From an excursion to the Kite Festival last weekend:
(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?
I just wanted to write a quick post about how inspired I am by many of the women I’ve met in Bali and Jogja. I have met activists ranging from public health and sexuality educators to documentary filmmakers and advocates for girls, to lawyers, environmentalists, wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters, teachers, sex workers, and small business owners. I cannot even begin to describe the impact these women have had on my time in Indonesia. I wish that I had both the time as well as the appropriate forum through which to honor them all, but that would take a lifetime. I’ve mentioned some of these women before, but they all deserve to be recognized.
So, let me share with you some of my favorite anecdotes:
1. On Friday, I was introduced to two women, one of whom is the leading (read: only!!!) public health and sexuality educator in Indonesia. Inna and Umi came to Taman to arrange a workshop on sexuality later this month. Inna told me all about her efforts to re-educate Indonesians in need as well as her work to organize a safe database through which women considering abortion (which is, for the most part, illegal in Indonesia) can explore their options, and find safe and clean clinics as well as emotional support. Here’s the link to her blog: abortus.blogspot.com/ as well as her organization’s blog: samsaraindonesia.blogspot.com/
2. When Angga and I conducted our mini research on the gendering of space in Pasar Kerenang (the traditional market) we were fortunate to speak to many great women. Bu Sri, the owner of her own warung, explained that she works at the market in order to supplement her husband’s income so her children can go to school. She works from midnight until 10 am, every day. When she’s not at work, she takes care of her children and the house, and, admittedly, never has any “me time.” Bu Sri’s story could be interpreted as sad, but she is extremely optimistic and positive. She loves her family, and that makes the work worthwhile.
3. As I’ve said before, all of the women at YKP (both employees and volunteers as well as beneficiaries, for lack of a better term) astound me with their courage, strength, and will for change. Their humor and kindness are nothing short of inspirational, and their stories motivate me to continue to question gender and power dynamics, specifically women’s agency. Although I wish I could share each story these women shared with me, for obvious reasons of confidentiality and trust, I cannot. Instead, I can say generally that the women of YKP are nothing short of badass. Many of the participants in the support group are or have at one time been sex workers, and their dedication to their families (especially their parents, siblings, and children) is steadfast in spite of trying and often horrendous work-related experiences. Others shared stories of assault and abuse, and confidently elaborated on how they were able to remove themselves from harmful home environments in order to protect themselves. Many of the women in the support group come from other parts of Indonesia, and they all frame their migration as both selfless and empowering.
4. The women and girls at Taman I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know radically defy popular understandings of the opposition between tradition and empowerment/agency. Women of all ages who appear to dedicate themselves almost exclusively to childcare and ritual performance (making offerings) also study full- time at university, hold jobs, and are leaders in their workplaces and at home. Girls as young as 8 are role models and supplementary caregivers to younger siblings (many of whom spend the day in Taman while their parents are at work, watched over by grandparents). Women who have lived through and survived acts of terrible violence voice their opinions on political, sociocultural, and familial matters. They acknowledge the horrors they have witnessed and experienced, however, these memories do not paralyze them.
As I said earlier, I could write forever about the women I’ve met here. But research calls, and I would prefer (selfishly) to go out and speak to more women rather than writing about it. More to come!
Yesterday was our last official research and methodology class with Leslie and Degung. The majority of the class consisted on a discussion of ethics, as portrayed through various codes (AAA, journalism, etc). The conversation revealed a universal sense of confusion and unease regarding these various codes. We discussed processes such as the IRB (which I went through), as well as the Indonesian equivalent, and the ways in which such standardized regulations are both necessary and counterproductive to academic research and human rights and social justice work. Does automatically relegating pregnant women, children, prisoners, etc to the world of “vulnerable populations” protect their rights, or discredit their agency?
Last weekend I went to YKP with Ika and attended their weekly support group meeting. The experience was inspiring, sad, and fun. The women I met were incredibly charismatic, and although they were honest and open about the hardships they experienced, they also made lots of jokes and had a good time together. We all introduced ourselves, and through this, we connected beyond subject/ researcher divides. By sharing my thoughts and experiences on gender and gender violence, they accepted me into their group regardless of my seronegativity, and many told me they hoped I would continue to come to the meetings.
