This past weekend marked the start of Ramadan, and life in Jogja, which I thought I had been getting a hang of, has been upended. The chaotic roads are calm since many of Jogja’s residents have left for the holiday. The noisy nights are even louder with the unceasing azan and drums churning from the mosques. The city in which I had experienced the most intense and unapologetic displays of religious devotion has shown a secular and spiritually-shy American kid how much more room there is to flaunt your faith than what I had previously imagined.
Like Jacob, my (and Alia’s) host family is Muslim and observing the fasting month, puasa. In their case that means they wake at 3:00 a.m. every day for thirty days, and stuff themselves full of food and liquids before going back to sleep at the command of the mosque’s loudspeaker by 4:30 a.m. Once they wake up to begin their days, they must fast – no food, no water, not even any swallowed spit – until sundown, around 5:30 p.m. I have, to a degree, been fasting alongside the family for some of these days. On the first morning of puasa Alia and I woke with them and ate straight for an hour before heading back to bed and unsuccessfully attempting to find a position to sleep that didn’t push on our overfull stomachs. Once I was awake and at work, despite the long sweaty bike ride to the office, the fast was not nearly as difficult as I imagined. Though of course sitting in a shaded office for six hours doesn’t exactly count as strenuous or thirst-inducing activity. I fasted again yesterday, not by choice, but because I overslept and had to run out the door without breakfast or water to meet up with my waiting partner Laksmi, who was taking me to work. At work everyone else was fasting, so there was no food or drink and definitely no lunch break, so I ended up breaking my fast with everyone else here at the joglo around 5:30.
Of course for most the act of fasting is much more than a challenge of self-control or a cute way to get in touch with a foreign culture. The tradition of fasting in Islam, as in Judaism and Christianity, stretches back for centuries and is far more of a spiritual task than a corporeal one. The idea, I’m told, is to limit the control one’s bodily desires have over the mind, so that one can more closely commune with God. It’s a beautiful thing, millions of people abstaining from sustenance during the sticky heat of the day. America is a religious country, but I wonder whether, if Protestant Christianity had a similar observance, we’d be able to muster the kind of self-denial I’m witnessing here. No one complains, no one even mentions their fast; they work through it and acknowledge their abstinence only through the act of abjuration. My respect for Ramadan is further compounded by the delcious feast I partake in, whether I fasted or not, at sundown every night. Ahhh food!
Laksmi and I are also well into our second week of research and work with the Youth Center of PKBI-IPPA, the local branch of Planned Parenthood. PKBI’s services are usually quite cheap, by both American and Indonesian standards. Pap smears are $5, HIV is only testing $0.70, and the kondoms are free and plentiful, poking out of every drawer and box. It seems like every time I open a manila folder looking for patient data, out pop a few condoms, as if the act of filing puts one at risk for STIs. Despite the affordability of the services – not to mention the fact that they are free if patients demonstrate an inability to pay – there are far fewer patients and customers coming to PKBI than they have the capacity to treat. Laksmi and I are trying to figure out why this is, so for our research we are creating an outreach campaign aimed at attracting youth, ages 12 to 24, to the clinic. We have been throwing up posters all over town, handing out stickers to teens at art shows (making the universal assumption that the spiked-hair, artsy-fartsy crowd is more likely to be sexually active), and even went on the radio last night to plug our cause.
We got to Radio Anak Jogja (Jogja Youth Radio) – housed, inexplicably, in the basement of an aquarium – right before the start of “Yulia’s Hour,” a talk and music show on weeknights from 7 – 8pm. The first half hour of the show was devoted to the show’s host, Yulia, chatting away with two guests in the fasted Indonesian I’ve ever heard, interspersed with top 40 hits from across the archipelago. I knew that the second half of the show was ours, and Laksmi had accordingly prepared remarks for our sales pitch to Jogja’s youth. My role was to be the token foreign guy, maybe say a few heavily accented Indonesian words, and let Laksmi do the heavy lifting. Even so, I was very nervous, and as we were waved into the booth I tried to distract myself from the elephant-sized butterflies in my stomach by playing the Clash’s “Capital Radio,” and R.E.M’s twin broadcast-themed classics, “Radio-Free Europe” and “Radio Song,” over and over in my head.
Once we were seated, the red light switched on, and I had mustered the best sounding “selamat malam” I had, Laksmi stole the show, breezing through her points and building a strong rapport with Yulia. The only hiccup came when Yulia furiously motioned for me to stop nervously humming into the live microphone. During song and commercial breaks we’d joke around in Indonesian (well, Laksmi and Yulia would) and I grew very comfortable with chilling in the booth as these two women put on a great show. With ten minutes or so left and my mind wandering to thoughts of my mom’s apple pie, Yulia turned to me and sprang a question about the importance of our work with PKBI in perfect English that she had hitherto declined to inform me she spoke. After what was surely the longest on-air “uhhhhh” in Jogja radio history, I (somewhat) recovered from the surprise of being so suddenly addressed and rambled on about reproductive rights as a human right with Laksmi duly translating for me. We ended the show by answering a few questions from listeners and then, just as I was deciding that I really had the hang of this radio thing, it was all over and we were heading home. It might not have been the most fun thing I’ve done here – that honor still goes to climbing Mount Lawu – but I feel truly lucky to have gotten the opportunity to have gone live on-air and promote cause about which I feel so strongly. Hopefully we got some new patients for the clinic!