Planes, Volcanoes And Presidents

I arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia on a late-October Sunday afternoon. As Indonesia’s capital and largest city, Jakarta is home to approximately nine-and-a-half million people. It is an overwhelming mash of traffic, street vendors, and tropical trees tucked between warungs and sky-scrapers. My first three days maintained a tight schedule: walking out the hotel door at 9am to blistering heat and humidity; filing for research permits, temporary residence permits, visa approvals, registering with the police; and falling asleep by 3pm due to horrendous jet-lag and exhaustion. Needless to say, I was eager to begin my thirteen-month stay in Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta is known for being the center of Javanese and Indonesian culture (“the soul” of Java, as my Lonely Planet guide book declares). As proposed, I will spend three months studying Bahasa Indonesian (the national language; there are hundreds of local dialects), followed by ten months in Yogyakarta for my project with mtvU Fulbright, which is sponsored by the Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta. It was ideal for me to spend the entire length of the project in one small city. During my language study I had planned to begin some field work in respects to “general” Indonesian music and “arm chair research,” to get a hold of my surroundings and the music I will eventually refer to in my research. What better city to analyze musical culture than one where I can go to a wayung kulit puppet show on Wednesday, spend Friday and Saturday with a music professor at the gamelan orchestra festival, and take a day-trip on Saturday to the ancient Buddhist temple Borobudur?

The title of my project is “Children’s Musical Expression in Indonesia.” With my counterpart from the Institute of the Arts, I will share my research in a workshop with local middle-school aged children on how to write songs. Songwriting is a creative form of self- and social-empowerment, and I hope that the program will encourage the children to express their identity as Javanese youth, Indonesian citizens, Muslims, young people, or however they are recognized or wish to be recognized as active members of their community. I was thrilled to begin and within my first week had already met with a professor at the Institute of the Arts. He happened to have taught music at an experimental elementary school (grades one through six), and would help me coordinate a music program there. The ball was already rolling, unfortunately soon to be stopped by the ash that was accumulating in Yogya.
As international headlines read, Mount Merapi (an active volcano about twenty miles north of the city of Yogyakarta) began erupting October 26th. After a few days of small eruptions, though many villagers had lost homes, crop, and loved ones, we in the city were still considered to be at a safe distance. As ash floated through the city, locals and visitors alike sported masks and bandanas to keep from inhaling the “gray snow.” I myself wore sunglasses all around town though the sun was not to be seen. Rain and lightning storms would wash away the ash on the ground, and life continued as normal, just with more attention paid to a volcano made invisible by its own clouds. I had been doing a homestay with an elderly Indonesian woman; she spoke no English and I knew about fifteen words in Bahasa so there was no great conversation. We watched the news together every evening though the language barrier kept me from understanding the circumstances completely.

On a Friday morning, I left for my language class as I had all week, spending a long hour working my way to the school, breathing through my red bandana. Walking through the school at 7:50 am, I was alarmed that although most of the teachers were present and buzzing, there were only two other students in attendance (one Australian, one British). The Fulbright office in Jakarta (AMINEF) called the school within five minutes of my arrival. The director informed me with great haste that I was being evacuated, that I had to take a taxi back to my homestay and pack all of my belongings immediately. “So I shouldn’t take the bus?” I asked; no, get home immediately. “So I should just pack for a couple days?” I naively asked again; no, pack all of your belongings in the event of relocation. My stomach was in knots. Yes, it was a larger eruption for Merapi, but it had been spewing ash and gas for almost two weeks, and there seemed to be no sign of emergency among locals. I was evacuated by train (as the airport was closed) with three Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, one who worked in Yogya, two who were visiting.

I spent five nights at a hotel in Jakarta following the news and getting a better understanding of what was going on in what I thought would be my new home. Images I had seen on television finally made sense as I read newspapers and had daily internet access. (I watched on the news people being carried into hospitals on their mattresses; at first I thought that maybe it was so as not to discomfort injured victims; later I read some had such severe burns their skin had melted onto their mattresses.) I reported to AMINEF with two ETAs and was told we would be temporarily relocated; whereto was undetermined; for how long, no one could even guess (maybe two weeks, maybe two months, maybe permanently).

