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Thursday, October 24, 2013

There's just something about what I call the 'Allah' words that cannot be replicated in any language but the original, nor their flavor in the context of any culture but an Islamic one.

The 'Allah' words are just that - Arabic words that praise Allah, or invoke Allah, or forbid in the name of Allah. They're the Islamic equivalent of 'Oh my God' or 'Jesus Christ' or what have you that Americans spit out on the daily. And like those little phrases, in Indonesia you'll hear an 'astagfirullah' or 'alhamdullilah' about every couple of sentences, if not more frequently.

Astagfirullah is for situations when you want to remove blame from yourself, taunt a friend for their ungodliness, or hopefully forbid something from happening altogether. Alhamdullilah is a prayer of thanks to God, while masha'Allah expresses more specific joy and appreciation, while protecting from bad luck and preventing jinxes. Finally, insha'Allah tells you that something will happen - but on God's time, not necessarily yours.

There are many, many, many more Allah words, like Allahu Akbar (God is great), and subhan'Allah (the closest translation might be 'hallowed is thy name') but, at least in Indonesia, none are quite so prolific as the main four.

I love these words because they're powerful. An 'alhamdullilah' can be drawn out on nearly every syllable. 'alhaAAAAAAMMMDUUUUULLIILAAAAAAHHHH' - screaming it when I found out that a scholarship application I was worried about was due 15 days later than I thought was so much more satisfying than going for a 'thank God!', or even a 'SWEET BABY JESUS, THANK YOU, OH LORDY', although the power of the second can't really be denied, and I can't exactly say I haven't used it before.

There's just something about them. Maybe it's the novelty, or the little reminder of Indonesia every time I get shoved in the hall and think 'astagfirullah', the way I always think back to my friend Farah when the word 'masha'Allah' comes to mind.

All I can say is that I miss hearing the 'Allah' words and being understood, not given weird looks, when shouting them to the heavens.

"Indonesia's Transsexual Muslims"

Saturday, October 19, 2013

As someone who admittedly didn't do all that much to further education about all of Indonesia while in-country, today while browsing documentaries I saw this one pop up on the sidebar and had to see what it was all about. 

I know banci (the kinda dirty word for men who dress as women) from the jokes and jibes of my friends in class, and the fact that according to Avery's host dad there's a forest where all of the banci in Surabaya like to hang out. The Banci Forest, if you will. So there's that.

This 20-minute documentary is fascinating. In it we meet Mariyani, a man turned woman who once sold her own body for a price lower than that of a bowl of bakso - about RP 4500, less than a dollar. She runs a religious school for Muslims like her, who might not be accepted elsewhere, in the otherwise rather conservative city of Yogyakarta, Central Java. 

Don't mind the preview image and give it a look! 

Indonesian Rivers

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Scene: David and I, outside some hotel in the center of Jakarta, December-something 2012, walking alongside a river at the seamy hour of about midnight. The sidewalks ahead are washed in a glow of dull yellow lamplight. Everyone else is out and I feel terrible, physically and emotionally.

The river, snaking alongside us without seeming to be moving at all, smells like an open toilet. I observe as much.

"You wanna know why that river smells like crap? 'Cause people crap in it!"

And - as stupidly obvious as David's observation is, I laugh, and laugh and laugh, remembering all the times I've seen old food peddlers squatting on the conveniently angled concrete banks, or seen children with their little brown butts just barely hanging over the edges of combined bridges/sidewalks over man-made canals. 

At that moment, I felt so far from Boise, where the river (which runs straight through downtown) is so clear you can toss a stone into the current and watch to see where it comes to rest at the bottom. 

Rivers in Indonesia are never clear, nor even a discernibly natural color. Maybe they're an earthy brown in Borneo or Sumatera or the village at least, but in human-infested Java cities, you'd be more accurate to describe a river's water as 'minty'. Whether or not they stink depends on the day, and probably the diets of the people whose houses feed into it, or squat over it. The river right near my house would get to stinking about every night at sunset; I affectionately dubbed it 'the s#!t ditch'. 

