Fishermen Island, a remote paradise nestled amidst the vast expanse of the ocean. While it may appear idyllic at first glance, life on this captivating island is far from easy. From the relentless battle against the elements to the limited resources and isolation, the residents of Fishermen Island face a myriad of challenges on a daily basis. In this article, I delve into the struggles encountered by those who call this isolated haven home, shedding light on the resilience and determination that define their way of life.
Messa island, Indonesia
I was on my way to Labuan Bajo, a fishing town located at the western end of the large island of Flores in Indonesia. I had heard about Flores from my friends Michael and Karina from Germany, whom I met on the first day I arrived in Indonesia. They advised me to come here and try diving, as it is one of the best spots in the world.
As always, I checked the Couchsurfing website to see if there were any options to find a host there. To my surprise, a family living on a tiny island close to Flores approved me, and I received a message that they would pick me up from the Labuan Bajo port. On their Couchsurfing profile, it was described as a remote fishing island with only one very good review. I was very excited, and during the journey to Labuan Bajo, I kept thinking about it and wondering how it would be. I thought it would be interesting to see their daily life, which is definitely different from that of an ordinary village.
At the port, I was greeted by my host, Ahmad, who informed me that since I arrived in the evening, there were no boats available to take us to his house. He was still trying to find a fishing boat to transport us, but unfortunately, he wasn’t successful. So, I sat on the shore of the harbor, watched the setting sun, and waited for him to make alternative arrangements. Eventually, he managed to find a tourist/party boat that could take us. It was just the two of us and two staff members on the boat. During the journey, which lasted about an hour, I witnessed a breathtaking sunset over the sea. The sky was painted in soft pastel watercolors. We were surrounded by dozens of beautiful islands, and I could see boats returning from fishing or heading to spend the night on the water. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen.
By the time we arrived, it was already dark. I couldn’t see much, only the dimly lit streets and a few candle lights inside the houses. Despite the darkness and fatigue from the long trip, I wasn’t too bothered. My main focus was finding a shower and a comfortable bed. However, when we reached Ahmad’s home, I quickly realized that my dreams of a soft bed and a shower were not going to come true!
Messa Island is a fishing community, where almost all families are involved in fishing. The men go out to catch fish at night, which they later sell in the Labuan Bajo market. Most families live in poverty, although there are a few wealthier families whose houses stand out. These wealthier families either sold the islands they used to own or are engaged in larger fishing enterprises. The island is one of the few inhabited ones in the entire archipelago, and despite the challenging living conditions, people choose to stay here due to their traditions. With the same amount of money, they could live more comfortably on the mainland without many worries.
Being an island surrounded by water, everything is different on Messa Island. Electricity is only available for five hours a day, from 6 pm to 11 pm. There are a few large generators operated by private individuals. The cost of electricity for a day is around 1 EUR, but it varies depending on the electrical appliances each family has. For example, if someone has a refrigerator, they would pay around 1.5 EUR. Consequently, some families have their own generators. However, in my opinion, it is not worth it because they need to purchase fuel, which is expensive (considering they have to pay for a boat to bring it from the mainland), and it ends up being costly. The only advantage of having their own generator is the ability to control when to turn it on or off.
Another challenge on the island is the availability of fresh water. Since Messa Island is surrounded by the sea, the only water source is saltwater. To obtain fresh water, it needs to be transported by boat from the mainland. One family recognized a business opportunity in this situation and started bringing tanks of water by boat to sell to the villagers. It costs around 0.50 EUR for a 10-liter bucket of water, which may not seem like much, but for many villagers, it is an expense they can’t afford. The water is used for cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, and bathing. However, most locals bathe and do their laundry in seawater and only rinse with the precious freshwater.
The family I stayed with was very poor, so they couldn’t afford electricity. The rooms were illuminated by an old oil lamp or a torchlight. If I needed to charge my phone, I had to seek help from the neighbors.
The island faces several other challenges, including limited mobile connectivity, children who have never left the island, a sense of boredom, and a lack of healthcare facilities. Here I was, arriving with dreams of a comfortable bed and a shower, but it became clear that those luxuries were not available here.
