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Thursday, December 5, Jakarta

Thursday, December 5, Jakarta

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And a compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship —be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles— is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

— Excerpt from “This Is Water” by David Foster Wallace

All thinking men are atheists.

— From A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway



Today is the final day of the Indonesia Fall Semester Program, and in the spirit of this rather bittersweet occasion, it seemed to me that a final, conclusive Yak post was in order. All of you Yak Board readers eagerly awaiting your children’s return deserve something like this: a sort of capstone, a denouement. You deserve a neat and tidy reflective piece, illuminating and honest and poignant. It should speak of the sadness we feel in advance of our upcoming departure, and also of our hopes for the future, what lessons we can take from Indonesia and incorporate into our lives back home. It should make you feel good about the time we’ve spent here, and show you how much we’ve grown over the course of these three months. It should tell you that we’re ready to come home, and should remind you not to worry if we seem changed in ways that you didn’t expect. Most importantly though, such a post should contain the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of everyone in the group. It should be a joint message, a proclamation of gratitude for what this experience has given us, issued with the strength of 12 voices united in common belief.

Well… I’m sorry folks, but this is not that post. Unfortunately, you’ll have to content yourselves with the ramblings of just one guy —that’s me— and the  thoughts whirling around in this whacky head of mine. This is not the touching reflection you might have expected. Apologies for that. What it is is something a great deal simpler. The word story does it too much justice; perhaps instead, we can call it a collection of memories, a collection concerning the complicated subject of crying.

Back in Riung, I partook in an activity that I’ve thought a great deal about in the time since. Riung, located on the North coast of Flores island, is the site of our program’s Midcourse, and accommodates us for a brief intermission period between our Jogjakarta and Langa homestays. It’s a piece of beautiful beachfront property, and perfect for the sort of group bonding activities that Midcourse is intended to facilitate. This was one such activity, called “Hippie Sunflower”. The idea of it is as follows: everyone in the group gathers in a flat place —Riung’s beach served very well for this purpose— and orients themselves in an outward facing circle, lying prone on a ground such that one’s head is toward the center and one’s feet radiate outward like spokes on a wheel. Once everyone is situated, one person in the circle asks a question to the rest of the group, generally a trivial question in the vein of: “what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” or “which do you prefer, dogs or cats?”. The rest of the group answers the question one-by-one around the circle, and then the next person in order has a chance to ask another question, whereupon the process is repeated. The idea is that as we progress around the circle, the questions will become increasingly poignant and personal, until eventually, every question is one that forces us to think and reflect on the things that really matter.

It was one of these questions, aired over the slow break of the waves on the moonlit beach in Riung, that has been bothering me since it left the mouth of my instructor Colin well over a month ago. The question, so simple and yet so provocative, was this: “when was the last time you cried?”

It’s a question I can answer easily, because despite whatever facades I might present to the world in day-to-day life, at heart —and in private— I’m a very sentimental person. I cry watching movies, even those I’ve seen seemingly a hundred times. I cry listening to music. Sometimes I even cry when reading a book. Considering that question now, there are several scenes that flash before my mind’s eye. Perhaps the most vivid is this one…

I’m trapped inside a slow, clunky pickup truck as it makes its way up the steep side of a mountain. We’re returning from a six-and-a-half hour trek to Flores’ south coast, and to me, the trials of that journey afoot do not hold a candle to the trials of our return journey by car up the mountain. We are an hour into what promises to be a several hour ordeal, and I can feel my mood souring further with every bump in the road. The truck progresses with a horrible swaying-rattling-jouncing-motion, straining to carry fifteen people over the steep inclines and hairpin turns of the mountain road. It lurches around a bend, and I am thrown painfully against the hard wooden siding of the truck bed; another bend a few moments later sends me tumbling into the lap of the unfortunate student sitting next to me. Our swerving ascent turns the contents of my bowels —already disturbed from something I ate the night before— uncomfortably watery. We rumble over a gravelly path that sends a series of vibrating tremors from the bones of my feet up through my rib cage and all the way to my skull. It occurs to me that I will probably sleep poorly tonight… and then the truck dips precipitously into a pothole, and I am launched suddenly into the air from the wooden slat that serves as my seat. I have time only for a sharp intake of breath before gravity returns me mercilessly to the pew with a horrible thudding finality, and, cursing, I return to my brooding thoughts.

