Curiosity #88: Freedom in Lembata

Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

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

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Scenes from Lembata

1

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

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2

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

3

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

4

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

5

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

6

Smoke rises from the tops of mountains.

7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8

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

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9

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

10

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

11

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

12

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

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13

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

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

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Curiosity #87: First Glimpses of Flores

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

Snapshots:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Curiosity #86: Better Said than Written

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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