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Monday, 30 December 2013

The Bajau of Wakatobi, Indonesia

Written by Caitlin Kelly
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The Bajau people of Wakatobi national park in Southern Indonesia are perhaps the most smiley people I have ever encountered, but then again… I haven’t met many people. 

Three months ago I traveled to Indonesia, embarking on a South East Asian odyssey. This was my very first ‘big’ adventure. 18 years old, with a bag so heavy that it made me walk like a new born calf, I set off with a friend, to a corner of the world very different from my own.

48 hours later we had made it to Jakarta. The blast of heat wasn’t the most comforting element of my first few moments off a steamy, sweaty airplane. Forget that, I was in Jakarta! The roads alit with red and orange lights, car horns of course, the soundtrack to an Asian city. 

We were quickly bustled onto a bus, and off we went, to a hotel for three hours sleep, until we would be carted off to our next plane journey. 

The flight came and went, and after a bottom numbing four hour journey in a small, rattling van; finally we were in La Bundo-Bundo. For a tiny village slap bang in the Indonesian rainforest, there were a lot of people. It seemed like the whole nation was residing in this quirky little village. The ‘high street’ was a dirt track, with odd patches, that looked like efforts at a smoother surface. 

Village La Bundo Bundo

My house, which I shared with another girl, was interesting. The living area was dominated by some odd electric pink, plastic chairs. Strangely, they had figures of half-naked dancing women painted onto them. My host family spoke not a word of English, so I never attempted to find out the origins of these mysterious furnishings. 

The whole family, in fact, were very timid. But it never seemed to matter when they’d deliver a smile that could light up the earth, at every encounter.

After two weeks of intense trekking through the jungle, checking traps for monitor lizards and small creatures, I was more than ready to migrate to Hoga Island, where I’d be staying for the remaining two weeks. 


Two tin-can buses and a seven hour boat journey later, Hoga Island was my new home. It was a glistening green diamond in the center of an ocean; the cool breeze seemed to be a gift from God, away from the 40 degree celsius heat. The palm trees towered so tall, I felt a ping in my neck as I gazed up. How I had escaped the baking heat of the jungle, and ended up in paradise, was beyond me. 


I spent a week learning about fish species, part of the biodiversity course I had signed up for. Although I wasn’t too keen about sitting on a plank of wood for three hours a day, the content was quite captivating, so I endured the pain in my behind, learning about brightly colored fish and various types of coral. 

Finally, my last seven days arrived… it was culture week! That Monday, I leaped out of my tiny wooden bed, yanked open its mosquito nets, and skipped to breakfast. It was rice…again. I guess there’s no point in breaking a four week pattern right? 


The first day was spent in a stilt village, which we traveled to via canoe. Here we met a tribe of sea gypsies; the Bajau people. Traditionally nomadic, this group had settled, living off the fish of the Wakatobi national park and vegetables from nearby Kaladupa. As soon as we ventured onto the wooden platforms, we were engulfed by the children. For a moment, I suspected my hearing would be forever damaged from then onwards. These children were small, but their voices were like airplanes ripping through the atmosphere. They had on red cartoon tops, and yellow sports trousers, many of which looked similar to those that my mum had donated to the charity shops when I was little. 


We spent the next couple of days playing endlessly with the little critters, who had energy in abundance. We visited Kaladupa, a larger island, known for its potato farming and… yes, they had tarmac roads! Were our bodies relieved. Despite this, the island was still beaming with culture. The houses were modest, but brightly colored; blue, pink and green. Flowers and overgrown plants framed the homes. 

Martial Arts

In the afternoon, we visited a ‘fish farm’. Not an extensive array of fish pools, but one small, yet fascinating hut-like structure just off-shore. Climbing onto its platform, we looked down to swarms of fish, gasping for life. 

After bringing the catch back, which included a turquoise puffer fish, the locals proceeded to prod each one, until it died. One girl in our group went cloudy white; I think she was a vegetarian. 

Our final day came. We witnessed a traditional tea ceremony, complete with animal figures constructed from palm leaves, and an unnervingly quiet baby. As the sun set over the smooth grey ocean, our boat of enthusiastic travelers was quiet at last, as each took a moment to reflect.

Three planes and two precarious midnight boat journeys later, I was boarding the long-haul flight home. The excitement about sitting on soft chairs and chomping on western food for the first time in four weeks quickly ran dry, as I realized my time in Indonesia had come to an end. I said goodbye to the people I had met and so long to the nation of smiles. 


©Caitlin Kelly 

Last modified on Thursday, 02 January 2014