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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Modern Life in Jogja

My last week in Indonesia was a testament to how diverse the country is. The ancient city of Yogyakarta, or Jogja for short, was a different planet from Maluku province. The language sounded different, even when people bothered to speak Bahasa Indonesia instead of Javanese. I was closer to the developed world here; there were full-on western style shopping malls, a large university, and well-lit supermarkets. The people were more used to seeing bules. After I landed, I spent several hours walking around near the Universitas Gadjah Mada, carrying my full backpack, which attracted some looks but not as much comment as I expected. Jogja seemed like the perfect town for western backpackers—the population is young, there are cultural sights to take in, and it isn’t so far off the beaten path that getting there strains the budget. It’s popular with Indonesian tourists, too.

I met Ari, an archaeology connection, near the campus in the evening. Ari and I had coffee in a little warung kopi, our discussion interrupted briefly by a couple of musicians, dressed in drag, who invaded the warung and started up a horrendous racket. This is a traditional form of entertainment/extortion in central Java. Ari gave them some money and they obligingly departed. We rode Ari’s motor to Bowo’s house, where I would stay. Bowo had studied museology and archaeology at the UW for a while; it was good to know someone in Jogja, and he and his fiancée spend most of their time for the next few days showing me around. He lives with his gracious mother in a quiet suburb, the house and all the surroundings very much from a different time. I was overwhelmed by their hospitality, as usual.

We spent a day touring around the ancient temples that surrounded Java, of which Borobodur is the most famous. It is almost a step pyramid—indeed, that is basically the shape of it, but it is studded with hundreds of openwork stone stupas, each of which originally had a Buddha sitting inside. The walls are covered with reliefs that start, at the bottom, with images of the Buddhist hell, gradually becoming more pleasant and virtuous as one ascends to the top. It is a huge tourist attraction, so there was no monastic serenity there. The rearview mirror covers from Bowo’s car were stolen while we visited the temple; apparently this is a common occurrence.

There were more temples, these ones Hindu. The Loro Jonggrang temple complex was the most spectacular, also heavily trafficked with tourists. These temples are well looked-after now, though for a long time they were neglected, or occasionally vandalized as idolatrous by religious fanatics. We also visited several minor temple complexes—really, the number of these things dotting the landscape is incredible, and it speaks to the fact that Java has been densely populated for millennia.

The density of sites, and the pace of development today, come into conflict with each other frequently. While I was in Jogja I paid a visit to Daud Tanudirjo, one of the most prominent archaeologists in Indonesia, at the Jogja museum just outside the sultan’s palace (kraton). He talked about the constant pressure for development, and the difficulty of pushing back against it. After all, it can be hard to justify protecting archaeological sites when there are so many of them around. The spectacular ones like Borobudur and Loro Jonggrang have proven to be big tourist draws, but smaller, less flashy sites may actually tell us more about the past, and these are the ones that usually get destroyed as a new shopping mall or highway is built. The sultan of Jogja, who still has political authority over his traditional domain, is caught between his desire to preserve the region’s heritage, and the equally urgent desire to improve his subjects’ lives by attracting investment. This problem plays out all over Southeast Asia in different forms, but it bears remarking that even in a place like Jogja, whose past has attracted global attention (Borobudur is now a UNESCO world heritage site), protecting that past remains a constant struggle.

This is true even though the past remains very much alive around Jogja. I had already noticed in Bali that the locals have maintained their traditions sincerely, in spite of the pressure to commercialize them for the tourist market. I was shortly to find something similar in Java, which deserves a long post of its own.

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Another Ambon: Part III

Hengky’s family are Seventh Day Adventists, or just “Adven,” as they called themselves. Morning, evening, and every meal were accompanied by long, elaborate prayers, with Hengky’s mother in law usually leading the service. Like American Adventists, they did not smoke or drink—not even coffee or tea, though hot chocolate was acceptable. Unlike most American Adventists, though, they ate meat, something unavoidable in Indonesia. They went to prayer meetings at least twice a week, moving from house to house among their community. The pastor was a tall, handsome man in his forties. His wife, when she learned I studied archaeology, said, “all you need to know about the world is in this book,” pointing to her bible.

I was a bit surprised to see this minor American denomination had such a following in Ambon; they were also building a great church, with a forty-foot high ceiling. The church was half-finished, but the lighting and sound system were in place. Scaffolding filled the back of the church, but the front was empty, white concrete, except for a podium, lectern, and microphone.

