Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Anyway, my principal, Heru Subroto, thought it would be good for the film to include an American. So he had the director write in a character named Mr. Joe, who speaks almost nothing but Indonesian and who is apparently an art collector of some importance. I became Mr. Joe. The original idea was for me to have a line or two--get in, get out, add some multicultural flavor to the project. At a read-through last week, the director and said two, maybe three lines. But when the script arrived at my house Monday night, I had the the better part of two small-type pages of dialogue to deliver. Needless to say, this presented some serious challenges. Maybe you could memorize them? someone suggested. Maybe. But I don't even know these words. And we start shooting in a couple hours. Maybe you could read the lines? Yes, I can read. You can tell me how to pronounce the words and I can read. We decided on cue cards.
Shooting began Tuesday afternoon in a large and empty house across the street from the women's crisis center. Before I could participate, though, we had to stop at the office of Magelang's education department boss and clear it with him. Pak Heru and an English teacher from my school accompanied me, and after some pleasantries and about three minutes of chit chat, the boss said OK and sent us off to make a movie. While the crew set up their gear, a couple of the other actors and I read through our lines and eventually it was time to shoot.
I'm in a total of two scenes, both related to art collecting. In one, I basically commission a painting from a down-on-his-luck artist. As far as I understand the whole sweep of our PSA plot, he's the would-be wife-beater. We meet in my living room (scene one) and I express interest in seeing his work. But later, when he actually shows me the work (scene two), I reject it as crap and tell him deal's off. I wave him away as a talentless hack and storm out of the room. That's it. Total shooting time: Seven hours, including a long lunch break and afternoon prayers.
We did close-ups, long shots, zoom shots, I-don't-know-what-all shots. And throughout we had to be careful to get my cue cards somewhere near but not too near the camera. No looking into the camera! We shot in short pieces--the other actors, who speak Indonesian, couldn't remember their lines either--and I was able to keep up for the most part. In between takes, the English teacher who accompanied me to the shoot, kept giving me directions and acting advice, often drowning out the actual director's directions. Use your face more! This guy was supposed to be translating for me and holding the cue cards but once shooting began he completely forgot about those humdrum tasks. He cajoled the cameraman; he moved one group of lights. He took issue with the director's ideas. And at one point he actually walked out for about 40 minutes, leaving me to figure out the lines and directions for myself. Truth be told, it wasn't that hard to do. The story's pretty straightforward, and the overall vibe was campy.
Highlights of the shoot included hanging out with the crew over lunch and trying to communicate (I no English, mister; I not much Indonesian!), and a visit to the set by Magelang's deputy mayor. He sat for a while in the front parlor, wearing a khaki uniform with gold badge and gold epaulets, and had sweet tea while the entire crew came out to greet him. He asked if I'd help him with his English some time (sure) and said good luck. I don't think the deputy mayor visits the set most days but the city does oversee the shooting. We were all made to sign our names and affiliations in a logbook--both at last week's read-through and at yesterday's shoot--that will be turned over to the local authorities as proof, I guess, that real people participated in the film made with city funds. There are a lot of sign-in sheets here.
After we wrapped up shooting for the day, Pak Heru took me and the English teacher out for lamb satay at an outdoor cafe in downtown Magelang. The food was excellent and the setting homey: We sat on a cement loading platform behind a set of carts where the cook prepared our food. The cafe staff covered the cement with empty rice bags and set out small, low tables. We sat at the tables--no chairs--and ate quickly as the place filled with people. When we were almost finished with the meal, Pak Heru got very excited. The guy sitting next to us, an older Indonesian guy with long white hair, was a famous singer. Heru introduced himself, cracked several jokes, and asked to have his picture taken with the singer.
After dinner, Pak Heru went home and the English teacher and I went back to school. I asked about the singer. He's famous, right? Do you know any of his songs? Do I know songs by Nomo Kuswoyo? Of course! And he began to sing. Pretty folk-pop songs from the 1960s and 1970s. Songs about women, and home.
