A few days ago, I was in a region of North Sumatra that my friend, whose family I had joined for xmas, was proud to say has the highest percentage of Catholics, in the country (Indonesia). The area is admittedly full of churches and Christian schools, as well as many signs of a different, more ubiquitous European colonial/ missionary influence that in Java. Today, however, my friend here in Banda Aceh tells me that this region, just across the mountains from Sumatra Utara and Medan, on the West coast of the Island of Sumatra, is 99% Islamic.
After stepping out of my room for the last time in Depok, only a few days ago, I feel like I have passed through, lived in, several different universes. A few days ago, the trappings of Christmas and the New Year were all around, with a Sumatran twist, of course â€“ but there was hardly any sign of the Islamic Idul Adha holiday on December 31. Here in Aceh, however, I would not have known that Christmas was a few days ago and that today is only the second day of the new year if my cell phone did not display the date. However, itâ€™s even difficult to find a place to eat in Banda Aceh because everything is shut down for Hari Raya Idul Adha, the culmination of the Haji to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Unlike anywhere else in Indonesia, it is just as celebrated as Idul Fitri throughout the rest of the country. The only province in Indonesia to have implemented Islamic law (a compromise with the government that was part of the ending of the 30 year war for independence last year), the field in front of the central mosque was full as people gathered for the Sholat Idul Adha (prayers), and it has been a public holiday for a week already.
On the 31st, thousands of cows and goats were sacrificed, the meat given to the poor (of whom there are plenty).
While I was in Medan, to stay with my friends Rini and Marsen, Marsenâ€™s father unfortunately passed away. Marsen was kind enough to invite me along to his kampong, home village, to participate in part of the funeral ceremonies for his father â€“ I say part, because the family stays gathered in the house for up to a week or longer, singing and weeping throughout the night, the deceased laying on a bed in the middle of the room, eating and talking and sharing stories until the entire family has finally gathered and the whole community has paid a visit.
It is such a fascinating mix of the Batak culture and religion (one of the largest ethnicities of North Sumatra) and Christianity, which has been adopted by most North Sumatrans. Even many churches have adopted designs that reflect the culture pre-Christian.