The man who owns my boarding house doesn’t have a guard dog. He doesn’t really have a boarding house either. It’s a single-story cluster of rooms, laid out in a shape something between an L and a V, but is an instantly recognisable job in many Indonesian cities. Living at one end of the L/V the Bapak kost (boarding house dad) watches over his rooms, largely rented to students, and takes care of his geese. Oh, yes, he has guard geese. And they’re so effective I’m up at 2 a.m. listening to their door-creaking quack.
It was a strange way to experience culture shock, but I can’t help being amused by the novelty of guard geese. Well, it’s funny until a chicken somewhere trips over or sees the light and decides it’s morning already. His mistake pricks the ears of hundreds of other local chickens, and an epidemic of an acutely avian strain of FOMO breaks out across the night.
Many things aren’t really where they should be. The encouraging affirmation “Don’t quit” is superimposed on a billboard of a man puffing on the latest Surya Pro Mild. A fuss is made over which helmet I should take, and my assigned buddy then offers to hold it as we ride the motorbike to the shop. I couldn’t find a towel at the local convenience store, which I suppose makes sense. But when we do skilfully find a shop selling towels close to midnight, I can only get one with “Harley Davidson” written on it, in red or blue. I chose blue.
Anyway, the chickens have succeeded in waking me up now. They do take their work seriously, if somewhat misguidedly, so I can’t be fully angry. Not when my underslept and overstimulated body is still held together by the undeserved pleasure of Indonesian hospitality. When I arrived at midnight yesterday, I would’ve settled for a mat in a poultry farm. Instead I was given more instant friendship than my awkward, proper English heart could handle.
Without knowing me, let allowing my license, I am gifted a motorbike. Two members of staff need no stern words to make sure I have everything I need plus extra snacks, and they fight with such dignity over who will take my bags so I can ride solo through the crisp, night air. I probably should’ve savoured that ride, for later one of them will tell me: “There’s no need for you to ride the bike you know, just call if you need anything and I’ll pick you up, OK?” My jetlagged, sweaty heart again swells with enough gratitude that I don’t care about the irony until maybe never.
I think Indonesia has uncovered the secret to enforcing tolerance. It’s done through overpowering someone with kindness. It is unspeakably rude to refuse food or drink, and as a selective vegetarian I find myself in a peculiar conundrum when specially delivered a three-tiered tiffin tin for breakfast from a smiling face. Accept the kindness and side-line certain principles for collective harmony, or reject and stand by certain principles for personal achievement. I accept the fried rice with duck, though I did say I’m a selective vegetarian.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world. With a population of 261 million, 87.2% of whom identify as Muslim, it also qualifies as the world’s third largest democracy. I should’ve written these things at the beginning, since this is what I’m here to write about, but I’m trying to start this like many of the conversations I’ve enjoyed here. One of my favourite phrases in Indonesian is nanti dulu. It roughly translates as ‘later first’, and is sort of used to stress the utmost importance of putting something off.
I am here though to teach English at a boarding school, known as a pondok pesantren. I’m also here to learn about Islam in Indonesia, and my boarding school is one of many Islamic boarding schools patronised by the Muslim organisation Nadhlatul Ulama (NU). With over 93 million members in Indonesia, it is the largest Muslim organisation in the world, and is often praised for its liberal, tolerant and counter-extremist stance. The organisation was born in 1926 as a reaction to the rise of Wahabbism, and reflects a traditional, syncretic and distinctly Indonesian Islam.
It strikes me as somewhat scandalous that an entire religion could be characterised by some of its smallest and most controversial forms in my country. I remember one day at church in my hometown of Stamford, in Lincolnshire, an adorable old lady decided to pounce on me as probably the youngest person around for decades. “You lived in Indonesia?” she inquired, “but, isn’t that a Muslim country?” When I told her of certain experiences, like how Allah is the word for God in many Indonesian churches, or how I was quite savagely adopted by more than one family, she was shocked.
“Indonesia is a country with a moderate majority,” says Huda, one of the members of staff who took me, and my helmet earlier, under his wing. The NU played a large role in both the overthrow of colonial rule in 1945, and the more recent fall of Suharto and subsequent return to democracy. Traditionally populated with highly educated liberal members, it patronises 6830 pondok pesantren in Indonesia, and at first seems to be everything the Daily Mail thinks it shouldn’t be.
Before I get a chance to ask Huda about all of this, he’s moved onto the speaking about how certain individuals could sink ships and pull planes out of the sky using spiritual power during the revolution. Anything with a mystical element seems to be juicy gossip in Indonesia. The discussion of magic is discouraged by different forms of religion in the country, Huda tells me, yet with the NU – who promote the tolerant ‘Archipelago Islam’ brand – many things seem to treat the place like home. Even guard geese. And, for one month, perhaps I will too.