My police registration card arrived in the mail today. It's signed by the Inspector General of the National Police in Jakarta and attests to the fact that I've been sufficiently vetted by the proper authorities and adjudged sound enough of mind and circumstance to warrant the card. Which is nice. I'm not exactly sure why I have the card or what it took to get one but the folks running the Fulbright program here in Indonesia told us that a police registration card is difficult to come by. In a country still very much defined by those who have access or an inkling of access to power and those who most definitely do not, possessing a difficult thing suggests a little social or political heft. It's exclusive, or exclusive-ish, and maybe the cops don't give you the hassle you might otherwise get as a foreigner working in a country where the official unemployment rate—hovering around 8 percent—is a patently ginned-up fiction. Maybe you get to go without greasing anyone's palm, or maybe the asking price is a tad more cut-rate.
The police registration card marks the near-completion of a bureaucratic steeplechase that began two months ago in Chicago when I applied for a work visa that required many checked boxes, a couple handwritten applications, copies of my resume and grad school diploma, and one notarized criminal background check from the Illinois State Police. Visa in hand, I hopped a plane to Jakarta and spent five days in the capital city making myself available for visits to the local immigration and police offices. At one such office, I was fingerprinted and photographed and made to sign my name on some official-looking and smartly embossed documents. Later, this office issued a temporary work permit that I'm supposed to keep with me and my passport at all times. Fulbright staffers brokered all these meetings and were there to translate and to smile demurely on our behalf as uniformed civil servants grunted and pointed for us to make a mark here … and here.
There is no way I could have managed this rigmarole without the help of my fixers, and this, I'm guessing, is exactly the point. There is no way anyone can navigate this process without assistance, and there's no way to fully plumb which office or official does exactly what for whom. It's impossibly, unknowably opaque. This means there's plenty of room for fudging at all levels of the bureaucracy, and there's almost unlimited deniability. Nobody is exactly in charge but everyone in epaulets or khaki or olive drab or wearing a name tag has a finger in the pie and must be addressed in turn. One day they're roses, the next not so much. Public politesse is not just good manners here; it's a functional necessity in a control state. You just can't afford to have the wrong kind of enemies, you know?
You also can't live here as a foreigner without registering with the local police. For me, this meant trips last week to meet with the chief of the local police department—who wore a baggy maroon suit and no badge—and afterward a separate meeting with the head of intelligence for what's basically the regional headquarters of the state police. This guy, pretty young and casually official-looking, smoked throughout our hour-plus audience with him, asking questions to my school supervisors and occasionally looking at me with bemusement. Do you speak Javanese? he asked in Javanese, knowing the answer. I looked at him blankly. My counterpart teacher later told me the police intelligence guy said I was free to travel but only if my counterpart went with me. I don't think that's necessary, my counterpart whispered.
Still, foreigners are supposed to notify local police departments of our presence in any city we visit overnight. I honestly have no idea how this system of movement-by-movement notification would work or whether people really do this but the rules are on the books and I'm guessing they're just waiting to be enforced if and when the opportunity presents itself. That's when I whip out the police registration card and take my chances.
But first, before I can even think about flouting the travel notification rules, I've still got to register with one more office here in little Magelang, Central Java. In addition to checking in at the two police stations—45 hands shook, umpteen smiles and nods offered—and one department of education office, I am required to appear with a sponsor before the headman of my local neighborhood, or kampung, and make myself known. This quasi-official person serves as a point-man for local issues—he's a kind of mini-alderman—and he also feeds information and gossip to the police. He's a good guy to know and a better guy to keep in mind when moving around town as one of maybe a handful of resident non-Indonesians. We went looking for him the other day but were told he wasn't around. My counterpart was concerned. We need to see him soon. I guess before he sees us first.
Monday, September 27, 2010
Wayang kulit, or leather puppets. Traditionally these performances last eight hours but a local museum offers the story in eight one-hour chunks for tourists and for English teachers visiting from Magelang. A little slow by CGI standards but the music is thrilling: bitingly percussive, sweetly melodic, totally arresting.
Backstage, so to speak. Although they let you walk around and I think you're supposed to take it all in from both sides.
And with the band: a 10-piece gamelan. They usually have a 20-piece gamelan but bad weather kept half the musicians home.
When not at the puppet show, I spent way too much time in taxis, buses and even pedicabs during my two-plus days in Yogya. The following rides were highlights, though. One nighttime cabbie watching TV while he worked, the tube tuned to Web-cam style images of flirty teenage girls lip-syncing to pop music.
