As travelers, we often venture far beyond our origin communities to learn about the world and ourselves. The traveler sees themselves as the protagonist of their journey. I’ve learned, though, that centering others’ experiences can teach you the most.
Last November, I had the privilege of visiting Sampela, a village of roughly 1,000. Through my role as a Where There Be Dragons course instructor, we were hosted for two weeks by thirteen homestay families towards the end of our three months of travel in Indonesia. This community defies odds.
It is a village built not on land but suspended over the ocean. Take a wrong step and you are literally falling through warped boardwalk fragments into the sea. Located close to Kaledupa, the second island of the WaKaToBi chain, Sampela can only be described as remote, detached, in limbo — unlike any other place I’ve been in my 45+ countries of travel.
The Bajau people of Sampela are seafarers. For centuries, they sailed the ocean full-time, living on their boats and stopping on land merely to trade with fellow Bajau, gather, and refuel before setting sail again. They traversed territory that today makes up parts of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. They’ve sailed as far as modern-day Northern Australia and Southern Myanmar.
To this day, many Bajau still feel most comfortable on the ocean, some opting to give birth on small canoe-like vessels so their children’s first breaths are in sync with the sea. Outsiders with Western frameworks may call the Bajau perpetual migrants, wanderers, nomads. The Bajau describe themselves more simply: to be Bajau is to be at home at sea, connected to the water and all it holds. Tree trunks and coral mounds support their homes, while a deceptively intricate system of boardwalks — not all of which are exactly nailed down — haphazardly connects them.
Sampela is one of many villages that the Indonesian government has recently forced to be anchored to land, both literally and with respect to how it conducts business. Industrialized fishing and subsequent sea patrolling are occurring like never before. Family fishermen are harassed by national park rangers, thrown into jail for catching fish they’ve been catching for centuries because the “endangered species” list was drastically expanded by the government — with no warning.
Despite being moored, life in Sampela still revolves around the sea. Many residents don’t have watches and even those who do don’t always have working timepieces. Instead, time is told through the tides. High tide has many meanings: fishing time, market time, school time, bath time. Fathers row their canoes through the canals of Sampela and into the open sea. They spear fish, net fish, line fish, free dive so expertly that people filmmakers have come from all over the world to document it. Meanwhile, mothers paddle to the nearby island to sell the catches of the day and barter for necessities. Older students gather in boats and motor across the channel to school on Kaledupa, the closest island; younger students eagerly await their teachers’ arrival from the land.
Low tide? Repair time, rest time. Add some coral to secure your front stoop, reinforce a stilt under the house over there. Resharpen and restring the spear gun. Grab the laundry that unfortunately fell into the canal earlier that day. Burn the trash, and the fungus out of the canoe while you’re at it.
Lay down on the porch, the only shady spot, hoping the sea breeze will be significant today. Bounce the baby in the sarong swing. Cut some fruit, a delicacy bought from the land people, and share it with the neighbor kids whose bellies are swollen with hunger. Watch the children play jump rope games with their strings of rubber bands; their teacher won’t be able to arrive today since the tide is too low.
Life in Sampela is difficult; there is no sugarcoating it. Everything is dependent on fishing. If the catch is good, you can feed the family for the day or the week, selling the extra in the market. Bad catch? No market today. Hushed conversations about if the kids can continue attending school because of the fees. No savings fund, no contingency plan.
Mind you, many of these fish are endangered because of big corporations depleting their stock, contaminating their waters, shrinking their habitats.
The fishermen in Sampela have a deep appreciation for the ocean and the rare creatures they encounter in it. Many agree those beautiful animals must be preserved. But they also lament the loss of profits because the Indonesian state-building project decided to suddenly designate Sampela’s surrounding waters as part of a protected National Park region. Many women who used to fish with their husbands full time or on their own are now staying home for fear of being harassed by aggressive National Park patrollers or mistakenly catching the wrong fish and being fined once they arrive to market.
The school system is also failing the needs of the Bajau. Many in Sampela complain school is useless because Indonesians either discriminate against Bajau, only hiring them for commercial fishing positions despite having college diplomas, or children lose interest at a young age because the skills they learn in school are not compatible with a life revolving around the sea. Many lament the fact that Bahasa Bajau (the local dialect) is not taught in school, nor is Bajau history. Government schools also lack lessons on shamanism, sea life, and other topics considered part of the village’s lifeblood. It’s up to the community elders to teach.
