“Are you a friend of Mr. Eddy?” – “Mr. Eddy? I knew her as miss.”

The humming parade of countless motorcycle wheels emits a cloud of strong fume in the air of  Sunday morning Yogyakarta. I try to keep my breath as I swing on my motorbike through they hideous traffic trying to make my way to the house of the parents or my lost friend. She only died this morning. It’s my last day in Indonesia  before heading back to Europe, which now seems as far as a blurry dream. I’ve grown so much into this world here, this life, this reality, and just after the last night good-bye party – the terrible news.

“Is this the house where the funeral is being held?” I ask modestly.
A young woman trying to find some shelter from the heat of the sun asks: “Are you a friend of Mr. Eddy?”
“Mr. Eddy?”
Right, she had mentioned me the name though.
“I knew her as miss, Miss Sisi Renata.” In Java it’s always a customary to use gender-and age-specific titles.
My eyes travels to the open room, in the middle of which stands the coffin. In front of it there’s a black and white photograph portraying a young man dressed in black suit. His looks is very serious, even sad. Next to the photograph there are some candles and sad flowers. And again I hesitate – am I still at the right funeral?

Sympathetic and modest Sisi Renata grew up in a poor family in Yogyakarta Old Town. Her mother raised her and her siblings alone, which in Indonesian patriarchal context is anything but simple. She wiped away the tears as she told me about her mother for the first time. She did not want to disappoint her mom at all, but already since little she had felt differently. She often found herself playing with girls and in early puberty accidentally fell in love with her male teacher. Later, she kept her love life under strict secrecy, and every night before going to bed, she held a spiritual wrestling with God, to try to deal with guilt of her “abnormalities” and ask for forgiveness for the “sins” she had committed in her fantasy world.

Sisi had worked as tour guide. Once she got an affair with one Dutch visitor. Their  remote relationship with regular meetings lasted for many years, they travelled through half of Indonesia. The man noticed his Javanese friend’s inner brilliance and sharp wit, and decided to give him – back then as Eddy – a respectable amount of money for education. Through her education and life experience she slowly began to move towards deeper self-reflection and harmony. And she realized that she had a soul of a woman, has always had it!
One day her Dutch boyfriend found an elegant lady in front of him when taking her out for a date. Sisi was employed for support organization for warias, where she was an outrage worker for waria sex workers and support person for HIV-positive warias living in the shelter.

Sometimes at weekends, she came up as a singer in clubs, dressed in fluffy bright green, singing tears touching ballads. To her mother, however, she never revealed her new life – she just did not want to create such a burden. Although it was obvious that the heart of a mother surely knows. Also, many guests at the funeral didn’t seem to have much idea of Eddy’s journey towards her better self known as Sisi Renata. Until she was suddenly knocked down by tuberculosis. 

This time we have a guest photographer here – funeral photos by Monica Dominguez. I love her and her touch in photography, see for yourself! 

Buginese princess: the making of 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

Death around us

“You have to eat, you can’t go without!” they told us again, and made us sit down again and eat. Whatever it was, we had to eat. “There is so much death around us, if you don’t eat, an accident might happen!”

Toraja, Sulawesi

To believe it or not, but of course I ate. I ate even the strangest food we were sharing, even such that you cannot bite but you just have to swallow the semi-transparent thing down. Having done that, they catch a chicken in the garden. “This is for dinner.” Earlier that day there was a phone call for our mom in the house were we were staying, that her once had passed away. Yeah, the death was certainly around. We had already been to so many funerals, and saw so many lives taken, one more bloody than the other. But there was also something magical in the air, in these mantras, and under this bright-starred night or humid and hot daytime. There was sweat and rain in the air, mud and blood everywhere. So the men are singing their mantras in the language of Toraja, unknown for me, but it definitely sings about eternal things, such as the circle of life and the worlds beyond. The life does not stop here with the moment we have named a death, but there’s so much more life out there. It’s in the trees, in the rocks, in the places untouched by human far away. Puang Matua, the creator is behind all that. There is much more than bare life and death and flesh and blood. There is much more than killing of thousands of animals, that definitely don’t deserve it.

People are often buried in the caves, inside the rock. And there are always guards outside, keeping everything in peace, being there for a reason. This is just beautiful who much the respect and love their ancestors, whose deal actually doesn’t matter much anymore, but they still do it, irrationally, in belief.

