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13.5.10

Bits and Pieces

Bits and Pieces is a collection of observations that haven't fleshed out into full articles yet, but which are interesting, at least to me.

Islam was introduced here in the 1600s by Arab traders. They first converted the Javanese in central Java. It was not entirely a peaceful transition. The first treaty between a Western nation and an Indonesian people was executed by the Portugese and the Sunda (west Java). The Sunda wanted protection from the Java, and the Portuguese wanted safe harbor and resupply ports in the region. The treaty was carved on a stone (recently rediscovered) and erected at the port of Tanjung Kelapa (Cape Coconut), which is now old town Jakarta. The name Jakarta is a contraction of the words Jaya Karta, which mean Free Town. The Portuguese were ultimately ousted by the Dutch, who held the West Indies until the 1940s, when the revolution finally established Indonesia as a sovereign nation.

The Bataknese and Manadonese are strongly christian cultures. The Batak were converted by German Lutheran missionaries in the 1800s, with Neubronner ultimately being credited with the conversion (I joke with Batak that the previous missionaries were delicious, as they were ritual cannibals). The Batak have their own church, called the HKBP, which is styled after Lutheran practices. The Batak are generally adverse to marriages with foreigners, but Germans are considered to be good matches, and so are tolerated. This makes sense since both cultures love beer and have no discernible sense of humor.

The Manadonese were converted in the 1600s by Dutch missionaries. They are widely considered to be the party animals of Indonesia. Of all the cultures here, Manado is the most Westernized. The people are also the most Western looking, with bridged noses and long oval faces. They are also relatively tall, as a group, compared to most other Indonesians. Manadonese are given to large celebrations and liberal consumption of alcohol, the most legendary variety being "cap tikus," which more or less translates as "mouse piss." Cap tikus is distilled coconut milk, which is then stored for several weeks with a fetal deer, not unlike the worm in mescal. It has a very high proof, though the actual number varies by who is telling you. I would guess about 80-proof. By iteself, it is clear, but with the deer fetus, it takes on a slightly reddish color. The deer is eaten after the booze is consumed.

Both the Bataknese and Manadonese eat dog, bat and squirrel. In Manado, dog meat is called RW, which is an abbreviation for two words that mean "small head." It is a specific breed of dog that is raised only for eating. It is considered a delicacy and is most often served at the groom's feast before a wedding. It is incredibly spicy (called rica-rica), as a lot of Manado food is. The Batak serve bat by battering and deep frying the entire animal. It is eaten, wings and all, with the hands. Places that serve it often go to great lengths to arrange the bat on the plate so that it stands up, balanced by the wings. The effect is somewhat disconcerting, though the flavor is very good, and the wings are crunchy like potato chips. It is served with a hot sauce that is quite formidable.

Although drinking alcohol is generally frowned upon in the open, many Indonesians enjoy various local creations. In addition to Cap Tikus, the Balinese are famous for Arak, which is an orange liquor not unlike Gran Marnier. The Javanese have two types of wine, one called simply Anggur Merah, red wine, and the other called Anggur Orang Tua, or Old Man Wine (also referred to as black wine). Orang Tua is seasoned primarily with anise, so that it has a light licorice flavor. It is normally served over ice in a single glass, which is passed around the group. Indonesians as a whole have a very low tolerance for alcohol, so it doesn't take much for everyone to be pretty well snockered. Drinking wine is considered to be low culture and is usually accompanied by low-class music, called "dangdut." Dangdut is the equivalent of folk music and shares many characteristics with C&W and street rap. The lyrics fall primarily into to two categories: drinking and love.

Magic is still a very strong influence in Indonesian culture. Though it is kept under wraps, it is still widely practiced, with spells, hexes and other practices even being a common feature in soap operas. The Dayak of central Borneo are said to have the most powerful magic. Many people are still deathly afraid of Dayak because of it. They said to be able to appear and disappear at will, make heads float through the air, and kill at a distance without weapons. A common form of magic is for a man (usually) to entrance a woman (usually) and have her give him all her money, including cleaning out bank accounts. The way this works is the man finds a woman who looks somewhat confused (say, at a mall). He taps her on the shoulder and begins speaking to her in a particular way that causes her to become bewitched. Variations include handing the victim a card or other object. Basically, it is a form of hypnotism, and lower class women especially seem to be susceptible to it. There is also a rather strange phenomenon in which primarily women are said to be invaded with spirits. I have witnessed this with individuals, who appear to go into a trance-like state and become completely flaccid and unresponsive. I have heard reports of large groups of women, for instance at a factory, all falling into this state simultaneously. The cure is usually a type of exorcism, performed by an imam. In any case, even reasonably intelligent and educated folks still have a strong belief in "hantu," or ghosts.

As far as the genders go, Indonesia is somewhat of a mixed bag when it comes to equality. In some ways, it is one of the most equitable cultures I have ever seen. Except in places where foreigners frequent, bathrooms are unisex. Indonesian language has a neutral pronoun that refers to either gender, analogous to the use of "they" in English as a general reference, though "dia" is singular and does not mean "it." There is no concept in the culture of, "women and children first," and good manners do not include holding doors for women or allowing them to pass first. One is just as likely to have woman hold a door for a man, that the other way around.

On the other hand, being a housewife and mother is still considered to be the highest ambition for a woman. There is a strong division of labor between inside and outside the house. In the household, the man is considered the highest authority and a woman will always defer to her husband. It is almost unthinkable that a man would clean house or do dishes and laundry, though in some cultures, the men cook on special occasions. A muslim woman is expected to give "salim" to her husband, which involves taking his right hand, bowing slighly and touching his hand to her cheek or forehead.

Table manners here are far from the Western norm. For one thing, Indonesians traditionally eat with the hands, though the use of fork and spoon are more common in public in larger cities. Elbows on the table and belching are common, though eating with the mouth open is considered "karas," or low class. When using a fork and spoon, both are used simulaneously, with the fork used for cutting and corralling food on the spoon, which is the primary utensil. Belching is not only tolerated but encouraged, because one of the most dreaded maladies here is "masuk angin," which means "wind enter," and is blamed for just about everything from stiff muscles to indigestion and headaches.

"Masuk angin" is so ingrained in the culture that there is a whole industry built up around it, including medicines, teas, massage, and a peculiar practice called, "kerokan." Watching an Indonesian get a massage is almost comical. Both the massager and massagee are belching like a frog chorus while releasing the "wind" that has invaded. There are scads of folk remedies and specially formulated teas to relieve "masuk angin." The practice that is most curious, though, is the "kerokan," in which eucalyptus oil (kayu putih) is liberally applied to one's back, then the masseuse takes a coin and scratches long swaths across the body. The theory is that if the lines turn red, then the wind is being released from those areas. If it is not properly done, then the wind will re-enter, but many times worse than before. Typicallly, someone who has received kerokan looks like they have been flogged. The Indonesian euphemism means "tiger stripes."

Speaking of euphemisms, there are quite a few in Indonesian. "Mati" means to be dead, but a person is said to be "meninggal," or in a continuing state of stillness. "Okelah kalo begitu" translates as OK if that-way, and is used something like "alrighty then." "Malu-malu kucing" means "shy-shy cat" but would translate as "coy." A cat nap would be "tidur-tidur ayam," or sleep-sleep chicken. One of my favorites is the term for speed bumps in the road. They are called, "polisi tidur," or sleeping police. Probably one of the most apt descriptions I've ever heard.

So until we meet again/sampai jumpa, your intrepid reporter is signing off.

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