Friday, July 29, 2011

Broken radiator, fried brain

I want to say so much about the past 48 hours, but frankly am just too pooped to write anything analytically coherent at the moment. Past two days I circumnavigated a small island with my friend R., had an amazing conversation with her about our shared passion for researching post-genocide gender dynamics and her dreams of documenting the experiences of victims of '65 on film (let me know if you're interested in giving a cool $25K to fund this...Bueller? Bueller?), then today went with an attorney who was one of my research informants to her village about 2 hours outside of Depasar. Well, 2 hours, that is, if your SUV's radiator doesn't have a big hole in it.

Long story short: This lovely legal aid attorney had invited me out to her village because she wanted me to see how the water conflict here (several remote villages are having their water diverted for tourism purposes) is impacting rural women, and hear a bit more about her activism on behalf of domestic violence victims. I will get more in depth with the issues around DV once I am back in the States and writing with more than 3 braincells, but for now let me leave it at 1) the mystique of the 'Balinized' woman- bare breasted, quiet and compliant, paired with 2) the pressures of tourism, patrilinial inheritance, and 3) the World Bank's and other international interventions following the fall of Soeharto to strengthen local customary law have left women that find themselves in violent marriages with very little recourse. Their husbands retain custody of their kids, they lose their family home once they marry, if they bring a claim against an abusive husband they are seen as attacking the 'culture' (because a woman is supposed to follow and serve her husband, not question him, period- much less publicly), and they have little economic independence because they are responsible for hearth, home and temple, making ritual offerings sometimes from pre-dawn to midnight when prepping for major ceremonies, and a large portion of the day when there are no major upcoming ceremonies, just the day-to-day responsibilities of keeping up the family temples.

At 9AM, my friend M, acting as my intrepid interpreter, and I went with my attorney pal to her village. About an hour into the (very) bumpy ride, the hood of the car starting smoking. Now, many things in Bali tend to smoke- burning trash, most of my new friends- hell, even I have started causally smoking clove cigarettes (only for participant observation purposes, clearly), but a car hood smoking seemed an occasion for a bit more alarm than the other smoldering things I have come across on this island. One hour, one beer (for M.) one begged use of warung owner's bathroom (for me) and several phone calls later, the attorney's cousin pulled up in a second SUV and we continued our journey, sans smoking car.

Meeting with some of the women who are caring for seven children with no access to direct water was really eye opening in some ways, and in others it was a little underwhelming. This sounds really, really fucked up (because it is), but I feel like in between my work in Miami, my time in Cambodia, and the research and reading I have done at school, that seeing yet another woman being crushed under the burden of corporate exploitation, government mismanagement, and societal indifference was just another brick in the wall. The list of injustices that so many people face, not just in developing countries but even in the US, is just so staggering that when confronted with another living, breathing,and, most terrifying, feeling example of the havoc wreaked by human indifference and corporate/government greed what I mostly feel is impotent.

I'll go way more into detail, I promise, once I am well-slept and slightly recuperated from trying to pack too much research into too short a time, but for now I just want to confess that I am feeling burnt out, and then compacting the burnt out with feelings of guilt about feeling burnt out (yes, there is a hole in the bucket, dear Liza). Here I am, about to lie down to sleep in a safe, mostly bug free room with access to clean- even hot!- running water and safe drinking water, unencumbered by unwanted pregnancies, multiple children abandoned by neighbors that just couldn't handle another mouth to feed when their husband died and they needed the security of a new marriage, and looking forward to going shopping and relaxing at a spa tomorrow, despite my complete misgivings about indulging in the tourism industry here. Where the hell do I get off feeling overwhelmed and upset by the amount of pain other people are feeling?

Honestly, I don't know. And I don't know what to do about it. And I don't know how to be a part of unraveling all of the interrelated webs that keep women trapped in cycles of oppression, poverty and ignorance. The best I can do, at 1:18AM, ensconced in my comfy bed, slathered in my 20% DEET bug cream to ensure that my most frustrating experience with Dengue fever will be trying to spell it, is to say honestly that I don't know how to help, but, perhaps in at least saying it, testifying to the truth that these issues are so much bigger than anyone of us, is at least a step in the right direction.

I started this little blog project because I wanted to give myself a space to publicly say I DON'T KNOW WHAT THE HELL I AM DOING because perhaps, just maybe, you might feel the same way, too. I am not superwoman, and never will be no matter the pressures I feel from school, work, family, comercials on TV, what-have-you, to try to be more than I really am. The problem is, I wish I could be superwoman enough to be able to do more than press RP$50,000 into the hands of the two women who took the time to welcome me into their home (perhaps in the hopes that I would do such a thing) to hear a bit about their lives. Sitting on a front porch of their family compound, looking into the eyes of a woman who lacks even the hope of access to the things I take for granted that make it possible for me to lead a self-determined life- water, health care, education, birth control, a government that I truly believe in some ways has my best interests at hearth (even if it is at the expense of the rest of the planet and its people)- every part of me felt powerless.

At this point I even question my desire to help. Interventions seem to have so many unintended consequences that I question what mess might come from some well-intended person deciding that she knows how to 'fix' what's missing in these women's lives.

Lots more to say on all of this- intervention, self-determined aid and resources, ripple effects of government corruption and, so much.

For the moment, however, I am just going to have to take it the same way we did on the way back to Depasar in the aforementioned smoking SUV: one mile at a time, stopping very frequently to refill my reservoir because I can't be any good to anyone while I am so burnt out.

At least the rice fields along the route offered beautiful backdrops for our many stops to pour water into the radiator.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

GO WILL GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So in awe of my fiance's dedication, hard work, commitment and all around brilliance!!! I am so lucky to be his partner!

GOOD LUCK WILL! Kick ass, take names!!! The Maryland Bar won't know what hit it!

11th Hour Switcheroo

The past five days have been a total whirlwind, simultaneously exhilarating, terrifying, confusing, and fun.

The background: I came to Bali because of the opportunity to test drive the ethnographic methods I learned in the classroom over the past year. I got to spend some time doing this in Cambodia, but walked away from that experience feeling strongly that to even attempt to 'do' this bizarre, wonderful, confusing thing called ethnography I would really, really have to spend some time with my research subjects and gain more intimate knowledge of the social world around them to be able to garner quality data and have enough context to be able to analyze it with any level of assurance. It's not about being able to claim that you 'know' something about a given social phenomena, so much as what Donna Haraway (1988) calls "situated knowledges"- given X and Y context, I can say that this and that hold true. I wanted to have the chance to be able to attempt to situate myself in a given context and give this whole ethnography thing a whirl. I knew coming in that five weeks really isn't enough to do this in a very rigorous way, but I knew that being able to conduct my research under my mentor would give me some good lessons on how to operate once I go into the field research portion of my PhD.

In the many months of prep leading up to this field experience, I knew for certain that I wanted to study gender-based violence in Bali. I wanted to know what reverberations were still happening as a result of the 1965 mass violence against the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), what ways poverty and 'development' were shaping discourses related to women's empowerment, and understand the legal culture of gender-based violence intervention. I wasn't sure what my research question would center on exactly, but had the above questions framing my thinking as I got on the plane. Within the first 10 days I was here, however, I kept getting this gut feeling that I should pursue trying to understand why a certain group of activists were working to gain recognition of the '65 mass violence. This is politically dangerous work, with great risk of personal harm. Home visits from the police and military intelligence, government officials questioning your family, and an overarching silence on behalf of the population. Most speech about the incidents are indirect, happening within family compounds and whispers and gossips, information passed down to children about missing generations of grandpas. To approach the violence through a systematic, social science type inquiry is exceedingly rare, and I wanted to find out what the driving factors were motivating the activists with whom I was in contact. So I went down that rabbit hole, and things quickly got more murky and more politically complicated.

