Day Party

You sweat a lot in Indonesia. It’s near/on the equator, it’s humid, and there’s not much air-conditioning to speak of. When asked by another teacher why Americans don’t bathe twice a day, I told him because we don’t sweat inside our workplaces since there’s usually central air. I reassured him that Americans are not smelly people and that I left my habit of once-a-day-bathing (or every other!) back home in the U.S. and began bathing twice a day—not just to wash off the day’s perspiration but also to give a satisfactory answer to the repeated question of “sudah mandi (have you bathed yet)?” from just about everyone in my boarding house at 5pm everyday. Asking someone if they’ve bathed yet seems to be a normal conversation starter here (perfect for first dates!). 

I’m talking about sweat because I recently had my sweatiest moment in recent memory. It involved me dancing on a stage with some friends and several strangers in front of a couple hundred people whom I did not know. Most of the sweat wasn’t from the dancing itself, but from a profound sense of embarrassment as I put on a goofy smile and pointed my fingers in the air in my best attempt at joget. Or maybe it was just because I made the ill-advised choice of wearing a corduroy shirt in Indonesia. 

To backtrack: Pak Ito and Bu Laras invited me to a party in Belitang, a town one hour from Martapura where many people in my community come from. Bu Laras’ sister (Riski’s mother) still lives there and the party was in her village (more like a hamlet than a village, but I can’t just throw the word hamlet around now can I?!). Their family is part of the large Javanese transmigration in this country. So, despite being in a small Sumatran rice town, this party would be a Javanese affair. Pak Ito assured me there would be joget, which, as far as I can tell, is a little dance you do with your arms pointing this way and that way, while kind of stepping around and raising your shoulders up to the music. It’s usually accompanied by dangdut, one of Indonesia’s most popular musical traditions. Use your favorite search engine to learn more about these two Indonesian pastimes!

  
So the day of the party rolls around, and the whole gang—Pak Ito, Bu Laras, their son Marta and his wife Nelly, Dina and Arjun (Marta and Nelly’s kids), Shella (Ito and Laras’ young daughter), and myself—piles into the minivan. Seeing as I’m the only one in the car who doesn’t regularly wake up before 7am, I fall asleep on the way there. (Side note: people in Indonesia wake up around 5am everyday. Because the first call to prayer is at this time, most people have to wake up. But I get the feeling that people would wake up this early anyways. I usually wake up at 9 or 10.) We arrive in Belitang around 8:30am and the party is in full swing. There is a stage up front, several rows of plastic chairs in the main seating area, an area for cooking (boasting a massive pot of rice), and another area where the food is set out. Most of the men sit in the front area smoking and drinking coffee or tea. The women are crowded near the cooking area, which also has some rows of plastic chairs. The music playing is very loud, and most people can’t really hear each other. I sit down with Pak Ito and some men next to him ask about me. Many people are staring or stealing glances at me, something I am more-or-less used to by now. It occurs to me that I don’t know the reason for the party, so I ask Pak Ito. He tells me “sunat” and does a scissor motion with his fingers. That’s right, this is a circumcision party. 

  
The lucky boy is 10 years old and is related to Bu Laras somehow. In Islam, boys usually get circumcised between ages 6-12. It’s obviously a bigger deal than the hospital circumcisions that many American boys receive. Anyway, he’s sitting in this special mini-stage just for himself. When some women ask me to take a photo with them, I suggest that we do so on the mini-stage with the boy. After all, I wanted to document my first circumcision party. They agreed and we walk over and I shake the boy’s hand before the picture. He seems a bit down for some reason. 

  
Later on I grab a plate of food and eat with Riski. There are four flat-screen TVs set up throughout the party area. A camera crew is filming the people dancing on the stage, and it’s being shown live on the TVs. At one point, the boy gets on stage and gives a speech at the behest of his parents. Afterwards a huge crowd of kids runs onto the stage and gives the boy (also named Riski btw) a bunch of presents. As I’m watching all this in high-definition and shoveling rendang in my mouth, I think about how it’s nice to just observe this tradition and not have the attention on me, as is so often the case in social gatherings I attend here. This moment does not last long. 

