For many years now, Réhahn has traveled the world and has witnessed the existence of the “forgotten ones”: those peoples who, despite the ravages of globalization, are trying to live according to their ancestral traditions. Just a few days ago, he went off in search of the Malaysian Bajau, who are also known as sea gypsies. His expedition was no smooth ride, as it’s very difficult to come in contact with these people, who live far away from civilisation.
It was a true obstacle course just to get to the islands he wanted to visit. After several hours of flight, he touched down in Kuala Lumpur, then had another three hour flight to Tawau. He finally managed to reach, after an hour and a half by bus, Semporna, one of the largest cities in Borneo which is also a very important harbour. It is from here that the tourists leave to go enjoy the wonderful dive sites that Malaysia has to offer.
Whilst trying to find a solution on how to cross over to the other side, which only takes an hour by motorboat, Réhahn was amazed at how difficult it was to find someone who would agree to take him. Indeed, the few specialized agencies in the area refuse to sail elsewhere but to the resorts. Réhahn was therefore forced to find a solution on the pier, walking for hours along the waterfront, addressing the fishermen who were moored for the day, but unfortunately, no one spoke English. When he finally managed to make himself understood, he was asked exorbitant and unjustified prices. He had no choice but to sleep on site, being careful to stay on his guard and keep his head down. In recent years, tourist kidnappings have become pretty common in this part of the island …
Sometimes Islamist terrorist groups track down holidaymakers, follow them in order to establish the appropriate time to kidnap them and then demand a ransom for their release. In November 2013, a Taiwanese tourist was killed in one of the bungalows in the resort where he was staying. Tension is omnipresent and kidnappings are becoming more and more frequent in this seemingly paradisiac destination. The army is everywhere to be seen in the main tourist areas, but are not present on most of the islands that Réhahn was planning to visit.
It the heart of this dangerous environment, concerned for his safety, he was almost about to give up. Yet his patience paid off. One morning he finally saw his chance to reach the islands after meeting a man named Karim, a Bajau who could speak a few words of English, a huge stroke of luck for the photographer who was longing to meet these people. Karim offered to take him to the islands inhabited by members of his ethnic group. He seemed surprised by the photographer’s request, being as most of the travelers usually want to go straight to the lagoon’s coral reefs, and have no real wishes to meet the locals. But, touched by the photographer’s interest, he accepted to take Réhahn with him and they embarked on an expedition through Malaysian waters.
The Sea gypsies
Traditionally, the Bajau resided in small boats, sailing day and night with the currents, counting only on their fishing gear to make a living. This is how they earned the title of the “nomads of the seas.” Others used to live in hiding and many still live nowadays in the middle of nowhere in the trough in which the lagoon sits,on floating villages built on the coral reefs. Today, many have come ashore to live on small islands, but continue to develop their perfect knowledge of the oceans, whilst marketing their fish on a small scale.
Réhahn was curious to know more about these men and women who have chosen to live remote lives,far away from the cities and their temptations. The sight that awaited him made his whole being tremble when he saw in the distance, on the horizon, an island lost in the royal blue immensity. He had arrived at Tabbalanos island. The ship dropped anchor, allowing him to reach the beach of a tiny island on which a single tree pointed the tips of it’s leaves toward the sun. Immediately, Réhahn was struck by the magic of the place: proudly hanging on one of the branches of the tree was a swing, indicating the presence of children,who quickly came running out towards the boat, intrigued by the presence of this newcomer.
Réhahn was greeted by dozens of smiles, the little group of children who gathered around him were over the moon when the photographer produced a packet of biscuits from his bag, bought a few seconds earlier in the one shop present on the island. He’s used to it, being asked for money and food, but by distributing the biscuits and exchanging a few friendly looks, the Bajau children soon got used to his presence and went back to playing in the water. The Bajau are the people who spend the most time in the world in the water. Real mermen, who only feel whole when they’re in their element: the ocean.
Réhahn could easily count the number of bungalows on the island, eleven altogether. Eleven small houses placed there between land and sea. It was later that he learned from Karim that each family had about five children. Women give birth here in their hut on stilts. Most Bajau are born, live and die on their land. Life is organized around fishing, the tribe has no knowledge of reading or writing. Regardless of age, everyone finds his place and helps to catch the fish.
Younger children are constantly on the boats, learning how to dive or swim, while those who have reached the age of about 8 years old are already busy hunting. The Bajau do not know their ages, they know roughly about the concept of age but time doesn’t matter much to them, only the present moment counts. Réhahn took out his camera and captured the moment, in awe in front of such wonder, a feeling that you can easily understand when you see this island lost at sea and it’s inhabitants totally at peace with their values and traditions.
For four days, he managed to visit the other islands where the Bajau live. Some of the islands, such as Tabbalanos, are not even referenced on the internet, probably too small for the giant that Google has become, but thus preserving the tranquility of it’s inhabitants. Réhahn traveled across the ocean and met the tribes on the Mabul Islands Omadal, Sibuan, Maiga and Tagatan. Tagatan is a village on the water where the houses are built on stilts over the lagoon. Réhahn met a family there who had fled from the Philippines a few years earlier to settle in this peaceful haven.
These small pieces of land are all different, some of them are larger and contain more people. In Omadal, there are seventy families living in bungalows, all built on stilts and all connected to one other by a crossing bridge so that the tight-knitted community may live together peacefully. On this island,you can find small local shops (food stands) and even a football field. Upon his arrival, Réhahn was greeted once again by the children and he took a picture of them, with their hair bleached blond from the salt water. Further on, women were smearing their faces with Borak: a paste manufactured locally with turmeric which the Bajau use every day to protect their skin from the sun.
White skin equals beauty in Malaysia, single women therefore use Borak everyday in order to find a spouse. Mothers,on the other hand, protect the skin of their children with it,because they are constantly exposed to the sunlight. Réhahn noticed a boat arriving towards the beach. The small boat was loaded with provisions and had come to provide the stalls of the island. He left a few minutes later with several pounds of fresh fish to take back to the mainland.
His expedition had come to an end, a welcome break in both space and time, there in the midst of the blue immensity. Réhahn will keep forever in the depths of his heart the feeling of peace and serenity that emerges from these places, of these people who have nothing in common with our lives and who live only for and by the water. The Bajau, the nomads of the sea, are neither recognized nor accepted by the neighboring countries, but are there by choice, the choice to live in paradise, their own little paradise.
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