Article by Phyllis Chin, as appeared in LifeAndStyle online magazine.
There it was, this familiar sight. Having been away from Sabah for almost 10 years, I had to reconnect with its familiar silhouette, its every rise and fall. As we reached a vantage point near Ranau, Mt. Kinabalu looms large and intimidating in front of me, bathed in full moon’s glow. It seemed bigger. Stronger. As I traced its outline against the night sky, I felt once again this pride and joy of Sabahans.
Sabah looks different when you spend 9 hours in the car, watching the city turning into towns; towns into villages; villages into fields and plantations. I was travelling with 4 fellow photographers to attend Lepa-Lepa at Semporna, near Sandakan on the east coast of Sabah. I took mental snapshots of the scenes zooming by and felt glad we had decided on a night drive. Although near impossible to capture on film what we all agreed to be captivating stories seen at night, we were ultimately glad to avoid the heat.
Lepa-Lepa is held annually in April to celebrate the coastal ‘Bajau’ tribe, their culture and their boats called the ‘lepa-lepa’. The Bajaus are considered to be the sea gypsies of Sabah, with much of their lives spent on water and their jobs dependant on the sea. It is a much-awaited occasion, drawing together tourists and local families for 2 days of festivities. Wooden boats would line the jetties, decked out in their colourful sails. Dancers in their costumes sway and grin at us as we fired away with our cameras. The boats themselves garnered equal fascination, especially the carved ones which are no longer used, save for this annual outing, their livelihood now claimed by motor-powered boats.
We hired a boat to take us out to sea, away from the celebration to witness the quieter side of Semporna. We passed farms of ‘Agar-agar’ ( a type of gelatinous sea algae ), their presence in the water indicated by make-shift markers of floating water bottles. As we cruised slowly to avoid getting tangled in agar-agar and being cursed by the farmers, Samad our boatman told us how he had brought the first Japanese investor into the area to scope for possible locations. The first seedlings were brought in from neighbouring Philippines and each batch would take about 6 – 8 weeks to be ready for export to Japan. At RM2.20 per kilo, it has turned into an industry in Semporna, providing jobs for dwellers scattered around the islands in the area. Samad even shared with us the best way to cook agar-agar; apparently it is best done with a little bit of curry powder and a very hot wok.
All was forgotten as we reached shallow waters, and I realized why the others have been excited about this paradise. Huts no more than the smallest bedroom in a 3-bedroom flat in KK perched over the water. Each of these simple constructions is home to families, some with 6 children.
Unfamiliar with us, they eyed us suspiciously, probably as curious about us as we were about them. As they slowly grew accustomed to the attention of the lenses, the children ventured out in their carved wooden boats to get a closer look at us. There were smiles all around as they grew bolder and cheekier, hollering ‘Gula-Gula!’ (sweets) with tiny palms stretched out.
The water looked so clear and the sun so hot that I couldn’t help myself. And so I did what a self-respecting adult would do: ask for a ride in the little boats. Much amusement there as I clambered onboard one of the larger boats and even more hoots and laughter came as I tried to get used to the rocking motion, not helped by the cheeky owners who decided to rock the boat even more. The loudest laughter finally erupted when I fell in. At least it’s cooler in the water!
We spent the rest of the day walking around the island and joining the children in their land-bound game of swinging from a rope tied to coconut trees. It’s a simple lifestyle, with no school, and stay-at-home mums as dads travel daily to Semporna to work. It took a threatening sky for us to finally say goodbye and leave them with their ‘gula-gula’, glad that we were leaving them un-spoilt and sugar-free for another year.
*Lepa-Lepa is scheduled annually in April.