Monkeying Around in Gresik

-By: Liz Wallace, ETA in Gresik-

From moment to moment in my new life in Gresik, I can never predict what is coming my way next. The spontaneity of events to which I am graciously invited keeps life fun and exciting. It seems there is never a dull moment in Indonesia. At the same time, I have had to learn to rein in my Type A personality and embrace the fact that my schedule may be determined five minutes before when I get a frantic “What’s App” message to invite me on a new adventure.

Last night was the perfect example. I had finished up my school day and a wonderful Pilate’s class at the women’s gym in my neighborhood. Every Tuesday night I get to hang out with thirty Indonesian women and do the same Pilate’s workouts I used to do in my PE classes at Stanford. It turns out it is a universal feeling to hate planking! Having kept my phone in my gym bag, I found a series of texts from my counterpart, Bu Riya, asking me if I could attend a wedding with her that evening. As I walked the half a mile home, I texted her that I was disappointed to have missed the opportunity but that I was walking home from the gym and still needed to shower. On my way I walked past our neighborhood mosque that was having an annual festival with Muslims from across the world coming to pay their respects on the anniversary of the death of a Muslim disciple. There were juice stands, women selling fried bananas, and all sorts of artisans marketing their beautifully inlaid religious hats. Like I said, never a dull moment.

As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried about missing the wedding. As I walked into the home I share with my host parents and a few girls from school, Bu Riya’s husband was waiting for me to whisk me off to the wedding! I had enough time to shed my sweaty workout clothes, put on something clean, and wash my face before hopping on the back of his motorcycle (sorry, mom and dad!). We sped through the dark streets and arrived in Bu Riya’s neighborhood just in time for fireworks to start shooting into the sky right in front of me. A group of men began to bang drums made from cowhide. Children shrieked with glee and adults congregated in the middle of the street. The wedding procession had begun.

Out of nowhere, a group of men dressed in monkey costumes reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying sentinels came clambering into the center of the crowd, screeching and calling. It was a scene that could have come out of a low-budget Planet of the Apes sequel. Behind them came tigers, ghoulish-looking men in masks, and more ominous musicians.


Fortunately, I had Bu Riya, my constant cultural translator, to explain the festivities of which I had suddenly become a participant. She explained that this was a traditional Javanese custom before a wedding. The monkeys and “stinky ghosts,” the official name according to Bu Riya, were meant to represent the temptations a bride faces before her marriage day. They haunt the neighborhood tempting whatever beautiful women they can find. Since I stick out like a sore thumb as the one “bule” or white foreigner in the neighborhood, the monkey of course focused his attention on me. Bu Riya shrieked as he approached us and began gyrating his hips in a wild dance. I was treated to a full minute of this outlandish performance. It was truly something I had never expected to experience in my rather conservative town of Gresik.


Finally, the monkey and stinky ghosts were banished from the neighborhood with the arrival of the groom and his accompanying band of religious officials, including the local imam. Religious songs were played and the good spirits beat out the bad. It was truly a fascinating blend of traditional Javanese culture with Islamic wedding customs. This fusion of Islam and Javanese tradition that predates Islam on the island of Java is something I am eager to learn more about in my year here.


Our evening ended with a march to the wedding ceremony itself. The bride was dressed up in an elaborate Javanese costume and stood before a wall of flowers and intricate designs. Bu Riya and I were careful to stand in the back and not cause too much of a scene. It turns out we were actually wedding crashers!

It is evenings like this that make me pause and think about how incredible my experience here in Indonesia has been and will continue to be. It is hard to imagine crashing someone’s wedding in America while still sweaty from Pilate’s class. It is even harder to imagine fantastical creatures celebrating the wedding with you. These vibrant, chaotic moments are the memories I already cherish the most from day to day here. So, as I head into my next nine months here in Gresik: bring on the wedding crashing! Bring on the frenzied changes of plans! Bring on the dancing monkeys!

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