Swimming with Monkeys: Sendang Biru Beach and Sempu Island

With the fourth longest coastline in the world, Indonesia has no shortage of picturesque beaches, and I would not have been a successful resident of this country if I did not go to at least one during my time here.  Only a few hours south of Malang is one of the better-known natural tourist attractions in East Java: Pantai Sendang Biru.  (“Pantaimeans “beach” in Bahasa Indonesia, and “sendang biru” something like “blue spring.”)

My site mate and I, along with an Indonesian friend, took advantage of a free weekend to go explore this beautiful area.  After a long and enjoyable ride through towns, villages, fields, and mountains, we finally found ourselves on the coast.  The salty ocean air greeted us long before we saw the vivid blue water, and I was taken back to childhood visits to family in the Chesapeake Bay area, where memories are always accompanied by sand and a slightly fishy smell.  Once we were in sight of Pantai Sendang Biru, it was the colors that struck me most, from the blue of the water to the green of the trees, and the rainbow of peeling paint on the boats that crowded the shoreline.

image

Because of the nearby Pulau Sempu (Sempu Island), the waters of Pantai Sendang Biru are considerably calmer than in other parts of Southern Java, which are often battered by the currents of the Indian Ocean.  But even as the water in front of us was relatively tranquil, in the distance we could see the waves crashing against far-out cliffs.  Even as a farm girl, whose family’s livelihood is tied so closely to the weather, I sometimes forget just how powerful Mother Nature can be when I am at home, surrounded by peaceful woods and a patchwork quilt of fields; but here, on this island archipelago formed by more volcanoes than I care to count, her sovereign rule cannot be ignored.

image

We were easily able to hire a fisherman to take us to the nearby Pulau Sempu (Sempu Island).  Because we were traveling on a holiday, there were many boats headed to Sempu Island, carrying groups of teenagers, foreign travelers, and families complete with children eager to help work with the boats.  Our boat was operated by a friendly enough chain-smoking bapak who delivered our guide and us safely to the island.

image

Our guide led us through the jungles of the island on a beautiful trail.  I still have not been able to fully grasp that I live in a place where I can call the forests around me jungles, but there is no denying that my love for the unfamiliar foliage here comes from the same place as my love for the maple trees that are currently changing color back home.  I am incredibly thankful to have been placed as an ETA in one of the larger cities on Java, because it gives me access to a wonderful array of resources and allows me to explore Javanese culture, but there is not denying that my soul occasionally demands that I leave the busy streets of Malang behind, in search of something green and growing.

image

After hiking for maybe three quarters of an hour, the jungle opened up and before us laid a stunning lagoon.  Sea water crashes through a hole in the rock that towers at the end of the island, filling the lagoon with cool, salty water, creating the perfect environment for coral and the tiny crabs and fish that made their homes there.

image

We were told the beach of the lagoon was a bit crowded because of the holiday—the exact phrasing, I believe, was that the beach was like a pasar, or market—but there was plenty of room in the water for all.  We spent hours swimming in the clear, cool water.  I have never seen coral or sea anemones up-close before, and I felt like a child again, completely in awe of the mysteries of the natural world.  Fish darted away from our shadows, crabs scolded us for disturbing their scavenging, and the surrounding jungle echoes with the calls of birds and monkeys.

image

The beach was surrounded by crab-eating macaque, a species of monkey which is actually considered invasive in many parts of South-East Asia, including Indonesia.  I tried to do my part to not encourage this upsetting of the natural balance by keeping my food safe from the wildlife, though many of the other visitors did not do the same.  Still, I was fascinated by the way they watched as we silly, hairless humans played in the water, and their enchantment with the empty plastic bottles they were able to steal from the beach.  Animals like these are another reminder of how far I am from home: there are no monkeys in the forests of Central New York.

image

We returned through the forest and reached the waters’ edge just as the sun was beginning to set.  Sunsets are one of my favorite parts of living in Indonesia, not because they are particularly beautiful, although streaks of color painted across the evening sky here are no less exquisite than they are at home, but because I know the setting sun will soon reach the skies above my hometown, and create a new morning for those I love.  I can only hope that their time in the sun brings as much joy as my own.

image

Advertisements

A Very Happy Birthday to You, SMAN 10

Last week was SMAN 10’s birthday.  And birthdays are not to be taken lightly here in Indonesia, it seems: we had a whole week of celebrations and programs for the students.  (I was later told that part of the reason the celebration lasted so long was because there was a workshop planned for the teachers, and since substitute teachers do not really exist here, there needed to be something else for the students to do.  I only half believe this.)

