This night ended with a Papuan waria crying on my shoulder. In the distance there was a big car stuck in the soft grassy ground trying to speed off – to be exact, all the cars that had climbed up to the hill between Abepura and Jayapura were big and they expressed the wealth of the driver or the company in the car. Above us was a fabulous starlit sky, which here, away from the city hustle, seems as powerful as ever. N isn’t coming with us, “N is flying,” as P says, whose chubby boyfriend is sitting on the back of the motorbike, kicking his heels. P is a driver, the dude is sitting comfortably behind her. And on my shoulder there’s a frizzy haired drunken waria from Serui tribe crying. She was crying over the most important thing. It felt as if all the inevitability of the destiny of the warias culminated in her tears. Love. Love that seems so impossible, love that’s so unreachable. Because between the frequencies of their bodies and souls there’s suddenly some phallic extra.
Malam minggu or Saturday night has a special meaning here in Indonesia. This is the night of party, or as one of my friends here said: “The only night of the week, when we all get spoilt – kita semua hancur!”
Meanwhile I had already moved to downtown, to be closer to the night hotspots of the city and see what’s happening in the nightly worlds of the waria. The main hang-out area Tembok Berlin is just around the corner.
The only issue seems to be the fact that this here is not the typical Indonesia, which could be described as rather safe, even when being a single foreign woman at night-time in party locations. Some young warias warned me about motorbike taxis, which are very common means of transport in Irian Jaya: “Don’t you ever use the motorbike taxi at night! They pick you up, take you somewhere where they have group of friends waiting. Then they rape you – all of them!” Supposedly this has happened around here already quite a few times.
One of the nights we were driving to the southern market area in Sorong where there was some open-air party a’la Papua. We stopped the car, took a brief look from the windows and my waria friends stated: “No, no, this is way too dangerous – we can’t go out, you will be beaten up and you’ll get a knife!”
I saw bunch dark shadows of the Papuans dancing drunk in the beats of dangdut music – the kind of party no-one could imagine happening in some dark downtown spooky market area. Papuan spirit. And a drunk Papuan unfortunately is a very common stereotype here, and for a reason – you could really see a lot of drunk Papuan people on the streets, lost in life, probably discriminated for some generations. But my friends just couldn’t let me out to check out this party and we drove off to safer grounds such as Tembok Berlin.
Starlight nightclub stands alone and proud and glorious in Kampung Baru, Sorong, Papua
As it was Saturday night, warias were all nicely dressed up and beautifully shining. One of the older warias was sitting on the wall and proudly poring out strong local liquor – one for the waria elder of Sorong, another one for me, then again to the elder. Until it was time to head on clubbing.
I remembered my friend who’s a local minibus driver here, whom I met one afternoon when he was visiting a hair salon held by a waria. In just some minutes he picked up all the warias and other chicks, so the whole minibus turned into a wild and wicked party-zone heading towards more party. We all seven warias, four women and the driver and his friend took off with a deep beat of dancehall sounds, and it all just reminded me too much of the infamous scene in Wariazone where me and Kiwa together with some nine warias were riding around Jakarta nightlife, singing Indonesian anthem. And of course, it was Saturday night! Wish I had a camera with me up there in Papua, but see the scene of Jakarta in Wariazone trailer:
In Papua, when talking about the waria, commonly people point out that the parties where the waria are present last the longest and get most crazy. This seemed to be the case with our night in the biggest nightclub in Sorong – the Starlight, or SL as the waria call it. Interestingly, the security took a brief look at us and asked exactly the ticket money for seven people, as if the ‘real ladies’ get in for free, and the warias (as if they were considered ‘men’) should pay the whole price. I tried my best to negotiate, but they were stubborn, and it was really stinking of discrimination based on gender.
But as we entered, the party got wild. There was a band from Yogyakarta, followed by a hot dance party, where the sweat took hold and strip-dancers lifted our sexuality. Some of the waria tried to use me and Minna to get connection with men, and I, of course, was happily playing along. Minna seemed to have a crush on the hottest strip-dancer, who then poored some vodka in her mouth, dragged her on the stage and we were all shouting: “Hancur Minna, hancur Minna!”
This, by the way, is a popular dangdut song here in East-Indonesia, which translates as ‘spoilt Minna’ – a girl who went from village to the city, stayed there for too long and lost her morals.
“Doom, doom, doom, doom, doom, doom….” the guys at the harbor were shouting. And it’s not that somebody is doomed or this is the doomsday or there’s some great doom rock gig around the corner (wishful thinking, eh), but indeed – there’s a small island just some 20-minutes boat ride from Sorong and it’s called DOOM.
