Once upon a time anthropology was about what happened in faraway places. The way we found out about those places was by going there and hanging out and keeping our eyes and ears open. This was called “fieldwork” because the “field” we were studying was somewhere else. I’ve never been very comfortable with these words and now that the everything and everybody is moving everywhere I suspect the whole idea of “field(work)” may cause more problems than it is worth.
Nevertheless, all research happens somewhere, and when we are there we may experience everyday life in different ways than when we are “at home”. Sometimes, especially when I’ve just arrived, I write little stories which I send home to students, friends and family. What I think they reflect are a first, existential layer of the ethnographic experience that anthropology gets built out of.
Here are this years crop …
A few years ago I used to send you stories from out here, but the last year or so it hasn’t happened – I’m not sure why – maybe stories aren’t what they used to be.
I’m still following the rubbish trails, chasing rice merchants (who don’t like wasting their time on people like me) and trying to organise trips to more distant environmental developments – good, bad and ugly.
But this morning, for the first time, I woke early and refreshed enough, to go out at the hour when Ubud is still an Indonesian village, rather than a tourist town. I went first to the market to get bubur (savoury rice-porridge) for breakfast from a tough old lady, from whose neighbouring traders I still get a laugh over the time she tried to charge me double-price, but found she’d picked the wrong tourist. Then I got my jamu (herbal medicine/tonic) from the bright little Javanese lady who is still amused that a foreigner would drink such stuff. Then I went on the rice-fields on the edge of town – my favourite walk for as long as I’ve been coming here. Most of the household where I stay were there, to perform a ritual called byuhkukung, so the new grains will fatten nicely and turn golden over the weeks ahead.
It is a landscape of mixed feelings – mysteriously beautiful and peaceful, especially early morning or dusk – green and misty, always the sound of running water and a cool breeze. But also the melancholy of a way of life that is passing – each time there are more houses, shops and restaurants, and less rice. Most people now ride their motorbikes along the narrow track, but I prefer to walk, so I meet people.
I wondered whether one of my oldest friends would be there, and sure enough he appeared, as if by magic, as he usually does, just as I pass his field. I remember when he was young and very handsome, but he always been an old-school farmer. Now he is recovering from a prostate operation (which he was lucky to have diagnosed, let alone operated on), he has given up growing the old varieties he loves, and was lamenting (wistfully rather than resentfully) that his old friends, local full-time farmers, are dying off and if they are replaced at all, it is with part-time sharecroppers and commercial harvesting teams from villages outside the tourism zone. Even my Israeli expat friend who pioneered the return to old varieties and organic methods has gone – kicked out by his Balinese ex-wife who now runs the garden and restaurant.
But I also met an exception to the pattern: a younger man, from my neighbourhood, smart and energetic, named after a big storm that came out of the western sky when he was born, with a day job in the village co-op bank, who has inherited a good-sized chunk of land from his father and is growing rice on it using (more or less) organic methods and his crop is looking better than his neighbours. Most farmers here grow rice to feed their families, but he grows enough to sell most of it – still standing, to mill-owners who bring their own harvesting teams. His only problem is the Malaysian expat who has built a new house on the next field and complains about his wonderful, clattering bird-scaring devices.
Ways of life change, but life goes on.
Our job is to take notice – and tell the stories.
#2 There will be something.
I learnt about Bali in temple courtyards. Because religion (i.e. ritual) is what’s important to people here, that’s what I got into – as a fumbling apprentice at the bottom end of the bamboo and meat supply chain that operates like a production line for hours and days in hot, dusty temple courtyards. But that is where/how I learnt all the basics, got to know everybody, and all the doors opened, that I’ve been going through ever since. I don’t really do it much now, or even go back to my old neighbourhood (they have a word a bit like turangawaewae) but that doesn’t matter, because they both come to me anyway.
