– By Ian Morse, ETA in Gorontalo, Sulawesi –
It’s dark, and dozens of people line the rows of plastic chairs.
Suddenly, a man two rows up flinches. He slaps his neck. He swats his ear. He ruffles his hair then gives a good shudder. The woman next to him doesn’t bother looking up from her phone. Within a moment, the audience becomes still again.
The singer on stage, standing out in a short dress with shoulders uncovered, ends an Indonesian love ballad and begins an Alicia Keys karaoke.
Somebody turns on the light over the food but gets yelled at. It turns off again.
It’s time for food. The lights come back on, and we rush to fill our plates. Our bodies form a wall around the real reason everyone came, yet we squint for fear of what might fly into our eyes.
We’re at a wedding, but there’s more than love in the air.
Last Sunday, I counted five wedding parties on my eight-mile drive home. The main road from the city to the village is straight: lined with shops, houses, and farms. It’s hard to get lost. It’s also hard to miss something out of the ordinary. Weddings are meant to be out of the ordinary.
During a wedding party, road safety rules go out the window. Often, half the wedding tent will block half the road. Ear drums will also suffer. Eight-foot high speakers blasting Indonesian karaoke point just as far into the street as they do into the party. Wedding parties happen all the time. It was only a matter of time before I attended one myself.
Within my first three weeks of being here, I was invited to five weddings. On Tuesday, my plus-one got pulled into something else, so I was without plans. Luckily, (but so far statistically likely) another teacher had a wedding to attend the same night. Ibu Yanti invited me and I joined.
We approached the party at the groom’s house situated behind a mosque. Though abnormally dark, a disco ball shone beams of color over a singer and keyboardist. Lights over the food were dark as we chose seats in the rows facing the stage and porch where the newly weds sat.
Two lights were on: one above the porch, and one in the last row. An unfamiliar guest had occupied that last row: small black masses speckled eight seats across.
I came home the night before to a similar black mass covering my front porch. In the four hours since sunset, my front light had been a lighthouse to what must have been every bug within a hundred-mile radius. There was a swarm above and a blanket below. I had to use the backdoor, and I hid in my room with the lights off until morning.
In the Gorontalese language, these small beetles native to Sulawesi are called “henggeo.” In groups, they emit a foul smell similar to damp, moldy mulch.
I’m told there are so many weddings because it’s the season for it. August 17 was Independence Day, and the Muslim holiday Idul Adha* was shortly after. With all the parties held outside, couples are conscious of the impending rainy season, which starts sometime within the next two months.
But there’s something that’s harder to predict: henggeo mating season.
For a week, it would be beetle mating season. And the only thing we could do was turn off the lights. An outdoor party is asking for it.
It’s a silent war.
A photographer points a flash into your eyes for a video to be made later. You don’t know whether to pretend to ignore the light of a second sun or to swat away the henggeo that now love your face.
The man next to me jumps up. His arm is slung behind his back, reaching at an apparent henggeo that found its way into his shirt.
The bride changes into her second dress. Once gold and red, it’s now blue and pink, and shining just as brilliantly.
Guests form the wall around the food because they know a battle is coming.
Open a tray of food too far and henggeo will claim it as their own. A woman sees one, grabs a chunk of rice, and chucks it across the seats. A henggeo lands in the kua bugis, but a spoon goes in after it, catapulting it away.
Sitting back at our seats, we realize there’s nothing stopping a henggeo from getting into our food. I pick out the beetles in mine, throwing them to the ground. One hits the foot of an innocent bystander, but she understands. She tosses one back.
After food, it’s photoshoot time. People go up in groups. As the foreigner, I was awarded the first spot, i.e. the joy of clearing a path through the almost-carpet of henggeo on the porch.
And yet, despite the cloud of black beetles and odor of mulch, it is the couple’s wedding day. They smile widely shuffling from photo to photo. They laugh when we crunch beetles underneath us. They appear grateful to have their family and friends around them and greet everyone with a happy grin.
After all, beetles want to show just as much love as humans.
*Idul Adha – an Islamic holiday, also known as Eid al-Adha, in Indonesia formally recognized on September 1, 2017. It’s known as the “Sacrifice Feast,” and the second of two Muslim holidays celebrated worldwide each year.