Thursday, June 5, 2008

Muslim Java

My favorite Asian form of transportation to is by local bus. This was our choice to Gillimanuk, the border town to Java and then the local ferry across the Bali Strait to Java. You can choose to do this journey in much "safer", quicker, touristy/expensive ways, but that takes all the fun out of it!

Traveling via public transportation is always a journey in itself. It gives you a real chance to mingle with the locals and experience apart of their everyday life. There are always "street singers" or bus singers as I would call them that hop on and off the bus throughout the day playing a tune and asking for change. At some of the bus stops, local vendors jump on the bus with a variety of snacks and drinks for you to choose from. The treats vary from Quail eggs to candy to full meals, and can be a pretty good way to satisfy your hunger on a long ride.

I was, for some reason, a bit apprehensive about our arrival in Java. Perhaps it is because 90% of the population is Muslim. The other 10%, quite interestingly, is made up of 4 other religions; Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Protestants. I was a bit worried not only about my religious affiliations (not that I am a practicing Catholic anymore) but also my appearance and Nationality upon entering Java.

Once we Disembarked the ferry, we hopped into a Bem0 (privately owned van) to the next bus station where we would continue on from. We crammed our gear (2 surfboards, 2 backpacks, and 2 rather large western bodies) into the van with 2 Muslim Ladies, one young and one old. I felt bad for cramping their space, and could only imagine what must be going through their minds. At first I avoided eye contact with both, but then, my eyes were intrigued with the teenage girl. I was contemplating how different our lives were. Here I was, traveling the world, completely free and independent, and there she was, quite the opposite, forced by her religion to cover all skin and hair on this hot summer day. The only visible parts of her body were her hands and face. Imagine what it would be like to walk a day in her shoes. To wear her neatly pressed school uniform and jilbab (head-dress) day in and day out with my only freedom of expression lying in my choice of footwear. It was then that she caught my transfixed stare. She responded with a sweet, wholesome, immaculate smile. Beauty radiated from her chocolate brown eyes. I wanted so badly to ask her the questions that weighed on my mind, but there it was, once again...the language barrier. Perhaps I could ask her if she spoke any English. Surely she must be learning some in school, but I didn't want to overstep my bounds. I wanted to respect the Muslim cultural "norms" and didn't know if it was okay for me to converse with her. The bus stopped. We were at our destination, and my chance had passed. At least I thought it did...

Upon setting foot on the bus, I recognized a familiar face, it was her! My soon-to-be Muslim teenage friend. She recognized us immediately (hard not to) and revealed that she did, indeed, speak English! In fact, she had her English homework with her and was very excited for us to proof her work; which was almost impeccable. She said that we were the first English-speaking people she had ever met and was anxious to practice her conversational skills with us.

We talked (slowly) for nearly 3 hours. We shared music (she liked it when I played the Beastie Boys), photos of her family and normal clothes, and even email addresses. We traded Bahasa (Indonesian) lessons for English ones. I was honestly sad to see her go. She was off to spend her month-long school holiday with her sick Uncle. I'll never forget this very special interaction. Although we all know that stereotypes are not accurate, it's so easy to slip and be fearful of the unknown. This teenage girl helped me remember that (while we do have to be sensitive of the cultural and religious traditions of others) we are all just human.