Saat Augustus—Moments of August
‘Twas a good month to start the Saat series because the Julian calendar month of August 2011 happened to include Ramadan, Indonesia’s Independence Day, and the Kasada festival at G. Bromo—possibly the three most important annual events to occur in East Java. Independence Day follows the Julian calendar and is, therefore, celebrated every August 17, but Ramadan follows the Islamic calendar and Kasada follows the Javanese calendar. As it can be seen, then, the combination of these three events into a single thirty day stretch is quite serendipitous. For it to occur in just my second month at permanent site also makes for a great introduction to Indonesian culture. Also of note during this month are concessions to jam karat and debates about cheating in Indonesia.
This month was defined by the daily schedule of Ramadan, which lasted from August 1 to August 30, and Idul Firti—the post Ramadan holiday, which ended on September 7. This year’s Ramadan (based on the lunar calendar and thus moves relative to each Gregorian year) had the additional excitement of coinciding with both Indonesia’s 59th Independence Day and the Hindu celebration of Kasada, the latter of which is part of the Javanese calendar and also moves relative to the Gregorian calendar (full blog post on Kasada here).
BEFORE I REALLY GET STARTED…
Overall, the theme of the entire month was adaptation and patience. I’d like to write more about this and how Ramadan affected me and transitioned my life into Indonesia. Without a doubt, I’d say the change was positive, but it’s still very close to the end of Ramadan and hard to define. For now, I’ll do the best I can to describe what the month was like for me. In the mean time, a current ID-4 Volunteer, who has one more year’s experience to reflect upon, wrote a great post about adaptation in regards to Ramadan. She addresses the specific and difficult question of what it means to adapt to a new culture while maintaining your own values.
…PERHAPS I’ll REVIST THIS IN A YEAR.
People give a lot of different explanations of Ramadan, and it takes on a variety of meanings for different people. For some, it’s a part of spiritual purity; others see it as an opportunity for physical cleansing or a chance to empathize with the poor. For me, it was simply a chance to do something new and different. Overall, I enjoyed the experience. I actually thought it was a lot of fun, and now that it’s over, I’m looking forward to next year’s. People ask me how I could have possibly enjoyed Ramadan, and I admit that answering that question is a lot harder than it was to draw my conclusion. In essence, I suppose I loved the dense concentration of new experiences that constitute the ‘honeymoon’ phase of moving into new culture. In fact, I’ve come to think of Ramadan as a re-adaptation to Indonesia. Peace Corps asked me to move to a new country and quickly learn the customs and language of its people. I was told to “expect nothing” (which, by the way, I think is unhelpful advice, since it immediately sets up its own expectation), but even that couldn’t prepare me for the curve-ball that Indonesia threw me when it suddenly asked me to re-adapt to itself on August 1.
On July 30, I went to bed with a focused mindset on mental toughness in preparation for not eating during the next day and the twenty-eight days after that. I also had my alarm set for 3:00 AM so that I could have one last meal before I started the challenge. The awakening to Ramadan literally came an hour earlier than I expected at 2:00 AM in the form of loud percussion instruments and chanting that seemed to move down my street. The cacophony was from a group of kids who, as I learned later that afternoon, were tasked with loudly roaming the village each morning in order to make sure everyone was awake for sahur¸the pre-dawn meal. How cool is that? When and where else are you going to get to live in a place where kids wander the streets to remind you to eat your midnight snack? I came to love these wake-up calls.
I also quickly realized that the idea of fasting wasn’t as difficult as I had prepared myself for. With the exception of having to overcome the impulse of sticking my hand in the snack-jar every time I passed through the kitchen, not eating during sunlight hours proved not to be a bother. There were definitely days I was hungry and, more often, thirsty, but it wasn’t too difficult to wait out the sun. In any case, Maghrib, the meal to break fast, was exciting. Around 5:30, a large drum was sounded at the nearby mosque alerting everyone nearby to official sundown. The faces of my host siblings lit up every evening like it was Christmas, shouted “Maghrib!,” and ran to the rice cooker.
As Ramadan drew to a close, it turns out Indonesia had one last test of patience for those fasting. August 29th was supposed to be the last day of Ramadan, but at 7:00 PM on the 29th, the government of Indonesia announced that astronomical observations made it clear that the new moon had not been observed. Therefore, Ramadan would actually last one more day. As a technical note, there are two Islamic organizations in Indonesia. One of them, Muhammadiyah, chose to dispatch the government’s declaration and ended Ramadan as scheduled on the 29th. The other organization, Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), decided to heed the announcement. My family follows NU (I wont get into the difference between Muhammadiyah and NU though I am told most village folks follow NU; Wikipedia says the numbers are roughly even), and so we fasted for one more day.
Eventually, Ramadan ended and brought the week long celebration of Idul Fitri. Even though Idul Fitri is a world-wide Islamic holiday, it takes on a very unique form in Java. Here, Idul Fitri is celebrated by opening up your home to greet visitors. During Idul Fitri, families walk around their villages entering neighbor’s houses (of those who are not walking themselves) and ask for forgiveness from the past year. Families that have become spread out (i.e., certain members have moved away to distance cities or islands) reunite. My own host family traveled to a near-by host village for a day to meet up with people from my host-mothers home town.
