Sometimes you’re tied to your desk, slowly and painfully eeking out the words that will eventually take book form – but which is a fair way away yet. So there’s a bit of an energy and inspiration low. Then suddenly an email pings into the inbox asking for a few words about an obscure place you travelled to over a decade ago. It’s just to fill a tiny slot in a magazine, not a feature, but it wakes me up from my soporific hiatus.
After a bit of a file-shuffle, nay scuffle, I find the cutting from all that time ago (a miracle in itself) and start re-reading my description of the Togian Islands.
It’s a real Proustian moment – without the madeleine. I’m instantly whisked away to the South China Sea, back to the burning equatorial heat, outriggers and their patched sails, pristine, crystalline waters and myriad tropical fish of every colour, size and pattern. Plus a shark or two, though they were ‘just’ reef-sharks I was told. Above all, though, I remember the Bajau, people I’d met before off the coast of Borneo and was overjoyed to find again. Sometimes they’re called sea-gypsies. Basically they’re a nomadic ethnic group, all Muslim, allegedly from Mindanao, a turbulent island of the Philippines, but who knows really?
Those we met in the Togian Islands, part of Sulawesi, were more settled and making their livings as fishermen. The women had distinctly Malay features, although as they plastered rice-paste on their faces for sun-screen, it wasn’t very clear. Climbing up rickety ladders into their bamboo stilt-houses in the lagoon brought us inside very modest homes – basically a few mats, a pile of sarongs. cooking utensils and little else. Their main possession was an outrigger but to catch fish the men didn’t even need that, they just held their breath and dove deep deep down, swooping around in the murky depths for incredible lengths of time.
After that my friend and I set off on our own private boat-tour, thanks to a local character and two crew. For days we sailed around the archipelago, stopping off on blissful little tropical islands to swim, snorkel then devour barbecued fish, sleeping on a vast mattress which by day became a couch for Pashas shaded by a rudimentary canopy. It was heaven.
Now it’s back to work.