A young woman preacher spoke in rapid-fire Maluku dialect; her voice echoed off the hard walls. The preacher asked the young men in the congregation, including myself, to sing a hymn. We got up on the podium, and I quietly mouthed the words from the hymnal, understanding about half of them. The hymns were Indonesian and Maluku translations of American spiritual songs—I recognized some of the melodies. In fact, the hymnal usually had the songs in two languages, English and colloquial Indonesian, right next to each other. The melodies seemed utterly alien in this context, as did the cavernous interior of the church.

I’ve come to expect that a religion, descending on an indigenous culture and trying to proselytize to an unfamiliar people, will adapt itself at least a bit to their tastes and history. For example, the Catholic and Protestant missionaries, despite inflicting the appallingly frumpy “Mother Hubbard” dress upon the women of Polynesia, either could not prohibit, or had the good sense to accept, a native interpretation of their church music, with the new Christian sentiments expressed in much older harmonies, and often just thinly veneered over a much older story. Why should things be different here in Ambon? Was the foreignness of the Adventist hymns an attraction to new converts? Did it seem a welcome change from traditional sounds? By the time the Adventists got to Ambon, Catholic and Protestant missionaries had been at work on the island for centuries. I’m not sure whether the Catholics adapted their music to Ambonese tastes. In any case, it isn’t only the Adventists who seem to have transplanted a whole cultural complex to Ambon along with their religion—the two largest mosques in Ambon, and much of the Muslim quarter’s public architecture, could have been airlifted in from Arabia, and doesn’t make any concessions to a local tradition. For that matter, not much in Ambon does. The Ambonese are relatively comfortable with foreign influence. Oddly enough, something that happened in Ambon, the Amboyna Incident, also had outsize influence on European culture very early, and that bit of history shows how early the island had become a European outpost. Wallace was a bit incredulous at the Ambonese adaptation of European formal dress in the nineteenth century, and he noted that although the Portuguese had only a tenuous control of Ambon for a few decades before the Dutch got there, some Portuguese words had survived in the local dialect into the nineteenth century. The whole Maluku region has been subject to so many unusual foreign influences for so long, there may be no “indigenous” style of anything left there.

So, in this strange foreign church, a piece of Iowa or Nebraska with Indonesian subtitles, I sat next to Hengky’s uncle Jemmy, who worked as a hairdresser and lived in a town a bit to the west of Ambon. He had arranged for a special surprise after the service—durian.

The durian has inspired much love, and the same amount of hatred, from Europeans who visited Indonesia in the past. The locals are generally not so quick to hate it, but many are perfectly content to avoid it, and the distinctive smell has caused laws to be enacted prohibiting the transport of durian inside airplanes’ passenger cabins, and on public transit in some cities.

Wallace was quite taken with durian, and wrote a long tribute to it in his Malay Archipelago, which is worth quoting at length.

A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.

The smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable, though less so when it has newly fallen from the tree; for the moment it is ripe it falls of itself, and the only way to eat Durians in perfection is to get them as they fall. It would perhaps not be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of subacid juicy fruits such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the Durian and the Orange as the king and queen of fruits.

The Durian is however (in another way) dangerous. As a tree ripens the fruit falls daily and almost hourly, and accidents not unfrequently happen to persons walking or working under them. When a Durian strikes a man in its fall it produces a fearful wound, the strong spines tearing open the flesh, while the blow itself is very heavy; but from this very circumstance death rarely ensues, the copious effusion of blood preventing the inflammation which might otherwise take place. A Dyak chief informed me that he had been struck down by a Durian falling on his head, which he thought would certainly have caused his death, yet he recovered in a very short time.

Poets and moralists, judging from our English trees and fruits, have thought that there existed an inverse proportion between the size of the one and the other, so that their fall should be harmless to man. Two of the most formidable fruits known, however, the Brazil Nut (Bertholletia) and the Durian, grow on lofty trees, from which they both fall as soon as they are ripe, and often wound or kill those who seek to obtain them. From this we may learn two things:–first, not to draw conclusions from a very partial view of Nature; and secondly, that trees and fruits and all the varied productions of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, have not been created solely for the use and convenience of man.

Others have been less complementary; one of my favorite authors, Anthony Burgess, who spent some time in the region, incorporated this description into his trilogy The Long Day Wanes:

Over all presided the fetid, exciting reek of durian, for this was the season of durians. Nabby Adams had once been to a durian party. It was like, he thought, eating a sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.

