I was picked up in Semerang by my friend from Hong Kong, Uut and her husband Wahyu – both who were excited to receive me. I would be staying in the guest house where Wahyu’s family rented out rooms. Even though they had already had a wedding in Uut’s family’s home two weeks earlier – they were now preparing for the wedding in Wahyu’s family’s house, which was in 4 days. The family was quick to welcome me in to the preparations! After meeting all of the extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, nieces – I found myself helping to wrap glutinous rice in banana leaves. Listening to the laughter and excited chatter around me, I couldn’t help but feel at ease, even in a language I didn’t understand. Some things cross all cultural barriers – one of those is the excitement over a wedding. All the women of the family and the houses around came to help prepare the foods. The day before the wedding, women came by in groups of 4s and 6s, or in pairs toting a shy child behind them. They sat on the floor of the living room, ate the sweets, sipped the tea, shook hands with Wahyu’s mother – slipping in money and wishes of health and well-being. The Indonesian version of a wedding shower, only the mother of the bride or groom gets to collect the gifts.
The day of the wedding started before the sun rose. Uut and her sister-in-law Eni had decided it would be fun to dress me in the traditional Indonesian way. Everyone was excited as they tried to find a skirt long enough for this tall American. They fussed over my hair until it stood half a foot from my head, and donned me with so much make-up that no one recognized me at first glance. The Kebaya (traditional Indonesian dress) of sky blue and gold sparkles with an earthy brown skirt added to the allusion that maybe I could belong here. The wedding was full of people, family, food, music, laughter, the shaking of hands. I was introduced to more people than names I can remember. The band dedicated a John Denver song to me. I felt as though I must have had my picture taken more than Uut – everyone wanted their picture with the white girl turned Indonesian. When I was getting ready for bed that night I pulled 23 bobby pins, a hairnet and a rose out of my hair. No kidding.
My entire time in Semerang, the children never left my side. When I slept, they waited outside of my door in interchangeable fits of giggles and whines, chanting my name, daring one another to peek inside my door. They waited for me outside of the toilet, even when I was sick. We played games until their parents forced them to bed – the Indonesian version of London Bridge and all the hand slap games that are popular in the 3rd grade. Rock, paper, scissors was also a big hit. They were eager to practice the English they had been learning in school with me, and just as eager to teach me Indonesian. We shared in the fun of learning – pointing out objects around us or on us: pohon, batu, bunga, baju, cincin, gigi, kaki – tree, rock, flower, t-shirt, earring, teeth, leg.
The family, likewise, was eager to share their food, always covered in sambal – chili. I lost feeling of my tongue and lips a few hours after arrival and did not regain sensation till two days after I had left. Even the small children eat samabal on everything! The Indonesians love to cook, and they are very proud of their food. Eating all of that spicy food, however, did not sit very well with my stomach. I never get sick. Ever. But I didn’t poop right for five days. That’s gross, I’m sorry, let me rephrase. I was run-to-the-bathroom-every-hour sick for 5 days, in a home with a toilet that doesn’t flush.
Also, no one uses toilet paper. Luckily I had a packet of tissues in my bag that I rationed out before I broke down and admitted to Uut that I wasn’t feeling well and needed more tissue. But even despite getting sick, I still managed to enjoy the food. They eat egg with nearly every meal – boiled, fried, scrambled in the rice. They also love fruit. My favorite was this fruit cocktail – diced papaya, pineapple, pear and apple in a bucket with huge chunks of ice. When the ice melted, you scooped out the fruit and juice in your cup – SO good! Someone was always trying to feed me. And if I said that I was kenyang, full, they looked hurt. So I ate through the pain.
They wanted to know all about my family – where they worked, how many of us there were, what were our wedding traditions. It was fun to share bits my own culture, as Uut or Eni translated to the rest of the family gathered around, the children begging me to play hand games with them while I talked. They asked my opinions of Bush, and I could sense a hesitation in the room until I answered in a way that made them all laugh and sigh with relief. It is always fascinating to me to see how my country, and its leaders, are viewed through the eyes of another country.
The night before I left, I joined Uut and Wahyu’s friends, all members of the Indonesian People’s Movement, for an outing at a local beach. We shuffled through the black sand, laughed at the silly antics of one of the older members acting like a wind-up monkey. I was so impressed with the bonds in this group – people from all walks of life, from different parts of the same country, bound together by a passion to work towards a better future for their people, to bring about just change in their surrounding environments. Their works left them separated from loved ones, struggling to make ends meet – but I could sense that they felt such an importance in their work, that they would never give it up for comfort. These were people – young and old – committed to working for lasting change, no matter the cost.