A SEA GYPSY VILLAGE, AN URBAN LEGEND, AND UNTOUCHED PARADISE…
Selayar Island is truly a secret find. This quiet and unspoiled island at the southern tip of Sulawesi is a combination of genuinely warm hospitality and pristine beaches lined with coconut trees, low-key diving spots, and a few sea gypsy villages dotting the coast.
I made my way from the main town of Benteng along the narrow winding coastal road and then stopped at an interesting sea gypsy village. Curly smoke was rising from a pile of blackened rocks with a small fire emerging from the center I figured the owner of this fire would return soon enough, so I simply waited.
I look up and spided some nice looking coconuts in the trees just as an older, muscular Bajau man approached along the path. Taking his cue, he shimmied up the tree. With a machete dangling at his side, he made scaling the towering coconut tree look effortless. I watched with fascination as he somehow perched himself in the top fronds to search for the best coconut. With a thud, a fresh coconut dropped at the foot of the tree and burst open to reveal the sweet coconut water. With a huge Selayar smile, the man carved a drinking spout and showed me how to drink the contents no straws required.
MEET THE BAJAU MAN
The friendly, leathery-skinned man then told me about his village – with my guide interpreting. “We are the Bajau people and this village is temporary. It is made from bamboo, so it’s very easy to make repairs when we need to. We only live here five months of the year,” he explained. “We take our boats out for seven months and roam the sea. We have done this forever, our culture goes back many centuries. I am happy at sea. It is my home.”
The Bajau people were formerly known as sea gypsies, and for centuries have followed a nomadic way of life aboard their small but strong and very sea worthy boats. The Bajau are a part of several related groups of people who are spread from the Riau and Lingga archipelagos to the coast of Borneo and reaching the east coast of Sumatra.
They are expert sailors and earn their living by fishing and hand harvesting trepan, which are sea cucumbers. Now they are semi- nomadic, as with competition from the commercial fishing industry and international fishing laws restricting their activities, many moor off of the islands and commute to the sea rather than live the way of their ancestors did, who were truly nomadic sea wanderers.
Next I wandered along the beach, past the colorful traditional boats spread out along the seashore. Soon enough a band of local village children who must have heard a foreigner was visiting came flocking. “No one ever stops here,” the Bajau man said, “Please stay for a while and talk with us.”
AN URBAN LEGEND
Not long after, the Bajau man began telling some fascinating tales about the local crocodiles and what they get up to. “Crocodiles are big here. They’re up to seven meters long and they live in the estuarine waters,” he said. “You know, once a girl turned into a crocodile. It’s a true story! A reporter even came and wrote about it. The story was published in the newspaper.”
The Bajau man continued his tale. A young village girl went missing one day. Her family went searching for her but after two days the girl could not be found. On day three, when her sister was out looking for her along the beach, she came across a small crocodile.
The girl was certain that this was her sister and that she had turned into a crocodile the local people believe it is possible for a crocodile to take on a human form and vice versa. The crocodile then became her pet and slept with her, atop a pillow on her bed.
A reporter heard about a crocodile and a villager sleeping in the same bed and went to the village to check the story and indeed it was true. The reporter was fascinated and offered to buy the crocodile. He wanted to release it back into the wild but the family would only rent the crocodile, saying they wanted it back because, of course, it was their daughter.
The reporter filed the story and left empty handed. The crocodile was not for sale, and he could not see the point of renting it. However, the family too could not keep the crocodile when it outgrew the bed, and eventually it went away.
The next day I explored the traditional produce market in the town of Benteng and picked up supplies for a picnic, and then I headed out to a little island only ten minutes from the harbor.
Stepping onto the soft white sand of Gusung Island, also known as Pasi Island, was a true delight. It’s hard to believe you are only two kilometers away from the busy town of Benteng. Pasi Island is a little paradise that will spoil you with choices of beaches, and many of them don’t even have names yet. Most people come for snorkeling, fishing and diving due to the slow current and low depth of the sea it’s an ideal place for beginning divers. For me, though, visiting the local school was my mission.
With the help of my guide, I visited a school and donated some books and pencils. This allowed me the opportunity to connect with the children, who were curious, friendly and loved having a foreign visitor which is a rare event. I took the time to sit and chat with them a great opportunity for conversational English practice and they enjoyed my impromptu game of counting, colors, and chanting a song I made up called “Days of the Week.”
Selayar is a secret find, where you feel like time has stood still. It’s a magical place, full of charm and warm-hearted people. So if you want a unique travel experience, Selayar is well worth the visit for you adventurous travelers.
By Stephanie Brookes (www.travelwriter,ws)
HOW TO GET TO THERE
Selayar Island is six hours by road from Makassar in South Sulawesi to Bira Harbor. It takes two to three hours by a local ferry to Selayar Island and 30 minutes by road to Benteng.
Information and Hotel/ Homestay Bookings
Selayar Tourist Office
0813 4373 6281 / 0853 4197 8344 email@example.com www.ayokeselayar.com
Selayar Tour Guide and Driver Anayah Enjoy Travel
0812 4197 6576 firstname.lastname@example.org
Sulawesi Tour Guide and Driver
0812 4222 800 email@example.com
Where to Stay:
Selayar Dive Resort (open from October 15 to April 30) firstname.lastname@example.org www.selayar-dive-resort.com