And one becak driver (pronounced bay-chack) who took me from the downtown shopping district to my friend's home nearby. Normally the ride takes about 10 minutes. We took one hour. He got lost, four times. No kidding. We figured it out, though, and he gave me his number in case I needed another ride. I gave him some extra money. An expensive ride as these things go, the fare still wasn't more than $3.
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Thursday, September 23, 2010
"When we he come back?"
"Tomorrow. Yeah, yeah. "
"Yeah, yeah." I hear this a lot. It means many things. It means, yes. It also means, maybe. And more often than not it means, I don't understand anything you're saying right now.
My house is in the parking lot of my school. Every morning there are about 1,000 motorcycles parked out front, kids arriving as early as 6:20 a.m. as they throttle and idle their way into various spaces right outside my bedroom window. A woman who works for the school takes care of my house and several other campus outbuildings. She also makes tea all day for the 200 teachers who work here. She is a blur of activity, and she usually is standing in the kitchen of my in-no-way-private little home by about 6 a.m. I speak very little Indonesian and she speaks very little English. We talk to each other in mutually incomprehensible babble, and when we're done she usually says to me, "Yeah, yeah." When the water went out earlier this week I asked if there was a way to fix it. Was there a valve that we could turn back on? I pantomimed valve, turning my wrist back and forth, opening it and closing it. Could she show me the valve in case it happened again? "Yeah, yeah." I looked up the word for valve in my Indonesian dictionary. "Di mana klep?" I asked. Where is the valve? "Klep?" she said, looking very puzzled. "Bukan klep." There was no valve. The water tank had simply run dry and somebody needed to fill it up. Oh, OK. Problem solved. Then the water went out again the next morning.
"Will they fix it today?"
I am right now shopping for a motor scooter to get around Magelang. It's a small town but my school is located on the southern fringe and the city's public transportation system is limited. If I want to be mobile at all--if I want to buy groceries or see a movie or visit the local pool--I'm going to need some wheels. Plus, come on. I'm in Indonesia. What's more fun than puttering along on the left side of the road, putting some pavement between me and work once in a while? So some my fellow teachers have been taking me to various showrooms, including a couple run by friends and relatives. The prices on offer seem a tad high and no one will take me to more than two showrooms in a given day.
"Can we see more bikes? There must be more, right?"
"More bikes? Today? Aren't you tired? Maybe tomorrow."
Maybe tomorrow. Or maybe next Monday. "Don't be in a hurry."
I got it. No rush! I am not rushing! Not at all! But will someone please tell me when this guy will finish painting my house?
"Yeah, yeah. Maybe tomorrow."
Monday, September 20, 2010
Here in Magelang, there's an honor guard, a school choir to lead the anthem, and a master of ceremonies who barks over a loudspeaker as though leading basic-training drills. The student honor guard--all boys--does a lot of goose-stepping and exaggerated arm-swinging and they appear to take their jobs very seriously. I was standing close enough today to hear them smartly snap the flag as they readied it for raising, and I was close enough to see them cut muddy divots out of the soccer field as they pivoted and stamped their way on and off the scene.
This morning also marked the return of students to classes after a two-week break for the Idil Fitri holiday. Indonesians add a closing celebration to fast-breaking holiday that's called Hilal Bil Halal, which features a kind of repeat of the Lebaran tradition of seeking forgiveness for a year's worth of small-scale misdeeds and missteps. But where Lebaran is a time for friends and family, Hilal Bil Halal is set aside for showing respect to co-workers and, in the case of schools, to teachers and students. The idea of both traditions is to maintain salubrious social relations, as Indonesians are nothing if not well-mannered. So after the flag was raised, the principal of my school led a short talk where he asked students to forgive the teachers for their trespasses and I'm pretty sure the students were absolved of their trespasses. Then the principal said my name and beckoned me to stand in front of a microphone in the middle of the soccer field and to introduce myself to about 2,000 students and faculty.
"Good morning, students of SMKN1 Magelang," I said in Indonesian. "My name is Brett McNeil, or Mr. Brett, and I'm an American. I am from the city of Chicago. Barack Obama is from the city of Chicago. I am an English teacher. I don't speak Indonesian but I am studying Indonesian." (Big applause.) Here, I waved, smiled, and switched to English: "And I can use your help! I am happy to be here with you this year. I will be teaching English to many of you. I think we will have fun. I will see you in class."
