Do you want to go hear the Minister of Religion speak in Banyuwangi City?
This was the question posed to me one Saturday morning.
Actually, the title of this blog post wasn’t at all the original question posed to me. When I got to school Saturday morning, I was told that the staff of our school—a religious institution—would be attending a meeting with the Ministry of Religion somewhere in Banyuwangi Regency. There is a regency, district, provincial, and national Ministry, so my intel wasn’t exactly full of detail. Do I want to follow? Sure, why not? Do I really want to go to a meeting with people from the Ministry of Religion? No, but the event is hardly important to me—I don’t even know what the event is, mind you. It’d be great to finally see the people I work with outside of the school walls. “Kapan?” I asked expecting something like “Next Tuesday, or next Sunday.” “Nanti sore.” Oh, “later this afternoon” isn’t a lot of warning, and I was supposed to play soccer with some neighborhood kids, but that’s not a big deal. I can play soccer any day of the week.*
Passing up opportunities like the one my school just offered me is how you miss out on the Javanese experiences, so yah, I’ll still go. “Jam berapa?” I asked, “What time?” “Nanti sore.” Not only is later this afternoon not a whole lot of warning, it’s also not a time. It seemed as if I’d already embarked on a Javanese adventure. Around one o’clock, I was told we’d be leaving at five o’clock. I attended a wedding celebration with my counterpart until about three at which point he asked me if I was ready to stay up until one o’clock. “Apa? I thought we were going to a meeting?” “Yes, yes, but sometimes the Ministry is late and it is very far from here, so we probably wont be back until one. Is this okay?” It’s like I said: if you say no to these opportunities you miss something, so I’ll still follow, but Peace Corps and—not to mention—my host family would probably like to know these things with a little more notice.
I showed up to the school at five o’clock to get picked up, and only one person was there. I asked him if he’s going to the meeting—which, by the way, I was starting to seriously doubt is a meeting—and he said yes but that we wouldn’t leaving until six. I went home to rest for a bit and returned an hour later. I showed up to the school at six o’clock to get picked up, and only one person was there. I asked him if he’s going to the thing with the minister—which, by the way, I was starting to seriously doubt was happening—and he said yes and that the cars were still coming. Once everyone showed up, we piled into two vehicles and left around six forty.
During the car ride, I decided I would try to press out more details about whatever it was we were going to. I finally got a clear answer that THE Minister of Religion from Jakarta was speaking in Banyuwangi City, and that my school had been invited to attend. I asked the others in the car if they had ever seen the provincial Minister of Religion, and they said no, so it suddenly struck me that this event might actually be a big deal to my colleagues. It made sense for them to be willing to stay up until one o’clock. I was starting to get a little nervous now because my counterpart described this as a speech. This could be a really long and boring event—especially if I don’t understand any of it—but I was in the car already, so there was nothing I could do about it.
The car ride was about an hour and a half, and we arrived a little after eight. The Minister still hadn’t arrived, thus lending credibility to the earlier statements I had heard about the ministries timeliness and the necessity of staying out so late. I didn’t have to worry about being bored though, because this speech was held in a traditional Javanese venue of a large tent in a field. This sort of set up attracts street vendors, which attract kids who create entertaining moments for people watching.** I’m also happy because my teachers made the wise decision to wait for the Minister’s arrival before entering the tent to be seated. Unfortunately, you can’t get your free dinner unless you sit down, so a few of the teachers headed inside. It was about ten to nine at that point—we’d been there for forty minutes. The teachers who went in for food came rushing out with a story about how they ran into other teachers from our school who had decided to leave since it wouldn’t be worth the wait. I laughed and said that was “sidikit gila.” I thought it was indeed a little crazy to drive an hour and half to see the Minister and then decide after a forty minute wait—which didn’t seem to phase anyone when we were supposed to leave the school at six—to go home. “What are they thinking?” My comments were met with mild agreement, and then I felt awkward as the teachers in my group kind of turned to look at each other silently. Finally someone asked, “Mulih?” Javanese words, like this one, don’t register for me as quickly as Indonesian words, but “shall we go home?” eventually hit me like a brick. We too are threw in the towel. “It’s okay that we leave now, because we will still have an opportunity to meet each other tomorrow at Bu Isna’s [not her real name, Peace Corps, don’t worry] party.” (This comment struck me as strange and out of place at the time, but I’ll comment on how I think I’ve finally interpreted it later). Before we leave, however, one of the teachers nudged me and suggested we go nab some dinner. We sauntered over to the tent, and the teacher gave me that “act natural look,” which isn’t a natural look at all. I felt like a teenager again sneaking into more expensive sections at a ballgame. After entering the tent, the hosts handed us our dinner boxes. We tried to leave immediately, but we were ushered to two empty seats. We couldn’t avoid it. We probably sat down for close to ten minutes, the whole time awkwardly glancing over our shoulders never keeping our attention in one direction long enough to be doing anything but looking for an escape route. Finally, enough people filled in behind to give us cover, and we slipped out.
