4:30am. The Call To Prayer gentle shakes me from my slumber. Despite being prematurely wakened, I find a rewarding peacefulness in the sound. The calming effect rushes over me, rocking me back to sleep--and offers a sharp contradiction to my ignorant-driven fears of a religion that makes up nearly 90% of this country.
Walking out of the airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, I was overcome by an uncomfortable feeling. To an extent, it’s a natural feeling when you step foot on foreign soil, one that I’ve grown quite accustomed to. But this---this was different. My governmental warnings were fresh in my mind and I started to question myself. The US Department of State’s website urged me to “carefully weigh my decision (to travel here)”. Had I heeded their advice? I glanced around at several staring eyes, a “harsh-looking” crowd, and an obviously Muslim majority. I pulled my bags closer, trying to look more relaxed at the same time. When I proceeded onto the public bus, it was gut wrenching. Reflecting back, it wasn’t gut-wrenching because I was on a public bus. And not because I was a minority. But because I was a minority on a public bus that was populated entirely by Muslims. Afterall, my government, my country, has painted this picture numerous times before for me. It’s a picture of terrorism (isn‘t it?)---and here I am, voluntarily in the middle of it. As my fears slowly subsided on that first day, I immediately felt my mind, body, and eyes opening up---the previously painted picture of this country, of this religion, of this culture just couldn’t stand up to the actual picture that would unfold before me over the next several days…
Through the cracked window of my “eksekutif” seat on the Yogyakarta bound train, I watch the everyday Indonesia pass by. I get a glimpse of two burials, and, while I can’t see their faces, the body language of those surrounding the grave speak volumes. Their pain, their suffering, their loss is the same as any others. Poverty-stricken neighborhoods are the norm, but the faces of the children bathing, laughing, and playing in the polluted river hardly resemble those I’ve seen on TV. Their outward happiness is humbling. If only happiness could so easily be obtained in areas where bathing in a filthy river was unspeakable. Inside the train, 2 big, dark eyes stare at Rach and I the way I would have stared at a visibly disabled person before I knew it was impolite. Pure curiosity. Pure innocence. It’s far less intimidating when the eyes that are locked on you belong to those of a child--and I allow myself to stare back. Through her eyes, I could see the reflection of my own curiosity. Maybe all these stares that we’ve been subject to since our arrival aren’t driven by fear or hate, but rather by pure curiosity, pure innocence. That possibility only did more to further break down my fears---fears that initially were intensified by these stares!
On the streets of Yogya, an intimidating-looking teenager senses that Rach and I are a bit turned around (perhaps the map in our hands and our erratic footsteps tip him off) and comes to help. He gestures for us to follow him in a kind of way that only an intimidating, non-English speaking teenager could. Hesitantly, I follow him, consciously adjusting my body language--partly to make Rachel believe that everything was fine and I wasn’t the least bit concerned about this boys intentions--and partly to make myself believe it. We settle for a few smiles when our attempts at conversation fail and I continue to follow him, silently. He helps us cross the highly trafficked road by stepping into it, his body between us and the cars/motorbikes/horse carriages, his hand guiding my arm. Even with this selfless gesture, my mind is busy piecing together his possible intentions. Does he want money? Does he want to take us to a certain place? Is he getting us more lost? Does he want to hurt us? Before my mind could finish the last negative thought, I recognize Molboloro (street)…exactly what we were looking for. Familiarity. I stutter out terima kasih---relieved, yet ashamed. Our young guide proceeded to place a bracelet in my hand, gesturing for me to wear it, before disappearing into the crowd. I stood there a bit confused. Looking first at the bracelet, then scanning the crowd for the kid, then eyes back to the bracelet. Because I didn’t want to say exactly what I was thinking at that moment, I turned to Rach and asked “do you think it’s safe for me to wear it?” I examined the bracelet carefully, still confused, mind running wild. What was truly going though my head at that moment is something I hate to admit--- man--this thing is gonna start ticking isn’t it? This thug kid picked us Westerners out of the crowd to prove another religious point, didn’t he? Should I throw it? Should I drop it? What if that expedites things? Man--where did he go? Why did he just disappear? They aren’t thoughts I’m proud of, but they were intense thoughts. Real thoughts. Real fears. All which exist because many people like to use religion to tear nations apart---these people use intimidation to reach that goal. And apparently, it works. I closed my eyes, took a breath, and slipped the bracelet around my wrist. I continued to wear it, and examine it, for the rest of the day.
Just before sunset, Rachel and I wonder around the holy remains of Borobudur along with thousands of local Indonesians, who, because of the Ramadan holiday, have flocked to this particular place. Not long into our meander, a man hesitantly approaches, camera in hand. In his best English, he asks if we’ll take a picture with his children. We’re amused and when we smile in agreeance, his whole family lights up, smiling the way I did when Ed Jovanoski agreed to take a picture with me when I was a kid. They thank us profusely, then shake our hands with --what can only be explained as-- admiration. We laugh at the situation, understanding that Westerners look different--and some people have never seen “a real one”. Just when we thought it was a rare occurrence, someone gave us a speed ticket to our 15 minutes of fame. 1 family after another approached, parents thrusting their children at us, teenagers approaching hesitantly, women, men, children, teenagers. We glance up (Borobudur is a series of terraces, you can glance up at the next level, and the next…etc), to dozens of cameras and phones locked on us. Some people try to be discrete, but most aren‘t. We lost count of how many pictures we agreed to take that day, but we left with an overwhelming understanding that our original fears of “these people”--and their often chilling stares, couldn’t have been more wrong.
As if someone knew there was still one thing I couldn’t wrap my mind around, I got the last piece to my puzzle. On our hike up an active volcano, we met more people who wanted to take pictures with us and practice their English. Before we were leaving, the one kid who didn’t speak great English, asked for something--- “do you have something for me?”. Unsure of what he meant by something, I put my hands up in a “what do you mean” gesture. He pointed to my thumb ring. Although I was unable to part with that, the light bulb went off in my head. THAT’s why that thug kid gave me his bracelet!! This is a part of their culture! This is what’s normal to them!! When Rachel pointed to the hair tie she had wrapped around her wrist, the kid lit up---he took it, slipped it around his wrist, smiled in a way I can’t explain (proving that it didn‘t have to be something of value), and walked away, thanking us over and over. This continued to happen several times as we traveled through Java and Lombok. So many people we met wanted a memory--something they could have to remind them of the meeting. When Rach ran out of hair ties, we turned to pens---and every time we got the most rewarding smile---as if we had just given these kids a winning lotto ticket.
I know my 18 day trip through Indonesia hardly warrants me an expert on anything. But it was one of the most eye-opening, rewarding trips simple because my standing beliefs were effectively shattered. As for this bracelet---it has yet to start ticking. And until it does, it will be a constant reminder to take a stand against ignorant-driven fears.
"The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are." ~ Samuel Johnson
(pictures to follow on shutterfly shortly...as well as bullets to what we did/saw---and how fabulously fantastic it was to meet Ash and Cait in Bali!! )