Saturday, March 26, 2016

Medieval Catholicism on a grand scale

How can I describe my experience in Larantuka?

It was both extremely unpleasant, and really enjoyable, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But it was tough, like I think it's meant to be.

When I first booked my ticket to Bali a year ago, I had the intention to go to Nusa Tenggara, and then, as I read up about it, I realised that I would have the opportunity to be in Larantuka for Easter. In particular for the Good Friday Processions that follow a 500 year old tradition brought here by the Portuguese missionaries, and since extinct almost everywhere else in the catholic world.

I knew that the Procession was a site of pilgrimage, so rather than hope there would be a spare room at a hotel, I'd reached out to the couchsurfing community and found myself a local host to stay with. This way I could experience the procession through full cultural immersion, whatever that meant. It meant pain and suffering….

I had an early breakfast at Sunset Cottages then stood on the side of the road for the Larantuka bus to come by. I didn't have to wait long and soon my bag was on the roof and I was squashed between a talkative lady my age and a quiet, travel sick young moslem girl. At first the bus scooted along the northern coastline, but then it began climbing through the hills. Round and around, I was soon feeling queasy, as were many others, and bags were being handed around for the less stoic.

We stopped in Bora for a meal and toilet break, and then went through a police roadblock where they were checking vehicles for explosives. As the lady next to me explained, people come from all over Indonesia and the world for this event, it's a legitimate terrorist target. Our bus was found to be bomb free, so we were soon on the road again, churning more stomachs on the final run in to Larantuka.

Like most towns and cities in Indonesia, the bus station is inconveniently located a few kilometres away from the centre of town, meaning you have to take alternative transport from the bus station to get anywhere near town. My very helpful lady told me the prices, and suggested I take an ojek as they'd be able to take me directly to where I wanted to go, whereas a bemo would only take me to town and then I'd need another to the hospital, which is nearby where Ritha lives. She even chose which ojek driver to take me, and then began holding court with a bunch of people at the bus station as I was leaving. What a personality! Funnily enough, I even ran into her again at the cathedral at the end of the procession, which given the crowds, was quite a feat!

The lady was right, it was $2 well spent, and I arrived at the hospital as planned, then texted Ritha, who came to meet me and took me to her house down a nearby lane. She lives there with her mother and father, three sisters and a brother, a couple of cousins, her two children, and her sister Ana's one child. Ritha's husband is studying in Kupang, whereas she is studying to be a maths teacher in Larantuka, whilst raising two children. I didn't ask where Ana's husband was. The girls all spoke a small amount of English, but since they discovered I could speak Indonesian, they mostly stuck to that, with the occasional break into English at an impasse. Let's just say I spent a lot of time looking words up and only understanding portions of conversations. But it's great practice and the only way to reach fluency.

The house itself was reasonably large, with three bedrooms and another bed in the breezeway near the bathroom. Ritha's mum is a maths teacher, her father works in the local forestry office. I was given Ritha's bedroom to sleep in and she slept in the breezeway with her kids. I had a shower and lunch, then managed to catch up on my blogging now that I had reliable internet. I am using an Indonesian SIM card and then purchase a mobile internet package. For $11 I get 4GB data, 400 SMS and 60 minutes of call time. I can purchase extra data as I need it, but I found last time that buying a packet with a bit of SMS and phone time ends up good value when you meet new friends who insist on endlessly texting you.

Ritha and son Ascar

Early afternoon we had visitors, family from West Timor here for the procession. They were all fed lunch too, and chatted for a while, before heading off. Then, Ritha's mother and two of the younger girls took me down to the end of their road where there is a small boat harbour. We bought tickets for a boat trip across the narrow strait between Flores and the island of Adonara to the small town of Wureh. They also hold a good Friday procession, but we were there only to light candles and pray to the statues, before boarding boats for the return journey. Some of the ladies were terrified during the crossing. I'm not surprised given the speed and turbidity of the current rushing between the islands, but both crossings were without event.

Back on terra firma we wandered down to the Tuan Meninu Chapel. Here resides Meninu, or son in Portuguese, which I presume refers to Jesus. It is a coffin on a palanquin, I have no idea what is inside. We waited for almost an hour for the chapel to open so we could pay our respects to Tuan Meninu, and then we wandered down to the little park by the sea where his boat awaits him for tomorrow's procession.

