"Aren't you afraid of living here all by yourself, next to these dangerous, pirate-infested waters?" one of the policemen had asked him back then. Pak Haji stood silent for a while, that eternal cigarette hanging sloppily from the left corner of his mouth. Then he proposed his new idea: "No, and I'm not going to leave. But why don't you tell people that we have some land up for grabs here?"
That's how Sabah's last community started growing like a rare, small mushroom lost in a mangrove forest at the easternmost edge of Borneo.
About a year ago, when Werren and Teo approached Pak Haji and his boatmen asking for help with researching the area, Kampung Meruap had to decide whether to maintain its isolation or embrace new opportunities. Adverse circumstances had helped Pak Haji in making his decision: the tides kept rising and retracing, forcing the fishermen to waste precious petrol following the movements of shrimps and fish in this vast area. Their community was also growing bigger, and that motley crew of smiling children who played on the jetty would soon need better schooling and larger clothes.
We were among the first 50-odd people to come to North Borneo's last village. On that first night, seated under the neon lights screwed into the wooden ceiling of Pak Haji's simple veranda, we consumed what, at least to me, was the best seafood banquet of our lives. Huge grouper fish and clams the size of my palms, paired with oblong shrimps that came directly from the nearby sea, were a rarity to me. But to the villagers of Kampung Meruap, they were just a simple meal—the daily sea's reward for having decided to settle at the world's end.
We left in pitch black darkness, sailing back through the mouth of the estuary. Moonbeams and dark shadows followed us back to our accommodation, a Forestry ranger chalet perched at the edge of the jungle, near one last palm oil plantation before the jetty giving access to the Sungai Kapur reserve. I went to bed with a mind filled with the obvious thoughts: Will the intrusion of the outside world spoil the authenticity of Kampung Meruap? Will the fishermen and Pak Haji grow hungry for tourist dollars, changing their habits, their lives and that place forever? Will Werren and Teo maintain sustainable tourism practices?
The next morning, we ventured again into Sungai Kapur's wilderness. We skirted a couple of lazy crocodiles, observed the awakening of giant flying foxes, and visited the far-flung beach of Pantai Belanak, where long-nosed, hairy Borneo wild boars usually come out to seek food and sunbathe. After cruising, we moored our dinghies back at Kampung Meruap once again. Seen in the daylight, the place looked like a tin can festooned with thread and duct tape.
The Sulu fishermen were still busy with their daily chore of preparing the morning catch for its trip to the markets of Lahad Datu. They hauled small and huge sea critters from plastic containers onto an ancient-looking, rusted scale, scribbling notes of weights and prices directly on the boxes carrying the fish. The village's children came out as soon as they saw us balance on the wood planks that serve as hazardous corridors, perched high between the stilt homes. The whole place still looked so unreal, sandwiched between impenetrable jungle canopy on one side, and endless sea on the other.
Pak Haji was waiting for us on his porch, his cigarette still tucked into the right corner of his mouth, as if it were a necessary breathing apparatus. When he stood up to welcome us in, I couldn't help noticing how small and sinewy he was—and yet, still able to make a whole village out of a god-forsaken shore. We sat on the edge of the veranda, waiting for a jug of that brand of sweetened Indonesian coffee that reportedly causes most of the diabetes in the region.
"What If I wanted to come here and stay with you in this beautiful place?" I asked him.
"Well," he took the cigarette out of his mouth in a gesture of respect before speaking again, "I would welcome you as my new son," Pak Haji said, while big crabs rattled between the empty plastic containers laying below us.
"Truth be told, I'd give you a week to learn how to fix the fishing nets," he continued. "And if you failed, I'd send you back on the next boat, for I only want useful men here," he cracked out laughing.
"Sure, I'll try my best," I replied. "And what if, on the contrary, I came here to teach English to your children?"
Pak Haji frowned his eyebrows, closed his mouth, and looked back at me. I had just hit him in the solar plexus, like the sudden changes that were slowly coming from the civilization that lurked beyond the edge of their forest. Stuff he didn't know how to digest yet. He took some time to ponder an answer, sucking smoke from his cigarette and observing the sea. After all, it had been there well before the kingdom that Pak Haji had carved out of nothingness, the community he was trying to preserve.
"Well, I guess you'd still be welcome then, regardless of the nets," he ultimately said, gazing as far as he could into his beloved sea. It kept crashing on Kampung Meruap's beach, exactly as it had always been. In that moment, I stood up and left the man alone with his sea.
Marco Ferrarese is a book author, freelance travel and culture writer, and metalpunk guitar-slinger based in Southeast Asia. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, hung out with Kurt Cobain's alleged murderer, and rode with truck drivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He shares his Penang knowledge at penang-insider.com, blogs about overlanding in Asia as a couple on monkeyrockworld.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.
And Out Came the Lions (Clubs) in Remote Malaysia - Marco Ferrarese
Rent a Real Man in Borneo - Bruce Northam
Orangutan Warfare in Borneo - Marco Ferrarese
A Warriors' Welcome in Maikmol, PNG - Tony Robinson-Smith
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