I too was going to a durian party. I hopped on Hengky’s motor and we sped east, past Ambon’s surprisingly large and modern looking mall on the outskirts of the city. We were heading to Jemmy’s barber shop, where he would meet us with the durians. When we got to the barber shop, Jemmy wasn’t there, so we had some nasi kuning to prepare our stomachs, and watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on satellite TV, in English with Indonesian subtitles.

I was pleased to have something in English to listen to, but it was more interesting to see how the subtitles had been translated: a lot of the jokes couldn’t be translated directly, because they depended on familiarity with American pop culture. A whole dialogue that compared Uncle Phil to Ward Cleaver had to be altered in the subtitles. Phil shouting “Do I look like a white guy named Ward?!” just wouldn’t make sense to someone who’d never seen Leave it to Beaver, so it was translated “Do I look like I’m stupid?!” Imagine all the subtle, culturally specific allusions that don’t survive in subtitles.

After the show had ended, and we’d moved on to Al Jazeera English, Jemmy arrived with three durians. We had buffered our stomachs with the rice, which was important. One of the remarkable things about Indonesian food is how conditional much of it is. That doesn’t make much sense, I know. What I mean is, according to widely accepted folk knowledge, there are certain times when you can’t eat durian. If you eat it on an empty stomach, you’ll get heartburn. If you eat it with alcohol, you might have a heart attack. Eating durian while pregnant is bad for the fetus. Durian is one of the most conditional foods, but not the only one. A particular type of bean makes delicious crackers when mashed and fried, but eating too many of these crackers will give you high blood pressure. Another kind of bean is also delicious, but will cause your urine to smell very strange. Sago starch is toxic before it is washed, but after being washed becomes edible, and actually quite boring. Indonesian food often comes with a caveat or two. So it is with durian. Some people are convinced that durian ferments slightly during ripening, and contains a kind of alcohol. Everyone seems to agree that it produces a certain mild intoxication.

There must certainly be an effect from eating a lot of durian, because Jemmy insisted that I eat a whole one to get the full experience. He gave the biggest durian to me. “If you don’t eat this whole durian, I’ll hit you,” he said as he broke open the duri, the spikes on the outside, and offered me a section of strange whitish flesh.

The scent of this durian was not as foul as some reports had led me to expect, but it was uncannily similar to rotting onions. I imagine that an accident in a chemical plant might smell similar to a durian, if the right things were mixed together. Aromatic is the word, like aromatic hydrocarbons. The really odd thing about the “smell” is that one can also almost taste it while eating the durian—the fumes seem to rise up above the palate and into the sinuses whether you want them to or not. The flesh itself is not very substantial—it surrounds a huge seed, and is wrapped in a thick, spiky husk—and it is definitely an odd contrast to the smell. If you could completely turn off your olfactory senses, it would taste very mild, quite sweet, not tart at all. The texture is soft, something like a peach that has come dangerously close to being rotten.

My senses disagreed with each other about how I should treat this food. My nose actually wasn’t too horrified, but it did urge caution—these vapors wouldn’t be out of place in a chemical weapons test. There was something volatile about durian—it demanded to be eaten slowly and carefully. Eating the whole durian, especially in one sitting, might exceed my willpower. My tongue thought it was perfectly fine, but hardly worth calling raja buah (the king of fruits). My eyes were ambivalent about the utter strangeness of the whole thing—the evil looking spikes on the outside, and the strange geometry of the husk, were very nice, but the sections of flesh inside looked a bit too similar to internal organs.

On the whole, I had to conclude that I wasn’t totally repelled by durian, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it again, either. This is odd, because everyone else I’ve talked to either hates it immensely or gets a far-off, amorous look in their eyes when durian is mentioned. Jemmy’s half-joking threats didn’t motivate me to eat the whole durian, but he insisted that I take the durian back to Hengky’s house and finish it before I went to bed.

The next day, I was on a plane to Yogyakarta. Hengky and his family had been wonderful hosts. Hengky gave me his copy of the New Testament, in English on one side, Indonesian on the other. I offered them my water filter as a parting gift, but they wouldn’t hear of it. I did manage to give Hengky my mask and snorkel, since I figured he’d use it on his fishing boat. Even by Indonesian standards of hospitality, they were incredibly gracious, and I hope I can visit them again soon. Now it was on to a new city, a new island, and a new province—practically a new country. That will be the subject of the next post.