After I finished my meal, Bu Laras and Nelly come up to me and start telling me to get up because it’s time to dance on stage. They had mentioned beforehand that I should joget but I didn’t think they’d follow through. They did and my weak attempts at declining were ignored. I walk towards the stage with Riski, Bu Laras, and Nelly, past one of the TVs I would soon be the subject of, and through a crowd of people who await the bule joget performance. 

We get up on stage. The music comes on and I look around to see the whole minivan crew plus a couple of people I don’t know. I mimic the dance moves of everyone else and throw in a few middle-school favorites. I’m only sweating a little, and I’m feeling pretty good about myself. “You got this, Pat.” Except the song just keeps going. My back is becoming soaked and the faces of my dance partners are becoming alarmed. Pak Ito is waving money around giving it to some of the women. He gives me a ten thousand rupiah note and I wave it around a give it to the woman I’ve been trying to avoid eye contact with the whole time. Not sure what is going on in the slightest. Maximum sweat levels reached. The song ends. I look at Bu Laras and she screams, “Satu lagi! (One more!)” Fuck.

After I waded through another song and sat back down in the soothing climate that is the back of the party, I think about what just went down. Yes, I got dragged onstage to dance in front of a huge party of people who were already watching my every move. But there was a moment amidst the blur onstage when I looked around and realized it wasn’t just about watching the bule dance. Everyone from Martapura who came to the party that day was on the stage at the same time. At one point, the announcer shouted “the Martapura Family.” Lo and behold, it was indeed our hamlet up there doing the joget, and no one looked entirely comfortable in the 90 degree heat. Back in the party, when Riski sits down next to me, I pat him on the back and it’s drenched like my own. 

  

Nongkrong

It’s impressive how Indonesians incorporate the unexpected and the dysfunctional into their everyday routines. Absent co-workers, surprise visits from the Mayor to play basketball (snacks practically apparated onto the court), slow and mildly censored internet, bribes. Here in Martapura, power outages (mati lampu) occur almost every other day, lasting for about 6 hours. At morning, noon, and night, one must expect the unexpectable. Or, like the Pak who runs my boarding house, buy a generator and feel proud to have conquered insufficient power grids, even if that conquest comes in the form of a house of flashing lights because said generator is giving everything it’s got to supply enough juice for a home of thirty-four people. 

During these uncertain and seizure-inducing times, I usually go to the nearest Indomaret (Indonesian 7-11) with my friend Riski. We may sit outside and we may eat ice cream. You. Just. Never. Know. 

To nongkrong, as it’s called, is “to squat,” but really just means “to hang out.” I’m quite fond of this activity, nongkrong. (Side note: Indonesian people are much more comfortable squatting than Westerners. I’m always surprised when someone here passes up the chance to sit in a chair, opting instead to squat on the ground. Maybe a life of using squat toilets can explain for this hyper-apathy towards elevated seating. Or maybe the on-average smaller stature of the people here can account for the relative ease with which the Indonesian slinks down and manages to pull out his pack of Sampoernas from his elasticized capris while you, the Westerner, think to yourself, “This chair is really lacking in back support.”) 

 

Duly Noted

 
There are some unspoken rules to nongkrong-ing: if you’re smoking, which you most likely are, leave your cigarettes and your lighter out, not in your pocket (“Stay a while!”). If your cigarettes are out in the open, which they should be if you’re following the previous rule, it is acceptable for anyone hanging out with you to grab one without asking. (In general, if someone leaves out their cigarettes—at work, at home, at a restaurant—and you know them, you may take one without asking.) 

At some point during the nongkrong process, you might be asked to take some pictures. You’ve held your steely gaze for quite some time, smoking cigarette after cigarette while observing the burning pile of trash out near the road, and it’s time for a few selfies with your bro. I used to put on a friendly smile for these, but after seeing Riski’s partially opened mouth bring his expression somewhere between confusion and nonchalance, I more-or-less followed suit. Good times. 

Eating Martabak with Riski

An Anecdote

Between being the only Westerner in the area—a tall, pale, blonde one at that—and the language barrier, which I’m slowly chipping away at (I swear), several humorous scenarios have occurred here in Indo, usually at my expense, and never without my appreciation. Well, maybe I appreciate some of them only in retrospect, which is good enough, as far as positivity is concerned. 

