Archive for ‘Indonesian Culture’

October 13, 2012

The Paper Shuffle

by Tabitha Kidwell

I don’t know if it is a holdover from Dutch colonization, but bureaucracy is a big deal in Indonesia. Stamps, letterhead, folders, forms – all very important. For example, here is the procedure to extend your visa:

Got all that?

And here is the main office of the university:

Those cabinets are full of pastel-colored folders holding who-knows-what important records. I wandered in here during the first week of class and the teetering towers of documents was terrifying.

So, when I got a letter from the Postal Customs Office in Semarang (the provincial capital, 1.5 hours north of Salatiga), I knew it was trouble. I had to go to Semarang with Bu Rini, my sponsor at STAIN, to do other bureaucratic things at the Immigration Office and Police Station, so we added one stop to the trip. We went to the post office, showed the letter, and were led through a labyrinth of bright orange bags of mail to reach a hot, cramped office in the back. It was staffed by 4 very bored looking civil servants and 3 vocational high school students. The students were diligently filling out some kind of form. One of the civil servants was smoking, another eating peanuts. The last two weren’t doing much more than sweating. But they managed to look very irritated when Bu Rini and I entered. One went off to get the offending package while the other three peered at me suspiciously and asked about what I was doing in Central Java. Their colleague returned with the package (which turned out to be from my mother) and revealed what had raised the red flag: a small zip-lock baggie of calcium pills. They asked us to explain what they were and what they were for. I thought they were probably concerned they were drugs – Indonesia is pretty strict with narcotics. So I was a little nervous as they had me count them.

60 pills total – enough for one person for 2 months.

“Ah, yes.” Said bored immigration lady #1, totally unconcerned with the possibility that these could be illegal drugs. “That is a large quantity. You could sell those for profit. You must pay a tax.”

Serioualy? 60 pills? That probably cost $5 at home? I asked if I could just take the rest of the contents, and flush the pills down the toilet.

“No.” said bored immigration lady #2. “It is one package. You must take the entire package.”

At this point, I had seen that the entire package contained sunscreen, Ohio summer honey, and Ghirardelli semi-sweet baking chips. I wanted the entire package. So the negotiation began.

Plan 1: You must go to the Office of Controlled Substances (which is in Semearang, 1.5 hours away from where I live) to get a permission slip to have the calcium pills. Then you must wait 2 weeks while the paperwork is completed. Then you must return to the Postal Customs Office (which is also in Semearang, 1.5 hours away from where I live) to retrieve the package and pay the tax.

Somehow Bu Rini managed to talk them out of this, since we live so far away and it is difficult to come to Semarang. Also, I may have cried a little bit.

Plan 2: You will pay the tax here, and you will promise never to send dangerous items like calcium pills through the mail. The tax is 300.000 rp ($35).

Seriously? The contents didn’t even come $35 to begin with, so this would be like paying for them all again. I bluffed – I said I didn’t even want the package, picked up my purse, and got ready to walk out the door. But Bu Rini stopped me and got them to make the tax lower.

Plan 3: You will pay the tax here, and you will promise (A) to never send dangerous items like calcium pills through the mail and (B) to never come to our office and bother our afternoon gossip session again. The tax is 90.000 rp ($10).

This plan was satisfactory to all involved. They typed up the forms (in triplicate!), I signed, paid the tax, and went on my merry way. Until my next roll-in with the forces of Indonesian bureaucracy, that is!

October 6, 2012

October Rain

by Tabitha Kidwell

There are at least 3 posts on my Facebook newsfeed referencing the weather in America. Snow in Colorado! Raining for the Saturday morning run in Columbus! Unseasonably warm in the northeast! We Americans seem to be endlessly amused/chagrined by the ever-changing jet stream.

When I explain American weather to Indonesian people, they are always a bit baffled. “So, it can be rainy and cold one day, then warm and sunny the next? Any time of year?” The idea that weather could change so drastically and so often is a new and foreign concept. Being that weather is basically the same here, day after day, small talk about the weather is pretty pointless. No one really asks “How’s the weather?” “How about that rain?” “Cold out there, huh?” because it would lead to the most boring conversation ever.