A couple of days ago I was coming home along the main street and saw all the men from my turangawaewae gathered outside the house of the family I was once closest to. I knew what that meant, because I knew he’d been sick and I’d been meaning to visit. I went home, changed into my ritual drag and by the time I returned they were washing the body, mainly the closest family, but with everyone else (literally) lending a hand. I was at the back of the crowd, and I haven’t been around for a while, so I didn’t get too involved. All I saw was the muddy grey that golden-brown skin turns and the stump of the leg he lost in the motorbike accident that ended his career in the army.
People are never surprised to see me, but they are casually pleased that I’ve turned up again. “When did you arrive?” “Where are you staying?” “For how long?” “How are your family?” Some of them reminded me of the day, twentytwo years ago, in this same courtyard, when we performed the same ritual for his father, who was my friend, teacher and mentor. That was like a closing ceremony of my year of living like an anthropologist. It was also the end of an era. Gusti Made Sumung was an extraordinary man, deeply Balinese, but living much of his life at the interface between his own culture and the foreigners who were so fascinated by it. I was the last in a long line of foreign proteges, which stretched back to the 1920s. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were among the first.
That cremation was a big one, because he was the head of an important family, son of the greatest of Balinese artists, and closely associated with the palace, as well as being a larger-than-life figure. His own son was a much quieter man, who never caused any trouble, staying at home and looking after his daughter’s shop which sold the best sarongs and fabrics in town and he had always been good to me.
But times have changed and most neighbourhoods have instituted a system of mass cremations, once every few years, because of the costs of individual ones, which can run to tens of thousands of dollars. So the ritual was relatively simple, only an hour or two, and the high priest came only long enough to do the essentials but the family still all trooped under the body held high over their heads. Then he was carried out into the street in a modest bier, shaded by a white cloth and we made our way through the hot afternoon traffic and fumes, to the cemetery where he was buried, with minimal fuss and much good-humoured male foolery, among the twenty or so other people of our neighbourhood who will all be exhumed and properly cremated in 2017.
Now everybody knows I’m here, so I don’t have to tell them. There won’t be any evenings of beautiful, golden, sweet-scented, music-drenched temple ritual that bring back the magic, because that doesn’t happen for a while after somebody has died.
But no need to worry – there will be something else.
#3 Walking and Working
Bali used to be an island of pedestrians – everyone walked – all the time – anywhere and everywhere. There were no wheels until 100 years ago, when the Dutch brought their tall, black, elegant, creaking bicycles. But Japanese motorbikes arrived in the 1970s and people started earning enough money from tourism to buy them. Now the whole island runs on them, and in the urban and touristed areas, it is one big traffic jam, from late morning until night.
I try to avoid going down to the city, because of the heat and the traffic, but a few days ago I had to spend time with a colleague, visit his sister who is a rice-trader and attend a book-launch at the university. A car may be safer and if its airconditioned, its cooler and cleaner, but the traffic is easier to negotiate on a motorbike/scooter.
I left the book launch early to make sure I got home before dark, because of all the extra hazards of things you can’t see. But that meant peak hour, when the roads out of the city are rivers of motorbikes, swirling around cars, trucks, buses and other obstacles. But its not as bad as it looks if you just “go with the flow”. The river spreads out into smaller tributary streams and about halfway home the road ahead opens up.
But after a few kilometres, suddenly it all jammed up again. Way up ahead I could see the ceremonial umbrellas and tall flags of a procession – probably taking sacred objects or beings from one temple to another for its annual anniversary ceremony. This is a normal traffic event, and they usually turn off at the next cross road, but this time they didn’t, and a real traffic jam built up – hundreds of motorbikes, all packed together, engines running in the late afternoon heat, hundreds of us all breathing pure exhaust fumes – for five minutes, then ten, fifteen. Groups of bikes broke off and went down side streets, looking for a detour. I didn’t know the territory well enough to risk it, but as I got closer to the back of the procession, the pecalang (ritual security guards) directed us into another side street. Away we went, down a jalan tikus (rat run) of small village lanes, past startled householders and kids playing in the street, until we came out ahead of the procession and had a clear run for home, just ahead of the darkness. I do this (more or less voluntarily) once or twice a year. The rest of them have no choice but to do it twice a day.
