The Currency of Bracelets

– By Ian Morse, ETA in Gorontalo –

I entered Indonesia in July with four bracelets that were close to me. Each one had a story and a meaning – free speech, labor migration, pacifism (2). I kept only one rule since I received my first in high school; never buy a bracelet for myself. Otherwise the story that hitches a ride on your wrist every day is about spending money.

If my wrist was meant to be a mirror of myself, it has been shattered and rebuilt several times since arriving in Gorontalo. It would show that I am a completely different person, with goals and stories that had no connection to my life before becoming an ETA. The reality is much brighter. Indonesia has been ranked by Ian’s handy travel guide as the #1 location to populate and repopulate your wrist. But just like currency, bracelets come and go. So it’s a country of quick wrist turnover as well.

The first time somebody stared at my wrist and requested one of my bracelets, my feigned ignorance was quickly seen through. I had to explain that my bracelets were special to me, so they weren’t really to be given out. And I had just met this person. How can somebody ask that when they don’t know me? What story would the bracelet have for them? The requester seemed surprised.

The second time, I let it flow a bit more. I could tell the request was a joke, but I followed through as far as he would go. I hastily decided which one was my least important one and told him I would trade him for one. I let out a little ‘phew’ when he said he was just kidding.

These sudden requests became more common as I started talking to more new people. I began to realize there was something about the four (well three after one got too much salt water) bands on my wrist that they saw and I didn’t.

Then friends started giving me some. On my birthday, a friend turned to me, pointed to one on his wrist (he had many), and asked, “Do you want it?” The bracelet’s story for him was a gift from a friend who often works in Papua for causes he believes in. If ever a band like that were to grace my wrist, I thought, someone would have to twist my arm in all sorts of directions for me to give it away. My friend only twisted his arm to wrestle it off for me. How can a bracelet with such meaning leave someone so quickly?

The same day, I went to my adopted family’s house (I just spend a lot of time there) and was greeted with a bracelet from Mecca. The grandma of the family had made the pilgrimage to the holy Islamic site the year before. And as my wrist got heavier, I got happier. Now the Indonesian parts of me could have their places on my wrist.

One of the nieces of the family (my adopted cousin?) later asked for one of my bracelets. We had gotten to know each other pretty well over the previous few months, so I knew I could be giving away a story and receiving one in return. But just a week after, a friend I had met only two times before pointed to my wrist and spoke the dreaded question. I confronted him head-on. I had confidence in the man’s character, but he requested my oldest, the one in support of free speech. But it was only material. How did it feel to voluntarily give away meaning to your life? I handed it to him but made sure to explain the meaning. The day after, I saw him and checked that it was still safe. He excitedly told me he was keeping it safe at home.

My wrist was only one lost bracelet away from a full Indonesian makeover.

My sister visited the next month and my adopted grandma came out with the same style of necklace for her. She must have had a stockpile in the backroom. People only really go to Mecca once, so it makes sense that she would have bought the equivalent of a souvenir shop for future gift-giving occasions.

Yet I saw a similar stockpile after a friend made a short trip to Java. He brought out a bag and friends dug in for new cheap jewelry. As my right hand chose one and fitted it to my left, I realized what I had gotten wrong. But I needed to make sure.

When I befriended a new community in a new town, a bracelet materialized. It was a simple band – string, wooden beads, a tightening knot. But as soon as I slid it on, it didn’t matter how cheap the band was, or that the giver had attached no story to it. In the instant it changed hands it exploded with meaning; of my travels to him, of the nights drinking coffee with his friends, of the hospitality in accompanying me to far away places.

I didn’t want to accept without giving, so I gave him my last pre-Indonesia bracelet.

And just like that, my wrist, my bracelets and those parts of my identity were detached. The stories and meanings are still with me, but they are not always visible on my wrist. But what does remain on my wrist is not me, it’s the people I meet. It’s the hospitality, the pursuit of a personal connection, the conversations that hold greater meaning because they stretch from one person to another. And if you eventually give away what someone gave you, you’re only broadening the network of humans. Regardless how a bracelet’s story starts, as soon as it changes hands (wrists) for whatever reason, it begins an important story about people. After all, if I wanted to mark my inalienable identity for eternity, I could just get a tattoo.

But there are some I still can’t bring myself to give away. So I decided to try the Indonesian tactic; buy your bodyweight in bracelets to give away after a trip and save for later.

I carefully selected 25 different bracelets recently while away traveling. My plan was to bring them to the teacher’s room at school and let people choose, just as my friend had done it with his friends. The plan was the same, down to the color of the unwrapped plastic bag. The night before, I told my neighbor, also a teacher, that I would be bringing them in the next day. He was less than excited, because, in his words, bracelets are only for young kids. No mind, I was already prepared to convince all the teachers that they had to adopt my fashion choices.

I walked in the room the next day – Assalamualaikum – and opened the bag. I blinked and they were gone. I had to persuade nobody to arm their wrists with bracelets. Teachers I hadn’t seen in weeks came out seemingly from under their desks and the offices upstairs to dig their hands in. Sure, they were taking stories with them, but just as important was whether the colors really suited the outfit or whether the design really was the bearer’s style. Some took two, at least one person took four. Many left the table with still naked wrists and others just walked in just a tad too late. I got shit for it for the rest of the day.

So I still have a bit to learn, but that just means I have to get more during the ETA’s midyear conference in Jakarta.

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