That is, except for right about now. The dry season has been dragging on since April and it’s just been getting hotter and hotter and dustier and dustier. People keep saying “It’s hot!” then fanning themselves ineffectively with a sweaty hand. “We need rain,” then say, and I agree. There is a drought so severe that entire dammed-up reservoirs now look like this:

And the rushing river that usually runs through the grounds of the fancy hotel where I work out now looks like this:

Though when I was there yesterday morning, it had a trickle of water flowing, making me think it was raining somewhere upstream.

Then, today as I was riding my Scoopy home from a Batik shopping spree, a drop of rain hit my face. Then another. And another. I sang an impromptu “Hallelujah” that I hope other people couldn’t hear while I was moving. I was super excited! No one else seemed to notice, though. Except the random Bule I pulled up next to at a stop light. I looked over, and she had the same silly grin on her face that I did.

“How about that rain?” she said.

Yep, pretty exciting.

May 16, 2012

Irshad Manji

by Tabitha Kidwell

Barack Obama’s statement last week in support of same sex marriage was undoubtedly a huge step forward for gay rights in America. It was especially meaningful for me in juxtaposition to some dramatic events that occurred in Central Java on Wednesday night. Irshad Manji, a Canadian muslim activist, is visiting Indonesia to discuss her new book Allah, Liberty, and Love, and to start a dialogue about moral courage, thinking critically about your faith, and free speech. She also happens to be a lesbian. Her visit here has been extremely controversial, but not because of her outspoken criticism of Islam and call for reform. (Honestly, such an outcry would be somewhat justified – her books are a pretty strong affront to conventional Islam. They made me a little uncomfortable and I’m not even the target audience!) Instead, the major concern among protesters is her sexual orientation and the fact that she is trying to spread a “lesbian agenda.” This is pointedly inaccurate – Ms. Manji’s message does not even touch on gay rights. Many protesters admittedly were ignorant of her message, but were incensed that a lesbian could even think of calling herself a Muslim. One of the protesters who participated in the violent shut-down of a book signing in Jakarta said he he was there because: “This Irshad is a lesbian. Do you want this country to be a lesbian?” Um, what?

With all this controversy in the air, I was really excited to hear that STAIN Salatiga had agreed to have Ms. Manji come speak last Tuesday. I hadn’t heard of her before, but I downloaded and read her books and was really excited to meet such a courageous woman and fresh voice in Islam. I was a little nervous about the event, for one, because I know she would really challenge the conservative faculty members here, and also because of the potential for violence. I actually considered bringing my hammer in my backpack just in case some hoodlums showed up. The administration here was nervous, too – they cancelled the event, then rescheduled it in a smaller venue and only invited a select group of faculty members. Being a basically secret event, it wasn’t quite a resounding show of free speech, but it did go well (I didn’t need the hammer, at least.) The lecturers, even if they didn’t agree with her message, were welcoming, polite, and very willing to engage in dialogue and consider her viewpoints. I was especially impressed by her evidently thoughtful nature: as she was walking out, she spotted some secretaries huddled behind a desk looking on with admiration. She stopped her entourage (even though they were late for their next event) and made those ladies’ day by taking a picture with them. Then, my counterpart and I were standing by the door as she headed out, and I said “good luck, stay safe.” She turned around and said “Thanks, Tabitha, thanks Hanung!” We looked at each other in awe – we had met her for about 5 seconds and she remembered our names?!?! She was just so gracious and kind. I think many of my colleagues were prepared for a rude and confrontational woman, and were really shocked by the fact that she was truly kind and peaceful. I think they will rethink many of their assumptions about homosexuality, liberal Islam, and the idea of questioning one’s own faith.

Unfortunately, the attendees at Ms. Manji’s last event in Indonesia (in Yogya, a town about 3 hours south of Salatiga) didn’t have that same experience. Men in helmets and masks broke in, smashed plates, and assalted the innocent people in attendance. As in Jakarta, the main reason they were doing so was because of misplaced homophobia. That just shows how far Indonesia still has to come in terms of gay rights. But the fact that this protest occurred in Yogya means that the victims were not going to take it quietly. Yogya is known for its liberalism, and because of these events, there was a huge protest last weekend in support of free speech. Even if the thugs who shut down Irshad Manji’s event were up in arms because of homosexuality, what came out of it was a renewed commitment to free speech and increased interest in what Ms. Manji is actually saying. Hopefully this will help move Indonesia one stop closer to being a country where even controversial muslim activists can share their ideas, and where a future Indonesian president might one day be able to show the same moral courage Obama did last Wednesday!

