Prejudice and Poverty in Indonesia vs. America

The children giggled audibly over the drumming of the pouring rain, their gasps of surprise visible in the angles of their bodies and the shadows of their open mouths, as we told them we had never eaten snails.  One boy, maybe 10 years old, with a soft face and enthusiastic voice, yelled out to us that he would go find us some to eat, before he dashed out from cover into the rain and the muddy yard to search.

We were at Sila’s house, looking out from a glass-less window on the top floor of a tower, an addition he had recently completed on his parents’ home in order to run his own little bed and breakfast called Menjangan View.  Over the windows, Sila had tied up rolls of woven, flat and pale plant-material, maybe bamboo strips, to form rain covers and shades.  We had seen something similar around the open walls of the restaurant at Poh Manis on Nusa Lembongan, but it was neat to watch him crank them up and latch them in place again so they’d be at just the right height to let in the ambient light of the equatorial sun seeping through the thick clouds, while still protecting us from the first big storm Toby and I had encountered in Indonesia.

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Columns for a shrine on the outer edge of Sila’s home. He told us how in a very large storm a while back, 3 white stripes appeared on all the shrines in the area, including this one, mysteriously over night, and none of the shrines with the marks received any damage in the storm unlike many other structures in the area. Some people believed these were protective marks placed by spirits. The marks were still there when we visited.
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The tower of Menjangan View B&B, Sila’s recent addition to his family’s home, seen here from the road outside the day after our visit.  You can see the golden-colored bamboo shades pulled down over the glass-less windows from here.

Sila had come by the House of Hobbit earlier in the afternoon to see what we were up to.  We had initially scheduled this, our last full day in the semi-rural village of Pejarakan, for ferrying back over to Java to hike the volcano of Ijen, in order to see its electric blue fire.  However, the weather predictions were looking dangerous for such a hike, and in deciding to not go, we were mostly just relaxing in the tropical garden that is the House of Hobbit, working on our writing about Borobudur and Prambanan.  When Sila came by and stayed to chat, eventually inviting us back to his own home for tea and further conversation, we ended up having one of our more memorable days of our almost-month-long stay in Indonesia, simply as a result of getting to know our host and the neighborhood kids better, over tea, kettle-corn and conversation.

Our words and minds meandered across religion, relationships that will get you thrown in jail or severely ostracized (i.e.: child marriage in the US or unwed couples living together in Bali), homelessness, music, food, raising children, language, discrimination, farm animals, education, subsistence living, and more topics than I remember.

We learned that everyone has their religion included on their national identification card, and that it must be one of six (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Protestantism, and Catholicism) – if you are not one of those or if you are atheist, you really should just pick the most acceptable one that you are most familiar with and use that for your ID instead… otherwise there will be consequences.  (But we did all laugh together about the slightly awkward photos of us on our IDs… government ID cards around the world do share something in common.)  In most of the country, you will face discrimination both socially and, say, when applying for jobs, if you are not Muslim (Bali and its closest small island neighbors are the only real bastions of Hinduism left in the country).  But there isn’t very much racially-based discrimination, at least in Sila’s experience that he could relate to us, despite the diverse localized communities throughout Indonesia’s 17,000 islands, among whom there are a range of cultural and physiological differences.  Common discrimination there is particularly about religion, and economic class, he said.  (We as outsiders also suspect that sexism is a big issue from our observations, but that didn’t come up very explicitly in this conversation with Sila.)

In turn, we shared stories of racial and religious controversies from America, how the two are often linked when it comes to discrimination against foreigners, how our country has been dealing with the ongoing repercussions of slavery for our entire history, and how in the last few years those issues have manifested in protests against police violence, and fear of brown people, particularly those who look like they might be Muslim.  We answered as best we could Sila’s questions about what happened to the Native Americans, and to African Americans seeking greater civil rights.  We spoke of how in certain areas of our country, especially in the more rural regions with less money, less education, and far more homogeneity of white culture, conservative Christianity is much stronger and deeply affecting of political and social values.  With stories from both Sila’s country and ours, we explored how greater prejudice often arises in areas where people meet fewer newcomers with different backgrounds, and what tends to happen when the sheltered and fearful gain power and influence over vulnerable minorities.

