Friday, 28 September 2012

Do it for the lulz.

Thinking is my default mode. For me, thinking is a natural and happy process, although the contents of my thoughts might not be entirely sunshiney happy. (No, they are never suicidal. Just extremely pensive sometimes. And mellow. Ish.)

If I'm not contemplating the meaning of life over a cup of frozen yogurt, or quietly checking if I'm palpitating after a particularly strong coffee, I can be found laying on my bed imagining the perfect life scenarios or reminiscing the past via some old photos. A simple tweet or a pond full of fish can momentarily drown me in a sea of memories, a work of art sends me into a contemplative state, and an online statement riddled with logical fallacies can launch me into writing a short essay in the Facebook comment box.

The upside of this habit is that I excel in the more abstract disciplines like philosophy, theology, and art. I'm also usually one step ahead in all my plans, and my intuition is strong. The downside, is that I often over-think things, and I get serious about stuff that others take lightly. I instinctively want to get to the roots of everything and understand their meanings, and get frustrated when I can't. [Well I'm much more easygoing now than when I was around 16, but hey I'm an INFJ!] Most of the time, though, I take pride in this talent, this gift, bestowed upon me by my Heavenly Father, and I believe that using it to the most of its capacity is my gift for Him.

While that last statement still rings true, some life experiences as an adult have taught me something different. Sometimes my Heavenly Father, the Giver of gifts, wants me to enjoy His other gifts, that is, to simply live and let live, to stop over-thinking things, to just be. Great fruits not only can come out of great contemplation but also of great spontaneity. One of these fruits is childlike joy, a type of happiness and enthusiasm that our Lord once instructed us to have in order to enter His Kingdom. This joy is not to be underestimated: it forces us to see things anew; we are taught to perceive and appreciate their inner values, their true selves. We are to marvel in things not for their functions or roles, but for what they really are. Practical worth diminishes when the object gets old and worn, but the true worth of being does not.

This is why a child, running around laughing cheerfully as if the world is none other than a really amusing playground, is therefore called innocent. Innocence does not seek use, it seeks value. From this innocence we harvest the divine sense of beauty and love, the same sense with which God looks upon His precious children. Love sees all things new.

So the next time you arrange a pot of flowers, try not to think of it as a tool of décor, but rather as a beautiful thing in itself. That's it. The practicality will come along later. Or, when you finally get a break from work and you decide to take a walk in the park, try observing the movement of water as if it was foreign to you before. Try following the drifting clouds as if they were giant fluffy birds. Try doing a few little leaps on dry fallen leaves just to feel their crunchiness.

Let's not look for hidden meanings all the time. Just do it for the lulz.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The best is yet to come

Do not worry if God takes away something that is precious to you. Sure, you might think it is unfair, and that it is impossible to find something better because that thing you had was already the best for you.

I know. I've been there. I have lamented to Him during the darkest of nights with one single cry: "Why, God, why?!"

But, let me assure you, you will find yourself happily wrong. That there can be something better, something more suitable to your present state. You didn't know that, did you? But God knew. God has known all along. Because He created your heart and He saw it first, with a vision unlike any other.

The question is: will you be brave enough to reach out to that special gift God has for you?

The Sign of the Cross

In a group of strangers, when we spot someone making the Sign of the Cross, we immediately recognise them as Catholic. If you're like me, you will become mildly excited, and you can't wait for the prayer-in-process to be over so that you can approach and say hi to that fellow Cath, and maybe strike up a good conversation, starting with what church they go to. Indeed, of all the Christian prayers, the Sign of the Cross is the shortest, loudest, and most distinctly Catholic; it is an immediate outward announcement of those sealed in Him.

Let me tell you the reasons why this Sign has a special appeal to me:

1. It's Biblical.
Like the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary, the Sign of the Cross is very biblical. Check out Matthew 28:19. So the next time someone challenges you to prove your "Biblical-Christian"-ness by reciting some verses from the Bible, just pray these prayers and grin like a boss.

2. It's powerful.
The Sign of the Cross is a sacramental. All the official prayers of the Church, including the Holy Mass and the sacraments, begin with an address to the Holy Trinity: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Demon expulsion begins by tracing the Sign over everybody present including the possessed. Numerous miracles are performed upon making the signum crucis; for example, St. Benedict avoided death by poisoned wine, St. Francis of Assisi tamed a hungry wolf, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux cured the sick. Above all, we are baptised, absolved of our sins, and anointed in the name of the Blessed Trinity.

For me personally, this Sign is a source of rapid consolation. A bit like an intravenous drug, but better, faster, and longer-acting. There are days when I am just fed up with everything around me. I order a meal and sit down grumpily. When the meal comes, I make the Sign out of habit, and there it is: the rush of divine comfort my soul longs for. Why should I worry then?