There have been sporadic attempts to deal with traffic and parking problems, even revive public transport, but that’s another story and, if Auckland can’t get it together, what hope here.
Some walking still happens in the early morning , in the cool and quiet. The only traffic is local people going about local business – housewives exchanging news as they get basic supplies from the market or their local warung (small shop), children buying (increasingly unhealthy) snacks on their way to school, the rubbish truck, men sweeping or washing cars or motorbikes, old men holding their baby grandchildren, and a few joggers, local as well as foreign.
When I got back this morning, the young man who married one of the daughters of this family, and who is now head of the household because they have no sons, was sweeping, but dressed in sports gear. He’d been jogging too – up to the market, down to the monkey forest and back– over a kilometre. I told him that’s what his generation have to do for exercise now that they don’t walk anywhere, let alone work in the ricefields.
He said that his family has quite extensive ricefields and his father still works them, but “I’ve never had any interest. What’s the point? The costs of production are always going up and the selling price of rice is so low. Much better to do something that brings in some money”.
“But who will work your family’s fields when your father is too old? What will happen in the future?”
“When I’m older, maybe 50 or 60, and my children take over what I’m doing now, I’ll start farming”.
“You mean as a kind of hobby in your retirement?”
Yesterday’s economic base, productive ecology, cultural meanings and male identity is tomorrow’s occupational therapy for geriatrics.
#4 The Jolly Miller
It’s a different story if you go the other way. Five minutes uphill and you are back on those timeless little roads, curving gently between coconut palms and fields of rice, then dipping/winding steeply into forested gullies. There are a few hideous hotels and vulgar villas now, but the magic is still there.
Late afternoon is the best time of all, so I go looking for Pak Kanda, who runs the mill that most farmers around here prefer to use – because they trust him. I last saw him ten years ago, almost to the day, according to my fieldnotes (Handy hint – make sure you use consistent keywords for searching later). I described him then as “a wiry, lively little monkey of a man with a lovely wide smile”. I had heard that he was still working, but people can age suddenly here, so I expected only a shadow.
The place was just the same, where the road winds through a deep, dark hollow – a wonderfully ramshackle collection of open sheds, with corrugated asbestos roofs. A large concrete yard for drying grain, and where vehicles load and unload, with chickens pecking around. In front a couple of dingy warungs selling coffee and basic meals.
The clatter of machines is deafening, the air is thick with dust, bags of rice and bran everywhere and people coming, going and waiting. Pak Kanda is clambering all over, lifting bags from his spectacularly derelict little pickup truck and tipping them into the hopper. He has not changed at all. I remember this is peak harvest season and he will be flat-out from dawn till dusk, so I wait too.
I recognise many of the people as farmers from the fields I know best. Some are also very small traders. As they wait they talk – about harvests and yields, pests and prices. The foreigner asks odd questions that get them talking about different things. But there is also ordinary village gossip and the universal joking talk of working men when they hang around together.
It is a very Balinese scene but also one from anywhere that grains have been milled over the past five thousand years: Persia, Vietnam, Europe – the Canterbury Tales, Thomas Hardy, early America.
A belt driving the mill breaks with a loud bang, then silence. Nobody seems too worried. Pak Kanda takes the opportunity to greet his visitor. He doesn’t remember me but his smile hasn’t faded. “No thanks – I don’t need coffee – I can come again when you are not so busy”. He works steadily and unhurriedly– repairing the broken belt – talking and laughing. Everyone waits and talks some more.
I’ve heard enough for one visit, and can’t think of any better questions, so I leave them to their talk. On the way home I pass groups of women and children bathing in irrigation channels, like they used to everywhere. People are sitting in front of their houses as they still do everywhere. More bags of grain are coming up the gentle slope, on bicycles and motorbikes. The village mill will be working late tonight.