So the guys shouting ”Doom, doom, doom, doom, doom, doom….” are just trying to find people that would land in their boat and take a ride to this spooky doomed island.
Doom is the island with Dutch heritage. You can walk around the circular island within an hour – it’s just 4,5km long – and take a look at some dutch influence in architecture and in city planning. It used to be the center of their settlement in West Papua, at the top of the so-called Bird’s Head peninsula, in early 1900s and it played an important economic role for Chinese settlers. Although I remember hearing the stories from the locals that the island used to have a prison, after which it was called Doom, I have also read that the island known as Dum means that the island is full of fruit in Malamooi tribes.
We also met an older brother of my friend in Sorong, who has lived in Doom his entire life of around 60 years. What intrigued me was the way he explained the island’s lost wonders: “The Indonesians! Since the Indonesians came everything has changed – here we used to have crystal clear water with bright white sand, but now it’s just an extension of Sorong here.” Well, after all, the island still seemed exotic for my eyes, but I could have only imagined the picture he was trying to paint for us from his childhood memories preceding the year of 1969 when Dutch New Guinea was annexed and it became known as West Irian, later Irian Jaya.
I went there to meet a Papuan waria whose family lives on the island. There, sadly, she could never dress up nor express her gender identity, but when she leaves the island for a weekend in Sorong, or travels to other cities such as Jayapura, she feels free to open herself up and enjoy the fruits of life as a waria. But in front of her local community, she remains this androgynous weird boy, leading double lives and trying to cope with it.
A sufficient amount income for the warias who work in salons, comes actually not from daily hairstyling, but from wedding preparations. Every other week, if not more often, this is the waria who makes the bride and groom pretty and decorates the wedding room. Already at our very first meeting Jaka was thinking that we should do a make-up session, to make a Buginese bride out of me.
When I looked at the photographs of some other brides I had seem before, I thought this is a way to big job we can experiment with. But Jaka told me to relax and give her an hour. And so we did it.
Pardon my narcissism if it looks this way, but I wanted to share the whole process with you. The making of it. The making of a Buginese princess. It took around one hour to cover all my face with powder, attach some fake eye-lashes, paint my forehead, my eyes, my lips, make my hair amazing and dress me up. Jaka could explain every detail of my outfit, some for Allah, some for adat (the local culture).
I felt I was turned into a princess, a Buginese princess, that has to do all the dirty work in the kitchen and elsewhere, but still, she always has to be a beautiful princess and smile. And later when already married, get pregnant, and smile. Just as most of the women in the world, just as we are so often expected.
All photos by Minna Hint
Would you ever think that this lovely old lady was born some 80 years ago as a boy? No, of course not, nobody would ever think of it. As far as everybody remembers her she has always been this sweet old lady wondering around the village.
Only that she somehow never got married and has no children of her own. But she has many grandchildren from her sisters, who would never guess that their granny has a major secret – that’s her male genitals and an ID-card of laki-laki (a man in Indonesian).
But does it really matter?
Personally I follow the feminist criticism on biological determinism. I don’t agree that our gender is supposed to be in accordance with our sex, that literally based on our genitals the whole society should be divided between men and women only, and there’s no room or just a tight one for any alternatives, both, in the scope of possible genders and sexualities, and also within the substance of these possible gender and sexual identities.
I think the case of this old lady – the oldest transgender I have met in my life -, who is living in the middle of the tropical village life, very down to earth, simple life of sunny and rainy Sulawesi, surrounded by rice fields and green hills, brings out fabulously the relativity of sex-gender pairing. Any foreign visitor, even an anthropologist, would see this world here ‘traditional’ – still out of the reach of modernity and globalization, that theoretically would bring along ‘the sexual revolution’. Yet this ‘traditional world’ here has reached far further than most of the societies in the West, taking the problem with gender with far more ease.
Granny can’t talk much about it, as the children are playing around and she wouldn’t want to let them know. But she brings out her ID-card where her sex is stated as a man. As Bugis culture distinguish between 5 genders, she has probably led a decent life as a calabai (male-to-female transgender) and finally people even forgot about that, seeing her as she is, whatever she wears under her skirt.
Would you give up your gender and sexuality in order to talk to God? This is what came forward to me right at the cross-road of generations, local shamanic belief and Islam in South Sulawesi.
Although I found many more thrilling aspects here in South Sulawesi, my main interest of visit was the holy personality called the bissu. These local shamans connect not only the divine and the mundane, but also the femininity and masculinity, on a very real grounds. Namely, most probably the bissu is also a calabai, locally, or a waria in Indonesia, which is globally rather known as a transgender. Bissu is seen as the 5th category of gender here in Bugis culture, the para-gender, that somehow accumulates all other genders in the society.