Returning to the day of my arrival, I was welcomed by my host family. However, due to the darkness, I could barely see them. Their faces were illuminated by candlelight. While Ahmad’s wife, Epa, prepared food for me, Ahmad shared stories about life on the island. I felt a mixture of sadness and curiosity about experiencing this way of life. Ahmad was the only one in the family, and one of the few on the island, who could speak English. Therefore, all communication was through him, or I attempted to use my limited Bahasa with others.
Several families on the island, including my own, have opened small shops selling essential goods. However, there are numerous similar shops scattered everywhere, so typically, only nearby family members or relatives come to make purchases. My family ventured into this business primarily because there is nothing else to do and they are bored 😀 I believe other small shop owners have done the same, driven by the lack of alternative options for livelihoods. It’s somewhat amusing to think that the abundance of these shops is a result of the scarcity of other activities on the island.
Epa and Ahmed have five children, two of whom attend a school in the city located 400 km away. Education is expensive, so all their savings are directed toward their children’s education fund. Every cent, including the money saved on electricity, is dedicated to this cause. Ahmed expresses his desire for his children to have a better life than his own, one where they don’t have to struggle and count every cent. Ahmed himself does not have a stable job; he takes whatever work comes his way, whether it’s being a porter, a conductor, or assisting in various tasks. He used to work with tourists, standing on the streets and offering tours, which helped improve his English. However, he stopped doing that because the pay was minimal, and he wanted to spend more time at home, taking care of the children. According to Ahmed, his wife did not take care of them.
Ahmed and Epa’s marriage was arranged by their parents, and there is no longer any love between them, if there ever was. The only thing keeping them together is their children. It’s not surprising that they disagree on many things. Ahmed shares that he even lived separately for a year because he couldn’t bear to be together, but he returned for the sake of the children and to take care of them.
Epa, like the majority of Indonesian women, is a housewife. She opened a small shop mainly to have something to do, but it generates very little profit. Only two or three customers from neighboring houses visit the shop each day. So she spends her days sitting and waiting at the shop. Occasionally, she orders ice cream from the city and sells it to the whole village. She often spends time at her sister’s nearby house, where she watches TV in the evenings and engages in conversations. A few years ago, the entire family lived in the city. Epa had her own fabric store, and Ahmed worked in the tourism industry. However, one day, their house and store burned down, leaving them with nothing. The only place they had to go was Messa Island, where they have been living ever since. Epa grew up on the island and had a house there. Ahmed always mentions that it is her fault that they live in this challenging situation. Her family is nearby, so moving to the island was the only option after they lost their house in the city.
Alongside Ahmed and Epa, their other three children live on the island. They attend the local school. I didn’t interact with them much because they don’t speak English, and my Bahasa skills are limited. However, there is much to learn from these children. The girls, aged around 10-12 years, are already showing entrepreneurial skills. Their mother doesn’t give them money or treats; instead, she tells them to earn money themselves. After school, they quickly grab bags of snacks from the family shop and walk around selling them to other children by shouting out. They can keep the profits from their sales, and it’s likely that they use the money to buy treats for themselves as well. Ahmed is slightly frustrated that the children can’t buy candies when their friends do, so he secretly gives them some money when his wife isn’t watching. This is how life goes for everyone on the island.
My “bed” consisted of a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net. Meanwhile, the entire family slept directly on the floor without any bedding. But such living arrangements are normal in Southeast Asia, where people live simply. Instead of a proper shower, I had to make do with a few cups of water that I purchased from Ahmed. I handed over my phone to Epa, who would bring it to the neighbors to charge. With everything settled, it was time to sleep and await an exciting day ahead.
On that day, as I sat at the small village port waiting for Epa’s ordered boxes of ice cream, I found joy in interacting with the children from the village. They were filled with excitement at the sight of a foreigner and eagerly engaged with me. They climbed on my back, attempted to playfully take the bracelets I had collected during my travels, and showed off their jumping skills into the water. Before I knew it, more and more children began to arrive, likely drawn by the spreading rumor of a foreigner being present on the island.
Finally, the boat arrived, filled with people and carrying the two boxes of ice cream. We quickly grabbed them and made our way back home. Epa carefully placed the ice cream in a cool box to keep it fresh throughout the day. She instructed her daughters to sell the ice cream at school and to other villagers. To my surprise, within a couple of hours, all the ice cream was sold out!
