Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Monica Hunter-Hart, Arts Extravaganza in Paninjauan, 18.01.14

On the last Saturday night of our trip, we went to an amazing arts extravaganza in Mbak Jeni's village. Groups from her village and neighboring communities came and performed, including our favorite, now-familiar talempong players. One performance of particular interest to us involved a few men and four girls, who smashed glass bottles on the ground in the middle of a blanket and then danced on the pieces, rolled in them, and rubbed them all over their bodies. At the climax, we watched one of the men take a knife and stab himself five times in the stomach! As far as we could tell, despite this injurious behavior, all participants were unharmed at the end of the performance. They said that it was because man with the knife had said a prayer at the beginning to protect them all. On the way home we debated various scientific ways to explain what we'd just seen, although others of us felt uncomfortable immediately dismissing the villagers' own explanations. The night made some of us wonder whether magic really is real... and also what defines "magic," anyway.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Mt. Merapi's Incredible Power

Maurice Cohn, Mt. Merapi visit, 23.01.14

To be honest, I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to be looking at, confronted with pile after pile of rock partially visible from inside a thick fog. Having never really ridden off road before, touring Mount Merapi in a Jeep was a new experience on several fronts. The volcano exploded quite disastrously in 2010, the ensuing damage killing well over a hundred people and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands. Having ridden up the side of Mount Merapi a ways, we parked the Jeeps and walked around the rock piles, leaving me, again, at a loss for direction. I don't know that much about volcanoes, and the reality of where we were standing hadn't really hit me.

The beginnings of a realization came when our guides explained the steam coming from some of the rocks – rocks that were still cooling off more than three years after the pyroclastic flows destroyed the area. In my head, though, where we were remained nothing more than a glorified construction site, with piles of rock waiting to be moved by the yellow machines parked just over the hill. It wasn't until we were close to leaving that I asked one of the guides what was here before the eruption. It was a village. I looked around again, trying to see something in the gray mounds that said “society,” or even “life.” As we were driving out, I started to see it – the slightly terraced form familiar now as rice patties – and I began to realize what we just saw.

I think the destruction caused by volcanoes is some of the hardest destruction to grasp, because of their incredible power to reshape and recolor the landscape. There was no debris, no ruins, no abandoned homes – just rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. Even now, a week home, the Jeep tour remains one of the most sobering experiences of the trip for me, and one of the most eyeopening.


Friday, January 31, 2014

Playing in the Wayang

Gigi Brady, wayang prep and performance, 20-23.01.14

The Javanese Wayang is a traditional Indonesian form of shadow puppetry. While we were in Yogyakarta, we had the opportunity to watch and participate in one of these gamelan-accompanied shows.

Our introduction to wayang happened on our first day in Yogyakarta, during which we participated in a puppet making workshop. Though I'm not much of a visual artist, the intricacy of joint hinges and color was very interesting, and I ended up having a lot of fun. The students with whom we worked also let us keep our puppets, as well as a few samples they had made previously.

This workshop, coupled with some introductory gamelan, was the only preface we received to wayang. Maybe this flew over my head when trying to coordinate hitting keys, and damping the previously hit keys, but I did not realize that we would be accompanying the entirety of the show until we were already on the spot.

Vision is perhaps our most widely used sensory domain, and when playing music in a group, the sense that I use to determine when to play, especially at the beginning, or at the end of a piece. Gamelan is different in this sense, in that the drummer gives auditory cues that signal both the beginning, middle sections, and endings of tunes, and for me, these cues were very difficult to catch, often resulting in a loudly resonating solo note, after the ensemble had finished playing. We played the same tune over and over again until we were cut off, sometimes more than ten times in a row. The instrument I was playing, the saron, was one of the bigger ones, and came with a rather weighty mallet, which tired my arm out easily.

The experience was nothing short of exhilarating; knowing you can make or break a performance is an extremely humbling experience, and the support we received from faculty and students alike was heartwarming and helped build our confidence.



Potty talk follow up by Mbak Jeni

As a post-script, sometimes toilets come with educational messages like this one in the Medan airport. This is because it might be the first time some Indonesians encounter a Western-style toilet and don't know what to do with it.  

"It is more polite if you
  • don't climb on top of the toilet
  • don't throw trash down the toilet (cigarette butts, tissue, etc)
  • throw out trash in the correct place
  • don't spit on the floor
  • always flush after using the toilet"

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Potty Talk: the month in review, Aka "Maaf, Mbak. Di mana WC?"

