Analogue Cultural Ambassador

While waiting for paperwork to go through the system I went searching for a particular mall, which I heard had one of the last surviving film processing labs in Indonesia. There were three malls in the neighborhood, and I had forgotten which one it was, so I spent a while in the first two: huge temples of boring mass-produced global luxury that do not deserve description here. No film labs in either. I weathered the afternoon downpour and thunderstorm in one of them, and then was almost ready to give up. The third mall was run down, and didn’t look unusual from outside, so I had little hope for it, but immediately I saw some roll film in an electronics store, and asked if there was a film lab. There was: tucked in a corner, freshly renovated and still very much alive. There were also a shocking number of little stalls selling new and used camera equipment. And also a few places selling vinyl records and analogue stereo equipment, and others offering sporting goods, model cars and airplanes, and various kinds of weapons. In other words, I found the coolest mall in Jakarta.

The quest for the film lab was part of a foolish ambition I’d conceived before I started this trip: to reacquaint myself with my old Hasselblad medium format film camera, and take pictures with it during what were bound to be long periods of down time. Maybe the collected photos can become something worthwhile, a little side-project to do after the dissertation. The photography would also be part of the plan to cross cultural boundaries, part of my job as a “cultural ambassador” for Fulbright. I’ll return to that in a second—this seems as good a place as any to set down the thoughts I’ve had about this plan.

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A Hidden Museum in Jakarta

One of the things I’ve found hardest to understand about Indonesia as a state is its deep love of administrative structures. I mean that in both ways: there are ministries (kementerian) for everything, many of whose missions seem to overlap, and these ministries all have huge, elaborate, buildings, or sometimes several blocks of buildings all to themselves. I have even noticed that many of these kementerian compounds include their own mosques, banks, restaurants, and other amenities that would seem rather far from whatever mission the ministry has. I can almost understand why the Ministry of Finance has a commercial bank built into its complex of buildings, but why a mosque? From my perspective (and I’m sure I’m missing something crucial about the culture that would make me understand it all) a lot of this seems like the worst kind of administrative bloat—a functional jobs program for a certain type of person, perhaps, but maybe not the best way to accomplish the ministry’s core mission.

And yet, the largesse of these ministries sometimes has unexpected benefits. That is why I found my way to the Kementerian Kelautan dan Perikanan RI, or the Republic of Indonesia Ministry for Marine Affairs and Fisheries, to look at a gallery of shipwreck ceramics hidden on the second floor of Building IV in its complex, not far from the Monumen Nasional. It took some asking around to get there, but the effort is worth it if you share my pathological interest in old pottery. Don’t get too distracted by the “Gallery” of living fish (most not even from Indonesia, but someone with an aquarium hobby had fun putting it together) in the lobby of Building IV. The ceramics gallery is on the second floor, accessible through the elevators behind the helpful receptionists.

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New Artifacts

I’ve been away from the blog for a very long time; I can’t describe everything that’s happened since the last posts in one go. Let’s treat it as a sort of Dark Ages; later I can fill in pieces of that time as they become relevant to the present, but for now it’s best described as different kinds of extreme agony, and a lot of work.

At least now I can say it had a positive result: I’m back in my beloved Nusantara, and will be here, mostly in Aru and Ambon, for ten months. It’s a good reason to revive the blog. Although most of that time will be spent excavating and processing artifacts, my advisor and the Fulbright program both insisted that I do some things besides archaeological research. Mostly that will be writing and taking pictures. About a quarter of my gear, by weight, is camera equipment: I have a medium format film camera, an underwater camera, a street camera, and three point-and-shoots to lend out for a cultural exchange project, which will be the topic of another post. Some of the digital photos will show up on my new Instagram account @visions_of_aru right away:

central police station, Jakarta, copying documents

A post shared by Bayangan Aru (@visions_of_aru) on

The film photos will probably have to wait until I get back to the US, though I hear a few film labs still survive in Jakarta. That’s where I am now, dealing with the remarkably elaborate process of getting an Indonesian research permit. While I await the slow revolution of bureaucratic gears, I’ve been exploring this overwhelming city. I’ll write a longer post about that soon.

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I’m in the Netherlands—right now in an appalling Amsterdam full of drunk tourists and fancy shops and not-so-fancy shops. For the past few days I have been in Leiden at the KITLV—the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, or its English name is the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies. The KITLV hosted a conference with what was almost certainly the largest collection of Aru experts ever to sit in one room (apart, of course, from whenever a bunch of people who actually live on Aru get together). There were six of us, and five of us gave talks about our various specialties. It was a small conference room, but it was full. Three of the audience were not academics, but actually had relatives from Pulau Wokam, so they should also be counted among the experts. I was very happy to see them there. The others in the audience were anthropologists, historians, and linguists, especially Southeast Asian and Islamic specialists.

This is the first time I’ve been to the Netherlands. It is a very charming country, though, the cities being old and not much changed since the seventeenth century, they can be difficult to navigate. Keeping with the conceit that my mind hasn’t yet left Aru, though, I keep noticing traces of the old colonial connections between the Netherlands and Indonesia. In fact, you could say that the whole town is a trace of those connections, for surely the grand churches and bridges in Leiden were built in part with profits from the East Indies.

First, of course, there were the people themselves—the men and women descended from Aruese who had been born in Holland, but found their way to our little conference and had so much to contribute to it. Then there are many other people in the streets who just look kind of Indonesian, or Indo-European. Then you see bits of Indonesian or Malay everywhere. I saw this post’s title on an ordinary house in a leafy Leiden suburb. “Untung-untungan” could mean or “depending on luck,” but there’s an additional resonance of smallness and artificiality, so on another level it equates a certain kind of luck with a toy. That is a very interesting phrase to put on the front of your house, and I had to assume that the people inside had roots in Indonesia. There are bits of Indonesia everywhere. In Leiden it’s especially pronounced because of the university and the KITLV—every used book store has maps and prints from the old colony.

There are also Indonesian restaurants everywhere. In fact, I just had dinner in one. I tried speaking Indonesian with the waitress, but it turned out she was Tibetan and didn’t know the language. Apart from that, though, the atmosphere was authentically Indonesian in a shocking way, with remarkable Indonesian details like faux wood paneling on the walls, odd electric fans everywhere, and a slight worn dinginess on everything. The Nasi Kuning was satisfying, if not as good as Ambon’s. The place was straight out of Indonesia, except for the carpet, which would be impossible in the tropics, and the roses on the tables.