My first day teaching. Despite asking my co-teacher Awal that I only observe class the first week, to get a hang of things, and his agreeing to such, I immediately find myself at the whiteboard leading the lesson. Simple past tense. Easy enough, even with the lack of planning and momentary lapse in remembering what exactly “simple past tense” is. Similar to how people sometimes forget, only for a moment, if first cousins are “actual, full-blown” cousins and not one of the “other types of cousins.” No, just regular cousins. Got it. 

I’m at the board and writing out a few examples of phrases commonly used to indicate the past (yesterday, last night, etc.). But as I’m doing this I realize I haven’t labeled what exactly I’m listing! Good god! The children will be lost without a proper heading. I immediately title this section of the white board: “Examples.” Looking at their (perpetually) confused faces, I clear the air: “Ex-am-ples.” Still confusion. I have the genius idea to translate this word, which I am pretty confident I know in Bahasa: “contoh.” Except I make a pronunciation mistake. In Bahasa, “c” is always pronounced like “ch” in English. I forget this. So I say it like “kontoh,” which sounds very similar to “kontol,” which means “penis” in Bahasa. Just a teacher pointing at the board and shouting penis at his students…on his first day. The kids were thoroughly amused, as was Awal, and I proceeded to spend the rest of class assuring everyone that “went” is indeed the simple past tense of “go.” 

More to come later. Possibly about the lack of indirect lighting in this country, which, if you know me, just really gets my goat. 

  

Makan! 

I’ve been in Indonesia for three weeks now. I haven’t been stationary. To give you a rough guide of my travels: Jakarta (1 day) —> Martapura (5 days) —> Bandung for orientation (2 weeks). Now I’m back in Martapura after a flight delay, a night in a Palembang hotel, and a 7-hour ride in a travel van with other random passengers going to the Baruraja/Martapura area. There’s a million things I could talk about, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll talk about eating in Indonesia. I’ve literally done this everyday since being here, so I feel confident in my ability to discuss.

When Indonesians eat, they have rice. With every meal. It’s so very important here. Most meals have a protein dish—like chicken, fish, or tofu—to accompany the rice. Spicy broths and steamed veggie mixes often find their way onto the table. My favorite food so far has been the various satays I’ve eaten. Satay is meat on a stick. I’ve yet to have a chicken satay + peanut sauce that I didn’t think was the best chicken satay + peanut sauce I’ve ever had. They just keep getting better! Also, kerupuk is a staple of the Indonesian dining experience. Kerupuk are beige, fried, crunchy, chip-things with fish flavoring. I enjoy using these to finish off any remaining rice.

Getting back to rice—Indonesians aren’t satiated unless they’ve had rice at their meal. Fried rice is commonly served for breakfast. Other meals always have white rice. A few of the first times that I ate at my boarding house, I didn’t throw any rice on my plate, prompting my host (Bu Laras, more or less my surrogate Indo mother) to smile at me, grab the bowl of rice, and say, “Nasi?!” We both knew that rice was right there on the table, and she knew I knew this, but it would have been a damn shame if I somehow forgot to eat some rice before excusing myself. At orientation in Bandung, my co-teacher Awal and I were waiting in line to eat at the welcome dinner. He looked a combination of nervous and famished—I’d never seen him like this. “Awal, what’s up?” He stares at me with grave concern: “I need rice.” He cheered up ten minutes later, halfway through our meal. He needed rice. 

 

Nearly-accurate sign at our hotel for orientation

 
The end of meals usually consists of fruit and “toothpicks.” The fruit here is fantastic, and I’ve tried several fruits I’d never had before. Papaya, snakefruit, guava, mangoes, and cocunuts are common in my village. As for toothpicks, it seems to be an integral part of the meal to pick out any remaining bits of food stuck in your teeth (At least it is for men. I’ve yet to see women do this, come to think of it). But often without toothpicks: it’s perfectly acceptable to make this particular sucking sound (I’m sure there’s a word for this very thing) after eating. Accompanied by cigarettes and conversation, this sound fills the room, marking the end of the meal. I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yet, so I practice alone in my room for an hour or so daily. I just want to be one of the guys.

That’s all or now. Eventually I will share some thoughts about my school, its fabu students, and its smoke-filled teacher’s lounge (Aside from rice, I’d peg cigarettes as the hot-ticket item of Indonesia). Sampai jumpa!

Another picture of non-traditional food from Indonesia

The Drive

Greetings! My foray into blogging commences.