Rebecca Selin, bathrooms, 05-25.01.14

In a nation where piety coexists with political corruption and formality in social interactions seems to clash with a relaxed attitude towards punctuality, it comes as no surprise that the bathrooms are a sort of microcosm of Indonesian diversity and cultural incongruities. Ok-that was kind of a joke. I wouldn't advise reading too much into the cultural significance of the variety of bathroom facilities in Indonesia, but I do think that using bathrooms was an important part of the cultural experience on this trip. Because using the bathroom is such a basic need, and can be a way to briefly take a break from stressful situations, it can be psychologically taxing to adjust to radically different bathrooms in the midst of a radically different culture. I was intrigued by the bathrooms on this trip and I want to share my enthusiasm with our blog followers!

Part of our initial debriefing session before leaving the US was a squat toilet potty training, courtesy of Mbak Jenny. So, we were prepared for squat toilets. We were not, however, prepared for the veritable cornucopia of bathroom facilities that Indonesia had to offer. To be honest, I had always harbored a curiosity for unusual bathrooms, and the prospect of using a squat toilet was definitely something I looked forward to with great anticipation leading up to this trip (which was my first time outside the US and Canada). I know this sentiment was not shared by the entire group, but we all ended up dealing with the bathrooms in our own ways.

Our first hint of unfamiliar bathrooms was at the Dubai airport, where the western sit toilets were equipped with a spray head bidet along with toilet paper. When we got to Jakarta for a layover before flying to Banda Aceh, the rich variety of toilets became immediately apparent. There were both sit and squat toilets available. I would come to understand that this bathroom binary belies the wide array of bathroom facilities that actually exists in Indonesia. Sit and squat are the basic variables, but there are other things to consider, like the type of flushing mechanism, the layout of the room or stall, and the presence or lack of toilet paper, soap, and sinks.

Hotel Medan, where we stayed in Banda Aceh, was by far our most luxurious accommodation, with mechanically flushing sit toilets, spray head bidets, and showers separate from the rest of the bathroom. Because of rickety plumbing systems, toilet paper cannot be flushed down the toilet in Indonesia, so the western style bathrooms usually featured a trash can next to the toilet. By the time we reached West Sumatra, most of our group had also experienced the more traditional variety of Indonesian WC (pronounced way say).

This standard bathroom is usually completely tiled, with a central drain, a raised platform housing the squat toilet in the back, and a large tiled basin (usually about a cubic meter or so) next to the toilet. In the basin is a scoop that is used for manually flushing the toilet as well as for splashing water for the paperless wiping process. This basin and scoop are also used for showering (several times a day--Indonesians take this very seriously). The tiles, basin, and raised platform made this type of bathroom very aesthetically appealing in my opinion. Kind of like one of those beautiful Japanese boxed lunches. Elegantly arranged.

I found it unfortunate that western toilets are seen as a status symbol in Indonesia, because the prevalence of squat toilets means that many Indonesians use sit toilets in "innovative" ways, like stepping on the seat of the toilet and squatting. Also, the water washing technique and oneness of shower and bathroom made for dripping wet toilet seats. Because of this, sit toilets were usually more uncomfortable to use than their squat counterparts. Many squat toilets were actually quite luxurious, and many sit toilets were disgusting.

Outside of the toilets, another big adjustment was the lack of soap and sinks in public restrooms. Only the most luxurious of bathrooms (and I mean really really luxurious-like the kinds of bathrooms that would have couches in the US) provided soap, so it was very useful to have hand sanitizer available at all times. This lack of soap made me (as a closet left-hander in Indonesia) more understanding of the taboo against using your dirty left hand for just about anything.

I could probably continue to write about Indonesian bathrooms for pages, but I think I'll leave it at the overview level for now. Obviously I would be delighted to talk in person or by email about anything Indonesian-bathroom-related. Taking selfies in front of bathrooms was a hobby of mine throughout the trip, so I'm including pictures of some of my favorite bathrooms from the trip.



Friday, January 24, 2014

Witnessing a Rare Event

Jan Miyake, Installation of New Lineage Head, 18.01.14

During our stay in West Sumatra, we were invited to witness a rare event: the installation of a new pangulu (head of a lineage line) in the village of Paninjauan. Within a lineage, this event typically occurs once every 30 or 40 years. Our invitation to this event provided us with a rare opportunity to see how various art forms function within their communities. We stayed in the village from 9am that morning through 2pm ish that afternoon, viewing and participating in celebratory talempong, silek galombang (self-defense greeting for honored figures), and multiple processions accompanied by gandang tambua (a local style of drumming).