Life in Sampela is also filled with joy. All the fishermen I encountered genuinely love what they do. They take enormous pride in their livelihood, showing off their skills to our students and bringing their own children to sea whenever they can to share the experience of floating in the open ocean. These men, some of the toughest I have ever met, smile the widest smiles I’ve ever witnessed when they begin to row through the village’s canals towards the open water. Many refer to their missions abroad, working on fishing boats for months at a time in some of the roughest conditions imaginable, as the proudest accomplishments in their lives.
Some young adults who moved away from Sampela return, unable to adjust to life on land and missing the sense of close-knit community that their childhood village provides. One young woman told us that despite making better money elsewhere, she was lonely. She didn’t know the local dialect, hated the lack of fish in her diet, and missed the sense of freedom being on a ten foot boat in the middle of the ocean provided.
All in all, Sampela resists another reality being forced upon it.The government and other land-people, subscribing to different lifestyles and priorities, impose again and again to no avail. The satellite dishes in every yard? They’re used to hold chicken feed, suspend clothes lines, store pots and pans and firewood. The WiFi tower installed five months ago stopped working after three weeks. Maybe if you go to land and buy a SIM card, during good weather you can get a weak connection, and the teenagers can check Facebook or watch YouTube.
So many projects are implemented with no understanding of local priorities. The TV shelter that was supposed to broadcast national news every evening, connecting the Bajau with the rest of the world, is now a hide and seek spot for the toddlers and a platform where teenagers gather to drink in the evenings. After all, elders believe a TV would just introduce more complexity and drama into life. Our host families lamented the fact that their connection to YouTube (however limited) and “land people” classmates already teach their children about superficial things, like makeup and fashion, that have no bearing on their real needs, skills, and daily lives.
After all, the simplicity of a lifestyle is a matter of perspective — my (our) worldview was simplistic to the Bajau. Feeling sick, going to a clinic, and walking out with medication is a haughty and narrow approach in their view. An individual’s physical health is seen as just one aspect of their being, and should always be considered within the added context of spiritual and emotional health. To confer with the shaman, seek guidance from ancestors, and reflect on one’s past deeds are all just as important.
These and other ideas I brought from the land, such as how to organize meetings, held no sway here. Why agree to meet somewhere at three in the afternoon, when you have no idea how the tide might look?
Even so, the Bajau of Sampela and other seafaring villages are not a monolith: though their lived experiences bear common threads, they also vary greatly. The women, the LGBTQ community members, the shamans, the elders, the youth — they all have different questions about how their community can survive. Would the Bajau finally gain access to resources many of the youth so desperately yearn for, such as higher education, passports, and stable jobs outside of fishing?
While these issues are debated, more frequently they are pushed aside in favor of focusing energy to survive just one more day. Thinking too far into the future is a luxury many of these families have said they cannot afford. The relations with the nearby city Kaledupa oscillate, too ; while last month, everyone got along, there was recently a fight where land children threw rocks and yelled slurs at the Bajau teenagers trying to dock their boats before school. What would happen if Kaledupa cut off access to their schools or, even worse, their fish and household supply markets?
As a guest in this village, I realize it would take years to begin to truly understand life here. Besides sharing these insights into their struggles, our gracious hosts wanted to highlight the positives, not the negatives, of their community, presenting themselves with pride and strength. They succeeded. Even as the protagonist of my story, as an outsider I will never be privy to the secrets, the essence of the Bajau. That is for the best.
Sampela still gave me so much more than I could ever contribute or even dream of repaying. It’s roiled my understanding of the meaning of community, of the value of water, of the age old adage “staying afloat.” It’s easy to write about Sampela in either an overly rugged or overly romanticized way. That’s not my intent. At the end of the day, the Bajau are human beings with families, feelings, challenges, triumphs, and complex identities.
Yet one of the most poignant moments was when one of our students asked someone around her age, “What do you hope to be when you grow up?” And she replied,
“We don’t think like that here. I’m just a regular person — why would you ask that?”
It feels like our group’s whole understanding and concept of the world is based on achieving our aspirations. In Sampela, everyone is interconnected. Focusing on individual achievements makes no sense.
If the Bajau in Sampela can’t fish because the oceans are warming and rising, this isn’t merely a Bajau problem. It’s my problem, too, even if I don’t see the evidence of climate change so blatantly from my doorstep at home. My consumerism, my footprint, my daily choices, my vote. They all have direct implications here. But the politicians, corporations, and organizations I interface with hide these consequences from my view so I can be comfortable. Cliche as it sounds, ignorance really is bliss to millions around the world.
As a human being, I need to remain aware and vigilant about how my actions have consequences. Consequences that ripple across the world, in ways we may not learn about until we turn 25, 35, or 50. I am ashamed, but invigorated by this realization. Being in Sampela has reminded me to give a damn. There are no days off when it comes to being a responsible global citizen.
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