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A Different Sort of Silence

Thursday, April 18, 2013

As an exchange student, silence has sort of become my new way of life. Speaking tends to take a backseat to listening, to watching the frantic motions and trying to decipher the mix of Indonesian/Javanese spoken by everyone around me.

While I was in Bali this past weekend, silence took on a new meaning as I had the opportunity to take part in observing the Hindu holiday of Nyepi.

Nyepi is one of the rituals which marks the Balinese Hindu new year, and involves spending an entire day - traditionally, from 6 AM on Nyepi to 6 AM the next day - fasting, not using electronics, and doing self-reflection.

It's also forbidden to go outside. Except for traditional guardsmen, who patrol around with flashlights checking for disturbances in observation of the holiday, Bali's normally roaring streets are completely deserted.

Before Nyepi, there were a few days full of rituals unique to Bali's brand of Hinduism. One involved making an offering in front of the house, then marching throughout the entire building smudging the air with burning wood, and banging pots and pans in order to drive out any lingering demons or otherwise unpleasant presences in the home.

After that, the entire neighbourhood seemed to pour outside to see the parading and subsequent destruction of ogoh-ogoh, paper mache representations of demons which sit by the sides of the road, giving passing motorists the stink eye for days before the holiday.

Once night fell, the ogoh-ogoh were carried through the streets by groups of tipsy Balinese boys, followed by a raucous band playing percussion in maddening beats, and crowded in by hoardes of Balinese and foreigners alike, all of us dazzled by the ceremony and utterly compelled to join in the parade.

At the end of the night, the ogoh-ogoh were all destroyed by the boys, who spun and shook them until they groaned and toppled over themselves. Although usually burned the same night, the village we followed decided to burn them the day after Nyepi, which was the next morning. Walking home under the buzzing yellow street lights, giving a piggy-back ride to one of the kids who followed us to see the parade, I was never more excited at the prospect of waking up to an absolutely lazy day.

Nyepi, however, turned out to be more than just a lazy day. It was a day to discover the beauty of just sitting and being, of talking to everyone I was with, of getting henna and playing with the kids next door who left their house just to come and hang out with the new bule neighbors. And, cliche though this may be, you really don't know what you've got until it's gone: Nyepi gave me a new appreciation for AC, my iPod, the ever-constant background drone of the TV.

My Nyepi henna, courtesy of Avery

In a holiday jam-packed with trips to the beach, breathless walks in holy sites, and reveling in the incredible selection of familiar Western foods, Nyepi was a breath of fresh air. It reminded me of the importance to just take a second, every day, to stop and think, and to wonder at all the things around me. And most of all it taught me that silence can sometimes be just as powerful as words, that observation is instrumental in action. It's just a balance that needs to be struck.

And now enjoy some random pictures of my various adventures in the Island of the Gods. 

A word of advice to all Asian shop assistants...

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Standing behind me, following me every time I take more than three steps, and directly staring at me while not saying a word will not exactly entice me to keep browsing at your store. Neither will shouting 'silahKANNNN' or 'cari apaaaa?' at me as I walk by.

The shopping in Asia is seriously amazing - but shopping environments sometimes aren't. The cheapest malls are often the busiest, and usually clothing stores are these extremely tiny little boutiques which are always buzzing with twice the safe amount of shoppers. By extremely tiny, I do mean extremely tiny. Think, the size of an average bedroom. Sometimes stores are bigger but typical boutiques are about that size.

Also, the place to try clothes on, if there is one, is usually a mirror with a curtain you pull around. Most of the time there's a sizeable gap between the wall and the edge of the curtain, making things kind of exciting as you hurry to yank on some clothes so as not to risk accidentally flashing anybody.

Pasar are a whole different matter however. They're like malls but instead of having just assorted clothing, food, and trinket stores there are also places that sell household items, work uniforms, and groceries - basically anything you'll need for everyday life. Pasar (the word means 'market') are always very cheap so long as you bargain hard.

There's a pasar in Surabaya called DTC (Darmo Trade Center) which is my favorite, because below the mall part there's a winding subterranean world stuffed absolutely full of vendors. I like to buy shoes there, because I can score deals like $8 for Toms and $9 for Converse - but there's also clothes, Islamic items, and lots and lots of fresh food. If you can deal with the stench and unsanitary-ness of the grocery section, that is.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ampel, also known as Surabaya's Arab quarter (kampung Arab), is one of my favorite places in the entire city. The whole area is centered around two things: Masjid Ampel, and the grave of Sunan Ampel.

