Thursday, February 9, 2012

40 Days

I was playing badminton at school a few months ago, and a funeral procession was coming through to the cemetery next door. Encouraged by my student, I followed her over to take a closer look. As men were still digging the grave, I was surprised to find that what I thought was a green sheet covering a coffin being carried, was actually a green cover attached to a wire frame and a wooden slab. When the cover was removed from the slab there was just a body wrapped in white cloth. There was no coffin. No wooden box. The friends and family actually had to handle the body to place it in the ground.

This struck me. 

There was something more intimate and touching about these men digging the grave and handling the actual dead body of their family/friend/neighbor as they lowered him/her into the earth. And, here I was, watching. And holding a badminton racket, no less.

Bad photo of the stretcher in its holding place in a cemetery I saw on a recent run.
Culturally, we Americans seem to always have a middle man in things, or a way to distract ourselves from what is really happening. We expect our meat to be de-fatted, de-boned, de-whatevered prior to it reaching our plates. Here, you can be greeted with a fully intact chicken staring at you, holding the same pre-mortem position almost as if it's waiting for you to give him a name. At my house, it's the eater, rather than the cook, that is expected to do all the work. In America, we have also forgotten how to work to arrive at the price of things. Here, a basic mastery of quick, simple math and bargaining skills are a given - a reminder of true market operations without the glitz of things like credit swaps and ticker tapes.

So many things here are more hands-on or in your face - like physically burying the body of a family member or friend - or the tradition of commemorating the death periodically afterward with a selamatan or tahlil. It varies across Java, and certain Muslims do not follow this tradition since it harkens back to Java’s animist history, but family, friends, and neighbors gather various days following a death to remember and pray for the person who has passed on. The time frames vary from village to village, but, in mine, everyone gathers roughly 3 days, 7 days, 40 days, 100 days, 1 year, 2 years and 1000 days after burial. 

This seems healthier to me. This built-in schedule of grieving. I mean, doesn’t it sometimes sort of seem like people get brushed aside once they’re gone in our culture? Like the pace of life keeps going and no matter how long you try to linger in that stillness of memory, you eventually get swept back into the whirlpool that never stopped swirling around you.  Even if you try to break it, to reach back from time to time to remember, it always feels like you’re abandoning someone. Leaving them behind.   

Thinking once again about mortality and reflecting this week on favorite moments to share in honor of my big brother's 40th birthday (You did it, Bri!), I find myself worrying about forgetting the small things of daily life here. 

  • How my host niece came home one day and told me, “I have 3 marbles,” when we had never discussed how to say that in English. She had put the words together on her own. 
  • How Friday morning aerobics with teachers remains one of my favorite parts of the week, even though, after 7 months, I still cannot remember the routine (it’s pretty complicated). 
  • How my students will respond, “Yes, yes,” when I ask what they did on their holiday. 
  • How I love hearing the squeaking shoes approaching my house because it means one of the completely adorable 1-year-olds in my desa is on her way. 

  • How annoyed I am the moment my host sister’s cat climbs through my screenless window and falls, shrieking on my bed in the middle of the night. 

  • How the morning after these cat falls, it never seems quite as bad as it gives me and the fam something to laugh about (until, of course, it happens again the next night and I'm violently chucking a cat out into the kitchen. Think cat juggling from "The Jerk").
  • Or how catching myself laughing hard with fellow teachers in school brings me back to the first time I laughed out loud at a new high school way back when - that feeling of realizing I was comfortable (kerasan) - the feeling that I had finally made real friends.
We tend to focus so much on big events, but it’s these small moments strung together that truly make up our lives. 

It’s my Irish Granny commenting, “Oh, Lord,” in her brogue when she couldn’t believe something or Aunt Bea always spelling my name Eirn in her shaky script. It's Aunt Pat telling me stories about Japan or Johnny Boles hanging out by the fish tank with me. It's Sister Kathy letting me run amuck in her school’s supply closet or Granny Nguyen wearing a wool sweater when it’s 80 degrees out. 

It’s my uncle Johnny teaching me the joy of peanut butter on toast, saving comics for me from his Sunday newspaper until I was well into my twenties, or always slipping us cash on visits. 