The island was surrounded by crystal-clear waters, and in the distance, I could see numerous deserted islands. Despite the presence of floating garbage, the scenery still held the allure of a paradise. Ahmed suggested that I take a mask and fins to snorkel around the island, an idea I found incredibly enticing. Though the sight of floating garbage initially worried me, making me anticipate seeing more plastic than fish or corals, I was still eager to explore. Ahmed, concerned about the strong current, advised me not to swim too far and sent his daughter to keep an eye on me. As I entered the water, I realized I wasn’t alone—I had gathered a group of curious children, including Ahmed’s daughter, who accompanied me on my snorkeling adventure.
Passing through the initial floating garbage was rather unpleasant, but after swimming a few meters away from the island, the environment transformed. Beautiful corals and vibrant fish surrounded me, making the experience truly breathtaking. While I explored the underwater wonders, the group of children observed me, some from the land and others swimming alongside me, creating a unique and entertaining sight.
In search of a signal, I headed towards the hill located at the end of the village. I held my phone above my head and walked back and forth, hoping to catch a glimpse of network reception. As expected, I was accompanied by a larger group of children who followed my every move. There was no place where I could find solitude; I was always under the watchful gaze of curious eyes. I attempted to pretend that I was sleeping, meditating, or engrossed in a phone conversation, but the children remained persistent in their curiosity. I understood their fascination—I was a foreigner on their island, a rarity that seldom occurred. Some of the children had never ventured beyond the island, meaning they had never encountered someone with my appearance. I empathized with their curiosity, as I would likely feel the same in their position. According to Ahmed, I was only the second foreigner to ever visit the island, with the first being another CouchSurfer from Germany. This knowledge shed light on the villagers’ reactions towards me, helping me understand their intrigue.
The island is surrounded by many other deserted small islands. One evening, while I was watching one of the most beautiful sunsets, I thought, “It would be so nice to spend a day there alone, with no one following me, just a few hours of solitude.” So I shared my idea with Ahmed, and he tried to make it happen. Luckily, Epa found a fisherman who was going fishing in the morning and returning in the afternoon, so I could join him. For a touristic price, I was transported to Kanawa Island. According to Ahmed, it is one of the most beautiful islands for snorkeling. There is only one small but very expensive hotel, and only a few people stay there. He assured me that if I went to the other side of the island, I wouldn’t see anyone. And he was right; it looked like a postcard with its blue waters, white sand, and not a single person in sight! I had a perfect day without kids watching me, enjoying my book and snorkeling equipment. Ahmed was also correct about the underwater life; the corals were undamaged, and fish swam near the shore. I was able to snorkel wherever and for however long I wanted, and the best part was that no one was watching me! After five hours, the fisherman came to pick me up. Due to the low tide, we had to walk and push the boat for quite a while to reach home.
I had an amazing few days there, but I really needed to wash off the salty water and get a proper sleep, so I decided to leave the following day. It was Monday, and school was starting. I woke up to the sound of children bustling around, bathing, washing uniforms, and cleaning shoes, preparing for the school week. As I observed them getting ready, I noticed Ahmed giving them small pieces of wood. It seemed quite strange to me, so I asked for an explanation. Ahmed told me that every Monday, each student had to bring a piece of wood for the teacher to use for cooking. The funny part was that there weren’t many trees on the island, so I wondered where they obtained the wood. Ahmed’s answer was simple: “I take it from the house, from the walls or the roof! Every week, I take a small piece and break it into three parts for each kid. No one specified how big the wood should be, just that it had to be brought!” I was shocked. They took it from the house?!?! I couldn’t help but wonder how the houses would look in a few years…
The boat only departs once a day, very early in the morning, so I had to hurry and join the local women who were heading to the market. I said goodbye to Ahmed and his family, wishing them all the best in their lives. As I boarded the boat, I couldn’t help but hope that I wouldn’t get seasick and vomit over the side. Perhaps it was because there were no refrigerators on the island, and the water quality was questionable, but unfortunately, I ended up getting food poisoning and spent the next few days confined to bed.