For starters, I am conducting research along with six other grad students. We all have different topics, but several of us are working with the same group of informants- this activist group- but about different questions. I thought early on that it would be ok, since we were all asking such disparate questions, but by last Wednesday I felt like I was going in circles. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I was talking with Leslie and Degung about the quandary, and said had I realized earlier on I would have switched directions and pursued the gender-based violence path I had originally intended following. "So switch it!!!!" was the enthusiastic response they both gave me.

Ummm...ok. I had learned a bit about an extremely progressive domestic violence law from one of the visiting scholars, an attorney who heads up Legal Aid in Bali. Leslie, Degung and I dialogued out what research questions would shed light on deeper issues of gender dynamics out in regards to this law using the population I had access to as informants in the short time I had remaining here: the pragmatic meets the theoretical.

So, here I am, five days, four interviews, two ad hoc focus groups, and much internet browsing of legal documents later, exhausted, slightly strung out, and presenting on my 'research'- in quotes because at this point I feel like I just have talked to people without really doing any analysis on the data- tonight to the community I have been living in for the past month. Holy short deadline Batman.

While this hasn’t been the easiest thing I have ever done and I think I should have my head examined for switching at such a late date, I think that my circuitous field experience is actually fairly emblematic of field research in general. As grad students we put together these beautiful, painstakingly constructed research proposals, pleading with departments and funding agencies for money to carry out the research, and then plunk ourselves into our chosen site. And then the "oh crap, what the hell am I doing?" reality of the fact that you are sleeping under a mosquito net in someone's home who you don't speak the same langauge as and tomorrow you are getting on a motorbike with someone you have only met once to go interview their aunt about her feelings about something quite painful hits you. You go back to square one, look over your funding proposal and say, ‘oh yeah, that's what I was going to ask’, then show up at said aunties house and realize that you are distractedly concerned about if she boiled the water for the World Health Organization travel advisory recommended five minutes, and, come to think of it, you are a little sleepy too and can't quite remember just why you decided you had the brains and balls to carry this out in the first place.

Going in circles of self-doubt seems to be just as much a part of research as is the actual interviews, field notes, participant observations (read: smoking a lot of clove cigarettes and learning to play the Beatles "Here Comes the Sun" on a ukulele), coding, processing, and analyzing are. Part of learning to ‘do’ research is learning to manage the highs of a great meeting where your brain is firing between what the person just told you and Foucault’s theories of panoptic schema with the despair of staring at your field notes and realizing that you can’t possibly turn what’s on the page and swirling in your head into a book because you are just too stupid and unqualified and everyone hates you and the jig is up and you should go get a job at Wendy’s because clearly the only person who thinks you are smart is your dog and that’s only because you feed her on a regular basis and she eats cat poop so what does she really know anyway.

I’m completely thrilled that I took the chance and switched last minute, I feel like I have at least come to a place of being comfortable living with the discomfort of walking between these two extremes. More on the actual emergent themes that have come up through my interviews in the next few posts.

Next step: Finishing PowerPoint prep, then 5pm presentation to the community. Current time: 1:46pm.

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: Fun New Travel Edition!

In my last post I did the most "duh, you dumb moron don't do that shit" thing I could possibly do, and in a moment of self-righteous idiocy posted criticisms of my colleagues (a bad idea to begin with) based on rash, ill founded assumptions that made sweeping generalizations of people that, on the whole, I actually admire quite a bit. My last post focused on a really, really shitty experience I had with four people who I have come to regard as friends over the past month, and in my haste to relate the incidents of the evening I felt were completely unjust and horrific, I lumped several frustrations I had with my overall experiences here in Bali into one general criticism of my fellow grad students studying here with me. Not only was this just a generally shitty thing to do to people who have consistently gone out of their way to be nice to me, my criticisms were founded on a few very minor general irritations about things which were absolutely none of my business in the first place.

In the original version of my Tourism Apartheid post, I wrote the following:

For the past two weeks of our academic program here, I have grown increasingly irritated as my fellow students rent hotel rooms for the evening to study and get hot showers. I have been berating myself for my even bothering to give a crap about it, but for whatever reason it has kept getting under my skin. Stumbling angry and embarrassed through the small street leading to the beach, my nebulous feelings of irritation with my fellow students’ behavior, partnered with the current experience, solidified into a hot anger. Why the f’ck would you come half-way around the world to learn about another culture- and the conflicts rising from horrific, exploitative government mismanagement- only to continuously remove yourself from engaging with people that actually come from/identify with said culture?

In addition to making vast assumptions about others and being just strait up rude, my comments raised several issues of misrepresentation of not just my fellow grad students but also myself.

For starters, the heavy criticisms I levied at my colleagues were based on a very few isolated, minor incidents that I swept into one heap, unto which I poured the gasoline of anger from the club incident. I conflated my mild irritation about our group dynamics with the feelings brought up from my friends being barred access to the Kuta club, and then shot my mouth off in a really, really inappropriate way. This painted the other grad students as being here only to party and indulge in tourist activities, which is not the case and moreover I didn't have any right to throw out this assertion because I have not spent much time with them! I am not super comfortable in group settings, I have always been much more comfortable one on one or with a handful of very intimate, long-standing friends. I turned my own discomfort with the group dynamic into a criticism against people who I really don't know, and if I am really, really honest, I never made a great effort to get to know them, which is truly my loss as they are vibrant, caring people who come from interesting background and have interesting reasons for pursuing research in post-conflict Bali. I criticized- an ungrounded criticism- for coming to other country and not trying to spend time with people from here, but the true criticism should have been self-directed, because I never worked to get to know the people from my own university.

More than the criticisms I levied at my classmates, the bigger issue from a representation standpoint is that in criticizing 'them' (as if six unique individuals who had never met each other prior to a month ago were some unified collective)I positioned myself as some sort of 'authentic' researcher, 'truly' immersed in local culture, more rigorous and legitimate an ethnographer than my fellow travelers. Sheesh. For all of the breath I have wasted- and, likely, all of the people I have annoyed- by talking about the politics and ethics of representation I completely blew it. I have been greatly influenced and cautioned by feminist ethnographers' work on how Western researchers and conflict practitioners come into 'developing' or third world countries to do research and superimpose their own versions of reality on what they are seeing. Even the much beloved Margaret Mead has been criticized for doing this during her time in Bali, and it's something I have tried to be so hyper-aware of that the irony that I ended up blatantly subverting the actions of my colleagues by my own assumptions would be almost comical if it didn't so glaringly speak to larger methodological and ethical flaws I clearly need to work out in my own thinking and actions.

So, where to go from here? For starters, cleaning up my own side of the street, to borrow 12-step parlance, involved frank inventory of where I had fallen off the beam: being critical of others rather than evaluating what my criticisms were hinting at in my own actions; painting myself as a particular 'type' of 'authentic' researcher when, in case this wasn't blatantly clear from earlier posts, I have absolutely no idea 'how' one 'does' ethnography; and, most importantly, not treating others as I would like to be treated. I can't take back what I said (although I did rework the original post to be reflective of the fact that I am being a tourist here just as much as anyone), I can't change that 200 people read my criticisms before I was able to edit the post, and I can't repair the boundaries of trust with my fellow students that I violated through my actions. I have apologized, been willing to listen to their frank critiques of my (mis)representations of myself and them, and to the best of my ability reflected on the ethical and methodological issues called into questions by my actions.

