Musings on Pirates and Toilet Paper

In my attempt to document the major happenings of late, I neglected to capture the microcosms that comprise daily life in Surade. Given my recent trip to Singapore, and the string of holidays in August, it’s also been difficult to fall into a steady routine. There have been a number of recurring questions I’ve received over the last few months regarding daily activities, which deserve response. In particular, what is it like living in the world’s most populous Muslim country? What’s this I hear about you not having toilet paper? Where have all the males gone? Do you really know how to speak the language of pirates? Fortunately, these questions are loosely related and for the most part fall under the large umbrella of Islam (yes, even pirates). Unfortunately, my knowledge of Islam is limited, so bear with me as I attempt to explain things to the best of my understanding.

So yes, life in the world’s largest Muslim country, what’s it like? Well, for starters it begins early. The neighboring mosque has its first call to prayer at 4:45 am at which point I bolt upright in bed (yes, it’s that loud) and either decide to get up or frantically search for my earphones. The remaining four calls to prayer dictate what’s to be done with the rest of the day. As a result of these prayer times, we have class six days a week from 7 am- 1:45 pm (the Friday class schedule is shortened to account for a longer prayer time). I’ve previously lived in other countries where Catholicism and Buddhism are the majority religions, but this is my first experience living in a country where the majority religion so thoroughly pervades daily life. Given that 88% of Indonesians identify themselves as Muslim, and the overall impact of the religion on all activities, Indonesia is in many ways a spiritual economy. Religious practices are often linked to broader projects of economic change. The following quote from a human resources manager by the name of Sukarno helps to elucidate the influence of Islam on daily life, and how Indonesia could be classified as a spiritual economy:
When we were a small developing country in the 1970s we thought that worship [ibadah] meant praying, giving alms [zakat], or going on the hajj. That is not true, in fact, from studying the Qur’an we know that passages dealing with these things are only about 20 percent of the content, the rest of the Qur’an is about human relations. The crucial thing is that in everyday activity—waking up and going to work, doing family errands, and so forth— one’ s intentions [niat] are toward worship. . . . In the hadith there is the story of Muhammad and the stone maker. Muhammad saw two people. One was always at the mosque, engaged in ritual. The other was working so hard, providing for his family, that he didn’t have time for ritual. Yet, it was he who went to heaven while the former did not.images

The first principal of Indonesia’s philosophical foundation is “the belief in the one and only God.” When we first arrived to Indonesia, all Peace Corps volunteers were required to get identification cards. One of the questions asked of us when issuing the cards was “what is your religion?” I guess this struck me as odd, and it seemed irrelevant information to tag onto my height, weight and eye color. I was given the option to choose between six religions that are recognized in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confuscianism. Agnosticism, atheism, and blasphemy are not options because they are considered illegal. For a country whose motto is “unity in diversity” it doesn’t seem fair to require someone to choose a religion without accounting for all beliefs- God or no God. Hence, an interesting paradox has emerged where democracy has been met with an unintended decline in religious freedom. There are a number of reasons why nothing has been altered regarding some of the out-of-date religious practices. Mainly, the majority (including the Government) chooses to be passive and silent about matters, and there’s also a growing radicalization. Despite this over-arching generalization of Islam in Indonesia, I’ve felt nothing but acceptance and support within my own community. During Ramadan, I spent a significant amount of time at the mosque, and each time I was graciously received by countless smiling and excited Muslims. They were happy to expand their community. A woman pulled me aside and with hand gestures explained that tall, short, American, Indonesian — we are all the same. It’s not there yet, but Indonesia is a country that is a model for tolerance and pluralism (albeit with some interesting parameters), but more importantly it is one of only a select few countries where democracy and Islam are attempting to work.