This was interesting to find among the appalling “global culture” on display in Amsterdam. Checking in to the hostel I encountered an indescribable woman dressed all in bright pink, with a pink plastic shot glass around her neck on a string of pink plastic beads. A couple blocks away there was a Dolce & Gabbana store selling ghastly tuxedoes in a black-on-black paisley pattern that looked like the mummified corpse of something that was brighter in the ‘70s but not more tasteful (and I will say that this was one of the less stomach-churning window displays on that street). Leiden is a frumpier city, bourgeois but in the best sense, and after spending so much time there it pained me to think what the staid burghers who had built all these churches with plundered East Indies money would say about their capital being turned into Europe’s version of Las Vegas. But the burghers never felt too bad about commerce, after all.

That is another part of the Indonesia connection that troubles me. At the conference I brought up the Banda Islands as an example of various things again and again—an island group whose population was exterminated almost totally and replaced with slaves. It was a strange coincidence, and hard to reconcile Leiden’s old charm with the knowledge that a genocide was happening on the other side of the world at the same time some of these adorable little buildings were taking shape, and moreover that the two events were somehow connected. Maybe I had begun to think about this connection before the conference even started. History does not tell the most appealing story about the ways the Dutch accumulated their wealth, which in turn funded these adorable building projects. The perspective of those who were on the receiving end of Dutch traders’ ambitions does not flatter them, and so for a long time I thought of them as nakedly acquisitive people for whom a few artists and scholars could not adequately compensate. Yet it’s hard to dispute that the result for them back home was a very pleasant country—a work of art on a grand scale. So, it is hard to reconcile these two ideas. How does the tawdriness of present tourist culture change things? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

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Garbageways of Ujir

Archaeologists (and other anthropologists) think a lot about food. This shouldn’t be surprising; after all people in general think a lot about food. Food, eating, and nutrition are also pretty easy to observe with scientific methods: skeletal chemistry can tell us about where a person grew up and what kind of foods they ate; food processing often leaves bones and shells and other relatively imperishable things behind for archaeologists to look at; food gathering and management is also a main source of human effects on the environment, many of which can be observed through scientific methods. Food is also socially meaningful in so many ways that I won’t even try to list them here. So not only is food convenient to study, it is also very, very important. Because food is so central to human life and culture, anthropologists devote special attention to the behaviors and practices that relate to food, and they’ve coined the term “foodways” to group all these practices together. The term has become reflexive for anthropologists.

I would argue that there is another aspect of human life so relevant to the archaeological understanding of the past that it deserves a similar catch-all phrase: call it “garbageways.” The idea of delving into the cultural practices of throwing things away first occurred to me as I was grading a garbology lab for a historical archaeology methods course taught by Sara Gonzalez at UW. I got all excited about it and wrote a brief post about this idea on the course blog, and then promptly forgot about it, more or less. However, I think it’s worth getting into more detail about what garbageways are, why they’re important, and why archaeologists in particular need to think carefully about them. To do that I will use some observations from Ujir as an example.

First, I should define what garbageways are. This requires an embarrassing foray into theoretical jargon normally out of place in a blog; forgive me.

Similar to foodways, garbageways are the collection of human practices, behaviors, social values, mores, judgments, and meanings related to the throwing away of trash. The decision to throw out a carton of expired milk, the refusal to throw away an object of sentimental value that no longer fulfills its original function, the choice to throw away a banana peel in a compost bin rather than out in one’s front yard, and even the functionally motivated desire to compact trash so it’s easy to transport, are all different garbageways. Garbageways are socially situated; they depend on a combination of shared social conventions and individual values. Garbageways can have considered, deliberative political meaning, or people can engage in garbageways on a completely subconscious (even unconscious) level. In all cases, garbageways affect the way a given object ends up being deposited in the archaeological record, perhaps more than any other similar grouping of human behavior. That is because usually garbageways are the human behavior closest in space and time to the deposition of that object. In other words, garbageways are most closely related to how an object is likely to have entered the archaeological record.

There are some notable exceptions to this: any archaeological material that was deposited with a ritual or symbolic intention is less subject to influence from garbageways. This would include burials, monuments, caches, and the like. Objects that were created for the express purpose of being deposited in the ground might not really qualify as garbage, because they are still serving their intended purpose through the fact of their remaining in the ground. Even these examples might be affected by garbageways, or mutate into garbageways in certain situations. Garbageways are expansive and embracing. For example, the burial of human remains in shell middens is arguably a case where symbolism, ritual, and garbageways interact. As with foodways, many socially important actions blend into garbageways. Sorting out what is and what is not a garbageway can therefore only be done in relatively vague terms, and must be contextually specific to a very high degree if one wants any sort of precision or accuracy. A potentially problematic aspect of garbageways is that understanding them requires a firm grasp of intentionality in many cases, though arguably not in others. However, all that said, thinking about garbageways as a somewhat discreet category of behavior can be helpful for archaeologists for the very reason that most of what we deal with was discarded intentionally. Getting at the social decisions that influence where, when, how, and why something is discarded is thus essential if we want to have any hope of reaching those theoretically fraught post-processual goals of inferring meaning, agency, or symbolism, to name only a few.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, let’s consider some modern ethnographic examples from Ujir.


Case Study 1: repurposing. The first garbageway is actually more of a case of something not getting thrown away. Ujir is not completely isolated from the global marketplace, but most manufactured goods are only accessible by a boat ride to Dobo that takes around three hours each way, and depends on the tides and on having access to a boat in the first place. Because of this, it’s often easier to make or repurpose a particular tool than it is to buy it. The best example of this is the well bucket that came with our house. It was made from a plastic jug that had once held cooking oil. Someone had cut off the top of this jug, drilled holes in two sides, and fixed a stick between them with screws or nails to form a handle, to which attached the rope. Actually, half of the handle to our original bucket had broken off, but it still sort of worked.