Although I am not relishing the thought of another ten days of (well earned) cold shoulders, in some ways I am truly grateful for my colossal fuck up because I am learning so much from it. Some lessons, like don't post critical shit on a public blog might be fairly obvious, but other things have popped up for me that I think speak to larger issues involved in studying abroad and studying emotionally strenuous material.

One of the reasons I wanted to keep a blog of my experiences abroad is I wanted to have a frank conversation with other students who are considering spending time in post-conflict zones about the upsides and, yes, pitfalls, of engaging in study in emotionally charged situations. Studying away from friends and family is difficult enough to begin with, then to add the challenges of studying subject matter like mass violence or rape (or, if you're really sick like me, you can lump them both together! Whee!) creates even more psychological dissonance and strain. One of the ways I think this strain manifests itself is in tension within the group dynamic. I am absolutely not a psychologist or even a well-traveled student, but in the very limited experiences I have had studying emotionally charged issues be it in a classroom in the US or on a front porch abroad, tensions seem to be expressed in the ways students relate to one another. I can think of at least three examples from my "Gender and Violence" and "Gender and Conflict" classes in the US where groups of us were ready to come to blows with selected individuals in the class who had the uncanny ability to be assholes. (For those of you keeping score at home, I have resolutely claimed the title of designated class asshole for this course. Ten points to me.)

I'm not trying to say that people become scapegoats in these situations, or play off my actions as anything less than a really poor decision. My point is that emotionally tense situations like studying charged subject matter don't always bring out the best in people (even if it's sometimes super amusing, like the guy that consistently referred to vaginas as 'cookie jars' in my "Gender and Conflict" course last fall). When you compound disturbing subject matter with the challenges inherent in studying abroad in a group- not only are you studying with these people, you are living with them, writing with them, researching with them, eating with them, etc- things can get a little gnarly. To have a successful group dynamic I think you really have to be considerate of the fact that people are growing and facing challenges that might not arise at home, not just things like a lack of hot water or (super icky) bugs in your sheets, but also the general growth process that happens when you step out of your comfort zone. I can only speak for myself (a fact I forgot in making the comments in my original post), but I know that over the past four weeks I have come to some uncomfortable realizations about things in my life at home that need to be reevaluated. Stepping away from the day to day of studying, vacuuming, grocery shopping, hanging out with friends, family commitments, etc has given me an uncomfortable amount of space in my head to mull over details of my personal life that need a little tinkering. This is not easy, and I am not the only one in my class having some of these feelings. Being in a group of a bunch of people together for an extended amount of time all reevaluating personal stuff, you have to be a little sensitive to the fact that people are going to be off of their game. The people in my group were sensitive with me. They gave me the utmost understanding and support while I talked through my thinking with them, never bothering to question if they might be looking for a similar sensitive ear. I was arrogant and selfish, consuming myself with reflections about my personal life and not bothering to reflect on how my actions might affect others.

So blogosphere, this is my official mea culpa. I screwed up, I dropped the ball, I fell short of standards of decent human being behavior. Did I learn something along the way? I sure hope so, because I really don't want to have to screw up in this particular way again.

To all those who I offended, my deepest apologies once again.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tourism Apartheid

Much thanks to Wiss Alit for permission to post his amazing painting.

Despite the fact that it’s 5:04AM as I write this, having just walked in the door from the shithole known as Kuta Beach, it would be absolutely irresponsible as 1) a budding ethnographer, 2) a trained journalist, and 3) decent human being with a somewhat well-read blog to not quickly put down some of what happened tonight before my sharp memories are dulled by sleep and a deep seated desire to willfully forget much of what I saw this evening.

After a packed day of grant writing, class, and ‘fieldwork’ with a fellow student studying the phenomena/culture of whiteness here (which involved a trip to a spa frequented by locals looking to have a skin bleaching treatment-very, very challenging fieldwork of getting a massage), I headed to Kuta with my friend M. to watch our friend D. play live at one of the Kuta restaurants this evening. D. just released his first album of folksy singer-songwriter music, and I was dying to see him play in a setting a bit more formal than Leslie and Degung’s living room. The show was amazing, augmented even more so by the fact that when D.’s band took a break M. was cajoled into taking a turn at the mic. I had heard both of them play during impromptu jam sessions at Leslie and Degung’s, but watching them under the stars in the rooftop bar, hearing the talent and passion behind both of their music, was really a treat. And it was kinda amazing to see the sheer variety of talent encapsulated in their group of friends that turned up to support D. In addition to M., another guy that I had not previously met got up and did a quick set with hands down the best cover of “Blowing in the Wind” I have ever heard.

Performances were followed by generous rounds of beer and pizza courtesy of the owner since D. was playing. Our revelry was shut down only by the fact that the restaurant was closing and they literally had to kick us out by flicking the lights on and off. Waiters snoozed on the booths downstairs as we slinked out the front onto the sidewalk for more pizza (for the guys) and fizzy water for moi. Once back on M’s bike, it became clear that the traffic was going to be a problem for D. and the others, who were in a car because of the band equipment. We decided to hit the Kuta Apache Reggae club to forgo the traffic until things cleared up a bit, only to find that the club closed about 12 seconds after we arrived. Prowling for live music and a little fun, D. rushed us from one side of the street to the other looking for open bars (most of which cater to drunk tourists and were just getting started at 2am). Coming up short in the clubs that at least tacitly tolerate locals, we headed to one of the gleaming mega clubs blaring pop music at top volume.

This is where things took a turn for the racist and shitty.

We pressed up close to the stairs leading to the sky garden club entrance, only to be patted down by the security guards toting- I shit you not- semi-automatic machine guns. Seriously. I, who was carrying a rather large purse stuffed with ex-pat essentials (antibacterial wipes, bug spray, etc. I left Leslie’s snake bite venom extractor home figuring Kuta was safe enough, at least in that regard), was waved through quickly once the guard saw the bug spray and took away my water bottle. Didn’t want to offend the tourist. My friends, however, did not fare so well. While only my bag was assaulted, D., M., P. and L. were rather intimately patted down from top to bottom- M. actually twice by two different guys. We got the go ahead to press up the stairs towards the entrance, only to be unceremoniously detained by another armed guard. Bahasa Indonesia (the official language) flew back and forth above my head, D. growing visibly upset and M. shooting me a ‘this isn’t going to be good’ raised eyebrow.

The guards pushed my friends back, as I pressed forward. “What’s going on??” I asked D., who, voice rising with every word, shouted back that they couldn’t get in without paying a rather exorbitant- and effectively cost prohibitive, given the average monthly income of most locals- entrance fee that was only imposed on Balinese. “Shit, SHIT!” D. said, as we clamored back down the stairs. “This is SUCH shit!”

What had started as a little light hearted fun to burn off the rest of our post-gig energy had gone terribly sour in the matter of seconds. As we walked, my friends in various states of anger, hurt, and embarrassment, I grew ever more mortified and upset. I had actively been enjoying the fruits of the tourism industry, staying in nice hotels when I first arrived, enjoying inexpensive spa treatments, and reveling in the sun, thinking myself sensitive to the disparities in wealth and privilege between me and my subjects simply because I had familiarized myself with feminist warnings on ethical research. The sense that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing here- research wise and more generally in my partaking of tourism offerings- overwhelmed me.