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Another Ambon: Part II

Hengky offered to show me around the jungle in the hills above his house. He wasn’t very familiar with it–he said he preferred the coast to the interior–but he had heard there was a Japanese bunker left from the Second World War, and we would probably find some durian and rambutan as well. We walked up a steep, rutted, rocky logging road, crested a ridge, and then descended into a densely forested ravine. There was a trail–a sort of trail, anyway. It was barely visible through the thick undergrowth, and very slippery. The difference between a trail and a watercourse is often very slim in lots of places, not least a rainforest. Hengky was wearing flip-flops as usual. He slipped and fell, but we kept on going for several hundred yards before he realized he had lost his cell phone. This was a very serious problem.

We retraced our steps, but I didn’t have much hope of finding it. We were bushwhacking most of the way, and I didn’t see how the phone could keep from sliding down the steep mud, to rest in some liquid or other. The whole hill was basically liquid. Hengky went on ahead, and he eventually found it near the spot he’d fallen, nothing short of a miracle.

We continued back down the slope, and arrived at a group of cattle stalls with a roof built over them. There was a little hut nearby, but nobody was home. It didn’t look like we were heading in the right direction for the bunker. We tried a different direction, up another trail that followed the bottom of another ravine. Some rambutan had fallen on the trail–they were tart, not quite ripe. Further on we found a durian tree. “Careful, Joss,” Hengky said, “don’t let a durian fall on you!” He was serious. These durian trees are at least thirty feet tall, and a good-sized durian can injure or even kill someone if it falls on their head. This is pretty common. The word durian translates literally as “spiky thing,” and the spikes are sharp and sturdy enough to do some damage. I will have more to say about durians in a further post; my paean to this odd fruit will have to wait, because in this particular instance, none of the durian had fallen to the ground. We kept going along the trail.

The jungle opened up into a big clearing, on the lower slope of one of the ravines. Some crops were planted near the trail, and further up the ravine there was a tiny hut, with smoke from a fire nearby. “Maybe they can sell us a durian,” Hengky said. “You really need to try one.”

It was a small, narrow building, with two stories. The second story was completely enclosed, and must have been about half the size of a shipping container. The first level didn’t have much in the way of walls, but there was a small deck, on which sat a young woman and an old man, who had perhaps two teeth left in his mouth. Sheltered from the rain, the woman was grating some kind of vegetable, as the man rolled a fat tingwe cigarette for himself. Hengky talked with the man for a while, in a dialect I half-understood. They did have some durian, but they were asking an exorbitant price. Hengky asked them about the Japanese bunker, and the old man told him about a cave that the Japanese had dug into a hillside nearby. He pointed us back the way we came.

On the trail to the cave, which ran along the crest of a lush, forested ridge, we met a man carrying a parang (machete), equally good for hacking through undergrowth and fighting in Ambon’s enclosed alleyways—something not unheard of, even though the tension of the early 2000s has dissipated somewhat. Of course, this man was friendly, and pointed the way to the cave, down the ridge which grew rockier and more slippery. The trail dropped to a river below, next tow which was a small neighborhood of huts. The cave was actually part of one family’s yard, and they graciously allowed us to look inside.

I never have a flashlight when I need one, but the designers of my cheap Indonesian cell phone had the forethought to put a small LED light on it, which barely illuminated the first couple feet of a tunnel. The tunnel had been dug into the earth of the hillside –it was ordinary dirt, with pebbles sticking out of it, not auspicious material to dig tunnels in, but somehow it had held for half a century. A bend in the tunnel brought me into a slightly larger room, and for a split second I saw my light reflected off the eyes of several bats, before they flew past me, out into the daylight. The room was empty except for an unmarked green metal ammunition can. The roof had begun to cave in; there was a high shaft of empty space above me. It didn’t occur to me then, but I bet the collapse of the roof has covered some more interesting artifacts.

We weren’t sure where we were—we had traveled a long ways through the jungle, and then dropped to small town somewhere along the main highway between Kota Ambon and the airport. On our way through the town, we saw that a funeral was taking place in the middle of the road. To get around the funeral, we walked through a field filled with little brown cows.

I was surprised that Hengky had little interest in all these fascinating inland things—he only really got excited at the possibility of durian—but then, he’s a fisherman, and looks to the sea rather than the land. I think it also speaks to something more general about Indonesia, though: in the same way as most Indonesians don’t walk around for pleasure, there isn’t much exploring for exploring’s sake. I don’t think that’s so much closed-mindedness as it is contentedness with one’s surroundings.