We were driving across the dirty and slippery village roads with Eka to give one old bissu a visit already on the very first day I was around. There were mosques sitting in the bushes every 400m or so as we were driving. The mosques resembled me some cosmic stations, and indeed they were often decorated just as Chistmas trees, bling-bling.
One of these simple Pippi Longstocking’s style of houses a bissu Nani was living. S/he was pulling together her shirt while I entered the house and I noticed hir breasts. But surely s/he was born as a man. On the wall there were some photographs of hir dressed in a bissu’s ritual costume. This was shaded by the huge fake photograph of Mecca in golder frames, which are the very common elements of interior design here around Sulawesi and Kalimantan, somehow less apparent in Java, which I think just has to do with current fashion and market availability.
I was handing hir over a plate covered with necessary gifts for the spirit. There were some betel nuts, special leaves, some cigarettes and a note of 20 000 rp. We also brought a bunch of bananas. You can’t go to meet a shaman without thinking about the hunger of the spirits, you need to bring an offering.
Bissu invited us to hir room of the spirit, which usually most bissus have in their household. The room was fully dedicated to serve the spirit, an altar was in the middle and there were all kinds of little baskets, rocks and candles around, which s/he seemed to know the meaning, and perhaps there wasn’t anything more complicated than the bare fact that these were all to reinforce the communication with the dewata or the world of spirit. But as we started to talk with Nani, and Eka seemed to be really anxious and not too much at the level of transcendence, Nani said that today is not the best day to have further conversation.
“Why not today?” I asked.
“Because today it’s Friday, and this is the holy day in Moslem. Better we talk some other day,” Nani explained.
“Is there a conflict between these worlds?”
“The spirit does not really want to come out on Fridays…”
Eka stood almost immediately up and started to make a move. That is her common way of restlessness. But I was confused.
The curvy dagger called kris is the most important accessory for bissu
I got even more confused when the next day we were visiting another old bissu. This time without the presence of Eka. She somehow didn’t want to come. The bissu couldn’t believe that there could be any conflict between the world of dewata and the world of Islam.
“There’s no problem with Friday to communicate with the spirit,” s/he said. Apparently s/he was the kind of leader of the bissu community here, not that it would place hir spiritual capabilities anywhere higher, but this respected bissu must know something about the most crucial issues – and the relationship between old local belief and mainstream Islam is definitely one of them.
Here most of the bissus also go to mosques to make their daily prayers. And besides, they can always use their personal tempat dewata (the place of the spirit) in their household to get in touch with the God. Almost all bissus I talked to agreed that these worlds are actually the same, just the way to reach them is different. And I have to admit I agree with it, because I understand it (and this is almost the only reason why I tolerate institutionalized religion – most probably it can get you in touch with the same transcendence). And here the bissu even gives blessings to those going to a pilgrimage to Mecca!
I only later got to realize what might actually be the issue, why bissu Nani didn’t really want to talk to me that day when I went there with Eka. Because this very Eka sometimes likes to write a word bissu behind her name, just as she enjoys the friendship of the local authorities. And yet she’s a busy businesswaria and happily in love with her husband.
Once she was trying to get into the bissu community, she was learning about it, I later hear some rumors around the village. But how couldthe younger generations of the waria possibly dump there daily carefree lifestyle and literally give up of their gender and sexuality in order to talk to God?!
“This is when I was a bissu,” said the young waria and proudly showd me the picture.
It took me a few days to realize that I this life here, with all its local dedication to traditions, not to mention the cosmic and blinking mosques that are seated across villages in every kilometer or so – life here is still something that some gender activist in the West could only dream of.
!0 minutes before midnight: we’re ready! Minna and I with all our great calabai friends
I remember hanging out in Eka’s salon with bunch of people observing casually how young waria Upe is dressing herself up. She puts on cute yellow dress and is busy with make-up. Eka encourages me to ask here where she’s going.
“Mau ke mana, Upe?” (where are you going?)
“Cari cowok” (looking for a man) she whispers me, as if passing over a secret which only we, the women, or at least the ones opposed to the men, if nothing else then at least in this case sexually, could only know about. Apparently there’s a spot in one of the neighboring villages where all the men interested in a trans-partner gather. And it do not necessarily involve money in action, it’s a mutual attraction.
Couple of days ago it had been the New Year’s Eve. And as the colors of the local village life started vibrating more and more, I had no desire to go elsewhere than to stay here with my new friends. I even invited my friend Minna Hint to come over from Makassar. And Eka promised to throw a party in her salon. Everybody’s welcome!
Eka is a very energetic, spontaneous and impetuous personality. She seems to enjoy attention and power, but she’s also in no worry, and she’s great. And it seems to me that all the young warias of the village see her as their role model – she has a salon, she has a husband, she has friends. So she was smart enough to take a mild use of having me around to build up her reputation.