Many of the women approached me afterwards, without being prompted, and gave me their contact information so that we could begin to set up individual meetings and interviews. I would share the condoms with the women, as planned. Additionally, I would share photos and stories of my experiences related to gender and sexuality at Haverford. In this way, our relationship would be one of reciprocal sharing and learning, rather than one-sided acquisitions of information or a business transaction.
The experience was truly humbling, and I am incredibly grateful to Ayu, the IRP (especially Ika and Termana), and all of the women at that meeting for allowing me to be a part of it. Furthermore, the experience proved useful in sorting through the ethical and theoretical issues we discussed in class. Although I haven’t reached any conclusions, I now feel more comfortable with my role at YKP. For now, at least, my fears of reinscribing myself into the colonial legacy are assuaged. I have already learned so much from these women, and am confident that I will continue to learn more.
This week’s theme: destabilization.
On Monday we went to the bird market, which, contrary to my expectations, was not the magical Balinese version of Bird Paradise (bird-paradise.biz/). As Maddie’s picture below shows, some of the birds were beautiful and looked happy enough. However, others were crammed into small, dirty cages, others were sick, and there were even some dead birds left to rot at the bottom of group cages.
Later that night, I met up with my mini- research partner to do our first round of interviews. We went to a cafe and got dinner with 5 of his friends, and attempted to have a candid talk about sex education in Bali. The interview went well enough but my partner and I were having a lot of difficulty recruiting women. Although informally such conversations had proven easy enough, when placed in the context of “research,” finding people willing to be interviewed was a challenge. So, we went home, and planned to meet the next day to strategize.
That nigh, rather than hanging out in the courtyard at Taman, the impromptu “jam session” moved to the balcony attached to my room. We sang, discussed everything from politics to movies, and just relaxed. Until we were interrupted by the sounds of metal and glass crashing together. A man on a motor bike drove into a parked car right outside of the warung directly below the balcony. Unconscious, his bike took him a few feet out into the middle of the street, where he fell to the ground. Everything stopped: traffic came to a halt, people talking at warungs fell silent, and an eery quiet set in. After what seemed like forever, but was probably only 15 seconds, people rushed into the street to help the bleeding man. He was carried to the sidewalk, and attempts were made to flag down a taxi or a car to take him to the hospital. I asked why no one had called an ambulance, and our friends told us they wouldn’t come if they did. And no cars would stop.
Luckily, a police car drove by a few minutes later, but it was only after being chased by a small pack of concerned onlookers that the car came to a stop. An officer walked casually out of the car over to the unconscious man, and flagged his partner to bring the car over. The officer directed 2 men to hoisting the unconscious man into the car’s back seat.
As the police drove away, things quickly picked up again. Traffic resumed and the usual noises of the street started up. Maddie, Susan and I were shaken, but, as we learned from our friends, these things unfortunately happen a lot, and such indifference from the police was to be expected. Dejected, we went to bed, and thought about what such an event meant in the larger scheme of human rights.
Tuesday and Wednesday were filled with more research. My love of structure and guidance was repeatedly challenged by our professor’s desire for us to learn through trial and error. We were supposed to be confused and frustrated.
So, feeling as if we were grasping for straws, my partner and I charged onward. And continued to meet with resistance from women.
On Thursday, we reached an epiphany. Looking at the politics of gender in Taman, it was obvious that we weren’t finding women to talk to. While Taman bustles with males ages 15 to 40 at night, women in the same age group are few and far between. Similarly, in the morning, Taman is dominated by women and children, while the men drift in and out. And thus, our project changed: we would examine the politics of gender in public space.
I promise to post more about this as our research progresses, but we have to go do some more participant observation now!
Ceremonies and holidays make up a huge part of the lives of the people around us, but I’ve been hesitant to write a post about them because they still seem so mysterious to me. The holidays that have occurred since we’ve been in Bali (Galungan and Kuningan) have been explained to us many times, but I’m still a little hazy about what they celebrate — I imagine explaining Easter and its contemporary celebrations would be equally as baffling to someone completely unfamiliar to it. I’ll stick to what I know best in this post: a little about religion in Indonesia, and a lot about what it’s like to be an outsider in Hindu Bali.
