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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Mister Tinggi

10 October, Ambon.

Yesterday was all eating and talking—so much talking that I may have worn out my ability to put words together. Writing it all down as a straight narrative would be boring for everyone, so what should I do? I could quantify it thus:

Hours spent talking with people:                         8

People I talked with at length:                             9

Long conversations in Indonesian:                      1

Long conversations in English:                             3

Long conversations in a mixture of both:           3

Nationalities of people involved in the above:    5

Total languages heard during the day:                6

Hours spent eating:                                                5

Public eating establishments visited:                   2

Private houses visited:                                           1

Ethnic food styles consumed:                                4

Species consumed:                                                  >40

These are all conservative estimates. It was a lot of everything. Ambon is the first of two staging areas for our project, Dobo being the other. In Ambon I met Marlon Ririmasse from the Balai Arkeologi, a great archaeologist and a better host. Marlon and my advisor Peter have worked together for years, and Marlon has saved the life and sanity of many an American archaeologist who landed clueless in Ambon. He immediately took me out to dinner at his new favorite spot, serving traditional Maluku cuisine: grilled seafood with an assortment of sambals and rice. I offloaded the hundred pounds of artifacts on him, and we met my teammates at the Hotel Amaris, in downtown Kota Ambon, nestled against the hills but not in them.

Emlie Wellfelt and Ross Gordon work at Linnaeus University in Sweden and the Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Canada, respectively. I was happy to find them still awake and chatting in the Amaris Hotel’s lobby. I introduced them to Marlon and we talked for a while. Although Ross had originally planned to stay in Ujir, he found an opportunity to stay in the much more remote village of Batulei, on Aru’s east coast, with my old friend Sonny Djonler, so we would only have a short time together. Ross was diving headfirst into a much more adventurous situation than Emily and I—as it was also his first time in Indonesia, he reminded me of David from my last trip. He would have a lot of help—Sonny speaks excellent English, and Ross had also found a Czech missionary named Kuba who had spent some time in Batulei. We would have dinner with him the next day. Emilie and I made tentative plans for our stay in Ujir, but it shouldn’t be surprising that we expected things to come up that would compel us to change the plans in some way, so there was no point in committing ourselves to too many details.

It’s strange that we only met each other in person at this point, already deep into Indonesia by most people’s standards. I still curse at the overconnectedness of the world, but it’s useful when you want to connect across so many borders, as we had done already. It’s a problem when email starts invading every aspect of your life, but for arranging international research projects, it’s excellent.

The next day we visited the Balai Arkeologi and the local museum with Marlon, and the conversations began. Marlon’s teman sekantor (coworker) Wuri, who specializes in Islamic archaeology, has visited Ujir before, and found more ruins scattered around the island. We spoke in Indonesian peppered with English for over an hour. Ross has just started learning Indonesian, so I’m afraid we left him in the dark most of the time, but it was a fruitful conversation. Wuri and I had come to very similar conclusions about the nature of Ujir’s ruins independently of each other, and that was a good sign. It seems possible to collaborate in the future, with Wuri enquiring about the process by which Islam spread to Aru, and me focusing on trade networks more broadly. The two topics will often cover the same ground, as there is little doubt that Islam followed established trade routes much of the time.

After the Balai we went to the museum, and arrived there at the same time as two groups of students, one from elementary school and one from college. We were instant celebrities, and all the students insisted on having their picture taken with us, in many combinations. I thought it was especially interesting that even some of the youngest students had camera phones. It really is true that cell phones have taken over the world. Shortly thereafter the college students, who all spoke decent English, insisted on giving me a tour of the museum. There was much insisting going on. I think they roped me into visiting their classroom when I return to Ambon. By the time I get back to the States, I’ll have dozens more Ambonese Facebook friends.

From the museum we went to a little restaurant in the hills, which gave us a spectacular view of Ambon spread out between us and the sea. Marlon ordered a vast array of Indonesian dishes, including a spicy fish soup called “yellow fish,” which for me at least was the star of the lunch, two tofu dishes, barbecued chicken, and water spinach, plus sirsak juice. It was over the top.

From there we went to a mall to get supplies. Ambon has at least three malls: one in the center of town, one on the edge of town, and one in the suburbs. We went to the latter. It was a very modern and clean mall, except that many segments of the otherwise spotless and polished stone floor were missing, with only broken mortar underneath. It looked like a bombed-out airstrip. Later I was to find something similar in the upper floors of the downtown mall. Both malls also had remarkably luxurious arcades, though the one in the downtown mall was darkened (but open, which is to say not locked). It’s odd, much of Ambon looks very third-world, but amongst it all there are patches of obvious great wealth, and signs of investment. Some of these are neglected (the escalators in the downtown mall no longer work, for example) but others (private homes, medium-sized businesses, and most conspicuously government offices), are outsized and grandiose, and even well maintained.