“… from Europe, studying MY gender, already doctoral!” she used to stress when introducing me to make it all sound bigger and better. And it almost became like a routine, that every day she introduced me to some 2 or 3 important friends or people with power. And I had nothing against contributing to her success in PR, would be great if Eka made it becoming the first transgender head of the village in Indonesia!
So when the New Year’s party was in our garden, I even didn’t have a chance to have my first bite this delicious fish Eka’s husband was grilling, when I was forced to speak to head of the village, and the vice head of the district and couple of prestigious businessman from the area. And then Eka wanted to give me a make-up, which became the excitement of the night for many warias, women and kids around, before we headed on to the village central to some wicked dangdut party around midnight. Dance, dance, dance, me and Minna were pulled up on the stage to dance in line with all these wonderfully moving calabais. The party was crazy. I wouldn’t find any better word to describe the potential that was explicitly directed for all the village folks from the dancing stage, rather than admitting that it was sexual.
And ironically, that must be my first completely sober New Year’s Eve since childhood. Alcohol is forbidden here, so even if there was some, it was all moving secretly under the table. But also there was almost no way to get any! With Eka we were driving around all the local brew-makers earlier that day to find us some tuak (light palm wine), but no success. And to be honest, I even didn’t miss it. I had already got drunk of life. Make-up by Eka
Soon it came out, that my host Eka, who I knew was supposed to be the transgender holiness, the bissu, but who daily identified herself rather as a calabai or waria, and a proud one, was actually the Queen of the whole village.
Everywhere we go there were people she knows, everywhere, especially in the worlds which are dominated by women, such as markets, shopping areas, the social gathering spots here or there. But the Queen of Them All, she was still in her Kingdom, in the beauty parlor that was called by her name – Salon Eka. Welcome!
When I first entered this weird ghostly house, where people only lived on the first floor, the second floor was for ghosts and spiders, I had no idea who’s living in this household and where exactly they sleep. I was placed to sleep in the main salon room, where she usually sews (and she’s good, she’s so busy!) and where it gets busy in the mornings. On the walls, there are pictures of her and a man posing just like a newly married couple. Eka really enjoys everything that has to do with beauty and style and decorations and celebrations. That’s her work, her life, and her desire.
And her customers are satisfied. So much, that sometimes it can be pointed out, that the myth of warias having an extremely good sense of style, proves to be working in real again. She’s a busy woman. She was making me an occasional space for sleeping and herself went back in her bedroom. To get there you had to pass a wide area, which can be viewed as a kitchen, but which is basically everything a space can be. There’s also a huge exercise device – a bicycle, where she sometimes exercises, just like the most modern women who would do that in their city apartment where it can be difficult to leave the cozy flat and run around on some asphalt. There she was training, rats sometimes sneaking behind her and always some other people, as her salon was an important social gathering place, for men and women and all possible transgenders. Including her husband. Supposedly her husband already was married once, with a cis woman, who gave birth o two children. Then he fell madly in love with Eka and since then, already for nine years, they have shared some love, work and fun in life.
She had five people working for her. Including her husband. There was also a young strong man. A couple of warias, some ever-smiling women. Apparently many of them are sleeping just behind the narrow wall of room for spending nights. They are sleeping in the most magical room in this house – the very heart of the Eka’s salon. This is where she makes her art. She makes her art of make-up and of styling up the groom and the bride, who perhaps met some two-three months ago, but are eager to marry.
Then the whole family comes together, enjoys some lovely food, that some ten-fifteen women were cooking all day the day before. They exchange some news, take a lot of photographs, sometimes there’s a guy who shoots a video and burns it on a DVD within a couple of days, sometimes there’s some ceremony, sometimes there’s an amazing dance by the bissu, who enter into state of trance and present how the dagger does not enter their body. This is because they are already possessed by the spirit, that has made them supernaturally strong.
Rest of the time everybody eats and drinks water from the single-use plastic cups and wishes best luck for the newly married couple, who were just dressed up by some professional waria, in this area, most probably by Eka. Who also decorated the whole house for this special event, where eventually though the couple gets really bored.
As a follow-up from our last post about this amazing traditional theatre from East-Jawa, that I previously and provocatively even referred as the Indonesian version of theatrical genderfuck (huge question marks here), I share some photos of our backstage session with two marvelous Ludruk actor/actresses: the youngest and the eldest ones, meet Arry and Santo.
And I just have to mark how much I love the feeling of the backstage of any theatre, probably as much as I would love to deconstruct the fabrics of our daily theatre of life. But Ludruk is a phenomena to praise and remember.