#5 Tracksuit Bureaucracy
There is always something we need from government departments, but there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to Indonesian bureaucracy. A few days ago I went to the town/city where all the district-level government offices are. I went to three in a row but nobody I was looking for was there. This was not really surprising, but a little disappointing because I can usually count on a strike-rate of at least one-in-three. So I had to satisfy myself with visits to a few shops, including the airless and chaotic Javanese supermarket and my favourite sarong-shop, run by a Muslim family whose ancestors came here from India over a hundred years ago.
I promised to phone first next time, but the best strategy is to just turn up again, as early as possible in the morning, before the senior staff have found excuses to escape the office. So I tried again today, dressed in my tidier-than-usual office-visiting clothes. Friday used to be only a half-day, but now it is physical exercise day, which they do together first thing then spend the rest of the day in their tracksuits which is a welcome relief from their usual too-tight-fitting military-style uniforms.
At the Department of Culture, I want to find out about progress with implementation of the World Heritage sites under their jurisdiction (which I know is less than ideal). Ibu Dayu, after months of avoiding me, now greets me like an old friend, tells me things I mostly already know, then ushers me in to see the head of department. I always thought she was afraid to tell me anything without his approval, but now I think he just likes meeting foreigners. He is wearing his ritual regalia, perhaps because his part in the morning exercise is limited to raising the flag or making the speeches. He looks distinctly less sinister and predatory than usual – almost like a teddy bear, and he too greets me like an old friend. After a detailed discussion of the differences between the weather in NZ and Bali, he answers some questions without telling me much. As the novelty wears off, he returns behind his huge desk to read his newspaper and fiddle with his phone, while Ibu Dayu chatters happily but equally insubstantially in response to my questions. I leave knowing at least that I haven’t missed anything exciting.
The Department of Communications is just a few doors along. I want to find out about what they are (not) doing to support local initiatives to fix Ubud’s out-of-control traffic/parking problems. Needless to say the head just went out 10 minutes ago and so did his assistant in charge of traffic. But at least I have some symbolic capital to start from, because I knew his father years ago, back when he was a minor “king” but is now retired to become a kind of holy man despite perilous frailty of body and mind. The young ladies behind the counter look so much less officious in their dark blue tracksuits, that I try not to laugh when they tell me to phone next time.
The Department of Tourism is around the corner, almost opposite the market and just before the nice new roof that shades the parking area along one side of the main street. Here the tracksuits are light blue and my helpful but loquacious friend happens to be loitering in the front yard. He has been promoted and now has his own office near the front door. But instead of just giving me the routine tourism statistics a he always does, he says I now need an official letter.
Tourists staying the night anywhere have to be reported to the local police, and for years I used to just go to the police station, drink sweet coffee and answer trivial questions until they gave me the big disintegrating book in which they kept their monthly summaries. I would take it across the road to photocopy it then bring it back. Then came a new chief – of the (more common) sinister/predatory kind. He wouldn’t let me see anything and wanted to know all sorts of things about me. I haven’t been back since and that was when I started going to where the statistics end up.
Now there is a problem here too. I’m not sure why – it is virtually public information and it ends up in the public domain soon enough. We go to his superior’s office and he explains that they get into one kind of trouble if they give information out too freely, and another kind if they withhold information. So they live in fear of telling anybody anything without the proper paper-trail.
We all had proper research permits for our PhD research, but now most of us work in a somewhat grey area of blind eyes turned and unwritten agreements. But the net is tightening, for the bureaucrats themselves and we are all starting to feel the effects. The basic logic is hard to disagree with –that researchers, especially foreign ones, should conduct research that has benefits for Indonesia, in partnership with local institutions. But the practicalities are another story.
He asks me what I think about tourism in this area. I tell him what seem to me fairly obvious things about green, shady, pedestrian-friendly, eco-friendly environments being not only what foreign tourists like but, because of their rarity in this part of the world, that they could even become a tourist attraction in themselves. Their eyes light up – maybe this is what they want to hear – maybe this is the kind of wisdom they want from the foreign researcher. We part on good terms and on the way out, my old friend gives me a single sheet of paper with the simple information I wanted in the first place. Next time I must remember to wear my tracksuit.
