Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My first day in Muekek

Little did you know the title of this post actually rhymes. The name of the sub-district is pronounced like muh-keh or meh-kay, the k at the end is silent with a glottal stop before it, according to my learning indonesian podcast. Anyhow! I just got back from about 9 days in the field. Here's a little bit about my first day in a rural village where we stayed for 5 days. Less deep thought and more "what do you actually do?"

After about a 45 minute drive from Tapak Tuan, we arrived in Meuke, stopping at an intersection in the road to ask which way to go, to find the house where we would stay. Although the town appeared small, the roads were paved and there were power lines visible.

We entered a very large home of the friend of one of our researchers, who is also the elected government representative for this district. Despite the fact that he is in Medan for work currently, his wife received us warmly, offering coffee and a drink made from raspberry syrup. Trying the coffee, it was incredibly sweet, if it had been cold and had had dairy in it, it could have been coffee ice cream. The researchers explained to me that not only to Acenese prefer things to be very sweet, but also if a hostess serves a drink that is not very sweet people will think she is stingy, because offering very sweet drinks is equated with being generous and also with showing that you have the money to give lots of sugar.

We then settled into our rooms, I am sharing a room and a bed downstairs with the other female researcher.  Our room is windowless and contains a bed, a small vanity and a large armoire, full of clothes and other things. The lady of the house moved a fan into our room to help cool us during the coming night (for the parts when the electricity was on).

We then decided to go for a walk around the community to try to get to know people. As we walked around we were greeted by many people of all ages, with a few children wandering along behind us. I saw coffee, nutmeg, and beetlenut laid out on cloths to dry in the sun. The other female researcher and I were soon invited into the home a woman we were chatting with. She invited us into her formal living room where she served us something that tasted like Tang with extra sugar. We chatted and found out she was a teacher as well as a bit of a leader for the women in the community. She offered to help us organize a gathering of women so we could discuss some of our research with them and conduct a focus group.

Our new friend then walked us the Gacheik’s (village leader) house, where we greeted him and let him know about our plans for the 4 days we will be here. He agreed to help us organize a gathering of men so we could also conduct a focus group with them, and ask for their help finding informants for interviews.

The family we are staying with is providing us three meals a day, as is customary here, so we returned for lunch and were served two kinds of fish (as the village is close to the ocean), green beans, shrimp chips, and white rice. That afternoon I watched as the researchers conducted the focus group with women from the village, asking them to brainstorm ideas about children who do not live with their biological parents, but instead with some other family, often relatives. The group was made up of women of various ages, most of whom were eager to participate in the conversation and also seemed used to participating in group activites.

Once we had finished the focus group I had plans to go for a run, but was happy to walk along with the other female researcher, and our friend who was a teacher to see a bit more of the community. We walked past rice paddies that were in bloom, which left the scent of flowers along the road. This village is very near large mountains, where coffee is grown, but where (I’ve been assured) there are no tigers. As we walked many people greeted us, curious about what we were doing and where we were going. Children shouted “Bule!” or foreigner as we passed. We reached the edge of the village, marked by a small bridge, and while my two companions turned around and started back, as it was 6:30 pm and the sun was setting, I picked up my pace to a jog. I continued on through the next village, greeting people and smiling or waving as they tried to speak to be in Indonesian or Acehnese. I turned around and made my way back, passing my former walking partners, and continuing on. At one point a man and woman on a motorcycle who spoke a bit of English drove along beside me asking where I was from, if I spoke Indonesian, where I was from, and where I was staying. I arrived back at the house where I was staying, and quickly bought two bottles of water from the small stand in front of the house next door, as it was still at least in the 80s, despite it being dusk.

As I was stretching and the other female researcher returned, the village leader arrived at the house, looking for either of the male/Acehnese researchers, who were currently out dropping our driver off at his house. We called them, and the village leader informed them that the police would need copies of our identification and permission letter from the organization and university sponsoring us, however, this was only necessary because I was with them. Later we all met up at the village leader’s house, where we made photocopies and met with a member of the police, who are obliged to report the arrival of a foreigner within 24 hours of his/her arrival.

As we went back to the house where we were staying, I commented to the female researcher that I was glad I’d chosen to put on a scarf and wrapped it around myself like a shawl or pashmina before going, considering that both the police and the village leader were there. I also mentioned again that if I was ever wearing something where she thought I should be covered more, she should tell me. “Well actually,” she said slowly “As you were running, someone told me to tell my friend to cover her head. I didn’t know what to make of it, but the woman we were with said it was very rude to have said it.” I explained that I was happy to cover my head if it would be more polite or respectful. Our walking companion had suggested we ask the wife of the house where we were staying. When we returned from the village chief’s house, the wife and several women appeared to be balancing the finances for something, and we politely interrupted, to see what they thought about them covering my head. The female researcher translated the response as “It’s better. If you want to.” But I realize that the mean of that sentence changes, depending on where the pause is placed: “It’s better if you want to.” Regardless, I decided that I should follow their suggestion.

At breakfast the next morning, the two male researchers approved of my head covering, although it does not look Indonesian. They said I looked like I was from Turkey.
One then said “From now on I will introduce you as Turkish; this will get you more respect, I think.”

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