D. grabbed my hand, eyes wide and reflecting a deep angst and pain that I can only best relate to the look I have seen on the faces of parents searching for a child who has strained off. “This [excluding Balinese] is the culture here Beth! Research this! Write about this! This is our culture!”

The first day of class Degung said, “What is ‘culture’? What is ‘tourism’? Same answer.” The profoundness of this reverberated in my head as D. pleaded with me to write about what I had just seen (which I would have done regardless of his desire for me to do so). Starting back in the early 1900s, Bali became the hotspot for tourism drawing off the romanticized version of “Balinese culture” presented during Dutch colonialism. This ‘culture’ presented was really an idealized, hacked version of the actual traditions and ceremonies meaningful to Bali, pornographic (in that it’s exaggerated representations of what the actual traditions are, presented in a manner for public consumption) and crudely commodified for the enjoyment of tourists. The commodified ‘culture’ was further institutionalized by the likes of Walter Spies and Margaret Mead, who canonized their version of Balinese ‘culture’ through their respective ex-pat and anthropological adventures in Bali, a process that has become known today as the ‘Balinization’ of Bali.

The present day fiesta of all out pimping of Balinese 'culture' was ushered in during the rise of Soeharto’s New Order regime, when international investors were allowed into Indonesia en masse for the first time. As actual- ie, not manufactured- tradition holds one does not live near the beach for various spiritual reasons; coastline property in Bali was cheap for the getting when Soeharto opened the floodgates for international investment. Today, many Balinese cannot even access the beach for the important rituals that must, according to actual tradition, take place there throughout the year because the property has been privatized to the point that locals are unable to access the space. That ‘traditional’ rituals have played such a vital role in propagating the 'Balinized' version of culture meant to attract tourists has actually prevented expression of genuine traditions is ironic. That many Balinese welcome ever increasing amounts of tourism thinking it is vital for the economy- despite the fact that most investors are foreign, pay limited taxes, and pay locals an average salary well below US$100 monthly- is the saddest example of symbolic violence I have seen yet. As M. said to me the first time we went to Kuta, “people don’t realize we’re becoming slaves on our own island.”

Leaving Bourdieu behind and returning to our angry stumble away from the club….D. spent the next several minutes grabbing the arm of any white tourist who would listen to what just happen. A white couple about our age handed him two VIP passes to the very club we had just gotten kicked out of. “That’s not going to do shit for us,” I said, throwing in a quick (not so heartfelt) “thanks anyway” while the guy of the couple tried to explain to D. that the reason I could get in for free was because I was a woman, not because I was white. “If I owned a club, I would do the same thing, man…let the girls in for free, the guys will pay to get in! I only got in free because someone was passing these [VIP passes] out on the sidewalk.”
Yeah. And the only people they were passing them out to were the ones that looked like you and I, my blond headed Caucasian pal.

The five of us continued our hurt, ranting meander towards the beach, each of my friends cursing and muttering while I stewed inside my head. Knowing a bit about gender roles, I can’t help but think that in addition to feeling deeply embarrassed, angry and hurt, my four male friends also felt a bit emasculated. Here they were amongst a bunch of drunk men wildly trying to rub up against drunk women, and they- all of whom were perfect gentleman respectful of the fact that I was engaged and NOT interested in ‘grinding’- had been tossed out of a club in front of (excuse my narcissism) a cute female friend for not being the ‘right’ kind of man. Yes, a Balinese woman would have probably also gotten the boot had she walked in with a bunch of Balinese friends, but I do wonder if a solitary cute Balinese woman on the arm of a buff, drunk Australian would have been shown the door. Last night I saw first-hand the sex tourism that happens in the back alleys of Kuta, and I am dubious that the strict ‘no locals’ door policy extends to the Bali woman offering company to a well-paying tourist eager to keep her happy by buying rounds of shooters from the horrific mega clubs lining the streets of Kuta.

Our walk of shame took us to the main road lining the beach, and D., still angry and a bit buzzed, pointed at M. (who has a U.S. ID card and speaks perfect English) and demanded, “take her to the beach, show her where she’s allowed to go- we probably aren’t even allowed to go out there!” I passed on the 2:30am tour of the beach, knowing that the suggestion had been made simply to further illustrate the chasm of privilege separating me from my friends. Looking to appropriate a tourist space as a quasi-form of asserting ourselves, we plopped into the cushy outdoor furniture of a restaurant that had closed for the evening. In a weapon of the weak-esque move, we joked that we should stay there until a security guard came to kick us out, since none of us (my grad-school stipend self included) could ever afford to sit there when the joint was actually open.

“No future! Bali has no future with this kind of shit!” P. said. “Bali has a future,” M. replied ruefully, “It’s the Balinese that have no future.”

There were flowers, these beautiful little white and yellow ones that are ubiquitous every tourist place I have been near, strewn across the sofa where M. had plunked himself. Tucking one behind his ear, he turned to me and said, “You should wear one like this…then you’ll be traditional Balinese too!” He grabbed the flower and flung it away like something rotten. “This thing is bad luck. Shit. Bad luck flower.”

I was confused. Nothing I had heard about to this point involved bad luck flowers, especially as these ones were everywhere you looked, including on my fingernails from the manicure I had at the tourist beach my first day in Bali.

“Bad luck flower?” I asked.

“Yeah. Because everything they get put on brings us bad luck.”

Oh. Right.

The feelings that this experience brought up for me, as both a graduate student in sociology with a commitment to ethnography and as a (mostly) decent human being are really, really complicated and very uncomfortable. I ventured out on a limb, sitting in the relative quiet at 4am while draped on the café chairs we had appropriated, to ask what the experience had felt like for my friends.

M. turned to me, looked me full in the eyes and said, “It’s like being raped.”

Now, M. knows full well my personal experience with rape, as well as my scholarship on the subject, and did not make the comment lightly. I actually think it’s a rather apt metaphor: at its most basic level, rape is an appropriation of one’s ability to determine what, when, and with whom one does with one’s body. It’s a subjugation of the self, the very core of who you are and your right to determine your actions. It’s the rapist asserting power over the raped for the purpose of increasing the rapist’s power. For these reasons, rape fits as a framework for understanding the evening’s events and the larger structures of tourism operating here in ‘paradise’.
First off, the industry is feeding off the labor and resources of the island, squelching the ability of Balinese to determine what is right for their future(s), and limiting their ability to make decisions as natural resources and land become ever scarcer and ever more expensive. Moreover, the tourism industry has evolved here in such a way that it only increases the power of those at the top- generally international investors- while undermining the power of those being asked to give their labor and natural resources to support the industry.

I’m not relating this story to you to get you to decide to never visit Bali, or to always double check that your hotel pays the busboys and room maids a living wage (although heck, why not?!), but rather to raise the issues laid bare in that moment of denied access- identity, economy, gender, and that ever nebulous concept of ‘culture’- up for larger discussion. Things are not always as they seem, even in paradise.

The contrast between there at the club and now, lying in my bed typing at 6:00am while hearing the sounds of early morning chanting at the temple, is jarring. I’m here in a place billed as tourism heaven, but the emotions stirred up by the night’s events have made me angry as hell.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Author's note re: use of names

On recent posts you have probably noticed that most people are listed simply by a single initial. I wanted to give you a quick note on the reasoning behind this. Much of the program I am doing here in Indonesia focuses on the fallout of the mass violence that took place in 1965-1966 in Bali and Java, where between 500,000-1,000,000 people were killed from October-December 1965 with killings continuing into 1966.

