Stirring our sun-baked, half-asleep bodies off the upper deck of the boat after the two-hour journey to visit the stilted village of the Bajo, ‘Sea Gypsies’ of Pulau Hoga, Wakatobi, Indonesia the group quickly shrugged off our lazy stupor.
We’d set off early in cloudy conditions, but the sun had gradually burned brighter, finally overcoming any clouds by mid-morning, lulling the group into a relaxed communal doze. As the village propped up above the lagoon came into view any sleepiness disappeared, minds began to function and smiles replaced sleepy expressions.
The township was larger than anticipated, probably more than a hundred homes on stilts, standing several feet above the clear water of the lagoon. As we stepped off the boat we were greeted by a group of giggling children, happy to pose and push each other playfully, jostling for centre stage. This greeting would set the tone for the remainder of the visit.
A Cultural Portrait of Bajo, ‘Sea Gypsies’
It was difficult to walk several paces without getting distracted, everywhere we looked there appeared to be something of interest.
Men fixed their fishing nets on the porches of their wooden homes, children played on the raised walkways or waded in the shallow water of the lagoon, some possibly completing chores, most just playing.
See more cultural photography here: Portraits of Culture – Peoples of Destination
White-faced women wearing a heavy, natural sunscreen carried children in cradles on their backs or slung over their shoulders, grinning self-consciously when asked for a picture. An old lady, punting an open canoe came into view, making her way slowly through the ‘canal-like’ streets of the village on her way out to the open water beyond the ramshackle houses.
Some families appear to sit around outside their homes, seemingly without a need to do much of anything, while another family is sheltering beneath the floor, grilling fish for lunch and enjoying each other’s company.
The village is built around several, central water filled ‘squares’ surrounded by the raised wooden walkways, but there are plenty of ‘side streets’. Off shoots from the main walkways, further distractions which just cry out to be explored. Maybe it’s because they’re away from the usual areas which visitors frequent that there always seemed to be more of interest along these.
Small children peer shyly, but curiously from behind open door frames, encouraged by their laughing mothers to come out and get a better view of the strange people waving cameras around.
A young boy sits morosely on the steps leading to his home, stubbornly refusing to smile, a frigate like seabird curled up asleep behind him; pet or food source, it’s unclear.
Young mothers play with tiny infants under the rafters of wooden shacks on stilts, they marry early here, both male and female can often be wed before reaching their teenage years.
All the while there is a gentle, almost soothing, rhythmic sound of the crystal clear water lapping at the thousands of poles which support the village. In contrast there are occasional piles of garbage are centrally collected, waiting for further collection and disposal.
Asking an older man mending his nets, for a picture, he pauses, providing an almost toothless grin before holding up some dried fish which decorate his porch.
Learning to Survive in a Modern World
Almost everybody seems happy to see us, and to pose for pictures. It doesn’t feel contrived in anyway, we appear to be being invited to glimpse a small insight into the Bajo ocean dwelling people, their lives and culture. Although it seems likely that as these are organised excursions which are run on an irregular, ‘on demand’ basis, the people do receive some payment for their patience and tolerance of outside visitors.
This was borne out slightly when, my guide normally close by my side wandered away for a few moments, the father of the family I’d just been photographing began speaking quietly. Obviously asking for something, the rubbing of his fingers together making the meaning clear, he was asking for money. The fact he waited until the guide was out of the way suggests it’s not condoned by the tour operator.
Read about Rwandan culture here: Rwanda, Beyond Kigali – A Cultural Portrait
Before leaving I witnessed a group of people returning from the quay loaded down with a variety of items which appeared as if from a substantial shopping expedition. This is possibly how they are paid, the operator bringing items from the mainland which they would otherwise struggle to obtain.
The Bajo, or more correctly Bajau or even Sama Bajau were originally ‘sea gypsies’, nomads which have lived off the ocean for centuries. Roaming the ocean around Sulawesi in hand crafted wooden boats called lepa, following the fish shoals and movements of sea cucumbers. They are now largely static, living in stilted villages such as this one in Hoga Pulau, Wakatobi. Over fishing has seen a dramatic reduction in fish stocks, and the Bajo aren’t entirely blameless.
Living off the ocean is becoming increasingly difficult for the Bajo ‘sea gypsies’, but there is hope; education. A decade ago, schooling would have been considered a waste, but now an education, understanding how the ocean maybe ‘farmed’ to provide a sustainable livelihood is making more sense.
A Brighter Future?
Projects which teach the Bajo young about ecosystems, fish farming, aquaculture and seaweed cultivation along with basic computer literacy are being taught in the hope the next generation of fishermen will fish smarter.
Time will tell, but I do hope it proves fruitful, it would be a crying shame if a fascinating and unique culture like the Bajo slowly dwindled away, disappearing with barely a whimper.
From the short encounter we had with the Bajo, ‘Sea Gypsies’, they appear a cheerful and hospitable people. Their ramshackle, stilted homes may seem humble, but then they are situated in a stunning location, the beautiful, clear waters of a Wakatobi lagoon.
Wouldn’t you swap places with them?