So there I was thinking that the night was over and that I’d be back by ten thirty—with a three hour car ride and a forty to fifty minute wait outside a tent under my belt. I was starting to think I should have been the one all along asking, “Are you sure you want to stay up until one o’clock?” I wasn’t looking forward to having to explain to my host father why I had returned two and a half hours early. If you’re not fluent in a language, it’s best not to introduce surprises to conversations. At least it wasn’t two and a half hours late. It was at this point, however, that I was informed we’d be stopping at a teacher’s cousin’s house on the way back. We visited, ate some snacks, drank tea, corrected my Indonesian left and right, and inhaled a lot of cigarette smoke—first and, in my case, second hand.
Keep in mind too that it’s after nine o’clock when we departed from our pit stop, and though I picked up a dinner from the Minister’s speech (I should really start referring to this as the alleged speech since I have no actual information to suggest that’s what it really was), I hadn’t actually opened it yet. About half of us grabbed food, but eating in the car didn’t seem to be a polite option, so nobody partook after we left the relative’s house to finally head back home.
It was about eleven by the time we were less than two kilometers away from our school. I’d had a good evening, but I was relieved to be back. I generally head to bed at nine to keep up with Indonesia’s early-rising schedule. In tune with this, I’d been awake since five, so I was tired. I figured I’d eat my free dinner quickly when I get home, brush my teeth, and fall asleep.
My fantastical dream was spoiled when we stopped at a restaurant. “We’re hungry.” Me too, I thought, but I have a box dinner in the car.*** I was tired at the restaurant, but it turned into one of the best conversations I’ve had about the United States since I’ve been in Indonesia. People were asking good questions about politics and Obama. I was surprised when nobody seemed to have any idea that the U.S. and many other countries in the world are currently in an economic recession. Why did this happen? Is it hard to find jobs in America right now? I had read that Indonesia, which was hit pretty hard economically at the turn of the century, is still slowly re-developing its economy and had managed to more-or-less stay immune to the latest global crisis. How true that actually is, I don’t know, but perhaps it explains the lack of awareness.
After trying a new spicy soup and ginger water (both delicious), I was finally dropped off at home—late enough that no odd explanation to my host parents was necessary. (And here is the comment I promised earlier). It didn’t hit me until the next morning (now) that maybe nobody wanted to hear the Minister speak. The statement about still being able to meet for the party the next day, along with a different teacher saying he didn’t like these types of events because there were too many people, plus the side trips to the family’s house and the restaurant started to settle in my mind. Maybe the whole point was just to hang out for an evening. Either way, had I turned down the offer to go to the meeting with the Ministry, I would have missed out on something very Javanese.
* Many afternoons, if I’m bored, I’ll go for a bike ride despite having no desire to go for a bike ride. I figure if I make one trip around the block at a slow enough pace, there is a thirty percent chance I’ll get invited to a soccer game. It’s like an eagle swooping in the open sky. I doubt he’s out there to stretch his wings and feel the wind in his feathers. He’s looking for mice.
** Though when you’re a bule in Indonesia, sometimes people watching turns into staring a nine year old girl right back in the face as she indiscreetly ponders your complexion.
*** “Box dinner” might give you the impression that this is something you’d never want to eat anyways, but Indonesian box dinners from big celebrations are sufficiently delicious.