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Another Ambon: Part I

When my plane landed at Pattimura airport, the first objective was to find a ticket to Yogyakarta. Normally this would be easy—there were airline offices right outside the terminal. The only problem was that I was out of cash. Even for expensive things like plane tickets, it is still extremely rare for people to pay with a card, at least in the Malukus. So I wasn’t really surprised when none of the airlines had a credit card reader… at least not one that worked. I would have to get more cash in the city, and find a travel agent there. Then I’d have to wait at least a couple days for the next flight. I called Henky and took him up on his offer of a place to stay.

He arrived on a rather small motor, with an extra helmet. This would be interesting, I thought. I had a backpack that weighed about forty pounds, and I’d only ridden pillion on one of these things a few times. Henky knew what he was doing, though. We sped through the rain, lucky to be on one of the island’s widest and least crowded roads. The combined weight of my pack and myself must have made the motor hard to handle, but Henky zipped through the traffic as deftly as if alone. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, though—I had to stay in a very specific, unnatural position, sitting ramrod-straight but fighting the backward pull of the pack without moving my feet or shifting my weight too abruptly. It takes about half an hour to get from the airport to the city, mostly through farmland and suburbs, and by the end of it I was half-crippled.

Henky lives on the outskirts of Ambon, at the foot of some forested hills, an area blessedly free of the city center’s noise and pollution. His wife, daughters, and several in-laws greeted us and prepared breakfast, and after the obligatory interview (Where are you from? What are you doing here? What is your religion? Are you married?) Henky prepared hot water for a traditional bucket shower (mandi). I think that was the only time I ever had a hot mandi (let alone shower) in Indonesia, and at that point it felt like the pinnacle of luxury.

After breakfast, we went into the city. It’s hard to express the sheer sensory overload of an Indonesian city in any medium—even a heavily amplified IMAX movie wouldn’t do the trick, unless you could pump steam, tobacco smoke, garbage fumes, and motor exhaust into the theater. I have already written something about Kota Ambon, which in retrospect gives (at most) a Thomas Friedman-esque, cab-driver-interviewing look at the city, but it deserves more than that. Now that I’m back in the States, and have the privilege (is it?) of unlimited time in front of a computer, it’s worth looking at Ambon in more detail.

Wallace visited Ambon (then called Amboina or Amboyna) several times, beginning in 1857. His description is shocking to anyone who has visited the city today:

Passing up the harbor, in appearance like a fine river, the clearness of the water afforded me one of the most astonishing and beautiful sights I have ever beheld. The bottom was absolutely hidden by a continuous series of corals, sponges, actinic, and other marine productions of magnificent dimensions, varied forms, and brilliant colours…. In and out among them moved numbers of blue and red and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped in the most striking manner, while great orange or rosy transparent medusa floated along near the surface. It was a sight to gaze at for hours, and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty and interest. For once, the reality exceeded the most glowing accounts I had ever read of the wonders of a coral sea. There is perhaps no spot in the world richer in marine productions, corals, shells and fishes, than the harbor of Amboyna.

Since Wallace’s time, all this gorgeous ocean life has disappeared, at least from near the city, the superlative clarity long ago having yielded to muddy effluent from Kota Ambon’s garbage-filled canal. The Lonely Planet guidebook now lists “muck diving” as Ambon’s main underwater attraction. The stately buildings of what was once an old colonial city were blown to bits in the Second World War, and the replacements are not very good. The profusion of noisy, polluting two-cycle motors has delivered the coup de grâce to what was doubtless once a beautiful city. 

To get to the travel agency, we found our way through Pasar Mardika, Ambon’s main public market. The streets outside were filled with vendors, but Henky said the quickest way was through the claustrophobic tunnels of merchandise inside the buildings on either side. “Careful, Joss,” he said, “there are lots of pickpockets around here.” It was easy terrain for them. The indoor market is a maze of dark, very narrow hallways, at most a meter across. Two people could not pass each other without touching. Every possible space on the walls was covered with products: shoes, bras, headscarves, shorts, pants, motorcycle helmets, electronics, jewelry, cosmetics, hardware, music (still a lot of cassette tapes for sale in Ambon), and in short, anything that you can imagine being in a well-stocked American mall, but a little different. The selection of flashy soccer cleats was striking, as was the huge proportion of space devoted to cell phones—Ambonese may not use credit cards, but they are deeply attached to their “hand phones.” In a few places, the corridors opened up into something closer to an American department store, but in fact it was just a well-decorated collection of small vendors. We probably walked a bit less than a mile through these corridors before returning to the muddy streets, and Henky pointed out the travel agent, dark and chemical-smelling on the inside, but mercifully air-conditioned. Three well-dressed travel agents were talking to one customer.

