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Freediving with the Bajau

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After a turbulent boat ride, I found myself climbing on the planks on stilts based on the coral reef. These were the streets of Sampela, the village where the sea nomads have settled. P., my host, smiled and immediately showed me the hut I would live in: two rooms, one mattress and one lamp, and a toilet that had direct connection to the sea. If you step heavily on the thin planks you can also find yourself in the sea. P. runs this business since he is one of the few who can speak English.

“Do you want beers?” He says, “My wife and child are going to the shore to bring water.”I nod yes. I explore my hut.

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“How big is your village P.?”
trying to start a conversation. “about 500 people… There are two other Bajau villages nearby” (Bajau population is currently estimated at 800,000, most of which now live permanently in villages).

“All the villages are over the sea?”

“Of course,” he says, “You know, Bajau don’t like mosquitoes.”

“And there are no mosquitoes here?” “For mosquitoes to come there must be plants. You cannot find plants over the sea!”

“Do you live all year in the village?” “My father goes for months at a time on large fishing boats, but I think it’s not worth it.” “Have you travelled to anywhere, for example to Java?” “Yes,” he says, “I’ve been to Germany. A German TV channel made the expenses! A guy came to shoot a documentary in Sampela. And then, he invited us to Munich, me as an expert swimmer and a veteran Bajau as an expert freediver. “” How did you find Germany? ” “Cold,” he tells me. P. does not waste his words.

I started a reconnaissance walk. “Step at the centre of each board, which has support, otherwise it may be rotten and you fall.”

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Bajau children were amongst the happiest you’ll meet
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Where there’s people, there’s cats

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Village is expanding fast

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Some Bajau, mostly women, put a rice cream on their faces for sun protection

With a bunch of kids following me, we reach the courtyard of the mosque where small kids kick a ball. Yes, there is even mosque on the reef! P. told me they are all Muslims, but not too passionate, I realised from the context.

P. arrives and shows me around: “Here’s the school.” “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about it. The children of Hoga come here with the boat.” He lowers his head, “Do you see these beers in the school yard? You get the idea… “. We arrive at the football pitch the Dutch lady H. built in the most central point of the village. The court is small and they play footvolley, picking up occasionally the ball from the sea. P. proudly recommends to his teammates the Greek, who however proved to be a poor representative of the football of his country.

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Education of the kids is focused more on fishing, using baby spear guns

Next day there was a spear gun waiting outside my door. We were going to catch daya (Bajau word for fish), after a short visit to sign the village’s guestbook. Together with one of P.’s friends, we rode the boat to the coral between Sampela and Hoga. There, I became a witness to the Bajau underwater fishing technique. Majestic seen from above.

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The technique is learned by every male Bajau from the first moments of his life since the tradition is to throw babies into the sea until someone dives to save them. Here a Bajau filmed for a BBC documentary:

P.’s friend gives me the spear gun to try my luck. A few minutes later and some unsuccessful attempts, I hear noise from the surface and P.’s friend grabbing my spear gun and hiding it under the coral. We go out, to see a boat next to ours and P. talking to two guys. A chubby one with glasses, not very comfortable being on a boat, and another one with rough features. “You,” says the second, “What are you doing with the speargun here? Don’t you know it’s a national park? “. All eyes on me. “I was snorkeling,” I lied, to save myself, but also not to put P. into trouble. Bajau is a very marginalised society, completely dependent on fish, which have become scarce because of the large fishing boats. P. opened the holds and showed that we have neither spear guns nor fish. “We saw you with the binoculars” said the spectacled one. “And in order to snorkel here, you have to get a ticket for the National Park.” Again, I was surprised. “The ticket…..”. “Get off to the shore” he said angrily.

The closest land was Hoga. The tide had begun to rise, and so we had to leave the boat and walk with P. a 500 meter distance in the water. A shameful walk. We found the two guys chatting with the Dutch lady H. while the bungalow residents were observing with curiosity. After some discussions, H. proposed a compromise: we’ll pay for the ticket, the pricing of which had become a bit creative, so that everyone realises it was a misunderstanding.

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Back to the boat, we searched underwater for the spearguns and found them. P., who was both apologetic and angry with the water police, began telling me a story from his student years in Kentari. Some people were bullying him, because he did not smoke (indeed, P. must be the only Indonesian I knew how doesn’t smoke) and two machetes had appeared. “These conflicts never end up well” he concludes, showing me a scar in his leg.

P. had caught a fish. “Do you eat sushi?”, with a knife he cuts the raw fish into bits. He ate one, put another in his hand and offered it to me. “Try it.” It was not bad, with all this walking in the water I was hungry. “You are on the right track to become a Bajau,” he tells me and we laugh.