I will be in Indonesia for nine months as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) on a Fulbright grant. Last Saturday—a week ago—I arrived in Jakarta after a long flight from New Orleans. My fellow ETAs and I stayed for just one night then set off for our respective sites. My site is a small town called Martapura on the island of Sumatra. I knew little about it except what Google Maps revealed: it is inland and sits inside a province called South Sumatra (Sumatera Selatan) on the border with Lampung. To get there, I take a one hour flight from Jakarta to Palembang, then drive five hours. This’ll be about that drive.

I was greeted outside the airport by three men holding a cardboard sign that read “Mr. Patrick from America.” Probably me. I approach them. “Mr. Pat-reeck?!” “Yes, that’s me!” “Ok! We go now!” The three men—Syafarudin, Awaludin, and Bahudin—are all teachers at the school. Syafar and Awal speak English well, as they are English teachers. Bahudin speaks no English. He is the P.E. teacher and has a thick black mustache. He will be the driver of the van that takes all of us to Martapura. These men will likely be some of my closest friends this year.

As we pull through Palembang, I take in the roadside scenes happening outside. Small wooden huts and multi-colored store fronts line the road, which is two lanes and heavy with traffic (*cars drive on the left in Indonesia). People burn trash outside their homes, chickens roam around in people’s driveways, and both men and boys can be seen squatting down smoking cigarettes. Behind the clusters of homes are big fields with short brush and burnt-out grass. Every few cars that pass us is a truck carrying stacks of lumber. Or a moped somehow accommodating a family of four.

Palembang

Palembang

We get outside the city and Bahudin brings the car into a gas station parking lot. The ride up to this point has mostly consisted of Syafar asking me all kinds of questions about my life. “Do you have a wife? No? Maybe you will have Indonesian girlfriend?” “Maybe…” “Where are you from in America? Memphis? I don’t know it.” “Do you know Elvis Presley?” All three of them: “Oh! Yes, yes! Elvis Presley!” I stay in the car while they leave to go pray in a small worship space in the corner of the gas station parking lot. Most gas stations have these prayer rooms and our car will stop at two more before the ride is over.

The further inland we go, the thicker the brush becomes. The traffic subsides a bit, and Bahudin begins to pass car after car using the oncoming lane. He uses his turn signals constantly, and not just to signal a switch. Sometimes he uses it to tell another car to scoot over. Or he uses the horn. He uses the horn a lot. Everyone is using their horn…a lot. During a few of his passes, he gets very, very close to clipping a car in the oncoming lane. Or at least I think it’s close. No one else skips a beat. The oncoming car honks, but everyone always fucking honks. My ass is pin-hole size. Awaludin is sitting next to me now: “So what do you think about Indonesia so far?” “It’s different, but I like it.” We stop to grab dinner.

Indonesia is an open-air country. Doors are always open, windows are often not made to close, and roadside eateries are often just a few rows of tables with a metal roof overhead. We eat at one of these. They serve pecel lele, fried catfish. Syafarudin tells me it is a traditional Palembang dish (despite the distance, most of the people from Martapura and the small towns along the way hail from Palembang). It comes out and, unlike the fried catfish I’m used to, it has maintained its fish appearance. The skeleton and head are still there, tail too. No matter! I dig in, sans utensils, and eat the little fucker right off the bones with a bed of nasi (rice). Out on the street some kids are peering in and staring at me. They’ve never seen a white person. Most of the people I will meet in the upcoming week will never have seen a bule (foreigner) before. I gotta get used to being stared at.

Despite the roads becoming bumpier and bumpier as we approached Martapra, all the passengers, myself included, fall asleep for the remainder of the ride. I wake up around ten as we pull up to the school’s campus. My home for the next nine months is a boarding house on the school’s campus. About thirty students live here and it’s run by a sweet couple who are far too hospitable. It’s late when we arrive to the house. My room is big and so is the bed. The fluorescent lighting exposes a couple lizards crawling on the walls. I’m bothered by the lighting more than the critters–I’ll have to find some Christmas lights somewhere.

The Crib

The Crib

The week that followed offers much more to talk about than the *seven* hour car ride from Palembang to Martapura. Considering what they say about first impressions though, I thought the drive was worth discussing. Long story short, I have no plans of operating a vehicle for the foreseeable future. And I’ll probably be eating more fish.