This violence is still seen as legitimate in many circles, as it was carried out under the ostensible justification of 'cleansing' the country of communism. The specter of communism is still raised to this day to squelch myriad forms of advocacy, from environmental organizing to calls for responsible tourism investments that don't exploit local labor and natural resources. Talking- much less actively informing a bunch of American students- about the circumstances and challenging the dominant discourse around 1965 is very, very dangerous. Military intelligence officers frequent the hangouts where my friends congregate, even the spaces contained within the walls of a family compound because a small 'park' is dedicated to promoting discussion about 1965 at one of my friend's family homes.

Because of the dangers and possible consequences that come with speaking out against injustice around 1965- and being critical of the government more broadly- I have choosen to give people pseudonyms or list them simply by an initial. As Leslie and Degung have published broadly about their work related to 1965, and out of respect for their advocacy and public scholarship, I will continue to use their names and link to their work when appropriate.

Friday, July 15, 2011


It has taken me over a week to put together this post, trying to wrap my head around the different meanings, symbolism, and implications for cross cultural fieldwork brought up by my experiences over the three days during the Balinese holiday of Galungan, which started last Wednesday. I woke up Wednesday to the sounds of chanting, bells, and the smell of (very, very strong and slightly unpleasant) garlic-y spice wafting into my window at 8 in the morning. OK, well, I actually woke up around 5 to appease my bladder. Stumbling sleepily to the bathroom, I saw S., my host mom, dressed in full ceremonial garb and putting together an elaborate tower of fruit for an offering for one of the many ceremonies of Galungan.

Despite having an hour lecture on critical perspectives on Galungan, and P. explaining while Leslie filling in with translation as necessary, I still don’t understand the entire meanings and symbolism of the holiday, but the basics are that Galungan , which literally means, “When the Dharma is winning," celebrates/commemorates the conquest of the indigenous Bali Aga by the Javanese (the island next to Bali). So, kinda like Balinese Columbus day. The ubiquitous tourist explanation, however, is that Galungan is “Bali Christmas”. Everyone that is not part of our little group of research assistants and professors providing critical perspectives tow the line on this. One of my flip-flops bit the dust Tuesday (seriously, never by Tommy Hilfiger sandals, bought two pairs on clearance and both blew out in two months) and when I was buying new ones the shop owner said, “tomorrow my Christmas”. When I asked her about the explanation I had gotten, she smiled, shaking her head, “no, like Christmas.” I’ll go into this construction of ‘culture’ for tourism discussion much more in depth over the next couple of weeks, but for now I’ll stick with reflecting on what I took away from the two days of Galungan events.

First off, I do see the Christmas reference from a ‘holy shit we have to do a lot of work to prepare for this’ holiday standpoint. One of the general gender disparity things I have seen here is the burden of ‘culture’ that gets placed on women. The women in Leslie’s extended family worked day in and day out- like, from 3am-midnight for three days- making offerings for the temple ceremonies both in the village temple and in the family temples. Each family home, which traditionally is a compound in which several nuclear families live in their own little homes, consists of between one to four rooms (kitchen, bedrooms, living space). The little homes are all located within the same complex, which can range from having three to seven or more nuclear families all within a very, very small area, far less than an eighth of an acre. Each compound has three small temples within the grounds, where the spirit of the ancestors of the family reside during ceremonial times.

Women walking to temple with their offerings.

While the women are making offerings for the temples, the men are making a penjor, a large ceremonial pole displayed outside the family home, which is a symbol of Mount Agung, where the gods reside. I mentioned that I saw gender disparities in regards to the prep work expected of men compared with women. Yes, the men make the penjor, which is hard work. But in every case I saw of the several penjor I witnessed being made, it was a group project, and just one singular penjor. The offerings made by the women, however, are often made solo, and hundreds of offerings per nuclear family. I was at one of the other student’s homestay family’s house, and we went to put a bottle of water in the fridge and the entire thing was packed with offerings. Wall to wall of little, intricate, painstakingly made offerings to be placed around the temple at home and in the village temple.

Alison and I dolled up for temple.

The ceremonies in the family temple started around 7am, and consisted of inviting the ancestors to come reside with the family for the celebration. Around 11pm, S.,my house mom, M., my house sister, and Alison, fellow PhD student who is staying in the same homestay with me, and I walked to the Kesiman temple (famous for the upcoming Ngerebong ceremony). This was such a surreal, beautiful, and short journey (our house is about 500 meters from the temple). Walking with hundreds of other families all dressed to the nines in sarongs, beautiful scarves around their waists, elaborate hairdressings, there was a quiet buzz of excitement that grew with intensity as we approached the temple. Hearing the harmonies of the gamelons coming from inside the temple wall, sounding clear and crisp over the sound of the temple priest chanting to welcome the gods, I felt both a deep sense of gratitude that my host family was willing to invite me to share in this experience, and also a sharp fear that I was furthering the cultural pillaging at the hands of tourism that I have witnessed over the past two weeks. I tried to avoid standing in a clump with the other American students that had come with their families, mindful of Leslie’s heads up that this really, really was not for tourists. So much of Bali culture has been comodified for tourist consumption, and I was leery to tread the line between student interested in post-conflict culture and ‘intellectual tourism’ (it’s debatable that this distinction actually exists, if I’m really honest with myself).

For the purposes of eschewing incorrect explanations of the myriad meanings behind elements of the ceremony, appropriating aspects that really aren’t up for public consumption, or not being able to give enough context and thus open my explanations up for vast misinterpretations, I am going to stick to just a few snapshots of the things that most struck me throughout the ceremony. The first thing I was really struck by was the dichotomy of modern and ancient. I sat with my homestay sister and her cousin for the first part of the ceremony, and the cousin- along with about thirty other people I saw- was texting throughout the ceremony. Looking to my right towards the pavilion where the gamelons were being played, an older gentleman playing up front was using both hands to play while a cigarette resting between his lips poured smoke into the dark night above him. I was also moved by the sheer beauty of the ceremony. At one point all of the women temple priests, all dressed in white, move slowly in a large circle around the perimeter of the inner part of the temple, meditating and dropping in and out of semi-trance. The sounds, the chanting, and being surrounded by members of Leslie’s extended family that have so, so generously welcomed me into their fold made the hair on my arms stand up as I watched these women moving gracefully through the incense filled night.

The most memorable thing to me, above the beauty and the gratitude for acceptance (if only tacitly by the curious community members wondering what the f’ck these tourists were doing at their temple at 1am) I had, was the moment when people started going into trance towards the end of the ceremony. The gods and spirits of the ancestors come to be embodied during the ceremony, and as a handful of individuals throughout the temple fell into trance what struck me most in this moment of something so, so foreign to me was the caring offered to the people in trance. When someone fell into trance, those around her/him would hold the person up, assist them towards the high priests or the Barong, and literally help keep them on their feet. This outpouring of compassion and assistance when the person in trance was being overwhelmed by a spiritual experience bigger than themselves and had to be supported by others struck me as very universal. Hindu, Buddhist, Christan, Atheist, and everything in between, we all have experiences with that which we don’t understand, moments when we are consumed with circumstances beyond our ability to comprehend. In those moments of complete incapacitation, if we are lucky, we are caught by those around us and supported until we can once again stand on our own. This moment of shared humanity in a night of the utterly unfamiliar was tremendously poignant to me.

The plane ticket to come half-way around the world to have the opportunity to recognize common humanity in us all is a complete bargain.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pictures are up!

If you've been following my travels for the past few days (thank you!!) the depressing lack of photos has been remedied. If you're interested have a look back over some of the posts from the past two weeks, now new and improved with pictures!

