(Note: this post is actually about last Sunday, I’ve just been writing it bit by bit as I’ve found time over the past week)
Sunday night was Pengerebongan, described to us as the “trance festival.” Hundreds — maybe thousands — of people packed into the temple and temple courtyard to watch the several hour-long ceremony. Men and women slowly emerged, supported firmly by family members and friends, from the temple doors. Eyes closed, they shook, moaned, and shrieked. Some of the men took a kris, a ceremonial dagger, and pressed it to their collarbone or head without ever breaking the skin. People who go into trance, we are told, are possessed by a god or spirit and are able to communicate with it for the duration of the trance. Believers who enter the temple on certain days never know if they will enter trance or not and trancers often do not remember the trance after the fact.
Here ( youtu.be/0EobIC5_pBc ) is a short National Geographic video about trance that features a friend of ours from Taman. Even as someone who’s lived in “the ancient village of Kesiman,” for only a few short weeks, I can tell you that it’s ridiculously dramatic and exoticizing, even patronizing in its representation of the festival. But such portrayals of Balinese culture are commonplace. We’ve talked a lot about representation in our social science classes: what it means to give “thick descriptions” about a foreign culture, what responsibilities and accountabilities anthropologists have to their human data, what is important to include in an ethnography, and so on. I think these discussions and our time in Indonesia in general made us a weird mixture of insiders and outsiders as we watched the trance festival. On the one hand, we were more informed (and certainly more appropriately dressed) than most of the bule tourists we saw at the event. We arrived with a Balinese family and personally knew two of the trancers. If we wanted, we could walk over to a food stall and ask for a bottle of water in Indonesian. On the other hand, however, we are and will always be outsiders: nonbelievers, spectators and maybe even dreaded tourists. For me at least, religion in Bali is incredibly interesting but also the thing that most makes me feel like an outsider, someone that doesn’t belong. I feel like an outsider in part because it’s so foreign from my Quaker background, but also because I can’t help but feel like a spectator, an uncomfortable position.
Our American group were not the only spectators. Dozens of journalists clustered around the temple gates. Many appeared Indonesian, but there were a fair amount of Westerners — more than in the crowd in general, which was by a vast majority Indonesian. They were aggressive, willing to elbow their way through the crowds to get a good shot. When a trancer stumbled past they leaped to the attack, shoving their cameras past the supporting friends and into the faces of the possessed, snapping away.
I think the journalists and their sacrifice of reverence for the story was part of what made me feel so uncomfortable. I became very aware of the camera in my own hands: did I look like them? Don’t get me wrong, this was not a somber event. The mood of the crowd was a typically Indonesian jovality, with our friends smiling and waving to us and little boys trailing the trancers, imitating their convulsions and laughing. My camera itself did not appear to be offensive. But our classes and discussions have made me (us all, I think) more attuned to the dynamics that are playing out around us. As Westerners — a fact that (for four of us) is made obvious by our skin color — we carry more meaning than we’d like to admit. We are exotic, often the center of attention when we walk down the street. We are admired and spurned as representatives of the culture that brought Indonesia Justin Beiber, KFC, and shopping malls. We are adapted to, with most Indonesians automatically switching to whatever English they possess to talk to us. We are assumed to be rich and, comparatively, we pretty much are. And I think we are often lumped together with the many Westerners who proceeded us: from the Dutch traders who landed here in the 16th century to the tourists whose money-backed needs lead to the privatization of beaches for hotels and surf schools. We came here to research social justice topics but in so many ways our very existence here is a social justice topic.
I don’t know what my point is. I’m not even entirely sure what the point of my being here is, but I suppose trying to figure that out is the point. Frustrating, huh?