The principal gave me a big handshake and smile and sent me back to line up with the other teachers. He later asked me to talk with the teaching faculty as students left the assembly. Speaking again from a microphone, I fielded two questions: "Are you married?" and "Do you have children?" I said not. Someone asked, "How old are you?" I told him the truth. "Ohhhh." Later, the principal whispered, "The female teachers, they like you." He slapped me on the back.
After classes today, the principal and three other school staffers took me furniture shopping for a new couch and a carpet for the guest house. They also bought me dinner. A nice bunch. And a pretty good first day.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Anyway, we left early Friday, most of us traveling to Jakarta by bus for plane trips hither and yon. If my counterpart and I had simply driven from Bandung, the trip might have taken eight hours. As it was, between waiting on planes and buses, it was a 12-hour journey. The payoff: Sophisticated objects galore.
We were greeted in Magelang by a couple teachers and their spouses, and they treated for dinner at what everyone insisted was the best Chinese restaurant in town. The food was good, and hot, no doubt about it. They then took me shopping for groceries. This was pretty slapstick, with a couple of the male teachers who pretty clearly never do their own grocery shopping hovering over me and literally watching me every step of the way through the store. You need this, Brett? You want that? That one? Actually, I want none of them. But thanks. We did OK, and got out of there a couple hundred thousand rupiah lighter. The welcoming committee:
The following morning, I was invited to attend a wedding reception for the daughter of a local teacher. As my counterpart teacher, Sugeng, explained, it's his duty as a friend of the parent to make an appearance at the wedding. Many others shared that duty, so we had a big group. We hit the reception with almost a dozen teachers and staff from my school, all of us striding up the street toward the party behind the principal. As the new guy and the American, I was put toward the front of our phalanx and we hit the reception in force--the principal out in front shaking every hand, the rest of us following with more handshakes. A flurry of handshakes. Yes, thank you. I'm Brett. Thank you.
We went through the receiving line and then watched a small electric band play a synthed-up gamelan. Pretty cool. Then we ate. Lots of eating. Chicken satay, beef currie, rice, rice, rice. And some coconut ice cream. After that, the principal made me get on the stage with the wedding band and pose for a picture.
On the way back to the cars, we ran across these guys ...
Sunday morning, the entire teaching staff assembled for a meeting related to the end of Ramadan. We all greeted one another and ate some food and listened to a one-hour sermon and headed home. These women fronted the Javanese band that performed throughout.
I had some time after the meeting to take a walk and snap a few photos near the school property.
It rains a lot here right now. Storm clouds on the mount.
The cemetery is located behind a large independence monument; I don't yet know if those interred are soldiers--Magelang is home to Indonesia's West Point--or if the the cemetery and monument are unrelated.
I tried to get close enough to take this picture yesterday but hen wasn't having it. Maybe they're warming to me.
Monday, September 13, 2010
Sunday, September 12, 2010
By Brett McNeil
Like other Americans living in Indonesia, I was aware of plans by a bigoted Florida blowhard to burn a bunch of Korans. I'd read about Pastor Terry Jones, the aggressively mustachioed eBay furniture salesman turned internationally renowned Islamophobe, and his promised score-settling with the Muslim holy book. Then late last week, the U.S. embassy in Jakarta sent an alert urging ex-pats to avoid local demonstrations against Jones' promised conflagration. “Americans are advised that there may be anti-American, possibly disruptive, demonstrations,” the embassy warned, “to mark an announced Koran burning on September 11 in Florida.” Hmm. You don't say.
As I understood his plan from afar, Jones intended to put the Muslim world on notice: The Koran and its teachings were responsible for 9/11. I didn't exactly follow the details—had the Koran actually financed and organized the 9/11 attacks, or was that still Al Qaeda?—but Jones' intent was clear enough. By torching a couple hundred paperback copies of the Koran—or even just talking about burning the books—he meant to stick his thumb in the eyes of Muslims everywhere. He meant to insult them, and maybe to provoke them. Up. Yours. Muslims. That was the message, and it was received loud and clear.