Is it true you really don’t have toilet paper?
Upon entering any Indonesian bathroom, the song “The Final Countdown” usually starts playing in my head. There’s a certain degree of build up required before showering or having a bowel movement over here, a “yea, I can do this.” If there’s one thing to be said favorably about the bathroom situation it’s that it’s efficient. You get in, do your thing, and get out. You don’t want to sit in a squat position for longer than necessary, nor do you want to shock your nervous system with too many buckets of cold water. The bathroom, which for some is a nice place to retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life to read your favorite magazine is not the same kind of sanctuary here. Your old habits immediately change. There are particular rules regarding personal hygiene when going to the toilet, the code known as Qadaa’al-haajah. One code states that eating any food while on the toilet is strictly forbidden (and for good reason- talk about a balancing act!). Another explicit issue mentioned by the Qur’an is one of washing hands especially following going to the toilet. Cleanliness is necessary before any type of worship in Islam. Which is not to say that you can’t use toilet paper, but years and years of conditioned cleaning by water has made toilet paper virtually extinct. For the first month, this took some getting used to, and I certainly didn’t want to be caught somewhere with a case of Allah’s revenge without being equipped with the necessary supplies. Since getting used to the squatty potties and no toilet paper, it’s not so bad. In fact, studies show that squatting is the preferable and healthiest option for defecating. It’s a tough habit to break, but if it frees up more time and trees then I might as well get used to it.

Where have all the males gone?
Since moving to Surade, it’s become increasingly apparent that the ratio of males to females is about one male to every three females. A month before the birth of my baby sister, we were all sitting around discussing the gender of the soon-to-be baby, and there was a unanimous vote hoping she’d be a boy. Why did everyone want a boy I asked? The answer I received is that there’s a shortage of males. I started to take note, and on my teaching staff, in the classroom, and even in town there were indeed a lack of males. In the classroom this could be explained because most males choose to go to SMK (or trade school) rather than my school, SMAN, because there is a greater job placement after SMK for specialized professions such as mechanics, computers, etc. Beyond the classroom, most of the men are absent from the household because they are working in the fields during the day. The fathers in four of the houses surrounding mine harvest rice and gula merah (red sugar) for most of the day. The last trend I picked up on is the number of men who smoke cigarettes, and the ensuing health complications. I’ve noticed this trend to a startling degree- many woman who have 2 and 3 year olds but are already widows. 67% of Indonesian men smoke, and each year smoking-related illnesses kill at least 200,000 people (the number of females who smoke is 5%).

The other half of this argument is the outwardly communal nature of the females. The men assume more of a background position, smoking their cigarettes and drinking coffee with one another or spending time at the mosque. The mosque is more frequented by males, because it’s considered harem for women who are having their periods to enter the mosque. Some females still go out to the fields and work, but most choose to spend their time at home washing, cooking, and taking care of the kids.

Can you really speak the language of pirates?
When I first found out I was moving to Indonesia, I joked with some of my friends that I was finally going to live out my dream of becoming a pirate. In the land of 17,000 islands anyone can become a pirate. One of my proudest moments in country came when watching the TV series, Archie with some of my fellow volunteers. In the particular episode we were watching, pirates hijacked Archie’s ship. When the pirates aboard the ship started speaking, we miraculously understood them. We went back to re-watch the episode just to make sure our ears weren’t failing us, and lo and behold, they were speaking Bahasa Indonesia. This was like discovering the key to a whole different universe.
In August, various articles were published about Indonesia having the world’s most pirate-infested waters. It turns out I was not alone in thinking that Indonesia is the ideal place to be a pirate. A few years ago most of the pirate activity was taking place in Somalia and the Malacca Strait, however, those areas proved to be easy places to catch pirates with their exposed coastline and open waters. Indonesia, on the other hand has thousands of isolated island groups, shallow estuaries, and mangrove forests that are ideal for hiding pirates and their booty. Aboard most of these boats, the modern-day pirates speak Malay, Bahasa Indonesia or a regional dialect. Bahasa Indonesia is a standardized register of Malay, and other than a few words (most of which differ because the colonization of the Dutch in Indonesia) the languages are virtually indistinguishable. It may not be the official language, but considering that Indonesia is the number one region for pirate activity in the world, and Southeast Asia and the Indian sub-continent are the second most trafficked pirate region in the world, Bahasa Indonesia or a dialect of Malay is currently the most widely spoken language of pirates. riskiest-areas-to-ship-where-the-pirates-rule-the-seas
Perhaps even more interesting is the correlation between pirate activity and Islam. It may just happen to be a coincidence that todays most pirate infested waters were the same waters used by Arab traders to spread Islam. The following are the most pirated waters this year: Indonesia (43 attacks), Somalia (31 attacks), Nigeria (22 attacks), the Gulf of Aden (10 attacks; coastlines: Somalia and Yemen), and the Red Sea (7 arracks, coastlines: Saudi Arabia and Egypt). All of the aforementioned countries have an overwhelming Muslim majority, with the exception of Nigeria, whose Muslim population is now slightly smaller than its Catholic population. If you’re caught in a scuffle in waters previously frequented by Arab traders, it would serve you well to speak Arabic in addition to Bahasa Indonesia. Perhaps Indonesia is preparing me for pirate life after all (Arabic is the most common language learned in schools in Indonesia after the local language and BI).

