Sunday, March 25, 2012

On the Slow Train

I was with a group of American friends on an escalator in a mall. We were engrossed in conversation, but all stopped as a blur passed by us on the left. Without looking, we knew that the fast walking man was a bule. My friends noted this because he uttered an "excuse me" before plowing through the standers. I noted it because he was the only one who needed to move faster than the already fast moving escalator. It is what I would do, and it stands in stark contrast to Indonesian culture. 

Recently, among my 5k racing, triathlon training, swing dancing, book making, and lesson teaching, I was challenged to slow down. My boyfriend, Loreto, sent me this link that contained a video from TED all about slowing down. Specifically, the speaker, Carl Honore, talks for 18 minutes (a TED thing) about his book In Praise of Slow and about the Slow Movement.

I am, and have always been, a workaholic/multitasker. I have many a-shameful anecdotes involving taking chemistry books to high school basketball games and Shakespeare to Superbowl parties, but I'll save you the details and myself the embarrassment; you can imagine the levels of nerdome. Despite being aware of my problem, I haven't been able to shake it - even here in the land of jam karet or 'rubber time.' I walk faster, worry more, and simply enjoy less. My Indonesian coworkers notice it: "Mba Jackie always worries," they sigh and shake their heads. They know better. They know everything will work out eventually, so there is no need to stress in the least. I have, in fact, learned from them over the past year and a half that I can accomplish more if I just slow down and listen. There is always a solution waiting to be uncovered just beneath the surface of a casual breakfast conversation or even within a five-minute friendly office chat in place of my usual power walk to the copier and back to my office. Sometimes I just need to fight the urge to buzz in and out to get the projector/speaker/schedule and just sit down and and ask about someone's weekend/lesson plans/children. It is, after all, what Carl Honore goes on about in his presentation: relationships.

He calls our western/American mentality the "Road Runner Culture" - go, go, go forth and be productive. My major problem, if I'm honest, is that I often value time and productivity over relationships. I can show off the fruits of my hard labor and get all the accolades I need to fulfill my life; I cannot get that same affirmation from having deep, solid relationships. I feel my stress levels rise rapidly if I'm out with friends (running, shopping, adventuring) and the hours pass by. My head tells me I could be doing more productive things at home with my computer and speedy wifi. I often blame it on being an introvert, but the truth is that my definition of productive revolves entirely around a tangible product - books, data, results. This is pathetic, not to mention destructive. All of this introspection has been magnified of late when because I have some pretty wonderful people in my life who do value relationships on a level that quite frankly, impresses and surprises me. My brothers (how did they get the gene and not me?), my sister-in-laws (though I promised not to mention their names and ruin their bad-ass image), some of my dearest and closest friends (Mo and Robyn - why they still claim me, I'll never know), and of course my very tolerant boyfriend.

If there is anywhere I can learn to slow down, it should be here in Indonesia. It's true that I can find plenty of work to throw myself into, but I am also surrounded by a collectivist culture that is defined by its deep-seated relationships. I could go into self-analysis for a long while, but instead I'll give you some tales of my latest attempt to slow down and do as Indonesians do...there are more colorful pictures this way.

This past weekend was a long weekend because of the Balinese new year holiday. So, I packed up and headed to the island of Lombok. My one and only goal was to have no goals. I wanted to live 4 unscheduled days on a beach and only invest energy in relationships with two of my American girl friends Tabitha and Jess. Here is what I/we did:

  • Got up when I wanted to 
  • Jogged or walked for the pleasure of jogging or walking - not for training
  • Discovered some pristine beaches
  • Hung out with some puppies
  • Floated in the ocean
  • Laid on the beach
  • Wrote in a journal
  • Used the internet only to write blogs (and do two very short work emails)
  • Talked to a lonely shop keeper
  • Played scrabble
  • Learned how to eat coconut meat straight from a coconut
  • Gazed slowly at a magnificent view of palm-tree covered hills
  • Ran through palm-tree covered hills and a few rivers
  • Chugged some water while a man sang on a bull horn
  • Sat on a front porch and sang along with a guitar
  • Talked to some giggly girls
  • Chatted with an old woman selling coconuts