The sociability of the holiday really impressed me, though I have to admit that I don’t think I got as much out of it as the rest of my family members did. For me, Idul Fitri meant meeting about thirty new people a day, each of whom wanted to ask twenty-plus questions about me and where I was from. The whole routine was quite exhausting and sometimes led to flagging enthusiasm on some days. There were, on the other hand, plenty of entertaining moments. Most of the people we visited could never have guessed that a foreigner was going to visit them during this particular Idul Fitri. This led to one particularly funny moment when, shortly after we arrived at an old woman’s house (I only say the woman when we entered), I asked to use the bathroom. During the short time I was in the mandi, the woman’s husband had been informed that there were visitors and had entered the sitting room. Though he was informed there were visitors, nobody thought to inform him that there was actually one more visitor—who happened to be white—in the bathroom. Thus, when I exited the bathroom, I gave quite a shocking scare to the poor old man who had been perfectly-placed exactly adjacent from the bathroom door.
In sum, the new experiences of Ramadan made for a worthwhile month—one that really helped me adapt to the Indonesian culture. The atmosphere of Ramadan was so dominant that even Independence Day kind of took a back-seat. The Tujuh-belas Augustus (August 17th) celebrations had been talked up quite a bit by Indonesians during PST. To convince you that the date is a big day here, I’ll tell you that it’s not uncommon to find local middle-schools, high-schools, and even one university named “Tujuh Belas.” This year, however, the subdued nature of Ramadan days led to nothing more than a fairly uneventful flag ceremony on Independence Day. The one thing I found interesting about Hari Merdekaan (Independence Day) was the (at least symbolic) story of the Indonesia flag. The flag is a simple design with the top half being red and the bottom half being white. There are statues around the country depicting an iconic Indonesian warrior making this flag by ripping the blue stripe of the Dutch flag away from the red and white upper stripes. This action was also depicted during a short skit that I attended on Independence Day. Nobody (including my counterparts and neighbors) were able to confirm that this was the true origin of the Indonesian flag. In fact, nobody was able to tell me anything about the flag’s history what so ever. If you resort to Wikipedia, you’ll read that the Indonesian flag’s design originates from the Majapahit Kingdom (see the article about Kasada for more on the Majapahit) and that the imagery of the comparison with the Dutch flag is, though dramatic, only a popular alternative history.
|The Basics of Ramadan|
|Islamic month of fasting—participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking (even water), smoking, and sex between sunrise and sunset.|
|Based on the Islamic lunar calendar(currently in the year 1432 AH)—drifts 11 or 12 days relative to each Gregorianyear.|
|This year’s Ramadan started August 1 and ended on August 29/August 30—different Islamic groups acknowledge the new moon on different days, and therefore Ramadan ends on different days for various organizations (In Indonesia, Ramadan ended on Aug 29 for Muhammadiyah Muslims and on Aug 30 for NU Muslims; my family is a part of NU).|
|Approximate daily length is from 04.00 to 17.30 (thought the exact timing varies with location and date). A loud drum from the nearby mosque is the official signal of sunrise and sundown in my village.|
Jam Karat (Rubber Time)
Decided to stop wearing my watch—I don’t really need it. The school has bells and after school, it doesn’t really matter what time I do things. Loud drums signal sun rise and sun down for the purpose of Ramadan. The result of not wearing my watch: I forgot what day it was and showed up to school a day early…nobody was there. I still rarely wear my watch.
I didn’t talk about it here because I wrote a full blog post and made a video about it here.
NPR Fresh Air and the Economist cover cheating in Indonesian high schools
I encourage everyone to read and listen to this news article from NPR’s Fresh Air. It’s about rampant cheating in Indonesian high schools. Let me confirm that this is in fact a huge and obvious issue and not simply an example of the media making much ado about nothing. As the article states, 99% percent of Indonesian high school students pass the national exam at the end of their senior year. Passing the exam is necessary to graduate from high school. For those who would like to study at a university, the scores are a part of the higher education acceptance process.
This topic deserves more attention, but I’ll have to save that for another blog post.
The Bahasa Indonesia effort
I met an out-going guy my age at the Kasada festival mid way through this month. He was really helpful for showing me where to go, and he was really eager to practice his English. He told me about all of the foreign friends he had met over the years and the ones he still keeps in contact with via social media. He then said, “Jay, you are only the third of my foreign friends who can speak Bahasa Indonesia. My first friend is from U.S.A too. My second friend was from…actually, he is from U.S.A. too. All of my foreign friends who can speak Bahasa Indonesia are from U.S.A.” I was proud. I’ll take the quick pat on the back.
I made tortillas for my host family this month. They absolutely loved this form of makanan Mexico (Mexican food).
More photos from the trip to Bromo for the Kasada festival.