The Indonesian Constitution guarentees freedom of religion, but recognizes only six official religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), according to the state principle of belief in one god. Hinduism obviously bends the rules a little — someone told me that the argument is that Balinese Hinduism has one main god. Almost 90% of Balinese identify as Hindu, well above the national average of less than 2%. Balinese Hinduism is also very different from the Indian variety: for example, the caste system is only loosely applied.
The most visible aspect of Balinese Hinduism are the rituals and ceremonies performed for ancestral spirits. Balinese belong to a temple (pura) based on their descent. Nuclear families usually have a small shrine in their yard, and families that live in rumah asal (family compounds, the subject of my mini research project!) have a larger temple in a central location. On certain holidays each extended family will march together to an even larger temple that covers even more people.
Last week a few of us were given the opportunity to go to one of the bigger temples with our extended family. Try to picture this: starting at around 8pm, a hundred or so people, dressed in kebaya and sarong, holding ceremonial ornaments, and sometimes accompanied by a marching gamelan band, literally take over one lane of the street as they march en masse to temple. There they pray and are blessed with hundreds of other people from other (sometimes distantly related) families. There are lots of colorful flowers and incense. There is a barong dance-performance, in which an ornate lion/dragon dances around, sometimes lunging towards the audience. A few men go into trance, writhing and yelling. Then everyone leaves the temple — maybe buying toys or cotton candy from the vendors outside the temple — goes home, talks for awhile, and then goes to bed.
I brought my camera but didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures for most of the ceremony. Once the individual praying had stopped, however, Sabrina (our friend and guide for the night) encouraged me to take pictures. There were also some Indonesians taking pictures, which made me feel better. I have to scoot or pay for another hour at the internet cafe, so I’ll leave you with some pictures. Here are some offerings we helped Sabrina put together; the village temple; and various ceremonies, including a man going into trance. It was a lovely night and I feel so thankful that our family allowed us into such an important part of their lives.
I just fell off Leslie and Degung’s porch. It was a good 2-3 foot drop, no big deal. I’m fine, but embarrassed. Pictures of the drop will follow when it’s daytime.
So much has happened over the past few days. On Friday I ventured out on my own to Yayasan Kerti Praja. Finding the building was, in and of itself, an adventure. This was my first experience traveling on my own outside of the immediate area surrounding Taman 65, and, needless to say, I got lost. And flustered. And a little bit sunburned. So, by the time I arrived at YKP (half an hour late), my meeting with Ayu and Emily (another project coordinator) about my interests and research goals for the summer only furthered my tardiness-induced anxieties.
The complexities of negotiating insider versus outsider status in terms of ethnographic research is both a common anthropological trope as well as a topic we often discuss during research and methodology class. However, in spite of this familiarity, I was discouraged to hear about some of the difficult cultural barriers I would have to navigate over such a short period of time, and began to worry if my project was at all feasible.
So I trekked back to Taman 65, discouraged but excited for our afternoon class with Dédé Oetomo (the preeminent academic and advocate on gender and sexuality and HIV/AIDS in Indonesia). As expected, the class was great. AND Dédé invited me to work with him in Surabaya for his organization Gaya Nusantara. Surabaya is the unofficial “prostitution capital of South East Asia.” For more information, google it, and pay special attention to “Dolly” (the brothel’s name).
I’m really excited to go, and also very nervous! I’m not sure if I will have a research partner or if I’ll just be working with Gaya Nusantara, but I know it’ll be a great opportunity.
The picture below was taken by Maddie when Dédé took us to the gay clubs last weekend. More to come!
It’s hard to believe it’s been a week since we arrived in Bali. In many ways it’s been a great week, but – for me at least – it’s also come with its share of frustrations. I’ll start with the negative and end with the positive:
On Friday I woke up feeling queasy and for the next 24 hours my stomach battled it out with some unknown assailant. I knew I was bound to get sick at some point over this trip, but the sudden onset and intensity surprised me. It’s hard to be sick in a foreign country: normal challenges such as the language barrier and finding clean water become all the more daunting, and I’ve never wished for air conditioning and TV so strongly. I was also disappointed to miss our class trip to a barong performance and practice interviews afterwards. Luckily, however, the worst of it lasted only a day. I’ve mostly recovered, though I’m still having trouble digesting anything spicy, fried, or with meat – in other words, Indonesian food. On the bright side, Jen (who also had a bad day) and I were kindly driven to Bali Bakery by Termana and Ika. The bakery, only the second time we’ve indulged in Western food, was comforting in its familiarity (cheese! bread! salad!). The prices were also familiarly Western: my bowl of yogurt and honey was two or three times as expensive as an average warung dinner.
