Thursday, 13 March 2014

A place away: Cottages in the jungle

Nek Sofia and his pondok

Notions of place and time play a large, if largely unacknowledged, role in culture. In this blog, I consider notions surrounding the beach shacks of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.


Pondok viewed from lagoon.
When we stop and squint up at the clouds, peer at an insect, or reflect on a grain of sand we might wonder. Are we really dust hurtling through an expanding universe after a Big Bang? Are we caught in an endless cycle of rebirth and destruction? But for the most part, dividing up the days and the world into categories is not something we typically spend much time worrying over or reflecting on. Just as surely as the world was propped on a turtle or Atlas, we take our notions of time and place for granted.

Children's' drawing of a pondok. Taken from the book Cocos Kids What do You See?
For Cocos Malays some aspects of the world are divided into pairs. The mainland (a.k.a. “Australia”, “tanah besar”) and Cocos Islands (Pulu Kokos) is one pair. Then there is dalam (lit. “inside” referring to the lagoon) and luar (lit. “outside” referring to surrounding sea). Home Island is predominantly Cocos Malay, while West Island (Pulu Panjang) is predominantly white people (dorang putih). Another important distinction is rumah (house) and pondok (beach shack).

The school teachers at Nek Sofia pondok.
Here's what they caught.
Nek Sofia has contributed a lot to the Home Island community over the years. He was a teacher, then in charge of the Post Office here, and also a Shire President. His wife, Nek Sofia, teaches Year Ones at the Home Island school campus (“Naming and Binding” for what “Pak” and “Nek” mean). He is also the father-in-law of Pak Sofia (see “A Young Muslim Leader” for more on Pak Sofia). He and his wife have been most generous and welcoming. They invited all the school teachers to their pondok a couple of weeks ago.


Joey and Nek Sofia arriving at the pondok.
On Wednesday (12/03/14), he kindly invited me to visit his pondok. Pondok / beach shacks are located on the islands south of Home Island. You access them with your boat, but if the tide is low enough, you can walk to them. The shacks are built near the shore of these islands. Older local people recall visiting pondok on the weekend. This is also confirmed in some written historical accounts. Currently, it seems that Sunday is the preferred day to spend at the pondok. However, some are falling into disrepair, indicating that the custom may be in decline. Nek Sofia visits twice/week to keep his chickens fed.

Nek Sofia feeding scraps to the chickens .

Poo, Pens, and Plots

When we arrived, we were greeted by some pretty happy chickens. Nek Sofia raises them so they can be eaten at the end of fasting month Hari Raya (the Glorious Day). Raising of chickens at the pondok seems to be something of a tradition. It might be related to concerns about chicken poo polluting the ground water if you raise chickens around the catchment area on Home Island. This is reflected in a message in The Atoll (Thurs 6th Mar-Wed 19th Mar, 2014), the community newsletter. I asked about eggs. Nek Sofia explained that they are hard to find seeing as the chickens are free to roam around the jungle.

After the scraps were finished, Nek Sofia chopped some coconuts open.
The chickens pecked away at the meat.
Cooking place
Inside the pondok. They take great care of their pondok.

Nek Sofia used his net to catch some little mullets.
You can use these for bait, but his wife loves to fry and eat them.
 What does “pondok” mean in Malay? From my Indonesian experiences, I’m used to “pondok” meaning something like “cottage”. In the phrase “pondok pesantren (lit. ‘cottage of Islamic pupils’) it refers to an Islamic boarding school. While many boarding schools are indeed urban, in a Javanese context, the word “pondok” in this phrase has (like the English “cottage”) connotations of a rural secluded place. Monika also thinks of pondok pancing, a place where you go fishing. In the various usages we considered, what seems to be common is the sense that a pondok is “a place away”.
Joey stood guard over the bounty.
This connotation also seem to apply among Cocos Malays on Home Island. For Australians on the mainland, “a place away” might be something like a Bali holiday or indeed, a holiday on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. But if you live on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, it seems the place away is the pondok. However, there may also be a culturally specific significance to pondok.
I got the feeling Nek Sofia didn't want to leave. 


The distinction between house and pondok might be related to Southeast Asian notions of centre and periphery. When the sea trade between China and India began to flourish, about two thousand years ago, traders brought Indian ideas about power to many ports in Southeast Asia. At least since that time, the idea has been that power is concentrated in the centre and dispersed at the periphery. (This contrasts the ‘modern/rational’ idea that, for example, Australia’s jurisdiction runs, undiminished to its territorial borders.) However, the periphery was also a place where people could attain power, by fasting, meditating etc in the wild and untamed areas. The monk-like people who inhabited these areas could, in some ways, legitimately challenge the power of the raja (king) in the centre. At least, that’s how I remember it—I haven’t got my books with me here!

But Joey was tired and wanted to go home.
From what I can tell, the house-beach shack distinction is not about power. But I think elements of the centre-periphery idea apply. Possibly, it is not that the pondok is just peripheral to Home Island’s centre, but also that it is untamed to Home Island’s domesticity. Anyway, even if I’m right about this, I’m sure there’s more to it. I hope to understand it more deeply. 
Take her home Skipper and First Mate

Thanks so much to Nek Sofia (husband and wife) for being so generous and helpful to me and my family.

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