Not bad for an earnest attempt at being slow. These things take time, after all. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are

The Balinese may be one of the coolest people groups I have ever met. Maybe it is my testosterone-laden, American background, but I don't usually expect to equate men in skirts (sarongs) with flowers behind their ears (worn after prayer) with uber coolness. But, this weekend, when I found myself surrounded with just such people celebrating the Balinese New Year, Nyepi, I couldn't help but feel infinitely inferior to them. Maybe it was their wildly dyed and spiked hair, or the sunglasses and folder arms, or maybe the cigarettes and, no...I don't think it was any of that. There's something different about the attitude of Balinese men and women that immediately make me want to be their friend just so I can seem less square-like by association. Granted, among the madness of the celebration, there were some sickly-thin rockers with mohawks, full sleeves, and gauges big enough to put my pinky through that were maybe too hard and perhaps a testament to the rampant drug problem in Bali and Lombok, but they were an exception.
My first drink-in-a-bag: Fresh coconut juice

I happened on the parade in honor of the Nyepi celebration after another American friend, Jess, invited me to Lombok for a relaxing, long weekend. Lombok is Bali's less popular neighbor, which means fewer tourists and many more opportunities to see the real Balinese people without the pretense of trying to entertain the bule. We were, in fact, two of only a handful of bule on the crowded parade route. Jess and her students graciously let me tag along with their troupe, despite my conspicuous lack of a sarong. Meanwhile, Jess explained to me that once a year, the Balinese hold the parade to drive out the bad spirits. To do this, groups of high schools students or any other community group can purchase an enormous effigy of a demon or spirit from Balinese folklore. These grotesque, paper-mache monsters are mounted on 10ftx10ft bamboo grids that the groups use to carry it down the parade route. They carry their own float. Does the coolness never end?

They don't just carry these floats, either, they hoist them high in the air with all the vigor of someone who is maybe possessed by the demon spirits they are carrying. They dash side to side along the route, run it in circles, bounce it up and down, and even charge down the route, causing the demon on board to come alive in a sinister dance and hurl itself at the crowd. The crowd, in return, dowse the demon with water as part of the purging process. The belief among the locals is that the effigy is very light at the beginning and becomes heavier and heavier because the demon is being driven out. I'm sure it's not because of gravity or exhaustion of carrying a 16ft tall statue down a kilometer-long parade route...

I found the Yetti!
I'm told the many heads of this guy represents our many-faced nature.
Goliath versus smaller Goliath?

The boys who carry the monster are driven along by the sounds of a mobile orchestra of percussion instruments - a drum line if you will. They played cymbals, banged on gongs, and beat rhythmically on instruments that are reminiscent of a xylophone. Again, it was all played with all the coolness and excitement of a Friday night football game.

We finished our kilometer long parade route, and Jess and I peeled off from the chaos to find some AC. The students kept going, hauling their now, badly damaged monster on to the end of the route. There awaited a large, empty pool just for burning all of the effigies and finally purging the town of the big bad meanies. The following day was a day of silence. All Balinese must stay in their homes without the use of electricity and without making any noises; they don't want to attract the demons back again. 

The whole day was madness, like I'd stepped into Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are crossed with battle royales from Drumline...on hallucinogens...with coconut juice in a bag. And that, my friends, is the real Balinese culture.

A culture all my own

"What is the traditional food of O-hi-o?"
"What is the traditional dance of O-hi-o?"
"Uh...does Hang on Sloopy count?"