And if that's not enough, do you know that a partial indulgence is granted when you do this weird Catholic gesture thingy?

3. It's short.
How often have we tried to excuse ourselves for not having time to pray? I know, because I'm guilty of it too. But the Sign of the Cross is, in itself, a prayer, a very short one, about 2 to 4 seconds to complete. Think about it: even without "real" prayer, if you cross yourself every time you wake up in the morning, before and after every meal, before and after study or work, and before you go to bed at night, you will have prayed at least 10 times during the day! [Of course, I'm not recommending not praying at least once a day. My point is, this Sign alone will remind you that you are always in the presence of Him who is Good, Truth, and Beauty. Which brings us to the next point:]

4. It pronounces the most profound Christian mystery.
The Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the heart, the most basic foundation, of a Christian belief. Those who claim they are Christian but do not profess a faith in the Triune God, are not Christian. This is the more reason why we have to make the Sign with the utmost reverence and gravity. You know, not like you are brutally chasing away flies. When done correctly, this pious sign serves as a mini-catechesis to yourself and others who see it. You will have preached even before preaching, and you will have made a deep impression upon your hearers without having said a single word.

5. It's a victory over the flesh
One of the big bosses Church Fathers, Tertullian (ca. 226 AD), wrote: "The flesh is signed so that the soul too may be fortified." A lot of us might be skeptical about this "sign on the flesh", because, hey, it's just the flesh isn't it? It's the heart that counts! Well, then, why do patriots refuse to salute another country's flag? It's just a physical salutation, right? A patriotic American should freely salute a Spaghetti Republic's banner while remaining loyal to the United States at his heart, correct?

Well don't say that last statement out loud lest George Washington smite you. It's high time that we acknowledge the close relationship between our physical gestures and the state of our hearts. The latter influences the first, yes, but the first also forms the latter. Sometimes we do certain things out of mere obedience to the established ritual, but that is good enough for a start, because your heart will follow before you know it.

It is the same with the Sign of the Cross. We are physical beings, we make signs using the flesh and on the flesh. But that very moment when you trace yourself is when you decide to crucify the desires of the flesh and to live by the Spirit. And since the way of the Spirit is not popular with the world:

6. It takes real courage.
Where Catholics are minority, crossing oneself takes courage and a certain level of sacrifice. You don't have to scream "I'm Catholic!", the Sign does it all. You don't want to wield a sword among your kins, the Sign does it for you. Of course, it's not without consequences. I've been asked about my faith by some people who find my gesture either very interesting or very loathsome. Some Protestants, naturally, see it as an opportunity to bring yet another poor Roman Papist back to the Christian faith (ah delicious irony!). Making the Sign in public silently yet boldly declares oneself as an unabashed disciple of Christ, and that one is [hopefully] not afraid to bear the cross on his back, just like the cross on his chest.

Friday, 7 September 2012

The name's Belitung

[Or Belitong, if you're a local. Or Billiton, if you're a stuborn English speaker.]

FINALLY, I successfully travelled to this curious little island last week. Curious, because it's a paradise that has been hidden for a long time right under our nose.

A little about Belitung:
It's an island off the northeastern coast of Sumatra that used to belong to the South Sumatra (now, together with a neighbouring island, Bangka, they form the Province of Bangka-Belitung). Before I went there, I had vaguely remembered Belitung as a rich tin and kaolin-mining island, thanks to geography class. But other than that, there was nothing very special about Belitung.

Then out Andrea Hirata's book, Laskar Pelangi ("The Rainbow Troops"). Mr Hirata, despite his Japanese-sounding name, is a native of Belitung. His book tells the story of a group of local kids, how they struggle with poverty on a land that is so rich, and how they work hard to achieve their dreams. The book highlights the impact that Soeharto's New Order regime had on the island; all the monopoly and exploitation imposed upon its mines. But it is the movie adaptation that, because it was shot on the real island, becomes a reference about its physical beauty. Shortly after, Belitung rose as a new holiday destination, partly because people are beginning to get sick of Bali (no offense. Maybe it's just me).

The book that started it all.

Getting there
There's no international airport on the island, so either you board a plane from Jakarta or a ship from Bangka. The first route is definitely easiest and shortest. There are two airlines serving direct flight to and back from Belitung: Sriwijaya Air and Batavia Air. Sriwijaya has more schedules than Batavia, and I personally trust it more than the latter. You will land on HAS Hanandjoeddin Airport in Tanjung Pandan, the capital of Belitung. Check for schedules here (Sriwijaya) and here (Batavia).