Until one day it didn’t. Emilie found someone who could make a new bucket in the same way, with a sturdier handle and a better place to tie the rope. A lot of detail had gone into attaching the handle to the plastic—the person who crafted it had reinforced the places where the screws attached, and the handle itself was smoothed and rounded. It was downright ergonomic! The handle was also made out of a very heavy kind of wood, so that as you lowered the jug/bucket into the well, the weight of the handle tipped it over and allowed it to fill. Really, it was a well-designed object. So, something that would otherwise have been thrown away got cut up, and most of it was reused. Something else happened to the top half; I’m not sure what. Considering how valuable these oil jugs are for repurposing, I doubt if any of them enter the archaeological record in one piece. Even the old bucket got repurposed for something: I cut a piece out of it to use as a reflector for my laser rangefinder.

The distance from our location to the nearest source of material caused us to throw away far less material than we might otherwise. The expense of time in crafting something was in this case far less onerous than going to buy it. This is a “law” of human behavior that actually might hold true, and although it applies to many non-garbage-related activities, it also engages with the world of garbage, since it has an influence on what gets thrown away (in this case, perhaps the oddly shaped top part of the oil jug). Thinking about this from a garbageways perspective (garbologically?), we can expect certain materials to show up less in the archaeological record if they are scarce and/or valuable, and easy to repurpose. Really, this is about what counts as garbage. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, as they say.

Case Study 2: where it ends up. I am proud to say that I don’t get culture shock very often anymore, and that within most bounds I can adapt to different cultural practices. However, I must confess that I was never able to emulate the local habit of disposing of garbage on the beach. Ujir is fronted by a beautiful white-sand beach, but the utilitarian value of this beach affects its aesthetic value from my perspective, since in addition to being a place to swim and launch boats, the beach is a garbage chute and, quite frequently, a toilet as well. There is a certain logic to this: every day, the tide comes in and removes most of what has been left on the beach, so this is effectively a trash removal system. As part of their daily housework, women of Ujir would drag small trash buckets (also made from a repurposed oil jugs, incidentally), to the beach and empty them there. At the time, I didn’t think to inspect what they were throwing away, but I think much of it was plastic wrappers and cans, with some plant material and perhaps eggshells as well.

Although I firmly believe that it isn’t my place to judge people, especially from other cultures, about things like this, I thought that I would have a very hard time living with myself if I threw all the garbage I was generating onto the beach. It was just one step too far, even though everyone else was doing it. So I found an inconspicuous place by the house where we were staying, borrowed a shovel, and dug a small pit in which I could bury our garbage. My own garbageways (in this case based on environmentalist values and a fair bit of experience scuba diving around other people’s garbage) were so deeply ingrained that I expended much effort digging a garbage pit, and probably caused the locals to think I was crazy. Not only that, but once the first pit was full I would have to dig another one. Really, the locals’ strategy makes much more sense.

Partly it is about priorities, and partly about how one conceives chains of causation. My priorities were the aesthetic enjoyment of the beach and the water, and a general assumption that having garbage floating out there in the ocean is just… bad. I could argue for that case in more scientific terms: that garbage in the ocean kills fish and turtles, and provides no benefit to counter that downside. That is the chain of causation aspect. However, the locals may understand very different chains of causation than I do, and they certainly have different priorities. Some of these aspects, perhaps, can be inferred archaeologically for past cultures.

Case Study 3: productive disposal. The final case study, similar to the first, is about people making use of garbage, but in a slightly different way, that may explain the absence of certain materials in the archaeological record. Many people in Ujir own small kebun or umaral; “gardens” is the direct translation for this term, but really these gardens are more like small plantations. Many umaral are planted with coconut palms, and every so often the coconuts are harvested and processed into copra, dried coconut meat, which in turn is sold in Dobo and at some point refined into coconut oil. This is a fairly labor-intensive process: the coconuts, husk and all, must be split open, the meat removed, and then something must be done to dry it. The leftover parts of the coconut are basically refuse. This is not easy in the tropics. I’ve seen copra sun-dried on racks in Polynesia, but in Ujir they have a slightly different strategy.

In Ujir, people dry the copra by smoking it (though the sun also plays a part). When you harvest coconuts for copra, the husks should already be quite dry (as opposed to coconuts harvested for juice or eating, where the husks are still green or at least not dry). In Ujir, and probably elsewhere in the world, the locals take advantage of this fact by building pits under their copra drying racks and burning the coconut husks, which would otherwise just be thrown away. The heat from these fires speeds up the drying process, and also gets rid of coconut husks that might otherwise just sit in piles and rot. These pits are distinctive features, which would be prominent in the archaeological record (I very well may run into one once I start excavating).

The important point here is that garbageways often relate to exploiting properties of garbage that can be useful. A very similar example is the way that 19th century whalers would use the “spent” pieces of blubber out of which most of the oil had been rendered to fuel the rendering fires. An example that falls closer to home, and doesn’t involve fire, is the giant compost heap at Colinwood farm where I used to work. The compost heap was really the heart of the farm, in an almost literal sense: it recirculated nutrients to the fields. Plant waste from the farm, and waste from fisheries, was combined and “pumped” back into the system of the farm. This is similar to but not strictly repurposing, since the garbage gets consumed entirely in the course of this process.


These examples were the ones that sprung most readily to mind, and it’s worth noting that they all have very functional elements, with the exception of my own aesthetically- and ideologically-motivated pit digging. It may be hard to access garbageways that result from these less tangible motivations even in the present, to say nothing of the past. There are some theoretical angles by which one might approach non-functional explanations for garbageways: the concept of chaîne opératoire may be useful, for example, to reconstruct the sequence of actions that led to a piece of garbage being deposited, repurposed, or consumed. I’m not going to go there now (this has turned into a rather long theory paper, just without citations!) but it’s something to think about. The important point is that a holistic understanding of garbage-related behavior (garbageways) is important, especially for a discipline that mostly studies garbage.

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The Rift

12 November, Dobo

I’m starting this in the waiting room of the Dobo airport, as I begin the second leg of my long journey back to the States. The Dobo airport easily makes my list of top 5 airports in the world, because there is an absolute minimum of fuss and security theater. Actually, there’s a minimum of almost everything. It’s a small shack with a big air conditioner, and x-ray machines and metal detectors that probably haven’t been turned on in over a decade. They wheel the baggage out to the planes on wooden handcarts with bicycle wheels.