Home sweet homestay

One of the best things about my time in Indonesia thus far, especially in contrast to the time I spent in Cambodia, is staying with members of Leslie's extended family. I am getting a much better idea of how people in Kesiman, Leslie's 'urban' village, actually live then I ever could have. A lot of the fun of this trip has been the mundane things- going to the market early in the morning (well, early for me...not so much for the women who have been up since 4am making offerings), hanging out on Leslie's living room (which, like most homes in Bali, has no walls around it and is open to the garden) making up lyrics to go with M. and D.'s banjo and guitar blues melodies, having lunch at Taman '65 (the park in Leslie's extended family compound), and, of course, the fun of taking a cold water dipper 'shower' (mondi, in Bahasa Indonesian) each morning. Here are some pictures from my homestay to give you a good idea of where I am staying and my host family. Sadly, the pictures simply can not do the beauty of my house justice, but at least you have some idea of what an upper-middle class family compound in urban Bali looks like.

Alison, fellow PhD student and homestay 'sister', and I in front of my bedroom. The living room(also open sans walls) of our house is doubling as the classroom for our class meetings being facilitated by guest lecturers.

M., one of my homestay siblings (there are three others as well) and S., my homestay mom, with Alison and I right before we went to temple for Galungan.

The entrance to my family compound.

Just inside the front gate of my family compound. The house on left is shared by the younger two children in my hosts' immediate family, and the television room/bedroom and bike storage/laundry room of two extended family members of my host family.

About five yards inside my family compound. The house with my room in it is the building on the right, far left is outdoor sink and pavilion (the one with thatched roof peeking out from behind trees on the left) where ceremonial offerings are prepped by older women in the extended family. Usually all women in family participate in these preparations, but my host mom is a police woman, and works during the day (very, very hard) and purchases some offerings and makes others. The building straight ahead in the distance (behind the trees) is where, traditionally, the oldest son stays with his immediate family. Building to the right of that is an open pavilion for ceremonies. There are a lot of ceremonies that take place within the family compound. New baby? There's a ceremony for that. New car? There's a ceremony for that. New chicken basket (single chicken 'coop'-type thing)? There's a ceremony for that. Kind of like 'there's an app for that' but much, much more complicated and time consuming for the women.

Head on view of the pavilion where many of the ceremonial offerings are made, and the woman in the extended family who is responsible for making many of the offerings. Making the offerings and prepping for ceremonies is so, so time consuming, and mandatory from what my friend P. referred to as the 'currency of guilt' standpoint: women that do not want to participate (because they want to work outside the home, because they are sick, because they are pregnant) are pressured by seeing the other women having to carry their share of the burden. Also, pressure comes from the younger women's husbands,who want to mitigate any tension between their mothers and their wives. The mothers feel/are obligated to make the offerings and maintain the temples, and then want/need their daughters-in-law to help share in the work. The sons then feel the need to put pressure on their wives to keep relationships good between himself and his mother, and his wife and his mother. This plays out in several ways. My friends T. and I. have been engaged for awhile, but are reluctant to actually tie the knot because it would obligate I. to start making offerings (an all day long process), despite the fact that I. is Javanese and not even Hindu, and the fact that she wants to continue working outside of the home. The 'culture of guilt' has tied their hands; family pressure trumps religious affiliations or personal desires. It also plays out on women's health. Leslie's computer got a nasty virus the other week right before Galungan, which involves three days of intense ceremony, and the computer tech that came over to fix it was talking about how his seven-months pregnant wife was having bleeding because she had been on her feet for so many hours making offerings with his mother. They had moved back to Bali from Java, where she did not have/feel pressured to make offerings, and he was lamenting wishing they had the money to move back because then she would not need to make the offerings, and he is terrified she is going to have a miscarriage.

This f'cking bird wakes me up every single morning at 4:30am. At least it's beautiful.

View from porch outside my bedroom.

Temples inside my family compound where their ancestors reside during Galungan.

View from my next door neighbor's balcony at sunset.

An innovative idea in peacebuilding

Ethnographic Anxieties

Yikes. Le sigh. Insert other phrases to express uncertainty here.

So, my first semester of grad school I took a class on feminist research methods which purported to be teaching ethnographic research methods. I designed a research project that relied on semi-structured interviews and ‘field observations’ consisting of observing my target population, not inserting myself into the community I am researching.

This more immersed ethnography is the path I am trying to find my way on here. I am ‘doing’- attempting to do, that is- participant observation to more fully gain knowledge about my research question. To be honest, the entire process of being here has left me feeling really off balance.

For starters, I came here thinking I was going to specifically be focusing my field research on the long-term repercussions of the 1965 political violence on narratives of sexual violence today…in a nutshell, I want to know how the sexual violence of ’65 and the trauma and shame resulting from it have impacted/affected the way people view rape/sexual abuse victims today. Are victims seen as ‘sluts’, ‘rape accusers’, etc.? So much of the justifications for the political violence revolve around the idea of the gerwani- the communist women’s organization from the 60s- being partially influential in the deaths of seven military generals and then desecrating their bodies. This narrative was used to stir up popular sentiment against the communist party, which then justified widespread killing of suspected communists. As in any war, rape played a major role in terrorizing the community, emasculating the men whose wives were being raped and traumatizing the women into silence for fear of retribution. I came here thinking I was going to studying the long term fall out of these occurrences on perceptions of female victims of sexual violence today.

Well, long story short, once I got here and on the ground I realized that I really wanted to push myself to try to do actual ‘participant observation’ type of research as best as possible in the three short weeks I actually have to be asking questions, etc. This desire presented a challenge from the standpoint that I was not going to be able to really immerse myself in a given population to understand the meanings they give to particular aspects. The best way I could think of to go about my research on this topic in such a limited amount of time would be to do something similar to the work I did in Cambodia, and meet with local officials involved in the legal and media responses to rape victims. If I was here for a full year, I would find a way to immerse myself into a community of women and get to understand from their daily lives the way they navigate sexual consent, the ways in which they understand ‘society’s’ perceptions of sexual agency, and monitoring the media and legal decisions around sexual violence cases. A year, however, is a luxury I don’t have, and I really wanted to challenge myself to take a different approach and go ‘deeper’ in ethnography by spending significant (relatively speaking in three weeks) amounts of time with the people I am interested in researching.

Conveniently, the question that kept rattling around in my head for the two weeks prior to officially ‘starting’ my research (I put in quotes because I am still feeling murky on if I’ve actually started to research or if I’m just hanging out with people and getting to know them. In some ways, I think it’s both, and that’s got my black and white brain really freaked out) was one that dealt specifically with the community in which I am living for the time I am in Bali. I am here broadly studying the repercussions of the ’65 violence with Dr. Leslie Dwyer, who has brought students here for the past five years for similar courses. Members of her extended family, especially the members of the younger generation that are my age, have been extremely involved in advocacy around ’65. In addition to supporting the program administratively, they have Taman ’65 (’65 Park), a space dedicated to discussion around ’65, within their family compound.

My anxieties are specifically circling around the fact that the line between ‘new friends’ and ‘research subjects’ is very, very blurry. When I am hanging out and listening to guitar, we’re also chatting about the implications of Taman ’65 on the neighborhood politics, and how the fallout of ’65 has impacted land ownership within the family compound. Is this hanging out? Is this research? Is it exploitative to head to my homestay after our discussion and jot down field notes about what I just learned? Yes, my new pals know that I am ‘researching’ them, but it still feels very voyeuristic to be thinking of these interactions as ‘data’, much less the discomfort I feel holding our conversations up to sociological theory and putting it into neat little boxes in my brain.

