam and femininity. She would often confess her nervousness to me on multiple trips to the bathroom, which she always insisted I attend. Today she was quiet and solitary, her apprehension masked behind an air of dignity and black lipstick.

Dilla sat in a squat near the bags and coats, picking off sunflower seeds that she had dumped on the floor. She seemed right out of a book of myths: slim and slight of movement, quiet and unassuming. Perhaps because she had a cloud-like nature like Mas Wisnu’s wife, Wisnu’s daughter took an obvious liking to her and shoved her every time she made an exhaustive lap around the dressing room.

Dilla’s boyfriend was Endra. At 24, Endra was the wisest of the Chakil; by far the most skilled. During rehearsals I found myself watching for him—such a chiseled face, unmoved and solemn—as he flexed his hands and feet at perfect 90 degrees. Endra lifted his limbs without effort, his movements flowing with a precision that could cut the world like a cake. He often spoke to me of the history of his mother culture: the complications of Javanese language and formal poetry even he, as a student of Javanese literature, did not fully comprehend. He spoke of the legends of the Hindu epics; how they morphed as they moved across continents, how the characters demonstrated heroism and how they died. Despite the fact that he was of a small build, no taller than me, I often sensed he was looking down.

Now he knelt in front of me, and I sensed a quiet intimacy that had taken eight months to develop. When I first joined Chakil Squad it was he who had introduced me as an “acrobat rather than a dancer”, who instructed me on technique when Mas Wisnu failed to explain the finer points. Now he took the pleats of my gold ribbons into his hands, folded them with a kind of affection so they would hang properly between my legs. Then he rose and rehearsed, arms bent in continuous rotation as one leg hung suspended like God’s rung.

Mas Wisnu’s professor provided his blessing before we left for the stage. I had seen him a month earlier, after our last trial. It was the first time I saw Mas Wisnu humiliated. On that occasion, the old man had ripped Mas Wisnu’s choreography apart in full earshot of the dancers and musicians. What was the story behind the movements? Where was the What and Why? Why were women dancing the roles of men? Why was there a white acrobat dancing as a traditional Javanese character? At the time these inquiries had struck me as sexist and racist; or perhaps he just wanted his student to think about his creation, and Mas Wisnu simply hadn’t exerted himself that far.

Now this professor peered at me over his glasses. We both knew I didn’t deserve to be there, and yet with a single tip of the head he expressed something—perhaps not quite respect—for my nerve in showing up at all, for my fidelity, especially as a foreign woman, to a man most of the dance community deemed a bad egg: a man who had, despite being well into his thirties, publicly mocked his professors to the extent that his mother had to apologize on his behalf, a true demon the faculty would prefer to fail.

Behind the curtain, I could sense an urgency filthying our tongues, creeping into our nails and helping them grow. This commander of Chakils had trained the other dancers since childhood, had taught them to flip and fly, and had over the course of eight months liberated my stiffening limbs by transforming me into a creature of ages. He was in us. From the other side of the curtain, we heard the shrill cackle of Mas Wisnu, King of all that was raw and foul, King of family, King of us, and, in spite of myself, I smiled.

The curtain opened and the demons began to move to the thrums of gamelan. I began to run. As I leapt, I disappeared, reemerging as my avatar. From then on I swept into the dispersions and contractions of our collective body as we pulsed like a punctured heart. Beside us the gamelan orchestra pulled us deeper, set us on one foot. We rotated our arms like spindles, unleashed a combative cry that, even to us, sounded beyond human.

Towards the end of our routine, I cartwheeled onto a handstand. Fendi caught me. This was the moment when Chakil femme seduced the most rabid of beasts. I moved my foot to the place on his thigh, from where I was meant to ascend. Fendi leaned back, and my hands left the ground. Something was off. Perhaps it was the angle between us, or perhaps our demon sensibilities had jostled our concentration, but before I even stretched my torso I could already feel myself falling. There was a thunk on the stage floor. Fendi stooped down to sweep up my face as if to suck it up. Upon taking Fendi’s hand I stood again, hiked his shoulders, positioned my arms high as I fixed my gaze on an audience I couldn’t see, the reputable dance community of Yogyakarta before whom I had no shame and nothing to lose.