Of course, that message was delivered by a goof. That much is obvious to any honest person watching this particular media tempest from the sidelines. Jones represents a constituency of one, and easy money says he would have remained the anonymous backwater huckster preacher he is and deserves to be if America weren't caught right now in a moment of embarrassing and disconcertingly open xenophobia. We can't cotton a Muslim community center in Manhattan because it's too close to Ground Zero. And we can't quite shake the stubborn rumor that our president, our black president, is also secretly a Muslim. I understand the economy sucks and that middle-class upward mobility threatens to permanently become a thing of the past—I, too, have a house I can't sell for what I owe—but I'm sorry. This is ugly and it's fake and it's several kinds of morally and ethically wrong. But I'll spare you the sermon.
What I wanted to say, as someone who came to teach high school English in the world's largest Muslim democracy, is that Jones' provocations couldn't have come at a more incongruous time in Indonesia. All across the giant archipelago this weekend, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are celebrating Lebaran, or Idil Fitri, marking the end of the Ramadan fasting month. It's like Thanksgiving and Christmas wrapped in one, a hugely important holiday—elsewhere known as Eid—that unites Muslims as believers and Indonesians as countrymen, and reunites families all over these islands with something like the entire nation headed back home for a long weekend. The mosques are overflowing, the stores are shuttered, and the homes are full of friends, families, and neighbors. Kids and food, food and kids, presents and holiday finery. It's a big deal, a touchstone celebration, and it's been beautiful to witness. What would Terry Jones know about that? What would he care to know about that? I'm guessing nothing. “Why would he bring this up now?” an Indonesian friend asked about the Koran-burning threats. “It's Lebaran. It's a time for family.”
The festivities start the day before. At sundown Thursday, the sounds of calls to prayer go out from minaret loudspeakers across the north side of Bandung, a West Java city of about 7 million. The songs overlap and arrive from near and far, more and less amplified, a Doppler-ed wash of sound-on-sound. High-pitched singing and lower-pitched, shrill and sonorous, pleasing and less-so. Evening calls to prayer are an everyday thing here but tonight is different. The songs don't stop, or they don't seem to. All night and into the early morning, men and boys take turns at the microphones singing. They work in shifts; the sound is constant, trebly. I don't understand them but at points, especially late in the night, they seem to be winging it. They fill the air with song, with amplitude. It goes on and on. And the fireworks. All seemingly ad hoc. Neighborhood displays, backyard pyrotechnics. The air is full of color and smoke, sizzles and bangs and booms. Crackling, and fizzles. Pops and whizzes. It's all night, past four a.m. It's the Fourth of July on the North Side of Chicago for hours and hours, a house dog's quivering nightmare and everyone else's jubilant display. Pffffth … Bam! And again. And again. Arcs of red, constellations of gold and silver. A purple burst. A green streak against the black sky. Ahhh! Nobody's sleeping.
In a cab on the way home from dinner, the streets are crowded and the sidewalks, as always, are impassable for the vendor carts. But tonight they aren't hawking chicken satay and friend rice. Instead, they're selling flowers. A hundred different sellers, maybe, along a mile-long stretch of road. Buckets jammed with orchids, lilies, flowers I've never seen. And everyone on foot with a bunch in their hands. Everyone buying flowers! People double-parked and out of their cars, people off their motorcycles and stocking up. A riot of color and softness. Everyone all smiles. Flowers literally littering the streets. It's fantastic.
The next morning, the morning of Lebaran, the mosques are all mobbed. People worship on the ground outside, on playing fields, on sidewalks, roads, wherever the can find space. Seas of white. Kneeling in unison. An enormous communal huddle. And when they're done, they break their fast. A day of eating and of visiting, Lebaran is the Indonesian equivalent of the Passover seder or the Thanksgiving dinner, only imagine cooking for the entire neighborhood. Visitors are the norm, for an hour or the day, the front door revolving, people in and out in a procession of humble greeting: Mohon maaf lahir dan bathin. Roughly translated it means, I beg forgiveness for my mistakes, and it's offered freely. A day of atonement and apology, of anti-egotism. Kind of nice. During an afternoon visit to a home shared by our Indonesian language teachers, a group of Americans offered their own mohon maafs as our hosts, and later their neighbors, offered theirs in return. Terry Jones didn't come up, and we wouldn't have spoken for him in any event. He can beg his own forgiveness, but I don't think I'll hold my breath. No, Jones was a long, long way off. In my teachers' living room, on a hill in West Java, surrounded by friends and comfortably stuffed with rice and fish and fruit, we were thinking mostly how happy we were to enjoy the generosity of others.
