The sea gypsies of Wuring are descendants of the Bajo indigenous group, itself a sub-group of the Sama-Bajau nomadic boat dwelling peoples once found scattered throughout the Southeast Asia. Skilled sailors, boat builders and maritime specialists, the Bajo once spent their entire lives aboard their small longboats called lepa lepa, coming ashore only when they needed to replenish water and other supplies, trade or to make repairs to their boats. From the sea they harvested fish, octopus, stingrays and sea cucumber, trading whatever they didn’t require for themselves.
Traditionally, Bajo children learned to swim before they could walk and by the time they were ten, most boys were excellent free divers, hunting on the ocean floor with homemade spears. It was common practise for young boys to have their eardrums burst intentionally so they didn’t burst later under sustained water pressure from frequent deep diving.
Sadly, the uptake of abusive fishing practices from the late-1900’s by the Bajo and others, such as dynamite and cyanide fishing has decimated fish stocks and their reef habitats. The rather predictable legacy is that the Bajo are no longer able to sustain themselves from the ocean alone. These days only a few hundred boat dwelling families remain permanently at sea. The remainder have been resettled into scattered coastal communities such as Wuring village, where they’ve adopted land based occupations such as farming, forestry and trading although they remain linked to their maritime roots through boat building and sustainable aquiculture.
Located just 6km from Maumere, a visit to Wuring sea gypsy village, is both easy and fascinating. The locals are friendly and welcoming and with the help of a translator they’ll be as curious about you as you are about them. Allow one hour.