#6 How many anthropologists does it take to change a dvd?
I’m trying to organise a book about a deceased friend, who lived in Bali for a long time and made some good films there. He knew everybody and they all loved him, and many of his friends are intellectuals, writers, artists, so I expected they’d all want to contribute.
Lesson 1: don’t take anything for granted (especially if it involves people).
I did some work on the book while I was in Melbourne and the biographical/anecdotal side of it is coming together. But I was still worried about the lack of discussion/analysis of his films. Then I met Douglas, one of the older/retired generation of anthropologists of Eastern Indonesia. He is staying with my friend Rio, who was also a friend of John the filmmaker. I’ve known Douglas for a while, but I didn’t know that he knew John, let alone that he was a great admirer of his films. He immediately offered to contribute a chapter about his favourite of John’s films, which it happened that Rio had worked on. This wasn’t part of the plan I submitted in my leave application.
Lesson 2: what you need usually turns up when/where/how you least expect it.
Douglas wanted to watch the film with Rio and me and record our conversation about it – the fancy name is photo-elicitation. It took a while to find a copy of the film, despite it being made here and about here and everyone thinking they used to have a copy somewhere. We agreed to meet today. I was late and assumed I’d missed most of it. But they were still dealing with technical problems. They had video players and TVs and recorders and microphones all over the place. The remote control for the dvd player wasn’t working, so they tried another player. The dvd got stuck and we couldn’t get it out. Rio got a screwdriver and started dismantling the player. It was harder than it looked. The dvd was locked firmly inside some flimsy-looking plastic housing. We couldn’t dismantle it, so Douglas got his heavy-duty multipurpose tool of the kind that home handymen are given for Christmas and anthropologists in remote places depend on. It included a saw, so Rio sawed through the plastic, but it still wouldn’t come out, then he sawed another bit, then a third bit – and out it came, fortunately undamaged. We like to think of ourselves as practical men, but anyone filming it would have had an instant mini-comedy for Youtube. Half an hour later, we are ready to start again.
Lesson 3: the more you rely on technology, the more time you spend dealing with the technology.
We put the dvd back in the first player and start the film. About 30 seconds in Rio interjects with a lengthy discussion of some of the cultural/political context. 20 minutes later we restart the film. After two hours we are about 15 minutes into the film, but we have talked about quite a few interesting things along the way. We are happy with the process, but other people and other priorities are starting to come into the picture. Rio has to do something this afternoon, I’m going to Java tomorrow and Douglas is going back to Australia before I return. Maybe Douglas and Rio will watch the rest of the film together. Maybe Douglas and I will talk by Skype.
Lesson 4: Things take on a life of their own, go in directions you don’t anticipate and usually take longer than you think. You just have to go along with it and improvise, but if you can’t, maybe you are in the wrong job.
#6 Making ourselves useful.
Like many anthropologists, I have my doubts about the development industry, because of its long track-record of rushing in with (more or less) good intentions, lots of money, the latest buzzwords and big plans to save people and fix problems, but often ending up not really fixing anything and even making new and sometimes worse problems. The development industry says “Well – its easy for you guys to sit back and criticise from your ivory towers, instead of trying to do anything practical”. Once in a while we listen and sometimes we do try to do something practical, especially in places we’ve got to know well.
I’m now in one of my favourite cities – Jogjakarta, in the middle of Java, where they were building monumental buildings much bigger than the cathedrals of Europe a few hundred years before them. It is now the heartland of Javanese culture, art and education – modern as well as classical. Early one morning, eleven years ago, as people were preparing for their day, there was an earthquake. In less than a minute of shaking it killed over 6000 people, injured thousands more, destroyed 300,000 houses and left a million people homeless.