Dinner at Kuba’s was another fascinating conversation—Kuba speaks English and several different Indonesian languages, as well as Czech of course. He and his wife are raising two small children trilingual—Czech, English, and Bahasa Indonesia. He is one of a unique and fascinating breed, a missionary who studies native languages in order to facilitate the spread of the Gospel. These missionaries may account for most of the Westerners who have visited the remote parts of Aru, in particular those connected with a group called SIL—it seems they’ve built much deeper and broader ties with Aru than more conventional anthropologists, perhaps because they’ve been able to maintain institutional continuity over time. SIL works all over the world, and in many cases they have been more effective at documenting language than people from universities.

I have to confess, I’m a bit repulsed by the idea that missionary work is still going on in places like Aru, even with the encouragement of the Indonesian government. However, it seems that the village where Kuba worked was already nominally Christian, just as there were nominally Muslim villages a short distance away. In many cases the “conversion” of Aru only took place in the 1960s, when there was a big push to register every Indonesian into a “world religion.” This had something to do with a reaction against communism, but it’s hard not to see an additional element of colonialism from the mostly monotheistic Indonesian “center,” directed at those parts of the country—often with considerable populations of animists—which were still not entirely enthusiastic about being part of Indonesia. Kuba told a story, which tracks with other anecdotes I’ve heard, about a man arriving in Batulei at that time, who said that the villagers would have to choose a global religion by a certain date, or else he would send people to beat them up.

So, Kuba was not as bible-thumping as one would expect; he seemed to understand the situation in Batulei fairly well. The first book in the Batulei language, which he developed, was in fact a field guide to local fish. Kuba explained the reasoning behind this with elegant logic. The book was a test of the researchers’ transliteration of Bahasa Batulei into the Roman alphabet—they wanted to make sure that the transliteration made sense to the locals. Rather than printing a book of stories or a religious book, which would involve complex narratives and abstractions, and perhaps foreign concepts and words, Kuba and his team went for something very local and practical in nature. Listing the names of fish species was a good way to test transliteration because it brought out the most Batulei-specific sounds with the least amount of ambiguity, and was completely tied to local knowledge rather than fiction or abstractions. It was an inspired way to work on a language. Ross had done something similar in Fiji, and would improve on Kuba’s work in Batulei.

It was a long, long conversation, fueled by, coffee and desserts. Kuba prepared Ross for the isolation and lack of things to do in the village, and the difficulties of interviewing people about their traditional languages—Ross would actually be at an advantage because he didn’t speak Indonesian, since that would keep the locals from lapsing into it during the interviews.

Explaining why we’ve traveled so far just to observe people’s lives and listen to their language seems one of the trickiest things to do. According to Kuba, the locals always suspect that anthropologists and linguists are making money off of the research somehow, or that we have another ulterior motive—perhaps even looking for victims for human sacrifice, something not so far from living memory in many remote parts of Indonesia. With archaeology the problem can be even more difficult, as archaeologists work with people’s material heritage, often in ways that appear similar to looting at a glance. Further, archaeologists often want to investigate places that, because of their long use history, have special meaning in a society: caves, monuments, burials, and the like. The fact that archaeology is usually destructive in one way or another does not help things. Even when archaeologists aren’t digging, they are establishing the locations of significant things and places, and it would be easy to assume that this is preparation for something exploitative. I have a long way to go to gain the Ujir people’s trust, even if they seem happy that I’m coming to do research.

Our first day in Ambon had given us almost an overload of information, between Marlon, Wuri, and Kuba. Apart from the view from the restaurant, we hadn’t seen any of the city itself. The next day would be more relaxed: we all had some shopping to do, and I wanted to revisit the places I’d been on my last visit.

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Perilous Language

8 October

I’m writing this in the air above western Java, on my flight from Jakarta to Ambon. I was a bit skeptical about dragging this little laptop halfway around the world, but it has already proven its usefulness in all sorts of ways, such as allowing me to type blog posts up in unusual places. As a “toughened” laptop it weighs about five pounds, and so would also double as an effective weapon.

I was talking in the last post about language, and how I’d lost my facility in Indonesian, and I want to return to that because it’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I got to this part of the world where English isn’t everywhere. The difference in how one must behave and think while speaking imperfectly hit me especially hard because on the second long-distance flight I was reading The Golden Bowl by Henry James, intermittently, while also chatting in my only adequate Indonesian with my fellow passengers.

The difference between the two kinds of discourse struck me as so vast that I couldn’t get my mind off it, and despaired of ever being able to speak in another language the same way as James’s characters do. He has a reputation for writing stories in which nothing happens, but I found that wasn’t entirely true. The characters are always repositioning themselves in relation to each other, in very subtle and culturally specific ways, and that must count as something happening, if only something in the abstract. They maneuver in this way through speech that is staggeringly oblique to begin with, when quoted directly, yet often it is filtered in addition through James’s own obliquity, which is impressive as well. One stalks what is actually happening through these multiple layers of terrific indirectness, which makes for a stimulating read if one has the attention span and patience for it.