When my turn came, I explained I needed to fly to Yogyakarta, and asked the most important question: would they take credit cards? Yes! This was wonderful. I asked (at least I think I did) for a flight next Thursday, the 12th. They quoted a price that seemed remarkably cheap. One of the agents (and this is not a figure of speech) dusted off an old card reader, and began figuring out how to work it. It was clearly going to take them some time. Meanwhile, they took my passport and spent a long time copying information from it. The separation from my passport always made me uneasy, especially when it was taken off to be photocopied. Henky was still waiting patiently, though he had to go to work. I told him it was okay, I could finish buying the ticket and meet up with him later.

After several phone calls to the bank, they announced that I was all set to go, my flight would leave at eight in the morning on Thursday, July 19th.

My heart sank to somewhere in my lower intestine.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I wanted to go on the 12th.”

“But this is for the 19th,” the travel agent said.

“Yes, I know, that’s the problem.”

The agents canceled the flight and found another one on the correct date. This time we used a calendar to confirm it. So far so good. There was still the problem of reversing the charges to my credit card. At least I got them to give me my passport back, but the travel agents continued to have problems with the credit card machine. I sat despondent in a chair that must have been designed to give people back problems. I withered in the air conditioning. I imagined myself destitute and trapped in Ambon because of inadvertent charges they’d made on my card and could not reverse. The single dim fluorescent light cast deathly shadows over everything. Everything was bad. For the first time since I arrived in Indonesia, I knew I was losing my cool.

One simply does not do this in Indonesia. Although blowing up at service staff is common (even fashionable) in America, as anyone who’s worked in a service job will agree, Indonesians value sangfroid far more. This is true even in Ambon, which has a reputation for hot-bloodedness. An American might think that losing his cool is a way to instill respect, but in Indonesia, it does the exact opposite. (Let that be a lesson to anyone with foreign policy aspirations!) This is complicated by the fact that Indonesians, valuing sangfroid so much, often perform little tests on foreigners to make sure they are sufficiently calm in character. Perhaps this nonsense with the credit card machine was such a test. I don’t know. But around the second or third hour of waiting, I began to lose patience. I was on the brink of some kind of unhingedness—maybe purple-faced screaming apoplexy, or perhaps collapsing on the floor in tears—when one of the agents informed me that everything was arranged. They had credited the previously charged amount to the correct ticket, but could not charge any more today. I would have to return in two days and pay the remaining money then, before I could collect the ticket.

This produced a strange mixture of emotions, which may be unique to interactions with Ambon travel agents. I could not resist thinking of another passage from Wallace, where he says “…the Amboynese are dreadfully lazy…” and yet another, totally false (not to mention racist) but poignant in my exasperation, “The native Amboynese who reside in this city are a strange half-civilized half-savage lazy people….” These are horrible slanders to the Ambonese en bloc, who were invariably charming and eager to help, but in the frustrating gloom of this little office, may I be forgiven a lapse into post-colonial arrogance? Things ended well, though; the agent wrote out a receipt, and offered to give me a motor ride to a bank where I could exchange US dollars for rupiah. This travel agent was really heroic, considering the appalling rush hour traffic he had to drive through.

This brings me to another piece of advice for the traveler in remote Indonesia: If you plan on bringing cash to exchange, know that most banks (in Ambon, anyway) are very particular about it. It must be in crisp, clean, undamaged, 2006 series or later $100 bills. This is particularly ironic considering that most Indonesian cash looks like it has passed through a luwak‘s digestive system at least twice. I went to four different banks, each apologizing that they could not exchange my cash, but suggesting another, usually one I’d already been to. Finally, I found one (CIMB-Niaga) that would accept my pre-2006, slightly worn hundreds, fifties and twenties, after a stately and august bureaucratic ritual involving a senior and junior teller, my passport, many signatures and initials, and the assertive thuds of three rubber stamps. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, I can recommend CIMB-Niaga most highly to everyone.

My mission in Kota Ambon accomplished, I stopped at Sibu-Sibu, the city’s most stylish coffee house, and collected myself. Sibu-Sibu makes local specialties including a fiery ginger-laced coffee with kenari nuts floating on top. The walls are covered with photos of Maluku celebrities, and they play Polynesian-sounding local music. It’s popular with expats, but most of the clientèle are locals. Afterwards, I caught an angkot back to Henky’s house, and spent a couple days with him and his charming family while I waited for my flight. That will be the subject of the next post.


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