I left the unbelievable Sipadan island feeling at peace. And grateful. At peace because such places, like this small drop of paradise in the Celebes Sea, still exist, in times when we look around and wonder what’s gonna happen to the world, to nature. And grateful, for I had the chance to see it, to step on its pristine white sand beach and swim in those clear waters, so abundant in life, right next to endangered huge green turtles, in the middle of schools of silver jacks and surrounded by colourful corals and fish of all kind. And I was also bringing with me the few regrets of a day that didn’t turned out exactly as I hoped it will. What I wasn’t bringing with me was a photo. Not even one. But it didn’t matter. I already have all Sipadan here, in my mind.
Back to Mabul
Mabul island was getting bigger in the horizon, as our boat was approaching the pontoon from Uncle Chang’s. We were all silent, me and my new Malaysian friends, with salty hair but sparkling eyes from what we have just seen. The freshly made memories were keeping us all like this: quiet. We soon stepped on the wooden stairs, as the boat was back in Mabul. The diving day was done. The experience was now ours.
In the distance, on the sea, I saw a group of people from the island carrying baskets and picking up something from the sea. Must have been clams or other seafood. The water seemed so shallow where they were, though it was far enough from the shore. I was determined to end that last day on Mabul island with a great seafood dinner, one to remember. (So it was but for different reasons…) It was the promise I made myself the night before, while eating cold rice and some remains of green beens, listening to Louise telling me how much seafood they all had the night before, at that party, how juicy the prawns are and how sweet the fish. I was trying in vain to ignore all the big plates full of seafood from the other tables and keep my eyes on my humble dinner. There was one simple rule to turn mine into theirs: bargaining with the locals, the sea gypsies, the Bajau Laut, who were selling the products, fresh, actually still alive. After that, the staff in the kitchen was so nice to cook the “catch” for free.
I first headed to the little store at the end of the pontoon, close to the beach, where a local lady was selling a few basic products. I bought two bottles of water and headed straight to the “fanciest” – NOT of showers, the one we had in the dorm room, to rinse the salt from Sipadan off my hair and remove for good that wire look hairstyle I had. Now, looking back to that moment, it seems so silly to waste two bottles of fresh water to cleanse my hair…. But then I did it.
A salty shower in the bucket and I was fresh, ready to go! I went out on the terrace to dry my hair in the warm breeze. I was hoping to “catch” some seafood for my amazing to be dinner.
– Ok, ok, ok….
One of the two Chinese girls I saw around before was sitting on the stairs, by the water, negotiating with a young man. He was showing her something in his boat…. I got closer. The small wooden boat was full of plastic bottles, each containing a prawn. They were huge, white with black stripes. The zebra prawns. All were moving their multiple feet inside those bottles. Among those plastic bottles with prawns was sitting, quiet, a little boy. I first came on the island fantasising about how I will buy and set free some prawns but now my killer instinct, encouraged by a sharp sensation of hunger, was kicking in… I choose to ignore the signs of empathy I was feeling for the poor captured prawns. I took a sit and the girl send me a friendly amused smile. That kind of “watch and learn” smile.
I have noticed her before: very posh, wearing designer flip flops, with porcelain perfect skin, always having a flawless makeup and leaving behind a persistent trace of Coco Mademoiselle perfume. She was in serious contrast with the landscape around and, of course, all the rest of us. She came on the island with her friend, who dive that day in Sipadan and was rather the sporty sexy type. On the opposite, she couldn’t swim and had no interest in water activities. They were both pretty and fun to have around.
