The Sea Gypsies of Pulau Bumbun

Travel writer Alice Driver and her husband spent a month living with the family of Haji Sualdong, leader of the tiny village of Looksisara, on Pulau Bumbun island off Malaysia’s Borneo. The town sits on boardwalks over the sea, and is a close-knit community where bathrooms, bedrooms, and dining places are all public entities. In addition to Pulau Bumbun’s natural beauty, Driver experienced warm people, fresh food, and fun adventures, such as the one below, excerpted from her article:

One Saturday we piled into a traditional Lepa boat with Haji Sualdong and five other family members to go collect mollusks. We motored off into the ocean, navigating our way through rows of seaweed gardens tended by Pilipino workers and occasionally passing by a boat of dynamite fisherman.

After an hour we stopped at a sandbar surrounded by pristine turquoise waters. The sea unfurled before me – cobalt, turquoise, aquamarine – infinite in its palate of blues.

We hopped out with Tikah, Haji Suladong’s daughter, and she started collecting edible mollusks. The shallow water was populated by giant red and black sea stars which looked menacing in such profusion. Tikah gathered sea snails, sea urchins and sea cucumbers and threw them into a sack.

Haji Suladong was out in the water with a large floating bowl tied to his wrist. He filled it with sea urchins and then dumped the prickly creatures on the boat.

We were out there for hours, returning the boat for lunch.

On board I found the two women cracking open sea urchins, pouring the brackish water from inside the urchins overboard and scraping the orange roe into a bowl.

As soon as I got in the boat they offered me the bowl of roe mixed with rice. To my surprise it tasted like a bite of the sea – salty and fresh. Sea cucumber was pulled out of the water, cut up and added to my bowl as I ate.