"Have you seen that show Naked and Afraid? It's like that. Except not naked. So just afraid." This is how Laura described the East Javanese countryside to me, in an attempt to discourage me from joining her on a trip there to visit family. This did not dissuade me at all. While I am in Indonesia I want to travel as far and as widely as possible, to see how people actually live - in dense urban sprawls, in isolated rural villages, in the outer islands far removed from the centers of power. It would be next to impossible for me to organize a trip to the countryside on my own. Even though I could book the transportation and accommodation, it would be impossible as a complete stranger to just show up in a village and expect to get anything but gawking stares.
So when Laura said she was headed to the desa to see her family, I forced her to take me along. "You won't like it," she assured me. "There is no toilet." But my mind was already made up, so the next day I found myself on a mini-bus making the 6 hour drive to Bojonegoro near the border between East and Central Java. Bojonegoro was as far as the mini-bus went. From there, a guy named Mr. Toyo (who it turned out had a secret talent for opening beer bottles with his teeth) picked us up in a rented car and drove another hour deeper into the country along back roads that, at times, ceased to really be roads at all.
We arrived in the village after dark and Laura's aunt and uncle and cousins came out to greet us. They were excited to see us - Laura had not been back for some time - and warmly extended me the utmost hospitality and kindness despite the fact we couldn't understand each other. I have never found that to be a barrier to real human contact anyway. Her ten year old cousin and some other kids came over and took selfies with me. One girl was too shy and the other kids taunted her: "If you don't do it now, you will regret it!"
The house was modest - two or three large, sparse rooms with cement floors (you can tell if a country house is really rustic or not by whether it still has a dirt floor). The cows were kept out back, and the chickens in front. Fields of corn rolled away behind the property into the distance. At night the air was pregnant with the smell of woodsmoke as many people still cook over wood stoves. An old man wrapped in a sarong came over and gave me a massage on the concrete floor. His fingers were old and strong and the massage was amazing. "He is quite famous around here" Laura assured me before giving him $10 for massaging four people. I joked with him that he should come back to Yogya with us and we smoked cigarettes while squatting in the dirt because everyone chain smokes and squats here.
Laura's aunt, Ibu Tumi, cooked dinner of godong sambi, a Javanese curry, and country chicken. "It's organic chicken," Laura said, by which she meant her aunt had just killed it in the kitchen a few hours ago. These country chickens are all legs and tough as leather and they serve them up whole in a bowl with their freakishly long legs and crooked feet sticking up in the air. Tumi also made perkedel - corn fritters - with fresh corn from the field. I unwrapped a banana leaf to find this delicious little cake made of coconut paste and glutinous black rice. I unwrapped another banana leaf and ate a fermented ball of rice that turned out to be an insipid nightmare masquerading as food. Ibu Tumi mistook my look of horror for something else, because she enthusiastically offered me more and Laura had to save me. It would not be the last time Laura saved me.
Laura and I slept in a guest room of sorts. The mosquito netting had actually done the reverse of what it was intended to do, by trapping all the bugs inside, and Laura had to chase a spider out of the bed while I laughed in the corner. Outside the hum of bugs and country life filled the air. At midnight a rooster with a broken internal clock started croaking. I fell asleep right away and in the morning Ibu Tumi informed me that I had snored loudly during the night. To illustrate this point, she started to make snoring noises. "I know what snoring sounds like" I said and winked while trying to comb my hair in the reflection from my phone's screen. I should point out that this woman has lived her entire life in the country surrounded by animals and the sounds of the Earth. I'm glad that I cannot hear myself while I sleep.
The morning stretched on and I asked Laura: "Where is the toilet?" She pointed to the backyard. This would end up being, without a doubt, my favorite part of this trip. We went out back, past the cow pen, and she showed me the toilet: a hole in the ground and a pair of bricks to squat on. If you have never used a squat toilet (and if you are in the US, you almost certainly haven't) white people are simply not made to use them because we don't squat the way Asians do. I for one can't use a squat toilet without taking my pants all the way off. So after a moment of soul-searching, I took my pants off and did what I had to while the cows watched me with judgement in their eyes. That was the moment when Laura remembered she hadn't brought any toilet paper and ran inside. I suddenly found myself standing naked and alone in a field in East Java covering myself with a pair of basketball shorts while shouting "Laura where are you?"
Afterward, I took a shower by sluicing cold water from an old metal drum over my body. Showering in the open air with cold water drawn from a water tank like this is actually extremely refreshing. Later we went to a traditional market and everyone gawked at me while I smiled at old Javanese ladies using ancient fingers to press cassava flour into cakes and pound chilies and peanuts into pecel sauce. We spent our days and evenings driving around the countryside eating fresh fruits, fish smothered in sambal, and skewers with chunks of squid and chicken intestines grilled over charcoal. At night I rode a motorbike to a little cemetery to visit Laura's grandfather's grave. Nobody wanted to go with us because of ghosts, but we wound our way down a dark bumpy lane and found it anyway. The ghosts kept their peace.
Sunsets in the country are beautiful, drizzling light on the fields through a haze of woodsmoke. At night I stood in the backyard alone, listening to the insects rend the air. The sky was clear and smeared with stars and everything felt very far away. I was humbled by how kind these people were to me, inviting me into their homes and sharing meals with me. This was something I could not have experienced on my own, because an intimate connection with local people is impossible to conjure out of thin air. I have always wanted to do something like this, but have been skeptical of the kind of tour groups that take foreigners to villages in Northern Thailand for instance. It just smacks of contrivance and exploitation. So I am thankful that Laura brought me here to spend time with her family. I am still struck by how kind and friendly all the people were to the stranger in their midst.
Laura turned out to be wrong about one thing, though. While my visit to the kampung never caused to be afraid - except maybe when that bee flew into the shower with me - I did spend a lot of time being naked.