Wedding Season in Gorontalo

It seems inevitable that when one is in Indonesia, one goes to a lot of pernikahan (weddings).

This was certainly my experience last year, and it did not take long for it to begin again this year: I attended my first wedding during my first week at site, prior to even going to orientation, and continued to do so for quite some time following orientation.

Weddings in Indonesia have always seemed ornate affairs, and if anything they seem to be more so here in Gorontalo when compared to the ones I experienced in East Java last year.  The bride and groom are completely desked out in matching outfits, with elaborate hats and headdresses that come from traditional Gorontalo dress.  The parents and other family members are in their very finest—and are often also matching one another—and everyone in attendance, from the smallest child to the oldest Ibu, is wearing their finest; even in my favorite dress from Indonesia—which I’ve taken to calling my “wedding dress” because I always wear it to any wedding I am invited to—I often feel very underdressed.

The funds for all of this comes from the family of the groom.  While paying an actual “bride price” in the form of cows or goats goes not seem quite so common anymore, or at least not in metropolitan places (Gorontalo is a small city, but it is still a city), it still falls on the man to provide funds for the wedding.  The level of extravagance of the whole affair is often directly related to the wealth of the groom and his family.  I attended a wedding with one of my sitemates and her teachers that was held in a giant hall, which the couple would have had to rent out, complete with giant fake trees and the largest spread of food I have ever seen at an Indonesian wedding, here or on Java.   Most of the weddings I have attended here, one the other hand, are held in tents outside of the family’s home; they are still warna-warni (colorful) and indah (beautiful), but there are certainly no fake trees.  I asked one of teachers once what happens if the groom cannot pay for the wedding, and she told me that while in the past that might mean the couple could not marry, now they tend to have what is essentially a court-house wedding at the local ministry of religion[1].

Weddings almost never start on time, in keeping with the jam karet (rubber time) that is so pervasive here.  While everyone waits for the ceremony to begin, neighbors catch up on gossip, teenagers play with their hand phones, and young children become progressively more restless until they amuse or annoy everyone around them with their antics.  Often there are singers performing pop ballads in various languages, with varying degrees of talent.  But sometimes, in between songs or at weddings where there are no performers, the background to the waiting period is just friendly chatter.

Once the ceremony actually begins, I don’t usually fully understand what is happening.  Different family members speak, and there are various prayers said, that is certain, but I am never sure exactly what is being said, due to the fact that the prayers are in Arabic (a language I do not yet speak) and while I might be able to understand the Indonesian speeches in a different situation, I find it extremely difficult to hear clearly over the sound systems which are always used at weddings.  To be honest it, it never seems as though anyone in attendance is paying close attention to what is happening; most continue to whisper to the people sitting next to them or distract themselves with their HP (hand phone, or mobile phone).

Meanwhile, I sit peacefully and people watch, and admire the grandeur of the whole set-up, including the extravagant stage the couple and their parents sit on.  One of my co-teachers told me that for the wedding night the bed is also decorated in a similar fashion.  To be honest, if I were in their place, I’m not sure whether I would find this incredible, amusing, or intimidating.

After the actual ceremony is over, various individuals are called up for photos with the couple and their parents.  Then, sometimes the bride and groom sit in the ornate throne, and sometimes they change into a second set of wedding clothes, just as colorful as the first.

As soon as the first set of photos is finished, however, it is time to eat.  People swarm the tables on which the food is laid, and pile their plates with daging, sayur, and, of course, nasi.  In my experience, queuing is not a concept in Indonesia.  I’m never quite assertive enough for this bit of craziness, and still find the mild chaos a bit terrifying.

Then, it is time for a second round of photos, and then everyone goes home.

Indonesian weddings are always a particularly interesting experience as a foreigner.  Often, I find myself in a position of honor at the wedding, even though I really have no connection to the bride and groom at all.  I continue to find this position quite uncomfortable, as I have done nothing to deserve this attention, but I feel I have gotten better at navigating it less awkwardly as my time here increases.

While I found myself at a number of weddings during my first month and a half or so here, the invitations seem to have waned.  Because it is considered lucky to get married around the time of the pilgrimage to Mecca, there were a lot of weddings in the months of September and October.  But now, the Wedding Season is over in Gorontalo, and while this makes everything a little more peaceful, it also makes everything just a little less colorful.

[1] I’m sure there are all sorts of prejudices and politics wrapped up in this, but it is reassuring to know that some progress is being made.  I’m a hopeless romantic who believes love can conquer all, but I’m also a realist who knows the world is not always kind to love.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.