My time with the Bajau was soon over.

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Diving Greece’s first underwater museum

410 BCE. The Athenian merchant ship, 30 m. in length, sailed off the port of Ikos island (modern Alonnisos). The hold was full of wine, from Chalkidiki peninsula and Sporades islands, along with drinking vessels and other paraphernalia. The wine of these regions was in demand everywhere in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. However, the economic crisis, brought about by the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, forced the owner to load more cargo than usual. It was a stormy night. Disaster was inevitable.

The straight between Alonnisos and nearby islet Peristera

Modern day. Training started a few days before. Together with G. from Athens we needed to upgrade our diving licence from maximum depth of 18 meters to 30 meters, since the shipwreck was lying in -28 meters. Training was organised by South African lady M., the manager of the local diving centre, and contained a ‘search and recovery’ dive. The instructor K. from Thessaloniki, who now lives locally, chose a special task for us: To retrieve the pots of a British artist, placed in the water a year earlier to test the effect of the sea on them.

Location of the shipwreck

A few Roman amphorae lying on the see floor, surrounded by seashells opening and closing, gave to K. the location of the hiding place. Inside the crevices of the reef we spotted a basket containing the artist’s vessels. K. tied a balloon to the wire basket and blew inside a small quantity of air from his mouthpiece. Just enough to control it the way back to the surface and the boat, a task that fell upon me and G.

G. is an old diver, but having a break in recent years and keeping in touch only through his job. He is a ship inspector, supervising the divers fixing and carrying things underwater. This time it was his turn. The basket with the pots changed hands, as we had to monitor our depth and oxygen levels and also for rocks appearing on the bottom while keeping our buoyancy. The pots where in a fragile balance of breaking and bitterly disappointing the artist. K. was also aware of the water police, who he had confronted last time and had to reassure them that the vessels where only 1 year old. All went good this time.

Lady’s amphorae retrieved

Day of the dive. A. an underwater archaeologist briefed us at the diving centre. Consequently, the speed boat headed to the islet of Peristera, where the remains of the ancient ship were found. The remains today are the amphorae that carried the wine and the ballast of the ship. We spit in two groups and entered the water under the gaze of the ship dog. My group included K., G. and G. an Italian with a family history on the island – Italians have a multi-decade love affair with the island and diving. First, was the vertical dive to minus 18 meters following the buoy rope. Following, two turns around the wreck stopping at information points.

Pre-dive briefing.
First group in the water

The amphorae were of two types, depending on their origin, and in three different layers. Some of them clustered together in small islands, with signs of the excavation trenches and random rocks from the ship’s ballast in the middle. These leftovers from the past had new residents. Curious groupers were stopping between the islands. A moray eel was manoeuvring inside the cracks, while an inky black head popped out of an amphora claiming without doubt that ‘this is my home’ – it was another eel. The second time around we stopped to see the profile of the wreck: protruding vessels created a ‘lost Atlantis’ picture. We subsequently went up a level to stare from above. A school of larger fish, amberjacks – or ‘manalia’ as the locals call them – started circling around us. ‘They are curious with people’ said K. after the dive. The second group of divers reported the sighting of a large ray. Diving was over and it was a blast.

Amberjacks

The underwater archaeological site of Peristera is open to the public starting summer 2020. A diving licence that covers 28 meters depth is necessary and the archaeologists are strict about this. You book a diving slot that lasts for about 2 hours, including the briefing and getting to the diving spot. For more info contact local diving centre:  http://www.ikiondiving.gr/.

Finally, in this website: https://nous.com.gr there is live picture from the site from an underwater camera. Sometimes you can see the divers.

Images with Ikion logo courtesy of Ikion diving.

A long weekend in Slovenia: The capital

That evening we climbed Castle Hill in central Ljubljana. Below, the steep pitch of the roofs and the amount of trees between the buildings indicated that rainfall is very common. From the battlements we could see the wooded hills around the capital, including Rožnik hill, opposite, with its hiking paths offering a welcome break from the touristy centre. The castle itself has a long history, starting as an Illyrian fortification. Nowadays, it features a medieval stronghold with the flag of Ljubljana on top, which features the castle itself and a dragon.

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On Sunday morning, I walked to the city centre to take some pictures in my own time. It was early enough to beat most of the other tourists, while locals seemed to have taken time away, leaving their capital literally empty. Also, temperature hadn’t yet reached the high 30’s that one gets at midday. Perfect.

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At some point between 8:30 and 9 am large groups of tourists were starting to spill out of their hotels. Cafeteria personnel were welcoming them and soon the centre became too busy.