Rivers also serve as convenient trash bins, and the homes of skipping bugs, and tiny fish who are in constant danger of being fished out by boys with handmade fishing rods. They squat in neat rows at the river's edge, contemplating the water, slowly baking in the sun, the keenest observers of life going by. 

Don't be fooled by the greenery

Despite the filth and neglect, rivers still play an important part in Indonesian life and lore. Entire tent cities prefer to take shape along their banks, and certain people use the water to wash dishes, their hands, and their nether regions. It isn't uncommon to see boys and men bathing in the filthy brown waters, and their pure joy at playing around for even a few minutes out of the day overshadows the fact that they're doing their personal hygiene more of a disservice than anything.

Many times, I was told that a river in Surabaya was home to sharks and crocodiles, and that its waters, though nearly stand-still at first glance, were treacherous. The name 'Surabaya' happens to be a combination of the words 'suryo' and 'buaya' - shark and crocodile. Legend has it that a shark and a crocodile battled in the very river making its way through Surabaya's center, and their struggle has been immortalized in statues around the city. The most famous is in front of KBS, and aside from the hero's monument, it's the best symbol of Surabaya there is.


Definitely lore gone a little awry, but there are worse things to do than buy into a myth when living in Indonesia.

What To Do in Madura

Friday, October 4, 2013

While dreaming up a good angle from which to write about my trip to New Mexico, I was randomly reminded that I have yet to tell you all of my and Avery and David's adventures in Madura. And since David's birthday was a couple of days ago I want to remind him of our AMAZING ADVENTURES, so here you go.

Madura. The word evokes an image of men in red-and-white striped shirts, probably screaming at their beloved honey-rubbed racing cattle. They are a famously rough people, even rougher than Surabayans (shockingly enough). But, I say rough in an affectionate way. The Maduranese the type to grab your arm in their utter excitement to ask you where you want to go and forcibly get you there, while only ripping you off a little bit.

To those who don't know the difference between Madura and madu*, Madura is a teeny tiny little island that's about 15 minutes by ferry away from Surabaya. They're famous for karapan sapi, an epic bull race held every October where prized bulls are rubbed down with honey, beer, and flowers for good luck before they run. It's a huge deal there.

Madura is connected to Java by Suramadu, the longest bridge in Indonesia, which is much beloved. The name, a combination of Surabaya and Madura, is the product of Indonesia's fascination with abbreviations. Avery and I were asked multiple times during our year if we had been to Suramadu yet. You can find Suramadu adorning t-shirts, expensive batik, and all manner of other things; people will stop there for pictures as if it's actually a point of great interest.

It is not. It is a bridge. From what I hear, it takes less than five minutes and a toll of $3 to drive across. Not that Indonesia shouldn't be proud or excited about it, it's just... a bridge.

Or, uh, you be the judge of Suramadu's worth!

Cynicism aside, the week when David came, we all decided that a trip to Madura was essential. For the most part we all had never really had a chance to get off of Java, and even though Madura wasn't very far, it was still something. So we scoured the tiny section in David's guidebook for something to do once we landed, and set off.


I was really grumpy that day - but I was wearing my favorite shirt, so there's that! The ferry from Surabaya to Madura costs RP 4.000 or about 40 cents, but making up for the price over driving, there's an unending stream of people trying to sell you quail eggs and instant coffee while en route. 

The harbour is gorgeous if you ignore the floating trash and the questionable toothpaste color of the water. At one point you can see where the harbor water collides with sea water. Surabaya is a naval base, and you can see clusters of old ships everywhere along with the hubbub of shipping vessels marooned closer to each other and the land.

Our port of arrival in Madura was Kamal, a dusty port city which features a bemo station, a few dilapidated tent restaurants, and goats. Lots of goats. The three bule were accosted immediately, and there was a lot of confusion involving Maduranese men shouting to each other and making sure we were taken care of. Having chartered a bemo, we were off to Sambilangan, a tiny town home to an old Dutch lighthouse and the only place we could reasonably reach and return from before nightfall at 5 PM.

The Madura countryside is gorgeous - lush, green, and glistening with the watery faces of rice paddies. It was the idyllic jungle paradise I had always dreamt of. On the way, we listened to the driver and two young women fondly bickering, intermittently answering their timid questions about us and America. 

