Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Graduate

Doing research in Bali can be hard. Although I am constantly happily surprised by the openness and willingness of people here, the day to day logistics can sometimes feel very overwhelming. Explaining to people what a fellowship is, or why I’m studying names are pretty challenging tasks in and of themselves, even with a little Indonesian under my belt now. (I must also admit that explaining to people in English what a Watson Fellowship is and why I’m studying names can also be pretty challenging).

But Bali is a place that runs without plans. Take, for example, last week. Although most of the population in Bali practices Hinduism, most other Indonesian citizens practice Islam. Because of this, government offices, schools and some businesses are closed on Eid ul-Fitir (the end of Ramadan). Last Monday was the scheduled end date for Ramadan but on that afternoon, the Indonesian government declared that actually, based on an astronomer's recommendation in the Ministry of Religion, the holiday should be postponed for an additional day. In a controversial move, they changed the "official" start of the Islamic New Year from Tuesday to Wednesday. As a result, in the entire country, people got not one, but two days off from jobs and school.

I’ve talked before of the value of this spontaneity. I recognize that the spontaneity that makes it hard to schedule interviews is the same spontaneity that made it possible for Made to be surrounded by eighty friends and family members mere hours after his father died. But because people don’t really plan in advance, it also means that figuring out when I’m “working on my project” is really difficult to do. I get stood up a lot. This is made more frustrating by the fact that I am mostly getting stood up at places I have paid to get to on a motorbike or have walked for a while to reach.

And for the most part, I’ve learned ways around this. I’ve learned to start conversations with waiters and drivers and families around me. I’ve learned to attend ceremonies on a way of meeting people and to say yes to things, even when I’m not entirely sure what I’m saying yes to.

But what makes this difficulty feel even bigger to me is that at the root of it all, I’m not entirely sure what “working on my project” entails. One of the best things and worst things about the Watson fellowship is that they only expect to hear from us through brief quarterly reports and a ten-minute presentation in August 2012. Besides that, what I do with my research and how I define it is entirely up to me. Sometimes I really love this freedom and sometimes I really miss some kind of academic affirmation. After all, this is the first fall in seventeen years I’m not getting ready for my first day of school of some kind.

Because I’m setting my own schedule, and deciding on my own how a person can possibly research something as subjective and unusual as names, I often feel like I’m not doing enough. Especially when I end up with a day of cancelled plans. There are days like yesterday, when my plans to meet up with some men working on a ship to talk to them about their children’s names are cancelled—and then I make alternate plans but then I get a text from a friend to meet her husband in his shop to talk to him about a possible opportunity to speak with an elder who organizes three month (baby naming) ceremonies for their village—and then I walk to the other side of Ubud to meet her husband only to find that he has left for the day—and then on my way back, I get a call from another friend from the other side of the Monkey Forest—and then I decide to get on a motorbike and go to a store where an employee works with an interesting name I wanted to talk to her about and when I get there, the shop is closed at 4pm on a Monday afternoon.

Today, I did have a set schedule, but it didn’t involve my project. Today was the day I had to go back to Denpasar to pick up my visa. According to a friend’s report, today government officials would tell me if my visa extension was approved or not, and then I’d have to go back to the office the next day in order to actually pick up my passport. I decided I’d spend the night in Sanur (right next to Denpasar) to save myself two trips back and forth to Denpasar two days in a row. I packed my backpack last night, told my homestay family I’d be back in two days, looked up a hostel to stay at in Sanur and got in Wayan’s car.

We were driving back from the visa office (it was approved) and on a whim, I pulled out my Lonely Planet book and noticed on a map that Tanah Lot was right near Sanur. I hadn’t heard much about Tanah Lot before, despite the fact that it’s a major tourist attraction, but I decided we should go. Tanah Lot’s a shrine on a rock formation on the southwest part of the island that’s said to be the work of a 15th century priest. Plans for Sanur were abandoned and once at Tanah Lot, we stayed for a while. Then I noticed Changgu and Echo Beach were right nearby and I hadn’t seen those yet either.

After a day of adventuring, we realized it would take the same amount of time to get back to Ubud that it would to get back to Denpasar. I decided to go back to my homestay in Ubud and save myself the cost of a hostel in Sanur.

So here I am. Sunburned, sweaty and satisfied at an Ubud restaurant /bar(with internet) and listening to an Balinese cover band sing Jack Johnson and Lifehouse. My homestay family laughed when I showed up back at their door and began to unload my backpack again.

It’s just that, right about now, to quote every Swarthmore student/former student’s favorite movie, I guess I’m just a little worried about my future. I’m realizing my days left in Indonesia are numbered and I haven’t really begun making concrete plans for India (or, while we’re on the worry train, Morocco, Germany, Zambia, Ireland or Iceland). Sometimes it is scary to look ahead and realize I have no idea where I’ll be sleeping in three weeks. Or three months. Or six months. Or nine months. And I will be in places where I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.

And then I will try to remind myself that this morning I thought I would be sleeping in Sanur. And look how that turned out. And twenty-four hours ago, I hadn’t even heard of Tanah Lot, and look how that turned out:

And, as the saying goes, the only constant of this year will be change.

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