Here’s what I’m thinking: “Oh God, why did I even come on this trek if this was to be my reward? I wake up at 3:30 A.M. with this tremendous rumbling noise in my gut, and then I’ve got to run in my skivvies to the bathroom through the dirt-floor kitchen next to the pig sty and listen to the pigs squeal in complaint at the pungent smell that arises from the rapid evacuation of my bowels into the ground toilet, and I’m trying so hard not to miss the hole, but at the critical juncture I overbalance, and witness firsthand the spectacular fruits of my failure, before I stumble back to bed weak-kneed and wobbling, and then get up on hardly any sleep to walk for hours on end only to reach our destination and do the whole procedure over again while crouching behind an appropriately-sized pile of rocks at the beach, trying not to burn myself on the searing hot stone, watching the ants swarm in droves across the rocks towards the smell, feeling weak and ill and wishing I could be anywhere but here… only to get on this rickety old truck for the drive back to Langa and another two hours of brutal torture…” Et cetera, et cetera.

So, to sum up a rather long and distinctly unappetizing story, I am gearing up to be almost incurably miserable for the next two hours. I can find no comfortable position to sit. I can attempt no conversations over the deafening roar of the engines. I am trapped with the downward-spiraling vortex of my thoughts swirling around in my head and soon there’s going to be nothing capable of pulling me out. Colin’s question echoes in my head, “When was the last time you cried?” and a voice inside me quips, “Well, now wouldn’t be a bad time, buddy”. My head pounds from the sound of the motor, my insides groan their displeasure, my butt aches and my back aches and my shoulders sting from the sunburn on the beach, but as the car clatters gratingly upward and my head jounces uncomfortably against the bones of my neck, two things happen simultaneously to change everything in an instant.

I catch my first glimpse of it between the trees, the same mix of tropical and deciduous that we had seen on our trek down to the beach earlier this morning. They had been green then, and richly brown or grey-barked; fruits hung from them, mangos, bananas, coconuts. The pungent, citrusy smell of lime —or the sharper tang of cloves— wafted from their leaves, and their bark, when peeled, sometimes filled your nose with the rich scent of cinnamon. Now though, as we ascend farther up the ridge of the mountain, they are little more than dark shadows, silhouettes against the brilliant light hanging over the western horizon. I am witness to one of the most spectacular natural set pieces that Indonesia has to offer, and it takes my breath away. In Bahasa Indonesian, it is matahari terbenam; in English, we call it sunset.

What I see looks closer to a red orb than it does the sun. It hangs like a drop of liquid on the end of a needle, slipping infinitesimally farther and farther downward, drawing closer to the terminal plunge. Just below it, the horizon glints brilliant white, and the vast expanse of the South Pacific spreading before it glitters with a complicated pointillism: orange, red, and yellow. The whole scene is an Impressionist’s dream. The sun is so faint, so watery at its edges, that I can look directly at it, but somehow, I don’t want to. For the beauty of the sunset is not the quivering orb of the sun itself, but the play of its light upon everything it touches. I turn on my bench; behind me, the high, rocky ledge to our left side is patterned with a fascinating complexity of shadow and light. The cliff itself is colored with a wonderful golden-brown hue, the exact shade of perfectly prepared cornbread, or of a chocolate chip cookie done just right, or the color of a crispy roast chicken. The light has a certain magical quality that turns even the unremarkable into the spectacular.