The Ramadan Diaries (Indonesia style)

It’s Ramadan, so much to my delight Surade is a shadow of its usual self. For once, my bike and I have free reign of the pockmarked and scarred tarmac, and can explore for hours without exhaust spewing out at us from buses and motos. Small, white faces painted with talc powder periodically emerge from the rice paddies, and run to the road to greet me, “hellooooo hellooooo mistaaaaaaa.” Inside, their parents lay listlessly, biding time until they can break their fast. The torrential rainstorms of late have turned the roads into a series of muddy ponds, and I return home looking like an abstract expressionist painting, much to my ibu’s dismay. It’s times like these I feel like a kid again, and am happy that here it’s so easy to disengage from the pretenses of professional life. However, in this marathon month of fasting, it’s a fine balance to sustain energy from sun up until sun down.

The word Ramadan, which literally means “scorching heat or dryness” is equally appropriate in Indonesia as it is in parts of the Middle East. We’re currently in musim panas or, the hot season, which is usually no misnomer, but for the last week our seasons have been inverted, and the weather is behaving more like we’re in musim hujan or the rainy season. Muslims in Indonesia are also more fortunate than other Muslims around the world, particularly Muslims in Scandinavian countries, because we live close to the equator where the days and nights are of almost equal length. I may reconsider my bandwagon fasting if I were expected to go twenty hours without eating, like some people closer to the poles. Fortunately, there is a clause in the Koran that exempts certain individuals from fasting, including those on a journey (the Peace Corps may count as an extended journey):
Whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, a number of other days. Allah desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you; and that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that perhaps you may be thankful.
Despite such exemptions, some Muslims choose to carry on with their fasting. My Ibu is currently 8 months pregnant, and still elects to fast. It’s possible to make up for the days where you missed fasting later in the year, but this is difficult since no one else is fasting with you. Since living in a Muslim country, I’ve noticed that ubiquity is the real problem. I rarely think about alcohol or food, because here they are not constantly surrounding me. The purpose of fasting is meant to teach Muslims about self-restraint, discipline and generosity. This is a novel concept, and I personally can bear testament to the fruit of its labors, however I do have to question its practices when it can potentially harm another individual. A recent study conducted by Columbia University found that pregnant woman who fast during Ramadan are likely to have children born premature and with learning disabilities. I try and imagine how I will package this information and deliver it to my Ibu, but know my effort will be in vain. We live in a very remote town lacking any machine where she can see her baby, learning disabilities are rarely recognized and her response will be what it is to almost everything. Inshallah –God willing.
Since I’ve merely scratched the surface of what it means to be a Muslim during Ramadan, I cannot attest to the degree in which Ramadan impacts ones mental and spiritual being. Beyond abstaining from food and drink, Ramadan is a time to improve your relationship with yourself, and also improve your relationship with others. The suhoor (meal just before sunrise) and iftar (meal just after sunset) have quickly become my favorite times of day (along with my morning bike ride). Yes, I like that they involve food, but I also appreciate that they represent a sacred time for everyone to spend with their families and close friends.

My one complaint about my host family in Batu is that we never had a chance to have a family meal. Rather, we ate in shifts throughout the day. It was later explained to me that if you’re living with a family where one or both of the parents are farmers, their eating times are erratic and dictated by the weather and growing season. I encountered the same problem when I moved in with my new family in Surade. My Bapak spends long hours in the rice paddies, and rarely is there a moment for us to sit down and talk. During Ramadan the time carved out of the day for the suhoor and iftar provide ample time to joke with one another and discuss the events of the day. With my Ibu, this time is used for masak-ing (cooking)101 Indonesian style. We grill snakes from the pond, prepare skin of the cow for my bapak, and on occasion make food that is palatable. The other day while she was teaching me to make my favorite dish, karedok (small green eggplant, cucumber, and bean sprouts in a spicy peanut sauce), I had my trusty dictionary close by so I could transcribe the recipe in English. The recipe calls for a lot of MSG, a heaping spoon full of salt, a hefty pinch palm sugar andddddd acid. Yes, acid! That night the karedok did taste unusually delicious. This is why food is the great cultural unifier, despite what may be lost in translation.