There was singing and dancing, competitions ranging from cooking to designing lanterns, and, in keeping with the Indonesian experience I have had thus far, more food than I think could possibly be consumed.  I was even able to sample a very traditional Indonesian celebratory dish, nasi kuning, which literally translates to “yellow rice.”  It is just what it sounds like.  The nasi is shaped into a mountain in the center of the platter, and it is surrounded by various other foods which differ from region to region. One of the history teachers patiently explained in his limited English the tradition of nasi kuning.  The mountain shape of the rice is an allusion to the power the Javanese traditionally believe volcanoes have over their futures, which is completely understandable considering the active volcanoes in Indonesia fairly regularly spew ash onto the surrounding land, killing crops and fertilizing the land.  The foods surrounding it represent hills and villages, which will hopefully be blessed by the mountain.  The top portion of the mountain is usually given to a guest of honor, one of the teachers, in our case.

image

One of my favorite events from this week was the traditional dance competition.  I had yet to see much traditional Indonesian dance, and since I was on my school’s second campus, where the students come from all over Indonesia, I was able see a whole array of dance styles.

image

The dancing was indescribably beautiful, as were the costumes, which the students had created themselves.  If I was not already aware of the endless array of talents students around the world somehow inherently possess, I most certainly would be now.  I felt completely humbled to be in the presence of such gifted people.

image

I was somehow deemed worthy to be one of the judges of this competition, the irony of which still makes me laugh.  I stumbled through the scoring sheet, written entirely in Indonesian of course, and probably gave the most inflated scores SMAN 10 has ever seen, but I could not have cared less.  I was too in awe of my students’ abilities to worry if my scores were higher than those from someone who had seen something so incredible before, or if the student organizers had never seen so many scribbles and arrows on one scoring sheet.

image

Later in the week there was a traditional poetry event, for which students wrote their own poetry and set it to music, singing parts of their poems and shouting out others.  It reminded me so much of the spoken word poetry events I have attended, and sometimes participated in, back home.  I was completely engrossed, even if the combination of a poor sound system and a language barrier kept me from understanding most of what was being said.

image

This session was interspersed with other performances as well, including one from the students who are from Papua, who performed traditional Papuan songs.  They reminded me of a Southern Baptist choir, choreographed to move as one unit of song, with voices I am sure any god or goddess would whole-heartedly adore.  I had come across the students practicing the night before, and so I had heard both of their songs many times before the actual performance, but it did not dim their magnificence in the slightest.

image

And no student event would be complete without some modern dance on the stage.  Though my students are often surprised to find that not all Americans go to concerts regularly (in the same way that they do not really believe that I do prepare rice at home, even if I don’t eat it every day), but the truth is I still might never go to one when I do return to the U.S., because I’m sure no professional group could be as entertaining as my students.

image

In the end, the birthday week was a time for me to further develop my understanding of my students outside of the classroom, and to become somehow more grateful for the opportunity I have to live with my students, and see on a regular basis the amazing young people they are beyond the four walls within which they spend so much of their time. At one point during the festivities, I texted one of my co-teachers about how talented I thought the students were, and she replied, “They are always creative.  We do not know all that is in their heads, because we only see them in class.”  I could not have said it better.

image

A Weekend of Weddings, The Javanese Way

“While you are here, you must go to a Javanese wedding.”

Teachers at my school, fellow ETAs, even taxi drivers insisted that I experience the wedding ceremony that is so unique to Indonesia, and especially, it seems, to the island of Java.  The idea of just popping into someone’s wedding for the sake of a “cultural experience” made me a little uncomfortable.  Though I was told that the Javanese tend to embrace a “the more the merrier” attitude for weddings, any experience that I had had with weddings in the United States—which, to be fair, was pretty limited—told me that marriages are too personal for random guests.  I worried far more than I should have about how I would navigate the experience, if and when it would arrive.  Fortunately, when I was eventually handed my first elaborate invitation to a Javanese wedding, it was from one of the math teachers who had helped make me feel so welcome here in my first few weeks, and I was happy to go.

