There is no fresh water on the island so everyone living there depends on rain to collect it. A big water reservoir laid on the sundeck and every day we took showers out there, scooping the water out with a little bucket and giggling like kids, savoring every drop of fresh water that came to contact with the skin. I became enamored very quickly with this beautiful ritual that brings you to your senses about how much we take for granted the preciousness of this resource. When the storm came one day, the reservoir was finally full and overflowing, pouring it back into the ocean, drip-drop, drip-drop...and my heart was also full and happy, even though I was leaving the next day and I didn't need to worry anymore about a possible emptiness.
Food variety was scarce too. The dishes they made for us were really delicious but very simple as nothing grows on the island and the ocean is the only source of food. For every meal we were given fish, rice and a very tasty cabbage salad with anchovies. No other veggies, no fruits and pretty soon I started dreaming about something else, anything else. Even a banana would satisfy those cravings. One day, we ventured into the village hoping to find a fruit, and returned triumphantly with a bunch of bananas. Then we learned that what we had purchased were "inferior bananas" used for frying! The locals made fun of us but I felt very satisfied with 20 bananas down in my belly! But hey, after all we didn't go there for a culinary retreat but to dive in one of the most incredibly rich habitats in the world.
We did 10 dives in nearby sites as well as in the world renowned Sipadan island, only 20 minutes away. If someone asked me to describe diving, I wouldn't know where to begin and what words to choose, but I think my eyes would start to shine and maybe that is as close as I can get to reflecting this vast feeling. One thing I know for sure is that life was not complete until I went underwater, surrendered to the strangest mix of all, made up of all my fears, vulnerability, and the intoxicating beauty of marine life and landscape. Imagine being silent for an entire hour, gliding and floating into the blue, listening and watching something else other than human words and inventions. Imagine that every turtle, every fish, every coral, every shark, every manta ray is a powerful reminder of how extraordinary creation on our planet is. It's there, in the eyes of the ancient, giant turtle resting on the edge of a cove. I stare at her glossy eyes and see all the beauty that I so often fail to see in the world above.
Every time I surface, I am different, transformed. Every breath of fresh air is 10 times more powerful and conscious. I feel humbled and honored to have witnessed the hidden kingdoms below. I feel really small and insignificant but infinitely happy to share the planet with millions of other graceful creatures. The silence continues to linger a little bit between all of us when we surface, while our brains struggle to remember quick words, as if we must describe the magic below. But for me, no words or photographs can capture the essence of diving.
I will never forget the scene on the documentary where a Bajau man was freediving underwater to catch fish. To me, it looked more like he was leisurely walking underwater, deep down on the bottom of the ocean, stepping from rock to rock for what seemed like an eternity, until he spotted this hidden fish under a rock and speared it with precision. He couldn't possibly be a human from the same species as us. I read somewhere that their pupils have evolved to be able to see underwater and their respiratory system has adapted to support them holding their breath at 20 meter depths for several minutes.
The sea Bajau live in handmade boats, called lepa-lepas, and move around using smaller, hand carved canoes, navigating them through water from a squat position. Everyone was fully squatting while paddling! With their feet together (no gap), flat on the canoe and their straight spine! I tried that myself but didn't last more than a second. Another remarkable talent of the Bajau!
At low tide, everyone helps to catch food. All the kids and women would walk around the ocean for hours in front of the stilted huts, carrying baskets or pulling small canoes to collect their catch. Women's faces were dusted by a cooling powder to protect them from the sun. The kids hair was decorated by splashes of natural sun highlights. The sea is all they know. Their life force, their provider, their universe, the heart of their existence.
And yet, every day at high tide currents would bring endless garbage floating all around the island. The first night I saw it, I became very sad and nearly cried. I was worried about the turtles coming up for air from below and choking on floating clear plastic. I had a plan to get up early the next morning before the dive and collect it. But the next day more and more garbage floated, so much that nothing I could do would be anywhere near enough to solve the problem. People continued to canoe around as if they didn't see it, as if they had immunity to it. My sadness was turning into anger. A few days later when we returned to Singapore, I watched the video of Henry, the little environmentalist boy who was angry at all the people that "are destroying our planet and the animals" because they litter...I was sobbing and laughing at the same time with him. I hope you can make a difference little man!
Sometimes it's hard to stay positive and close your eyes to what is happening around you, especially when it comes to the seas of the Coral Triangle, the global center of the marine biodiversity. Times are changing. Our planet is changing. Bajau people are changing. People of other nations on the Coral Triangle are changing, as unsustainable new ways of living are slowly reaching their world. But the Coral Triangle must be protected. An unbelievable amount of biodiversity is condensed into this area (which is less than 1% of the world's ocean surface!): it is home to one-third of the world’s coral reefs, 75% of coral species, nearly 3,000 species of fish, half of the world’s seagrass and marine mollusk species, 75% of mangrove species, six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles and more than 22 species of marine mammals. It's such a special place! I hope we, the people, can let it heal and recover.