Little babies who die when they are still so little, under a year – they are buried inside of the big trees. This tree was so powerful, that it almost knocked me down emotionally. 

What can the Holy Spirit tell about my love?

Some experiences in life touch some other unknown realms with such profoundness, that even if they remain so far from our daily lives, they keep on haunting. I gave a visit to couple of bissus to ask about love, but experienced a live broadcast from some other dimension, in a language i yet don’t know.

Bissu Nasir in a state of trance (video-still)

Although vast majority of the bissu consider themselves transgender or locally calabai, actually bissu can be of any other gender too. The important matter here is to be clean. For women, this would mean that bissu can be a girl whose menstruation has not yet started, or a woman who have already reached menopause. As the first is theoretically impossible, then female bissus are generally elderly women. Also, according to the legend, the very first bissu was actually a woman. The rumors around the village also tell that the most powerful bissu now is a woman.

Bissu Ma Temmi is a brilliant woman that radiates warm energy. She creates an impression of a grandmother who is charming and smokes a lot. After approximately one hour-long interview we move on to her the sacred chamber to ask the spirit a question I have in mind. I take the classic step and ask about love.

Ma Temmi puts on her glasses, for a moment she gazes at her palm and then puts her fingers on the siri-leaves lying on the plate.

“Salaam Alaikum,” she begins to have a conversation with the spirit. It feels as if we’re listening over a phone-call in which one side is for us to hear, but the other is not. “Aahaaa, jajajjajaajjaaa …” she nods to agree with the spirit.

Finally, she tells us her interpretation in Bugis language what she has heard from the other side, which is then translated to me into Indonesian language, from which I in turn create my own interpretation. It turns out that this man I can marry, we suit for each other. But the other one is only playing with me and, besides, he has another woman in the heart. Of course, I do not want to believe it, because the reality always seems to be a lot more multilayered, than the information that reaches me through continual re-interpretation, and multiple translations. But you never know!

And just as she said her words, a candle burns down and the curtain falls down over the sacred place. The truth has been proclaimed.

“If you want to speak with the Holy Spirit more, you need to go to another bissu. Spirit was here for a moment and then it moves on to the next bissu,” Ma Temmi was laughing. As the spirit has already fled, so we too take a ride along dark and muddy forest paths to reach another bissu.

Bissu Ma Temmi

Our knocking on the door of this tiny hut woke up bissu Nasir from sleep. Nevertheless, this man (exactly, male bissus are particularly rare) is ready to speak to us, in case of course the dewata accepts us too. We reach out to give him our gifts on the plate and the bissu disappears to the rear chamber, leaving us with just a curious black cat. Just like in a fairy tale.

On the other side of the thin wall we hear a gentle murmuring of the bissu that mixes with loud sounds of tropical night bugs. We are waken up from the dreamy state by a huge rumpus. This is an unconscious bissu who has fallen out from his sacred chamber. I get scared, so that even the hum of the insects hush up. However Ma Temmi’s brother who was accompanying us does not seem to be surprised at all.

Bissu has entered deep trance, followed by a few cramps. Then he crawls himself together and his cheek against the floor he starts speaking with a strange voice. This live broadcast from the Spirit World lasts for next quarter of an hour. Even if I manage to ask something in the meantime, it seems rather, that the spirit guides his talk throughout the connection. The voice that has come alive in his body repeats that the spirit is already old and feeble and the strong dewata works with only a few selected shamans. Until he suddenly caught another strong rage of cramps and he enters into deep sleep again.

When bissu Nasir finally wakes up, it looks as if he’s having a huge hangover after traveling between the worlds. He does not seem to remember anything of the time that has passed. But I remember, I will always remember.  And up until now I am still thinking a lot about it and wondering how it should be interpreted.

Into Indonesian subcultures: the blinking bikers

During this 40 sweating hours spent on the ferry we met some bikers. The true ones. With all their folklore and codes of communication. It’s a strange world. And sometimes it can take you on a ride.