Apparently, Tuan Ma (the Virgin Mary) and Tuan Meninu (Jesus) were statues brought here by the original Portuguese missionaries in 1510, and are hidden away the rest of the year in their respective chapels, only coming out at Easter, when they are washed and people come to pay their respects. Because of its geographical isolation and the political power of Portuguese descendents still living in Larantuka, they maintained a ceremony which is unique to Larantuka and not performed in other parts of the Catholic world.

The next morning Ritha and the two cousins came down with me to the foreshore to watch the Processi Laut. There is a serious police and military presence and there are a lot of spectators. We wait in the sun, finding shade where we can, for a couple of hours whilst a pile of boats line up in front of the chapel waiting for Tuan Meninu to be loaded on to his boat and paddled down the sea to the cathedral. It is atrociously hot, and because you aren't allowed to wear hats or sunglasses, I believe I get a little sunburnt. But watching the procession of boats, from tiny canoes to medium sized boats packed with people escorting Tuan Meninu, is worth a little discomfort. It might have been fun to be on a boat, but in reality I think I would have had much more sun exposure out there waiting for the start, and then waiting to disembark at the end.

Back at the house I rested for a few hours, declining Ritha's mother's offer to join her to visit Tuan Ma in the cathedral. I was going to go on the night time procession and was feeling somewhat frizzled after the morning's activity, and figured I'd need my energy till then. How much of an understatement was that? I had no idea what I was in for!!

At six I had a hurried meal and shower, then joined Ana and the two cousins, equipped with candles,  taking a Bemo down town to the cathedral. We arrived just after 7pm.

The place was packed and a service was taking place inside. Ana got us to line up near some side doors, and when they opened we jostled along with the huge crowd which surged into the church and turned down the aisle and out the rear again. I didn't have time to look around, I was holding on to the girls so I wouldn't lose them.

Outside we formed rows of five people in 2 columns, lit our candles, and were spaced into individual segments with procession marshalls providing crowd control. Each segment had its own contingent of priests, nuns or missionaries, who chanted prayers that the rest of the crowd responded to, led hymns that the crowd all knew the words to, and read from a book of bible readings. This kept the crowd on task as we walked 7 km, yes seven kilometres, through the streets of Larantuka past various shrines and chapels before we returned to the cathedral some time after 1am.

I noticed a number of foreigners on the sidelines, and despite the absolute agony of walking seven slow kilometres in thongs, I was glad to be part of the procession rather than just on the sidelines observing. Ana was really good at pointing out all the different chapels, and even the Raja's palace, as we passed by them all. Ana remained stoic, where the girls and I kept sitting down on the sidewalk or road when we had to wait ages for the procession to continue, so she suffered the most. But then she hadn't spent the morning in the sun like the girls and I had!!

At last we were back at the cathedral. We headed in and found a seat in the pews to await the final bit when Tuan Ma and Tuan Meninu are brought back in to the cathedral at the end of their procession through the town. We didn't see them during the procession as we were somewhere towards the front of the procession and the papers the next day said 10,000 people participated. The church slowly filled with people whilst a bunch of young men played some strange percussion instruments, including a drum. It wasn't what I was expecting inside a church and was quite disconcerting. Then the priests came in singing, not words, just melody, it was amazing to listen to. Then came Tuan Meninu, a coffin on a palanquin carried by bearers wearing an outfit that looked like a cross between Santa Claus and the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently this is an ancient costume and the KKK copied them.

Next, some more people piled in, and finally, Tuan Ma. This was my first view of her as I'd not been to see her earlier in the day with Ritha's mum. Suffice to say, she's an old statue of an old lady, but a very revered old lady statue indeed.

After Tuan Ma and Tuan Meninu were placed each side of the front of the church, the priest said a few words welcoming people and mentioning where everyone had come from, then acknowledged our two special guests (Tuan Ma and Meninu silly!!) and then it was all over.

Here's a six minute video I put together to give you a little taste of what it was like. Sorry if the quality is a bit dodgy, and if you think 6 minutes is long, the real thing took six hours!!!

We filed out of the church and made our way to where we could pick up a bemo back to the house. Everyone was exhausted, in fact by the final bit of the procession even the marshalls were staggering. It's an interesting exercise in that by participating, perhaps everyone, in their own way, is experiencing Jesus's walk to his crucifixion. I had a long five hours to think about this and wonder at the sheer weirdness of things pilgrims do in the name of their religion. At least this procession is held at night, and with all the candles burning it's very beautiful to behold.

Back at the house (just after 2am) it was shower and bed. I was out like a light. The next morning I was taking a boat further east and planning to climb a volcano….

That's next...

No comments:

Post a Comment