Now I’ll try to tell the stories that accumulated since my last blog post. Maybe I should work my way backward in time, and start with the voyage from Ujir to Dobo. It turned out that I had to leave Ujir suddenly. As Emilie and I began asking around about transport to Dobo on the 8th, we learned that most of the boat traffic between Ujir and Dobo would be interrupted for a couple days due to a sunatan ceremony that was to take place on Monday the 10th. We couldn’t find a boat that was definitely leaving before then, and after would leave little margin in case something went wrong. Finally, late on the evening of the 9th, I learned that if I wanted to leave Ujir with a comfortable amount of time before my flight, I had only one option. A newly built boat, which I’d helped launch a few days earlier, was leaving for Dobo with a cargo of lumber that night around 11:00. They were leaving late to meet the high tide in Dobo, so they could reach the dock fully loaded.

This was not ideal. I had no time to say goodbye to most of the friends I’d made in Ujir, nor to collect their contact information and make gifts to them. Emilie rushed to edit some interview footage, which I would take to Gamar, our translator and transcriber in Dobo. A few friends who had heard I was leaving stopped by, and I had long conversations with them as I tried to pack my things. Kind gestures here have a way of happening at inconvenient times in Ujir, and I felt bad that I couldn’t give my friends more attention. I left gifts for Emilie to pass on to some of my friends, and then we walked to the beach, at about 9:30. After a quick goodbye to Emilie, my friend Guntur, the captain of the other regular boat to travel between Ujir and Dobo, rowed me out to the new boat in a sampan.

Although I must save the story of how this new boat was built and launched for later, I should say a few things about her. Her name is Korakora Wallay,* “the war canoe of the Wallay clan.” Other boats have had this name, perhaps since before European contact, but this was the first boat in a while to carry it. The imam of Ujir commissioned her, and somebody involved in the process had the idea to make her a kapal pesawat: an “airplane-boat.” This meant that her cabin, rather than being boxy as they usually are, was streamlined like the nose of a jumbo jet. The pilothouse also rose from the cabin in a sweeping, dramatic way. Apart from these novel features, she follows the pattern of Aru trade boats that I mentioned earlier. She’s made of local wood, about thirty feet long and ten feet wide, and has a 300-horsepower diesel engine under the cabin’s floorboards. Her bottom had been painted prior to launching, but the upper portions were waiting for a special kind of white paint from Dobo, so these parts looked very much like one would expect for an airplane built out of wood. She was a jungle spaceship; a fantastic vessel, and very suitable to take me on the first leg of my long trip home.

As we pulled up to the korakora, I found my friends Nasir and Agung and a few others relaxing on the quarter deck, singing songs and playing a guitar. I heaved my bags aboard, bid Guntur farewell, and peeked inside the cabin. They had outfitted it with a kerosene stove, a bucket of water, and a kerosene lamp. It didn’t have much ventilation, but otherwise the interior was comfortable. The dome of the cabin’s roof was the inside of an island space capsule. I had barely enough room to sit up in the cabin, and anyway, everyone else was outside, so I returned there. There was a crew of about six, including one of the shipwrights.

For an hour or so we sang songs; the only one it appeared we all knew was Bob Marley’s Rivers of Babylon—and none of us knew all the words to that one. Nasir was quick with the guitar, and he worked out popular dangdut songs on the fly from memory. They asked me to sing American songs, but I could only think of old spirituals and folk songs that defeated Nasir’s improvisation skills. It was actually shocking; I couldn’t think of a popular American song that I knew entirely. Nasir could reproduce some English lyrics accurately, but I didn’t recognize any of the songs. One American pop-country song has become very popular in Indonesia, especially as an accelerated and high-pitched psychedelic remix that reminds me of classic Ween; Nasir played a version with half-mumbled words. I knew from hearing the song in Dobo that the English lyrics were very Indonesian in sentiment—it was a song about a country boy living in the city and wanting to return to the village. We passed the time until the tide was high enough to leave, and then the crew poled the boat out and weighed anchor. I sat on the starboard quarter-deck, on top of a pile of lumber.

This was where the fantasy about the jungle space ship got weird. As the crew started it, the engine sent thick clouds of hot grey smoke and sparks into the cabin. To me this seemed like a serious problem, but the crew was relaxed. The korakora shuddered with the engine’s force, and the smoke continued. The crew opened some floorboards inside the cabin and poked at the engine, but didn’t act very concerned. I stood on the gunwale with my head above the roof of the pilothouse to get some fresh air, and noticed something else troubling. The korakora carried a heavy load, and athwartships she seemed awfully low in the water—even down by the bows. Which would cause disaster first: the engine exploding, or the boat foundering?

Every time I make this passage I think about whether I could swim ashore. In most places this would be difficult but possible. This particular night, the coastline seemed awfully distant. I’d be sad to lose all the notes and data I’d collected in Ujir. Would I be able to save my passport and money? I should have separated them from my luggage, I thought to myself. I waited for something dramatic to happen, but the korakora kept driving forward into a perfectly calm sea. The crew tinkered with the engine; they didn’t seem to mind staying in the cabin, which was still thick with smoke. One of them threw some oily bilge water overboard, but they showed no alarm.

Eventually I figured that the exhaust pipe just hadn’t been installed yet. The smoke filling the cabin was the usual oily stuff that a diesel engine throws off when it starts, and it became less thick over time, though I could still barely stand near the door, and kept my head above the pilothouse. Two or three of the crew lay down in the cabin; I expected them to die of carbon monoxide poisoning before we got to Dobo. The Nazis experimented with diesel exhaust as a tool for mass murder, after all. Nobody else seemed concerned; if you’re going to build an airplane-war canoe-spaceship out of wood, with only what’s at hand on a remote tropical island, you have to expect that it’ll be a bit rough around the edges at first.

I focused on the water in front of us, which was glassy smooth. The moon was three quarters full, and though some mist made the coastlines of Ujir and Wokam seem almost not there, the sky above was clear. To the south, directly ahead, I could see two distant lights, which marked the entrance to Dobo harbor. Off the starboard quarter, very faint lights showed the positions of Bugis fishing boats looking for prawns. I still had old spirituals and folk songs in my head, and sang Lonesome Valley and Georgie to myself under the noise of the engine. Later it occurred to me that a Ween song fit this situation too nicely.