Leslie says this is normal. Part of the ethnographic territory. Several feminist ethnographers touch on these issues as well. I especially like Daphne Patai’s (1991) writing questioning the ethics of third world research as Western academics.
Patai concludes that there is no ‘good’ conclusion. The best we can do is just being mindful of the power discrepancies set up in ethnographic research, especially when there are vast economic and social disparities at play. At the end of the month, I will return to the U.S. (sigh again…having too much happiness to even think of leaving) and go back to my life. My ‘subjects’, however, will continue to operate in this weird vacuum of silence around ’65, and will have to deal with whatever ramifications arise from my findings, as I will be presenting them to the community prior to my departure. This leaves me with an uneasy feeling as well.

I spoke with my partner about this a few hours ago and he brought up the good point that the only way to further thinking on a subject is to throw out your best ideas (hopefully grounded in empirical thought) and then let people critique them and further the discourse on the given subject. Thank goodness this group I am studying has the hutzpah to do this on a regular basis by talking with the community about their perspectives on ’65 and the current political, economic and social climate. Hopefully in the process of studying their courage to speak up I will gain a little more confidence to do the same.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Getting comfortable about operating outside my comfort zone

Ten days ago the only things I knew for certain about Bali was that my mentor worked here, and that I trusted her enough to fly halfway around the globe because she said 1) it would further my scholarship on gender and how it relates to mass violence, and 2) because she said it would be fun. Going on that, and the fact that I felt God/Universe/Spirit/whathaveyou had lined things up too perfectly for the series of events that made it possible for me to come here for it to simply be ‘coincidence’, but rather that I really was meant to come…whether this is for some greater purpose or simply because, like Leslie said, it will be good for me, I have no idea.

I do know this, though, ten days ago I had never:
1)Danced (badly) to salsa/low caste Balinese music under the stars with fifty people from another country, much less ones that called me friend from the second we met.
2)Eaten rabbit (delicious).
3)Eaten snakefruit (not so much).
4)Been in a Hindu temple.
5)Seen people go into trance and stab themselves in trance while being protected from getting cut by the gods embodied within them while in trance.
6)Brushed my teeth using a drain as a sink.
7)Eaten out of a paper bag.
8)Ridden on a motorbike without being scared shitless.
9)Ridden on a motorbike with a helmet that I actually own (it’s cute, too!).
10)Slept in an airport.
11)Explored a foreign city on my own.
12)Been afraid of a twelve pound, eight week old puppy (seriously, my host family’s new puppy is not a super friendly guy).
13)Eaten eggs with a spoon.
14)Had a friend whose name literally translates to “second child, upper caste”.
15)Been really, truly ok with using a dipper and airdry in place of toilet paper.
16)Felt safe sleeping in my own room without my partner. Everyone in the village here is related, and goes generation upon generation back. Being a guest of the family I am staying with, extended relatives of Leslie and Degung’s, I have felt one hundred percent ‘safe’, even though it’s an open air house. In the U.S., 'safety' is about being afraid of people breaking in, getting murdered and raped (not in that order, necessarily), whatever. Here, I conceptualize safety much more as access to clean water, medical care, and enough sleep to be able to function without making an ass of myself (at least not with any greater frequency than I do at home).
17)Had a massage on the beach.
18)Regretted having a massage on the beach.
19)Embraced the wonders of a bucket shower as actually just fine and rather efficient, once you get over the cold water.
20)Taken “if Laura Ingalls Wilder could do this shit, so can I” as a personal, frequently invoked mantra.

Yes, I feel super vulnerable in about a million and four ways: I’m out of my element, I am surrounded by people who I don’t know and who don’t know me. I am, on even my best day, somewhat socially awkward in intimate social settings with people I am just getting to know. I’m self-aware to a fault, and often end up coming off as stand-offish when I’m trying to be mindful of not dominating the conversation and being the center of attention. I have a super big personality, and can slip into ‘look at me, look at me’ without even knowing I’m doing it. My awareness of this lovely little personality flaw and my overcompensation for it often come off as stilted and reserved. This has been really, really hard over the past few days, but looking over this list, I don’t regret for one second my decision to come here.

This afternoon I had a conversation with someone about the hopeless dread I feel when I sit down to write anything ‘academic’. It’s like looking over a vast chasm devoid of any light. Staring over the abyss, I have no idea how I will possibly turn my lack of understanding and inspiration into something readable, much less something that furthers thinking on gender and violence. The process of jumping into the abyss, however, has always yielded not just decent- sometimes even good- writing and sound theoretical discussion, but has also helped me to, one abyss at a time, trust the process of walking (or writing) through the unknown.

Perhaps the awkwardness and self-doubt I feel is the personal abyss I am here to work through. Gazing into its frigid depths at the beginning, I really wasn’t sure I would be able to emerge on the other side. The above list gives me hope that, yes, there are glimmering stepping stones dotting the horizon of personal and professional growth before me. Just for today, that’s enough of a reason for me to keep putting one foot in front of the other and trust that the stones will continue to appear on my journey to the opposite shore.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Motorbike Ethnography

Since getting here I have fallen in love with riding on motorbikes. Feeling the wind blowing back my hair and the cool breeze on my face is lovely, but the thing I really love is being able to see the people around me in their day to day. Being in the car on the way to class simply is not the same. Seeing the villagers of Kesiman from behind darkened glass, up high in the elevated mini-SUV type thingie we have for the class just doesn’t give you the same view as the back of the motorbike. Yesterday as I zoomed along with Roro, my research facilitator (and all around brilliant, ballsy superwoman) I saw the following: woman on back of motorbike holding medium sized television- not flat screen- while man up front drove; man with toddler sitting behind him on bike, with sarong sash around them to keep the toddler tied to him while he drove; man driving with small child tucked up front between legs, two small children behind him, mom on end holding baby (yes, five people on one bike).

In the U.S. motorcycles scare the shit out of me . I’ve only ever been on one once at home, and even seeing them on the street driving past me makes me nervous. The difference? We go a million miles an hour at home. We want everything- food, wealth, arrival at destination- to be instantaneous, regardless of the consequences of our safety, not to mention the environmental consequences of driving at a pace that is not so swell for gas mileage. Riding here, going 20-30 miles an hour, I can see the sites around me and get a small glimpse of the way that the villagers around me actually live. Got a bunch of rice to bring to your warung (small food stand/restaurant)? You gotta haul that shit on your bike. Nini (grandma) sick? Ain’t no ambulance here (except for dogs, more on that in an upcoming post), throw Nini over your lap and get to the hospital.

More than just being the most economical and, given the state of the roads, pragmatic means of transport here, I have found another happy effect of riding on the bike vs. riding in the car: people are much more candid and relaxed when riding then in formal settings. The depth of topic and ease with which people speak with me while riding has been far greater than any other setting, even if it’s something ‘causal’ over lunch or dinner. We celebrated another student’s birthday this evening over dinner, and I opted to skip the cab ride back to my homestay and ride back with L., one of the other students who is from West Papua. Over dinner the waitress had asked us all where we come from, and he said Papua. When she responded by saying that, “oh, you’re from Indonesia!” he got really insistent that, No, he was Papuan, not Indonesian.