The young man was trying to sell her something but the price she offered was way too low for him. The difference between them, economically speaking, was sticking. She seemed to be enjoying a little fun, at one point I had the feeling that she wasn’t even willing to buy anything at all. On the other hand, the young men was trying to get home with some money. I stood and watch and listen her repeating for tens of times: ok, ok, ooookkk. Few tens of minutes later, she suddenly left, distracted by something on the terrace. The young man, still a teenager as I now saw his face better, with a sad expression on, as if his purpose for that day, to bring some money home, was lost for good. He had tried before to engage me too into the negotiation but I refused politely. He was now picking up all the plastic bottles filled with prawns that he had presented to the girl, on her giant inflatable pink flamingo by the deck. A few fall off the flamingo into the sea and while struggling to get reach those, he lost one paddle. I now saw the little boy, who was quiet so far, jumping on his little feet, paddling with his little hands, pushing the small boat so he can grab the lost paddle. He made it.
– How much is a prawn like that big? I finally asked.
The boy turned to me a little surprised and happy and gives me a price.
– Where did you get those? He wasn’t into small talk anymore.
He points to the see and makes a gesture, imitating diving and spire fishing. He too was a sea gypsy, one of those people of the sea. We start negotiating and soon I agree to give him 10 of my only 20$ left for 3 big prawns. Expensive….
– It’s not much. You are rich, he says, looking down to the depths of the see. It took me by surprise like an ice bucket shower since I looked anything but rich on the pontoon of Uncle Chang’s, in that moment.
– I am not! I answered him as if it was an offence. And then he said something that left me without an answer…
– You have more than I have, so it means you are rich.
Right there, on the island, without any ATM, wi-fi and even full time electricity, this was a difference.
I payed him the 10$ and took the 3 big and very alive prawns. While he was preparing to leave I was having remorses for choosing a dinner instead of a bracelet for my mom… “I am such a stupid to pay that much when I only had 20$” He moves a couple of meters away and then comes back to the steps. I turned to him again, I understood he wants to shake hands. He grabs my hand inside his:
– Thank you for helping us! We both smiled and I now felt happy instead of silly.
I took the prawns to the kitchen, being afraid to even look at them. My soon to be dinner… I entered inside the stuff only area and I was directed to an entrance heading another terrace. There, a girl, maybe 14-15 years old, was sitting down on the floor, peeling away the skin from a red fish like I have never seen before, using only a small piece of wood for this. I left “my capture” on a table and left, feeling bad for the poor prawns…
– Hey, we found abalones, amazing abalones, this big, look, look. On the terrace, Andrew approached me so excited.
– What did you got? A-ba….?
– Abalones, you don’t know? The best clams in the world, are really the best and very expensive and hard to find even in the best restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. And then he whispers to my ear: Here were expensive too but the owner here negotiated with the fishermen for us and got us a very good price… We’ll all share it, if you want to join us…. Join us was actually translated into share the cost….
– Aaa, well, I just got something, but thanks, I will see… and I left quickly thinking about the only 10$ I had left and some change for one last green coconut in Mabul.
Happily, all I could wish for then was for free: one a last walk around Mabul, see the locals, their beautiful children with yellow painted faces playing along the beach, (the Bajau Laut use this technique to protect from sunburn), take countless sneak peaks inside their modest houses as I was passing by every one of them, feeling as if I was inside for a blink of an eye. I had my huge green coconut, sweet as only Mabul island can grow, using the same straw I was carrying with me for the last days.
– Without straw, yes? the lady from the store asked me. I was happy she now remembered me.
I checked all those fancy resorts on the other side of the island to try to change my 10$, the only cash I had left, into Malaysian ringgits. I was hoping to buy my mom a black pearls bracelet as the one I took for me a day ago, as my precious magnet form Malaysia. Such a gorgeous adding to my bracelets collection, gathered from all my beautiful places. But…No chance, no one was changing any money on that island. I already knew this but had to give one last shot.
I walked the island barefoot, loosing minutes in front of the large shark teeth from the pearls accessories little stall, collecting countless hellos from children and heart warming smiles from the people. I felt as if I was there since I couldn’t remember when. I passed by again the protected area with the green turtle nests and checked the days left until the eggs buried in the sand will hatch. When I will probably be back home, dreaming of Asia.