I’m the commander of time in my vessel of God
I go through the rift to the Palace of Vice…

Dobo is truly the Palace of Vice, at least for Aru. As we closed with it the swells grew, but the korakora handled them well. The lights on the horizon multiplied, and after a couple hours Dobo appeared a shimmering line. For the Aruese who grow up in the more distant villages, seeing Dobo spread out before them for the first time must be a strange, almost terrifying experience. There were hundreds of lighted boats in the harbor. Brightly colored LED lights have become popular here recently, so the harbor was lit up like a video arcade. As we neared the dock, the engine turned itself off without being asked. We would disembark the lumber next to a bright white fishing boat, a longliner by the looks of it, that was brilliantly illuminated with CFL bulbs. The crew who had napped in the cabin miraculously were all still alive, a testament to their remarkable tolerance for toxic fumes, of which, it is true, there are all sorts in Indonesia. People can adapt to anything. By this time it was past three in the morning. Dobo was as quiet as I’ve ever seen it. I wondered how I was going to get to my house, in the outskirts of town. I was also desperately tired.

But first, the lumber had to be offloaded, something the crew did piece by piece, then poling the boat around to offload the wood at the stern. Once this was over I was about to get off, when Nasir started the engine again and we putted out into the harbor. “We’ll sleep on the water—all the inns are closed now anyway,” someone said. It was true that even if I got off, I would have a hard time finding a ride to the house.

I had a terrifying, paranoid moment when I wondered if we were just going to head back to Ujir, but sure enough we anchored out in the harbor. I set my bag up as a pillow under the roof of the pilothouse, and bent myself into an almost comfortable position there. My sleep was fitful—even out in the harbor there were mosquitoes, and one of the crew was playing a movie that sounded like it involved someone being tortured on his smartphone. It occurred to me then as I drifted in and out of sleep that I hadn’t experienced one moment of quiet since I left my hotel in Jakarta. There is always some kind of sound in this part of Indonesia, whether it’s people or waves or bugs or music. I half-slept for a couple hours and then found that Agung was boiling coffee on the stove. Coffee here is three parts sugar to one part coffee, so it was more like coffee syrup, boiled cowboy-style in a big pot. He offered me a cup, and a cake of dried sago starch to dip in it. These sago cakes are literally inedible unless you dip them in something; the coffee did the trick.

We had been towing a little speedboat behind us, and on this Nasir gave me a ride to shore. It seemed like an abrupt ending. All of a sudden, village life was gone, and I was back to being something like an ordinary tourist. So, now you have the beginning and the end of my stay in Ujir. The middle will come next, now that I have time to write again.

*That is the boat’s Indonesian name, but I didn’t learn her name in Bahasa Ujir. It’s probably different, but with the same meaning.

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Makin Lama…

24 October, Ujir

Here is a lesson in a common Indonesian verbal construction.

Makin lama, makin biasa: the longer I stay here, the more I get used to it. It’s been a week since we arrived; once again the mosque’s loudspeakers broadcast recitations of the Quran, and as it’s a day of rest, the village is almost quiet. Still there is no privacy in Ujir, but the constant attention stops just short of unbearable. I’m learning my way around the island, slowly. The two bules have become less of a curiosity for the villagers. I’m beginning to understand more of the local version of Bahasa Indonesia—like someone who learned English from a Midwesterner only to visit backwoods Louisiana. We’ve found decent sources of vegetables and eggs. The house is clean, and we’ve even managed to get electricity in the evenings from a neighbor with a generator.

Makin lama, makin jauh
: the longer I stay here, the more distant it becomes. We placed an order for a few supplies from Dobo, and a boat brought them back yesterday evening, but they might as well have come from Mars. A few chocolate biscuits and some light bulbs became precious luxuries. Often I can’t fathom how I’ll make it back to Jakarta, let alone Seattle! I have no idea what’s happening in the outside world—this isn’t the first or even the longest time I’ve been in that state, but somehow it feels different now. I’m sitting in a house typing on a computer, surrounded by people, but I have no idea if the world beyond Aru still exists. Maybe I’m writing a letter to the void.

Makin lama, makin rumit
: the longer I spend looking at the archaeology here, the more complex it becomes. I’ve recorded most of the data for a crude map of the ruins nearest to the present village. I got permission to cut some of the vegetation around them in order to get clear lines of sight, and that produced a map that seems reasonably accurate. In the course of doing this I found more ruins, so the task of mapping has become larger and more complex. A good map will have to wait for a better team and better instruments, but this one will do as a way to think things through.

Makin lama, makin banyak: with more time, I find more things to investigate. As I talk to people, I also learn about other sites around the island, and so the targets multiply. Yesterday I visited a site whose name means “settlement within stone walls.” It’s on the northeast coast of the island, almost completely overgrown and collapsed, but enough of the coral walls survive to show that something was there. What do I do with a site like that? Even a basic survey will require clearing a huge number of trees, so it’s not worth it unless the site will be excavated thoroughly. This is why I could work on Ujir for twenty years. Things keep popping up.

Makin lama, makin menarik
: with time it becomes more interesting. I won’t even talk about the archaeological potential of Wasir, a neighboring island that Ujir controls. The Ujir people have gardens (umaral in Bahasa Ujir) on Wasir, and go there for fishing and picnics sometimes. It used to be inhabited more continuously, and it still has ritual and spiritual significance for many families here. I will visit Wasir at some point during this trip, and document some archaeological material there, but the details on that will have to wait.

Makin lama, makin hati-hati: over time I become more cautious. One of the difficulties in blogging about archaeology is that I’m throwing all this information up on The Internet for everyone to see, although much of what I study is irreplaceable, historically important, and often sacred to the people who have traditional connections to it. So, although I really detest withholding information, I have to leave some things out, at least until I can get a better sense of what’s what. That said, I’ve discovered that I’m investigating not one but two islands, as Ujir and Wasir have had a strong connection since the days of their first inhabitants. We’re in mythical time and mythical space here; relating that to “scientific” time and space is one of my objectives.