I mentioned the language barrier. One of the surprises coming from Jogja to Bali is that most Balinese “don’t speak Indonesian.” (Remember that there are over 200 language groups in Indonesia, but ever since the islands were united into a nation almost everyone learns Indonesian in school and speaks it addition to one or two local languages.) Balinese, of course, do speak Indonesian. However, they have a different accent, mix in Balinese words, and have sexual or bathroom connotations to many common words – as Jen learned when she told an elderly woman at a warung that she was full, which can also mean horny. It’s not like we had that much of a grasp on Indonesian in Jogja, but it’s still frustrating to have to relearn words such as titles and to have people laugh at our accent and overly formal word choices.
When I say people laugh at us, however, I don’t mean it as a bad thing. One of my favorite aspects of Indonesian culture is how much everyone smiles and jokes around. I really enjoy living in Taman, and I’m excited to do my research here. I suppose I should pause and explain Taman. Taman 1965, or 1965 Park Community, is a family compound in Denpasar that was made into an informal NGO nine or ten years ago. 1965 refers to a dark year in Indonesian history, in which several complex factors prompted the massacre of hundreds of thousands of real or alleged communists. The government covered up the killings for decades and it has been only recently, with the fall of President Suharto in the late 90s, that people have begun studying and talking about 1965 and ideas of human rights in general. Many of the Indonesian students in our class said they were learning about 1965 along with us; some said their only knowledge of 1965 was the government propaganda videos they were forced to watch every year in grade school. Many Indonesians we’ve talked to are still hesitant to talk about 1965 in public, which is why an informal space like Taman is so important.
Taman as a family compound is a series of houses, courtyards, and family temples, all connected by a maze of alleyways. The entrance on Jalan Supratman, between the nasi campur vendor and the store that sells cell phone minutes, is easy to miss because it’s just wide enough for a motorbike to get through. Then there’s the main courtyard, with a stage area bearing the words “Forgive But Never Forget.” Last week we were invited to the 50th birthday party of one of Termana’s uncles, celebrated in the courtyard with a hundred or so friends and family members. There were performances by various bands and family members (including the birthday boy himself, pictured below), heartfelt speeches, dancing, and plenty to eat and drink all night long. Jen and I live in two rooms on the second floor of a building that belongs to a family with an adorable daughter, just off the courtyard. Our rooms are connected by an outdoor walkway and balcony/porch area, from which you can watch the street vendors, the kites (you can see a half-dozen high in the sky at any given time), and (this week) the Galungan processions. Most of our classes take place on an outdoor platform less than a minute away; there’s always a flock of small children running amok to play with and dote upon; and there’s even a shop in Taman that sells snacks and fresh-made juices.
I’ll leave you with some short explanations of the pictures to follow (they got out of order in the upload but you can figure it out):
- The first few are from Galungan, a Balinese Hindu holiday. The holiday has been patiently explained to us several times but I’m still a little fuzzy on the details. On a broad level it celebrates the triumph of good over evil and features ornate offerings, processions to the temple, and lots of prayer. In my pictures you can see some of the offerings (which the women make, often working on them from 6am to midnight in the days leading up to Galungan) and a procession we saw one morning from our balcony. You can also see us getting dressed up in traditional sarongs and then heading over to the family temple, where we were shown how to pray. I hope I’ll have a chance to write about religion in Indonesia someday – it’s really fascinating.
- The next picture is a typical warung meal, though it’s actually from a Javanese place. Most places here will wrap food up for you in banana leaves and wax paper to make a perfect little boxed lunch that we can then take to eat back at Taman. This meal included rice (what meal doesn’t?), an egg thing, various veggies (some as yet unidentified), tempe, and peanut sauce. I got the watermelon juice from the shop in Taman I mentioned earlier.
- The last picture is of our host sister, who Jen and I like to call “our” baby. She is doing one of her favorite activities, namely riding her tricycle around in circles in the courtyard while being admired by her bevy of American fans.