Tales of the Waria

Makassar Is Hot.

Life continues on in Makassar as usual– hot, hot, hot. This is no Bali, to be sure. Despite being a port city (the gateway to Indonesia’s East!), Makassar has no soothing zephyrs or scenic beaches. Only lots of crowded fishing markets and industrial docks. Tourists don’t make their way here often, so I tend to get singled out right away. Little kids at the port follow me around calling me, “Mister, Mister” (the term used for all foreigners).

And yet, despite all the smutz in the air and lack of urban planning, I’ve got to say that Makassar has become one of my favorite places in Indonesia. It’s got more personality than a city like Jakarta, which could easily be mistaken for any other metropolis in Asia with its bad traffic and ginormous shopping malls.  The fresh fish in Makassar can’t be beaten. And the people here are extremely friendly and funny. Unlike the soft-spoken, gentle Balinese and Javanese who can talk circles around you, the people of Makassar just flat out speak their mind, often at loud volumes. Kind of like New Yorkers.

Yes, I ate this flat-headed fish and it tasted very good.

Production is going well. I’ve located two subjects so far. One’s a 12-year-old waria (transvestite) named Fajar who’s every bit a girl, except for the fact that she spits all the time and swears like a sailor. She’s dropped out of school because one too many boys kept giving her bloody noses and now spends most of her time with Aldy, a 14-year-old boy she has a crush on. The other subject is Mami Ria, a handsome older waria who owns a successful salon. She’s a devout Muslim who’s been on the Hajj. She also happens to be married to a police officer– who already has another wife (a woman)! It’s your classic case of polygamy– almost.

12-year-old Fajar
Fajar (left) done up with her friends

There’s been one major oversight in my planning for the film.  I decided to do most of my shooting around Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month. Consequently, lots of warias have skipped town to go visit their home villages. The hundred+ mosques in town broadcast constant calls to prayer over the loudspeaker, making interviewing subjects an interesting challenge. And my crew members can’t eat or drink during the daylight hours, not even when the murderously hot sun starts beating down at 10am.  I have several photos of Tiara, my translator, and Aan, my sound recordist, stretched out at different locations sleeping peacefully. Asking them to start the day at 8am is a stretch, especially since they don’t go to bed until 5am (when people traditionally gather to eat before the sun comes up).

I have to say that I really like being in a predominately Muslim culture though. Watching how people come together over Ramadan, for example, is simply incredible. There’s so much team spirit and camaraderie over fasting, I almost considered doing it myself. Almost.

6am. Idul Fitri. The people of Makassar pour out into the streets to pray and celebrate the end of Ramadan.

The only hitch is that being unfamiliar with Islamic culture, I tend to commit certain social gaffes. The other day, I tried to put a mike on Mami Ria before heading out to the mosque. As I lifted up her shirt to hook on the wireless transmitter, my assistant Aan cried out, “Don’t touch her! She’s already a he!” Because Mami Ria had already washed and put on the religious garb of a man, she was not supposed to have any physical contact with women. Mami Ria gave me a mournful look, but as we didn’t have time for her to wash again, we loaded into the car. It was a mortifying moment.

It’s been an educational trip, to say the least. In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m going through my second round of film school. Makassar has perhaps the most challenging lighting and sound recording situations I’ve ever experienced. Dark rooms, pulsing fluorescent lights, high population density homes and neighborhoods…. I’ve had to learn to just go with the flow. My Indonesian is passable, but I’ve given up trying to decipher the “campuran” (“mix”) of languages people speak in Makassar (Indonesia, Makassar, Bugis), not to mention the specific languages the waria speak (Bahasa Gau, Wandu). And I’ve learned that trying to apply my usual work ethic and demands is just downright impractical. Waiting for subjects who are hours late or for power blackouts to end are just par for the course in Makassar.  Two of the favorite things that Tiara loves to say to me when she sees me start to twitch are “Sabar, Kathy” (“Patience, Kathy”) and “Santai, ya” (“Relax for a bit”). By this point, I just nod gamely and settle down with another bottle of sweet tea.

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