Masjid Ampel is a gorgeous mosque, where all of the tempat wudhu (places to wash before prayer) are located outside, turning it into a kind of open-air complex. People are constantly washing, praying, strolling around, or just sitting in the shade of the mosque so that it always seems to buzz with activity.

There's also some big fountains with water good for drinking straight from the tap, something which I don't even understand because all Indonesian tap water is dangerous. However, I've drunk that water and indeed did not get sick. So s'all good I guess!

Located very close to Masjid Ampel is a graveyard, the focal point of which is the tomb of Sunan Ampel. There's usually a big group of religious pilgrims sitting at the tomb and praying. To explain this you'll need a bit of back story.

In Indonesian history there is a group of nine sainted men, called the Wali Songo, who were responsible for helping spread Islam in Indonesia. (They didn't establish it here, however: Islam was already on the rise when the Chinese admiral Zheng He arrived in 1405 CE). One of the Walis was, you guessed it - Sunan Ampel! Being a revered figure, naturally his gravesite is a big draw for Muslims who wish to pay their respects.

Also: Wali Songo roughly means nine saints. Wali is derived from the Arabic word meaning saint/honored one/friend of God, and songo is the Javanese word for nine. Sunan, meaning 'honored', is a name given to each of the Walis.

Sunan Ampel is the second in the first row

But my favorite part of Ampel isn't the masjid or the tomb, it's the area that surrounds them. With a giant, crowded marketplace, Ampel seems to be the best place to buy Islamic goods in Surabaya. You can get everything from ready-wear jilbabs, Islamic clothing, jewellery, souvenirs from Mecca and Medina, sarongs, perfume, incense, and any variety of dates you can imagine there.

There are also the quiet streets with houses all stacked upon each other, the only traffic to avoid being that of becaks, playing children, and the occasional motorbike. It's the perfect place to spend a day wandering around, just exploring... But I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Update on my life

So I have 76 days left in Indonesia.

I can barely wrap my mind around that fact. I still remember working on the post about 'only' having seven months left. I can even remember writing about having 90-something days to go. This is such a cliche, but time really does fly when you're having fun... and when you're on exchange.

The past six months have been more formative for me than entire years in America. I look back at the girl who boarded the plane in Boise and she is lightyears away from who I am now. For one, my appearance has changed: my hair is longer, back to brown, and I've lost weight, probably due to the fact that I can't secretly buy myself McDonald's every other day.

I also feel different as a person. It's still really early to tell (I have major reflection to do, I know), but I'm more secure as a person, more confident, better at communicating, and bilingual to boot. Exchange is the hardest thing I have ever done, and it's tested everything I have and reshaped me to become someone different, someone better than who I was before.

As you all know, right after I published my YOLO post, my friend and fellow exchange student Morgan passed away in Bali. That was kind of the catalyst for the low point of my exchange, which lasted from December through February. I know it's normal for students to hit that point but I feel like so many factors combined to drive me to slam way past rock bottom to the other side of the planet.

During that time, as a rule days were bad. I passed through them as if I were walking through mud wearing lead boots. Of course some really awesome things happened (Thailand!), and I wasn't not happy, but at times even getting up the motivation to reply to an email or shower on a Saturday morning was difficult.

I don't regret the low point; it was just as important as the good times, which thankfully have come again. A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor, and all that, right? Now I'm just looking forward to spending my last two months in this beautiful country making the most of my language skills, my knowledge of the culture, and the freedom that I've been given to explore the city and hang out with my friends.

And now, to briefly summarize what I've been up to these past few months, I have...

Gone to Bali, Bandung, Malang, and the hospital; begun to study Javanese; stayed overnight in an Islamic boarding school; swum in the Java Sea; begun to learn the local public transportation system; hung out with my friends, both Indonesian and American; bought shoes on the black market; hung out with my extended host family; bonded with small Indonesian children who used to be afraid of me; gone to multiple weddings; modelled; ate applesauce from a tupperware container while on a public bus; explored the Arab quarter of Surabaya; gone to a fashion show; tweeted (a lot); watched new movies; and generally tried to blend myself in with the society around me as much as possible. Considering I'm a bule, that might be difficult. But I'll be damned if I don't try anyway!

In Bali

One of my favorite pics from a photoshoot
we did for fun with an Indonesian friend

Eating applesauce on public transportation...
not me but you get the idea

Waiting - the Indonesian way - for our bemo to come

About me

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I'm Sara, the freckled bule, one out of eight of the coolest people in the world. I spent a year in Indonesia as a KL/YES Abroad student but now I live in Boise, Idaho. Welcome to my bloggity blog.


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