As the sunset was close, I went back to my place, had my prawns who had been fried meanwhile. The meat inside was sweet and delicious but unfortunately already cold when I got there. Some other guests were having dinner too and it seemed they all had made better choices…. I finished fast since was not so much to deal with and left to the office to plan my departure the next day and the boat back to Semporna. I took a short walk back to the island, looking magical in that blue hour, as locals were lighting fires by the beach, pulling the boats to the shore and the sun was disappearing into a pink line, far away on the sea. It was getting dark, the day was over.
– Finally! Where were you? Come on, we’ve been looking for you! ….That’s what I heard when I stepped on the terrace, back to Uncle’s Chang. I almost looked around, not sure the welcome was indeed for me.
In front, about 10 people gathered around a big table, full of food, fish and seafood, were waving in my direction. Andrew was there, his cousin, and all the people from Sipadan that day and their friends.
– Come, the abalones are already cold. One of the girls gets a few remains from a large plate in the middle of the table. That’s all what’s left, she giggles.
– It’s enough, I only wanna taste…. thank you, thank you so much, I said, still in full surprise.
And I understood why the abalones are called the best: because they really are. They insist I join them for what was next to come from the kitchen. A carnival of plates follows, full of hot steamed huge zebra prawns, fish, OMG, was a feast! I kept insisting they will allow me to contribute to this but they insist I was their guest. The girl next to me teaches me how to eat properly the prawns, and splits her share with me. She is a Chinese living in Borneo. We then exchange Facebook accounts to become “friends for life”. We eat and laugh and talk about all in the world. For a second I stopped and looked around at my new friends and our big table and the amazing food and I couldn’t stop thinking: If this is what traveling solo means, then I don’t need anything else.
The fancy Chinese girls were next to us, we all laughed seeing the huge quantities of seafood on their table. It was food for 20 hungry men: prawns, fish, crabs, some I did’t even know. They were working hard over there, also laughing like crazy of how much they took. They invited me also but I was already a guest and I refused politely.
Next we all moved on the pier, by the water. The Milky Way was lighting our night bright as thunder lights could be seen far in the horizon, as flash lights in the dark. It was the most perfect night on the island.
I woke up scratching my hand. It was still dark in our dorm. It was raining like crazy outside and all was grey. I went out on the balcony and I looked at my hand: was all covered in red dots: the revenge of the prawns! I had some sort of allergy, apparently. I knew the seafood in exotic places can be more then we can handle but now I got it too… At least I wasn’t choking as some friend was during her trip to Cuba, after eating shrimps the night before there.
I grabbed my stuff and went out the dorm. We waited for about 2h more for the boat to come and take us to Semporna. Andrew and his cousin, the fancy Chinese girls and myself. When we finally left the island, the sea was still very rough, with big waves and it was a hell of a 1h trip. I had constantly the feeling the boat will roll over each time a big wave was heating us. At one point the engine died… the guy managed to turn it on again. To me all these seem quite dangerous and intimidating. But as I looked around, they all were calm, covering their faces each time a wave had hit us. It is amazing how relaxed around water get people living next to the seas and oceans. A miracle to me was seeing us all safe and drenched, back to Semporna, back to the jetty.
– You know, I envy you…
– You… but why? I asked the Chinese girl, the one who has joined the group the other day in Sipadan.
– For having the courage to come here alone, I want to have your courage. I’m afraid to…
– You have the courage, do it and will be fine. But watch out, soon you’ll love it.
We both smiled and said goodbye. Who knows: maybe one day she asks a friend to go some place she wants to see, the friend says yes and then cancels the last moment. And so she will still go.
My last 10$ payed my way back to Tawau. Driving among the jungle of Borneo, surrounded by endless shades of green, I relieved all the moments I have lived in Malaysia during those past days, from the sounds of Taman Negara 130 million years jungle, to the colourful steps of Batu Caves and the hindu ceremonies, to the infinity pool facing the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and laughing in the rain in Merdeka Square and to the paradise in Borneo, swimming with green turtles and seeing the Bajau Laut. And this was one of the few places where leaving brought tears in my eyes.
What a rich trip it was!