As the truck veers around the next bend, the trees fall away to nothingness, and I am graced with an unobstructed view of the land, vibrant against the light of the sun. The view which was breathtaking moments before suddenly becomes positively surreal. Blanketing the rolling, tree-lined hills that cascade down to the beach a thousand feet below is a thick layer of mist. It is no more than a thin, translucent sheen where the sun’s light hits it straight on, but elsewhere, the mist is thick and heavy, blown into swirling tendrils by the mountain wind. To the south, Mount Inirie’s triangular peak pierces through it like an iceberg pierces the ocean. Its upper third is a sharp point of loose scrag and low-lying scrub, but the mountain’s lower two thirds remain obscured, shrouded in cloud. Skeins of mist trail off into the distance, and some creep towards us like probing fingers, carrying with them their own attenuated tributaries. Above this mist is a collection of billowing clouds, edged in brilliant orange, their undersides a dusky red-purple. I can see their every nook and cranny, every depression and protrusion, every shadowed crevice, and its every bit as touching and fascinating and wonderful as the play of the light on the cliff behind me. As our car trundles slowly onwards along the ridge, a peculiar feeling steels over me, and I find myself awash in a memory. I watch the sunset, feeling something hard and cold unwind inside of me, and let it play.

I am sitting at evening prayer with my host aunt Mertin on Friday, two nights after my arrival in Langa. I’ve wrapped a sarong around me to shield me from the chill; the wind here, especially at night, is surprisingly biting. The chair is made of metal, cool. Around me are gathered a hundred or so Indonesians, and before me, standing atop a dais, is their pastor, robed in white. He speaks to the congregation, reading from the book that sits on the old wooden pulpit. Occasionally, the people of Langa repeat certain phrases, strings of Bahasa from which I can decipher a word or two, but never anything more. I hear them mutter “amen” after the preacher in imperfect chorus. I hear them shift and rustle in their chairs and whisper quietly to one another. I hear the soft crackle of paper as the preacher turns a page in the book. I catch myself starting to nod off and check my watch, wondering: “how much longer is this thing?” But then every thought I have flies from my head, because out of nowhere, the people of Langa begin to sing.

Now here, truly, is a real miracle, for in the depths of Indonesia, in the most remote backwater of the most forgotten corner of the world, an archipelago that to many Americans is home not to people but to “natives,” I recognized the song they were singing. It was not a hymn, not really, but it’s heard frequently enough beneath the lofty eaves of a church: that famous Irish air, “Danny Boy”. And as I heard the first beautiful strains of its melody well up from the throats of a hundred Indonesians, as the sound swelled to fill the air of the village yard and beyond, lofted out into the soft evening wind to fall gently upon the ears of anyone fortunate enough to be listening, I felt tears spring to my eyes. I cried, though the words were in Bahasa Indonesian, because I did not need to understand them to know what they meant. I did not need to know anything about the people singing to feel so unutterably grateful to be sitting amongst them.

I wept because I could see with such shocking clarity something so strong and powerful within them, something that I, with all the incredible advantages of a western upbringing and western privilege, all the education and opportunity and luxury that are the birthright of the upper-middle-class American, have never tasted. I have never lacked for anything in my life. Most of what I’ve wanted has been given to me: food to eat, money to spend, clothes to wear, a home to live in, a family to love. I have grown accustomed to every great wonder of technology and medicine that fortunate privilege has afforded me. I am the one percent, lucky beyond measure, and yet next to these people from a tiny village on a remote island in Indonesia, people who will never even glimpse the faintest outlines of the life I live day in and day out, for whom such a life would be an endless train of fabulous wonders, a heaven, I suddenly had nothing.

I saw something in that evening prayer that was so much more powerful than anything I contained inside myself: the incredible strength of community. They sang not for themselves, nor for some mysterious, nebulous god; they sang for the people of Langa. In the melody of “Danny Boy” and in the sounds of that ragged choir, there is unbelievable beauty. Singing brought them closer together, united them, connected them, made them a part of something larger than themselves. By communing amongst themselves, by sharing an experience together and joining their voices together in song, they managed also to commune with God, and the universal force that binds them to their world and to everything living within it. Every night, that is what they paid homage to, that is what they celebrated, that is what they worshipped.