So we were in that boat. I was trying to keep some fieldwork diaries, but every now and then there was someone peeping inside of the round window of our very basic chamber. Or there was someone stepping inside of the room, thinking that as the staff on board this belongs to their rights. Of course I can step inside of the rooms of my far-away guests, we all want to know them, make friends and make them feel comfortable here.“ The good part of it was that some of them indeed brought us some watermelon. And I was floating in the watermelon sugar again, the pink nice watermelon, even the rats that were sneaking under our bed for the smell of it (and it was a 1-person bed, we were sharing it with Minna our legs and heads together, covering the whole with plastic bottles. – once there was a rat that was running behing the neck of Minna while we were watching some wierd films) turned into creatures with faces and attitude. All this sugar. But I also know that Ibu Maryani, the director of the Koranic school for the transgender in Yogyakarta, once said, that here in Indonesia they insert red ink with needles into the watermelon. (and I couldnt help thinking of breast silicon injection)

And then there were the motorbike guys. They were quit pleasent talking to us, we were having good time for around an hour. And once they heard we were about to head towards Toraja, they offered us a ride. Just because they are the motorbike guys and they do it all the time – they just ride across the country, visiting friends everywhere. And everywhere they go there’s the community of bikers waiting for them, ready to have some fun, some drinks, some riding around and crashing at some friend’s parents. And surely the mother was happy to have guests, and I enjoyed playing with kids. She was greeting us with some rice and delicious fish. Food, apparently is amazing in Sulawesi. And as they said it, they did it. We were riding all through South-Sulawesi, pass the endless rice-fields, through enormous rain, through some coffee on the roadside warung, over the mountains in the dark. We had a stop-over in one of the small towns on the road, where the old friends got drunk in a hotel that one of the biker owns. Next morning we had bunch of other bikers joining us until the next town. From there we had other bikers to join us to the next town. When we had trouble with the motor, the guys made some phone calls and in about ten minutes there were some local bikers to give them a hand. Sometimes we then drove off to some Honda mechanics centre, of course we were all treated by some tea and cakes. Apart from having great food, they also love to eat a lot here.
And so were we floating over the roads, with a row of blinking motorbikes, all covered by club stickers and pads. They had there own sign language, how they would communicate on the roads. And cars seemed to be taking a cautious respectful distance from them.
Later on I even heard from my friend Minna, who had to spend a night with those folks in Makassar, being stuck there in order to extend the visa, that they had a very weird ritual. If you want to join the bikers under the logo of „one heart“ or the Indonesian version, „satu hati“, you have to drink one litre of water straight. Yes, one liter, no less. And water (better leave the drinks out, this is still predominantly Moslem society). Most of the new-comers had to through out before they finished the third quater.
But the test was necessary. It was to test your strenghts. More and more girls are joining the bikers.
Indonesia is colorful of its vibrant sub-cultures, one more weird than the other. But people in general are nice. And I must admit, it is a wonderful feeling to travel on the motorbike across the earth, in sun and rain.

My friend, a biker.

Praise the cock!?

 Thrilling blood – notes on Kalimantan cock fighting

Everyone who’s ever had to do with the literary classics of academic anthropology will remember Clifford Greetz’s article about cock fighting on Bali. Greetz wrote that cock fighting isn’t simply a fight between two roosters, it could also be considered as a competition between men. Not only the two roosters have a big role, what also matter are the pride, virility, honour and status of the owners.

Namely, the men subconsciously identify themselves with their rooster. It is almost like a surrogate of its owner’s personality, a symbolic expression of his ego. As cock has two meanings in English, I’m not sure whether we should say that the rooster is a separately operating penis, but it’s definitely a symbol of masculinity. There are people who think that Geertz was exaggerating. There are those who think that Geertz took too Freudian measures to get under the skin of the poor Balians. And there are those who think that Geertz invented the whole story just to get fame. But one thing is sure – cock fighting has always had its special place in different societies throughout the world.
And when I was hanging there, in Kalimantan woods, leaning on the cock fighting fence, I could feel that there was a kind of power common to wild men living there. And should there be any bigger ceremony held in Kalimantan woods – weddings, funerals, or the holy bone purifying ceremonies – there are handfuls of colourful feathers, scarlet blood and money, money, money flown into the air.
So, praise the cock (no, no way!) and for this matter have wonderful Easter holidays!Tomboys or female-to-male transgenders are also part of the local Kalimantan community. This of course doesn’t eliminate discrimination on different levels. But this is how they live, with other men they place bets on roosters and are active in the spheres and circuits originally common to men.
Expert knowledge – how to tie the knife

The winning cock and its happy owner