Sila asked us if the stories he’d heard about homelessness in America were true.  If it existed, and what happened to people without homes.  He seemed saddened and shocked by some of our answers, and asked us why people’s families or the communities they had grown up around didn’t take them in.  When we in turn asked what happened to people in Bali who could no longer afford their homes, he told us that people would always look after their own.  Even if someone no longer had any living family, or if they became poor after moving away from home, the community would still take care of them.  We tried to figure out what to say about how, in American cities where so much homelessness occurs, how society had changed to accommodate such a large scale of life that many who are mentally ill, or who are ostracized from their families, or who disastrously lose their job, simply fall through the cracks.  How many of them don’t have someone who can take them in, or if they do, those loved ones might no longer know where their fallen kin have gone.  Sila seemed bewildered by a place and a culture where this could happen, and we were struck by the fact that we have come to take such things for granted.

These topics eventually appeared again in a different form, when Sila told us some of his thoughts on Bali’s dependence on the tourism industry and globalization.  His points revolved around how if the Balinese people and their economy become too dependent on foreigners traveling to this lovely island, then if anything ever affects the tourism industry there, the consequences could be disastrous.  But in the meantime, boosts to tourism have meant that the island has started to modernize more quickly in recent decades, with more people moving to the city of Denpasar or its surroundings (like the city of Sanur, our first place of stay in Indonesia), and even in the rural areas, more and more people rely on formal currency to purchase goods made in factories, or imported food.

This concerned Sila, as he told us about how there were people he knew who were too poor to buy enough food for their families, but who no longer know how to garden or fish enough food for themselves.  Going back to the idea of the community protecting each other, Sila described how important it was to him to teach children in the village how to survive comfortably even when they don’t have access to enough formal money to buy what they need.  He wanted to make sure that the young people he knew would be able to provide their own subsistence, and be able to teach others to do the same, so that no one would starve or be malnourished or not be able to build their own shelter and garden and fishing tools.  And when they needed help getting enough food, or rebuilding a home, or reworking the indoor plumbing to get a bathroom working again, or providing a home close to the school for children who might otherwise not be able to do so, Sila wanted to be there to help his community, and it seemed that this was an important part of the local culture, one we can’t help but respect.  We appreciated this incredibly helpful mindset and willingness to support others, which seemed to fit well with his regular efforts to clean up the local environment and to teach the neighborhood kids to do the same.

We were struck by how we, as privileged, educated Americans, have heard metrics of poverty in terms of people living on subsistence farming, where they have enough to take care of their own families and maybe only a little extra to sell or barter or share — and here, the problem was that people would actually benefit from being able to live like that (and they still live in a rural enough area that they could probably do so), but the pressures to modernize meant that fewer and fewer people knew how.  Not a critique of the shift from subsistence living to globalized market economies I have ever heard much about before… but I can imagine that the same issues crop up all over the world in such circumstances.

Somewhere around there, our new friend invited us back to his own home to continue chatting over tea.  As we walked there, we got to see some more of the neighborhood on the way.  This part of Pejarakan is called Kepahlengkong, and sits near the top of a large hill that wound its way down to the sea, with lowland rain forest or jungle filling in the spaces between parts of this town and those nearby.  Most of the roads were paved, and there were a fair number of locals walking or riding motorbikes (and less often cars) from place to place, although it was still a lot quieter and less densely populated than some of the other towns we visited.  Many people had brown cows, black pigs, or skinny chickens living in open-air stables on their property, and so a number of the motorbikes were topped with large bundles of densely leafy branches as people brought home food for their animals.  The chickens wandered, as did the dogs and cats.  Some stray, some not, all lean and small.

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Brown cows in a shelter in a yard we passed in the neighborhood
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A black pig tied up by its owner’s home
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Transporting animal food via motorbike
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A local friendly dog that met us several times during our stay

So how did we get from discussing politics and walking around the neighborhood to talking about eating snails with giggling children?  Due to length, this story will continue directly in our next post

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