The verbal subtlety of a delicate and indirect culture can be breathtaking; at least I have always found it so, and aspired to it, although I don’t travel in the right circles to make use of it very often. At least I know it is there, and I can break it out on occasions when it might be useful. It’s an arrogant assumption that I prove myself a better person by speaking in riddles, but we all have those. This one seems pretty harmless, as they go. If nothing else, when I feel adrift, at least I can say to myself, “I can sort of understand what’s happening in The Golden Bowl, so I’m one of the better type, and to the devil with everything else!” I’m sure that many other magistri artium have had exactly the same thought. Whether it’s gotten them anywhere remains to be seen. I suspect not.

How painful it is to know that I can’t depend on that subtlety in another language; not yet, anyway. I know for a fact that there are many delicate and indirect cultures in Indonesia, and that a kind of Jamesian obliqueness is valued highly throughout the whole country. But for now I have to content myself with barging through the language like an excited toddler. I find interesting things happening to my behavior as a result. I pay a lot more attention to my own body language, and try to project the politesse I’m missing in words through actions. I become more deferential, and find myself using different tones of voice, copying the speech patterns I hear in others when it seems like a sure thing. I think I have half-consciously adopted the mannerisms of a classic character, the bumbling and oblivious bule, in many situations, in order to appear less of a threat to people, or perhaps less of a target. This is especially true in encounters with government officials: if you don’t have a thorough command of the conversation, plead ignorance. Works like a charm.

I do worry that putting that act on too much will actually cause me to become that person; perhaps I have already. My experience getting onto this flight had troubling signs. First I asked to be dropped off at the wrong terminal, though I can blame that on some very fine print at the bottom of my ticket. One unnecessary trip through security later, with my extra bags (“yes, these originated in Indonesia, no they’re not worth any money, they’re just rocks and potsherds, yes I’m leaving them in Ambon…”) I was directed to the correct terminal, where I endured a much longer but friendly grilling by more security guards who must have been bored. Having brightened their day with my barely coherent stories about how old the artifacts were, I checked the bags (far less painful than I had imagined, perhaps due to a sympathetic baggage checker). A woman who was waiting in line with me gave me exact change necessary for the extra baggage, and refused to accept anything in return (playing bumbling bule has little advantages like this, themselves rather embarrassing). Somewhere along in this process my ticket drifted out of my bag, returned by a security guard whose straight face made him an exemplar of tact for all the world to admire. I then went upstairs to the terminal, and in the stores there, looked for a wallet in which to keep a ready stash of rupiah, at present scattered throughout my luggage in hidden envelopes. I misread the price tag on a very nice little wallet that said Pierre Cardin (I assumed it was a knockoff). I took it up to the register, only to learn that it was an order of magnitude more expensive than I’d thought; thus there is a slight chance it may have been genuine. This is what happens when prices are in thousands and millions of rupiah; a long string of zeroes looks much like a shorter one. The prospect of finding something almost as fine for a tenth of the price in Ambon’s Pasar Mardika tomorrow forced me to back away apologetically from the register, around which four uniformed cashiers clustered and tittered. On the whole, it was a mortifying experience, yet I must have succeeded in something, because everyone seems to have thought I was the kind of person worth helping out, when they could, with some justification, have left me to any number of tragic or at least really inconvenient fates.

Three lessons arise, apart from the one already stated about how it’s beneficial to act like an idiot when you don’t know the language very well. First, airports in this country are inherently, perhaps uniquely chaotic, and if something really inconvenient happens to you, I’d bet on favorable odds (shall we say 100000 rupiah to 1000000 rupiah?) that it will happen in an airport. Second, even in Jakarta people will usually look out for you, provided you are reasonably polite and apologetic about acting like an idiot (rarely has a qualifying statement been so important). Third, the knowledge that you cut a ridiculous figure at times shouldn’t cripple you. You have to live with it and move on. It’s a different state of being to travel through an unfamiliar culture speaking an unfamiliar language, and the only way to survive at it is to accept a certain degree of impairment, embarrassment attending as it inevitably will. If you can do that graciously, people are likely to cut you some slack.

The other side of this problem can be found in any nineteenth century novel of manners, written for a time and a class (perhaps imaginary, it is true) in which the social and verbal parameters were so well known to everyone that there was no room for error. Whole plots turn on oblique phrases that glanced off at just the wrong angle: marriages dissolve, people commit suicide, duels are fought, families are bankrupted, and so on, because a word was misplaced. Seeing the characters in these novels make such maneuvers with their words reminds me of watching craftsmen or athletes—they are so practiced at it that it’s beautiful to watch, especially if you’ve tried anything like it before, and know where the skill lies. Maybe a better comparison would be aircraft flying in close formation, with the slightest error capable of producing a disaster. The one thing that strikes me as off about The Golden Bowl so far is James’s tendency to compare people to buildings—stationary objects, fixed to the ground—when the whole drama and delight of the novel depends on how they rearrange themselves over and over again. It is a perilous business, and its peril ultimately derives from fluency in a common language, and a common set of social desires.

