I sat talking with Asman, an ethnic Bajau Palauk on his wooden fishing boat as sea cucumbers dried on the upper deck and we spoke about his seafaring life. “We love to be on the ocean. The ocean is our land. We feel very happy and content and it is all we know. My two children were born at sea on this boat and my wife also. When one of our family die, we just lay the body on the sea because we believe our God is the ocean. We really love our God. Sometimes it is hard just to survive but the sea provides enough for us to get by and we are thankful for that.”
Asman and his family are not alone, as his brother also travels alongside them on his smaller boat. One of the challenges is having enough fuel to power their small craft, so they trade fish and sea cucumbers for fuel, which is really the only time they make landfall. “My parents were born in Sampurna district near the Philippines, at sea, and I was also was born at sea. I don’t really know what it is like living on the land, but here among the waves and currents I feel at home in the ocean. Sometimes we see the Navy boats, but they leave us alone, as we do not cause any trouble.”
I met Asman on Derawan Island, East Kalimantan, on one of the rare occasions that he and his family were on dry land, as when he was trading for fuel supplies. He was planning on leaving that afternoon, to head out back into the sea, a place where he feels at home.
Derawan Island’s main street is comprised of soft white powdery sand, which diligently gets swept, on the hour. Bright colourful wooden houses stand in neat rows. Just before dusk freshly caught fish are dropped to the many casual little warungs (restaurants) and the aroma of grilled fish and spicy sauces fills the air.
Staying on Derawan is a very local experience. It is mostly homestay accommodation and the local Bajau people operate all the businesses on the island. Crystal clear waters, fringed with coconut palms surround this idyllic spot in East Kalimantan. Giant green sea turtles laze in the shallow waters and swim under small cottages perched over the water. It only takes forty minutes to walk around Derawan Island, which includes a walk through a serene forest, in the middle of the island.
For generations now the Bajau have lived in East Kalimantan. On Derawan Island the locals are either land dwelling Bajau (whoselivelihoods are still very dependent on the sea), or seafaring family groups, like Asman’s family, who roam the seas to earn a living by fishing. More and more Bajau are now settling on the land, with the help and encouragement of the Government, which provides education and medical facilities.
The Bajau originally arrived by boat centuries ago, from the Sulu Sea, in the South-western part of the Philippines and can be found in village settlements from Aceh in the west of Indonesia to Papua in the east, including coastal settlements in Sulawesi, the Wakatobi Island cluster, East Nusa Tenggara, Lombok, Moluccas, Sumbawa (Mojo Island), Madura (East Java) and Labuan Bajo, whose name is derived from a Bajau (Bajo) tribe.
The mother tongue of the Bajau people is a similar language to Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines. Even though their culture is scattered throughout Indonesia, the Bajau tribe speak this common language regardless of their location.
Affectionately known as sea gypsies, the Bajau people live a life based around the sea and practise some pre-islamic rituals. Traditional Bajau have a dukun (shaman), and believe in a number of taboos and hold special ceremonies relating to the sea. One such ritual is the offering of thanks to the God of the Sea, Omboh Dilaut. When a significant haul of fish is brought in or a large catch is made, this ritual is performed. If an illness befalls a village, or anchorage, spirit mediums are called upon and “spirit boats” are cast adrift in the sea beyond the village.
Connections and traces of the Bajau have been found as far as Arnhem Land in Northern Australia. This is documented in the legends of the Yolngu Aboriginees and tells of mysterious Baijini Jinn people and their mythical tales.
Another example of their wanderings of the sea is evident in a piece of Australian legislation; The 1974 Memorandum of Understanding, whereby “Indonesian traditional fisherman” can fish in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Australia, which includes the Bajau’s traditional fishing grounds.
Another interesting fact about the Bajau is their physique and in particular, their lung capacity. They are expert free divers and over the centuries have developed physical adaptations, which enable them to dive for long periods underwater. Some of the diving Bajaus can work underwater for up to 5 hours per day, totally submerged. This can take its toll however and it is not uncommon to meet a Bajau elder with poor hearing, due to ruptured eardrums and other ear problems. Their eyesight has also evolved to allow more effective vision underwater.
The Bajau people are an ethnic sea faring tribe with a rich history, proud of their traditional ways, and they
form part of Indonesia’s unique cultural diversity.
As I stood on the shore and waved to Asman as he and his family headed off into the distance, I had a feeling of admiration and respect for these nomads of the sea and their sense of freedom. Roaming across the vast southern oceans as their ancestors have done for thousands of years totally oblivious to our world of gadgets and technology, they survive on ancient wisdom and strong belief systems and a love of their family and respect for their ocean home.
The Mirror Never Lies
Indonesia›s young filmmaker, Kamila Andini, released a film in 2011 about the Bajau people, set in Wakatobi, “The Mirror Never Lies”. This film won international acclaim at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2011 and Kamila Andini won the Bright Young Talent Award. In 2012, the film won Best Film and Best Director at the Bandung Film Festival (FFB). The story follows the life of a young Bajau girl who lost her father at sea and uses mirrors to look for him. The intention of the film is to encourage people to learn more about the Bajau people, their origins, lifestyles, customs, art and traditional culture.
Kakaban Island – Jellyfish Lake
A biological phenomenon occurs on the neighbouring island of Kakaban. An easy day trip gets you out to this island, which is unique to Indonesia and in fact, the world. The magical Kakaban Lake (also known as Jellyfish lake) is a raised atoll, above sea level, and contains trapped seawater, which has evolved over millions of years. There are only two of these types of lakes in the world.
When you swim in this peaceful perched lake you are joined by a mass of stingless jellyfish. There are four species of jellyfish that live in the lake and over time they have lost their stingers and are harmless. It is the most surreal sensation swimming in a sea of jellyfish, some of them translucent, some large, some small and many ever so curious. As well as jellyfish there are other fascinating marine wonders to discover underwater including sea sponges, tubeworms, sea cucumbers and many unique species that are yet to be identified by marine scientists.
Text Stephanie Brookes | Photos David Metcalf
David Metcalf runs photography and cultural tours to Bali and other places in Indonesia.
Derawan Guide: Mr Ardi
ATA Travel Services Borneo
East Kalimantan, Indonesia
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