Totombo and I sat side by side that first night, left legs curled in at the knee, feet resting against our right thighs, right legs outstretched until they poked over the edge of the porch and dangled over the ocean. A shifting swirl of stars and clouds and waves had conspired to hide the horizon, and trying to pinpoint the middle of the blurred border between sea and sky was futile.
The next morning, I sat looking at the old Milan jersey that hangs outside of our house to dry every night, black and red bars sun bleached and washed out, making it impossible to say for certain where one stripe ended and another began. As the wind gently teased threads into loops dangling off of the jersey, they became windows through which I could see another layer of Sampela’s barely visible and often permeable edges. They exist in Sampela’s arteries, the boardwalks that transform a collection of stilted bamboo houses into a village. Like the floors of the houses themselves, the wood on the walkways, in many places, does not exist or is rotted through, and it’s almost as easy to find yourself under a boardwalk as on top of it. The roofs of the houses that the boardwalks weave between are not clean lines either, but fluid ones made from overlapped pieces of rusted corrugated steel or palm fronds battered by the salty breezes that roll through Sampela and the unrelenting sun.
Underwater, too, there are lines; lines in brain coral and the borders between green shallows and blue depths and imagined lines that would get drawn onto a topographical map. One of these is a big line, a border between a protected reef around the small island of Hoga and the open fishing grounds that surround it. That demarcation, though, is really only a grey area turned black and white and put on a map, emblematic of the struggle between the sea gypsies of my childhood dreams and the well-intentioned governments of a disturbingly Orwellian reality. That struggle, one with vague political origins, has morphed into an undeniably human one, one in which the good side is determined not by unspeakable acts of evil but by where on a moral Venn Diagram some far-off policy maker sits as he asks himself if ensuring the health of the Indonesian republic by keeping Sampela a permanent Bajau community regardless of the toll it places on nearby reefs and its human inhabitants is worthwhile. Should the strictly protected reefs of this island chain be enlarged, risking a war but preserving an ecosystem that was here long before there were people in it? Should the elite few who may make those decisions be more concerned with a fisherman and his kin going hungry or with the loss of life from the most diverse ecosystem on the planet or, on a larger scale, does the wellness of a nation of over two hundred and fifty million people or uncountable oceanic animals matter more than the wellness of thousands of laughing, crying, feeling humans? And, perhaps hardest of all, how should a policy maker remain critical of evidence that is as blurred and clouded as everything in this far-flung archipelago, unattached to the surging emotion that rises when a turtle is slaughtered and mindful of how he himself may be fueling the trawlers that occasionally illegally fish these reefs, potentially drowning dozens of turtles with each drop of a net?
Contemplating those questions and being unable to form any sort of linear, ordered answer has made me feel like a boy again. In the States, I can grow a beard and drive and vote and smoke and join the army and ‘be a man goddamn it’, but here, looking at my host father’s legs side by side with mine on that bamboo porch, I’ve been reminded of something else. His were strong and dark, seasoned by decades of pushing off of coral lumps towards the glimmer of the sun and the waves far above and indicative of extensive and hard won knowledge—how to craft a speargun from driftwood, navigate by the tropical stars and identify Wakatobi’s countless fish. As I watched him trim his toenails with a machete, I noticed that my legs were still pale and soft and my feet had a flip flop tan.