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

Teachings in Sampela

A little excerpt from my journal in Sampela (the village we are staying in in Wakatobi National Park on the Island of Sulawesi. We are staying with Bajau people, the “sea nomads,” who live on houses on stilts over the ocean. Most people here are dependent on the ocean for their livelihood, spirituality, and sense of purpose)


4/12/19 10:49 am


This morning I awoke early. There are always background noises here: roosters, water splashing, bare feet running across wooden planks, Ibu’s coughing and spitting, the sandpaper sound of a flip flop lagging along cement, the neighbors’ phones ringing, the far-off motorboat, and the sound of chirping birds. It feels like I am constantly surrounded by life. My bed shakes when my Ibu lies down in her room, it shakes when someone walks up the ladder to our house, and when someone moves around the kitchen. I feel what everyone around me is doing, and they feel me too.


This morning, the noises all seemed to lift at the same time, as if the world tugged on them together and they rose in undulations like a silk scarf. This sudden inhale of noises, a choir that wove together and reached its crescendo, woke me this morning.


I watched the blue sky poke through the straw roof outside my window. I watched the ocean’s delicate reflection shimmy and wiggle and dance across my ceiling from the water directly below me.


This morning by 10:49 am, I have already sweated enough to rid my body of any toxins that could have been in there from five lives ago. I have already felt the wind on my cheeks and tasted salty spray on my lips as I zoomed in a canoe across the ocean with Rita and my Bapak. I stretched my hands out and opened my arms to the water splashing — it felt like I was flying on the water.


This morning I have already swum through some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world. The second I jumped in the warm water, my breath caught in the back of my throat. I was in this underwater magical kingdom. All of the shapes of coral were foreign and curvaceous. There were the most beautifully patterned fish: some looked like leopards, some were bright pink, some black and white. There were nemos and doris, octopus and spiny zebra lobsters. For the next hour I kept seeing new fish I never knew were on this earth — fish with butterfly wings and long skinny eels with electric blue tails. My eyes teared up as I watched the most majestic, peaceful, ocean beauty glide through the dark blue water off of the drop-off of the coral reef, my first time seeing a sea turtle in the wild.


I watched my Bapak deftly swerve through the water, curling and extending his body to line up his angle of his speargun perfectly. I watched how a crowd of fish would gather around the speared fish, and Bapak would hand it to me underwater, still squirming, yellow intestines bulging out of the spear’s hole, eyes flashing around, heart still beating into my fingertips. In those moments I thought about this being in my hands, its feelings, its life. As a vegetarian of six non-consecutive years, I have tried to think carefully about how my food affects the world. Before I came to Sampela, I was pretty set on not spearfishing, even though it’s one of the biggest parts of life here. On that first fishing trip with my Bapak, I started to feel conflicted, and my moral stances didn’t seem so black and white.


The more time I spent with my family, the more I started to change my view of fishing. My family here lives “paycheck to paycheck” on Bapak’s fishing. If he doesn’t have a good catch, my family might not eat that day or have money to send my two younger host brothers to school. I began to see it more as a hunter-gatherer act of selflessness, him providing for his family. After that first fishing trip, I started spearing my own fish to toss into his bucket. Though the little turd brown common fish I pull up are almost embarrassing compared to the colorful parrotfish and multi-foot-long groupers Bapak catches, there’s a little something in me that feels proud to give something to my family. I still don’t eat fish here, but my heart has been filled with admiration and respect for my Bapak.


Along with vegetarianism, my time in Sampela has put another ethical issue right up in my face, so that I had no choice but to think it over. All of the Bajau here throw their trash into the ocean, and it often floats in the ocean “canals” between houses or even sometimes bits in the reefs — there is no other trash disposal system here. I have been able to live in the veil of separated disillusion about where my trash, especially plastics, go in the US. My family is big on recycling and compost, but I still never used to think deeply about the waste I created. Seeing trash go straight into the beautiful ocean is painful here, but it’s the same as the impact my trash at home is having that I never had to think about. At first I was confused and frustrated at all the plastic from this community who depends on the ocean for everything, and then I had to remind myself that their carbon footprint is so miniscule compared to mine, and that this was more of an issue of me being separated from the consequences.


Thank you, Sampela for being a real-world teacher. You put squirming fish in my hands and chocolate wafer wrappers in the waters I watch children play in. You’ve forced me to reckon with tricky issues that I thought I had a solid stance on but never had to defend in the moment. You provide time for reflection to let me think through how I actually want to live out my values. I’m forever grateful for what you have given me.