While travelling in Indonesia, I have been hosted by local families a few times by now. I have rarely done it intentionally; it is always they who invite me, even insisting that I stay with them. Several times in Sumbawa I rejected those offers because I was so tired after a full-day ride that I couldn’t force myself to do any type of conversation, especially that the type I normally have with locals. In these cases I preferred to build my tent on a beach, which gave me an amazing gratification in the morning – a beautiful view from my ‘window’.
Apart from small talk about Lewandowski (I describe this in a previous post), most conversations start with a philosophical question that is an Indonesian equivalent of quo vadis? (in Indonesian: mau ke mana?). I get this question from everyone, everywhere. And I am tempted to reply: to the happy life, do you know where that is? But eventually I say: ke Flores, ke Jogja, ke Bali, depending on where I am heading for at that moment. When I travel alone, the next question I always get is: sendiri? This is how I learned a new word in Indonesian, which means ‘alone’.
During my stay in the house of a local family in Lombok, I was surrounded by a bunch of little girls asking me: Mau ke mana mister? Dari mana? Siapa nama? And then, among all this bahasa small talk, I heard a shy question in English: ‘Mister, what is your hobi?’, and the girl who said that covered her mouth intimidated and giggling. I answered all those questions before I closed the door to the room which I was offered that night, and after a short while I heard how the little girls were digesting the acquired information: Emilia, dari Polandia, jalan ke Flores, sendiri. Hobi jalan jalan…
That time in Lombok, it was already after dusk and I was looking for a place to sleep. So I stopped in a random village and asked one lady with my broken Indonesian where I could build my tent. Instantly, a group of at least ten people surrounded me, discussing something very vividly. The oldest lady was pulling the hem of my shorts – I realised they were far too short for a traditional Muslim village like this. Then one guy advised that I put on the sarong which I carry on the seat of my bike for better comfort when riding. It may sound funny, but only after I put on that sarong did I feel equal to them, treated like a full-right person. Then someone parked my scooter in a garage and one girl grabbed my arm and walked me to their house.
Another time I was unintentionally hosted by a local family was the result of a peculiar misunderstanding. It was in East Java, where me and my two friends were trying to find the way to the Sendang Biru beach. Google maps were confusing, showing routes that are impassable during the rainy season. So we had been straying for a couple hours when a guy on a motorbike stopped and asked his Indonesian quo vadis? But apart from this small talk we were not able to understand more, so we trusted what he was trying to explain with gestures. And because he showed us a sign of the cross with his fingers, we thought he was intending to lead us to the crossroad where we would find the way to the Sendang Biru beach. We were a little bit surprised when it turned out that he had been leading us to his house. But we entered, had a seat, and he pointed to a cross on the wall. All he had been telling us with his hands was: ‘I am a Christian’.
As you can see, being offered a shelter by Indonesians often came to me as a surprise, but what happened next was also largely unpredictable. For instance, while being hosted in a small village in Lombok, I was first given sweet tea and cake and in a second I got surrounded with a lot of people smiling at me and repeating cantik, which means beautiful. They explained that they like my long nose, which can be described with many epithets, but honestly, none of them has a meaning close to beautiful. Indonesians are also impressed with the hair on my forearms (they don’t have that hair!) which indicates that for me this is the best country to come to get rid of complexes about my body.
So I am in this tiny room full of people, then someone opens the door and I see a crowd standing outside, and it makes me realise that this in not a single family that is hosting me but a whole village, which has come to see me. I turn around and look through a window behind me – and I see what looks like literally all children from the village gazing at me through the glass. I felt like a pope holding an audience.
To enhance communication, they asked the only guy from the village who spoke English to come and talk to me. And he explained to me that everybody was so excited because I was the first white person to stay in this village. Also, he said, that according to their culture, it would be unacceptable to let me sleep in a tent, and that’s why I was immediately directed to one of the houses.
I was told that it was a special moment in life for the family I stayed with, because they were still observing the period of mourning for the father of the lady who was hosting me, and that’s why there were more people around than normal. I also noticed that one of the youngest boys was having an important time in his life, because he had been just circumcised – he was walking without underwear or diaper, with his little wound still healing.