image

I did not attend the wedding itself—those who accompanied me there informed me this was usually limited to family and very close friends—but rather the reception afterwards.  A bright yellow tent marked the location of the festivities, and English love ballads blared from a tower of speakers I was not entirely sure was stable.  Flowers in every hue draped gracefully above a raised platform where guests posed for photos with the bride and groom, food prepared by the bride’s family was plentiful and delicious, and everyone was dressed in the bright colors I have come to associate with this country.  I was told that the bride was no longer wearing “the real dress,” but there was no denying that even her attire for the reception was the kind of beautiful I’m more accustomed to seeing behind museum glass than in real life.  Perhaps the most memorable part of attending this wedding was how happy the bride and groom were: love outshines every other form of beauty, even here.

image

The wedding reception was in the town where the bride and groom were raised, a five hour van ride through mountains, rice paddies, small villages, and larger cites whose names I could never seem to glean from the signs we passed.  I attended with the rest of the math teachers, as well as our lovely Japanese teacher and an English teacher who used to teach at SMAN 10.  They were a lively, lovely crew, and the long ride was filled with stories and jokes in both Indonesian and English, and even when they babbled a mile a minute in Javanese, a language I only know a handful of words in, just sitting and watching their animated faces and listening to their laughter quickly became one of my favorite car ride memories.  I could not have asked for better company.

image

Later that same weekend, my site mate’s counterpart took both my site mate and I to the wedding of one of her friend’s daughters.  We attended the actual ceremony this time, or the pernikahan at an immense mosque on the campus of Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang, or U.M.M.  I watched as the couple prayed and was prayed over, vows were exchanged, and marriage certificates were received.  My limited Indonesian does not extend to wedding vernacular, but I was mostly able to keep up through a combination of whispered translations from my site mate—who was an ETA in Sumatra last year, and whose Indonesian far exceeds my own—and by watching the reactions of the other guests.

image

In many ways, this wedding was precisely the experience I had feared: I was encouraged to step towards the front to take pictures, when I would have been perfectly content to stay in the back of the mosque and accept what photographs I could manage—I’m an ETA who would like to document some of her experiences, not a photojournalist—, and at the end of the ceremony I was brought to the couple and their families to extend my selamat (congratulations), though I had never met them before.  More than once I felt awkward and wanted nothing more than to disappear into the carpet on which I kneeled, so that I could hide my uncovered head and foreign dress.

But in between those moments, I found myself truly enjoying the experience of learning about one more set of Indonesian traditions, and watching two people begin their lives together, though I did not know their language, or even their names.  I could not stop myself from being surprised when a price for the bride was discussed and agreed to, and could not but adore the way both sets of parents prayed fervently over the new couple, blessing the new marriage.  And at the end of the ceremony, when the putri dan putra (bride and groom) stood in front of the guests and smiled wider than the ocean that separates me from my home, I smiled too.

image

It has been quite a while since I have attended a wedding in any culture; the last time I watched two people exchange vows, I was more concerned with whether or not my cousins would play tag with me later than any promises of love.  These weddings were not only my first Indonesian weddings, but they were also my first weddings as an adult, able to fully appreciate what I was witnessing. And though I may have been sporadically uncomfortable and not understand most of what was said at either wedding experience, I could understand the happiness that surrounded the occasion.  The weddings I will eventually attend back home may not be as colorful as the weddings I saw here, but I can only hope that the overall feeling of love will permeate those events in the same way.

Song and Dance and the Ruminant Digestive System: My Experience with Idul Adha

It’s a story not unfamiliar to me, having grown up in a Catholic family: God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, and because his love for his God is so strong, Abraham agrees, stopped only at the last moment by an angel sent from heaven, who provides him with a ram to sacrifice in Isaac’s stead.  In the Muslim tradition, Ibrahim (Abraham), is asked to sacrifice not Isaac but Ishmael, his son by his second wife, Hagar, the handmaiden of his first wife, Sarah.  Nonetheless, the essential theme of the story is still the same: that of a man who is willing to do anything for the God he loves.

It is this event that is celebrated during Eid al-Adha, or Idul Adha, as it is called in Indonesia.  Families and sometimes whole communities come together to pray and to emulate the sacrifice of Ibrahim by sacrificing cows, sheep, or goats of their own.  Traditionally, the meat is then divided into three parts, divided equally among the family; friends, relatives, and neighbors; and the poorer members of the community.

