Is there anything in the world left to explore? Are there any white spots on the map left?
Not in a grand scheme of things but in my little life the answer is a definite yes. Sometimes it scares me how much of the world I haven’t seen and how quickly I am running out of time. I know full well that even if I live the longest life humanly possible, I will not see it all. That makes me incredibly sad but also humble. It teaches me that some things are too big even for us almighty humans. That is probably a good thing. That fact also reminds me to make the most of each day, to say yes more often than no, and to explore, listen, and simply walk with my eyes wide open all the time.
I am no Margaret Mead, but damn, I admire that woman. Not only for the fact that she was one of the first women in her field of anthropology but for her work in general. It was her, not the white beaches or even the diving, that put exploring the South Pacific on my non-existent travel bucket list. I think the way work like hers has opened our eyes to whole new worlds is incredible, even though we may not even know she is to credit.
Then again, explorations like hers also always came with a dark counterpart. Missionaries, greed, exploitation. And while most of the world is not a white spot on the map anymore, this hasn’t changed.
Meeting indigenous people is one of the best parts of my travels but at the same time always leaves a funny aftertaste. Heck, I don’t even know if ‘indigenous’ is a word one can use these days while trying so very hard to be politically correct all the time. I love meeting not only what we consider ‘local people’ but people that basically live a life as differently from mine as possible. I find it utterly fascinating to observe how others live, how far removed their life is from mine but also to see the similarities, the connections that we as humans all share. Laughter, tears, hunger, anger, joy.
At the same time, I never know how to approach it right. I don’t want to seem like a missionary, I don’t want to pretend I am better or know better. Or even just intrude, to walk into someone’s village just because to me it seems novel and foreign. All I want is an exchange, but that seems impossible at times. The candies you carry with you take tend to take center stage. And I wonder that even though I come with the best intentions if ‘meeting the locals’ hasn’t just become a zoo visit for amateur anthropologists.
With all that in mind, I have thought long about how to put my feelings about my recent visit with the Bajo tribe in Wakatobi, Indonesia into words. The Bajo people or Bajau people as they are called, have lived a nomadic life centering around the ocean for centuries. Some also call them sea gypsies but then again this is a tricky term. Back in the days most used to live on boats, but have now moved into stilt houses over water. We were visiting them after an unsuccessful morning of dolphin watching and getting sunburnt on the boat. Kampung Bajo Sampela – there it was, a village full of stilt houses, home of the Bajos, a tribe as inigenous as it gets in this day and age.
Quite frankly, I felt rather awkward. What was I supposed to do? Just walk around and – what? I sat with my Indonesian friend Kadek who was chatting with some local kids. The conversation didn’t go well because the kids spoke Bajo and Kadek only Bahasa, the official language of Indonesia. I moved on, watching my steps – there are no streets in Kampung Bajo Sampela only wooden walkways built over water and I have a knack for stumbling.
Some of us were photographing each other, doing ‘follow me’ poses in tiny shorts; to me, it seemed out of place. Follow me where? Into a village, we weren’t invited to but just tolerated in? Into a hard life of ramshackle huts, the smell of aging fish and what looked to me like poverty? I wasn’t given a context of these people’s lives. I didn’t know whether it was a simple but happy one or one of battle for survival and despair.
I walked on confused and unsure where to go. Everybody else seemed to be eagerly exploring, camera in hand, drone above. “Annika!”, I heard a voice with a typical New York accent calling me. I looked around unsure where my friend Nikki’s voice had come from. “Annika, come inside, over here!”. Then I saw her. She was crouched underneath one of the wooden houses, sitting with a few women and kids on a bamboo platform where some food preparation was taking place. I made my way over a raggedy ladder down to them and looked at the women. Was I welcome? The woman in charge smiled at me and Nikki made introductions. I was seated in between their blind grandmother and Peno, a cheeky boy who didn’t stop hitting his sister yet was charming enough to get away with it.
In a communal effort, the women were preparing Kasuami, a root that is ground, sieved and steamed in little banana leaf cone parcels. Of course, we wanted to help, but secretly I was glad that sieving Kasuami is not in my job description. Typing for hours at a time seemed a lot easier now than sieving.
Communication was tricky but humorous. When in doubt we just laughed at each other. Peno and his sisters were enamored by our cameras and even more by seeing their own faces on the screens afterward. With that, we made friends with them quickly and also the women didn’t seem to mind our home invasion despite our inability to help with lunch. The baby, however, didn’t like us one bit, apparently too white for her liking she started crying whenever Nikki and I turned to her. Only once we show her her own face next to her siblings on the camera screen does she start to smile too, she recognizes the familiar faces it seems.
Eventually, we bid our goodbyes and moved on. Next on the agenda was making animal friends and we conveniently ran into a kitten on our way back to the boat. Balancing on the beams of a stilt house, it was drooling all over its owner’s boat that had just returned home with the catch of the day. The boat was tied up and the catch carried in front of the house where the man started to clean the fish. The kitten was purring with excitement and us cat ladies were in 7th Cat-heaven observing the scene. That was until the lady of the house started to chase the little one roughly away.
She was definitely no cat lady and Nikki and I cast her furious looks. Eventually, she disappeared inside her home, leaving kitten and husband to fend for themselves. I don’t know if it was our pleading look or the kitten’s but all of a sudden the man casually threw a fish to the side, which conveniently landed at the cat’s feet. Oh, the joy! The fish was half its size and it tackled it with gusto, sitting next to his owner who had returned to cleaning the remaining fish. Once in a while, he would look at his little cat and smile, not oblivious to the delight he had just caused.
We moved on delighted too, at least the kitten’s day was made.
Next up was the local school, the obligatory stop on any village excursion. Here we were not the first and kids were already engulfed in snap chat filters, others with dancing and singing.
A couple of boys came up, shook my hand, smiled a cheeky grin and told me their names. One of them kept eyeing over while dancing and I couldn’t help but stare back. I realized that he looked like my nephew, only less pale and with natural highlights in his dark hair. That was the moment when it hit me. This was one of those moments I travel for: to connect with people, to find the familiar in the unfamiliar. I may not always do it right, but my intentions are good. I want to, I need to be reminded over and over again, that deep down we are all the same. We are all made of blood, bones, and stardust. We are all born and die and hope in between to live a happy and fulfilled life. What that life looks like? Well, that is just superficial details.
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
The Bajo people are facing the same issues that many other indigenous tribes battle with today: how to reconcile their traditional ways with modern day lives. To read more about them, their heritage and their struggles, I found this to be an interesting article.
My trip to Kampung Bajo Sampela was part of the Trip of Wonders with Indonesia Travel. Contact Wakatobi Dive Trip to arrange trips there leaving from Wakatobi island.
Video by my incredibly talented friend Mike Corey, check out his You Tube channel Kick the Grind here.