Makin lama, makin malas: with more time I become more lazy. This is the last blog post I wrote in Ujir. Now I’m back in Dobo, but tomorrow I return to spend one more week in Ujir. The time that I should have been writing blog posts I’ve spent doing archaeology and other lazy things like that. The archaeology continues to be both fascinating and daunting. I’ll be back in touch with Teh Internet in about a week, when I’ll be able to tell a few stories.

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Crashing into a strange planet

19 October, Ujir
I’ve been in Ujir for three days now; already it seems like a week or a month. The village hasn’t changed much since I was last here, but staying here makes it a very different experience. I finally got something of the sense of isolation that so many people had told me about feeling in Aru. To my advisor Peter this happened when the plane that had dropped him in Dobo took off from the airport, and he was left standing alone by the airstrip. For me it was arriving at the house where Emilie and I would be staying.

It’s the same house that Emilie and Antoinette had rented last year, one of the village’s most luxurious, and for a month we paid about $85. It belongs to the mother of Koko, a merchant who lives in Dobo. She, like Koko, isn’t around much, so the house had been vacant for about a year. It needed attention. There was sinister black dust spread over the floor, along with a few rat droppings. The rat had also attacked some of the bedding (but I’m not complaining—local tradition says that you should never speak ill of a rat, lest it take offense and do more damage to your house). The well had filled with dirty water. When we got there, two young men were trying to clear it. A constant stream of biting ants bisected the path from the back door to the well. The kamar mandi was full of cobwebs and fungus. There were strange wasps’ nests built in the corners of the room where I’d be sleeping, and even one actual wasp, that looked like two American wasps tied together in tandem, flying around. Finally, since the house had been vacant for so long, the village children had been using its verandah as a playground. Our arrival fascinated them to no end, and they stared through the windows at us as we moved our gear in from the boat, and continued to stare at us for the rest of the day as we cleaned the house.

This was the middle of an already long day. We woke up early in Dobo and hauled our gear into an angkot (a cross between a bus and a van), rushing to meet the boat that was supposed to be leaving at any minute. We had four five-gallon jugs of fuel, two huge waterproof duffels, two waterproof cases with recording equipment (each case had an empty jug tied to it as a flotation device), a waterproof bag with more electronics, two backpacks, and eight cardboard boxes filled with food, books, photos, and Emilie’s research materials.

When we got to the harbor, our situation was approaching amburadul, a Bahasa Betawi word that means “really, really chaotic.” Emilie was still trying to find the key to Koko’s mother’s house, and would have to look for it elsewhere in Dobo. The boat would meet her at the market dock. We unloaded the angkot and some teenagers began carrying things to the boat. The surest opportunities for total panic on a trip like this are when your luggage is stretched out beyond your field of vision in a train of porters whom you just met. “Oh Jesus, where is my backpack—the one with my passport and cash in it? Should I follow them or guard the rest of the stuff here?” Once I got to the boat, though, everything seemed to be there, and Emilie left on her hunt for the key. After a short while we pushed out past Dobo’s waterfront, and the boat’s diesel engine struck up a jazzy rhythm, shaking the whole thing. The horizon would vibrate slightly for the whole passage. We picked up Emilie at the market dock, near a lumber shed filled with boards from Ujir and elsewhere, and waited for one last passenger. We were finally on our way; the last leg of the voyage. It had taken ten days to get to this point. As we chugged out of Dobo’s harbor, I was in high spirits. “This is what it’s all about,” I thought. “This makes it worth all the paperwork and drudgery.”

Our vessel was very typical for Aru: a wooden motor kapal about thirty feet long. These are sleek, slender, low-slung craft. The pilothouse (the main purpose of which is to protect the engine) is set aft of center, an open cargo hold forward of that, and a forward deck that begins where the bows curve inward. In the stern there’s also an open area that provides access to the pilothouse. They are very proud-looking little boats, with a graceful sheer line that is functional and aesthetic, as it follows the grain of the planks as they’re bent to form the hull; a shapely hull is also a strong one. They have an absolute minimum of machinery; most still have tillers for steering rather than wheels. With their prominent open holds, they’re built for cargo first; on its return from Ujir, this boat usually carries lumber. This passage was very calm, so I couldn’t observe the perahu’s sea-keeping abilities. Being so narrow of beam, and shallow of draft, I imagine they wouldn’t handle heavy seas well, but then, thinking back to my last passage to Ujir, a smaller speedboat with about the same proportions performed admirably (perhaps because it had an expert at the tiller).

Regardless of how tough these kapals are, though, I have fallen in love with them. I’ve added another project to my list of things to do if I have a midlife crisis—commission a perahu from the best Aruese shipwright and have it (no, her!) brought back on a ship to Port Townsend, where I can install an engine that’s cleaner and more efficient than usual for Aru. A few amenities will complete the modification: a small galley, a berth, and the safety equipment to make her legal for cruising the Inside Passage. The cargo hold can carry a small inflatable dinghy and a luxurious setup for camping on shore. The little workhorse from the opposite corner of the Pacific would stand out in pleasant contrast to the white fiberglass “Clorox bottles” filling up every harbor in the San Juans. I will call her the Amburadul.

These were my thoughts as we crossed the strait between Pulau Wokam and Pulau Ujir, sitting on the forward deck. Emilie sat behind the chain locker, which was open, and gave her a place to stretch her legs. Sometimes one of the crew would also come forward to direct the helmsman though patches of shallow coral. There was an old man, who I heard was sick, crouching in the aft part of the open hold and sheltering under an empty rice bag. On the roof of the pilothouse sat the wife of the kepala desa of Ujir and two of her friends. There were more people packed into the pilothouse, and on the small after deck.

The wind picked up as we crossed the strait, but soon we were in the lee of Pulau Ujir. I could see the dome of the new mosque poking above the coconut palms. Before long we were at the dock, unloading the boat. Here Emilie discovered that four of her eight booxes couldn’t be accounted for. This was a serious problem, because one of the boxes had contained hundreds of photos she was planning to use in her interviews. Some of the photos were also gifts. Much of her interview paperwork was also in the missing boxes. It was a small disaster, but we had a lot more to do before we could worry about what had happened to the boxes.