In the week leading up to this holiday, the landscape I always admired on my ride from the second to first campuses began to be populated more and more by goats, as well as the occasional cow.  It was not until I came across a pair of goats outside one of the academic buildings of the second campus that I really made the connection, and began to look forward to experiencing this holiday that, until a World Religions course I took my senior year of college, I confess I did not know existed.

image

Idul Adha, from my experience, is an all-weekend affair.  On Saturday, one of my students invited me to a “performance” that would occur later that evening.  I stepped into the hall above the library and found it had been redecorated to celebrate “Epic El Adha.”  It was the kind of gala that could have only been planned by high school students: there was storytelling and singing, and the loudest supportive cheering I have ever heard.  I understood only one of the stories, told by a brave student who had memorized her tale in English, but I was enraptured by the way in which students twisted their hands and wove their tales out of the air; I am sure their words were absolute magic.  The antics of the singing performances were easier to find familiar, as students pulled out their sass and dramatics and more often than not sought to emulate K-Pop videos.  I don’t know if I have smiled so much since coming to Malang.

image

After the performances, the students lined up outside of the dorms, preparing to parade about the surrounding village with flashlights, torches, and noise-makers.  I had only intended to watch the parade until it left the school grounds, but one of the students persuaded me to come along with them, saying, “You’ll never see anything like this in America.”  I did not have to be asked twice.

It was a loud and smoky experience, and as I watched some of the male students put water bottles smelling distinctly of gasoline to their lips so they could breathe fire using the torches they carried, I could not help but note that this was the kind of event that American schools would never allow.  I am not sure whether I am thankful or sorry for our safety regulations, but I am glad I had the opportunity to be swept along by students as they laughed and smiled and called out phrases I could not understand.

image

On Sunday the actual sacrifices occurred.  I missed what, at the time, I though was the main event because I had been waiting in my room for those who said they would fetch me, before realizing I had been forgotten in the excitement and decided to find my own way there.  By the time I arrived, the cow and two goats were already laid out on the grass being skinned and sectioned by some of the male teachers, staff, and older students.  One of the students met me as I approached and observed, “I think you are late, Miss.”  I smiled, and tried to decide whether I was disappointed or relieved.

I was never given the chance to come to a conclusion.  Some of the students invited me to where the meat was being divided: some for the school, some for the families who had donated the animals, and some for the surrounding community.  Older men hacked at joints until the meat was in more manageable pieces, and then it was everyone else’s job to carve the meat into smaller pieces, to be bagged and sorted for distribution.  Students worked together in groups to accomplish this task, laughing good-naturedly at their friends’ struggles and receiving occasional helpful advice from the bapak-bapak who were supervising the whole affair, and who often seemed every bit as amused as the students.  I helped a group of girls cut and weigh beef still warm from the life that had coursed through it only that morning with a small knife too dull for the task and a scale from one of the science labs.

image

At first, the students seemed doubtful as to whether or not they could trust their American teacher’s stomach around so much blood and flesh, but I quickly proved the utility of my steady farm girl hands as I gripped slippery chunks of meat and held on tight while my students leaned into their knives and cut it into the proper portions.  I held, they cut, the roles were reversed, and all the while we exchanged stories of different celebrations in our respective countries and words for different cuts of meat in our respective languages.

Later on, I was again able to make good use of my years of living on a dairy farm and being involved in my local 4-H club when two boys hauled over a basket of cattle organs.  Sitting on top of the heap was a piece of the reticulum, my favorite part of the ruminant stomach, and, without thinking, I expressed my excitement.  After learning from some of the students that they knew nothing of the wonders of animals with four compartments in their stomachs, I headed over to where these incredible innards had been unceremoniously dumped, awaiting their turn to be weighted and sorted, and asked the bapak-bapak nearby, “Maaf, boleh punya itu?”  They looked more than a little puzzled, but happily acquiesced, and soon I was trying to explain the different roles of each part of the stomach, using the simplest English I could manage.  The students, in turn, told me about a soup which would later be made from the very pieces of organ I was holding.  I have been told it is a dish I must try.

I am not sure if this is the kind of cultural exchange I agreed to facilitate when I signed up for my year as a Fulbright ETA.  I have the nagging suspicion that the joke many of my fellow ETAs made at orientation might just turn out to be true, and my students will end up learning more about dairy cows during my time here than about American culture, however that is defined.  But as I continued to help divide meat—we had by this time moved on to the two goats—with my students, sang along to the One Direction playing from someone’s mobile phone, and laughed at the boys who had commandeered a nearby hose to cool themselves after skinning the animals, I decided I was happy with this experience, and that that was all the defining it needed.

image