The morning started with a greeting of the elders, more than two dozen of them. Each time an elder entered the room, we (who were the only guests in the room) stood and greeted them. Since we were seated Indonesian style on the ground with crossed legs for the men and legs tucked beside us for the women, we got a lot of practice getting in and out of these less familiar sitting positions. The elders are heads of other lineage lines and religious leaders from this village and the other three villages in the nagari (the unit of Minangkabau governance consisting of a formal consortion of villages). Ediwar, who also teaches at the prestigious ISI in nearby Padang Panjang (a college institution focusing on Indonesian arts), helped explain to us what was happening up until the formal ritual greetings started. These took a long time compared to American experiences. Everyone (elders and Obies) politely hung out, the elders smoking a lot of cigarettes, and sometimes chatting softly.

After the ritual greetings concluded, we joined the procession down the hill to the home of someone in Ediwar's family, where the elders sat in what I would describe as a living room with all furniture moved out. Mattresses lined the walls, the floor was covered with rugs, and the walls draped with colorful ceremonial hangings. There were several windows and door frames from which to view the goings on, but to someone who didn't speak the language, watching this part was a little baffling. Visually, the most striking elements were very large plates of ceremonial rice and all of the elders in their ceremonial garb crammed into this room, which quickly grew hazy with smoke.

The Oberlin crowd hung out with everyone else in the covered area just outside this room. We played with the children, chatted quietly, and got to know a few of the other guests. Late in the morning, one of the women who plays talempong motioned to me that something was happening in the main room. I went to a window and witnessed the opening of a package with a towel-shaped white cloth in it. Two elders twisted this cloth into a long band and then tied it in a circle to be worn on the head. This headpiece was placed on Ediwar's head. Then oaths were taken in the style of an elder reading some text and Ediwar repeating it. Finally, documents were signed. In multiple copies....

After this we ate lunch, a wonderful collection of Minang food. The talempong played celebratory music, inviting us to play several of the instruments, and the women we displaced, who we affectionately call "the grandmas," started to teach us how to dance to the music. More and more people joined in on the dancing until the tunes finished.

We ended our participation in the day by joining the procession back up the hill accompanied by the ceremonial rice and other offerings carried atop the heads of women and the sounds of drums, and, of course, taking a picture. While a long and hot day, we were all well aware of the special opportunity that we had been given!



Thursday, January 23, 2014

What Not to Wear

Teresa Tippens

In America, fashion is a personality statement. If you want to look cool, you wear Burberry or Prada or something else equally chic. If you want to look hipster, break out the glasses, converse, and skinny jeans. If you want to look like an Obie, raid the nearest thrift store, grab some stuff at random, and make it work.

In Indonesia, clothing is not only a marker of personality; it identifies your religion. For the most part. Let me explain.

Beach in Banda Aceh

Banda Aceh is known as the most hardcore Muslim place in Indonesia. And as many people know, Islam involves a dress code. For girls--at least in Aceh--it means that you're covered in loose-fitting clothing from the neck down, with the possibility of 3/4 length sleeves and maybe a mid-calf length skirt. You also need to wear a headscarf. And a little side note: I was expecting to see people in burkas as well, but it turns out that's mostly an Arabic thing. I only saw them on the planes in and out of Dubai. But anywho, In Aceh, I saw only one woman who did not adhere to this dress code, and I'm almost positive she was Chinese. I expected it to be the same for the rest of the country. I was wrong.

Ceremony in West Sumatra

A great deal of the women in West Sumatra stuck to the aforementioned dress code, but it was common to see those without headscarves as well. I'd say maybe one out of every fifteen women I saw wasn't wearing one, although for the most part they still wore longer sleeves and pants/skirts. It was a little weird in contrast to Aceh. I remember seeing a Westerner wearing a tank top, who I stared at for probably too long in my shock. I can't imagine how she would have been received in Aceh.

Now we're Yogyakarta for the last leg of the trip. Yogyakarta is the cultural heart of Java, and as such attracts a lot of tourists, so there a lot of foreigners wearing whatever they want. I've seen camis and shorts and completely sheer tops. Of the Indonesian women there are still a lot of headscarves, but the way they are worn varies from total hair coverage to more of a kind of bandana, with most of the front of the head showing. I assume the women with headscarves are Muslim,Professor Fraser has told us that, much like any other religion, there are less observant participants so many of the non-scarf wearers might also be Muslim. Also, non-Islam religions are also more common outside of Aceh, so I'd expect to see less headscarves.

What I've found true in all of the places that we've visited is that the Indonesian women typically dress in more conservative clothing regardless of their religion. It seems to me that if you wear anything less that short sleeves and a knee length skirt you'll be stared at and maybe called out in some fashion. For foreigners the "limits" are much less strict, but people tend to treat you differently (read: with more respect) if you dress more conservatively. It's the same as in anywhere else in the world; people really appreciate it when you try to respect their culture.