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The life of Zazu

Sep 09, 2016

Indonesia, it’s a place I would love to go back to at least once a year. However, I don’t even think a lifetime of travel would be enough to cover the majority of the nearly 19.000 islands and spend time with at least some of its 255 million people. Whether it’s the Balinese beach parties, the orangutan communities in Borneo, the local tribesman in Papua or some of the best diving you’ll ever experience, I would strongly recommend you to go and check it out with your own eyes.

However, this time I won’t be writing about any of the above. Instead I’ll take you to the Togean Islands, a hidden treasure right in the middle of Sulawesi.  
One of the main reasons for ditching the Balinese beach parties or the Java traffic jams and making our way all the way up to the island of Sulawesi was one single breathtaking episode from the BBC series Human Planet zooming in on the life of the Bajau fishermen. After seeing it I knew one thing, I had to meet those people, but where?

We chose for Indonesia and in order to meet the little community they are living in, we left Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi, and traveled for nearly 36 hours by train, bus, minivan and eventually by boat to the Togean Islands. The archipelago is consisting of 56 islands and islets in the Gulf of Tomini off the coast of Central Sulawesi, to be precise, in the middle of nowhere. There are 37 tiny villages on the islands, a couple of dive resorts and lots, lots of palm trees. One of the many ethnic indigenous groups is the Bajau sea gypsies. And yes, whatever your mind comes up with when you hear the word sea gypsy, stick to it. 
These fellas number some 1500 people and adopt a rather secretive, nomadic existence entirely at sea, living in small wooden shacks built on stilts on top of the coral reefs. Judging the absence of decent infrastructure means home to home transportation mainly takes place in self-made dugout canoes. And consequently, these local fishermen are especially noted for their exceptional free diving skills having impressive physical adaptations that enable them to see better and dive longer underwater than anyone you know. I wanted to meet those warriors!

After throwing our bags on one of the motorized boats delivering mainland groceries to the villages at sea, the skipper told us he would drop us at one of his close friends’ house. And an hour later we met Zazu, a 41-year old father of two, living in a wooden 14 square meter hut accommodating his wife, their 1-year old child, his 11-year old daughter and his 74-year old mother. And far, far away from the rest of the world, without having running water, electricity, any form of modern communication technology or what so ever, I found people living purely from the sun and the sea. What following was a lunch that gave seafood a whole new dimension and a warm welcome from Zazu to stay at his crib for a while. And that’s what we did. And even though I had no single clue how to communicate with any of them due to the lack of mutual language, we liked each other, very much.

The next morning, before the sun even showed up, I got pulled out of bed by Zazu. Fishing time. And in the blink of an eye, I saw him jumping right of the leash. The rest of the morning I witnessed in awe what a human body can be capable of. Spear fishing the way God created it. Hand-made wooden goggles, breath holding skills up to 5 minutes and military precision. And all that 40 ft deep on the bottom of the ocean. With the help of a friend, he told me he usually submerges for more than 5 hours a day and despite partly losing his hearing, he and many of the other divers intentionally ruptured their eardrums at an early age in order to be able to dive to greater depths. Wow. Hang on. What? The only thing I could think off while floating on the turquoise waters waiting for him to show up again, is how scared I got myself when one of the instructors intentionally pulled away my regulator at the bottom of a pool a bit over a week ago. And then suddenly in the corner of my eye he showed up, screaming my name and proudly showing the catch of the day. Lunch was about to be served.

“You know my friend, I love life at sea, feeling everything, the heat, the cold, the water, the salt, just to be able to swim, row, dive or fish at any time, it makes me so happy. I’ve spend my entire life in the water and going ashore even makes me feel ill, many people call it land sick, I rather call it sea love”, were some of his words while waiting for his grandmother to fry the catch of the day. 
During the many days we stayed with Zazu and his family, we got daily company from every single soul living in, nearby, or even pretty far away from his little house. I guess they somehow realized the next time two white faces would show up was probably by the time their fishing adventures would be computerized.  
Surprisingly one of the local fisherman from down the river was able to speak English making conversations a lot easier. The reason why was even more surprising. Apparently many local Indonesian fisherman travel all the way from South Sulawesi to the northern coast of Australia to collect and process ‘trepang’ or sea cucumber, a valuable culinary and medical delicacy for the Chinese market. Those bloody Chinese again. A return trip, mostly in traditional wooden boats, is life threatening, can take up to 4 months and is considered illegal. When I was asking him why the hell he would take that risk, his answer was: “Many of my friends have been caught, they burn down the boats and lock you up for life, but Chinese prices are too seducing my son..”.

All right. Interesting. Lunch continued. And so did the stories. That same day we met a young boy called Ahmad. An energetic and intelligent kid born and raised in a tiny village on Pulau Kadidiri right in the middle of the Archipelago. In this part of the Togeans, unfortunately like in many others, education is struggling. Follow-on rates to secondary high school appeared only 2-3%, primary school dropout levels are high and teaching materials are poor or sometimes even non-existent. Teachers, not necessarily untalented, are usually unmotivated, partly due to poor salaries. On top of that, Ahmad’s parents turned out to believe that schooling tends to create false expectations, and knowledge is something which can’t be taken to heaven. Sigh. Therefore many poor people who have had some experience of primary education often question its relevance to their needs, perceive few benefits and as a result withdraw their children from state education due to the harvest season or major fishing months. Even though it will be very hard I still sincerely hope this young man will ever be strong enough to somehow resist the pressure of his parents and live up to his full potential at some point in his life. And when the sun slowly set, Zazu invited me for one last swim of the day. “Just to wash off the day” he said.  
During our stay the only things we actually ‘did’ was fishing, eating and talking, leaving enough room for thinking. Thinking about the differences between growing up in a big city and in an environment like Zazu’s. Thinking about the differences between growing up in the Western world versus this world. Zazu’s world. And although back home so many people insist on making life so complicated, the way these people live it in such a simple and unassuming way without any necessity for possession, success, luxury or publicity has such an obvious effect on body and mind. It was a great honor to be able to experience how this little family gave happiness another dimension. It’s so cheesy, but so true.

Click here to see more photo's of our visit to Zazu.

Location: Indonesia
Author: Pie Aerts