We lugged the first batch of gear to our new home, and I got my first idea of how much work it would take to make the place livable. From the dock to the house was not far, but it was a parade down Ujir’s main street, and right in front of the mosque, so everyone got a chance to stare at us and shout “hello mistér!” The five-gallon fuel jugs were the hardest to carry; they didn’t have good handles, and in fact there was no way to carry them comfortably… but the less that I write about that the better. Likewise with the scrubbing and dishwashing and sweeping that followed. The stream of ants violently attacked my feet as I was trying to sweep them away. Emilie poured kerosene on them, which the locals said was the best way to get rid of them. Consequently the whole house reeked of kerosene for the rest of the day. Everything about this seemed bad.

As all this was happening, we had a constant audience of local youngsters gazing through the windows, yet no one really helped with anything. That is not the custom here. I felt hostage to a thousand impractical decisions other people had made.
I hadn’t eaten anything yet, and so I retreated into my room (a room with shutters on the windows, Alhamdulillah!) and scarfed down a bunch of chocolate biscuits. Emilie was washing dishes outside, and as she knew the village better, she seemed to have less trouble adjusting to it. Gradually we had gained the upper hand over the filth that had permeated the house. Then I would need to cook dinner (potatoes from Dobo, which are a luxury, and some foul local eggs that I cooked against my better judgment). Cats yowled nearby, and babies screamed. Our neighbors were close enough that I could hear every conversation.

The box problem was starting to sink in for Emilie, and for my part I had left all my reading material and my iPod charger in Dobo. I had mentally prepared myself for the lack of communications with the outside world, the absence of beer, and even for the difficulty of getting food and clean water, but at that moment I realized that I had no escape whatsoever from the monotony of village life. We seemed marooned on this island, lacking in most of the things that people in the developed world take for granted, and also constantly stared at through the windows by a crowd of children (privacy, after all, is also taken for granted in America, or at least it was until recently). From the high point of the trip so far, I had hit the deck in spectacular fashion. My brain had turned into a disgusting liquid, much like the eggs earlier, and all I could do was sigh sharply again and again, but then Nature came to my rescue, and I slept.

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Jarak – Distance

15 October, Dobo

Dobo is the last outpost of the globalized world here. Not to say that “globalisasi” hasn’t touched Ujir, or even Batulei, because it has done so dramatically in both cases (mostly in terms of resource exploitation). It’s also true that not all this globalization flows through Dobo, but the majority of it does (the rest furtively and illegally), and Dobo is famous for being a “center on the periphery.” To engage with the rest of the world in Aru is to come to Dobo. In her book The Memory of Trade, Patricia Spyer wrote that a trip to Dobo is a new rite of passage for people who’ve grown up in the remote parts of Aru. It is the big city, the overwhelming center of commerce and culture.

I get the sense that it has gentrified a bit since I was last here. There are some new, very clean looking shops that sell clothing and shoes. There are signs encouraging people to clean up the beaches, though that hasn’t happened yet. Dobo seems less rough than it did on my previous visit, but then maybe that’s because I’m more familiar with it. I’m also staying far enough out of town that I can escape from its constant activity.

It’s a sonorous neighborhood of two religions. In the distance, two mosques broadcast their plaintive azan on a regular schedule. This is peaceful. Closer by there is a church or a Christian house that retaliates with very atrocious gospel music at far too high a volume for their sound system—and the distorted racket is directed outwards. This is not so peaceful, especially when it happens at five in the morning, as it tends to. Nor does it strike me as a good way to win converts. My first thought when it woke me up was that I should consider worshiping the devil. Emilie said that last year they had turned up the volume so high that the house literally shook, but they have now turned it down to a level that is only deafening, not seismic.

The three of us have spent our days here preparing and arranging. Both teams in our expedition needed to find transport to our villages, and Emilie and I also needed to find a house to rent in Ujir. As of today, Ross’s boat to Batulei (or rather the village of Benjuring, which is in the area of Batulei), is arranged, though these things are always subject to cancelation. Before we look for a boat to Ujir, Emilie and I must make sure we have somewhere to stay. That hasn’t happened yet; it depends on asking around. Emilie’s “landlady” from last time has just returned to Dobo from Jakarta, so there’s a chance that we’ll be able to rent her place again. The alternative is to stay with village families, which is a deeper experience in many ways, but also exhausting. In any case, the priority today is to see Ross off.

Here’s an ethnological observation: to own a motor or a car in Aru is to have some prestige and a source of income; to own a boat in Aru is to have those things, plus freedom. I don’t mean some romantic “freedom of the sea;” that doesn’t really exist. I mean the freedom to dictate. Drivers appear more-or-less punctually and don’t often refuse fares. They’re at the whim of their passengers and the prices they ask are standardized by market consensus. Boatmen (and they are invariably men) can behave differently. Prices for a boat trip can vary considerably, and it’s always possible for the trip to be canceled at the last minute. When the trip does go ahead, it’s almost expected that the boatman will be late or early. The boatman’s word is final and decisive, and if he says it’s too dangerous to go, that verdict must be accepted. The only solution is to find someone else who will go.

There are obvious reasons for this difference. Boats are at the whim of two things that can make or break a trip: the weather and the availability of fuel. Fuel here is subsidized, but in such short supply that the government rations it, and one needs a special letter of permission to get more than a couple liters at a time. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for land vehicles, which use little fuel on a small island. For boats, especially diesel-powered boats, it becomes a problem. Every conversation about hiring a boat begins with the boatman complaining at great length about fuel. Weather and tides also complicate things. Right now it’s the dry season, and so the calm season, when travel by boat is relatively easy. We shouldn’t run into problems with the weather, but who knows. People here are very cautious on the sea, something I had not expected. I’d thought that growing up so close to the ocean would produce a breed of daring sailors, but they’re more respectful. Everyone has stories about deaths on the water.

Ross’s boat will leave tomorrow morning, and make its way around the coasts of Aru’s major islands (or through the sungai, it isn’t clear which) to arrive at Benjuring, on the east coast. It’s not clear what kind of boat it is. Ross is bringing supplies of fuel, water, and food, plus his recording equipment and hundreds of photos of fish. If Dobo seems remote, Benjuring will show Ross the word’s true meaning. Little fresh water is available there this time of year. Neither will there be vegetables—the island is so small that there isn’t sufficient soil to grow anything. The people there subsist on fish, which are plentiful, and imported rice, with some sagu as well.

