The Underrated Value of the Voyage By: Elizabeth Wan Zhu En

(Reflections of a shipmate on an NUS sailing voyage to Anambas, June 5 – 17, 2019)

I am a big believer in the power of language. Language offers a window into other worlds. Armed with words, one can attack or defend, silence, vindicate, heal, or transform. There is much storytelling can do… but the limit does exist.

How is it that when I try to explain happened during SE3234,[i] I often find myself lost for words?

The story is set in Riau Archipelago – it’s a glorious tale difficult to convey in its entirety. How do I behold the unimaginable simplicity of seafaring, yet unravel the complexities within the region? How can I adequately portray the ocean and our relationship with it, given how vast and ever-changing it is? The nuance is difficult to capture, and yet, I must try. This voyage was far too valuable for me to hide it away, locked up in memory.

Nature is beautiful. However, if we do not immerse into it, do we really understand the sheer magnitude of the natural world? Living in Singapore, our home is a concrete jungle – stepping into nature, then, must be an active choice. On the boat, however, it was a different story.

When living on the Four Friends and sailing around Anambas Islands with Captain Blake, your whole life shifts to the rhythms of nature. Your body clock automatically adjusts to the sun, the weather dictates the direction and speed of your travel, and the state of your supplies as well as experiences are completely shaped by external conditions.

We had no phone signal or connection to the internet, which many of us were initially concerned (to say the least) about, but it truly was a blessing in disguise. We were cut off completely from everything that tethered us to our modern lifestyles. Unable to plan for the future, seek online entertainment, or even converse with faraway loved ones, we had no choice but to live intensely in the present, completely immersed in the physicality and immediacy of each passing moment. The way we lived changed. Invariably, our awareness of and interest in our environment increased.

Giant rocks, surprisingly narrow sandspits, the sight of stars… they make one feel small in the world. There’s something so magical about natural formations. The city doesn’t offer these sights, so to be able to enjoy the outdoors so intensely felt surreal. The regularity and magnitude of nature make our problems seem small in comparison. They seem to disappear, fading away with the setting sun.

One of the peculiarities of boat life is the ocean itself. Singapore is an island – most of us have at least seen the ocean at least once in our lives. But living within the ocean itself is a different story. You quickly realise how alive it seems. Sometimes it beckons, gentle and alluring, but in other times it is formidable, thrashing angrily or even spitting in your face. Colour, depth, wave height – all of these features differ from place to place, from time to tide.

An aspect was unchanging, however, and that was how much we depended on it. The nature of the trip necessitated intimate interaction with the ocean. It was our source of water for showering and washing up, and the boat had to navigate it daily. As vast and untouchable as the ocean seems, here, it is a site of daily commute via vessels of all kinds for necessary supplies or to visit friends and family. “No man is an island”, John Donne famously uttered. But I think he forgot to consider that in this archipelago (and many others), islands and their inhabitants are not as isolated as they seem. Nautical movement is normalised, and crucial for survival – for sustenance, support, and community.

(Above: boats from Mengkait. Mengkait lacks potable water and hence needs to buy water from other villages)

That was the ocean as we experienced it: violent and vast, peaceful and breath-taking, threat to as well as sustainer of life. Not just human life, too – there’s a glorious, colourful world hidden below the surface. Among countless other species, sea urchins, jellyfish, schools of tiny fishes – these quietly exist out of sight from us landlubbers. What a privilege to have been allowed a glimpse into this untouchable paradise, armed with a snorkelling mask. Besides being essential, the ocean is unspeakably beautiful, far beyond what we will ever see.

Unfortunately, in many areas, it is also filled with trash. Going on this trip has allowed us to gain a much clearer picture of the some of the environmental issues plaguing the ocean, as well as the impact on the marine life and villagers in coastal settlements.

Garbage in the ocean is a very distant concern to those who live in places that are clean(ed) for the most part. We read about it. Deep down, we know it’s a problem. But we don’t see it, so we get on with our lives. However, actually traversing to villages swamped with piles of garbage, beaches uninhabited but soiled, witnessing corals bleached to white… it opens your eyes to the consequences of humanity’s casual destruction of the environment. Ignorance or apathy becomes much harder to swallow when the immediate effects are so apparent, and so visibly detrimental.

(Above: Trash spotted at Pulau Penyengat in Tanjung Pinang)

The experiential nature of the voyage allowed us insider access to particular systems at work through the stories of the people we met and interacted with on the trip. (The hospitality and honesty we were met with was beyond our expectations, and no words can convey our gratitude for the generosity granted to us.) Previously what we had known was understood through the lens of other writers, but physically witnessing the lived realities created by the problems, as well as hearing the perspectives of the parties involved, allows us to form our own opinions – especially since such issues are much more nuanced than they seem.

Tourism, for instance – we were able to glimpse its impact on the people and the region in a very tangible, personal way. Tourism is undoubtedly growing globally, with travel becoming increasingly accessible and affordable, and Anambas is no exception. Generally, it is detrimental for the environment, and beneficial for the economy. But is it a good or bad thing? At one point, we were given a tour of Bawah Resort, where we were presented with their efforts at environmental conservation in the region through the Bawah Anambas Foundation. On the other hand, we also managed to witness the level of waste generated and energy required to curate the perfect resort experience for high paying guests. There are many points and perspectives to consider – how does the business interact with the environment? Who reaps the fruits of economic growth? Nothing is black and white.

(Above: Bawah Resort)

All this to say – I am glad to have gone on this trip. It was an impulse that led me to sign up for this module, so far (literally) out of my comfort zone, in a bid to break the mundanity of city life. Truth be told, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. But I have no regrets. How could I, when I got so much more than I bargained for?

All I wanted was an escape from the ennui, and I experienced that. Swimming with jellyfish, rationing fresh water, learning how to sail, sleeping under the stars… it felt unreal. Never before have I been able to revel in the marvels of the natural world in such an immersive way. Living on the boat wasn’t comfortable (everything was covered in saltwater and always moving), but it sure was cosy. It was such a different lifestyle; one I had never known and will possibly never experience again.

Besides that, however, my perspectives were broadened. Experiencing the issues within the Riau islands, and learning about how the Orang Laut engage with the environment first-hand, is an entirely different ball game from just reading about it. There, we were able to connect with villagers on a very human level – even if we didn’t understand their language, we felt their hospitality. We ate their food. And we shared conversations and memories that will transcend the archipelago.

The irony is not lost on me that I am using language to expound on its insufficiency. Ultimately, after all, there is no denying that language offers a window into other worlds. Still, there’s another level of learning and joy that can only be gained with experience; a depth of engagement only the voyage itself can provide.

I was fortunate enough to open the window and climb aboard the boat – and with my mere words, if given the opportunity, I encourage you to do the same.

[1] SE 3234 is a seafaring module, entitled “Sea, Islands, Vessels: A Voyage of Exploration,” offered by the NUS Southeast Asian Studies Department.  For more stories about our trip, check out our blog at https://blog.nus.edu.sg/ahoyanambas19/about/

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  • Garbage
  • National University of Singapore
  • Tourism