So, as my aircraft (fortunately not flying in close formation) begins to descend into Ambon, perhaps I should be grateful that I’ve escaped the world of the too-eloquent, if it still exists. I think I’m about to have another Indonesian-English conversation with my Ambonese friend Marlon, and return the mysterious suitcases of artifacts to their home at the Balai Arkeologi Maluku. I’ll also meet my colleagues Emilie and Ross, English speakers and scientists both, and thus at last will come together our little international expedition.

From the airplane’s window I can see the moon, mostly eclipsed. What a strange thing I’m about to embark upon.

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Life in Transit

7-8 October, Jakarta

I have been in the air, or in airports, for almost exactly 24 hours. The trans-Pacific flight was, true to type for EVA Air, grimly efficient with a Hello Kitty twist. The announcements were curt and to the point and barely intelligible. The food was a notch above what you find on American carriers, as long as you enjoy congee. My neighbors on either side were two old, presumably Taiwanese ladies who spoke no English and kept to themselves, except when for the odd pantomimed request: open a bag of peanuts, break a ginger root in half, that kind of thing. The one to my left had congee for every one of her meals. Congee is one of those ethnic foods that haven’t appeared on the American culinary radar, but I wonder if ten years from now, that will be the next big thing: congee joints on every street corner, where the Thai place/sushi place/Thai-sushi fusion place used to be. Apparently you can live to a ripe old age by eating nothing but congee, but it doesn’t seem to prevent arthritis. I haven’t had a bad congee experience yet, anyway, though not a great one either.

Congee aside, the flight was uneventful and I touched down in Taipei Airport, which I’m beginning to develop a fondness for. It is a very commercial airport, but they’ve put some real effort into giving it a bit of a personality. There are little exhibits about Taiwanese culture near most of the gates, and enough variety in the shops and restaurants to keep you occupied if you have a long layover, even if you don’t plan on eating or buying anything. It’s one of those airports that makes me want to come back and visit its country. I can’t think of any American airports that do the same thing, but Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is another good example.

On the Taipei-Jakarta flight I sat with three young Indonesian women who were returning from long trips abroad—to Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and other far-off countries. I never found out exactly what they were doing there, but I suspect they were the kind of guest workers one often hears about in the news, who usually have terrible working conditions. They all seemed very happy to return to Indonesia “my land and water,” as you often hear Indonesians saying, and they did. They had all picked up a bit of Cantonese and Mandarin, and some had learned English and Arabic as well. I was a bit embarrassed that I had forgotten so much Indonesian so quickly after studying it for three years, while the most fluent English speaker among them had had no formal training at all, but a great vocabulary. Between the two of us we carried on a conversation in a mixture of the two languages.

This was the kind of thing I had been missing. As the States got further and further away, I became less and less anxious, and the prospect of navigating my way through Indonesia became more and more pleasant. This even continued through customs and immigration, which went very smoothly. This despite the fact that I’m traveling with a hundred pounds of artifacts—modified rocks, mostly—that my advisor wanted to return to the Balai Arkeologi in Ambon after borrowing them for analysis.

The two heavy, questionable-looking roller bags had chalk marks on them when I picked them up at the baggage claim, a sign that they had already been singled out for further customs inspection. I know some people who carry wet-wipes with them for the purpose of removing these chalk marks; this apparently works quite well. However, I was trying to go by the book, and anyway I had lots of official documents proving that the artifacts were nothing to worry about. “I’m not surprised you’re interested in these bags,” I said to the customs officer, and explained that I was repatriating the artifacts for Indonesia’s cultural heritage. “All rocks, yes?” he said. They must have looked very strange in his x-ray machine. My third bag, full of electronic gizmos, trowels, and knives (gifts for my contacts here) didn’t raise anyone’s eyebrows in the least, though reasonably one might have asked what I needed ten knives and three trowels for. I was through customs in about five minutes, a wonderfully efficient experience.

Before I left, Sandra asked me if Aru had a characteristic smell. I’m still not sure about that, but after landing in Jakarta, I know that most large Indonesian cities have a characteristic smell that is very distinct. Things are always being built and half-built. Jakarta is the pinnacle of this phenomenon, and you can smell it. There is always a humid, floral and vegetal base to it, but the dominant notes are exhaust fumes and burning garbage, plus other industrial smells—ozone from arc-welders, the emissions of setting cement, mortar, brick dust, rubber. In some places clove cigarettes add an Orientalist headiness to the whole mix. I swear I detected this through the crack between the jetway and the airplane door, just as I left the cabin. Right now, this fragrance is unusual enough to be almost pleasant, but that will wear off quickly, if I remember right. I wonder if the sky is always this gray. I have never seen so many people wearing masks before, but it makes sense.