These are just some of the tricky questions I face from my students or other curious Indonesians on a daily basis. Indonesia is like America in that it is a giant mix of different cultures and people groups; however, it is very different in the way that each of those different cultures holds tightly to their customs, language, clothing, food, dance, and even architecture. Going from one island to the next can feel like your entering an entirely new world. It would be like traveling from Ohio to Pennsylvania and having to switch languages - (which some would argue is a reality if you're going to Pittsburgh, but this is a little different). Therefore, every area is known for the special foods they cook and the special dances they dance, among other things. In fact, it is very common to bring back a sampling of at least the food for your coworkers and friends if you happen to travel to a new area. It is common-place to see people in the airport with a cardboard box full of oleh-oleh - special treats - to take back to their home towns.

Americans can claim a few foods, I guess: hamburgers, hotdogs, apple pie, Twinkies...but I always struggle to pinpoint a particular food that screams Ohio (although, I do try to bring buckeye candy back from time to time). Dancing is even worse. The Electric Slide and the chicken dance are wedding favorites, but they don't really match up to the costumes and stories involved in a traditional Indonesian dance. As a self-proclaimed dancer, I felt a little ashamed to come up empty-handed when asked about traditional dances from America/Ohio. There is a dance that can stand up to all of that, however, and it is a dance that grew up in America and can be claimed by everyone in the states: Swing.

I'd dabbled with the idea of teaching swing dance to Indonesians during my first round in Indonesia. Lo and I even did a small, two-hour workshop with some high school students when he came to visit. But I still wasn't satisfied; swing dancing has so much more to offer. It encapsulates an entire generation and spans so many huge moments in American history. So, I decided to buckle down, do some homework, and do a presentation worthy of this larger-than-life dance form.

I went through the progression of jazz music and swing dancing from its roots in slavery to the Charleston of the Roaring Twenties and on into the Lindy Hop (jitterbug) of the Harlem Renaissance. I was mostly worried about talking way above the heads of my audience, mostly high school students, but I was able to weave in lots of visuals and demonstrations to keep things hoppin'. With my Madonna-esq microphone headset and a super cool ipad to control my prezi (just discovered this presentation software from some colleagues...amazing!), I bounced through the different hallmarks of swing dance. A woman from the Jakarta Globe, one of the English language newspapers in Jakarta, wrote this article which nicely sums up the history lesson and presentation: American Dancer Brings Swing Dancing to Jakarta, or if you need to kill 2 hours, you can watch the whole presentation here: AtAmerica.

Having been unsuccessful at finding anyone in Jakarta who knew about swing dancing, I stressed quite a bit about how to properly demonstrate a partner dance. I should have known better to worry. God stepped in, right on time, and provided me with Chris. Chris is an Indonesian salsa dancer who was curious about Lindy hop, so he agreed to meet up once to see what he could pick up.Within a week of our meeting, Chris had introduced me to an entire arts ministry from a church in Jakarta. These great folks have dabbled in many styles of dance, but never swing. Undaunted, they agreed to meet for four Mondays before the presentation and take a crash course in the dance. They were fantastic.
Introducing the Jakarta Jitterbugs: L-R, Leo, Claudia (and son), Heni, me, and Chris
We rounded off the evening of Swing by teaching the audience a popular swing line dance called, The Jitterbug Stroll. This is a goofy dance with a lot of signature swing moves from the golden era of Big Bands and Lindy Hop. My heart swelled when the audience wouldn't be satisfied with just two rounds through the dance.

Some movers and shakers interested in Swing classes!
I'm not an expert on the history of swing dancing, so I'm almost positive I screwed up somewhere, somehow with all the facts and timeline. And, my mind went blank on some of the names of the popular swing tricks. Then there was the issue of going too fast...I had to suppress a minor panic attack when I realized I was finished with 2/3s of my presentation but still had half the time spare. But, despite all of these problems it far exceeded my expectations. I was unprepared for the questions about where people could go to learn more about swing dancing, and when would I be starting lessons in Jakarta. Both really good problems to have! I gave out my email address with high hopes of some day starting a regular class.

If you're listening State Department, the People want Swing Dancing! If you can send a modern dance troupe from NYC all over the globe as cultural ambassadors, surely, swing dancing - with all of its history, glitz, and glory - can do just as much to answer that nagging question: What is American Culture? I know some people you can call.