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Students in a long tail boat in Indonesia. Photo by Aaron Slosberg, Indonesia Semester.

Broken Boardwalks

In the U.S. (and other mega-developed, mega-polluter countries), we live separate from our impact and our ecological footprint. We throw away our waste, old fashions, leftover foods, and clutter we bought but never needed without thinking of where it goes. All we know is that it goes away. Just like how we know that water will come at the pull of a tap. And how we know the toilet will flush (toilet paper and all), the dishwasher will clean, the dryer will dry, and Amazon will arrive in 1-2 business days. We dwell in our air-conditioned homes and schools and wonder what they mean when they say the climate is warming because it’s July and we’re wearing a coat indoors.

What does it mean to live inextricably connected to our actions and their consequences? To live on the edge of society? To live in a community where borders, national laws, and ideas of personal property are imposed but not necessarily accepted? What does it mean to live in a home where outside your window you see water rising, fish dying, and trash disintegrating?

The Bajau, a formerly-nomadic seafaring people, are faced with these questions and challenges every day. They live in Sampela, a community of homes raised on stilts above the waters off the coast of Sulawesi, near the small island of Kaledupa. It was here that I lived with Uma Bunga, Uwa Hadir, Aisyah, Santi, and Ato. The people who welcomed me as their own for two weeks.

In Sampela, I tread carefully–literally. Every step must be cautious because the network of homes and public buildings is woven together by a haphazard boardwalk of wooden planks arranged along a narrow support beam. With each step, I am reminded of the fragility of this beloved community. On the night before the presidential election, my Bapak was upset because the orang darat (land people) had broken a significant stretch of boardwalk with their careless stomping. In Sampela, a broken boardwalk is a severed life line. It takes a long time to be fixed, if at all. There’s no money, no wood. The orang darat’s ignorance was a shocking reminder of how I, unwittingly, have moved through the world–stomping along boardwalks, never truly considering the consequences. We don’t always realize how fragile our world is. With each plastic cup I throw away, each plane ride I take, each online order I place, I am breaking a plank in the world’s boardwalk.

The Bajau of Sampela eat what they catch from the sea– from the turquoise waters of Wakatobi National Park. These waters are thoroughly patrolled by rangers and police–patrolled so much that the women stopped fishing for fear of being interrogated. The mangroves, once the people’s main source of wood for cooking, purifying water, and repairing infrastructure, are now off limits, protected by the laws of the National Park. The waters are warming and changing. Each day, they find fewer fish, and less reef. Food is scarce. If the Bajau fishermen don’t catch enough in the morning, they will not eat as much that night. Nor will they have fish to sell or money to save. They have no choice but to live deeply connected to the world around them and to the consequences caused by the thoughtless and wasteful actions of countries miles away. The Bajau are still a part of the world’s intricate network that we, in the West, have so readily disengaged from.

What does it mean to live sustainably by necessity rather than by choice? In Sampela, nothing is wasted. Broken windows make goggles for fishing, clothes are worn until they fall apart, plastic wrappers make hats, styrofoam chunks make rafts for children to paddle. While these actions make my conservationist’s heart happy, I see the dark reality of a power imbalance at play. The Bajau people reuse, yes, but they do so because they simply don’t have the money to replace. It’s easy for us to judge the plastic that they toss in the sea and the colorful fishes they bring back from protected waters with spear-wounds through their sides. But the reality is that they have no alternate waste disposal method, no alternate food or livelihood source. We cast our judgements from thrones of waste and excess. The Bajau fish only what they need to survive and in exchange are placed under harsh scrutiny and judgement. Why is it easier to judge the Bajau than the international trawlers who overfish the commons right outside the imaginary lines of National Park “protection”?

Living in Sampela took my black and white certainties and smeared them into an infinite scale of grey. I now find myself painfully aware of the interconnectedness of our world. For the first time, I feel my role in the world’s net as surely as I felt the creaking boardwalks beneath my careful feet. I feel the complexity of a world that cannot be separated into us versus them, a world that isn’t merely humans versus nature. We are nature–our culture, health, welfare, livelihoods, and even happiness depend on it. To tell the Bajau people to stop fishing is to tell them to stop being Bajau. To tell them to fish elsewhere is to force them into waters where their competition are trawlers from our own fish-hungry lands. It is also to send them farther and farther away from their homes–homes into which the government forced their settlement in the first place. We cannot separate ourselves from nature–we cannot extricate the Bajau from their seas. It is this that I learned in Sampela.

At 4:30am, in the darkness outside my home on the morning of my departure, before even the roosters began their calling, my homestay mother told me in a hushed voice, “Jangan lupa Sampela.” Don’t forget Sampela.

*Photos by Sadie! Thank you photo queen 🙂