The second route is usually taken by backpackers who would like to explore Belitung, Bangka, and South Sumatra in one go. I can't give you a first-hand explanation on this, but here's a translation from a trusted travel website
Alternatively, you may board passenger ships PELNI or KM TRISTAR. However, they only travel to Belitung every 2 weeks. Travel by these ships takes approximately 24 hours, and costs less than IDR 150,000. You can also take the speedboat KM Bahari Express; it takes only 4 hours and costs approximately IDR 170,000. KM Bahari Express travels every day at 2 PM from Pangkalpinang (Bangka) to Tanjung Pandan (Belitung), and back again at 7 AM.

Bangka-Belitung tourism map. Click for higher resolution.

Staying there
Top three hotels are Lor In, Billiton, and Grand Hatika, but there are numerous other family-operated inns. We chose to stay in Grand Hatika because it's a 4-star hotel so le parents considered it safer for first-time travellers. The other two have good reputations too however. Billiton is also unique because it is a colonial building, but dear mother expressed her dislike due to the presence of a small but active Buddhist shrine (she does not hate Buddhism or anything Buddhist, just a little uncomfortable with Buddhist altars and prayer stuff). Check out Trip Advisor for more information.

Getting around
There's not yet public transport service on the island, but there are plenty of car and motorbike rents. If you stay in Grand Hatika, you can rent the hotel's car for a designated amount of time per day. Belitung is a small island. From its capital, Tanjung Pandan, to any corners of the island, it only takes approximately 2-3 hours by car.

If you're like me, I suggest you use a travel agent because they will plan not only your itinerary but also a car and a local guide that also functions as a photographer. Also it'll save a lot of time and energy, rather than wasting an entire day searching for alien places. is very reliable, and the folks are fun, full of initiatives, and attentive to details (and yes, they have English-speaking guides).

Shield of the Province of Bangka-Belitung

Shield of Kabupaten (Regency) of Belitung

What I think
Before I went, I had browsed through pictures taken by three of my friends who had been there. ALL of them intrigued me. White sand, unspoiled turquoise waters, big big boulders. The latter is especially attractive because they are not found anywhere else in the country (and maybe in the world?). And STARFISH. You can find live, wild starfish on some of the islets that surround Belitung. Isn't that just great! I prayed and prayed that what I would get what I had seen. I prayed for the weather, especially, since my visit was near the end of August, which means the rainy season would begin very soon. (And talking about weather, I suggest going between May to August, with the best time around June-July)

The first thing I noticed about the island was the quietness. It isn't in any way desolate, just quiet. There are vehicles, but not enough to cause a traffic jam or pollution. What the people of Belitung call "city center" is only a large roundabout with a meteor statue at the center (there was a meteor that hit the island a long time ago). On the first day, we tried Belitung noodle. This noodle is a local adaptation of original Chinese noodle (many locals are of Chinese descent), but it has a lighter, sweeter taste. The portion is small, so while I only needed one, you may need more.

Then the beaches. My friends were right; those photos you see on Google Images? They were not Photoshopped. Belitung's beaches are truly, truly charming, and the gigantic granite rocks make everything even more SURREAL. One advantage of a local guide is that he can help you climb these rocks and show you spots only they know.

Due to the rocks, the sea water is very calm, perfect for swimming, splashing around, and snorkeling. The highlight of every trip to Belitung is island-hopping; using a fishing boat, you visit 4 to 5 surrounding islets. I went to Pulau Pasir ("Sand Island", literally a pile of sand in the middle of the ocean), Pulau Batu Berlayar (even more gigantic rocks!), Pulau Burung ("Bird Island"; not really an island but a fascinating rock formation shaped like a bird's head), Pulau Lengkuas (there's an 18-storey lighthouse here from which you can get amazing views of the ocean), Pulau Babi Kecil ("Small Pig Island"; was used for keeping pigs), and I think there was one more but I forgot the name. I especially love Pulau Pasir because this is where you can find the most starfish and sand dollars, and you can swim around this "island" because the water is quite shallow.