And I? What did I worship? What did I, with all my Western learning and values, all my morals and ethical frameworks, all my reading and study and knowledge… what did I worship? As I wept and shook in my chair, listening to the beautiful strains of “Danny Boy” drifting through the air, Mertin turned to me and asked me, “why you cry?” I couldn’t answer you then Mertin, beyond a few hitching monosyllables, but I can now. I cried because when I asked myself what I worshipped, at first I had no answer. I felt pathetic, empty and hollow, depthless and passionless: inhuman. I felt friendless and alone. I felt trapped inside my own head, isolated, a slave to my own brooding malcontent… and then I realized the truth of it. I had told myself that I worshipped nothing, that I had no God, that I was an atheist. So be it, but what that conviction left me inside myself, where the wellspring of faith wells from the people of Langa, the strength of their community, was a gaping void. I had no faith, no God, and I was terrifyingly alone.

The truck rumbles along, and the sun dips lower and lower in the sky, until it disappears altogether beyond the rim of the sea. What was once a golden-red sunset begins to purple; the shadows on the cliff-face disappear, and the clouds start to lose their vibrant lining. The color starts to slowly bleed out of the world, and when I glance upward, I can see the moon, hanging above me in the deepening blue of the sky. It is a strange moon, illuminated not horizontally across its face, but rather vertically. It shows a tight lipped smile to the world tonight, and I, thinking of Mertin and the preacher and “Danny Boy,” smile tightly back. The cold, hard knot in my stomach is now something else. It glows orange and red, flaring bright on the water and piercing through the mist: it is the sunset.

“When was the last time you cried?” This time, Colin’s voice has no mordant counterpart, for my turmoil in the gut and the ache in my posterior has been left behind, forgotten. I have just witnessed something beautiful, something rare and spectacular, something sacred. Those makeshift pews in Langa, that field of metal folding chairs arranged in rows before the pastor’s dais, might just as easily be replaced by the hard bench that seats me now. What is the difference, really, between the beauty of “Danny Boy” and the beauty of the sunlight playing across the cliff-face, the mists swirling about the foothills of Inirie, the black silhouettes of the trees against the light of the sun? The people of Langa worship and celebrate their community through song and prayer, can I not celebrate mine through the wonders of nature? Can I not experience a closeness with the world and the people around within my experience of the sunset? It makes silhouettes out of the trees, sets the sky ablaze with light, and lends a special sort of magic to the whole of the land. Everything changes under its light, is connected by it, from me and my friends in the truck to the mountain in the distance and the beach far below. I am not alone, I am not wallowing in my misery; I am connected to the people and to the land around me. I am part of a community. In that moment, as evening descends over the hills and the first stars begin to appear in the darkening sky, I know suddenly that though I don’t worship God, I can worship something just as powerful. I can believe in the sunset.

On the beach in Riung, under an evening sky similarly alight with stars, I had no idea that I would come to any such realization. That night, I answered Colin’s question quickly enough, but what I didn’t answer was its implicit antecedent, Merlin’s whispered question: “Why do you cry?”. I told the group that I knew exactly when last I cried, that it was a memory I had retained very clearly. “September 15th,” I told them, “as I watched my parents disappear over the threshold of an elevator, my Dad’s arm draped around my Mom’s shoulders”. What I didn’t realize at the time, but what I think I understand now, was that I wasn’t just seeing my parents leave me in the airport, I was witnessing myself being separated from one of the only communities I have ever known: my family. That was why I cried. I could not have said that in Riung, but I know it now. If I’ve learned nothing else in Indonesia, I can say at the very least, I do know myself just a little bit better. And that knowledge, though it seems unremarkable, is of far greater value than I ever realized.