Writing these Yaks, it is hard not to think of the audience. Who will see our shout outs from the field? Well, I have a strong feeling that all you readers are teachers of some sort. Parenting could surely be counted as a full time, emotion based teaching position, and the best friends are the ones that we learn from. So I thought you might be interested in hearing about the kind of teachers that have taken over for (though never replaced) you here in Indonesia.
Our instructors you can learn about from their introductory Yaks, and their daily impact on us is far to deep, broad, and encompassing for this particular post. For now it will have to be enough to say that every day we learn from them, these incredible people with their wild lives and beautiful experiences and profound wisdom who, with all that life in them, come down to teach us. To bring us up into a new, wilder, wiser world. To give up their lives for a while so that we can learn to live. Its hard to thank them enough.
As for the other teachers, well, get ready because there are lots! All of our weeks in Yodja have been themed, beginning with ‘Islam and religious integration’ (or something like that). Our first day we broke into this culture study with a whirlwind history of Indonesia by way of Matt, which covered canoes trading spices to china, the fall of the roman empire and the birth of spice trade with India, then Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic kingdoms rising and falling until finally the dutch arrived, with their Christianity and swords spreading slavery, science, and commercialism up to the moment the Japanese kicked them out in World War Two. Since then has begun the era of revolutions, democracy, economy, and the birth of a country. A country so big that tip to tip it covers the same distance as Alaska to Washington DC. And made up of so many islands that still no one knows how many their really are. I didn’t even mention the ecological diversity, Wallace line, politics, and religion… Basically, we started off strong.
Next we had our first speaker. She came from a smaller town, raised christian, and found Islam when she was a teenager. She went to college in the US, studied economics, and worked there until 9/11, when it became infinitely more difficult to be Muslim. So she moved back to Indonesia and began to teach here at one of the local Islamic schools (pretty much all of the schools here have a religious affiliation), and today works with 15-17 year old students. She came in to share with us a personal account and perspective on Islam, what it means to her as an individual practitioner, a citizen, and a teacher. A few of us – Stephanie, Craig, Kyle, and I – were able to visit her Monday afternoon English class. The students were so welcoming, so smiling, so excited and motivated and bright eyed. Stephanie said afterwards that those kids could cheer up anyone. And it’s true.
The second speaker we had gave us a more technical view of Islam. A teacher in a local Muslim boarding school, he shared with us some of the details of the faith, how it impacts communities, the culture of giving that it can create, how it began, and much more. That afternoon we visited his school as a group and were overwhelmed by waves of students wanting to talk to us, shake our hands, try out their English and see if they could understand where we came from, why we were in Indonesia, whether we liked their home country. We came together over small things, like Brad Pitt and Obama as well as big things, like how important it was that we, as Americans, were visiting an Islamic school. The spirit and life of the place was inspiring and infections.
Our third view of religion in Indonesia came from a professor in the Bronx who spent his Fulbright time working in Sulawesi and now comes to Jodja to bridge cultural divisions and hang out with street artists (Street art is legal here). He spent some time talking to us about religious tensions and the integration of tribal belief systems into the structure of major religions. We will certainly see much more of this as we travel outside of Jogja, which lives up to its reputation as one of the more accepting, open minded places in Indonesia.
Then, this weekend, we visited Borobudur – an incredible Buddhist temple only about two hours drive outside of the city and built in 750 AD. It is beautiful. Seriously. Look up pictures. The best part of this actually wasn’t the temple itself. We traveled to a nearby Buddhist monastery, where a novice monk took the time to sit with us and explain about his religion. He walked us through the basics and described to us how he found Buddhism, what it meant to him, and then shared with us the sacred space where the monastery gathers to pray. The group was quiet as we lit incense and experienced the kind of tranquility that can only be found in a sacred space.
All of these were beautiful reminders of how different faiths can, in their own way, bring together beautiful people and create peaceful spaces. Our religion segment has truly only begun. As we go beyond Java the cultures and faiths will show even more diversity, and surely many more beautiful people.
The next week, last week, we began our section on the culture and arts of Jogja. A professor at UGM, the oldest and best university in Indonesia, came to speak with us about the ancient art of Shadow Puppetry. Through the knowledge that he shared with us he gave us a way to understand the deep meaning Puppetry performances hold for so many Javanese people. He even invited us to a show that would be given in English so that students visiting from all over the world could understand what the characters were saying. Sitting there, watching the silhouettes come alive before our eyes, it was impossible to deny that there was magic in it.
A Batik artist came and described to us the cultural significance of individual batik patterns, the history of designs coming all the way from India and China, how local people gave their lives to making just one pattern, and why each piece of fabric is beautiful and special in its own way. He then walked with us to the Sultan’s Brother’s Palace just a few blocks away and showed us the amazing Kris, daggers actually mixed with the dust of a meteorite, beautifully formed with this silver dust and carried by royalty for centuries. They’re amazing. Google it.
A few of us met with the street artists of Jogja and talked with them about art, as a living and breathing entity unbound by museum walls with immense political and cultural power. Just a few passionate people with incredible eyes for beauty, the hearts of the people their top priority, the will to reclaim public spaces, and the intellect to do it well. More of this one to come – we’re meeting with them again tomorrow night to learn even more about their community and mission.
These, believe it or not, are a tiny percentage of the teachers we have here. I haven’t even gotten to our amazing cook and housekeeper who teaches us about good food just by smiling at us and feeding us, or the people in the street who smile or stare, greeting us, curious about us, wanting to share their world with us just because they know we’re different, or oh our incredible home stay families! This is truly a moment in our lives when learning transcends any concept of a classroom and becomes constant practice, when our teachers don’t need expo markers to change our worlds, when every second is an opportunity, an experience, an adventure.
Needless to say, its an incredible place. And I am constantly grateful for my teachers.