Curiosity #86: Better Said than Written

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curiosity #79: Prophecies of Potential

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There was a moment in Bali, sitting in front of a Hindu priest, when I learned the horror of being being told who and what I was. It was the second day of my visit on the island, and Pak Bedot, knowing my keenness for local wisdom, and perhaps hoping to learn a little more about his guest, took me to his cousin for an astrology reading.

Pak Bedot’s cousin lived in the village just outside Tampaksiring. He was a year or so into official priesthood, and had just moved into a new compound where he could host ceremonial gatherings. My host family owed him congratulations. We entered the compound with a basket-full of fruit and aromatic rice.

Amidst the house’s ongoing construction, at the center of the compound, was an elevated pagoda with a floor of bleached tile. On a cushion sat Pak Bedot’s cousin, bun tied high on his head, clothing loose and white.

What do you want to know, he asked. He looked bored. I figured Pak Bedot had called telling him a foreigner was looking for a show. When I told him I wanted to learn about his supernatural tap-ins, he pulled out a clean, laminated book he said was full of wisdom from Bali’s ancient Hindu sages. He lifted up four fingers “I can’t see ghosts or raise the dead, but I can read you based on your birthday.”

I told him the day, month, and year I was born. He spread the book, pointed to one spot on a page. The plastic cover crackled as the binding stretched. “Here,” he said, “You’re faithful.” “Loyal. You’re articulate with words.”

Pak Bedot, who lay on his side, nodded his head and muttered “mmmmmmm”. Pak Bedot’s wife, who made pointed efforts to prove she wasn’t interested in her husband’s bookish friends, particularly those of the female variety, sat looking away from us towards the pot of fried pig in the kitchen, tugging at her kabaya so it wouldn’t rise on her belly. The priest’s wife sat in the shade of another pagoda weaving baskets for a festival that would come next month.

The priest flipped toward the back of the book. He looked at me, almost reprimandingly. “You’re not frugal. When you give things away, you often regret it, and you like to wear things directly after you buy them.”

I listened on. This didn’t ring true (at least not after two years of living simply), and I thought back to all the bogus astrological projections I used to read in teen magazines. But surely ancient formulas held more merit? I was willing to believe.

Perhaps that willingness proved a mistake. The next and last reading profoundly unsettled me.

“Not smart, to the point where it frustrates you.” The word he used for smart is “pintar”, used also for “skilled” or “adept.”

The silence that followed bit my consciousness where I sat. I hugged the solemnity to myself and hid it behind closed features.

“So you are good and loyal,” said Pak Bedot to me, content now at welcoming this sort of stranger into his home.

In Indonesia, kindness and contribution towards others stood paramount over prideful attributes such as exceptionalism, intelligence, and renown. To most locals my astrological reading was a testament of good character, but for me it was a condemnation.

“Not smart to the point where it frustrates you. What does this mean?” I asked the priest.

Pak Bedot jumped in. He said it means that you are good at advising and writing, but better behind the scenes than as a figurehead.

It’s been over 1.5 years and that prophecy still haunts me. After taking the GRE twice with mediocre results, I wonder what path there is for cultural observers, for seekers, who stray outside conventional pursuits of wisdom.

So who is more merited to judge my potential, the ancient Balinese sages or the standardized testing panel? Or maybe they’re in collusion with one another?

As I write I’m sitting in Andahuaylas, Peru. Outside is a dusty urbanscape that sits in a valley in the Andes. I’m here on a stop between Ayacucho to Cusco. Upon arriving in Cusco I may or may not be welcomed by a local who has agreed to take me out to experience night life. This is contingent upon whether or not I’ll be able to reach him on a data-less phone.

Rewind several hours and I was being thrown side-to-side on a minibus whisking up clean roads that had been blasted and paved into the mountains. Rewind a day and I was touching woven textile in an artisan’s market.

The day before that I was inside a church adorned with holy figurines. Jesus on the wall looked pensive. Jesus on the steps towards the altar was being washed by a man who declared himself a religious anthropologist. “Peruvian culture is very rich!” he told me. Just then a traditionally-dressed old woman, who had been kneeling by a statue of the virgin Mary, emerged from prayer and paced towards me. She opened her arms. It happened so quickly. Before I knew it I was inside her embrace. I could feel her hands on my back. She kissed me on both cheeks, smiled and chuckled before she walked away.

I came here alone because when I get lost, beautiful things happen. The only intelligence necessary comes in adapting to the moment, and to puzzling my way to where I need to be.

As for where I need to go, that is, and perhaps always will be, unclear.

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Above: The anthropologist and his family washing Jesus for the upcoming evening mass. Inglesia de San Francisco, Ayacusco.

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Ayacucho’s Artisan Market, full of keychains, weavings, crosses, and religious dioramas (called retablos)

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The route towards Santa Ana Market in Ayacucho.

Curiosity #71: A Spiritual Strain of Environmentalism

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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.

Wonosadi