My hotel was a good example of the flailing kind of development that generates Jakarta’s peculiar atmosphere. Hotel FM7 is a very modern and unnavigably vast building, with two restaurants, a bar, a spa, and polished stone floors throughout. Complimentary breakfast here is a huge array of breakfast food from three or four cultures: pastries, American style sausage and eggs, Indonesian fried rice and noodles, and of course Cantonese congee. I stuck to the local fare, which was excellent. There are a huge number of friendly hotel staff, at least four for each guest, all dressed in rather jarring orange and yellow uniforms that perhaps were left over from a Wes Anderson movie.

It’s wonderful, except for being located in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by warehouses and wooden shacks and roads that are always choked with traffic. It is almost impossible to walk anywhere from this hotel, especially if “anywhere” means anywhere interesting. The people driving on the roads outside all look at me like I’m insane. Pedestrians in this neighborhood, especially foreigners, must be treated with suspicion. My brief foray outside the hotel’s enclosure ended after a few minutes of trying to find a way through the motor traffic in either direction. There are hundreds of uniformed policemen or security guards—hard to tell which—directing traffic and patrolling the grounds. Some seem there for the sole purpose of keeping bules away from the embarrassing, unfinished parts of the grounds, though these are visible from my window. I was hoping to pick up some last-minute supplies somewhere nearby, but there are only a few shacks down the road selling snacks and motorbike parts, about the same level of development as in Dobo.

I’m writing this as I prepare to leave for the airport again, en route to Ambon, a place that elicits expressions of shock and concern from the people here. The real adventure, though, will be convincing the Lion Air baggage checkers to put a hundred extra pounds of rocks in the flight’s baggage compartment.

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Escape Velocity

Headed to Indonesia again. On these pages, I haven’t even returned to the States yet.

In fact, my life in the US is sometimes worth writing about, but it tends to happen in a crowded multi-tasking sort of way that doesn’t make for good blogging. The American academic life doesn’t allow for much reflection. This is odd, since the thing that attracted me to it in the first place was that reflection seemed the main goal. Of course that was nonsense. As far as I can tell, the main goal is actually a particular kind of dance, carried out on paper. The dance is a way of being obsequious to a few government funding agencies, and pretending to agree with their unreasonably narrow definition of worthwhile pursuits, in order to get funding for the thing one really wants to do. Anything adventurous or worth jotting down, I do mostly as a way to distract myself from some kind of paperwork, the constant presence of which keeps me from giving this blog the attention it deserves.

The galling part is that both the stated and actual goals of academia are incomprehensible to almost everyone, even well-educated people, and of no consequence or utility to them. The results of successful research become known only to a few other members of one’s exclusive little club, expressed in needlessly excessive jargon. No wonder people don’t like giving their tax money to the NSF. This is not the kind of thing one likes to write blog posts about, though. Right now I just need to build a bridge between the Indonesia trip of two years ago, and the one I’m about to embark on now.

After spending some time in Jogja, I returned to Bali and met up with David. Bali seemed so easy to get around after all the other places I’d been. The ride from the airport, that had reminded me I was back in the developing world after we touched down there the first time, was now routine enough not to look out the window at, and I spent most of it talking with the driver. We spent another day in Ubud, and by this time I had become comfortable enough with my Indonesian to bargain for souvenirs in the ritzy stalls on the village’s main drag. The food in Ubud’s restaurants tasted very Western. It was a good way to decompress, and prepare for life in the States again.

When I got home, Sandra said that I talked in Indonesian in my sleep. This was especially odd, because I had never talked in my sleep before. I had strange dreams as well, in a mixture of English and Indonesian and a language that I imagined was Chinese, although I do not know Chinese, so it was probably just gibberish. The dreams occurred in terribly clean, well-lit spaces, not too different from the Taipei airport. Female Japanese punk rock stars shouted at me. This must mean that I’m truly a Global Citizen, a long-held aspiration that I have somehow failed to become cynical about.

I was back in the First World and I would have to get used to it. The drivers in Seattle were less reckless, and more oblivious. I preferred the predictable, attentive aggression of Ambon’s drivers. The Seattle summer I descended into wasn’t too different from a good day on Bali, minus the droning kites in the air and the all-pervasive smoke. I attacked all the American foods I couldn’t get in Indonesia: pizza, wine, artichokes, martinis, veggie dogs, ice cream. I could have anything I wanted on ice; that was a miracle. All these luxuries made up for the feeling that everything here was rather sterile, and designed to protect people from their own clumsiness, at the expense of efficiency and good taste. Objectively, this doesn’t make sense, as, though for different reasons, efficiency and good taste are conspicuously absent from most aspects of Indonesian life as well. Nonetheless, I felt much of the time, just after I returned, that I was living in a very large padded cell.

