I was off the mainland faraway from England. On Mantanani Island in Borneo, J and I were far from anyone we know in our busy lives. The boat that brought us here rode the waves like a novice on a skateboard, at some point we cruised above water in what felt like a freedive.
The tour operator’s website showcased Mantanani’s white sandy beach with the famous Mari Mari Backpackers Lodge which stands on stilts, overlooking the sea. It’s no wonder that each year thousands of tourists visit and expect a tropical paradise.
There’re not wrong. But this is not the island’s only story.
When we arrive at the beach, I was mesmerized by the sight of turquoise water. When we disembarked, I noticed many dried up corals the colour of paper laid on the beach. The snorkelling group who first went underwater came back complaining that there were less fish and corals than expected. Very curious, I joined the next excursion to a rockpool at a neighbouring island. Under water, J and I held hands and swam through lots of colourful fish, but saw that the coral situation was indeed dire. That formed the basis of our daily schedule for 4 days, sleep-breakfast-snorkel/dive-lunch-snorkel/dive-dinner.
For the next two days, the sky opened up with torrential rain. At night as we ate we heard the sea roar. Greg, the hotel manager told us that some years ago there was so much rain that the tide came in to our dining area and washed the front wooden lodge out into the sea. I remember how my tummy was rumbling then, not from hunger but from nerves.
On our second day, we met Shyam and Petri, who run a sustainable Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) company called My Khatulistiwa (translated as ‘My Equator’). We were impressed to hear that they recently received a decent funding from the Ministry of Youth and Sports Malaysia to teach islanders the values of sustainable living. Through them we saw the flipside of this island. The one that was in stark contrast to the pristine (and almost posh by local standards) side of the Bembaran Beach Resort where we stayed. And it changed everything we ever expected on its head.
In the village where the native islanders lived, the smells and sights of decaying rubbish and faeces on the beach greeted us. When we walked through the village in the rain, curious eyes bore into our skin. The natives took in all the details of the way we acted, dressed, and talked. Maybe there was no reason to feel unsafe, but for the first time in my home country, I felt like an alien.
We discovered that the island relied heavily on fishing for income, and to get as much profit as possible the islanders resorted to bomb fishing. And since the natives were charged about RM300 for a boat to transport rubbish from the island, they simply ignored this. After all, who can afford this when one only earned a daily wage of RM5? For such a small island, I noticed that families stick together and each household has about 10 children, where three different generations live together. Ever heard of the Island Syndrome?
On our last night, we were lucky enough to do some night fishing with Shyam and Petri. At the pier we got our fishing rod out, added a prawn bait, and waited. And there in the still of the night under Mantanani’s full moon, we sat listening to the sounds of the sea. At this magic hour, the sea just seems to give and give. For whatever reason, your thoughts in that moment and their resounding echoes come rushing back in waves.
There are issues bigger than yourself out there, and for whatever motivations behind it, do your part in helping humanity. For regular updates on the progress on Mantanani, support My Khatulistiwa.