My Island Home
My last article about the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, was all about the beautiful lagoons, reef and off-shore islands. This month, I’d like to share with you something a little bit different: the culture and community of Cocos Malays who call the islands home.
Home Island is most aptly named, for it is home to more than 500 Cocos Malays who have lived for generations on the islands. They trace their ancestry back to the Malays, mainly from the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, who were brought here by the British colonists in the early and mid 19th century to work on the coconut plantations as indentured workers.
Malay culture on Home Island has evolved over generations to form its own traditions, dialect and lifestyle. Central to this is the notion of community — the “kampung” or village life — where intergenerational families live together and where the close-knit community vibe is very palpable. Everyone knows everyone else, and community events are large scale and full of verve and colour.
The Home Island Malays live life that is tied to the surrounding sea. Practically every family has a boat and fishing features large as a recreational pursuit. Fresh fish is a part of every menu at home and in the island’s two restaurants — melt in your mouth pink snapper or coral trout, cooked in coconut cream and suffused with traditional herbs and spices: tamarind, galangal, ginger, tumeric and more.
The Cocos Malays race jukongs — traditional timber sail boats — on special occasions. These boats ride the waves in the lagoon during the Tradewinds and after Ramadan. Originally built to transport coconut between islands, the modern jukong is a racing vessel through and through. If you visit Pak Zainal on home island, you may be able to purchase your very own miniature jukong to showcase back home. Zainal is a wood carver and we will be paying him a visit in 2022 during the tour.
Life on Home Island is a throwback to far simpler times, before mobile and electronic devices, television and digital distractions vie for our attention. You won’t find children sequestering themselves in their rooms with eyes glue to screens or tablets; instead, they’re out on beaches and coves, casting lines into the ocean and bringing home fresh bonefish. They ride bikes around the island (which is small enough that you can walk around it in a handful of hours), hang out at parks or swing off tree ropes to dive into crystal clear lagoons.
In the afternoons, the senior members of the community stretch their legs out on verandahs, enjoying the cool breeze that comes at the end of the day, or chin wag with their friends and neighbours outside their homes. Many homes have vegetable gardens and if there is a bare patch of grass on the island, it’s often converted into a spot for a couple of chicken coops or an outside social area, complete with charcoal burners for grilling mouth-watering satays.
You won’t find cars on Home Island. Locals get around in buggies and bikes. It is quite the sight to see a whole parade of these buggies heading out to the main jetty in the afternoon when the ferry arrives, to pick up husbands, wives, kids who have been on West Island for work or school.
Spend a day on Home Island and faces will begin to get familiar and people will greet you with a smile and a wave. There is something very affecting and welcoming about the close community vibe that makes time spend on Home Island feel very special.
Home Island is part of a series of islands that form the atoll that is Cocos Keeling Islands. Many of these outer islands are small and seem exceedingly cute — presenting as little more than a cluster of coconut palms atop a stretch of sand. A trip out to these islands is an unforgettable experience as you sail (or pedal – if you’re using the new “water bicycle” mode of transport) over coral reef, fish and turtles while you make your way to these islands. Many islands have a small shack or a “pondok” (shelter) on them, as they are used by the Cocos Malays as picnic areas or holiday homes.
While West Island, where most visitors and ex-pats stay, is beautiful and famous for its lagoon and water sports, Home Island gives the discerning visitor an experience of authentic island life. Here are a people with strong ties to the land, to the sea, and to each other. It is their island home and, for the period of your visit, yours too.