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It was time to move out towards the ‘alternative’ Metelkova neighbourhood. There, I encountered a museum complex and people in reclining chairs on the grass, drinking coffee or eating breakfast, waiting for it to open. I strolled around the area which looks like a big squat. Colourful characters were quietly sitting in front of the colourful building fronts and nosy passers-by like me, often on roller blades or scooters, were photographing the rich graffiti art.

It was time to enter a museum, which I chose to be the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum. The ground floor hosted a very interesting temporary exhibition of Siberian shamanism. There was also a floor on the history of Slovenia, especially in relation to the rest of the world. I found a panel on the history of their xenophobia (below) disarmingly honest. There was also the story of the Čupas, the now extinct wooden boats, that Slovene fishermen dragged from the mainland to the rocky Adriatic coast, where no suitable places to build ports existed. The top floor was dedicated to the traditional arts of honey and ginger bread making. Very atmospheric, with ambient sounds and an exhibition of the beekeepers quirky folk art.

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The museum made me realise that Slovenes are not merely an Alpine or a Mediterranean nation, but a unique mixture of both.

Outside, the town squares and markets of Ljubljana were transforming into a Balkan festival. Folk bands, dances, lots of meat, gelato and many fountains to hydrate under the relentless sun. All happening next to the main river, Ljubljanica.

The last hours in Ljubljana we spent admiring the rich architecture. From neoclassical to Art Nouveau, there is something for everyone. There are even Roman ruins for the archaeology geeks among us. One cannot fail to notice the frequent use of classical columns. The perpetrator is a certain Jože Plečnik, Ljubljana’s beloved architect, who can be found even printed on T-shirts. To be honest, I am not sure what to make of all these columns. But the most important is the locals like them, as they seem at least to do.

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It was time to depart. I was glad I was introduced to this scenic country with a very unique culture, combining North and South European elements. Also glad that, from now on, I will never confuse Slovenia with Slovakia! The best way to learn the geography of a place is to go there.

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A long weekend in Slovenia: The countryside

I visited Slovenia last June, after the invitation of a friend who lives and works in the capital, Ljubljana. The plan was to combine cycling, trekking and sightseeing and do as much as possible in three days.

We both took it seriously – some of us more than others – and woke up at 5:00 am on Friday. The roads were empty and the air clean and fresh. The sleepy neighbourhoods and weathered roads of North Ljubljana were not a serious obstacle and soon we were climbing the first hills. Beige church towers with grey pointy roofs overlook dark green and golden summer fields, big piles of wood and small villages. The smell of animals lingered. All was wonderfully rustic.

After passing places with difficult names, like Hrastenice or Polhov Gradec, we heard the bells ringing as we pushed through a steep uphill.

The asphalt became gravel, then asphalt again and we went uphill and downhill all the way to the small river Poljanščica, where we turned right.

Our midway milestone was the medieval town of Škofja Loka. Surrounded by hills and forest, it sits on both sides of the river. At the edges of the town we could see a church towering a hillock, manor houses with red roofs and a castle dominating all. We rode through the very narrow old streets. It was almost mid morning and people were out doing their business.

The rest of the route was passing through dense small villages and fields. At some point we needed to be creative and do a diversion, since the road heading back south to Ljubljana was blocked by road works. An opportunity to catch a glimpse and photograph some small corners.

Next morning, we walked to Ljubjiana main coach station. On our way, we passed through the old Olimpija Ljubljana stadium. Nowadays, it is full of weeds. My friend told me half-jokingly, half-seriously it’s safer to wear green clothes around here. And certainly not the purple colours of Maribor FC, their mortal enemies. Well, that’s the Balkans. Don’t be deceived by the clean wide pavements.

We caught a coach to Lake Bohinj. On the way, we passed by the famous Lake Bled, with its trademark small island and church on it.

When in Bohinj we began our ambitious trek, starting from the west end of the lake. We were about to climb the mountain that commands the north side and descend from the east side. Not too far from the start, though, we had to turn back. “Path closed”. My friend found on-line that there was recently an accident, a Dutch tourist falling over the edge and losing his life. We walked to the Savica waterfall instead, where the man selling tickets complained that many tourists take the trek lightly, wearing flat shoes. I looked at my shoes. Perhaps it was better it was closed!

We walked parallel to the north side of the lake. Many people had dropped their bicycles and had dipped into the water. Slovenian people seem to make the most of their outdoors. From the east end, we climbed the mountain until we reached a high point. There we sat and ate our sandwiches taking a good view of the wild Slovenian country.