Another surprise comes from the fact that Indonesians will insist to give you shelter even if they have neither the space nor conditions to host you. It was such a poor family that we stayed with that night when we were attempting to find the Sendang Biru beach. The house did not have a real kitchen – just a hearth in a chamber which was also used as a garage. When we asked about a toilet, our host took us to the neighbours’ house, where he walked us through the room where the whole family was gathered, without explaining anything to them or asking for permission. There was a toilet, but for a bathroom we had to go to other neighbours.
In the house itself there was hardly space for three extra people to sleep. The host showed us the bed on which we would sleep. It was the only bed in the house, but right then, our host’s wife was lying there in her pyjamas, clearly ready to sleep. We noticed she must have had a stroke because half her body was paralysed. It didn’t restrain our host from helping her stand out of the bed and walking her to another room to make space for three girls from Poland. Indonesian hospitality has no limits. We felt so awkward. I was close to tears, but didn’t know how to get out of that house in a polite way. We were trying to explain to the guy that we have a tent and we want to sleep there, but he was insistent. Finally we just started building the tent in the neighbours’ little garden without further discussion with our host.
Besides the surprises that being hosted by local families brings, there are other things that you can expect with a high probability (almost a certainty). Which is a little bit comforting in a world where people tend to say that the only things that we can be 100% sure of are death and taxes. Luckily, in Indonesia death seems to be perceived as a transition rather than a definite end of life. And regarding taxes, I doubt that the guy who is selling me a coconut that he has picked himself from the palm tree will pay any money to the government. But when bule are staying with an Indonesian family there are two things that they can be sure of: being constantly observed and being asked to pose for pictures together.
I find it funny and sweet now, but when it’s happening it’s bittersweet for a person used to the luxury of privacy, that once I open my eyes, I already see many people around me, watching how I get out of my sleeping bag, still in my pyjamas, trying to find my toothbrush and the way to the bathroom. Sometimes the hosts even tell us what to do if we look a bit lost. In the Warungdowo village, East Java, the group of people surrounding us in the morning were very direct: Ewa, mandi! – which means roughly: ‘Ewa, to the bathroom!’. But they were so cute doing that. From the facial expressions of the kids I could tell that they were as happy as if they were hosting Santa Clause (if they had heard about him).
I often truly feel like Santa in Indonesia, because many parents like to put their babies on my lap, or let me hold them in my arms for a picture. I wonder why they have always chosen me even when I have been travelling with Gosia and Ewa – Polish girls who look just as exotic as me. But now I think they may see the age difference between me and the girls, and they suspect that I might be lying a little when I confidently say: ‘I am twenty five’.
Posing for pictures together with locals can happen anywhere in Indonesia, but when I am in somebody’s house a photo session takes longer, because staying in somebody’s house means you are surrounded by over 20 people and they will expect pictures in various configurations. In many cases those photos end up being Facebook profile pictures. Some of them may also be aimed to hang in an important place in house. Of this I am not sure, but we met one guy who was a retired official and before taking a photo with us he put on his badges that he had kept in his pocket.
On top of observing guests closely and taking pictures, there is one more thing, a particular characteristic that all people who have hosted me so far have in common. I have never seen as much empathy as I saw in those people’s faces and behaviour . They laughed when we laughed, even though our jokes were in Polish. They looked into my eyes in a way as if they were trying to read from them what I may need but am not able to express with words. And they really made good guesses a few times. When we took out a bunch of bananas from the backpack, in a second we were given a plate on which to place the bananas. Another time, when Ewa went to the bathroom to wash her flip-flops, a lady waited outside the bathroom with a plastic bag which Ewa could use for the wet flip-flops.
Empathy might be losing its importance in Western countries, where people tend to be more individualistic. But in Southeast Asia, where individuals have tight bonds with the community that they belong to, a good understanding of other people’s thoughts and needs is still crucial. And I could see it in the kids’ faces how they were observing adolescents telling their stories – the little ones were trying to grasp every detail of what the older ones were trying to convey; they were even imitating the mimicry while listening. Those skills are impossible to learn through tablets, I am afraid.
I stayed not only with families in Indonesia. So far, I have slept in a Catholic church in Labuan Bajo, Flores; in a Buddhist temple in East Java; in a Post Office and a Police station in Kalimantan, Borneo (about the latter you can read in the local newspaper – Banjarmasin Post).