The rhythm of the gongs accelerated. The Chakil flipped and lunged, twirled like propellers until, at last, we froze. When the curtain closed, we collapsed in exhaustion. From Fendi I heard a dull whimper. And then Dilla began to shake.

It took us several moments to notice that something was wrong. Dilla’s limbs trembled as if she were rocked by a seizure. Two people came from the wings of the stage to lift Dilla’s body, and she was carried through the side door to the courtyard. We all reached out to canopy her, release her from the corset and costumery that confined her waist and limbs. Her eyes were wide open, trembling fingers reaching out for something invisible. As she was set down in the dressing room, she unleashed a gasp of air as if revived from drowning. I looked to Endra, who stroked his girlfriend’s arm as if watching her retreat to a distant place.

“What was it?” I asked.

He looked at Dilla another moment and then looked away. “Exhaustion” was all he said.

My departure that night had me standing in front of Mas Wisnu in his underwear. Just minutes before, his professors had informed him that he would in fact, despite causing his professors great distress, graduate. He was free and, from the looks of it, his wife and child would stay beside him.

I tried to apologize for falling, but Mas Wisnu, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I wanted to say something, reached out to me and pulled me close, pausing in the mirror to look at himself hugging me in his underwear. He kissed each of my cheeks and then pulled back, sending me a questioning look as if to say “now what?”

At last he said, “You’re family to me, Jul. Don’t go home.”

I left him like that, standing in the dressing room with his shorts around his ankles, and I knew I would come to him, King of Chakil, whenever he called. I was a creature just as lost and as ravenous as he; of the same beast, born half a world away.


Curiosity #73: Tree Magic


Javanese myths are full of ordinary folks who acquire magical powers under trees. Men and women practice asceticisms in the forest, acquiring heirlooms, encountering long-dead princesses, discovering immortality. Accumulating sperm. Sitting under a tree might seem a dull path to sorcery, but the complexity of seated meditation – or perhaps the very process of purging the self of complex materialism – is beyond Western comprehension, especially now that the ubiquitous, perhaps mis-led correlation between sophistication and chairs have ruled out cross-legged sitting. Not to mention trees (see Curiosity #71).

In a village called Bandungan, Central Java, there lived an Islamic spiritual teacher (called a Kyai) who, instead of sleeping, meditated under trees to acquire spiritual blessings. As a hermit he cooped up inside a simple dwelling at the center of the village’s neighboring forest, beside a river and field of rice plants he cultivated himself.

One night on a full moon, a scream was heard from the depths of the forest. No Javanese civilian in her or his right mind would venture into a forest at night, and so the villagers waited until morning to investigate. First they inspected the Kyai’s home. They were devastated by the scene. Surrounding the dwelling, they found a spattering of blood like a bed of strawberries splashed beneath an ogre’s foot. The village leader told the people to gather the bloody dirt and bury it, resigning to the fact that, despite the absence of a body, there was no way their Kyai could have survived such a spill.

Forty nights later, second cry was heard from the forest. In the morning, a village widow was found dead in her bedroom. It was clear that whoever conducted these killings sought more than power, and the villagers panicked. Some of them fled the village, fearing they would be pulped like guava. The braver ones resolved to stay, seeking a shaman to get down to business.

Shamans in Java are of various specialties: some of dark magic, others of love, many employed for the trolling of businesses (we hope forever outside the hands of American capitalists), others for the control of rain, the provision of prophecy, restoring relations with the patronizing dead. The shaman of Bandungan could see beyond material reality and into the soul of the present, peering into truth like a jeweler unzipping a purse of diamonds. The shaman pronounced to the villagers that the killer did not come from outside but rather lived among them, and that only a confession from the offender would save future generations from an irrevocable curse.