I returned to my job at the Burke Museum, and then picked up the academic routine again, with a FLAS fellowship that allowed me the luxury of time to be enslaved by my professors. I spent the next summer doing CRM work around Washington, and preparing for my Comprehensive Exams, which I passed without too much trouble. Having got my master’s degree, I began to agonize over my dissertation proposal, and this process continues today. The trip to Indonesia for which I leave on Monday is a way to confirm my ideas for a proposal, and at the same time to collect material for what I envision will be the dissertation’s final chapter. I’ll provide some detail about that in the next post.

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Memories from a Night in Old Java

A while ago I went to an unusual performance in Seattle, at the Cornish art school’s auditorium. An ensemble of baroque musicians and a local gamelan orchestra took turns playing pieces from their repertoires, to explore the similarities and differences between the European and Javanese musical traditions, which both reached their artistic peaks at about the same time. The concept was ingenious, and the music was well-performed all round, but something about it left me a bit uneasy.

We were in an auditorium. It was a warm, dry, crowded room full of people who remained mostly still, and quiet. Everyone was staring right at the performers, who were all dressed in black and stood or sat still on the stage. The stage’s backdrop was black, the room’s walls were some other neutral color. The room smelled like a worn school auditorium, which it was. People were there for an educational experience. They had dressed for the cold, but not dressed up. The program discussed similarities in the music’s structure, emphasizing qualities like counterpoint and voice and improvisation. It was all very serious, and everyone was very serious about it.

The only things that could not be made serious were the instruments, which for one reason or another could not be painted black. The baroque instruments were decorated in subtle ways—some lines of gold leaf along the sides of the harpsichord, a contrasting blond tiger-striped maple tailpiece and fingerboard on a dark cello, and some silver bands around a flute carved from highly figured wood. The gamelan was even more out of place. The whole thing had a serpent theme—carved serpents writhed on top of most of the instruments. Those that could not support serpents had flowers or scrollwork. Some of the larger instruments had all these things combined, and the serpents had crowns. I’m not sure why the craftsmen thought that flowers and crowns and serpents go together, but it must have made sense at the time. Obviously, the instruments were made for a different context.

The patterns on the instruments reminded me of a very different gamelan performance I had attended, in a village outside Yogyakarta. It was part of a wayang performance held to celebrate a successful harvest. Bowo’s relatives had invited us, and as an unusual visitor, I was going to be an honored guest.  Wayang shadow puppet performances, like the gamelan, are an element of Javanese culture that has drawn a lot of attention—maybe too much—from anthropologists. They go from dusk until dawn, and at the end, the puppets themselves are ritually destroyed—thrown into the sea, Bowo said. A set of wayang kulit puppets alone costs a huge sum, plus the cost of the dalang (puppeteer), musicians and other performers, so it’s not something that anyone can organize—usually the performances are sponsored by a village orang kaya. Now, of course, tourists can go see a first-rate wayang performance in Jogja or Jakarta at any time, in a comfortable auditorium or something like that, but the traditional ones are still tied to the cycles of village life, and just as chaotic as village life tends to be.

We arrived at a large outdoor pavilion where the performance was to take place. First we went backstage and mingled with some of the villagers. The backstage was behind the translucent screen onto which the shadows of the puppets are projected, so the show could be seen and heard from both sides—though the “front” allows viewers to see the ornate painting and gilding on each of the puppets. There was a sound system for the dalang and the singers, but the gamelan needed no amplification. There was a huge spread of snacks, and tea saturated with sugar in proper Indonesian style. Each guest got a box of sweets. As the show was about to start, we moved into the seats in front of the stage, and we were ushered into a couple of gilded chairs with plush cushions, real seats of honor, right in front of the stage and next to a very talkative village elder who, like about half the audience, was chain-smoking kretek clove cigarettes. People moved in and out of the seats. Children ran around. It was kind of chaotic.

The gamelan orchestra and the dalang made preparatory motions and noises. The whole set of puppets, formed from leather (kulit) shaped, pierced, painted and gilded into the bodies of heroes and villains and in-between characters from the Ramayana, was arrayed to the left and right of the screen. Everyone was dressed to the traditional nines, in intricate batik sarungs and shirts. The women had elaborate hairstyles, and were decked out in gold and silk. The men and boys wore blangkon, the traditional turban-like headgear of central Java. Each of the older men also had a kris, a ceremonial dagger that one finds throughout much of Island Southeast Asia, in a gold or silver scabbard, stuck in the back of his sarung. The hilt and handguard of each kris was different, carved out of exotic wood, sometimes of contrasting colors, or, in a couple cases, of ivory. Kretek smoke pervaded everything. The stage was basically outside, covered with a large tent, but open on the sides, so that the night air could mix with the kretek smoke. Everything was anticipation. We made small talk, Bowo and the orang kaya and I, though I was still having trouble understanding the Javanese accent and dialect. The orang kaya offered me one of his kreteks—a gigantic, unfiltered Dji Sam Soe, so full of nicotine that it’s probably illegal everywhere except Indonesia. Who was I to refuse? It went well with the tea. Finally, the orchestra began to play, slowly.

