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

Mama Kalong: Voices of the Tides

The first time I walked into that stilted house, right in the corner of the floating village, north and east in conjunction before the horizon of the sea, I had a feeling that the stories that rested inside the bamboo walls would change and distort my perception of the power of man in coexistence with the ocean.

It was luck that had brought me to stand there in front of their porch. The uninvited guest. Five minutes before, I had seen Mama Kalong strolling in the board walk in front of me. As she passed she brushed her right hand against mine, like two maples leaves getting tangled in early autumn wind. With the corner of my eyes, I glimpsed her smiling: a face perfectly outlined by wrinkles. I took this as a sign that she acknowledge my presence, and therefore had an excuse to approach her. There was something about the way she moved and talked that drew me in, a magnetizing force that urged me to at least find out a small portion of what her life meant to her.

Following the wise steps of that hunched, worn out body, I found myself lacking the words to explain why I was sitting on their porch. Luckily, Rita and Andar accompanied me. Rita speaks Indonesian and English, Andar speaks Bajau (Mama Kalong’s mother tongue) and Indonesian. In no time a conversation unfolded, words connected like change, fused by the power of globalization.

In my first visit, I learned that Mama Kalong and Bapak Tadi were two of the few Bajau survivors that had lived as nomads in a boat. They had traveled during their youth to finally settle in a community similar to Sampela. As nature had imposed itself through their lives, they had to move around, adjust, as waves in the ocean. It was a mixture of politics, geography, and climate change that had brought them to the present, to Sampela, where they have been residing the longest amount of time.

Mama Kalong had a speedy and gravely voice. She seemed to be saying what she pleased, as she pleased. No small talk, no space for filling words. With my eyes wide open, I listened to how she had married at a very young age, to what was only a family acquaintance back then, Bapak Tadi. After that, she had moved boats and started a new life, formed a family.

Her boat was 7 meters long and 2 meters wide. At times it was inhabited by up to 20 people. When she lived out there, in the hands of the superfluous power of Mbo Janggo (the Bajau ancestor spirit who lives in the ocean), she spent most of her time fishing and cooking. Back in the day, she and all the other Bajau people would spear fish gunless, which meant higher skill and precision to catch sea creatures. Their diets were based of fish, sea cucumbers, octopi, rays, sea urgent, seaweed and kezabe. They would rarely go to land, as they would rather sustain themselves from the depths of the sea, the pure definition of their home.

She progressed talking, letting her voice ride over time, as classical music, soothing and hypnotizing. She pointed at her ankles, at the big scars that went from the soles of her feet to her ankles; three ray stings, sea urgent injuries and even poisonous fish had left a mark on her skin. Despite the clarity of years of interacting with the dangers underwater, I knew it wasn’t this that made her so strong.

Her story continued narrating five months in which her family was kept captive as prisoners in their own boats, by the Indonesian revolutionists, Muslim extremists. They would use them as compasses, fisherman, and cooks for their own profit. They would force Mama and her family to guide them by water to different land villages, so they could rob the houses and enforce Islam as the only faith. They were able to escape after World War II calmed. The Indonesian Army searched their boat at a security point and let them go. When I asked Mama if the revolutionaries were violent to her, she replied reservedly saying that simply they weren’t that nice. Before I could ask the infinite questions that were lingering in my mind, it was time to go as 2 hours had passed.

The next visit I paid to the house in the corner of the sea, I brought some Tobacco for Mama Kalong’s beetle nut wrap. She didn’t say thank you, but her light blue eyes sparkled in appreciation. It was hot; the shade from the blanket that they hanged from the ceiling wasn’t enough to keep us cool. This time few words were exchanged. I spent most of the time observing the dynamic of the house. People running in and out as if it was a mansion. Mama Kalong and Bapak Tadi lived with their children, and the children of their children, and the family tree continued to branch. There was even a middle man living there. Who provided the financial income for all this people?

The day before I had heard Andar, giving Lauda (Mama Kalong’s son) as an example of one of the few Bajau people that to this day fished equitable to feed his family, and not to earn as much money as possible and spend it on processed food or material goods that same day.

I observed Mama Kalong’s hands gutting the fish and cutting the rays that Bapak Tadi had brought himself by spear fishing on his manual canoe. I followed each of her hand movements, as she slid the knife through the fish organs. Her wrinkles hands trembled slightly, but the efficiency in which she knew the anatomy of the marine body was astonishing.

The amount of knowledge that she stored in her brain was beyond my comprehension. I knew, from that moment that I would never be able to fathom, her symbiotic relation to the ocean. For some reason this thought wasn’t defeating, but rather reviving. It meant that no stranger could come by their house and take Mama’s story, and simplify it, dilute it, and pretend to understand it…as my writing might seem to be doing. Please don’t be fooled as the only tribute my writing can pay to the extraordinary existence of Mama Kalong, is what a few conversations I had the privilege to take part of revealed that then I interpreted subjectively, through my own existence.

The house in the corner of the sea will be, perpetually, a source of enlightenment and mystery to me.