I was there a few weeks later and I did some impromptu research (also not on my leave application) and wrote a few things that got some points onto my academic scoreboard. But I also tried to make myself useful by doing what seemed to me rather obvious things – going to villages, looking, listening and finding out what people needed – then passing the information to the hundreds of highly-paid international aid workers who never went to any villages, because they were too busy doing more important things like preparing spreadsheets and writing reports, in their air-conditioned offices. I annoyed them, but sometimes they took notice too.
We (my wife was there too) also tried to be even more useful by trying to provide practical help in one village. We bought some basic art materials and organised an afternoon of drawing and fun for the kids. We took the drawings home and did a kind of art exchange with kids in an Auckland school. Then we emailed everyone we know and invited them to contribute to buying very simple things like kitchen utensils, which had all been destroyed. People were generous and it worked. So we did a bit more and they replaced some other equipment that was used for community events. After the community had fairly much rebuilt, we started thinking about longer-term development issues.
We wanted to do a rubbish management project, but nobody wanted to waste money on that when all you need to do is throw it out the back somewhere. Some people wanted to buy more equipment for renting out to other villages. Some people wanted to start a fish-farming project. The women wanted a micro-finance fund for rebuilding very small home businesses like repairing shoes or local reselling of goods bought from the nearest market.
We settled for the micro-finance, and that’s when it began to get more complicated. Its not that it didn’t work – people borrowed money and (mostly) returned it – but microfinance is not like pots and pans. It was never quite clear how the money was handled and where it went, let alone why the head of the village seemed to have a better house than anyone else. We enlisted help from friends here who work in the aid industry and run local development projects of their own. They found it as murky as we did, so we told the village we couldn’t release any more funds until they provided very clear accounts of everything – the first step toward building the aid bureaucracy anthropologists love to criticise – maybe what we needed was spreadsheets and reporting systems?
The village didn’t do the accounts, the project stalled and the money has been sitting there ever since. One of my jobs over the next few days is to try to sort out a way forward.
We like the people of this village, but we sometimes feel as though we’ve picked one of the wildest, craziest ones – and our Javanese friends agree – they have as much trouble as we doing making sense of it all (maybe they need to hire an anthropologist). How did we end up with this village in the first place?
It started with the rickshaw (becak) drivers. They used to hang out in the street where we stayed – at the bottom of town, right on the border between the damaged and not-so-damaged areas. When people heard about the foreigner who was going to villages and might have the power to make things happen for them, they would come looking. Most of the becak drivers were from the worst-damaged areas (disasters always seem to hit the poorest hardest). They all invited me to their village to see the damage for myself, which I usually did. One of them was particularly persistent, but he also had a kind of roguish charm. That’s how we ended up with Sangaran – and with Branto.
Today I asked our advisors what they thought the problem at Sangaran really was. They said it was really to do with Branto and the motorbikes. The last time we saw Branto – about 6 years ago, he had graduated from pedalling becaks to hiring out a motorbikes. But he had grander ambitions and he invited us to invest in his growing motorbike empire, which we politely declined. A year later, he was also selling motorbikes to people – on too-good-to-be-true terms – including to all his neighbours in Sangaran. Another year later we heard that it had all turned bad – he was not repaying whoever he got the bikes from and things had become too hot for him, so he had disappeared to who-knows-where.
Now we’ve just learnt that he ended up in jail for a couple of years. But the real problem for the good citizens of Sangaran was when somebody – either the police, or maybe the enforcers, turned up and re-possessed all the motorbikes people thought they had bought from Branto. Nobody is happy, the village is divided over the issue, Branto knows better than to show his face, and somehow it has all got the way of nice, simple, useful things like microfinance and rubbish systems.
This makes for a good story, but it also resonates with the bigger story of the development industry. Unanticipated things get in the way. Nobody really understands how or why, sometimes not even what. (Maybe we need to hire an anthropologist). Meanwhile, next time I want to criticise the development industry, maybe I should get my own house in order first.