Irshad Manji at STAIN Salatiga:

A very different scene the next evening in Yogya. It was truly cowardly to attack innocent, unarmed people with sticks and metal bars while wearing motorcycle helmets. (Photo Credit: Mark Woodward)

May 7, 2012

Working hard… or hardly working…

by Tabitha Kidwell

One of my pet peeves here is when people find out that I’m not scheduled to teach a certain day and say “Wah! Libur!” (Wow! You have the day off!) This probably relates to my own overachiever’s guilt, since I’m only actually scheduled 2.5 days a week. In practice, I do a little work almost every day, and most week days I am, indeed, working at home or at a coffee shop: planning lessons, grading papers, setting up or preparing presentations, working on my research project, studying Indonesian, etc. So I don’t want people to think I’m just here at home picking my nose. But if I try to explain to people that I work at home, I get a blank stare. Indonesian people don’t work at home. Many don’t have the computers or resources to be able to work at home, and besides, they all have families they want to spend their time with. When they are home, they are off. The American concept of working at home just doesn’t translate.

Besides that, I think Indonesian people want to work at the office precisely because they don’t have to work at the office. A lot of what happens at “work” is chatting, gossiping, going for a cup of coffee or a smoke, praying, and other things that are decidedly not work. Or are they? I go to campus with my American to-do list and mostly sit in my office and get stuff done from behind my computer. But what exactly is the purpose of all that work I’m getting done? Yes, my classes are better planned, my students get their papers back sooner, my e-mail in-box is cleaned out. But I’m missing out on the work everyone else is doing – building relationships. Most offices and businesses are set up with this goal in mind. In most shops, you have to ask someone for what you want instead of picking it up off the shelf. At any given restaurant, there always seem to be 4 times as many waiters as necessary, I think so that most of them can stand around chatting. Pak Lutfi, our office manager, doesn’t seem to have many duties besides opening the office in the morning and locking up in the afternoon, but he is always there, hanging out, “at work.” And if most people on campus had to choose between who works harder, Pak Lutfi, or me, they’d probably pick Pak Lutfi, just because they see him there more often. And, in truth, he is spending more time doing the work that matters to Indonesian people. Relationships are key in this communal culture, and by working at home or hiding behind my computer on campus, I’m missing out on the best part of working here. I’m glad I have another year here since Im only figuring this out now. I’m going to try to throw out that to-do list and spend more time doing the work that really matters. Or maybe I’ll just keep the to-do list but add “sit on the office couch.” And “see what they’re up to in the office next door.” And “do less work.”

March 30, 2012

The Mada-Indo Connection

by Tabitha Kidwell

Check out this article:

This is just further proof of the bizarre but well-established link between Indonesia and Madagascar, all the way across the Indian ocean. This was one of the reasons I was interested to come to Indonesia – I knew that Malagasy culture had a lot of influences from its Indonesian heritage. I thought I might be like a cultural detective, searching out little similarities. Turns out, no searching is necessary – it’s so darn similar that sometimes I feel like I am still in Madagascar. Really, 1,200 years ago is not that long for the two cultures to have diverged. By that point in western history, contributions of Greek and Roman civilization were well in the past, most of France was already united, and vikings were already sailing around wearing funny hats. So it makes sense that Madagascar and Indonesia should be culturally similar. That entire last post about rice, for example, could have been about Madagascar as easily as Indonesia. Some other similarities:

If you go on a trip, you are sure to arrive back to neighbors and colleagues good-naturedly, or a little impishly, asking for their voandalana or oleh-oleh – gift or souvenir. I especially like the Malagasy, which translates literally as “silver of the road.”

You can’t walk down the street without running into an old lady selling fried goodies – but, no matter how many you eat, you cannot be full since you did not eat rice!

Indonesia may not have a drinking culture thanks to Muslim influences, but you can still find arak, potentially fatal or blinding home-brewed liquor, AKA toaka gasy.