My Indonesian language skills are still what I'd call nascent. But I do know some numbers and words for fast and slow and this means I've been able to speak about motorcycles and displacement with several Indonesian men. Among them, Gus, who works at the Sheraton in Bandung where we're staying. Anyway, after a couple false starts we finally made plans for a weekend ride and off we went just after noon today. It was supposed to be a trip of about an hour. Long story short, nothing takes an hour here. You cannot eat in a restaurant of any kind in less than an hour. An hour means nothing; it's warming up. So we took four and a half.
Gus has lived in the U.S. before and worked in hotels across the mountain west. He's lived in South Dakota and Utah and he did a stint at a ski lodge in Breckenridge. Today he loves in North Bandung with his wife and 11-year-old boy and he spends his money on motorcycles. The bike we rode, a 2009 Yamaha 150, is the hot rod of the bunch. He has a 125 cc commuter bike that's pretty tricked out, too, one other bike I've never seen and a scooter, which he calls an automatic. Anyway, the guy's into bikes and he's not alone. Motorcycles are the lifeblood of Indonesian transportation. They are everywhere. The island of Java is swarming with them.
This means car drivers are significantly more accustomed to motorcycles than U.S. drivers, and they appear to harbor almost none of the hostility that American car and SUV owners routinely show to motorcyclists. Here, bikes buzz in and out of traffic lanes, in and out of gaps between cars--a fluid dance of perpetual revving if not always motion--and the drivers just let them be. I know, weird. Indonesia has its faults but its drivers are almost impossibly imperturbable. The only time anyone's ever yelled at me, I ran in front of him to chase a dog who'd wandered into traffic. And he yelled mostly to say, Look out. Anyway, this beatitude on the road is even more perplexing when you consider what the roads look like: often crumbling, and always choked. And by choked I mean a two-lane road that functionally operates as a five-lane road. All the time. Here's what I mean ...
This kind of thing went on for about 30 minutes before we reached some really daunting traffic. Gus wanted to visit a scenic overlook called Pengunjung Nusantara and this meant braving a slow-mo traffic jam unlike anything I've ever encountered. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of vehicles jammed along a narrow park road, like 15 motorcycles across at some points. Traffic headed both ways but mostly nowhere. We sat and lurched and sat and sputtered along for an hour and a half, the line just unending, the crowd just organic, a hive. There was nothing to do but sit and watch, so I got some video and still images. And I ate more exhaust than I've ever encountered in my life. Writing this hours later I'm still feeling the effects: Like an exhaust pipe was attached to my face for an afternoon. A fumey, acid cloud of noxiousness, gulped between coughs and gasps. My head hurts. My throat's a joke. After fighting uphill for an hour--Gus stopping every so often to shake out his throttle hand--we decided to stop and park and just walk to the summit when the crowd looked like this ...
Through this sea of motion we trundled, only to reach the peak as the fog rolled in. The view from the top looked something like this ...
So we headed back down the mountain, through the same mob, and eventually got free to a roadside field planted with tea. Gus said we should take a picture.
From the tea fields we headed for a supper of traditional Sundanese kelinchi sate, or rabbit satay. Gus, a Bandung native and proud Sunda, confessed while eating that he'd never actually had kelinchi sate before. It was pretty good--served with a patty of sticky rice and a grilled ear of corn (two meals, $5)-- although hard to taste the rabbit for the peanut paste dumped on top.
We hopped back on the bike and made for home, just in time for a monsoon rain. I left the cameras in my bag for that part of the trip, stowed away in a dry bag bought for this very reason. But our ride home looked a little like the view from inside a car wash. Only we were outside, in the elements, the roads sluiced with water, Gus braking hard to avoid dumping the motorcycle on sharp, hilly curves. I got back to the hotel soaked to the bone, my lightweight rain jacket simply overpowered, my jeans plastered to my legs. Gus headed home, I took a hot shower, and hopped online to look for some Gore-Tex gear.