One hundred days after the first disappearance, on the day the villagers planned to commemorate the Kyai’s death, the chief elder of the village was found dead. He had stabbed himself with a bamboo rod uprooted from the Kyai’s grave. Like a film noir, this shadowy mystery came to a twisted but conclusive end. The villagers perceived the suicide as evidence that the village leader was in fact the murderer. It seemed the village leader’s act of skewering himself served as sufficient “confession”, since after the village leader was kicked to the dirt, Bandungan suffered no more mysterious killings. The villagers lived in peace.

The grave of the Kyai, known as “Oncak Ancik” (“the act of standing on one’s leg”, referring to the late Kyai’s state of unbalance), is a haunted space. Locals say there was once a visitor to the village who, upon nearing the grave out of curiosity, was possessed by a spirit that forced him to roar like a tiger. It is believed that this beastly spirit belongs to the Kyai, who is still ravenous for a human form.

Those who take the tiniest twig of bamboo from the site suffer disastrous consequences: degrading illness, combusted homes. Infertility. The grave occasionally attracts power seekers who aim to one-up the Kyai’s wisdom by spending a night in the forest, but before their meditation is complete they—without fail—are chased out by forest demons, attacked by animals, or consumed by a mysterious force that causes them to disappear before the morning dew rises off the canopies.


Curiosity #72: Guilt Never Goes Dry

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel


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 #71: A Spiritual Strain of Environmentalism


There are some forests in the world where genies still exist. They hover in the shadows, heads grazing the canopies, on the look-out for fools keen on chopping down trees for profit. The genies, despite being hump-backed and saber-toothed, are just like you and I, and wish to dally away their lives free of fascist scumbags who think they know what’s what.

Central Java is one region where genies, and trees for that matter, have managed to hold their ground. In Wonosadi Forest, it’s known that whoever chops down trees for economic purposes will wake up a vegetable. Naughty teenagers who dare copulate in the bushes are mysteriously transported to public spaces where their sins might be exposed and ridiculed. For this reason people don’t mess with the beasts of nature, and it all traces back to an agreement maintained since the Middle Ages.

Back when the Majapahit Kingdom swept its authoritarian sovereignty over Indonesia (we’re talking between 1293 and 1500), there was a royal concubine named Roro Resmi who ran away with her two illigitimate children, seeking freedom from the royal bedroom and the confines of servitude. After a long time traveling West, she found haven in the womb of a formidable forest.

Roro Resmi was not alone in running. Together she and others escaping the Majapahit collaborated in building an outpost beside a stream in the center of the forest. But like with all new settlements, the land was already occupied; and like all other settlers, Roro Resmi and her followers had every intention of oppressing the natives in efforts to further their agenda of freedom.

But these natives weren’t human. They were genies the size of the trees themselves, governed under a king who took the form of a white tiger (with the strength of five elephants and the mercy of a B-52). Good thing Roro Resmi’s children had the magical powers to defeat the giants in a valiant display of underdog ferocity. Finally subdued, the genies entered into a civil negotiation. They agreed to subject themselves to coexistence with humans in exchange for health guarantees on behalf of the forest, which, since the humans’ cave-dwelling age, seemed to attract the attention of axe-carrying buffoons (to say nothing of future tractors).

And so the people of the forest raised ninjas. The genies built houses. And the humans and genies lived together happily ever after. At least until now.

Whoever says environmentalism doesn’t yet exist in Indonesia knows squat about this country, but the foundations of this environmentalism might not impress the pragmatists sitting at the UN round table, itself made of wood chopped down from only genies know where.


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.”


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


8. Convenience

11. Museum

10. Cat Cafe

18. Jimbocho


13. Hiroshima

12. Miyajima

14. Public Bath


17. Octopus

15. Selfie

9. Feel

16. Artifacts