Cutting the cow

6 Nov

As I sat surrounded by small piles of raw meat freshly carved from the still warm cow carcass, I took a minute to self-evaluate. This was my inner conversation:

“How’s it going? Is this cool with you? You OK sitting right here?”

“I mean, I guess. But now that I think of it, just the thought that I need to assess how I’m feeling about the current situation — and such a strange one at that — is kind of weirding me out. Oh, and the smell is bothering me too.”

“OK, time to move!”

Today was Idul Adha, another Islamic holiday. (Also referred to as Korban ’round these parts.) It was more low-key than the Idul Fitri celebrations were, but it was altogether intense in a completely different way. The occasion centers around the sacrifice of a cow or goat.

I’d been warned by another volunteer the day prior that what I would witness would not be pleasant. But then again, what can you expect when the description of an event is “potong sapi” or cutting the cow. It was just that.

I felt like a child equally intrigued and disgusted…the way you might step on snail and then exam it closely commenting “ewwwww” as you poke it with a stick. It was gross but fascinating. Not having grown up on a farm, I’ve only seen cows happily munching on grass or as pre-packaged hamburger meat (and thus not resembling an animal at all.) This event served to bridge the two images. From one angle the cow looked completely normal (except for the fact that it was lifeless.) From another angle it’s hide was being sliced back to reveal the fatty, bloody meat beneath. As I watched three cows being disassembled in the same place that we have school assemblies and our weekly flag ceremonies,  it gave way to one of those surreal moments that, yup, I’m in the Peace Corps. This is something I would never see at home. Even if I saw a cow being butchered, the chunks of the meat wouldn’t be prepared and  temporarily stored on blue and orange tarps in the middle of a dirt lot. The student council and teachers wouldn’t be chillin’ out preparing steaks like it’s nobody’s business, sitting crossed legged and barefoot near the remains of an animal that’s punched bladder is oozing urine. And the neighborhood kids wouldn’t be running around joyfully laughing and poking it’s hanging head with a stick. They’d be mortified. They’d probably even have nightmares.

This isn’t to say that Indonesians are all but immune to the grim fate of our fair cow, or cows rather.  When I asked my host sister this morning if she would be attending the day’s activities, she told me no. When I asked why, she said “takut sedih.” She was afraid she’d be sad and that she doesn’t like seeing an animal die. One of the neighborhood girls that was playing near the pop-up butcher shop told me she also choose not to be present when they killed the cow, inferring it would be too much…too sad.

So why kill a cow to celebrate? There’s other ways to celebrate like, oh, you know, baking a pie.

Well first of all,  It’s pretty rare for Indonesian families to eat beef or goat meat. It’s more expensive and there’s more meat than can typically be consumed before it goes bad. So it’s usually saved for special occasions and shared. There’s obviously some symbolism going on here, but aside from that this is also an act of charity. The students and teachers at my school (unbeknownst to me until today) had all contributed money to purchase the cows. Then a select few attended today to help prepare the meat and distribute it to families living near the school. This happens every year  at schools, mosques and what I assume are other community centers. It is both a way of giving thanks for a prosperous year, giving back to the community and hopefully earning a little karma.

Though I didn’t actually see the cow get killed, I saw just about everything else. Every part of the cow was used. The meat and organs would become the centerpieces for traditional meals. The bones, skull, etc would be chopped up into smaller pieces and later used to make broth. And the hide, which can be made into giant drums used at the mosques, became payment to the butcher who lent his time and skills. Each hide is worth about $350,000 Rupiah which comes out to around $42 U.S. dollars give or take. So that’s a pretty hefty payment for three hides considering an English textbook costing $20,000 Rupiah is considered expensive for many families.

My new friends I made today. They're silly.

Update: Just wanted to share some photos of Idul Adha (or Eid-al-Adha, as it’s more commonly referred to) being celebrated all around the world from The Boston Globe’s Big Picture Blog.

3 Responses to “Cutting the cow”

  1. Keith Ritchie November 8, 2011 at 3:23 am #

    I have been a vegetarian longer then I have not. I used to eat meat and while spending time on my grandfather’s farm as a kid I saw all the rituals of slaughtering for food from cows and pigs to chickens. At the time it was just what happened I did not know of another way…now I do know and would have to distances myself at least on a spiritual level if put in that situation. Everyone makes decisions based on the time and situation that life offers. You are in a fantastic learning situation on so many levels and your experiences there will make you an entirely different person then you where… enjoy the ride. Your blog is so great to follow…thanks for making time to keep us informed.

    • Nicole November 8, 2011 at 11:17 am #

      Thanks for that Keith and thanks so much for taking the time to follow along. I’m glad I can share a little bit in some way the things I’m going through : ) It’s definitely a whole different world out here


  1. Snapshots from Idul Adha (Hari Qurban) « The Personette - October 27, 2012

    […] is my second year experiencing Idul Adha. I wrote about my first experience in this blog post from last year. I went easy on the graphic photos then. However, this year I find myself not only […]

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