The audience did not become less chaotic—people came and went, chatting, albeit in respectful moderation. After all, it would be a twelve hour performance. The dalang began to narrate a story from the Ramayana in Javanese. Of course I couldn’t understand a word of it, but it didn’t matter. The music of the gamelan undulated like waves, and the voices of the women who accompanied it in song floated on top of it like ships. The dalang flashed each figure back and forth, projecting a strange, distorted version of the story he was telling onto the screen behind the stage. He accentuated every rolled R, and tapped a stick against the base of the screen for dramatic effect. People in the audience joked with each other. There was smoke everywhere. Every so often, the bass gong of the gamelan spoke with an authoritative, resounding boom. It was sublime.

I can’t say that I’ve ever been to a really authentic baroque performance. After all, the style had its puncak kejayaan (peak of glory, to use an Indonesian phrase), in a cultural context that is basically irreproducible today. Perhaps we, in the present, could reproduce the outfits, the architecture, the food and drink, and with a lifetime’s worth of effort on the part of everyone involved, the language and the turns of phrase that were current at the time that a particular Baroque piece was composed. But we can’t possibly recreate the full cultural context, social structure and all. However much it was documented, not having grown up in it, we cannot reproduce the way that it shaped our thinking, at least not exactly. In many cases, we probably wouldn’t want to. How could we understand what it was like to live in a world where fox tossing and public executions were common, and even generally enjoyed? We can imagine intellectually sophisticated, even logically consistent rationalizations for these uglier elements of the past, but it’s harder to understand how some of them could have coexisted with, say, a Telemann recorder concerto. In that way, there is no such thing as a period-correct baroque performance anymore.

In the strictest sense, that is also true for gamelan music. The social world that surrounded gamelan performances at their peak has changed radically: though there is still a sultan in Yogyakarta, his role now is very different than it was three hundred years ago. The language has changed, as have the surroundings. It would be reductive to claim that Javanese culture has remained frozen in time, and as a westerner observing Javanese culture from the outside, I have to guard against concluding that it has changed little based only on my very superficial experience of it.

Yet, gamelan music remains an indisputably living form in a way that Baroque music, for the most part, does not. Children still come to gamelan performances for reasons other than education. The context in which it originated—local festivals, weddings, events that brought small communities together—persist, though perhaps in a slightly attenuated form (as with folk traditions in many places, the younger generation risks abandoning Javanese music in favor of a more global culture). Alas, you don’t see baroque music played much at Euro-American wedding receptions anymore, though some of the more nauseating baroque pieces are now often inflicted upon the world as elevator music surrounding the ceremony itself. The context that surrounded baroque music in the past, the setting for the gemstone, has been removed, so that now we are left measuring the angles of each facet, or just staring at the thing through the glass of a museum case.

To remove these musical styles from their context is almost to neuter them. Performing the music without the original trappings—the food that was served, the sights and smells and tactile sensations of the original environment, the emotional associations of the moment the music was designed to adorn—is not to deny the music its ability to reproduce. Indeed, you can at least partially reconstruct these lost elements with a bit of research and hermeneutic inquiry. Yet, if the audience as a whole does not understand all these nuances of context, to which the music was necessarily tailored, they are missing a crucial element of understanding, and in that sense the music becomes something like a neutered animal, deprived of its raison d’être.

The performance in Seattle emphasized the music’s cerebral qualities—the program was all about structure, about the more quantifiable elements of each musical style. Really, it was about instruction. To the extent that the audience was expected to enjoy the music, it was supposed to be an intellectual, abstract kind of enjoyment. The performance near Jogja was a strange mix of delectation, comedy, and moral instruction. The moral instruction came from the tales that the dalang acted out in front of the screen: Rama, the model of a refined Javanese gentleman, moved though a world populated by dwarves, monsters, buffoons, and jealous relatives. Wayang shows always have an element of the morality play about them, but heavily overlaid with ornaments and temptations (there remains a traditional association between pesindhen, the female gamelan vocalists, and prostitutes, though this is changing). And yes, there was comedy.

After about an hour of playing, the gamelan slowed down and stopped (just as it had begun to speed up, really). The dalang was narrating an incomprehensible story with some goofy looking puppets… it seemed to have departed from the heroic narrative. That was when the transvestite clowns got onto the stage. Well, that phrase is probably misleading. They were two men dressed somewhere between the two genders. One of them may have been wearing a blangkon. They had longish hair, lipstick, and eyeliner, and some of their teeth had been blackened. They both had strange, leering expressions, and exaggerated, creaky voices. They were acting out some kind of comedy routine—walking among the gamelan, insulting the performers and some of the elders. The performance’s sponsor eventually got on stage with them, and began giving a speech. They continued to make fun of him.