Well since a single picture tells a thousand words, I can make an entire essay with these:


Other fun facts about Belitung:

  • Locals speak with Malay accent.
  • Though the predominant religion is Islam, the Buddhist Chinese population enjoys a strong presence.
  • People are VERY nice and helpful. Authentic Asian hospitality.
  • It's surprisingly safe! I saw people left their cars or motorbikes with the keys still attached!
  • Cost of living is surprisingly high. Not high high, but high for a small island. A local explained to me that since people don't grow crops there, they are purchased all the way from Java.
  • Other than the beaches, kaolin lakes are also a treat! These are lakes formed from abandoned kaolin mining sites. They are multi-coloured; some are pink, some are blue, others are pale green. They're really quite beautiful. My mum, being a dermatologist, thought they looked like chancroids from above.
  • Since Laskar Pelangi, the nickname of this island is now "Negeri Laskar Pelangi" (Land of the Rainbow Troops).
  • No specialist doctors! Specialists are "imported" from Bangka or South Sumatra, and they visit Belitung only once every few weeks. True story.
  • If you wanna do specific photography, like maybe pre-wed shots with a lot of starfish, you can pay fishermen to help gather these starfish. Starfish are so abundant here they're almost considered pests, if it wasn't for travellers and divers who happen to be very fond of them.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

What do you want for your birthday?

Classic question. What do you want for your birthday?

Simple, and yet it never ceases to puzzle me. What do I want for my birthday?

I always have this kind of problem. There are things that I need, there are things that I want, and then there are other things that I deeply desire. In a normal situation ("normal" defined as non-birthday), I could easily list them one by one. But when someone actually asks me, I usually fall speechless.

Saya mencoba untuk menjawab kenapa koq susah sekali bagi saya untuk merespon pertanyaan yang satu itu. Apakah karena ada terlalu banyak hal yang saya inginkan? Mungkin. Apakah karena keinginan-keinginan saya terlalu absurd? Ya beberapa memang agak konyol sih. I'm a professional troll after all.

Tapi sejujurnya bukan itu. Saya susah menjawab karena saya tahu apa yang saya inginkan itu bisa berubah dengan cepat. Sekarang maunya begini, nanti maunya begitu. Kalau saya memberi jawaban A, bisa-bisa nanti saya malah kepingin B. Saya takut menyesal, takut mengecewakan orang yang sudah capek-capek memberikan apa yang saya minta. Bagi saya, lebih baik mereka memberi tanpa saya harus meminta secara spesifik.

Lagipula, saya juga bingung karena semakin saya mengutarakan suatu permintaan, semakin saya menyadari bahwa permintaan itu worthless, egois, dan sesungguhnya tidak terlalu perlu. Memang, beberapa hal di dunia ini boleh dinikmati just because. Dan toh saya juga punya guilty pleasure. Tetapi kalau harus meminta dari orang lain (sebagai hadiah ulang tahun, lagi!), rasanya koq sia-sia.

Because I know that I cannot trust even myself with this stuff, I turn to God for suggestions. What does God want for me? What should I ask from Him? Tentunya saya ingin jawaban saya menyenangkan hati Tuhan, seperti Raja Salomo yang menyenangkan hati-Nya dengan meminta kebijaksanaan alih-alih kekayaan atau kekuasaan. Saya selalu berusaha menyelaraskan keinginan terdalam saya dengan kehendak Tuhan. Masalahnya, yang namanya keinginan terdalam, hasrat jiwa, bahasanya pun bahasa jiwa. Tidak mudah untuk diutarakan. Semakin sederhana konsepnya, maka semakin sulit kata-katanya. "Saya ingin cinta". "Saya ingin kedamaian". "Saya ingin hidup yang baik". Orang mana yang tidak akan bingung atau kesal bila dimintai hal seabstrak itu?

Kedua, sebuah fakta yang pasti: tiap-tiap hari merupakan proses pendewasaan. Perubahan. Perkembangan. Saya hari ini berbeda dengan saya yang kemarin. Tidak semua hal yang saya inginkan hari ini survive sampai besok. Dan yang bisa survive hanyalah hal-hal yang abstrak itu tadi. They are never-ending desires. Never enough, never sated. Benda-benda di dunia, bagaimanapun indahnya, dahsyatnya, dan bagaimanapun senangnya kita saat menerimanya, itu hanyalah icip-icip dari hasrat jiwa yang sejatinya, yaitu yang kekal dan yang benar.

Maka dari itu, janganlah heran kalau saya tampak bingung ketika ditanyai, seolah saya tidak tahu apa yang saya mau. Saya tahu, koq. Tetapi tidak ada yang bisa mengerti atau memenuhinya dengan tepat selain Tuhan. Saya pikir akan lebih baik kalau memohon langsung pada Tuhan saja. Bukannya saya tidak senang diberi hadiah atau kue lho! Tetapi kalau memang berniat menghadiahi saya, silahkan pilih sendiri, tidak perlu bertanya, karena apapun yang diberikan kepada saya akan saya hargai betul-betul. Mencari tahu apa persisnya yang saya idamkan adalah percuma saja.

"I wonder if I've been changed in the night?
Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning?
I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.
But if I'm not the same, the next question is,
Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!"
-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland-