Thursday, December 17, 2009

Torosiaje - A Bajo Village on Stilts

Last weekend I had the chance to discover a wonderfully remote corner of Sulawesi – the traditional fishing village of Torosiaje, home of the Bajo sea nomads. Since the 10th century, the Bajo sea nomads (also known as sea gypsies) have roamed the seas off eastern Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Although they used to have a nomadic lifestyle searching for pearls, tortoiseshell and sea cucumbers to present to the sultans of the region, modern governments have accused them of piracy and have forced them to lead a more permanent lifestyle on land. However, the Bajo of Torosiaje don’t quite live on land; they live in a unique and fascinating village on stilts.

Ramang, a friend of mine from Gorontalo who works for an NGO active in preserving the wetlands around Torosiaje, invited Sarah, Alexa and I to join him and another NGO friend of his, Honk, on an overnight trip to this remarkable village. The trip to Torosiaje involved a long 6 hour car ride over winding, bumpy roads plus a short 20 minute boat ride from the mainland out to the village. We arrived at sunset, which gave the already otherworldly location an even more surreal feel. Houses on stilts grew closer and closer while shadows of fishing boats contrasted with the brilliant colors of the setting sun.

After a welcoming snack of tea and cookies, Alexa, Sarah and I checked out the guesthouse where we would be staying overnight. Located at the end of a long wooden walkway rife with missing planks, it offered the most basic accommodation possible, but we loved it instantly. Electricity was provided from a generator, but we asked our host to turn it off so we could enjoy quiet sounds of the sea at night. The guesthouse, like all the houses in the village, was on stilts and had a porch with a set of stairs that went right down to the water. Looking down at the coral and fish below us, we were very tempted to take a midnight swim, but nixed that idea since the toilets for the entire village, including our guesthouse, were essentially holes in the floor directly over the water.

Our guesthouse:

Before retiring for the night, we had a delicious dinner of fresh fish and rice at our host’s house. I’ve never been a big fan of fish served with the head and tail still attached, but this weekend was a turning point. Starting with lunch en route at Bolihutuo Beach, where was no choice except for cooked whole fish, my aversion dissipated. That’s because the fish was served with dabu dabu iris – a local salsa made with coconut oil, onions, tomatoes and chilies. I had been avoiding it because spicy food makes me hiccup, but at this particular restaurant they served the dabu dabu iris without the spicy chilies and it was heavenly. It’s a good thing I took a new liking to this dish because it was served for three consecutive meals.

After successfully navigating the holes in the walkway with our flashlights, we arrived back at our guesthouse and spent the rest of the evening stargazing. The stars here were amazing. The three of us laid down on the walkway with our feet dangling over the edge and made wishes on the shooting stars. We slept really well that night and awoke the next morning to the sound of the fishing boats gliding past the house. In our pajamas, we sat on the porch and watched the sunrise at 5:30.

Not long after sunrise, the village came to life and we quickly threw on some clothes to take a walk around. The villagers were hard at work at their daily activities of cooking, doing laundry by hand, chopping wood, drying fish, cutting coconuts and chatting with each other. People were happy to pose for pictures and it was fun being in such a remote, traditional place and being able to greet the people in Bahasa Indonesia – Selamat pagi! Good morning!

Drying fish:

After a breakfast of fried rice and eggs, we took a traditional fishing boat out to an uninhabited offshore island for a little snorkeling and exploring. The beach was beautiful. The water was various shades of deep tropical blues and we could just make out the village of Torosiaje on the opposite shore against the mountainous backdrop of Sulawesi. Our snorkeling was cut a bit short by the presence of stinging plankton where the shelf dropped off, but even very close to shore in about one foot of water there was a lot to see. Sarah and I spent a good amount of time here watching sand-camouflaged starfish move at a surprisingly rapid pace over the bottom.

This trip was so amazing and special that it helped confirm the decision I had already made: I’m going to request to stay a second year in Indonesia. Hopefully, I can stay on Sulawesi. I’m starting to feel a strong connection to my island and would like to have more time to explore it.


  1. I can see it - missed it last week. Thanks for reposting.

  2. Thanks for commenting! Glad this post is visible.

  3. Stars in the sky and the sound of waves below. That's wonderful. I just spent 10 days in Venice and despite a very different vibe from Torosiaje, there were still stars and waves and quiet.

    In Rome now, and I'll be joining 100,000 people shortly in Saint Peter's Square for a Midnight Mass...and I'm not even Christian.

  4. We just returned from Dath Valley, CA. where we also saw some terrific starry skies. I love reading your words and seeing your photos, including this one of the house on stilts. Wise move to stay out of that water.

    Cousin Lisa