When I go on holiday I try to see something good in each person I meet and in each place I visit. But honestly, sometimes it is just damn hard and doesn’t work whatsoever.
Before I even get to Semporna I already know that it isn’t going to be an exciting place where I want to spend any more time than it takes to board a boat to Sipadan and luckily that whole process only takes about 10 minutes: from the van onto the pier and into a boat. For me, that is plenty and I sigh in relief when we leave the harbor. I know that I don’t need to see more and that there is, unfortunately, no redemption possible for this town, no way to make it somehow more palatable.
However, and days on end spent on a boat may do that to you, I still agree to another visit when we have the opportunity for some shore leave on our last night upon return to Semporna harbor. Actually, no, to be honest, it isn’t the boat life that makes me go, my only motivation is to refill my 3G card. And so we wonder around, somewhat aimlessly, in what I will call downtown Semporna; semi-deserted streets, the sun is setting unromantically. Some need a bank, others a souvenir, most just want to stretch their legs and have a beer. Getting my 3G refill is harder than I’d imagined and so my group has to wait for me in front of multiple stores while I try to translate my request with Basher’s help. Eventually, my group gives up on me. We are going to be at Arthur’s Bar. Simon points towards a random looking bar on the opposite site of the road and follows the others.
Five minutes later my non-communication problem is sorted and I follow to Arthur’s where everybody is already gathered around two oversized barrels-turned-tables with buckets of iced Tiger.
I’m Eddie. Do you guys want some tuna sashimi? A head with a friendly face and teddy bear eyes pops up next to me. Eddie is chirpy and barely able to contain his own excitement over his sales pitch. It’s very fresh. Only 40 ringgits for a plate, you will never eat better. Come, look!
He has set up shop right in front of the bar’s patio. A little cart with a cooler section as well as a stove; king prawns, tuna, and calamari all carefully wrapped yet neatly on display. Do you want to check it out? Steve gives me an inquiring look. We are both well aware that eating roadside sushi in Borneo and its 30-degree heat might not be the best idea, but after four days of fried everything on a boat the offer is too tempting.
Eddie is happy to give us a demonstration of his skills first. He opens up a little table in the middle of the sidewalk and sets up his tools: ceramic knives, paper towels, some plates, and chopsticks. I also have wasabi and soy sauce!, he exclaims even more excited and prepares a little bowl before padding the tuna dry with the paper towels. His excitement is infectious and we agree to a small plate. While our sashimi is being prepared Eddie tells stories of his life. Where he learned his skill – from a famous sushi chef from Tokyo of course – and about the king of Malaysia who is apparently a big fan of his fried calamari.
Our plate is ready and without further ado he prepares a second one, his trust in his skill and his fish unwavering. Others from our group join for a bite; Eddie didn’t oversell: his tuna is delicious and we finish a second plate.
A little later he reappears with calamari, the ones that the king likes best, and more stories. Of course, he too is a diver. He has done over 4000 dives at Sipadan in his time and we stare at him in awe – doing a couple of dives there are the crown jewels of diving for most of us and we cannot even begin to phantom what 4000 dives there encompass. And I told Jacques Cousteau to fuck off when he first arrived, Eddie chuckles proudly. Of course, he did. For all you landlubbers – Jacques Cousteau is a French naval officer, explorer, and marine conservationist. In his movie Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle he made Sipadan famous with the words: “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.” Still some of the most quoted words about this island which basically made him the godfather of the diving world.
He was annoying me, Eddie continues, I thought he would take my business away. But then I cooked for him too when I worked on Sipadan and he liked it. He pulls out a pack of cards. Not only is he a master chef and a master diver, but also a magician. Do you like my calamari? Pick a card! Both seems equally important to him.
Eventually, our shore leave comes to an end and we have to head back to the boat. The bill is small and to make things even better Eddie gives us his deck of cards. Come back, he says, and I will make you a whole dinner. I silently vow that I will. After all, I have finally found the one endearing thing about Semporna, the one good reason for it to be on my map: sashimi from Eddie and a story or two.
Find Eddie from 6 pm in front of Arthur’s Bar in “downtown” Semporna.