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6.3.11

The Javanese Wedding

It's been a hectic week.

We spent the past four days in Medan, which is a lovely city, the third largest in Indonesia, on the northeast coast of Sumatera.  It was an incredibly nice break from Jakarta.  The traffic is almost non-existant, compared to our daily life here, and the town is extreme clean, which is a pleasant shift from the usual.

There are massive trees all around Medan.  And when we say massive, we mean six feet across and occasionally more.

And SIDEWALKS!

Now don't get us wrong.  Jakarta has sidewalks.  If you look closely between all the street-vendor stalls, you can occasionally find something with pavement that one would identify as a sidewalk.  When you can find a sidewalk in Jakarta that isn't covered with vendors, it is usually a military-style obstacle course, which for a sighted human being presents a major challenge, but for us hard-of-seeing folks, they are impassable.  It is often easier to take your chances and walk in the street than to try and navigate the walking paths.

As for Medan's traffic, we had to laugh.  Our local guide complained about a slow patch that we encountered after leaving the airport.  "Macet," he said.  We nearly fell out of the car laughing.  It was NOTHING like the wall-to-wall gridlock that is daily life in Jakarta.

Medan has a unique from of public transportation called becak.  They are essentially a motorcycle with a large, covered sidecar.  Though we are quite tall by Indonesian standards, we were comfortable inside.  As per usual, we negotiated the price before getting in.  Standard operating procedure for foreigners is to quote a price that is about 200% to 300% the local rate.  The average tourist will think the higher rate is still cheap by, say, New York standards, but we refuse to be taken for a ride.

We were in Medan on contract to assess the English skills of all the employees in a major corporation.  There are a total of 5,000, and we have a couple of teams fanning out across the country to try to finish the task within the coming month.  The idea will be to customize a computer-based training program that is tailored to each individual, so that their English skills meet a certain proficiency calculated according to their job function. Most international corporations require a certain level of English proficiency from employees in order to deal with international customers.  English is the default business language throughout the world.

We are lucky our mother made us learn English from the cradle, since almost no one speaks Texan outside that great nation.

Once we arrived back in Jakarta this morning, we jumped in the car and were whisked away to the wedding party of a friend's sister.  When we say whisked, we mean that in the Jakarta sense of sitting in complete grid-lock for an hour and a half to go 10 kilometers.  We entertained several fantasies of moving to Medan during the trip.

When we arrived, we noticed that a large tent had been erected in front of the house.  The outside was unremarkable, but the inside had been nicely finished out with red and yellow fabric and full lighting harness.  A small stage had been placed at the front of the tent, with an area for a small band on the side.

Standard procedure for a Javanese wedding is that the couple wear traditional outfits and sit on a small couch on the stage.  Arriving guests sign in and usually receive a small fan to help with the heat.  One then proceeds to the stage to greet the couple, and more often than not, the parents who sit on the respective sides of the couple.  One congratulates the couple with the traditional hand-shake, which is done by holding the heels of the hands together with the fingers opened out, and then sandwiching the other person's fingers in a gesture that is somewhat like a ritualized receiving of a gift.  When greeting the groom, one then toches one's chest, and if greeting the bride, one folds the hands as if in prayer and bows slightly.

The costumes are quite brilliant.  The man's is normally a gold color with some design or pattern intricately woven into it.  The pants are loose like pajamas and the top is a tunic which drops to about mid-thigh.  He wears a wide sash that is tied in the back with a small hat that is completely plain, except for a small tail in the back.  Normally, this costume is worn with a ceremonial knife held in the knot of the sash.

The bride wears an elaborate headpiece  that covers the entire head and has yellow flowers or bangles that hang down on both sides.  The dress is a full-length gown with intricate weavings and applices.  The color normally reflects those of the family's batik, or tartan, much like the Irish and Scottish.  In this case, the family was from Yogyakarta, so the motif pattern included small, circular elements, and the family's colors were red and white, so there were a number of variations on this theme.

We were wearing a beautiful batik that was given to us by some of our students at Pertamina.  It had a combination motif from Madura and Yogyakarta with red and gold colors.  The two patterns are separated by a blue diagonal stripe with a wave form running from the left shoulder to the lower right hem.  The diagonal pattern indicates a knight of the realm, or defender of the king, and the wave form indicates loyalty or constancy, like the waves in the ocean.

After greeting the couple, one proceeds to eat.  There are food tables lining the tent with a great number of selections, most of which range from spicy to drop-dead.  Typically, one can find some kind of ice, like a snow-cone.  The most common flavor is coconut with a fruit, like mango.  Bakso soup is another common offering, which is meatballs of chicken or beef in a hearty stock with green onions and other vegetables.  No Javanese wedding would be complete without sate, in this case chicken, which is skewers of bite-sized meat grilling and dipped in a sauce.  There was a wide selection of delicious foods, which we sampled liberally, all with the ubiquitous steamed rice.

After eating, it was time for dancing.  The small band, comprised of a guitarist and a keyboardist, was playing dangdut, which is essentially the Indonesian version of country music.  It has elements of Arabic and Mediterranean influences, but with a unique island flair.  Dangdut is especially popular in the kampung, or villages, but city folks often look down on it.  It is infinitely danceable, of course.  One can hardly sit still when the music starts.

Dancing usually involves the men standing around doing a sort of rhythmic shuffle, with the arms held about chest high and the fingers balled up with the thumbs sticking up.  There are some more complex line-dancing steps, as well.

Typically, the young single women will get up to dance or sing, and the men are expected to give them money while they perform.  In some cases, the money is held between the fingers while they dance or sing, with the idea being that the most desireable and/or beautiful will have the most bills.

Being bule (white boy), we were assumed to have a bottomless pocket, however we had exhausted both our supply of small bills and our body after an hour or so.  Also, being bule meant that while we danced, there was a small army of photographers and video folks all recording the event, since there aren't many of us who attend these down-home events.

Full to overflowing with delicious food, exhausted of both energy and money, and sweating profusely from the heat and spice, we finally made our escape and collapsed into the car.  The culture shock of coming from Medan to Jakarta and straight into a wedding was almost more than we could bear.

Medan has a large Batak and Chinese population, whose cultures contrast sharply with Javanese.  It's almost like two different countries.  In the space of two hours, we radically shifted gears from the sleepy, tree-lined tranqulity of Medan to the overwhelming sea of competing humanity in Jakarta.

Exhausted and on the verge of convulsions, we collapsed into our bed, grateful to be home at last, though wishing for the quiet green spaces in Sumatera.  Tomorrow, we head to Denpasar, which is the largest city in Bali, about a two-hour flight east, in the opposite direction of Medan.  Here again, we will encounter yet another culture shock, as we go from Christian to Muslim to Hindu, and from Batak/Chinese to Javanese to Balinese.

With any luck, we may even get to the beach for the first time in three years.  Also, having learned a good many bad words in Bataknese, we are looking forward to doing the same in Balinese.  We already know that the Indonesian word, kenyang, which means 'satisfied,' and is often said at the end of a meal, has the meaning of a certain part of the male anatomy in the Balinese dialect.  Looks like we'll have to be careful after dinner...

Stay tuned.

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