The fish are a major attraction for Ross, who will study the ethnobiology of this part of Aru. He wrote his dissertation on the ethnobiology of an island in Fiji, and is looking to produce something similar for Batulei, while also recording the language there. He also promised to get me pottery samples, if he can find some that are recent enough to export legally. How much better it is to work with a team of scientists!

By the standards we’re used to, Batulei is not so far from Dobo. People make the trip often enough. Yet even Ujir, a couple hours away, seems barely attainable much of the time; how much more the place Ross is going, a tiny island with sides so steep that the only way onto it is by climbing a ladder (or so one of the Ujir elders here told us). We are really at the edge of the world. There’s a story about a Spanish man who went to visit Batulei several decades ago, and decided to just live in the forest on one of the larger islands, where he remains to this day. It’s the kind of place where that’s an almost credible story. Here’s hoping that Ross doesn’t join him.

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Island Style

13 October, Dobo.

Last time I was in Ambon, it had been something of a shock. Coming from Bali, the chaos and pollution stood out, and the attention that the locals paid to foreigners was almost alienating. Now, though, I knew what to expect, and could deal with the constant desire for attention that so many Ambonese had. “Hallo Mister!” everyone said (they will even say this to European-looking women, as I found out later).

I spent a long time wandering around Ambon, going as far south as a large petroleum storage facility that was surrounded by quiet neighborhoods that might almost qualify as suburbs if they weren’t packed together so closely. I tried to find a way to walk back up along the shore to the Pasar Mardika, but one sad thing about Ambon is that the shoreline isn’t accessible in most places—it is blocked by warehouses and industrial facilities the whole way, so to move north-south one has to wend through Ambon’s maze of streets, which take unexpected turns. The downtown is flat enough that there are few points of reference to use for navigation; the walls that rise alongside every street block even the radio towers and steeples.

Eventually I found the Pasar Mardika, or rather the “mall” near it, and started looking for a few supplies in the tight burrows of goods on the lower floor: a wallet, a hat, and a new SIM card for my Indonesian phone. It was impossible to avoid making friends in this situation, since I spoke decent enough Indonesian to answer people’s questions about why I was there. These friends are what it takes to get things done in Ambon—the more numbers you have in your cell phone, the easier it is to do things. People who had only known me for ten minutes offered to help if I ever got into trouble, or sometimes offered me entry into less open parts of Ambonese culture, like drinking sopi.

The next day we were on our way to Dobo in a small, quarter-full twin turboprop plane that looked literally rough around the edges. There were two stewardesses in impeccable makeup and uniforms, who looked out of place on this particular vehicle. Cigarette smoke seeped out under the door of the cockpit, and Emilie pointed out the bulkhead where the cockroaches lived. The pilot gunned the engines abruptly, and as they pulsed and vibrated the cabin, we tore off the runway and banked over Pulau Ambon towards the Kei islands, our first stop. We landed briefly in Tual, Kei’s capital, on an airstrip that looked like it may have been left over from the Second World War, and then we in the air again. The plane was almost empty by this point. It was luxurious in its own way.

Then Dobo. We approached over coral reefs and small islets, and touched down shakily on the airstrip, which still has the carcass of an old Merpati plane, predecessor to our craft, moldering by the tiny terminal. I’ve heard a story that Merpati, Indonesia’s original national airline, never paid for fuel, and so at some point most airports began refusing to fill their planes. As a result, the story is that there are Merpati planes stranded at airports all over Southeast Asia. The story with this one is probably simpler; I suspect it just broke down and couldn’t be repaired in Dobo, so now it serves as a shelter from the sun on hot days.

Emilie had arranged for us to stay in a house close to the airport owned by two other missionary-linguists, who stay in Dobo six months out of the year. They are away right now, so we had the place, complete with two part time pembantu (“helpers”) to ourselves. It felt oddly colonial. Mama Denis and Mama Au took care of the laundry and cleaning, and would act as caretakers for the house while we were away. In fact, it’s very common to employ pembantu in many parts of Indonesia—most middle-class families have one or two. They are usually part of the family. Still, I’m not used to it. We don’t have much in common, and they’re rather shy, so we haven’t talked much. I want to find a way to change that.

My old friend Sonny Djonler met us at the airport; he would be Ross’s guide to Batulei. Before we’d had a chance to get settled we were deep in a conversation with him, talking about the history of his family, and their connections to Ujir and Batulei. Sonny has really had a remarkable life; he studied aquaculture, speaks English and Japanese fluently, and knows a tremendous amount about Aru. Although he’s well-educated enough to succeed pretty much anywhere, he’s chosen to stay in Aru and try to improve the lives of people here, as well as create a sustainable business. Everyone who knows him starts talking about how smart he is. He’s the kind of person who makes anthropological work possible, and I’m very glad that Ross will have him as a companion and guide in Batulei. If the government officials here were as competent and honest as Sonny, Aru would be a very different place.

Emilie and Ross talked with Sonny for over an hour, recording most of the conversation on a digital audio recorder. It would take a few days to arrange a boat to take Sonny and Ross to Batulei. Meanwhile there was still much preparation to do in Dobo. First on the agenda was getting wi-fi for the house, and then food. A local engineer named Boy had set up the wi-fi system in our house, but he wasn’t there in his shop when we visited, so we left word for him and then walked to the waterfront market, which demonstrates the truth of Dobo’s reputation as a trading center. You can buy all the basic supplies of life there, from vegetables to rubber boots (Ross got a sharp camouflage pair to facilitate walking around the intertidal zone). I tried bargaining for vegetables, but that may not be a custom here, because I wasn’t very successful at it. Still, all the produce was very cheap: the supplies for a stir-fry for three cost around $5. Ross also bought a cooking pot, some medicine, powdered milk, canned goods, and other supplies for his adventure.

Thus ended our first day in Dobo. I’d barely had time to think. I sat down at the kitchen table with a can of Bintang and my pocketknife, and started peeling shallots and garlic for the stir-fry. Then the power went out. Welcome to Dobo!

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