I asked him about it on the ride back. While watching the moon rise up over the multiple flower nurseries (to serve tourist hotels) , he told me how the U.S. and Indonesian governments pressured individual Papuans to ‘vote’ to join Indonesia, using threats of violence and economically coercive measures. Papua is tremendously rich in natural resources, and its geographically strategic location in the sixties (think Cold War politics), along with the promise of economic gain from copper and gold mines, made it beneficial for the U.S. to ‘help’ Indonesia work to persuade the Papuans to join Indonesia.

My feelings on U.S. intervention in general aside- as I know next to nothing in this context, I can’t form anything like a well informed opinion- the way that this has played out on the individual level is startling. The question of ‘who’ one is is so centrally located to ‘where’ one comes from. L. was telling me about Papua’s national songs, and it made me think of the song “God Bless the USA.” While my patriotism is firmly planted in a rather critical perspective that seeks to improve my country through constructive consideration of past events, I am still very, very proud of the ideals that my country was founded upon, for which many of us are still striving- life, liberty, independence. These ideas are so central to who I am and what I value as an individual, that it’s difficult for me to imagine what it would be like if someone were to superimpose a different nationality upon me against my will. Especially given that I live in an era where my country has absolutely hegemonic influence over every aspect I see abroad, I can’t conceptualize what it must be like to have every aspect that I identify with as “American” subverted by a more powerful nation.

As much angst as I have prior to traveling to study abroad, this type of moment, open and listening to another human who is open and sharing something from a perspective so radically different than my own that I simply would never have ever encountered it at home, despite the fact that I live in a very ‘international’ city, is why I push myself to study in places to which I’m not necessarily ‘comfortable’ traveling. Going into post-conflict zones is life changing because , as someone who has grown up within the safety of THE dominant world power, for the first time you have narratives counter to what you have been taught growing up thrown in your face. Nowhere to hide, no way to deny. Sitting at home you can watch documentaries or see YouTube videos uploaded with critical narratives and perspectives on the U.S.’s influence abroad, but it’s too easy to change the channel or say, “that’s such bullshit”. Perhaps the facts of what L. presented to me aren’t actually what went down. Who knows? I am not in a position to read a tremendous amount about the issue nor criticize the U.S.’s policies towards W. Papua, and that’s certainly not the purpose of this post.

My point is this: being able to have this conversation tonight changed the way that I understood my own identity both as a person who thinks of herself as fitting into this category of “American”, and as a person who is a citizen of a country that- from this particular Papuan’s perspective- subverted his country’s independence for my country’s political and economic gain. This shifts the way I think about myself, and also gives me a better understanding of the way that others view me. In the context of conflict resolution work, understanding – or at least acknowledging the presence of the tension resulting from- both of these things is vital if one wants to have any shot of being able to meet across the table. Or, at the very least, on the back of a motorbike.

Reflections on day one

Putting pen to paper- or font to word file- to try to wrap my head around day one of our class. I have been in Bali for one day short of a week, and left the states eight days ago. After getting in last Tuesday and staying with Leslie for a night, I headed to Sanur Beach to ‘relax’. Oh, do I suck at vacation. Seriously. By hour 2 I was bored and looking for something to ‘do’ (other than, of course, the required reading for this course. Clearly, that could wait until the wee hours of the morning prior to each class).

So, I trolled the internet, got a $6 massage (hold your comments on the happy endings. Seriously, because of the raping and pillaging of local labor, this is what a massage costs here. We will talk more about this later. And yes, I do realize I am a hypocrite for indulging in this…discussions on myriad paradoxes of living in global economy will be continuing throughout this trip, picking up from past posts) and still found myself utterly, profoundly bored lying on the beach. And bored quickly turned into lonely, missing my partner at home and thinking how much fun it would be to tell him a dumb joke for the millionth time or just look at his cute little face. This type of brainstorm is simply not productive, certainly not if I am to enjoy the next four weeks and really embrace the opportunities being presented. I know that I am here for a reason, I don’t know what that/those reason(s) are yet, but I have NO doubt that the series of coincidences that conspired for me to be here were by accident. Or, as one of my friends puts it: Is it odd, or is it G-d?

Anyway, existential musings aside, I was truly grateful for class to get rolling today. Language class at 8AM, barely remember anything, but I can at least ask people their names in Bahasa Indonesian and introduce myself. And ask where the bathroom is. 10AM the other six Mason grad students and I headed to Leslie and Degung’s (her husband) house for research methods class. This course is going to be incredible. Being able to spend so much ‘hands on’ time getting messy, making mistakes, and being able to dialogue in real time with others about fieldwork is going to be such a tremendous gift, especially right at the beginning of my PhD program. The class brought up so, so many issues that I hope to discuss in coming posts, but in the interest of getting to bed with enough time to sleep and not fall asleep in language class tomorrow, I will simply say this: the Bali that is presented/promoted/propagated in the name of tourism is not the Bali that actually exists...indeed, it is an issue worth debating if “Bali”, a unified, common place with unified ideas and ‘customs’- so central to the narrative of tourism- actually exists at all. I have been emailing back and forth with folks interested in my trip and several have commented on how beautiful and “sensual” Bali is. Certainly, watching the sun set over the mountains this evening I was struck by the beauty of this tiny island. But the idea of this entity of ‘culture’- a sensual, mysterious and well defined thing- is something that I am finding in start relief with the actual experience of the day to day here. Much as American does not equal cowboys, John Wayne, basketball, and Barack Obama, this “culture” of Bali is a narrative that has emerged for a number of reasons, many economically and politically motivated, that have nothing to actually do with the experience of life of actual Balinese people.

So, on that note, let me simply say that I am 1) grateful to be here, 2) grateful for a lovely homestay with not freezing water, 3) super happy that I took a dipper shower just now and am going to sleep sans Deet for the first time in several days.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Bali, "Hi!"

I'm here!!! I got in Tuesday night around 5:10pm Bali time, 5:10 in the States. After booking it through customs, I grabbed my stuff and went out into the not-as-humid-as-I-had-expected evening. Met my new friends Putra, Leslie's nephew, and Ika, the program coordinators for the Indonesia: Culture and Conflict program I am here to do with the ever brilliant Dr. Leslie Dwyer.

Ika and Putra and I stopped for yummy food at Bali Bakery (rice! yay!) and then went to Leslie's for the night. Her house is AMAZING. Open on all sides, with this incredible garden all around. And hot water! After 30 hours with no shower other than the rainstorm I got stuck in, I was pretty happy to see a shower.

Bali Bakery food was yummy, but what was funny is that it's a totally Western restaurant. We walked in and Putra said, "welcome back to your culture!" Really, the best way to have Balinese food is from a local Warung, a small food stand/restaurant place...think your mom's kitchen with several dishes set out. You point at what you want (or if you speak Balinese you ask like a nice dignified person, rather than pointing and nodding while smiling like a moron, as I do) and then they wrap it up in a sheet of paper. It's so clever with the paper. They fold it so that it holds the rice, tempeh, chicken, sauce, veggies, everything, in just one little sheet. And it's DELICIOUS! Oh, and, about $.90US.

We spent yesterday zipping around on motobikes looking at the homestays where me and the other students will be over the next month. I am in LOVE with riding on motobikes. I even have my own helmet now. Putra let me borrow one from a family member, then took me to get my own (blue!) yesterday, along with a cell phone.

Last night I moved to the beach for two nights of R&R before the program starts. First impressions of Bali are awesome, I am so glad to be back in Southeast Asia and really, really grateful I had the opportunity to come.

My internet connections have all been super slow and I haven't been able to get pictures up yet. Check back tomorrow, hopefully they'll be up. Looking forward to writing more over the coming weeks!

First adventure? Studying on the beach, natch. Grad school meets sunbathing.