Though Madagascar is predominately Christian and Indonesia is predominately Muslim, there are strong animist beliefs. The elaborate funerals and burial rituals in Toraja rival Madgascar’s famadianas, where the dead are exhumed and entertained at week-long parties in their honor. And ghosts and witches definitely still are roaming at night in both countries.

The languages have lots of similarities: merah is red, ribu/arivo is 1,000, and most or all verbs begins with m (but you can change it to a p sound to make it a person, i.e. menulis/manoratra to write and penulis/mpanoratra writer). There are no real verb tenses to speak of, beyond a general sense of past, present, and future that mostly comes from context, but there are labyrinthine uses of active, passive, and relative voice (bet you didn’t know that one existed, huh?). I’d probably know even more similarities if I could remember more Malagasy!

Lastly, both cultures never cease to give me reasons to wonder. Sometimes people seem to do things that don’t make sense to me as a foreigner living there, but it always seems to work out in the end. I think academics studying what the article calls “one of the strangest episodes in the human odyssey” feel the same way about the two cultures. Why and how did Indonesian people end up in Madagascar? Who knows, but it seems to have worked out pretty well.

March 19, 2012

Late to bed and early to rise?

by Tabitha Kidwell

I just got off a one-hour bus ride with the most horn-happy driver I’ve ever had. If it had been longer than an hour, I would have gotten off and waited for the next bus to come along. Every time he laid into the horn, I craned my neck to see what was going on, and it seemed to be nothing more than the usual flow of traffic, albeit at evening rush hour. After one particular 30-second long bleat, I looked around for someone to share in my frustration… and everyone was asleep.

This is one of many examples of how much Indonesian people’s sleep patterns baffle me. They seem to be able to sleep anywhere. I’m usually the only one awake on plane flights. I saw a woman asleep on the back of a motorbike once. Students sleep in their campus activity offices while their friends are literally shouting all around them. I don’t get it.

Though I guess I should: it’s evidence of systematic, chronic sleep deprivation. People just don’t seem to care about sleep here – it’s just not a cultural value. If an American got less than 4 hours of sleep, most of us would be droopy-eyed and cranky, drinking coffee and complaining about what a rough night it was. Here, people get that much sleep routinely and just go about their daily business. Part of the issue is Muslim prayers – they are expected to pray 5 times daily: before sunrise, around noon, 3, 6, and before they go to bed. So, getting up before sunrise is non-negotiable. I get that, and I think waking up early to pray would be a great way to start the day. I actually have started doing so. The mosques play the call to prayer at like 4:30, and it starts to wake me up before my alarm rings at the slovenly hour of 5 AM. Everyone is up then, even if they are not Muslim – it is just the time to start the day. Some extracurricular classes and meetings at Muslim schools even happen at 5 AM – can you imagine anything happening at 5 AM in America?

So, when people were telling me about their daily schedules when I first arrived, I thought for sure they would say that they went to be at, like, 9 PM to compensate for waking up at 4:30, but they say they go to bed at 11, midnight, or even later. I was always flabbergasted and asked if they napped. Some said they did, sometimes, but no one seemed to think that 4-5 hours of sleep every night was any kind of problem. I just don’t think they, as a society, have been taught to care about sleeping. When I am going to bed at 10 on a Saturday night (yes my life is very exciting), I look out my window and see whole families walking around the neighborhood, with babies and kids of all ages. There is no concept of “bedtime” forced upon children, so maybe they just don’t ever think about it.

This makes me wonder, do Americans only “need” 8 hours of seep because we have been told that we need 8 hours of sleep? If we didn’t believe that, could we run on 4 hours, no problem? Maybe, but I’m not going to try to prove it. It’s 9 PM and I’m going to bed!

November 15, 2011

Ibu-Ibu meeting

by Tabitha Kidwell

You may remember that last month, I won the raffle at the neighborhood ibu-ibu (ladies) meeting, and it came along with the privilege of holding the next gathering. As with fashion decisions, I haven’t planned a party in recent memory without the help of my sister, so this was a daunting task. And what do you serve at an ibu-ibu meeting in Indonesia? Normally, I would do a cheese plate, some fresh fruit and vegetables, maybe some chips and guac…. But that would totally confuse these ibus, so I had to call in some reinforcements. I texted Ibu Fitri, the only lady in the neighborhood whose phone number I had, and asked her to go to the store with me. She’s a very nice woman, and used to teach mechanical engineering at one of the best universities in Indonesia. She moved to Salatiga because of her husbands job, and now she is a stay at home mom. As a very well educated stay at home mom, I thought she was probably (over-)qualified to make party food decisions.