Sambilangan was indeed tiny - a couple warung, and what would turn out to be a handful of farming families living nearby. The lighthouse was gorgeously jutting out of the landscape, unmistakably Dutch in all its white and metal glory. It was around 100 years old, with all the original metalwork and signs still in relatively good condition. We paid to enter and rushed inside, to be greeted by a dingy interior, and a stomach-clenching empty elevator shaft shooting up from the ground to the top, 200 feet above. 

The climb was long - 200 feet worth of staircases and stopping at every opportunity to look out the windows at the scenery, and the cows below. Graffiti was everywhere, mostly fairly recent scribbles, declarations of love and names paired up with hearts. The only other people there were a quiet Indonesian family on their way down. They offered us tired smiles as we continued up, probably glad they didn't have to make that trip again.

"Look! It's suckling!!" - David
The man, the myth, the legend

The climb, of course, was so worth it. We poked around the lantern room for a while, finding out that the lighthouse was decommissioned and the light would never guide men home again, before the fumes of motor oil drove us out to fresh air. Even out on the deck, everything was cramped and precariously close to the only thing protecting us from falling to the ground below - a little cast-iron fence.

We ended up happening across some friends who had much less than that keeping them from disaster. A few guys, probably about our age, were hooked up to harnesses on the top of the lighthouse, messing around with metal and doing repairs on the roof. We could hear banging and drilling the entire time we were up there. I shouted up to them: 

"Mas! Takut ga?" ("Bro! Aren't you scared?")

"Tidak! Ada tali." ("Nope. We have ropes.")

The worker looked a little shocked that someone was talking to him, and in turn I was shocked that most of the structure keeping them aloft was made of bamboo. Their faith in it was incredible as they must have been at least 230 feet above the ground.

We turned to see that another young guy had either climbed down or was helping the others from the same place where we were standing. Though he was very shy and hesitant to talk to us, we coerced him into getting a picture with us.

The singular thought I had while wandering another direction on the deck and staring out at the landscape was this is it. This is the rainforest. I'm here. It was so shocking that something which was so foreign and unimaginable when I had only lived in a scrub desert my whole life, was spread out before me. The rainforest. I was an exchange student, living in the freakin' rainforest. I had dreamed of the moment when I could see it in real life ever since I learned of the rainforests' existence, and its plight, and had done multiple school projects on the subject.

Despite everything that was weighing me down then, I felt free, and so proud of myself to have gotten so far. I was seeing the world, in a way I couldn't have even dreamt of when I was younger.

But sadly, a fact stands out that kind of diminishes the inspirational power of that story: I don't think that Madura even has any real rainforest. I'm told it was temperate or something like that. Doesn't make it any less pretty though. 

Before it was time to board our bemo and get back to Surabaya, we decided to explore the haphazard veins of the rice paddies/mangrove forest. It turned out to be just as fascinating as our trip up the lighthouse. It was untouched, wholly original, and enough for an entire day's worth of slow strolling. Shacks were set up here and there, as were little fish traps on the muddy shores. Snails crawled in the muck; we tripped over home-made wooden bridges fit snugly from one edge of the earth to another. 

My camera was dying at that point though, so I got just a few pictures, but as it began to sprinkle and I covered my head with the sarong I had hastily packed that morning, the feeling of 'oh my God this is happening' came back. I was squishing through a mangrove forest with three of my best friends, doing 'what backpackers do', as David had put it. Not even the irritated driver or my hurting wallet could diminish the high that suddenly overtook my previously sullen mood. 

We got back to Kamal in one piece, paid an exorbitant $15 to the driver, and rode our ferry back to Surabaya shores. Heading to my host family's house, we boarded an extremely crowded bemo, where I was forced to spend a good ten minutes sitting on Avery's lap just so we could all squeeze in. It was the last chance we had to take public transport before everything shut down, and we weren't about to give up on it just because 25 people were shoved in a vehicle that logically should have barely fit 12.

Ty-pi-cal is all I have to say about that, and this picture, and everything else about that day.

*Madura is an island and madu is honey

Also, as for the title of this post, I still don't know. You tell me!

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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