And it’s my Granny always wearing those jean skirts, letting me do loops of the living room in her wheelchair, wanting to hold my hand when she was confused, and eating ice cream in her Long Island living room as I skype with her from my school in Indonesia. 

Not to cheapen this with a Ferris Bueller quote, but life really does move pretty fast. If we don’t stop and look around once in awhile, we really could miss it.

Here’s to never missing it…and to hoping we always remember.

In Loving Memory of: 
Margaret V. Blessinger, May 12, 1917 - December 31, 2011
John J Fitzgerald, August 4, 1942 - October 29, 2010

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Meeting

Rapat. It is a standard happening here in my life. I am not sure PCVs were adequately prepared for just how many meetings we would sit through. I have probably clocked in a solid 80 hours of various meeting types up to this point conducted all in Indonesian. 

I am still learning to appreciate the intricacies of the formal gatherings, but, so far, here is a recipe for if you want to throw your own: 

  • If you designate a start time for the meeting, make sure you begin at least 30 minutes to 3 hours later. 
  • Get yourself a microphone and speaker system – even if you are in a small classroom with few people and everyone can plainly hear what you are saying without it. 
  • If possible, have the speaker sit at a formal table with a placard or banner indicating the person’s importance. The speaker, in general, may not stand up or move about the audience.
  • Listening is not required from the audience. In fact, all can continue on with personal conversations or take that long overdue nap. Participants may even allow their kids to run around the room if they desire. 
  • Powerpoint. The key is the allure of just having a powerpoint. You don’t need to put anything in there that people need to follow, and it is actually best if you have a partner who fiddles with it constantly throughout your presentation offering a distraction from what you are saying. 
  • Interaction is not necessary and sometimes discouraged, but allow for a strictly formal Q&A session at the end, even if it is only a gathering of 10 or so.  
    • Questions from participants must be preceded by a “thank you” and followed by a formal apology for anything that could have offended.
    • The questions from one individual must be listed (there should be more than one question if you are taking the time to ask) and jotted down by the moderator.
    • The moderator will respond only after all questions from participants have been asked. No dialogue. 
  • You should provide snack boxes and Aqua water cups. 
  • If you are an elected official, you should provide presents. Male teachers at my school received shirts and female teachers were gifted purses after one event. 
  • Karoake following or preceding is optional, but recommended.

For the most part, I really enjoy these meetings. 

In the beginning it was a chance to test my focus and see how much I could understand. I have far to go in my language learning, and it is a good gauge for how I am progressing (or if I am at all). At times when I can no longer focus on what is being said or when I know it is not important for me to listen, it then turns into time when I can study my vocab notebook or jot down ideas for my next blog entry. Along with long bus rides, these meetings provide prime pondering time. Sometimes I catch myself drifting and thinking about other things like candy bars (oddly, I’ve found this takes up a significant amount of my pondering time), where I will live when I get back to New York, or broccoli (I’m pretty sure I am suffering from an iron deficiency). 

And I have grown to respect the formality, even if it is not my personal taste. It’s what people know. It’s seen as the most polite way. It’s how things have been done. I do question sometimes: How do people really feel? Do they like the way these things go? Wouldn’t it just be quicker and easier to hash these things out over a quick cup of java (pun intended) at the old warung (street restaurant) and scrap all the red tape?

And after hours of a meeting, I am often left wondering – “Wait, what did we decide? What is the action?” But then I am handed a snack box, and all questioning of effectiveness and efficiency, and all thoughts of broccoli step-ball-change back to the recesses of my mind to make way for a more important focus: carefully wrapped, fried sugary treats.  

Here are pictures from a university graduation I attended with one of my counterparts and his family a few months ago. The ceremony portion accounted for about 4 hours of my aforementioned meeting time tally. During this 4-hour span, my counterpart's daughter spent most of the time playing games on my cell phone as his wife slept in her chair.

PCVs are not allowed to ride motorcycles which makes travel difficult sometimes here. I had to ride in a horse and buggy to the next city with my CP's wife and daughter as he rode beside on his motorcycle.

Please note one trumpet player is standing on another trumpet player's shoulders.
I tried to get a pic of the intricate jilbab styles that go with special occasions.The mortar boards are also 5-sided instead of 4-sided. Menarik!