Let there be…. Allah?

I was roused from my sweat-drenched dreams at 4:30 AM to the Azzan resonating throughout Surabaya, Indonesia.  Lights began to flicker on around the world’s most densely populated island, and by 5:00 AM the city was buzzing with life.  Colorful mosque domes and spires punctuate the undulating landscape of concrete houses. Surabaya is reminiscent of an older Thailand, modified by its Muslim identity. The rhythm of the day is dictated by the five calls to prayer, with the time in between spent conversing over sugar-laden teh and kopi. Time is an organic concept, and is sometimes referred to as jam karet, or rubber time. If things don’t get done today, there is always tomorrow or the next day. I enjoy observing the men leaving for the fields with their machetes in one hand, a cigarette in their mouth, and looking out on the endless horizon of cropland. This place that I will soon learn to call home has welcomed me with open arms, and the promise of gentle kindness.


Following our first week in Surabaya, all 50 members of ID-7* left for Batu to spend 3 months with a host family. I received a grainy black and white printed photograph of my future family, and spent most of the bus ride trying to imagine the day-to-day routine of their lives. I arrived at their home and instantly felt at ease. Their home is nestled in the fertile mountains just outside Batu, a former retreat for the Dutch during colonial days. The hillsides are decked in guava, papaya, banana, apple, and orange trees, and its households are overflowing with adorable children. My Ibu, or mother is warm, gracious, and accommodating.  Like most Indonesian women, she believes that the amount of rice on a plate is proportionate to one’s happiness. I have eaten rice three times a day since arriving. In more exciting matters, I go to bathroom, do my laundry and shower in the same place. Oh, and they don’t use toilet paper over here or utensils.  You don’t need to be very creative to solve these fundamental problems.

My Pre-Service training has made me increasingly aware of the important function community will play over the next two years. I chose to join the Peace Corps for its language training, length of contract and the opportunities it provides for collaboration. Since touching down in Surabaya, we’ve hardly had a moment to stop and reflect on our in country experiences. The Peace Corps has done a thorough job of integrating us into our respective communities, and has done so by strengthening our involvement at a local, national, and international level. Everyone we’ve met has been very receptive and supportive. I’m exhausted simply by trying to process so much new information. We have 4 hours of language class 5-6 days a week, along with 3-4 hour sessions 4x a week on teaching, safety, health and culture. After that we trudge home for another round of language and lesson planning. There are 6 other volunteers in my local community, and two other clusters of 6 volunteers within 15-30 minutes waking distance. There are 2 other groups of 18 volunteers in nearby villages, and once a week we all meet at Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang. In the last month all 50 of us have rallied around one another despite differing backgrounds, and formed a cohesive group. It’s amazing how quickly we’ve gotten to know one another thanks to a handful of interesting experiences that come with living in a new country.

*ID-7:  The Peace Corps Indonesia program first opened in 1963, but closed down in 1965 due to political unrest. In the 60s, three groups of volunteers served: ID-1, ID-2, ID-3, so when the program was reopened in 2009 the groups were continued chronologically as ID-4 (2010 – 2012), ID-5 (2011 – 2013) ID-6 (2012 – 2014), and my group ID-7 (2013-2015).


Travel writing and top tips


this volunteer life

it's still raining here

from east java, with love

windy backs and sunny faces

Expat living as we see it


My life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Indonesia


The Adventures of Two 60-Year-Old Peace Corps Volunteers in Indonesia


it was the one less traveled by, that's all you need to know.

Beyond a Comfort Zone

The Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Indonesia

Super Baik in Indonesia

A Peace Corps Volunteer Blog

Two Cups of Java

Amy and Will's Peace Corps Adventure in Indonesia

International Toil with Moyle

Explorations in International Development and Global Health

Oh, the Places You'll Gaux

Peace Corps Indonesia... Let's do this