The morning of the gathering, I picked her up at her house on my scoopy (a little silly since her house is about one block away) and she said “So, where did you order the boxes from?”

Uh, what? Apparently, the usual custom is to buy little snack boxes that have 3-4 little Javanese sweets in each. I should have known this, having received a box like this at every meeting I have attended, but I had just arrived back in Salatiga the night before and hadn’t thought about snacks until that morning. So it was too late to order the boxes. I suggested going to Wonder Bakery, which isn’t affiliated with Wonder Bread in America but is was actually quite reminiscent of the Wonder-Hostess Thrift Shop down the street from where I had grown up – a palace of baked goods!

“Well, if we can’t get boxes, I guess that works.” She said, visibly disappointed. They really love those boxes.

So we scoopied over to Wonder and I began to revel in the freshly-baked goodies smell. She suggested buying about 40 “snowballs.” You would think snowballs would be white, but I think cultural understanding of snow is fairly low here. These were actually little chocolate cakes that, for some reason, needed to be put into individual wrappers. I suggested just putting them out on plates, and she explained that, yes, they needed to be on plates, but individually wrapped. Whatever. I let Ibu Fitri do her thing. We also got some peanuts and puffed air cheese things (these didn’t need to be individually wrapped), and a box of individually packaged glasses of water.

So I set all this out and got ready for the meeting at 3:30…

… and waited. Nothing ever starts on time here, and even though I know this, I am usually ready at the announced time. At around 3:40, the head of the neighborhood came over, and we tried to make small talk, but mostly just looked at each other. She was probably secretly trying to spy out where I had put the snack boxes and wondering why I had so many individually wrapped cakes on plates. The other ibus trickled in, and around 4, we began our business. I did not win the raffle this time – it actually isn’t so much a raffle but a communal money saving scheme, so each person wins once. My time was over, so I couldn’t win anyways. The business winded down and I was getting nervous since none of the ibus had tried any of the food. No American ibu would just sit around conducting a meeting with those delicious plates of food on the table, but without snack boxes, I think these ibus didn’t know what to do. So at the end of the meeting, finally the neighborhood head said “time to eat,” and we passed around the plates.

And they ate everything. And asked me where I had bought it. And suggested that this week’s winner also go buy these snacks for next time.

Successful party. 🙂

November 6, 2011

Becoming a Javanese Princess

by Tabitha Kidwell

A little known fact about me (ok not that little known, since I try to drop it into conversation whenever given the chance) is that I was elected homecoming queen in high school! Please don’t take that to mean I was ‘popular’ or ‘cool.’ I relied heavily on the band vote, the theater vote, the fact that my sister was a sophomore, and the fact that I had an interesting name. (In the cafeteria line that day, I stood behind a girl who explained to her friend that that was how she had chosen who to vote for. She clearly had no idea how close she was to royalty at that very moment.) But I won nonetheless, and I have the rhinestone tiara to prove it. I’ve put that crown to use since, too – friends have worn it for birthdays and bachelorette parties, I wore it to clean the house, write papers, or do other distasteful tasks, and I even pulled it out for my going-away party in August. I thought really hard about bringing it with me here, and sometimes wish I had. But, as I learned last week, suburban Ohio royalty just doesn’t compare to Javanese royalty.

All 15 English Language Fellows attended the TEFLIN (Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Indonesia) conference in Semarang from November 3-5. My friend Jonthon, who is an adventurous sort, cooked up a little surprise for us our last day there. A common thing for Indonesian people to do is to go to studios, get all done up, and have a photo shoot of themselves dressed up like Javanese princes and princesses. It’s maybe a little like getting your picture taken like an olde time sheriff. My counterpart, for example, got a picture like this taken in celebration of his and his wife’s 10th wedding anniversary. Jonthon happened to have a friend who lives in the area who had just taken a class on doing hair and makeup for these sessions, and he asked if she and her friends would come and turn us into sultans and sultanas(I looked that up).