What was an inconvenient, disturbing, and highly unfortunate event became a rare opportunity for me while I stayed in Jakarta. I met fellow Fulbrighters (a comfort knowing I was not alone amidst the great confusion), saw more of the city, and best of all, I was able to see President Barack Obama speak at the University of Indonesia. The city had been buzzing for days in excitement and preparation; the media and locals reported incessantly on Obama’s arrival, while groups of students rallied in the streets against “American imperialism.” The day of his speech, two of the ETAs and I awoke before dawn and met in the hotel lobby at 4:20 am. We took a taxi across the entire city, and weaved through crowds of students when we arrived on campus. After flashing our tickets and the gate, the three of us among thousands of students, teachers, volunteers, mostly locals and some bule (white-skinned foreigners), waited in the sweltering heat and humidity only Indonesia could be famous for. The mob of attendees stood for two and a half hours staring at throngs of secret service, Indonesian police officers, and men dressed in batik marching back and forth.

Finally, the human-mass pushed us to the front, and two by two the crowd went through portable metal detectors. We filed into the auditorium and waited another ninety minutes for the President to appear. Political opinions aside, President Obama is a fantastic public speaker, casual and friendly though highly intelligent, like an admired professor. He spoke of his childhood and the four years he spent living in Java (his mother married an Indonesian man). The crowd applauded and cheered like giddy teenagers at a Backstreet Boys concert when he mentioned sate and bakso, his favorite Indonesian dishes (“Enak, ya?”).

The hush over the audience had me wondering if the young crowd (about seventy percent high-school or college students) was either being respectfully quiet, or if they did not understand his English, as there was no translation. His thirty minute speech, while brief, touched on subjects that suggested his views of current governmental or political situations in Indonesia, and hinted at an encouragement in either another direction or increased effort. He mentioned corruption in Asia, green efforts, religious tolerance, and equality. He paralleled the US to Indonesia in their national slogans: “E pluribus unum,” out of many, one; “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” Unity in Diversity.

Many audience members and local newspapers reported said that President Obama failed to provide specific information or examples of the issues of which he spoke. I thought his address was appropriate in its subtlety. The speech was no progress report, but more words of planning, anticipation, and faith in Indonesia. It sounded as though his mentioning of issues would spark some sort of parental watchfulness: now that he had visited, Indonesia would be held more accountable for their responsibilities as a democracy. My favorite quote of his speech read, “Progress without freedom is just another form of poverty.” This sentence alone plays into social issues involving regional conflicts (Aceh and Papua at the forefront of civil conflict), religious intolerance (while it seems Indonesia has gained control against extremist terrorism, there is no doubt a presence of hostility between religions), and even sexual discrimination (a debate that spans from the Muslim hijab to domestic abuse). I appreciated his way of delicately referring to social and political issues without bringing in specifics; though some spectators had hoped for such statistics, I found his references sufficient and able to keep his thirty minutes positive and almost light-hearted, emphasized with his sprinkling of Indonesian phrases.

A fantastic finish to my unexpected stint in Jakarta, I left the following morning. I have been relocated to Bandung, a large city not too far from Jakarta. Here, I will continue my language studies and begin drafting proposals for potential new sites in case my project will have to be officially relocated. I am hopeful to return to Yogyakarta as soon as possible, maybe even within the next month. Though if I am relocated, it will be only more of this sweeping green and culturally lush country that I will be able to experience. And for each experience here I am very grateful.

7 thoughts on “Planes, Volcanoes And Presidents

  1. Hi Lynne,

    That’s such a fantastic, and dramatic, story. I’m SO happy for you. (That you are getting so many great experiences in spite of the evacuation). Your writing is wonderful and if the rest of your trip is this exciting you should write a book about it. Good luck with the fun and difficult part of your assignment. I suspect you will have to be as subtle and intelligent as the president as you approach and proceed.

    Thank you for sharing this with me. I look forward to the next chapter.

    I am very proud of you!
    Be safe.


  2. Lynne,

    I so enjoyed reading your blog! It is wonderful to hear about your experiences in Indonesia and I look forward to reading your next entry! I’m eager to hear more about your language studies and your research project! By the way, I was especially touched by the parallels between the two slogans – “E pluribus unum,” out of many, one; “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” Unity in Diversity – and how they relate to your project on cultural pluaralism (as understood through chidren’s musical expression) in indonesia.

    very best wishes,
    dale wilson


  3. Dear Lynne:
    I was at the Obama event as well! My name is Jonthon, and I am currently a U.S. State Department English Language Fellow living in Medan. I was Fulbright ETA in Sulawesi two years ago. Congratulations on getting the mtvU grant, and I hope Indonesia has been amazing so far. If you have any passing interest in Melayu music, I know a lot of involved individuals up here in Sumatra. Drop me a line if you find the time!



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