This was all a bit strange to me. My image of Javanese culture as refined, modest, polite, and stately did not have room for this kind of thing. I should also say that watching a comedy routine in a mostly incomprehensible foreign language was trying my patience, and I eagerly awaited the return of polite, noble Rama to the screen. I was having thoughts along these lines when I heard the word “America” in the orang kaya’s speech, and saw him gesturing towards me. My chain-smoking friend in the next seat almost grabbed me, and started shooing me up toward the stage, where I found myself with a microphone, standing next to the orang kaya and the two strange gender-ambiguous clowns.

The clowns asked me a few questions which I couldn’t understand, and pointed out that my pinstripe pants looked ridiculous. Indeed they did, in a room full of be-sarunged dudes with daggers. The orang kaya removed his blangkon and gave it to me, and eventually I understood that I was supposed to put it on my head, which I did. The whole audience was bent over laughing. I tried, as respectfully as possible, to return the blangkon, and eventually succeeded.  They asked me what I was doing in Indonesia, and I stumbled through a few words of explanation. I think I managed to thank everyone for their hospitality. Eventually I was able to escape the clowns and the orang kaya. Then I sat back down in my chair, and Bowo said that the orang kaya had accorded me a great honor by roasting me in front of everyone. The lesson from this is that if you’re traveling in Java, and have good local connections, and it happens to be during a season when you might end up at a wayang performance, be sure to have a short standup routine prepared in Indonesian, preferably one that makes fun of westerners and their pants.

Actually, that was not the end of the strangeness. The orang kaya next to me offered me another Dji Sam Soe, and asked me which of the three pesindhen on stage I thought was the prettiest. At this point I was suspicious of everything, and imagined that any answer would put me up on stage again—would they make me dance? Fortunately, nothing came of it when I picked one singer out at random; the old man seemed partly satisfied. Though the wayang performance proper started to pick up steam again, Bowo said that his relatives’ children were getting tired, so we would have to depart. Probably for the best, I thought, though a bit sadly, as I had weathered the roast, and had looked forward to becoming a passive, slightly reddish-colored spectator again.

Looking back on it, this bizarre mixture makes sense in the context of a twelve-hour long performance. The dalang and the gamelan need breaks (a practical concern), and the audience can’t be expected to sit through that much moral edification, no matter how brilliantly adorned, without the occasional change of pace (a more aesthetic one). You can see the same variation of pace in a baroque concerto that alternates between fast and slow movements, and operas and suites usually introduce some deliberate variety to keep the audience’s attention. But I imagine that the way baroque music was originally performed, there would have to be even more variety, more breaks in the music. A combination of logistics and human nature dictate that this had to be the case.

Really, the practice of sitting in an auditorium and listening passively to high art music, presented in an austere and didactic environment, seems to be a recent invention, tied to academic values that seek to separate the skill of composing and playing music from music’s function as an object of pleasure. Sometimes I wonder if academics who study music consider it to be pleasant at all. The archaeologist James Deetz, who had a great fondness for bluegrass music, still describes it in his landmark book In Small Things Forgotten as a “technomic” artifact—in other words, as a tool, whose purpose lies mostly outside of the social realm. Perhaps he was thinking that music’s utilitarian function was to produce pleasure, but this must be read between the lines. Scholars—especially those who tend toward the more scientific end of the spectrum—seem to have a very hard time integrating pleasure into their theories. It has only recently become quantifiable… and good luck hauling that MRI machine to a concert! To the extent that archaeologists deal with pleasure, it’s usually mediated through an evolutionary perspective, though perhaps some post-processualists are making more humanistic efforts.

In many ways, the performers in Seattle made the best of the environment in which they played—they were obviously enjoying it, and they had put together a truly unconventional performance. Yet they couldn’t do anything about the expectations that come with classical music these days: the auditorium they performed in had certain rules, explicit or implicit. The fact that they were performing at an art school, as well, meant that they had to frame their performance in educational terms. They were doing their part for the education industry, which has imposed a really dull set of constraints on how an audience is supposed to appreciate music played in an academic setting. We, the audience, were supposed to contemplate the music in a detached, analytical sort of way. The village performance was a different thing entirely, with the music performing its true “technomic” function, and some other ones besides.

I am painfully aware that art schools and conservatories are too strapped for cash to bother adding the kind of contextual elements that make a living performance so much more pleasant than an academic one, and so even if they have a change of heart about what audiences should get out of a performance, we’re stuck with the current mode of appreciating high art music, at least for now. I worry that it goes beyond that, however: the academic community has been pretty jealous about appropriating art for its own goals, with predictably dulling consequences (the writer and art critic Dave Hickey has written eloquently about this topic, and he deserves mention in another post). This may leave only American Idol free from the ivory tower, in some hideous dystopian future.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Despite the establishment of officially sanctioned gamelan and wayang academies in Indonesia, that seek to elevate traditional arts to prestigious, academic pursuits, those arts also remain genuinely alive (messy context, gender-queer clowns and all) in Javanese popular culture. I may be too optimistic to hope for a reinvention and rebirth of baroque music that puts it back into an equally chaotic context, but hell, it’s worth a try.

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