It turns out, there is more to being Javanese royalty than meets the eye.

First, they put these goofy things on my eyelids that keep your eyes shut a little bit so that people can see the eye-shadow better. I guess they are important for Asian women, but it felt a little bit like getting your eyes taped shut to me.

Next, they put on A LOT of makeup, even including eyebrow tint. Javanese princesses do not have undefined eyebrows.

Then, there was a lot of hair teasing as they wrapped my own hair around a giant donut of fake hair.

Then, some silk flower netting was draped and pinned around the real hair/fake hair donut combo.

And then two of the ladies helped wrap me up in a few yards of cloth.

Lastly, they added some bling…

… and I took a moment to eat a Halloween peep. (We had forgotten lunch and it was clear by now this would be an all-day affair!)

And I was a Javanese princess!

Humility is, traditionally, one of the most valued characteristics in Javanese culture, hence the downward gaze. Unlike me, a Javanese princess would not try casually mention her election as homecoming queen. If Indonesian high schools had homecoming… and football… and school dances… okay, I think you get the point.

All told, my transformation took almost two hours, and there were four other people being worked on at the same time. When the first round was done, our stylists started on the second round, while we sat around uncomfortably, took pictures, and ate more Halloween peeps. When everyone was finished, we got together for a spectacular photo shot on the hotel balcony, down in the lobby, and even took a foray into the attached mall. Here we are in all our glory:

I really loved my costume and really felt quite regal. I would probably have kept the outfit on all night and headed out on the town if our stylists hadn’t had to, you know, go home, and take their costumes and props with them. We didn’t get to keep our bling.

But I still have my own.

October 27, 2011

The Sliding Scale

by Tabitha Kidwell

During the 4 years I lived with my sister Katie, any time I was getting dressed for a special occasion (and sometimes when I was getting dressed for downright everyday occasions), I would model the options for her. She did the same thing – making decisions is neither of our strong suits, so it took two of us to make final wardrobe decisions.

So, I am in big trouble now that I live in Indonesia and Katie lives in Denver. Now, not only do I not have her input, I also have to negotiate a totally different set of clothing norms. The first week I was here in Salatiga, before I started teaching, I went into the office to work wearing what I thought was a very appropriate outfit. One of my counterparts (the female one) pulled me aside.

“Tabitha,” she whispered, “you cannot wear that shirt to campus!”

I was puzzled. What could be wrong with the long sleeves and long pants I had worn on this hot September day?

“You can almost see your breasts.”

I looked down at what I considered to be two very well covered breasts and wondered exactly whose breasts she was talking about. I was exposing maybe 5 or 6 square inches of skin below my neck, however, and that would not do. I was mortified. They had informed me that I needed to be covered to the ankle and to the wrist to teach at this Islamic University, but they had neglected to tell me that I also needed to be covered to the neck, maybe thinking that no self-respecting young lady would do something so lascivious as to show a peek of her clavicle. I left at lunch that day, feeling frustrated with the overly rigid social norms in an Islamic society.

Indonesia, is an incredibly conservative society. This is especially true in a smaller city like Salatiga. Most people get married before 23 and have children before 25. Most mothers stay home with the children. Restaurants don’t serve alcohol, bars can only be found in big cities, and wine and spirits are next to impossible to find. I only go to the fancy hotel pool on weekday mornings so that I won’t be gawked at by the fully clothed and headscarfed ladies watching their husbands and children (and me) swim. I’m still coming to understand the meaning of the headscarf, so I don’t intend this to be a commentary on the repression of women. Many Muslim women begin to wear the headscarf at puberty as a sign of their devotion to God, It has a joyful and meaningful connotation to them. They are accustomed to wearing the headscarf and clothing that is comparatively modest. They would feel as uncomfortable going out with their hair on display as I would wearing my bikini to the grocery store. It’s just a different scale. What is perfectly acceptable (and even modest) in western countries is provocative here. And, incidentally, most of the clothing they choose (cotton shirts, long flowy skirts, headscarves with a little visor built in) has the added benefit of protecting the body from the hot tropical sun.

I put that shirt away and didn’t wear it again for a few weeks. During those few weeks, something shifted in my sense of social appropriateness. I put the shirt on and looked at myself in the mirror.

