Indonesia is a country I would love to go back to at least once a year. However, I don’t even think a lifetime of travel there would be enough to cover the majority of the nearly 19,000 islands and spend time with at least some of its 255 million people. Whether it’s soaking up the sun in Bali, the orangutan communities in Borneo, the local tribesman in Papua, or some of the best diving you’ll ever experience, I strongly recommend you experience Indonesia at least once in your life.
On a recent trip to the Togean Islands, I got to meet a Bajau fisherman named Zazu. He has spent his whole life living on these hidden islands right in the middle of Sulawesi.
One of the main reasons we decided to ditch the beaches of Bali and make our way up to the island of Sulawesi was because of a single breathtaking episode from the BBC series Human Planet. They showcased the life of the Bajau fishermen, and after seeing it, I knew I had to meet those people.
In order to get to the community they’re living in, we left Makassar, Sulawesi, and traveled nearly 36 hours by train, bus, minivan, and by boat to the Togean Islands. This archipelago is consisting of 56 islands and islets in the Gulf of Tomini, off the coast of Central Sulawesi to be precise, which is in the middle of bloody nowhere. There are 37 tiny villages on the islands, a couple of dive resorts and lots and lots of palm trees. One of the many ethnic indigenous groups are the Bajau sea gypsies. And yes, whatever your mind comes up with when you hear the word sea gypsy, stick to it.
These fellas number some 1500 people and adopt a rather secretive and nomadic existence entirely at sea, living in small wooden shacks built on stilts on top of the coral reefs. Judging by the absence of decent infrastructure means home-to-home transportation mainly takes place in self-made dugout canoes. And consequently, these local fishermen are especially noted for their exceptional free diving skills, having impressive physical adaptations that enable them to see better and dive longer underwater than anyone you know. I wanted to meet those warriors!
After throwing our bags on one of the motorized boats delivering mainland groceries to the villages at sea, the skipper told us he would drop us at one of his close friends’ house. An hour later we met Zazu, a 41-year old father of two, living in a wooden 14 square meter hut accommodating his wife, their 1-year old child, his 11-year old daughter and his 74-year old mother. And far, far away from the rest of the world, without having running water, electricity, or any form of modern communication what so ever, I found people living purely from the sun and the sea. After a lunch that gave seafood a whole new meaning to me, Zazu invited us to stay for a while, which we did. Even though I had no clue how to communicate with any of them, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the questions I wanted to ask them.
The next morning, before the sun even showed up, I got pulled out of bed by Zazu. Fishing time. In the blink of an eye, I saw him jumping right of the leash. The rest of the morning I witnessed in awe what a human body can be capable of. Spearfishing the way nature intended. Handmade wooden goggles, breath holding skills for up to 5 minutes, and military precision catching – all 40 ft deep on the bottom of the ocean. He told me he usually submerges for more than 5 hours a day and, despite partly losing his hearing, Zazu and many of the other divers intentionally ruptured their eardrums at an early age in order to be able to dive to greater depths. Wow. The only thing I could think off while floating on the turquoise waters waiting for him to show up again was how scared I was one week ago when my scuba instructor intentionally pulled away my regulator at the bottom of a pool. Then in the corner of my eye he showed up, screaming my name and proudly showing the catch of the day. Lunch was about to be served.
“You know my friend, I love life at sea, feeling everything, the heat, the cold, the water, the salt, just to be able to swim, row, dive or fish at any time, it makes me so happy. I’ve spent my entire life in the water and going ashore makes me feel ill. Many people call it land sick, I rather call it sea love.”
During the many days we stayed with Zazu and his family, we got daily company from every single soul living in that community. I guess they somehow realized the next time two foreigners would show up was probably when their fishing adventures would be computerized.
Surprisingly one of the local fisherman from down the river was able to speak English, making conversations a lot easier. The reason why was even more surprising, though. Apparently many local Indonesian fisherman travel all the way from South Sulawesi to the northern coast of Australia to collect and process trepang. It’s a sea cucumber and valuable culinary and medical delicacy for the Chinese market. A return trip, mostly in traditional wooden boats, is life threatening, can take up to 4 months, and is considered illegal. When I was asking him why he would take that risk, his answer simply was: “Many of my friends have been caught, they burn down the boats and lock you up for life, but Chinese prices are too seducing my son, too seducing.”
All right. Interesting. Lunch continued. And so did the stories. That same day we met a young boy called Ahmad. An energetic and intelligent young boy born and raised in a tiny village on Pulau Kadidiri right in the middle of the Archipelago. In this part of the Togeans, unfortunately like in many others, education is struggling. Follow-on rates to secondary high school appeared only 2-3%, primary school dropout levels are high and teaching materials are poor to non-existent. Even teachers, not necessarily untalented, are usually unmotivated, partly due to poor salaries. On top of that, Ahmad’s parents turned out to believe that schooling tends to create false expectations, and that knowledge is something that can’t be taken to heaven. Therefore, many poor people who have had some experience in primary education often question its relevance to their lives. As a result, they withdraw their children from state education during the harvest season or major fishing months. Even though it will be very hard, I still sincerely hope this young man will be strong enough to somehow resist the pressure of his parents and live up to his full potential at some point in his life. And as the sun slowly set, Zazu invited me for one last swim of the day. “Just to wash off the day” he said.
And for days, the only things I did were fishing, eating, fishing, and talking. And thinking. Thinking about the differences between growing up in a big city and in an environment like Zazu’s. About the differences between growing up in the Western world versus their world. Zazu’s world. Although back home so many people insist on making life so complicated, the way these people live is such a simple and unassuming way. Life without any yearning for possessions, success, luxury, or publicity has such an obvious effect on body and mind. It was a great honor to be able to experience how this little family showed a new side of happiness, to me.