Wednesday, December 10, 2008

almost sinking in Semporna

There are memories that last with you for a lifetime. Take this photo.


It was taken by my old instamatic camera and the date placed the trip on Sept 16, 1995.

It was my nth time in Semporna for work. This was Semporna of old, before the Sipadan kidnaping by the Abu Sayyaf. The place was basically like downtown Bongao or even Zamboanga, overrun by Filipino workers at a time when the term OFW was not yet coined.

Semporna is an an adjunct of Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia but by history, proximity and culture, has a lot in commonality with Southern Philippines. I spoke Bisaya or Tagalog in most public spaces in Semporna, from the Dragon Inn floating hotel where I stayed to the restaurants and the badminton courts, and I know I could be understood. Almost all workers and staff were Filipinos without legal visas but Sitangkai is only some 40 kilometers away by boat.

If I went to the seaweed plantations, all farmers were practically Bajaus of Filipino ethnicity. Since I speak Bahasa Indonesia, a close relative to Malaysia’s Bahasa Melayu, the only dialects I would not understand in Semporna were strangely, some other Filipino languages like Chavacano or Bajau, of Zamboanga and Sitangkai, respectively.

Back to the picture. I remember the shot vividly. It was not because of the scenery although I have to admit, the islets with outcropping hills take surreal forms. From the spot where I took the picture, you could even check out a profile of a lady on her back.

The most memorable part of the journey was that I was in a motorized outrigger as small as the one used by the seaweed farmer in the photograph. The difference was that there were 5 of us including the boatmen and his pre-teen son.

Our pre-arranged boat did not come for mechanical reasons. As we were running out of time, we grew impatient; so we hired the only boat we could find. Foolhardy was more like it as when we got into the boat, the freeboard clearance between the water and the boat was less than 6 inches. We obviously were too heavy but the weather was crisp, the skies were clear and the wind was mild.

By the time we were in the deep, it was too late to turn back. The thrilling part was that my two lady colleagues were not reliable swimmers. I told the boatman that whatever happens, if we capsized, we each take care of one of them and that we stay hold on to the boat. This was pre-cellphone times so we only had to keep faith.

The ride was only about 40 minutes but it lasted enough for a lifetime. We made it to the farmhouse of course. A larger boat came to pick us up much, much later and the trip back to shore lost its edge.

Sometimes we all needed a little bit of risk and excitement.

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