Finding those who live over the sea

Weighting up my alternatives, after the boat cancellation, it was clear I had to retrace part of my journey by air, since there were no direct flights from Komodo to the island of Sulawesi (Celebes). Both options, via Bali or via the city of Surabaya in Java were equally expensive for a last minute fare, and I chose the latter in order to avoid disruption from tourists evacuating Bali after the earthquake. My first flight at 10:35 with Lion Air was canceled and we were moved to the 13:50 flight, along with a meal of consolation. This is when I had that discussion about Euphrates river.

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Lion Air’s prayer sheet proves the diversity of Indonesian religions.

Once in Makasar, the capital of Sulawesi, I spent half of the next day admiring the surreal promenade called Pantai Losari and the Dutch colonial remnants of Fort Rotterdam. Speaking a few Indonesian words apparently saved me a few rupiahs, since the officer decided to offer me with the discounted ticket for the locals. On the other hand, a local tour guide managed to take my whatsapp and flood it in with messages about day long trips and pictures of ‘unmissable’ places.

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Pantai Losari, looking at a mosque under construction opposite

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Fort Rotterdam, the well-preserved centre of Dutch colonial command

My entrance to Wakatobi islands was the airport of Wangi-Wangi. The name Wa-ka-to-bi comes from the first letters of the four islands: Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongo. Odd! My target was the second island, Kaledupa, and since the speedboats departed only in the morning, I had to stay one night in Wanci, the capital of Wangi-Wangi. This is probably the biggest disadvantage for tourists traveling to this place: you need two extra nights, one in each direction.

Wanci, however has its charms. A busy night market full of fish and figures moving in the dark. The local girls were unusually direct and flirty for this part of the world. The only other Westerner appeared next to me only for a moment, to help me buy some fruit using his Indonesian. On my way to the harbor, the next day, I even spotted a demonstration. “Local authorities are rubbish”, said my moto-taxi driver. This place was definitely different from the touristy places I’ve seen in the first 20 days.

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Plenty of fish in Wanci night market

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Map of the islands

Once in Kaledupa, I stayed in a Dutch lady G.’s bungalows in a tiny island off the coast called Hoga. On the way I teamed up with Italo-Lebanese-Briton A. and his Moroccan girlfriend I. and a mellow retired music teacher from Queensland J. Initially there was no free bungalow for J. but general manager and excellent cook local lady V. found a solution, but moving around some of the staff. One doesn’t want to sleep in the beach with the small Komodos – in fact small monitor lizards – strolling around. Enchanted by the isolation and tranquility of this place and the hospitality of the Dutch and Indonesian ladies, I decided to spend a few more nights there. I even did a few more dives in the waters that Jacques-Yves Cousteau described as “underwater Nirvana” and the best to dive in the world.

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Approaching Hoga

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Hoga resort had the essentials you need

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Small monitor lizards hiding under the bungalow

The people of the sea, called Bajau, arrived on the second morning for the Dutch lady’s birthday. They barely set a foot in the land, but instead did some boat racing to honour their beloved benefactor. G. had recently made them a football pitch in their village on stilts and was constantly helping them with their troubles. They are literally her children. G. herself when younger had sailed these waters, fell in love with the sea gypsies and the beauty of the place and when she later received a heritage she decided to come back and build this business. Even the local dignitaries were here today. Of course, running a business as a foreigner in Indonesia is not made easy by the Indonesian law, and G. had a few interesting stories to say on her relationship with the authorities.

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Gathering for the Bajau boat race

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Celebrating with the local dignitaries

In this occasion I met a Bajau looking around 20 years old, though it was hard to be sure. He spoke some English, but remained distant. I asked him what he was doing, he thought for a while, and glancing at his friends, said, “spear fishing”. Then I asked him what music he liked and again after looking at his friends, he said laughing, “Suka Musik Jawa” (not sure if that was a type of music or just said “I like the music of Java”). I noted down his name, S.

The second Bajau I met was D.. About 20, he had just received the diploma of diving instructor. Seemed strange because the Bajau are traditionally free divers, but an excellent job opportunity nevertheless. He was my faithful diving partner. We never exchanged a single word, but his sweet smile and respect made him the ideal companion.

I met some wonderful tourists in Hoga, visited the only village of the tiny island, consisting of a dozen wooden huts and children playing with the mud, discovered the haunted buildings of an abandoned NGO, listened to the strange sounds of the jungle. Then, I decided it was time to break the spell that holds me in this island, and I got G. to arrange for a Bajau to pick me up. Shortly after the morning boat with pupils from the island left for the Bajau village, where there is a school, I also jumped on the boat of my new Bajau hosts

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The school boat taking children of Hoga to the Bajau village school

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Approaching the village in the middle of the sea