“ Oh no!” I thought.

“I can almost see my breasts.”

October 18, 2011

It’s the freakin’ weekend, baby, I’m about to pray with some monks….

by Tabitha Kidwell

I had one of the most incredible weekends in recent memory. It was one of those perfect couple of days where good things come one right after another. I had heard that you could pray with the monks at the Buddhist Monastery that is next to the ninth century Candi Mendut (Mendut Temple). It isn’t too far away from where I live, so I knew I wanted to get down there sometime this year. When a student mentioned to me that she lived in Magelang and was going home this weekend, I asked if I could ride the bus with her to see how to get there. So Lulu and I boarded a bus together on Saturday afternoon. We got to town with plenty of time left for me to get down to the monastery before evening prayers, so her uncle picked us up and we went to her house, where her mother had a huge dinner waiting for me, even though it was only 4:30. So Lulu and I ate up, then her uncle took me down to the monastery.

I got there about an hour early, and walked around a little. I went over to Mendut Temple, which is notable because it contains one of the only states of the Buddha where he is sitting in a chair, western-style, rather than cross-legged. It was after dark by this time, and the temple was closed, but the guard asked if I wanted to go in. Apparently “Java Heat,” an action film starring Kellen Lutz and Mickey Rourke, was being filmed in town, and one of the actresses had hired a guide who had bribed the officials to let her in to meditate. So they were willing to let me sneak in after her. I waited a few minutes until she was done, scoped out the actress (who I didn’t recognize), and climbed up to the temple entrance. I didn’t fully realize how incredible it was to be in there alone until the next day when I went back and had to fight the crowds of picture-snapping tourists and incense-burning Buddhists. It was just me and the Buddha in his giant chair. I tried to quiet my mind and meditate, but I was so excited to be there that it was a little tricky. After centuries of prayers had been said in that little chamber, it was an incredible and holy feeling to just sit there alone and soak up the presence of the Divine. I didn’t want to leave, but the guard was lingering outside, waiting for me to wrap up, and anyways I had real live monks to go pray with, so I reluctantly said good-bye to the western-sitting Buddha.

I arrived I the meditation room just a little before the monks, and saw that my actress friend had also come. We waited in silence for the monks to file in. Then there was more silence. And then they started their chanting, which was incredible. I’m sure everyone has heard monks chanting on CDs or on TV or whatever, but this was the first time I had heard it in person, and it was truly moving. They stopped chanting and had silent meditation, then filed back out. One stayed behind to chat with the visitors and to invite us to a ceremony they were having the next day at noon. I didn’t pick up why they were having a Buddhist ceremony, but I felt like if a monk lets me come to his chanting and then invites me to a ceremony, I should probably go.

So then I left the temple and met up with my friend Ken, who lives in Magelang and also teaches English. We headed to dinner but got distracted by a random dance performance in a field. Why were they having a random dance performance in a field? That remains unclear, but it was very cool!

The next morning, I got up at sunrise and ran by Candi Mendut and it’s neighbors 3 km away, Candi Pawon, and the incredible Candi Borobudur. Mendut and Pawon are tiny and can be run around fairly quickly (even by a slowpoke like me), but Borodubur is massive and surrounded by a giant complex. It wasn’t open yet, and you have to pay an admission fee, but the guards just smiled at me when I ran in the entrance that seemed to be for all the employees. So I was able to run around the temple, alone, at dawn. I couldn’t get up to the actual temple area, but it was really wonderful to run around it and feel like I had the place to myself. It was one of those runs you just don’t want to end.

I headed over to the monastery at noon for the ceremony, and was squeezed myself in along with the thousands of people in the tiny monastery. I still didn’t really understand what the ceremony was for, but there was more chanting and more silence, made all the more incredible by the giant crowd’s participation. Then there was a speech by a monk that still did not explain the purpose of the ceremony, but surprised me because I was probably able to understand 70% of what I heard! Maybe monks, having chosen a life of simplicity, also choose simple vocabulary words? I don’t know, but it felt great to be able to follow the speech.

So then I headed home. It dragged into a 3-hour long hot, dusty and uncomfortable bus ride, so I arrived back in Salatiga a little less Zen than I was when I left the monks, but it was still a weekend and an experience to remember.